By James Moylan
Musing about the benefits of less God at Easter.
At Easter it is a good moment to settle back and consider our slow yet steady development as a species. In Australia we have become a relatively Godless bunch. It’s a very pleasing development.
In the main Aussies are now either heathens, apostates, atheists, or lukewarm believers. As a whole we have generally rejected wide-eyed unabashed religious nuttery but we are still fond of our traditions. We would, in the main, rather remain conflicted instead of putting in the mental effort it might require to fashion any sort of a cohesive world view.
Yet even so – the apparent retreat of God does need to be noted and celebrated. Individually we are a pretty sorry bunch of apes; but as a species we are definitely progressing. In some small ways and in a limited fashion. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Centuries of religious tomfoolery have left their mark. It will take a concerted effort over many generations just to redress half of the harm that has been inflicted on feckless believers by the spiritual thugs we collectively refer to as ‘preachers’. Certainly not bashing your head against a wall continually is a good thing – but it is not necessarily something that should be celebrated even though the lack of bashing is something that should be noted with at least quiet satisfaction.
Always remember that there are still more churches than there are schools in Australia. How embarrassing!
But at least they are now generally sitting empty. While it is a scandalous waste of public resources these temples, shrines, churches and other sites of sorcery are, happily, now barely visited. While 61% of us like to say that we are ‘Christian’ only one in seven of these ‘believers’ ever set foot in a church. In reality less than 2 in 50 of us go to church or even pray on a daily or weekly basis.
I do not wish to imply that half of the population do not deeply believe in one or more patently ludicrous thing. This is unfortunately the case. However some small gains are falteringly apparent. There are now five times as many active recreational fishermen in Aus as there are churchgoers. That has to be long step in the right direction. Also, note that the majority of us have decided that we will no longer accept that the amorphous assertions that may or may not have been advanced by one or another holy person, several tens of hundreds of years ago, should be regarded with anything more than a nod and a wink.
In fact, it is now almost appropriate to declare an interim victory over rampant mysticism in Aus. Not because anyone is talking about it but rather because nobody is talking much about it. Even the really committed religious zealots all seem to have pulled their heads in for the time being. Or perhaps nobody is providing them with a microphone? Whatever. But the extended silence is pleasing.
It seems that only Americans and people over 55 dare to preach in the public square anymore for fear of being branded an idiot. Even these so-called ‘apologists’ are mainly on the backfoot. The range of apologies seem to just keep on growing. Those that aren’t fending off kiddie fiddler charges are now also continually puffing out a miasma of embarrassed justifications regarding every new scientific discovery to their ever diminishing flock of mobile phone owning parishioners.
Mobile phone ownership is a key aspect.
The greatest threat to the continuing ubiquity of Jesus statues throughout our society is mobile phone technology. God and the iPhone are competing technologies. McLuhan was right. The medium is the message. Wherever a mobile phone is active God can’t compete. Facebook, Twitter, casual sex and drugs, and discussions about casual sex and drugs, will win. Every time. No fact is more ‘facty’.
In our day to day living pragmatic science has replaced mysticism. We all live a Star Trek existence with cool ‘communicators’ strapped to our hips while we stride along the virtual superhighways and live both a virtual as well as a genuine existence, simultaneously. The digital age has revolutionised the way in which citizens conceive of who we are and how we might interact with other citizens. Every moment of a personal routine is now capable of being contextualised by reference to a host of competing voices and supplementary information streams.
The ancients were timid supplicants at Delphi – proving that none of them had a mobile phone. There is nothing timid about the post-modern phone-owning citizen. When you have a mobile phone in your pocket, God is not so much dead as entirely superfluous to all current requirements.
We ride in supercharged cars and launch a million souls hurtling into the high atmosphere every moment of every day. We blithely demand answers from google, regarding everything, instantly, and simply expect that our civil engineers will move mountains and make it rain in the desert, and provide us with live action coverage. Let’s face it: Jesus may have been able to walk on water, but any kid with Google Maps can fly anywhere on earth, conduct simultaneous conversations, stream and broadcast live video, plus emit a GPS location fix that is accurate to within one square metre, even while riding their bike home from school. These days it really takes something pretty astounding to shake the attention of a teenage kid. Walking on water simply won’t cut it. Who needs loaves and fishes when Milo and a microwave are both present?
We think differently. Our phones are seducing and altering us. There is no battle. We march willingly into the ether. We are subdued and then trained seamlessly and almost incidentally. It is an almost invisible Faustian bargain that is rarely provided the consideration it deserves. We offer up our identities up to the network. Defer to the requirements, and become transformed into a newborn, pinprick, GPS reference. Part of our life force bleeds into this new online identity. Forever more we are more than we once were, but also less. We split our psyche. Amoeba like a new entity has been born. An ‘online persona’. Something at once bigger and more majestic, yet also deliberately and knowingly fraudulent.
When you own a mobile phone you accept you are a cipher. You are explicable. You are related and located. That dot on the screen is at once definitely and precisely ‘you’ as well as simultaneously being vague digital approximation.
In the virtual world we all jointly deconstruct and reconstruct vast digital empires and arguments, on a millisecond by millisecond basis, even as we all integrate these new dimensions of connectivity into our daily routine. It changes the way that we associate bits of information. We become more interested in patterns and processes and less fixated on data and text. Over many generations we developed from Homo Erectus into Homo Sapiens. Now our emotional and intellectual software is finally beginning to catch up with all the possibilities. The impact of digital modes of communication on the consciousness of many individuals within our species, on the ways in which individuals disambiguate and process information, is palpable. The information age has dawned. Homo Sapiens has become Joe Citizen.
Star Trek is here. We are, as a species, in control of this fragile globe as it hurtles through the distant reaches of the outer-spiral arm of our milky-way galaxy. It is now StarDate 2017.
As a species our numbers, technical sophistication, and modes of communication now inculcate an expectation that ‘history’ is over. That we are now the ones in control. All the ‘blind and unknown forces’ have mostly become explicable. Mysticism has given way to wide-eyed awe as we gaze at the majesty and complexity of the power and matter, and the vast spaces, surrounding, separating, linking, and partially explaining us.
For most modern first world residents of earth our daily regimen is jam packed with the palpable fact that science works. That astronomy explains stuff and astrology doesn’t. That chemistry is correct and alchemy is a plotline.
With all this being revealed whenever we spend any time reflecting on the implications of just one Tweet, in an eternal Twitterstorm, which is itself only one facet of an ever changing and evolving deluge of available content and context. Who needs God?
Entertaining a knowledge of mortality and vague feeling of existential despair may be Joe Citizen’s lot for the term of his highly contextualised and self-consciously limited span of years. It’s not the ideal situation but you simply can’t argue with a mobile phone.
So- the mobile phone is throttling Jesus. It’s not all the mobile phone is is good for; but there is no doubt it is a Christ Killer.
The son of God will likely be stone dead pretty soon now. For the first time in 2000 years the news that he really won’t be coming back will become the widespread orthodoxy. In fact; Jesus is already stone dead on Facebook. On Twitter he still pops up occasionally but Twitter is good at recycling extremely limited explanations.
However, it seems the atheists are winning by default. There is no bunch of less organised or less organisable individuals than the atheists. Which is understandable. Founding any sort of atheist organisation makes as much sense as trying to found an anti-unicorn society. While a lot of us do not believe in unicorns – non-belief in unicorns can hardly be described as being a central guiding principal in anyone’s life.
So it is not the efforts of the atheists that are causing this shift away from organised religion, it’s just that the simple ubiquity of information seems to be causing religion to wither as a core organising principle. The questions asked and supposedly answered in traditional religions are just not really important. And when you can get a rundown of sixteen different apparitions of Jesus in any given google search then it tends to devalue the whole Jesus marketplace. Unless, of course, you decide to go with a religion that simply disavows the utility of ‘knowing stuff’.
But even then, becoming a radical mainlining Fundamentalist, of any stripe, for any length of time, is ever more difficult. You really have to cultivate a very sophisticated outlook to be able to be able to entertain all of the eternal justifications required to be an evangelical anything in our modern world. To maintain such a world-view requires that you constantly re-interpret the whole realm of ‘science’, and pretty much every incidental fact that you encounter at every juncture during the course of every long modern day. All the while simultaneously using mass transit or private cars and surfing the information superhighway every time you swipe to buy a cup of coffee.
So, to actively maintain a belief that ‘the scientists’ have ‘got it all wrong,’ means constantly manufacturing a commentary regarding exactly how and why the scientists seem to have to got such a hell of a lot of things, so precisely and uniformly wrong, for such an extremely extended period. In the end it’s far easier to simply zone out, watch another movie, tweet about some significant weather, and window-shop for doodabs and sprockets, whilst on a bus, while on your way to work.
Religion automatically becomes a less sufficient explanation when you own a mobile phone. There is a tragic and inescapable irony associated with searching for reasons for ‘why the world is six thousand year’s old’ on an iPhone, connected to the internet, using electricity and wi-fi, with no sorcery or magic apparent.
Relativistic godlessness is simply an inescapable corollary of having instant access, all the time, to all the knowledge, of all the least informed individuals, all across the globe. Will the real Jesus please stand up? All, some, or none of them might be real. But there sure is a heck of a parcel of Jesus’s to choose from.
Yet while far right and the far left wing individuals in our society get to choose from any number of religious affiliations and personal associated Jesus’s – in middle Australia this is no longer the case. For middle-of-the-road Aussies God has become really difficult subject. Especially if your main aim is simply to just ‘get along’. For the vast majority of the population, who are not at the extremes, professing a belief in any particular ‘belief system’ now seems far more likely to cause offense than serve to ingratiate. Even ‘middle of the road’ politicians no longer talk about religion or invoke religious values in public. They all know that saying outright that you are a religious person, or even vaguely implying that you believe in the literal truth of some element of religious dogma or scripture, is largely frowned upon. Yes you are allowed to believe whatever sort of tosh you might want to believe: as long as you don’t mention it in public, blow something up, or embarrass yourself, or me.
Religion is tolerable as long as it is remains some sort of a fuzzy, non-threatening, generalised, theistic notion. But unless you are already occupying one of the extremes in our society, religion has become particularly tricky in the digital age. While far right and the far left wing individuals get to choose from any number of religious affiliations and personal associated Jesus’s – in middle Australia this is no longer the case. Here ‘God’ has become really prickly subject. Especially if your main aim is simply to just ‘get along’. For the vast majority of the population, who are not at the extremes, professing a belief in any particular ‘belief system’ now seems far more likely to cause offense than serve to ingratiate. Even ‘middle of the road’ politicians no longer talk about religion or invoke religious values in public. They all know that saying outright that you are a religious person, or even vaguely implying that you believe in the literal truth of some element of religious dogma or scripture, is largely frowned upon. Yes you are allowed to believe whatever sort of tosh you might want to believe: as long as you don’t mention it in public.
In this way, in the last decades, what is considered to be ‘normal’ has changed radically. Having any sort of a deep religious conviction has become somewhat out of the ordinary. That is; anything beyond a bland assertion of cultural affiliation and a vague indication of being ‘sort-of theistic’ in a ‘round-a-bout way’. Two minutes of conversation with any average Aussie will be enough to assure yourself that the orthodoxy of the irreligious really has won the day.
Aussies now equate secular and academic expertise with competence rather than degrees of faith or personal religious values. If truth be told, the discussion of religion in public has come to be regarded as being a little ‘icky’.
Even as we are expecting more sophistication from our political class we are also, simultaneously, marking them down whenever they mention something religious. We all largely expect better than we are getting already, so when politicians veer off into trying to ingratiate themselves by advocating a soft and woolly form of Christianity, they are more likely to be sneered at than given credit.
The medium really is the message. A generation on from being coined this truism is being born out. Mobile phones are providing ubiquitous access to reams of accurate information, instantly, has served to breed a largely irreligious population that is at once oddly credulous yet also wildly sophisticated. The borders between what is ‘right’ and ‘left’, and what is ‘traditional’ and ‘fundamentalist’, have shifted and continue to shift, simply because, for most young people, the possibility of remaining ignorant regarding the views embraced by the majority of the world’s population is no longer a viable option.
Being a participant in a 24/7 online world automatically conditions each individual to receive information in a different manner to the way in which their parents did. Integrated, continuous, narrow cast, and personalized information is traded while we multi-task. We don’t try to hoard or index information as it is largely free, ubiquitous, and ever available. We swim through information, share, avoid, appraise and compare information, and discard rather than regard the vast majority of words and images that we encounter throughout the course of our day.
At the same time the information revolution is transforming our appreciation of what society is, and how we all need to temper our impact upon the environment and each other, it is simultaneously inculcating within every user of an internet connection or a mobile phone a habit of sceptical inquiry and methodological naturalism. It is changing the way that the user ‘thinks’. We are becoming the first generation on planet earth who know and believe that we really can solve the problems of hunger, malnutrition, war, fresh water, food security and power generation, using the scientific method.
The ‘big-picture’ ethic that is a concomitant outcome of our Faustian digital trade is the adoption of a relativistic perspective where we are floating high above our earth, along with many hundreds of thousands of other digital simulacra. All finding it a little difficult to mask our dismay at the distressing sight of the increasingly distressed environment and the distracted and sometimes parlous state of our various societies.
To Joe Citizen, floating above it all and looking down, it is self-evidently apparent that the practice of science and the nature of the available information should inform our discussions regarding social dynamics and the nature of our impact upon the environment. Religion simply does not ask or answer any of the questions that are important. So rather than being considered wrong, traditional religion is simply beside the point. It is anachronistic. It is all about answering questions that are no longer appropriate or important.
So ‘god’ has been steadily retreating. A massive all-knowing and all-seeing entity has shrunk into a god of the gaps. A cipher for all that is unknowable and unknown. A word signifying a mix of the unknown plus all the parts of the story that are too ‘difficult’ to deal with in a casual manner.
Also, where once, only several generations ago, Joe Citizen would likely only travel from one village to another every now and again, would likely only read a local newspaper, and would likely work in one profession for all his working life; he now has a computer in his pocket with more grunt than all the computers that powered our first mission to the moon. Joe is no barbarian in any of his parts. He is a discerning consumer and participant in several digital and real communities, all at once. Also Joe doesn’t want to be defined by his profession, and really does want to accord greater respect for other citizens than was common in earlier ages. He is primarily worried about the future of the planet and the state of our environment. Moreover Joe believes that these primary allegiances are far more significant and important than are passing things like political parties and ideologies. Joe really has embraced an understanding that the world has changed. For Joe Citizen; godless and rational is now the default setting.
Note that despite a continuing fightback from many in the traditional media, the tenor and vocabulary in our public discussions has shifted. We are beginning to adopt a global perspective rather than a parochial one. Our grip on our mobile phones is slowly dragging us all, as individuals, into a relationship where we are still atomised individuals yet where we are all seen as being in a distinct relationship to each other as well as to the massive and awe inspiring blue globe above which we hover. Our commonly stated ambition is to be inclusive and careful in our dialogue. What a wonderful thing!
Most people, most of the time, now deliberately and carefully avoid using sexist or bigoted terms and ideas. We have become self-consciously aware that our labels and our labelling are significant instruments of power as well as being markers of a personal understanding of the need to foster inclusive and non-judgemental speech patterns and habits. In effect our pervasive self-conscious adherence to norms of behaviour and opinions that are often derisively referred to as ‘being PC’ is actually a marker of the very different forms of engagement with information that are now commonplace in the digital marketplace. Ways of understanding that simply did not exist thirty years ago.
We have been transformed. The purveyors of information in online discussions now tend to be more argumentative and topical than declarative and rhetorical. Our online and mainstream media streams have become arenas of discussion where the particular personal beliefs of the individual are often considered but rarely privileged unless the individual concerned is an ‘authority’. And that means a ‘scientific authority’ – not a spiritual one.
One of the basic doctrines guiding our democratic process is the recognition that we have all agreed (in general) that religion should be a right for an individual yet never privileged or endorsed by an instrument of the state. More significantly: we have decided that we will all enjoy a ‘common discourse’ that assumes that rational argumentation and methodological naturalism will be the principle modes of appraisal and where publicly significant discussions will be based on a scientifically and academically valid forms of appreciation.
So where once the political folk who commonly front our nation state were habitually found, every Sunday, clad in long flowing robes, murmuring incantations in large draughty stone barns, this is largely a thing of the past. Conspicuous religious devotion has become an anomaly in the modern world. It can even be a liability, especially where the majority of the population are either non-religious, non-Christian, and/or are only vaguely and culturally theistic.
For the tiny minority of the deeply religious who still roam our fair streets it has all become deadly serious so they are busy outfitting themselves with all sorts of powerful spells and incantations. A huge new marketplace of potential religious beliefs has sprung up to cater to this need. There are now so many different types of Jesus on the market that just about any potential set of beliefs is now catered for. Take your pick. Whatever you want to believe there is now a Jesus pre-prepared that will fit your requirements exactly.
If you are young and liberal then maybe try a mid-strength Presbyterian or Church of England brew. If you are looking for something a bit harder then you might need a revolutionary, or a feminist, or even a mystical Jewish apocalyptic Jesus. They are all available. But, oddly enough, even though there is a seeming boom in different available forms of divine progeny to choose from, there also seems to be far fewer religious zealots to go around.
Mobile phones and computers continuously suck up the religious and spit out dazed yet addicted consumers into the digital marketplace. Our mobile phones are slowly gobbling up and devouring the old ways of looking at the world and the old ways of ‘thinking’.
But that just means we take responsibility for our new vision. Without God the universe is a huge and intimidating as well as being finite and depressing. So while it is good to take some time out at Easter to celebrate the fact that we might have jointly moved out from under the deep cloud of superstition and delusion that has tracked our progress as a species for so many millennia; this nonetheless leaves us with a clear view of the globe as being a single fragile environment that is currently exposed to all sorts of clear and present danger.
So perhaps our moment of smug appreciation needs to be a rather short one. The digital age leaves us mere mortals hovering above our small blue dot of a planet; alone. So it is up to us to sort all of these hassles out. There is no God left anywhere to be seen. Just us and the universe. Frightening. Exhilarating. Intimidating. But real.