Despite the cultural arc of history of the past 500 years — the efforts toward emancipation and the relentless rise of science and technology — humanity appears terribly, one might even say, hopelessly, stuck. The habits and predispositions of our past — religious conflict, otherworldly superstitions, clannishly suspicious tribalism, and irrational hero-worship — all combine into a dark, sludgy stickiness from which we find ourselves unable to escape.
Though psychological insights point to dark, shame-filled recesses of the unconscious to explain why humanity suffers so, such insightful explanations, though undoubtedly significant, have not dramatically altered our cyclical paroxysms of fear-induced violence, investments in instruments of death, and genocidal impulses. Like ignorant cave-dwellers, we continue to fuel conflicts based upon regional gods and local heroes.
Fifties songwriter Tom Lehrer poked fun at our enlightened pretentiousness with his lyrics to “National Brotherhood Week“: “Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics / and the Catholics hate the Protestants / and the Hindus hate the Muslims / and everybody hates the Jews…” It was biting then, and not funny today as the rise of religious extremism, hatred and faith-based terror continue to spread across the globe. Though the names of gods differ, excuses for such violence and intolerance are always the same, “Just following God’s word.”
Depredations of religious warfare should not be confused with genuine spiritual seeking, but they often are, particularly when institutional power melds with regional politics. Thus leaders who through charisma, calls to devotion, access to wealth, and brute exercise of authority, induce obedience of the public. Donald Trump, Narenda Modi, Rodrigo Duterte, Kim Jung Un, and Vladmir Putin are just the latest crop of local heroes driving civilization to the brink. One hundred years ago such leaders caused great harm, but their effects were often softened by the limits of their reach. Today, the risks are higher as an interdependent, globalized economy and ever more powerful tools of death sit poised to rain destruction upon the world.
Among insightful thinkers, such as Buckminster Fuller, who coined the term “Spaceship Earth”, Professor Kurt von Meier addressed these cultural issues in 1979, writing, “Transcending belief is the task of consciousness in coming to recognize itself. All of which prompts a few searching inquiries–specifically about the four “great killers” in the present history of our watery planet. They may be identified as pollution, population, climatic change, mismanagement of the earth’s resources.” Presciently, in considering energy, he noted, “The problem is not running short of fossil fuels, it is burning them.”
Regrettably, the insights and wisdom of thoughtful scholars and scientists largely go unheeded and forgotten. So wrapped up are we in our own personal struggles with belief, identity, relationships and freedom that only those issues that touch on our lives directly get much attention. Though communication is now global and nearly instantaneous, violence between Hindus in India and Muslims in Pakistan generally feels distant and Americans pay it scant attention until a bloody massacre tops the morning headlines.
Ultimately, climate change may soften our devotion to belief, though it’s likely rising tides and unusually severe weather will be considered “the will of God” by many. And heroes will continue to rise and fall, subjecting the world to the effects of their distorted personalities and perceptions. Society is, after all, simply human psychology writ large, and with over seven billion people on earth, it is writ very large, indeed.