According to the Pew Research center, 22% of Americans are non-religious. With the explosive growth of scientific understanding paired with the numerous betrayals of our religious leaders, we have lost our faith in the spiritual institutions that we used to trust.
What’s alarming, is that we have abruptly dropped religion like a toxic friend. We haven’t properly reflected on the fact that for two millenia, religion has served as the bedrock for our society. It has been the home where we find meaning and purpose in life. It has been the handbook for how to live in a good way. But we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, and now we’re adrift in a sea of uncertainty, many of us feeling a sense of apathy, which hides the deeper pain of acute spiritual loss.
Philosopher Will Durant explains the modern spiritual struggle in a letter he sent out to his contemporaries in 1931:
Astronomers have told us that human affairs constitute but a moment in the trajectory of a star; geologists have told us that civilization is but a precarious interlude between ice ages; biologists have told us that all life is war, a struggle for existence among individuals, groups, nations, alliances, and species; historians have told us that ‘progress’ is a delusion, whose glory ends in inevitable decay; psychologists have told us that the will and the self are the helpless instruments of heredity and environment, and that the once incorruptible soul is but a transient incandescence of the brain. …God, who was once the consolation of our brief life, and our refuge in bereavement and suffering, has apparently vanished from the scene; no telescope, no microscope discovers him. Life has become, in that total perspective which is philosophy, a fitful pullulation of human insects on the earth, a planetary eczema that may soon be cured; nothing is certain in it except defeat and death — a sleep from which, it seems, there is no awakening.Will Durant
I have to laugh when Durant describes humans as a planetary eczema, but this quote resonated with me immediately. It reminds me of when I found out there was no Santa Clause. “Progress”, in many ways, has erased the mystery and magic from our lives. The mystery and magic that has been a part of our human experience for thousands of years.
We have learned so much about how the world works since the rise of the major religions of the east and west over two thousand years ago. And although religion has always been able to adapt and change with the times, it seems to me, with this mass falling away from religion all together, that it is time for a major religious revolution.
But how do we square scientific understanding with these ancient world religions?
Religious scholar and author Karen Armstrong, gives me hope for a religious revival. She describes in her book, The Lost Art of Scripture, the marginalization of the brain’s right hemisphere, the side of the brain that thinks in images and symbols. She believes that we have forgotten how to read our scriptures and interpret our sacred myths in the proper way.
Traditionally, a myth expressed a timeless truth that in some sense happened once but also happens all the time. It enabled people to make sense of their lives by setting their dilemmas in a timeless context…Myth could not be demonstrated by a logical proof, since its insights, like those of art, depended on the right hemisphere of the brain. It was a way of envisaging the mysterious reality of the world that we cannot grasp conceptually.Karen Armstrong
We cannot continue to rationalize and take literally the sacred stories of our cultural heritage because that’s never how we were supposed to approach these scriptures and myths. But maybe we shouldn’t just give up on religion all together. Maybe instead, we can work to elevate the “holistic rather than analytical” mode of thinking.
Ms. Armstong drives home her point for cultivating this right hemisphere way of understanding the world:
Just as both hemispheres are necessary for our full functioning, both mythos and logos are essential for human beings–and both have limitations. Myth cannot bring something entirely new into existence, as logos can. A scientist can cure hitherto incurable diseases, but this cannot prevent him from succumbing occasionally to despair when confronted with the mortality, tragedy, and apparent pointlessness of our existence.Karen Armstrong
We need our myths, our sacred stories and rituals to give dignity and meaning to this life. We need these eternal truths to help guide us through this human experience. Otherwise, what’s it all for?
Mythologist Joseph Campbell was also a great advocate for the power of myth and symbol. In his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he explains the problem we have as modern humans living without this connection to our mythos brain.
The problem with mankind today, therefore, is precisely the opposite to that of men in the comparatively stable periods of those great co-ordinating mythologies which now are known as lies. Then all meaning was in the group, in the great anonymous forms, none in the self-expressive individual; today no meaning is in the group–none in the world: all is in the individual. But there the meaning is absolutely unconscious. One does not know toward what one moves. One does not know by what one is propelled. The lines of communication between the conscious and the unconscious zones of the human psyche have all been cut, and we have split in two.Joseph Campbell
This describes what I am noticing in my generation. Many of us have given up on organized religion entirely, but we have no idea where we are headed. We are not anchored to anything eternal, nothing is guiding us, we are drifting aimlessly from one piece of information to the next, never really feeling connected to anything greater than our own tiny failures and successes.
Returning to Durant’s existential crisis, he concludes with:
We are driven to conclude that the greatest mistake in human history was the discovery of ‘truth.’ It has not made us free, except from delusions that comforted us and restraints that preserved us. It has not made us happy, for truth is not beautiful, and did not deserve to be so passionately chased. As we look on it now we wonder why we hurried so to find it. For it has taken from us every reason for existence except the moment’s pleasure and tomorrow’s trivial hope.Will Durant
I sigh when I read this because although I feel a sense of truth to his conclusion, I don’t think he has it quite right. Our belief in God is not a delusion. It’s the acknowledgment that this life is wondrous. That we are born into these human bodies with the capacity to create music, art, technology and entire civilizations. We are the masters of this earth, alive today on this small planet within an unfathomable universe.
That’s the truth.
The challenge for us today is remembering what our ancestors always knew: life isn’t meant to be understood rationally. Logic doesn’t provide us with meaning. God, like beautiful art or the feeling of love, isn’t something we can easily express or define. It’s an experience of transcendence, of something that lifts you out of yourself and connects you to the vastness and entirely of what it means to exist.
Armstrong, Karen. The Lost Art of Scripture : Rescuing the Sacred Texts. Toronto, Vintage Canada, 2020.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. Princeton (N.J.), Princeton University Press, 1968.
“Durant’s On the Meaning of Life.” Philosophical Society.Com, Philosophical Society.com, http://www.philosophicalsociety.com/Archives/Durant’s%20On%20The%20Meaning%20of%20Life.htm#Excerpts%20From%20Durant’s%20Introduction: Accessed 22 Oct. 2020.
Featured Image by Nathan Dumlao