Secularists Lured to Paganism
If man is hopelessly religious, what happens when society’s scientific elites teach that religion is groundless? G. K. Chesterton once said, “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything.” The new atheists claim to base their beliefs on scientific evidence. They have no need for religious teachings or rituals. Is it not strange, then, to see the attraction of secularists to movements that give the appearance of new religious forms? Is there something innate in human nature that cries out for the sense of ultimate purpose and connection to the divine that religions have traditionally provided? Three recent examples of near-cult experiences may be illuminating.
Church of TED: On the BBC News, Jane Wakefield talked about a new cult emerging around the popular technology show, TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design), “a non-profit organisation dedicated to ideas worth spreading.” In “Worshiping at the Church of TED,” Wakefield said that the TEDGlobal Conference “has become something of a cult for its followers – appropriately known as TEDsters.” One idea felt worth spreading was to clothe the dead in mushroom suits as “an altogether more organic way of dying.”
TEDGlobal conferences are an eclectic mix of speeches, hi-tech demonstrations, performance art and calls for fixing society. “Meanwhile philosopher Alain de Botton talked about the need for religion 2.0 – with one particularly enthusiastic Tedster suggesting later that TED itself could be the new church.” Wakefield criticized the closed nature of the conferences, then said, “But TEDsters, as befits members of a cult, hold little truck with criticism. They embrace the week-long event as an oasis of intellectual and emotionally stimulation [sic].”
The “mix of intellect and emotion” TED offers seems to satisfy a basic need in some people: “There is also a sense of being part of a huge social experiment.” Participants wear badges in colors that reflect their mood, whether challenged, inspired, or bored.
Church of Wildness: New Scientist reported on the “Wilderness Festival 2011” that ended last weekend. Cathy Tollet described it as “an event promising to feed all the senses with theatre, debates, parties, music and good food.” While held outdoors, Wilderness Festival 2011 was not so much about wilderness as wildness: “the festival aims to reconnect revellers with all things wild.”
And wild is an apt word. A look at a BBC News photo gallery shows some pretty wild folks with glazed-and-dazed faces, pagan costumes, a masked ball, rock theater and lots of raised hands. The official Wilderness Festival website talks about a late-night party “where the wild things are,” an urban voodoo machine, the wilderness spa, a midnight seance, a naked conga dance in the woods, and other ways to abandon restraint and focus on self-absorption. Conservation of wilderness seems a remote theme, as the festival’s YouTube video, a phantasmagoria of flipped-out patrons indulging themselves, shows.
Church of Self: What can atheist fans of Richard Dawkins do for inner fulfillment? They can go watch The Selfish Gene, a musical playing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Show. Mairi Macleod reviewed the performance for New Scientist. Written by a Dawkins fan named Jonathan Salway, The Selfish Gene, “70 minutes of catchy songs, innuendo and laughs as well as science,” tries to show how your family and friends, even when outwardly caring and nurturing, are really just acting out their evolutionary selfish selves.
Macleod was delighted. “What a fun introduction this would be for budding biology students, to whet their appetites and show how biology can answer those tricky life questions – such as how long do you wait before you sleep with your boyfriend? Does it pay to cheat?” The answer is clear: sure it does. How could one do anything else? Opening song: We Are Machines Made By Our Genes.
Something is wrong with the musical. It has a moral escape hatch. “And, as befits a musical comedy, there is an optimistic upbeat ending. It suggests, as Dawkins’s book does, that there is a process through which humanity can save itself from its own selfishness,” she ended her review. “Memes are what means we are not just machines made by our genes.” Trouble is, this moral escape hatch is rusty, as she herself said: “For cutting-edge evolutionary biologists, or for that matter for regular readers of New Scientist, the theory depicted in the show might feel slightly dated, with its talk of memes rather than culture evolution or multilevel selection.”
Macleod left it unanswered whether those newer memes of culture evolution and multilevel selection, presumably as undirected and purposeless as natural selection, can help humanity save itself from its own selfishness. And if in the end we are “not just machines,” what part of us is not mechanical? Is there something beyond that recognizes selfishness as bad? Why would evolved humanity even want to save itself from what the evolutionary process produced? Is there a cry in the subtext for a spiritual reality to fill a deep immaterial need?
The apostle John said that God gives light to every human being who enters the world, but they do not comprehend it (John 1:1-13). The apostle Paul identified that starting point of light as the knowledge of God through creation (Romans 1:18-23). John went on to describe the greater light that became manifest in Christ, who created all things, when the logos became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14-18), calling us back to the Father and providing the way through His death and resurrection if we will receive Him (John 1:12). Try as they might to snuff it out with science, philosophy and emotional abandonment, everything people do only reinforces the recognition of light that has come into the world, and men prefer darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil. One has to love truth to come to the light (John 3:1-21).
A void gnaws within that only the true God can fill. One must avoid a void, but coming to God for fulfillment is scary: it means giving up oneself to a God who is Lord of all. Since misery loves company, and sterile science is pointless, the self-lovers flock to counterfeit religious experiences that promise some kind of stuffing for the void. Charlatans abound to sell their idols of the tribe, marketplace, and cave. When the festival is over, when the rock music and booze has worn off, when the musical ends with no answers for why we should save ourselves from selfishness, what then? Will it make the buyer eager to put on the mushroom suit?
Even asking the question presupposes the answer. We are not machines made by our genes; our genes are machines made by an all-wise Creator for us. We were made by and for our Creator, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Him. Here’s the road back to the light (Romans 3:10-26, Romans 6:23, Romans 5:7-8, Romans 10:8-13).