–In the 4th century, ancient Egypt, which used to fully embrace polytheism (the worship of many different pagan gods) slowly tilted in favor of the sun god Ra taking preeminence over all the other gods; so much so that by the time Pharaoh Amenhotep rose to power, he changed his name to Pharaoh Akhenaton in honor of the sun god, he declared that no other gods existed except Ra, and he killed all the clerics who disagreed with him. Of course, moving the country from being polytheistic to monotheistic overnight led to a massive cultural decline almost immediately; the sun god Ra had no characteristics associated with personal ethics for the people (for each of the different values, a different god was used to communicate truth on the subject) and the people were left without any questions related to life, death, and origin. All of Egypt suffered from a lack of cohesion, and after Akhenaton died, the clerics banded together, murdered his son King Tutankhamun, embraced a plethora of pagan gods, and thereby declared the country polytheistic once more and brought back a singular identity to the people.
People need an origin story, they need symbols and narrative to give them a sense of identity, ethics, personal responsibility and cohesion with their fellow countrymen. When religion goes into decline or the symbols become blurred, a notable decline in culture can be seen.
Professor Postman talked about the value of symbols as a first-generation Jewish immigrant to America in the early 20th century. He explained that as a young child reared in American public schools, he was taught the heroic stories of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and the other founding fathers, he learned about their faith in God, he traveled to Washington D.C. and saw the pure white Grecian like statues and monuments that had been erected in honor of these American heroes; and the net result of these religious narratives is that it helped a young Neil Postman, a Jewish boy who had no prior genealogical connection to America, feel connected. Although Postman had a Jewish understanding of God, and the Founding Fathers had varying Protestant notions of God, yet by having been raised with a general framework and narrative of God, life, and liberty (I.e. Americanism), it helped make him feel like an American. This didn’t mean the founding fathers and American heroes were all perfect men without any warts, far from it! They were every bit as human as you and I, they struggled with their own mortality and personal failings as any other human. We cannot excuse the failings of our founding fathers as if they did not occur; yet to entirely denigrate our founding fathers and reject the narrative that provided cohesion to our culture and replace it with an inferior narrative cannot lead to a good result.
Unfortunately, as we have witnessed over the course of the last few decades, the American schools have chosen to focus on the failings of the founding fathers and they have only presented a vilification of the American narrative. This denigration of the narrative has led to a widespread societal breakdown; instead of cohesion, Americans suffer from social disorganization. African Americans feel entirely isolated from the historical narrative of America, recent immigrants to America are taught that America’s past is filled mainly with evil and that it is their responsibility to make a new kind of culture in America rather than to embrace the rich cultural history of our past. We see more racial tensions in the 21st century than we ever thought imaginable; in a country where we have conquered starvation, (the great epidemic among the poor in America is not that they suffer from lack of food, but rather they suffer from gross obesity!) something no other country has ever conquered as effectively as was done here, we are more divided than since the beginning of the Civil War.
Religion and religious symbolism are as essential to the human experience as food and water. In order to thrive we must have an origin story, symbols, clerics and oracles in order to maintain societal cohesion. Remove the religion, or replace it with an inferior product and the result is social disorganization.
Although religion is disparaged in our day as though its one of the most profanity laced words you can hurl at someone, people in Western Culture are every bit as religious as at any other time in human history. On the surface, fact-based research studies cite massive declines in church attendance and religious beliefs, and huge spikes in agnosticism and atheism. Yet despite the decline in the number of people who believe in traditional religious narratives, there is no drop off among the number of people who still believe in an origin story; in other words, the overwhelming majority of people still believe in a particular religious origin story, it is simply a different one than the Christian religion.
This new religious narrative has largely replaced the Christian history; this new narrative that has emerged is similar to Akhenaton of old replacing one religion with a new religion. Our age has experienced a similar paradigm shift; this new religion was unlike anything the world had ever seen before, largely because it’s very foundational principle was that it denied it was a religion in the first place. The new religion essentially calls itself “Not-Religion”.
Fortunately, the best is yet to come.