I came across an article on Arts and Letters Daily about the rise of religion which I found all the more depressing because I think it may be true. Even in the most secular of societies there are a growing number of people seeking refuge in that old time religion. Something strange is happening to drive back the tide of secularism, and I think I know what it is. It has to do with utopian visions--that is, perfect worlds offered up with no viable or visible means of achieving them.
Marcus Aurelius opposed Christianity because he favoured Stoicism, but Christianity had a selling point that gave it the edge: it promised the afterlife. Christianity eventually won. Apparently virtue and self-discipline are not enough. People want a bright light at the end of the tunnel, a promised land. And this promised land can take many forms.
Christianity and Islam offer the most opulent of promised lands; a paradise beyond the vicissitudes of the world, where one is preserved for all time. According to Islam, one is preserved in a state of sensual largesse, with a ready compliment of willing sexual slaves and an endless supply of delicious foods. Apparently, all the desire that are to be denied in this world are to be fulfilled in the next. This is not materialism denied, merely materialism delayed. For the Christian the reward is more dubious, though it is argued to be more spiritual. One may look forward to an eternity of the presence and eternal praise of God. But it is never adequately explained why an eternity of membership in some sort of celestial choir, singing the praises of an apparently narcissistic diety, is the pinnacle of happiness. As the leading Heather in the movie Heathers complains, having been dead only a short while, "If I have to sing Cum By Ya one more time, I will throw up." One man's heaven is another man's hell. The primary consolation seems to be that the Christian will get to gloat over the fate of the non-Christian, content in the knowledge that the unbeliever will suffer a fate far worse. Revenge may be sweet, but this flies in the face of core of Jesus' teachings. In both of these afterlives, the highest good is the preservation of the individual ego. You may surrender, submit, and sacrifice as much as you like, but in the end, you'll get your way, and all the pleasures you've renounced. The payoff is an orgy of egotism. I suspect that the first Christians, and Jesus himself, would be appalled by this, and would likely have renounced the doctrine of the afterlife altogether if confronted with it in this form.
These utopias also fall prey to what Tolkien found evident in the immortality of his elves--an eternity spent chained to one's own personal limitations and the weight of past mistakes. I have always wondered why Tolkien did not realize that the fate of his elves would be shared by mortals as well, trapped in an afterlife that was largely a continuation of their own limited identity. Had the afterlife promised a release from one's own ego by having it merged with the consciousness of the divine, like a drop of water returned to the ocean, this objection might be overcome. But I suspect that this anihilation of self would be as terrifying to most believers as the fires of hell. They may want some sort of communion with God, but only on their own terms.
The rise of secularism came with the promise of secular utopias. The most obvious of these were the political utopias promised by Naziism and Communism; the Thousand Year Reich and the worker's paradise. Both of these had limited appeal and a limited base, and were known to be unworkeable long before their final collapse. The most popular secular utopia in the west was progress, the gleaming world of convenience and wealth promised in the middle of the 20th century. You can see this in The Jetsons, where everyone was supposed to drive hover cars and own a robot that would do all the housework, while we lived in leisure. This hit a snag in environmentalism and the energy crisis, when the bills of our increasingly profligate lifestyles came due. It became clear that there were limits to growth, that we simply did not have enough resources to sustain endless consumption. But this utopia shares a common trait with the heavenly utopias: the promise of infinite material reward. It is a materialistic answer to a spiritual question. It it like trying to assuage one's hunger by eating rocks. But the secular utopias have failed because they are subject to falsification, unlike the religious utopias, which float free in the clouds, and whose existence and limitations are beyond the reach of proper scrutiny. This goes a long way to explaining the resurgance of religious faith.
Utopias of more limited appeal have continued to appear. I suspect that Star Trek gained its popularity, not because it was a prime example of great science fiction (it wasn't,) but because it provided a promise of a utopian future without racism, sexism, proverty, or war amongst mankind, a universe in which human beings had overcome the problems of our present and soared amongst the stars like gods. The very idea that we would be alive and well five hundred years from now was reassuring. Political utopias continue to abound, now largely from the right rather than the left; the promised land will now come through the invisible hand of the market, or through the reduction of government, or through the return of traditional values. Never mind that the market is a blind machine insensitive to many real human needs, that a weak government simply opens the field to new forms of government not subject to democratic control (the ability of Wal Mart, for example, to dictate what is available for people to read and hear,) or that traditional values led us to where we are now, and were instrumental in creating many of our existing problems. Cults continue to abound, promising a glorious future if only we can convert enough people. And there is the individual utopia, where with enough money, power, or fame, one can move beyond the irritants of everyday life to a promised land of ease and luxury. This is the utopia inherent in the American Dream.
What these utopias promise is a magical way to bypass the messy business of personal responsibility in order to achieve a perfect world. Totalitarian utopias (including cults and old school political ideologies) are offered with the claim that you don't have to do anything, you only have to give your leaders the power to do it. Religious utopias leave it all to God. Libertarian utopias promise that the system will provide, if only it is not interfered with. The individual utopia requires effort, but only in serving one's own self interest; being a psychopath is not a problem as long as one is a successful psychopath. Personal success may come at a cost to others that outweighs the benefit to you, but this is not your responsibility. Pursuit of other utopias results in the damage caused by sins of omission, but the search for a personal utopia may actively cause harm.
Real progress towards a better world is a slow and arduous journey, in which small gains are made, carefully checked to see whether they really are gains, and then firmly established before going on to the next task. It requires a mastery of the real complexities involved, but this in turn require cooperation and individual competence. The last renaissance man died in the renaissance. Mastery of any domain of knowledge requires specialization, and to gain an understanding of any situation, these specialists must convey their knowledge, or lack therof, honestly and without a destructive measure of self interest. Effecting change requires efforts at all levels of society, and a genuine attempt to understand the consequences of ones own actions. And the strictly materialistic goals enshrined in nearly all utopias (including the religious ones) must be abandoned.
Perhaps the ideal of broad personal responsibility is itself utopian. But without it, nothing will improve. The result may not be a perfect world, but it may be a better world.