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Religion of the Enlightenment

Religion of the Enlightenment
Published on Apr 14, 2023.

I grew up believing everything they told me. It is only now, with the clarity of hindsight, that I can look back and see what was really going on.

Back then, I thought what they were teaching me was the truth. I believed that there were Right Ways to do things, and the world was full of Right Answers. Good, smart people put in the effort to dutifully learn what those are, and they were rewarded with ever larger gains in life.

Among other things, I was an avowed atheist. Religion was a superstition for people who didn’t know how to find the answers for themselves. They were all there in a book – it explained how the seasons worked, how the cosmos came to be, what happens to us when we are born and when we die. Armed with science, what need did the smart, educated man have for superstition?

The virulence against religion was not unique to me. It is a common train among the Meritocrati to scoff at the silly commoners with their silly rituals and their silly holy books. It was a sign of ignorance, a definite signal that you were not part of the club, if you carried around some superstitious faith.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t people in the elite who subscribe to a religion. There are. There’s a Christian A Capella group at Stanford. But for them religion is not the defining feature of their lives. It is not the primary influence on their life decisions. They don’t pray or ask Jesus what job they should take. Where they live, what they do, and how they spend their waking hours is still driven by the metronome of the corporate diktat. Religion is but another superficial aesthetic, like the color of your iPhone.

True religion is the kind my grandmother had. When I was a kid, she would often praise God for everything good that happened, and attribute anything we missed out on as “something that isn’t written to be”. She lived her life according to what she believed is God’s plan. Her faith defined her, in and out. It is not something that she does just on Sunday mornings before taking the kids to soccer practice or turning on football.

People like her do not exist in the ranks of the elite. They are kept out, shunned, for the heresy of believing that there is another truth to the way one should live their lives, than the gospel of the corporate life, and the Industrial Religion.

This is no coincidence. The new, Industrial Religion is tied inexorably to the old. It rose by taking on the old religions, which had grown corrupt and complacent, and revealed them for the cons they were.

Our new Industrial Religion was born in the Enlightenment. The days of Galileo, Voltaire, Mill and Locke are its version of Biblical times. These men are giants now in our imagination, as big if not bigger than names like Paul, Peter, and Joseph.

The Enlightenment heralded a new age for humankind. With the torch of science, it showed a new way forward for our species. It challenged the primacy of the Church, proved that the Bible does not have all the answers, and then through diligent techniques that came to be known as the Scientific Method, it showed how it could reveal truths of the universe that for millennia the priests on their pulpits had never known.

It yanked down the flag of rote, organized religion and flew in its place the banner of science. Science and reason were welcomed as liberating forces, aimed to free the masses from their dependence on soothsayers and the prophets and put the tools of discovery directly in their own hands.

By the time Nietzsche declared “God is dead”, it was a fait accompli. The world was in the middle of being reshaped by the industrial forces unleashed by the Enlightenment and the advent of science. So, centuries later, how did we get here, where the children of science struggle to hold together a world that is racked by deep psychosis? If the giants of the Enlightenment were like modern Prometheus, and science the holy flame of the gods now in our hands, why is there so much disillusion, disappointment, and anger?

People like Steven Pinker say this is because we’re not being objective enough. By a wide range of metrics – average life expectancies, literacy rate, and of course the almighty GDP – things today are better than ever before. If people aren’t happy, it’s because they’re not being objective enough.

This kind of answer is what happens when science becomes its own religion. People aren’t unhappy because they haven’t studied the statistics. They are unhappy because they don’t feel fulfilled. As human beings, they require more than what can be captured in numbers and measurements. They need hopes and dreams, they need a sense that things are not aligned against them. They need to feel free.

Science can only do that on the material plane. Its accompanying Industrial Religion, and the kind of stressed, unhappy lives it leads to, does not speak to other needs that are even more important. Needs like belonging to community, being loved, feeling respected.

The Enlightenment didn’t just give birth to a new Religion. It also gave birth to a its own class of critics, who spawned many alternative ideas. On the left came communism, with Marx proclaiming a new dawn for humankind, where every man could be free from material wants to pursue immaterial dreams. On the right the Fascists, who sought to reclaim the lost sense of community under the industrial age by imposing an ethno-national one top-down. Both failed. Both met the liberalism of the Enlightenment on the material plane – one on the battlefield of economics, the other in guns and bullets – and both lost.

They deserved to lose. They were crude, desperate attempts to reclaim what had been lost in the industrial age. They had to operate in the shadows initially, and that kind of birth, with the sense that death hangs over you at any moment, sends the seeds of good ideas into the virulence of revolutionary fervor. Rather than growing organically, by trial and error, fits and starts, they are forced into position by the heavy hand of human plans, which can brook little failure and so must ultimately crumble like the first drafts they are.

But the thing that drove the radical ideologies to be born – a deep sense of alienation and loss – never went away. It’s still there, stronger today than it’s ever been. And it awaits the bright of a new, better idea. One willing to adapt and grow, rather than drive directly to success.