The overstory of cultural evolution features a complementarity of visions known as religion and science, which in the last 2,500 years or so have been competing for dominance, with religion on a dramatic decline in the West since the 1800s – but starting long before. Many will argue that this decline of religion in the West is a sign of our spiritual decadence as a culture.
This argument comes off too much like that oft-used tactic of corrupt authority: blaming the victim.
Religion becomes irrelevant and then comes down with coercion and threats to enforce compliance. All the while, its members are disengaged and quietly leaving out the back door. A good percentage of those that remain are either there for the kindred society it provides, the warm familiarity of its customs and beliefs, or else because they are convinced that it holds the only point of access to the ultimate glory they seek.
In this blog I have been making a case for seeing much of religion’s troubles as self-inflicted, brought on by its own dogmatic unwillingness to meet and advance with the evolving spirituality of its people – and of our species generally. If the role of religion is (1) to facilitate the spiritual development and liberation of human beings, and (2) to provide for the creative engagement of spirituality with the real world and its challenges, then religion is failing on both counts.
Religion started losing ground way back when the enterprise of philosophy – the disciplined pursuit of wisdom based in a grounded understanding of the universe and our place in it – dedicated itself to building a system of knowledge free of magic, superstition, and orthodoxy.
What began as “natural philosophy” soon became science, a headwater that quickly differentiated into numerous tributaries: physics, geometry, biology, astronomy, and dozens more as the centuries went on.
All of this sprang from a newfound confidence in sense experience, critical and contextual reasoning, experimental methods, and methodological doubt (holding a claim in question until it can be validated or disproved by evidence and logical thought) – all anchored to a growing sense of the individual’s capacity for finding the truth by more natural lights.
Ideally, religion would have encouraged this progress to a more rational and reality-oriented way of being, just as a parent should encourage and support their child’s development into more formal operations of thought, ego strength, and intellectual autonomy.
In the same way that a parent doesn’t insist on controlling the behavior and beliefs of their adolescent with a dogmatic “Because I said so!” it is critical for religion to know when, and how, to step back and then reengage its members in accordance with their evolving faith, expanding curiosity, and developing intelligence.
This moment of breakthrough is wonderfully illustrated in the so-called Flammarion engraving (see above), which may date back to the early modern period (15th-16th century). It depicts an explorer who suddenly, it would seem, is able to see through the veil of a world where his life’s security, orientation, and meaning have been safeguarded – up till this moment.
On the other side of this veil he beholds a cosmic system of elements, physical forces, spheres and wheels; no deities, archangels, or heavenly abode are to be seen.
Not, that is to say, what he was told to expect.
That realm beyond the veil is the universe of science; the veil and its enclosed world, the domain of religion – at least in its theistic mode. Theism is a type of religion oriented on a patron deity (or deities) who provides protection, support, and final salvation to his (or her) people in exchange for their worship and obedience.
Its rise over the longer history of religion correlates exactly with the ascendancy in human consciousness of the self-conscious personal ego. The patron deity plays the role of celestial superego to a growing multiplicity and potential anarchy of human egos on the ground, so to speak, each in pursuit of their own happiness. As moral administrator and archetype of virtues, the deity incentivizes proper behavior and inspires the activation of virtue in his (or her) devotees.
When natural philosophy began to lift the veil of meaning to discover a reality not populated by god and his angels, this revelation itself was the signal of a transformation in human consciousness.
Solar gods and lunar goddesses, heavenly fathers and earth mothers were drawn aside on physical stars and moons, the boundless vault of outer space and blue marble of our precious home planet.
Those earlier mythological references had accomplished their work of attuning human consciousness to a provident universe: the generative source, dynamic web, and shared destiny of all things. With a deep feeling of belonging, that they were safe and supplied what they needed to flourish and live meaningful lives, theism had served humans well.
But the time had come for some to step out into a larger reality and learn how to live on the other side of (post-) theism and its richly embroidered veils of mythology. With a well-grounded faith, a sacred reverence for life, and their ethical virtue sufficiently awakened, religion should have been ready to facilitate the progress of this generation of seekers into a post-theistic spirituality and worldview.
Just as the parent needs to help a child emerge from under the protective firmament of dependency to face reality as it is, to take on life as it is, so theism needed (and still needs) to not just allow but encourage and inspire the spiritual liberation of its “children.”
Whereas theism, especially in these latter days, tends to be unifocal in defending a literal reading of its myths and laying claim to absolute truth, post-theistic religion accepts and embraces responsibility for cultivating faith in its children, awaking compassion in its youth, and ordaining the higher self of adults for the task of interpreting the stories and updating its metaphors of God.
In this way, post-theistic adults can lead and guide the spiritual evolution of believers all the way through.
When theism elected to hold its ground rather than adapt and accommodate the transformation in consciousness that was underway, it created conditions for the spiritual decadence of Western culture. Without the intentional structure of a post-theistic guidance system in place, many would-be post-theists were either pushed out, or, for the sake of staying true to the longing within themselves, chose to leave, forced from their community to find their way alone.
What theism hasn’t understood all this time is that a post-theist is never alone, having attained the realization that Everything is connected, All is One, and We’re all in this – together.
In large part, those who stayed inside were either still in need of what theism provided, or else, locked up in their own convictions and driven by a spiritual frustration, saw themselves as its heroic crusaders against a god-forsaken and sin-sick world.
Veils can be convenient to hide behind.