Saturday 1 February 2014

Hope in the context of modernity


In the pre-modern era there were civilizations that lived upon the mere hope of hope - the varieties of paganism, the Ancient Hebrews of the Old Testament and many others.

They did not have grounds for hope, nor anything specific to hope for; but they hoped that such grounds and actualities might nonetheless exist.

This was possible, was natural, in a world where everyone believed that the soul or spirit survived death.


The noble pagans (of which many are recorded) always implicitly operated on the basis that there were permanent standards of human behaviour, and that humans were meant to live by them; and that if humans did not live by these permanent standards then there were genuinely-bad consequences which extended beyond their personal death.

Although unarticulated, this perspective necessarily means that the universe somehow has a very long-lasting and personal interest in the doings of each person.


But modernity disbelieves in post-mortal existence, and therefore insists that hope be this-worldly.

For modernity, hope must be located in this world, because there is nowhere else for it to be located.

However, it turns-out that there are no this-worldly grounds for hope - so disbelieving in the next world, there are no grounds for hope.

It turns-out that modernity systematically eliminates all grounds for hope; and insists that this is merely realistic, and that all previous human generations were grossly deluded.  


We live in the most hope-less world ever.

Somehow, modernity has persuaded almost everybody that 'science has discovered' that death is extinction (sorry, somehow I missed that research paper so I can't give a reference). 

What has really happened is that the metaphysical understanding of reality has changed - modernity operates on a different set of assumptions than any society in human history: that there is no human spirit or soul, that death is extinction, that the purpose of mortal life must be contained within mortal life, that there is no god/ God of any kind - and so on.

These modernist metaphysical assumptions were not discovered - they were invented; they have not been proven - they have simply become habitual to the point that people cannot imagine anything otherwise.


Under modern conditions, therefore, paganism is hope-less - and many types of society which used to work on the basis merely of hoping-for-hope, will not work any longer: hoping for hope will not cut the mustard under the pervasive nihilism of modernity.

Thus, under modernity, the human race has gone mad with despair - and instead of hope there are only negative energizing motivations: pleasure seeking distraction and hate-fuelled destruction.

Under such conditions, the only ones with hope that is strong enough to combat the all invading and aggressive despair, are those whose hope is correctly-located in the life-to-come, and whose belief in that hopeful life-to-come is strong and secure.


The challenge for any religion in the modern world is that it must provide hope in a hopeless world - in a world whose habitual and publicly-enforced thinking eliminates any possible grounds for hope.

(And - even worse - a world which stupidly, carelessly and lying-ly denies that this is what it is doing.)

This is very, very difficult; and many, many religions that used-to 'work', do not work any longer; they were destroyed, they have gone - leaving only shells.

They simply could not withstand the unprecedented hope-destroying power of modernity.


Modernity is a hurricane of skeptical assumptions.

Lots of religions, ideologies, world views which were functional in the past, have withered under the blast of modernity because they were undercut by modernist metaphysical assumptions.

Religion now must be far stronger than ever it was before - and the metaphysical basis of religion, the structuring frame of interpretation which shapes all experience and reasoning - must, nowadays, stand apart from the mainstream of public discourse (and will therefore seem stupid or crazy by prevailing standards) - and yet this religious frame must be believed in a way strong enough to withstand continuous and unrelenting attack from modern institutions and from the mass media. 


We have now 'done the experiment' with this-worldly hope and the results are in - our public culture has, for several generations, insisted that hope be located in this world and within mortality; and that hope located beyond death is dumb, evil, crazy nonsense.

We have done the experiment, and we can see the results: nihilism, paralysis, lies, deliberate ugliness, strategic vice, decadent addiction to comfort, clamouring egotism, cowardice, craving of stimulation... in one word - ignobility.


The modern pagan stands in the starkest possible contrast to the bleak, stoic dignity of an ancient pagan!

There is no modern Socrates.

No wonder that there are so few religions that 'make a difference' under modernity! - existence is harder for real religion than ever before, anywhere.


The lessons:

We must have hope.

Hope must be located beyond mortal life. 


And all this is a matter of habitual metaphysical assumptions - a matter of how we, personally, at the deepest level, interpret life.

And this we can choose - and indeed must and do choose; because nobody and nothing can prevent us from choosing.

And, having chosen, we will experience the consequences of our choice. 



Rich said...

Wonderful, Bruce!

"And, having chosen, we will experience the consequences of our choice."

Indeed. I have felt the change from within.

Unfortunately, what I haven't been able to do is attempt to persuade those around me, people that I really care about, that Christ is real. That modernity and liberalism are wading in evil, soaked in the devil's misdeeds.

I stay quiet when the topic of religion comes up and feel cowardly afterwards.

Any advice on how to approach this problem would be warmly welcomed.

Bruce Charlton said...

@AS- This is the general line

Which is don't try to persuade people that they must become Christian, that it is irrational to choose otherwise, that it is obvious or anything like that.

But that there is *something* - some evidence either way, on both sides, pros and cons.

We are poised between possibilities and we must choose, we will choose - like it or not.

Try to present Christianity as a reasonable, possible, perfectly-legitimate choice - made by plenty of reasonable, intelligent, good people both in the past and now (not all the RIG people make this choice, but *some* do) - and a choice that must be made, and a choice which has consequences.

ajb said...

"Somehow, modernity has persuaded almost everybody that 'science has discovered' that death is extinction (sorry, somehow I missed that research paper so I can't give a reference).

What has really happened is that the metaphysical understanding of reality has changed - modernity operates on a different set of assumptions than any society in human history"


Consider contemporary materialism when it comes to subjective consciousness. Either it moves into incoherence (there really is no such thing as subjective consciousness), lapses into mystery (subjective consciousness is inexplicable by creatures such as ourselves), or issues promissory notes (newly discovered cause-and-effect relationships will explain subjective consciousness, somehow).

For me, the realization that there didn't seem to be a good account was like a breeze that started to open up lines through the pack-ice of materialism. Perhaps we're getting something at the center of our universe wrong.

If one wants an intellectual wedge against modernity, I think this is a significant start.

Imnobody said...

Although your level is pretty high, this is your best post, Bruce. I think this summarizes modernity even better than your "Thought Prison".

However, I take exception to this sentence:

Thus, under modernity, the human race has gone mad with despair - and instead of hope there are only negative energizing motivations: pleasure seeking distraction and hate-fuelled destruction.

I don't think it's the entire human race who has gone mad with despair but only intelligent people (including the elite).

Being a brainy guy, I have felt this despair in my life, hurtfully and intensely. And I still feel it because my faith is very weak. But I see people around me doing just fine. They have their families, they live their lives without existential angst. They are happy, even those who break the natural law the most.

I haven't known any person who has existential angst who isn't an educated person (a left-hemisphere guy). You have to think a bit about the consequences of modernity to see the meaningless and despair that lies behind.

Most people don't do that. They don't see the contradictions in their lifestyle because they don't like to think too much.Most people are not Albert Camus to fully realize the nihilism of their worldview. However I think the elite realize it.

Don said...

Man's place in the world is so distorted by the modern worldview. I wonder if there is a way to point that out gently?

Samson J. said...

I stay quiet when the topic of religion comes up and feel cowardly afterwards.

I don't know how old you are, or whether this is simply a maturity problem/issue, but - I used to have the same trouble. I grew out of it with maturity. If that makes you feel any better...

Any advice on how to approach this problem would be warmly welcomed.

What Bruce said already is pretty much sound. Remember that although WE know all the arguments and reasons that Christianity is obviously reasonable, your friends and acquaintances don't. Just because you see the flaws (and stupidity...) of their point of view doesn't mean you have to hit them over the head with it, which won't work.

Try the tack of being a bit more Socratic about it, so for example, instead of trying to create arguments (so that you can then win them), just simply ask questions about what they believe and why they think so, the same way you would ask any friend about any of their views or opinions on anything.

And don't be devious or manipulative about this - you're asking about these things because you really do care about your friends' opinions on them. This in turn usually allows you an avenue to express your own views in a way that doesn't become preachy or overbearing.

Finally remember that whatever the media wants you to think, almost everybody is secretly open to discussing these topics; and if they aren't there is usually a reason that will become clear (and surmountable) in time if you are a true friend; and veritable fundy atheists who actually come ready to do battle with Christians are not common in real life at all, at all.

George said...

There is a general mystique endlessly propagated that achieving material wealth is an end-goal, the way to happiness. That once you're enabled to live in unencumbered sin you will find bliss.

The elites who have "achieved" this goal feel the emptiness. Those who pursue it fully live wrecked lives. Or seem empty, with endless material possessions to maintain until death. Others appear to have placed their hope in the endless goal of progressive material comforts - for themselves or the world. As if once all disease, illiteracy, etc. are gone - somehow the emptiness will dissipate of its own accord.

I think of the ultimate conclusion of this as the "Star Trek" fantasy. Once all material problems are finally fixed on earth, and we somehow overcome human sins through the magical equation of technology + education, we can endlessly travel the galaxy for eternity fixing more material problems and pursuing pleasurable distractions.

SFG said...

Pretty much.

My personal view (which I will mention because it is apropos) is that of the atheist modernist--however, as this does lead to despair, I do NOT try to sway religious people out of their faith. I think life is better with religion; I have no wish to deprive dying people of their hope, for it is cruel, and have no wish to convince people there is no hell, for they lose a stimulus not to kill, steal, rape, etc.

Religion is an evolved human adaptation and aids prosocial behavior, social networking, and other things. For more intellectual sorts such as yourselves, it leads to a more natural and fitting conception of the Good. Its loss is generally detrimental over the long term.

It is, in my opinion, like one of those Lovecraft stories--to know the truth of the universe leads to madness and despair, so it should not be sought.

It is interesting, in that you do NOT believe this--you believe in God and Christ (and may you always!). Yet I agree with you, and not my atheist rationalist liberal friends, about the ultimate *effects* of religiosity, even if I agree with them about the ultimate *truth*. It would be very nice to believe in God, I just see no evidence for it, and can't really *believe* in it as such.

But that is perhaps a defect of faith--I wasn't raised religious (mixed marriage), and in fact was a proud atheist modernist in my youth, before on reflection I realized religion had many good points. The flesh is willing, but the spirit is weak? ;)

Rich said...


Thank you. That helps quite a bit.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SFG - The place you are is the place I came from:

For me, as both a psychiatry scholar and an evolutionary scholar, a key recognition was the implausibility that a gross delusion (which is what religion is perceived to be, under the schema you describe) would be functional.

That goes against everything I knew from science, and - after brooding a while - shook me out of that explanatory scheme; and made me challenge my assumption that divine revelation was nonsense.

Rodney Stark's Discovering God made this clearer - he looks at the history of religion from the perspective that divine revelation can and does happen (instead of assuming that it can always be explained-away) - and trying to sort out real and false revelations (i.e. real revelations from the products of insanity and human deception).

Consequently my conversion was multi-stage, and initially very 'rational'.

*After* I had converted - and over a period of months, and continuing - I became open to psychological confirmations such as experiencing everyday-personal miracles and a experiences of a deep sense of the reality of God and Jesus Christ.

Rich said...

Thanks for your reassuring words, Samson.