-It does not take a specialist to notice that since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, faith in god (or religious faith in general) has experienced a steep decline. Agnosticism, atheism, and a general faithlessness has grown throughout the Western World. While much of the faithlessness can be attributed to the cult of specialization and the faith in science which has been taught at the secular level, the main basis for this leap toward faithlessness is more likely associated with the rise of the “self”.
Beginning with the post-Enlightenment era, moving through the Impressionists of the late 19th and early 20th century, and then via the various biological psychologists and existentialists of the 20th century, Western Culture has continued on a mad dash toward an epistemological starting point of the ‘self’. During the Enlightenment, philosophers became entranced with the idea that logic and reason, via nothing more than each individual’s brain, were the necessary starting point in understanding universal truths. Freud and his fellow contemporaries continued this trajectory of human thought and contributed toward the idea that the answer for universal truth lay in the unconscious (and conscious) brain of the particular mind. So much focus and attention was placed on the ‘self’ that by the end of the 20th century, one of the best selling sections at any bookstore was the self-help section. The answer to your problems lay in realizing your ‘self’, and procuring self-help strategies in the implementation of these strategies is what a myriad of others promised. Self-help business strategists, psychologists, and a whole host of different authors and specialists promised you a better life if you only focused more on your ‘self’. Even within conservative Evangelical circles, the cult of self grew like wildfire during the latter part of the 20th century. Men like James Dobson, Chuck Swindoll, and more recently Joel Osteen, built multi-million dollar empires on the construct of self-help ideology. Talk therapy, couples counseling, self-help theology, and a focus on one’s individualistic behavior became the entire thrust of non-Christian and Christian culture throughout the Western World. It is also no coincidence that the late 20th century is considered by economists as a time of great individual advancement in economics and wealth; more CEO’s, individual businessmen, and others became richer than at any other time in the history of the West, while at the same time the gap between the rich and the poor grew to epic levels. Individualistic philosophy always harms the poor, widows, orphans and disadvantaged, because self-focused individualistic philosophy points people inward (focusing on your own mind and thoughts) rather than pointing people outwards toward community. It is no coincidence that in the midst of all the focus of ‘self’ during the 20th century, both within the academic and religious communities, that we experienced the highest increase in divorce the world had ever seen. The more people focused on themselves in talk therapy, self-help books, and other self-focused ideologies, the more Western community continued its downward spiral of defragmentation in its communal elements..
While there had always been greed and avarice from the earliest human eras, at no time in past history had there ever been such a widespread focus on the ‘self’ than in the 20th century. Of course, as Western Culture slowly developed its individualistic pace, moving away from the more communal culture that all other societies had embodied from the dawn of time, it was perhaps no surprise that the rise of ‘self’ would eventually become the entire focus of our culture.
Each of the various disciplines point their adherents toward a belief in the self; psychology, existentialism, atheism, agnosticism, and other such philosophies. The rise of self-based ideologies has dominated the thinking of our times. The majority of people in Western Society believe that the secret to their lives is bound within their own particular mind;
–) Are you anxious or depressed; then your mind has a chemical disorder
–) Are you calm under pressure; then you were born with a phlegmatic mind
–) Do you prefer to be alone; then you must have been born an introvert
–) Do you question the existence of God; then you must figure out this answer through your own mental faculties
Whether one is considering problems or considering strengths, the answers that Western Culture always presents to people begins and ends with the ‘self’. For those who claim to be without any faith in God, you can be sure that they demonstrate a great deal of faith in their own mind. This is the great ‘truth’ that Western Culture espouses; you can’t trust anyone, but you can trust your own mind. Of course, hidden behind this admonishment within our culture is the idea that in trusting your own mind, you should ultimately be guided by the specialists, for they are the ones who espouse this philosophy.
During the sexual revolutions of the 1920’s and the 1960’s, each of those great movements began with the idea that you should do what you ‘feel’ as opposed to determining your behavior based on any set of rules or ideology. Ethics and morality during the sexual revolutions were considered outdated and not with the times. Ultimately, morality was deemed to be relativistic; that is, morality was nothing more than what you decided for your ‘self’. If one person feels like being polyamorous, than that is good for them ‘self’, and if another feels like having an affair with a married man or woman, than that is good for them ‘self’. Objective morality and ethics became out of touch with the generations during the sexual revolutions, and as the twentieth century progressed we saw this ideology permeate every facet of Western Culture; in its art, film, movies, academics, politics, and more. The mantra for Western Culture developed to such a point that entire ad-slogans were developed based on the premise of “Just Do It”.
When you begin and end with your ‘self’, you become the ultimate ‘specialist’. When you separate your own life, choices, and behaviors, from history, space, and time, then you deem your ‘self’ to be the only authoritative specialist for your own life. You in fact become the very embodiment of the establishment which deems specialists to be the only ones trusted, and you deem those with a more holistic liberal arts view of humanity as being nothing more than sourpussed crybabies. When you propel your ‘self’ and your own particular mind as being the ultimate guide in making all your decisions in life, you become the ultimate narcissist specialist; in a sense you become your own god in that you are the author of morality and ethics since it is you who ultimately decide what is right and what is wrong.
The role of religion throughout the history of humanity has always been to point men and woman to a more communal holistic view of the self. Religion (especially in the Judeo-Christian worldview) served to place people in the construct of the community. Religion, whether for the good or bad, unites people in a corporeal manner, and reminds people that self-based ideology is nothing more than the meanderings of the delusional, the self-centered, and the egotistical. Without a more global religious view of humanity, we are left with nothing more than our own one-dimensional specialist views, entirely fraught with our own shortsighted failings, lack of knowledge, and inability to live in the past, present and future.
Religion binds humanity to the past, while at the same time it points humanity to the future. The cult of the self is entirely present-based; how can you be totally sure of the past or of experiences you did not take part? Religion weaves a narrative history that binds individual humans to a corporeal experience and offers them an answer to life’s most trying questions, questions that are impossible to answer via only our own experiences. This is not of course to suggest that religion gets everything correct, far from it. Wars have been fought because of religion, falsehoods have been promoted by religions, and awful tragedies can be directly attributed to religion during every era of human history. However, despite it all, good religion has the ability to transform the individual toward a uniform concept of humanity that the cult of self is never able to do. Simply put, when your epistemological starting point is your own self, you will forever be limited to your own failings, your own blind limitations, and your own biases. You are not God, so why start with the premise that your brain is the correct starting point?
The cult of self and it’s total failure at addressing the needs of the individual and community is nowhere more apparent than in the arena of depression, anxiety, addiction, and other so called psychological disorders. Over the past century, the arena of social workers in the form of therapists, counselors, rehabilitations clinics and the like have grown to epic proportions. At no other time in human history has there ever been so much time and resources spent on addressing psychosomatic issues of the human brain. However, when we look at the success rates of individual therapy, psychosomatic pharmaceutical drugs, and rehabilitation clinics we are faced with a bizarre dystopian world that we suddenly find ourselves living in;
–) more than 70% of Americans take pharmaceutical drugs daily yet they do not reduce the percentage of people who struggle with depression, anxiety, and loneliness
–) the success rates of rehabilitation clinics for chemical substance addiction is less than 7%, yet our courts mandate that criminals arrested for drug related crimes check into rehab clinics
–) people who go into individual talk therapy more often than not find themselves locked into a system which they never graduate from; they never find greater peace, less loneliness, or higher levels of community through going to a therapist or counselor
In other words, with all the University and Medical focus in the realm of psychology, men and women in the Western World are no more happier or at peace than before the birth of psychology, and in fact it can be argued, that people are more miserable and more unhappy than ever before.
The cult of self exists on the premise that the answer to all your problems, questions, and substantive issues, reside within your own mind. However, this ideology is the polar opposite of what the great mysticists, religions, and theologians have taught for centuries; the answer to your problems does not lie within your ‘self’, but rather, the answer lies outside of yourself. As Bob Dylan sang during the turbulent sixties, the answer is blowing in the wind, the answer is outside of yourself, not something which you will find from within.
It was through focusing on things of a higher nature such as humility, and lives of sacrificial service unto the poor and least of them, that distinguished the great men and women throughout history. The message of Jesus for instance which calls for self-sacrifice and service unto the poor and least of these, is radically out of place in the Western World and our cult of self. While our great scientists, philosophers, and leading academics encourage us to pursue our own minds, our own interests, and our own ideologies, Jesus message offers quite a striking parallel when we see him hanging out with the poor, feeding the hungry, mending the sick, serving his own disciples (rather than expecting them to serve him), and loudly declaring that he had not come for the rich or the wealthy, or for himself, but rather, he had come with the express purpose of spending his life focusing on others in need.
While much of Christendom during the 20th century resembled the same individualistic focus of atheist and agnostic philosophers, it was definitely not representative of the biblical “Jesus” which the church espoused that led Christian ministers to taking three month holidays in Europe, driving flashy Cadillacs, or spending most of their week locked away studying, writing, or perhaps flying from one speaking event to the next. It was this focus on the ‘self’ by Christian ministers which helped to alienate an entire generation of youth from the church. Instead of seeing Jesus-like ministers who lived among the poor, led humble lives of service unto the sick, needy, and desperate of the community, the youth of the Western World were instead introduced to professional businessmen who made careers in the church out of speaking gigs, theologies, and espousing doctrine. An overall faithlessness swept over Western society as the inauthenticity of Christian ministers became more and more obvious among both the youth who grew up in church and the unchurched. On Sundays the youth were expected to listen to a theologically astute minister espouse to them “The Pleasures of God” from the pulpit as though the sermon was supposed to ignite within the individual self a new found passion for God. The Sunday sermon experience which evolved over the past few hundreds years in the Western World, largely from the start of the Reformation, became nothing more than another poorly crafted self-help ideology which failed to connect the individual to the community, and instead produced higher levels of faithlessness than ever before.
It was not sermons or lectures which enabled men like Jesus, Gandhi, or their contemporaries to change entire civilizations, but rather it was their sacrificial lifestyles that made a mark in the lives of those who observed them. Faithfulness at its core, is a loss of trust and respect in a leader or ideology. When the representatives of Jesus, i.e. the pastors and priests, slowly evolved over a five hundred year period to resemble nothing more than professional theologians, lecturers, and speakers; faithlessness was the inevitable outcome that should have been anticipated by philosophers many hundreds of years ago. A mere glance at Eastern Culture and the lifestyles of the Buddhist monks for instance, demonstrates to us why the East still exhibits high levels of faithfulness; monks are not known first and foremost for their lecturing ability, but rather for their lives of piety, service, and humility. This is not to say that Eastern religious leaders do not preach or give sermons, because they do. However, it is through their lifestyles that their sermons find credence among the people.
In the East, there is much less hostility and vitriol when it comes to discussion of science, religion, and other subjects which are much more controversial here in the West. Take for instance the subject of evolution; in Asia, the pro-evolution crowd and anti-evolution crowd are nowhere near as intense in their devotion as we find people to be in the West. Pro-evolutionists in Asia, are as much open to discussing the flaws in evolutionary science, as they are in discussing the flaws in a whole manner of things. The religious leaders throughout Eastern society have not cheapened their message by way of promoting their self over the community. Instead, Eastern religions and religious leaders, are respected by and large throughout the community because they have not bought into the cult of self.
Faithlessness is the inevitable outcome when our focus becomes our own self and our own mind. When our epistemological starting point begins and ends with our particular mind, the only faith we then have the capacity for is faith in ourselves; faith in ourselves and faith in a god are mutually exclusive. As the scripture says, “you cannot serve two masters”. We cannot both serve god and money, anymore than we can serve god and serve our own mind at the same time.
When I used to work as a chemical addictions counselor I struggled a great deal with the ideologies I was supposed to be teaching my clients; I was uncomfortable leading group counseling sessions or sitting in one-on-one counseling sessions in which it was my job to encourage the clients to talk about themselves over and over, week after week. It seemed to me that the great problem these (allegedly) chemically addicted adults were suffering from was not something they could solve by focusing on themselves, but rather I believed they needed to quit focusing on their own problems in life and serve others. Many of these clients used drugs and alcohol as a way of coping with things in their life which they resented or hated, many of the things were beyond their control to change. Yet instead of learning to live lives of sacrificial service unto the poor and needy, the cult of self-based psychology these clients were taught, instead guided them to think about themselves from the moment they woke up, to the moment they went to sleep; they were given notebooks to record their thoughts about themselves, they sat in numerous sessions throughout the week in which counselors asked them questions about themselves, and they were given books and instructional videos which continued to guide them to think about themselves. So much focus was on the client and the client’s mind, that the clients were for the most part, paralyzed by self-psychoanalyzation.
Faithlessness in god, faithlessness in societal structures, faithlessness in any context always begins when the individual’s self is the epistemological starting point. Because no person is perfect, all knowing, all understanding, or all wise, our mind eventually fails us. Even within a cult, where a guru is propelled to a demi-god like status, because that guru is imperfect and flawed, at some point the followers will become disillusioned and lose their faith, because the human mind, whether ours, a guru’s, a president, or royalty, cannot be the epistemological basis for our understanding of truth.
The cult of self propels celebrities, politicians, professors, pastors, and a whole range of different men and women, into positions of stature in which their own failings (both mental, moral, and ethical) end up misleading the masses in all manners of falsehood. The cult of self propels individuals and their personal ‘feelings’, ‘beliefs’, and ‘opinions’ as being more important than the entire wealth and scope of communities that have existed since the dawn of time. The age of faithlessness has grown because more and more people have become disconnected from the communal experience and have been forced into lives of radical individualism, living life based entirely on the thrust of their own mind. As Henry David Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”.
Fortunately, the best is yet to come.
*Stock image Caleb Frith unsplash.com