I have mixed feelings about Christianity losing its grip over the Western world. It’s not hard to see the reasons why it did. Christianity was forced upon the world: disagreeing with the Church could get you killed. And this is obviously doubly bad in the cases where the dictums being forced upon the world are arbitrary.
Using force on people rarely produces good results, and so I suspect that the compulsory Christianity was not terribly good at helping people to become more enlightened. Similar to how people go through twelve years of school and then forget it all, whereas if they had voluntarily sought teaching out of a pure passion for learning that wouldn’t happen.
I think that the illusion of people believing in Christianity probably exceeded the reality. That is, people professed belief in the various dictums of the Church, without believing them in their hearts. No doubt there was genuine belief also. But the more force you apply to people, the more people are going to start faking it.
So in that sense, I’m glad that Christianity has lost its grip over the Western world. But there’s another side to the issue.
I’ve pointed out, in the past, that it isn’t necessary to hold any particular propositional beliefs in order to be enlightened. And it isn’t necessary to be part of an organized religion in order to be enlightened.
It isn’t necessary, but it’s helpful. What it boils down to, I think, is that it’s difficult to value things other people don’t value, think things other people don’t think, and do things other people don’t do. There’s this incredible pressure to fall in line.
So if you’re living in a situation with no organized religion, it’s harder to be enlightened. This isn’t any remarkable fact. It would be hard to be a mathematician if universities had no mathematics departments; it would be hard to laugh in a society that was always serious; it would be hard to keep a heavy metal band going in a society where all music was mellow and relaxed.
This problem shows up for lots of things besides religion. Every marginalized activity becomes harder to do. In our society these marginalized activities include art, music, poetry, and being a woman.
So here’s the issue with having an atheist society. All of a sudden pursuing God is hard. And that’s a problem, because the religious need is at the heart of all human needs.
When we don’t have a broad consensus on what the meaning of life is, it creates a sort of a moral void, an existential ennui, where we’re just randomly floating through life with no direction or purpose. (Nietzsche, incidentally, predicted this, with his declaration that God was dead.) That’s what it’s like to live in an atheist society.
So do I think we should reinstitute compulsory Christianity? No. I think we need to find our way to a new societal religion — whatever the word “religion” might mean in this case. One that turns the clock forward rather than turning it back. One that isn’t a forced consensus, but something resembling a genuine consensus. One that integrates not only what we learned from Christianity, but what we learned from science, feminism, secularism, the New Age movement, existentialism, music, drug culture, modern art, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Judaism, occultism, martial arts, science fiction, capitalism, communism, activism, environmentalism, TV and movies, the invention of birth control, the Internet, abstract algebra, the dating scene, and on and on and on. One that is a cornerstone of our lives which resonates beautifully with the whole, rather than being awkwardly tacked on every Sunday morning.
We are one of few societies to have ever existed which did not have a religion. Some would tout this as a great innovation. I suggest that it is actually a form of poverty.