A Religionless Society Will Still Have Gods

It is fair to say that institutional religion is in rapid decline in the west. In my estimation this decline is attributable to several things:

  • The global financial crisis of 2007 and declining birth rates.

  • The invention of iPhones and social media where we replace social interaction with staring into our phones.

  • Religion is increasingly treated with apathy and disinterest as people engross themselves in habits of pleasure and technologies of amusement.

  • 20 years of associating religion with terrorism and sexual abuse scandals.

  • The 1960s sexual revolution and the 1990s gender revolution evolving into a kind of sacred dictatorship where traditional religion is considered somewhere between counter-revolution and blasphemy.

  • People finding existential fulfillment in this-worldly projects rather than in anything explicitly transcendent.

  • We can add a further trio of things in the form of hyper-individualism with an emphasis on near-absolute autonomy, right and wrong defined in terms of pleasure and pain, and ethical conflicts viewed in light of an oppressor/oppressed dichotomy. The moral regulation of traditional religion grates against such things and thus become either passe or treated with disdain.

If this trend continues, I imagine the west will become not only post-Christian, but even post-religion. Don’t get wrong, I think traditional religion will endure, especially among ethnic communities, but it will be considered something of an exotic hobby, like collecting model trains or owning your ice-cream maker. Religion will be a kind of quaint side interest, but not part of the social meta-narrative or the collective memory. At best religion will be remembered as a curious relic, at worst, regarded as the sin of our ancestors. The majority of people will no longer have religion or even understand religion. Religion will be a foreign language about a distant country from a long time ago.

And yet, even a religionless society will be suffused with gods as new pantheons emerge with gods associated with power and pleasure.

Religious energy will not disappear but will be translated into the political sphere. Politicians will become divine heroes and prophesied messiahs, professors will be the new theologians, activists the new clerical class, political staffers the new diaconate, party-leaders the new bishops, universities the new monasteries, and ex-politicians will be deified. Furthermore, political divisions will have the intensity of religious rivalries, like Protestants vs Catholics or Sunni vs Shia. Each political tribe will have its own liturgies, sacred texts, martyrs, saints, dogmas, blasphemies, rivalries, and holy wars.

Even beyond politics, a kind of sacred quality will be attached to things that entertain us and pleasure us. Even people who are non-political, as much as they are allowed to be, will deify what they desire. People will be defined by what gives them the most pleasure, whether drugs, movies, music, sex, gaming, or gambling - these will be the new denominations. The creeds will be things like, “There is no god but sex and porn.hub is her prophet” or “I hash, therefore, I am.” Netflix will become a cathedral of entertainment and the new opiate of the masses will be actual opiates.

Make no mistake about it. In a godless age there will still be gods and they will be worshipped with fanatical devotion. Their images will be plastered all over the cities. Their devotees will be everywhere. There will be festivals to celebrate their benefactions and greatness. Sacred texts will be written, hymns will be sung, temples erected, and the faithful will attend to their altars. They probably won’t call them those things, but they will be there all the same.

What replaces religion then is either the quest for power or the lust for pleasure, the clenched fist or a phallus, an M-16 or sex toys, Putin or Lady Gaga.

When you imagine a post-religious future of the mid to late 21st century, you should imagine a Chinese premier or American trillionaire suddenly appearing on your i-device. You are receiving an unsolicited live stream of their latest political announcement. There is much fanfare and mesmerizing visual effects, portraying the leader like Moses coming down the mountain with stone tablets or like Hercules being wafted up to heaven among the gods. Silicon Valley technologists are huddled around him or her like attending angels. A high priest declares portents that a new age is dawning. Promises are made to crack down on enemies of the state. There are joyous proclamations of subsidized cannabis and free 9G broadband. Boasts are made that ecological catastrophe has been averted by the sheer willpower of one person. Journalists interject with seemingly impromptu but actually scripted acclamations that they are witnessing the most significant event of their lives. All the while, the audience chants, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians, Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” or something to similar effect.

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