I want to continue with the theme in my last post and trace the origins of what John Vervaeke calls the meaning crisis. I hope bring an awareness and discussion about these issues, so please feel free to provide your comments below.
In 1882 German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche published the Gay Science where he wrote one of the most misunderstood phrases in all of philosophy – “God is dead.” Students of philosophy will know that Nietzsche, as a self-proclaimed atheist, was not referencing the literal but rather metaphorical death of God.
Writing in an era of rapid scientific growth and technological change, Nietzsche was referring to the idea that religion no longer held a monopoly on knowledge, morality and meaning. In ancient times, cultures deferred to a higher power to explain natural phenomenon’s such as plagues, famines or natural disasters. However, modern science has provided explanations to these many of the questions that have puzzled humanity throughout history. Religion was not displaced, but it changed. Furthermore, it became a less prominent force in Western society.
I want to refrain from commenting on my personal views towards traditional religion. Everyone is free to hold their own beliefs, think critically and respectfully debate these complex issues. Rather, I want to focus on and discuss the societal repercussions of the secularization of the West.
The secularization and decline of the cultural and social significance of religion in our culture is evident. As Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor writes in his book A Secular Age, “Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?” That is, what was the norm has now become the exception.
Nietzsche contemplated whether the decline of religion would lead us to a state of nihilism or meaninglessness. The framework or operating system and basic beliefs that underpinned Western society was called into question. To quote Nietzsche in the Will to Power, “I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism… For some time now our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe.”
In many respects, I do not think we have succeeded in filling the void and gap that the decline of religion in our lives has left us with. As mentioned in my previous article, I believe this is evident in the societal and cultural issues we face today. Increasing polarization and division, a mental health crisis and a culture of narcissism are all symptoms of what Professor Vervaeke calls the ‘meaning crisis.’
Many of these problems stem from a lack of meaning and purpose in our lives. Purpose is a fundamental feature of a fulfilling life, and its absence in our lives is the cause of many psychological ailments. As Steve Taylor from Psychology Today notes, “The need for purpose is one the defining characteristics of human beings. Human beings crave purpose, and suffer serious psychological difficulties when we don’t have it. Purpose is a fundamental component of a fulfilling life.”
While science is responsible for many great achievements, from ground-breaking technology to modern medicine, I do not think it can provide us with a framework for values or meaning. It falls short in replacing the role that both philosophy and religion have played in the past.
However, in recent years, we are seeing a response from society in the forms of a resurgence of ancient philosophies and practices such as Buddhism, mindfulness, mysticism, Stoicism and various other forms of meditation. For instance, some studies have reported that meditation is the fastest growing health trend in the U.S. This implies that many are turning away from the so-called hedonic treadmill, and materialist life that is sold to us by our modern culture.
We are eager for meaning, and hungry to feel connected to something transcendent, a cause greater than ourselves. This can come in various forms through philosophy, religion, a social cause, your work etc. Many religious and spiritual traditions share many commonalities, and there is no ‘one way forward for everyone.’ However, purpose is essential, not only as a guide in life but as a way for contentment and happiness.
In the next couple of posts, I want to explore some of these traditions which have particularly resonated with me – Stoicism and Buddhism.