We are turning environmentalism into an elaborate moral narrative. We are doing the same for neurology. And possibly globalism. This makes me wonder whether we are creating the greatest eruption of religion in centuries, if not millennia—an epoch comparable to the Great Awakening, if not the Axial Age. If so, this will change everything.
Financially, politically, climatically and technologically, the ground is moving beneath our feet. Our narratives of how the world works are not matching the facts. Yet humans are pattern-seeking, story-telling animals. Human beings cannot endure emptiness and desolation. We will always fill such a vacuum with meaning.
Think of the constellations in the night sky. Humans eagerly connect dots and come up with the most elaborate—even poetic—tales, adorning them with heroes and myths, rather than tolerate randomness. The desire to believe goes way back in evolutionary history.
The Axial Age, circa 800 B.C. to 200 B.C. was a period of unique and fundamental focus on transcendence that is the beginning of humanity as we now know it. All over the world, humans simultaneously began to wake up to a burning need to grapple with deep and cosmic questions. All the major religious beliefs are rooted in this period.
The search for spiritual breakthrough was clearly aching and urgent. Perhaps it arose all over the world, simultaneously, among cultures that were not in touch with each other, because it marked a profound shift. Perhaps it was the rise of human consciousness. If such profound restatements of how the world works arose universally the last time we had a transition on the scale of that from biological evolution to cultural evolution, is it logical to think it is happening again as we move from cultural evolution to radical technological evolution?
The evidence is beginning to accumulate. The pursuit of moral meaning in environmentalism has advanced to the state that it has become highly controversial. Some Christians view it as a return to paganism. Some rationalists view it as a retreat from the complexities of the modern world. Yet it would appear that there is something to the idea of environmentalism having religious value. Otherwise, why would we find some fundamentalists regarding the stewardship of creation as divinely mandated?
Then there is the new vision of transcendence coming out of neuroscience. It’s long been observed that intelligent organisms require love to develop or even just to survive. Not coincidentally, we can readily identify brain functions that allow and require us to be deeply relational with others. There are also aspects of the brain that can be shown to equip us to experience elevated moments when we transcend boundaries of self. What happens as the implications of all this research starts suggesting that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human physical traits?
Some of this is beginning to overlap with our economic myths—that everything fits together, that the manufacturing of a sneaker connects a jogger in Portland to a village in Malaysia. There is an interconnectedness of things.
If we came to believe deeply that there is a value somehow in the way things are connected—the web of life, perhaps—is that the next Enlightenment?
The importance of creating such a commonly held framework is that without it, we have no way to move forward together. How can we agree on what must be done if we do not have in common an agreement on what constitutes the profoundly important?
This much seems certain. We’re in the midst of great upheaval. It is impossible to think that this does not have an impact on the kind of narratives that are central to what it means to be human. Such narratives could be nothing less than our new means of managing transcendence—of coming up with specific ways to shape the next humans we are creating. If so, this would change everything.