Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Sound of the Gravediggers

Over the nearly seven years I’ve spent blogging on The Archdruid Report, the themes of my weekly posts have veered back and forth between pragmatic ways to deal with the crisis of our time and the landscape of ideas that give those steps their meaning.  That’s been unavoidable, since what I’ve been trying to communicate here is as much a way of looking at the world as it is a set of practices that unfold from that viewpoint, and a set of habits of observation that focus attention on details most people these days tend to ignore.

There’s a lot more that could be said about the practical side of a world already feeling the pressures of peak oil, and no doubt I’ll contribute to that conversation again as we go. For now, though, I want to move in a different direction, to talk about what’s probably the most explosive dimension of the crisis of our time. That’s the religious dimension—or, if you prefer a different way of speaking, the way that our crisis relates to the fundamental visions of meaning and value that structure everything we do, and don’t do, in the face of a troubled time.

There are any number of ways we could start talking about the religious dimensions of peak oil and the end of the industrial age. The mainstream religions of our time offer one set of starting points; my own Druid faith, which is pretty much as far from the mainstream as you can get, offers another set; then, of course, there’s the religion that nobody talks about and most people believe in, the religion of progress, which has its own dogmatic way of addressing such issues.

Still, I trust that none of my readers will be too greatly surprised if I choose a starting point a little less obvious than any of these. To be specific, the starting point I have in mind is a street scene in the Italian city of Turin, on an otherwise ordinary January day in 1889. Over on one side of the Piazza Carlo Alberto, at the moment I have in mind, a teamster was beating one of his horses savagely with a stick, and his curses and the horse’s terrified cries could be heard over the traffic noise. Finally, the horse collapsed; as it hit the pavement, a middle-aged man with a handlebar mustache came sprinting across the plaza, dropped to his knees beside the horse, and flung his arms around its neck, weeping hysterically.  His name was Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, and he had just gone hopelessly insane.

At that time, Nietzsche was almost completely unknown in the worlds of European philosophy and culture. His career had a brilliant beginning—he was hired straight out of college in 1868 to teach classical philology at the University of Basel, and published his first significant work, The Birth of Tragedy, four years later—but strayed thereafter into territory few academics in his time dared to touch; when he gave up his position in 1879 due to health problems, the university was glad to see him go. His major philosophical works saw print in small editions, mostly paid for by Nietzsche himself, and were roundly ignored by everybody.  There were excellent reasons for this, as what Nietzsche was saying in these books was the last thing that anybody in Europe at that time wanted to hear.

Given Nietzsche’s fate, there’s a fierce irony in the fact that the most famous description he wrote of his central message is put in the mouth of a madman.  Here’s the passage in question, from The Joyous Science (1882):

Haven’t you heard of the madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran into the marketplace, and shouted over and over, ‘I’m looking for God! I’m looking for God!’ There were plenty of people standing there who didn’t believe in God, so he caused a great deal of laughter. ‘Did you lose him, then?’ asked one.  ‘Did he wander off like a child?’ said another. ‘Or is he hiding?  Is he scared of us? Has he gone on a voyage, or emigrated?’ They shouted and laughed in this manner. The madman leapt into their midst and pierced him with his look.

‘Where is God?’ he shouted. ‘I’ll tell you. We’ve killed him, you and I! We are all his murderers. But how could we have done this?  How could we gulp down the oceans? Who gave us a sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from the sun? Where is it going now? Where are we going now? Away from all suns? Aren’t we falling forever, backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions at once? Do up and down even exist any more? Aren’t we wandering in an infinite void? Don’t we feel the breath of empty space? Hasn’t it become colder?  Isn’t night coming on more and more all the time? Shouldn’t we light lanterns in the morning? Aren’t we already hearing the sounds of the gravediggers who are coming to bury God?  Don’t we smell the stink of a rotting God—for gods rot too?

‘God is dead, God remains dead, and we have killed him. How can we, the worst of all murderers, comfort ourselves? The holiest and mightiest thing that the world has yet possessed has bled to death beneath our knives!’

Beyond the wild  imagery—which was not original to Nietzsche, by the way; several earlier German writers had used the same metaphor before he got to it—lay a precise and trenchant insight. In Nietzsche’s time, the Christian religion was central to European culture in a way that’s almost unthinkable from today’s perspective. By this I don’t simply mean that a much greater percentage of Europeans attended church then than now, though this was true; nor that Christian narratives, metaphors, and jargon pervaded popular culture to such an extent that you can hardly make sense of the literature of the time if you don’t know your way around the Bible and the standard tropes of Christian theology, though this was also true.

The centrality of Christian thought to European culture went much deeper than that. The core concepts that undergirded every dimension of European thought and behavior came straight out of Christianity. This was true straight across the political spectrum of the time—conservatives drew on the Christian religion to legitimize existing institutions and social hierarchies, while their liberal opponents relied just as extensively on Christian sources for the ideas and imagery that framed their challenges to those same institutions and hierarchies. All through the lively cultural debates of the time, values and ethical concepts that could only be justified on the basis of Christian theology were treated as self-evident, and those few thinkers who strayed outside that comfortable consensus quickly found themselves, as Nietzsche did, talking to an empty room.

It’s indicative of the tenor of the times that even those thinkers who tried to reject Christianity usually copied it right down to the fine details.  Thus the atheist philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857), a well known figure in his day though almost entirely forgotten now, ended up launching a “Religion of Humanity” with a holy trinity of Humanity, the Earth, and Destiny, a calendar of secular saints’ days, and scores of other borrowings from the faith he thought he was abandoning. He was one of dozens of figures who attempted to create ersatz pseudo-Christianities of one kind or another, keeping most of the moral and behavioral trappings of the faith they thought they were rejecting. Meanwhile their less radical neighbors went about their lives in the serene conviction that the assumptions their culture had inherited from its Christian roots were eternally valid.

The only difficulty this posed that a large and rapidly growing fraction of 19th-century Europeans no longer believed the core tenets of the faith that structured their lives and their thinking. It never occurred to most of them to question the value of Christian ethics, the social role of Christian institutions, or the sense of purpose and value they and their society had long derived from Christianity; straight across the spectrum of polite society, everyone agreed that good people ought to go to church, that missionaries should be sent forth to eradicate competing religions in foreign lands, and that the world would be a much better place if everybody would simply follow the teachings of Jesus, in whatever form those might most recently have been reworked for public consumption.  It was simply that a great many of them could no longer find any reason to believe in such minor details as the existence of God.

Even those who did insist loudly on this latter point, and on their own adherence to Christianity, commonly redefined both in ways that stripped them of their remaining relevance to the 19th-century world. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the philosopher whose writings formed the high water mark of western philosophy and also launched it on its descent into decadence, is among many other things the poster child for this effect.  In his 1793 book Religion Within The Limits of Bare Reason, Kant argued that the essence of religion—in fact, the only part of it that had real value—was leading a virtuous life, and everything else was superstition and delusion.

The triumph of Kant’s redefinition of religion was all but total in Protestant denominations, up until the rise of fundamentalism at the beginning of the 20th century, and left lasting traces on the leftward end of Catholicism as well.  To this day, if you pick an American church at random on a Sunday morning and go inside to listen to the sermon, your chances of hearing an exhortation to live a virtuous life, without reference to any other dimension of religion, are rather better than one in two.  The fact remains that Kant’s reinterpretation has almost nothing in common with historic Christianity. To borrow a phrase from a later era of crisis, Kant apparently felt that he had to destroy Christianity in order to save it, but the destruction was considerably more effective than the salvation turned out to be. Intellects considerably less acute than Kant’s had no difficulty at all in taking his arguments and using them to suggest that living a virtuous life was not the essence of religion but a suitably modern replacement for it.

Even so, public professions of Christian faith remained a social necessity right up into the 20th century.  There were straightforward reasons for this; even so convinced an atheist as Voltaire, when guests at one of his dinner parties spoke too freely about the nonexistence of God, is said to have sent the servants away and then urged his friends not to speak so freely in front of them, asking, “Do you want your throats cut tonight?” Still, historians of ideas have followed the spread of atheism through the European intelligentsia from the end of the 16th century, when it was the concern of small and secretive circles, to the middle of the 18th, when it had become widespread; spreading through the middle classes during of the 18th century and then, in the 19th—continental Europe’s century of industrialization—into the industrial working classes, who by and large abandoned their traditional faiths when they left the countryside to take factory jobs.

By the time Nietzsche wrote God’s epitaph, in other words, the core claims of Christianity were taken seriously only by a minority of educated Europeans, and even among the masses, atheism and secular religions such as Marxism were spreading rapidly at the expense of the older faith.  Despite this, however, habits of thought and behavior that could only be justified by the basic presuppositions of Christianity stayed welded in place throughout European sociery.  It was as though, to coin a metaphor that Nietzsche might have enjoyed, one of the great royal courts of the time busied itself with all the details of the king’s banquets and clothes and bedchamber, and servants and courtiers hovered about the throne waiting to obey the king’s least command, even though everyone in the palace knew that the throne was empty and the last king had died decades before.

To Nietzsche, all this was incomprehensible. The son and grandson of Lutheran pastors, raised in an atmosphere of more than typical middle-class European piety, he inherited a keen sense of the internal logic of the Christian faith—the way that every aspect of Christian theology and morality unfolds step by step from core principles clearly defined in the historic creeds of the early church.  It’s not an accident that the oldest and most broadly accepted of these, the Apostle’s Creed, begins with the words
“I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” Abandon that belief, and none of the rest of it makes any sense at all. 

This was what Nietzsche’s madman, and Nietzsche himself, were trying to bring to the attention of their contemporaries. Unlike too many of today’s atheists, Nietzsche had a profound understanding of juast what it was that he was rejecting when he proclaimed the death of God and the absurdity of faith. To abandon belief in a divinely ordained order to the cosmos, he argued, meant surrendering any claim to objectively valid moral standards, and thus stripping words like “right” and “wrong” of any meaning other than personal preference.  It meant giving up the basis on which governments and institutions founded their claims to legitimacy, and thus leaving them no means to maintain social order or gain the obedience of the masses other than the raw threat of violence—a threat that would have to be made good ever more often, as time went on, to maintain its effectiveness. Ultimately, it meant abandoning any claim of meaning, purpose, or value to humanity or the world, other than those that individual human beings might choose to impose on the inkblot patterns of a chaotic universe.

I suspect that many, if not most, of my readers will object to these conclusions. There are, of course, many grounds on which such objections could be raised.  It can be pointed out, and truly, that there have been plenty of atheists whose behavior, on ethical grounds, compares favorably to that of the average Christian, and some who can stand comparison with Christian saints. On a less superficial plane, it can be pointed out with equal truth that it’s only in a distinctive minority of ethical systems—that of historic Christianity among them—that ethics start from the words “thou shalt” and proceed from there to the language of moral exhortation and denunciation that still structures Western moral discourse today.  Political systems, it might be argued, can work out new bases for their claims to legitimacy, using such concepts as the consent of the governed, while claims of meaning, purpose and value can be refounded on a variety of bases that have nothing to do with an objective cosmic order imposed on it by its putative creator.

All this is true, and the history of ideas in the western world over the last few centuries can in fact be neatly summed up as the struggle to build alternative foundations for social, ethical, and intellectual existence in the void left behind by Europe’s gradual but unremitting abandonment of Christian faith. Yet this simply makes Nietzsche’s point for him, for all these alternative foundations had to be built, slowly, with a great deal of trial and error and no small number of disastrous missteps, and even today the work is by no means anything like as solid as some of its more enthusiastic proponents seem to think. It has taken centuries of hard work by some of our species’ best minds to get even this far in the project, and it’s by no means certain even now that their efforts have achieved any lasting success.

A strong case can therefore be made that Nietzsche got the right answer, but was asking the wrong question. He grasped that the collapse of Christian faith in European society meant the end of the entire structure of meanings and values that had God as its first postulate, but thought that the only possible aftermath of that collapse was a collective plunge into the heart of chaos, where humanity would be forced to come to terms with the nonexistence of objective values, and would finally take responsibility for their own role in projecting values on a fundamentally meaningless cosmos; the question that consumed him was how this could be done.  A great many other people in his time saw the same possibility, but rejected it on the grounds that such a cosmos was unfit for human habitation. Their question, the question that has shaped the intellectual and cultural life of the western world for several centuries now, is how to find some other first postulate for meaning and value in the absence of faith in the Christian God.

They found one, too—one could as well say that one was pressed upon them by the sheer force of events. The surrogate God that western civilization embraced, tentatively in the 19th century and with increasing conviction and passion in the 20th, was progress. In our time, certainly, the omnipotence and infinite benevolence of progress have become the core doctrines of a civil religion as broadly and unthinkingly embraced, and as central to contemporary notions of meaning and value, as Christianity was before the Age of Reason. 

That in itself defines one of the central themes of the predicament of our time.  Progress makes a poor substitute for a deity, not least because its supposed omnipotence and benevolence are becoming increasingly hard to take on faith just now.  There’s every reason to think that in the years immediately before us, that difficulty is going to become impossible to ignore—and the same shattering crisis of meaning and value that the religion of progress was meant to solve will be back, adding its burden to the other pressures of our time. 

Listen closely, and you can hear the sound of the gravediggers who are coming to bury progress. Next week, we’ll talk about what that implies.


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Leo said...

Quite a lot of those alternative foundations are worth preserving, consent of the governed is a good one. Secular values and concepts, while they certainly won't make up an entire societies value system are still valuable.

Probably one of the harder problems we face.

Joel Caris said...


First off, consider me extremely excited for this series of posts. I'm eager to see how the next some odd months plays out here.

Second, I'm not entirely sure if I'm fully grasping your post, but if we still have the basic structure of Christian belief in place and a faltering deity in the form of Progress, would a return to 18th-century style Christianity be one of the possibilities going forward? Could it be revived? Or would that perhaps be so unfamiliar to people today--even Christians--that it's too unlikely?

Could this spring out of the more recent fundamentalist revival or is that a different beast entirely?

Apologies, I really am unfamiliar with the history of Christianity. Might need to add some more books to the reading list.

Richard Larson said...

What an end to that article! Oh yeah, so true. Just two mornings ago I went over all the Christian contradictions of the life of a good friend. I even used the word progress! Of course, my purpose was to have his mind ready for the mother-of-all mental failures of a journey this society is about to embark. I have been working on him for awhile, as well as a few other progress believers, so I am not speaking to an empty room..

Excellent topic, that man Nietschze (even his name is hard to spell) would have been amazed at the diverse audience now attending to these ideas, posted here on your blog.

I have always shied away from the guy's writings myself, more than likely because of my Lutheran upbringing, methinks now, but this is an interesting angle. An interesting parallel!

morenewyorknews said...

Good post JMG
What i practice in real life is: never to discuss religion with anybody.This way you can have more friends.Never to criticize people with different beliefs and stay away from extremists.The same policy i have continued on internet too.It is also my experience that internet discussion of religion usually tend to degrade into bar room brawls.
JMG,is govt sponsored secular humanism a religion?I find practitioners of secular humanism totally fanatic,devoid of logic and rationality.This is the religion that is enforced by govt laws,courts,media and police.

Richard Clyde said...

The basic problem with progress as a replacement first principle being, of course, one analogous to that of immanentizing the eschaton. The world will disappoint any attempt to locate the Almighty in it.

Some fanciful thoughts, from my bailiwick: Christopher Marlowe's plays engage primarily with this problem. His images of transcendence are Empedoclean and perhaps a bit barbaric: dissolution of the false self in the cauldron (Jew of Malta), crucifixion on the elements in Edward II, and the sublime rapture of Love and Strife in Doctor Faustus. These are perhaps preliminary initiatory steps for the individual.

Shakespeare addresses the more fundamental crime. The ninety-five stab wounds dealt to God, "our knives" in Nietzsche, are what Macbeth inflicts on Duncan, and Nietzsche's mad consciousness of the crime (and the blood that blood will have) is what troubles that play.

Shakespeare's seeds of transcendence: dotty storm-wrecked flower-decked Lear, naked at Cordelia's foot; Anthony in Cleopatra's embrace upon the Nile. I think we've already seen both these images begin to penetrate the material world. What comes next is in Pericles, Cymbeline, Winter's Tale; but I can't yet see how the tree will grow. And of course this is a matter of transcending the crisis and moving on, not fixing or reversing it.

Forgive the dramatic sally, but maybe the talk of gravediggers put it in my head. At any rate, as I've said before, Marlowe and Shakespeare are worth taking seriously (or foolishly) on this matter.

flute said...

What is closely linked to Progress is also Growth. It is hard to question Growth today without being placed in the lunatic fringe of the public debate. That's why we also get oxymorons such as "green growth" or "sustainable growth". I perceive that our modern industrial society has two unquestionable deities: Progress and Growth. The Father and the Son?

Anywhere But Here Is Better said...

It seems to me that religions - all of them, not just Christianity on which you focus this week - need to be viewed as control mechanisms to understand their etiology. They may start with a set of ideals expressed by a sapient human or clique, but they as a matter of course mutate into a man-made straitjacket that is nothing more than a private club for the "faithful" - a.k.a. those who blithely accept the ad hoc interpretations of the faith by the latest generation of appointed 'club presidents', usually including improvised rules of conduct. 'God' is merely used as an overarching sanctioning/credibility device.

If there was a God, this entity could be credited with wondrous creation activities, but it's clear that the initial ideals expressed are inevitably warped and modified by the hand of adherents who wish to control their meek flock (and others, through conversion or conquest or both). And control means power, that bête noire of our species.

The conduct of religious institutions over hundreds and thousands of years generally falls far short of the standards they promulgate to the masses. For that reason, even though they don't appear to see it (wood-for-the-trees argument), they are authors of their own destruction over time. Just one example: the Roman Catholic Church's approach to poverty, purporting to bless and minister to the poor while at the same time taking money from poor church attendees every Mass, making this institution wealthy beyond calculation.

The concept of Progress being the religion of today follows the pattern. Worship the technology, worship the owners and wielders of technology, but for [entity's] sake, don't question the control exercised over you. Just pay your heavy taxes and stay quiet about the corruption of the ideal by the controllers at the top.

Thomas Daulton said...

Hi there JMG, I hope not to lead you off into a tangent on the first of a promising series about religion. However I notice you didn't really attempt to define the central theme of your column, "meaning and value".
Like "quality" was in the Pirsig book, I think "meaning and value" are another one of those concepts that everybody knows but nobody can put into words that aren't self-referential. Perhaps a definition of "meaning" will figure into your series as a means of getting a handle on the role of religion in modern times.
For decades I have suspected that the definition of "human Intelligence" itself revolves around the ability to feel meaning and value. Humans assign meaning and value to absolutely everything we come across -- even if that meaning is zero or negative/undesirable -- and the assignation is generally pretty unique to each human. I theorize that this is a result of our millions of years of biological evolution. As you discussed when speaking of Duality, our animal ancestors had to assign rudimentary meaning and value (good or bad) to everything around them, long before they started using anything we'd recognize as Intelligence, in order to consume food and run from predators. Machines as we know them today, in this musing of mine, are utterly incapable of feeling meaning and value.
Some people like Kurtzweil say that Intelligence is just a matter of sophisticated pattern recognition, but I don't think you can obtain humanlike pattern recognition without an authentic ability to assign meaning and importance to pieces of incomplete or corrupt pattern data.
Therefore if my musing is correct, it will never be possible to build a true AI, although we could build exquisite imitations. However, regardless of complexity, a machine cannot feel "meaning", "value", or "importance" -- it can only follow a dead programming code to assign those values, code which was written at its core by an intelligent human. Give the machines a few thousand or million years of evolutionary complexity and maybe they'll become intelligent, but no machine we can conceive of right now would be capable of feeling meaning.

Andrew said...

I think a nice complementary piece to this blogpost would be David Chapman's online book Meaningness, which is about the nebulosity of meaning and meaningless.
He is a Buddhist in the Tibetan "Aro" lineage, and has interesting ideas about the forming of the religions of the future as well. (1), (2), (3).

Ondra said...

Dear JMG,

as you wrote about gravediggers of progress, I found an article based on this study in Lancet:

The findings point to the declining standards of public health in south European countries leading to, e.g. HIV outbreaks among drug users (they are left behind first) in Greece, higher death rate of old people in Portugal due to insufficient heating and influenza epidemics etc. I am simplifying, you can check full text of the article, it is accessible for free after registration.

I just want to point out that usual consequences of economic crisis like this fit into the big picture of decline you paint. And the statistical signal is discernible even this soon, less than five years since the beginning of (publicly acknowledged) crisis.

Have a nice day

beetleswamp said...

Thanks again for your insight. I would like to tell you more about my experience reading some of your other more practical books and doing the exercises but I'm kind of wary about the modern equivalent of Voltaire throat cutting.

TomK said...

In Europe, the ruling elite's and middle class' religion of progress will give way to recycled 20th century ideologies and Islam. This will be the backdrop of Europe's coming disintegration of the 2020s. I prefer none of these, but unfortunately, who cares about my preferences?

CGP said...

I think the fear that people have is that with the end of progress we will revert to a past that is assumed to have been savage, barbaric and unbearable; a past where superstition and stupidity prevailed; a past where suffering was ubiquitous and inescapable; a past where religious dogma ruled; a past where no one but the aristocracy was safe. This is binary thinking combined with modern misconceptions of the past at its most terrifying. Progress was us running away from something, a monster chasing us in the night. If we don’t keep moving forward that monster will catch us and rip us apart.

B-man said...

As we farm, raise livestock, garden and overall provide a reasonable level of self-sufficiency for ourselves; I’ve wondered about the impact of a peak resource world on religions of any stripe. I am personally ill-equipped for that level of sustainability.
Perhaps a period of wandering in the wilderness…. Looking forward to this series.

ando said...

JMG you had asked about advaita some time ago. Our Advaitin teacher, the late Nisargadatta Maharaj, said,

"Christianity is one way of putting words together and Hinduism is another. The real is, behind and beyond words, incommunicable, directly experienced, explosive in its effect on the mind. It is easily had when nothing else is wanted. The unreal is created by imagination and perpetuated by desire."

And, as usual, another blog that taught me something.



James Yamano said...

Hello Mr. Greer,

I found this post to be fascinating, and I felt that it helped to clarify how the religion of progress had replaced christianity as a set of unquestionable beliefs.

As I finished reading The Long Descent (excellent book by the way), I was convinced that the world will be heading toward a slow, but steady understanding that the modern extravagances will be lost forever. It will be interesting to see what will replace such faith when the decline of the industrial world becomes visible to all people.

Although I doubt that most people will fully abandon Progress within my lifetime, I am certainly looking forward to the time when more people are willing to question such principles. When the time in which energy and resources becomes visibly scarce, I would like to say to my friends, "This is the reason why I never owned a car, I saw this coming."

Juhana said...

Excellent post, JMG. As a humble manual laborer gone academic, I could never find words like that to describe what is going on around us. Still I feel that what you wrote down this time is visionary and true out-of-the-box thinking, so you shall not get many thumbs-up this time.

While studying and rising up the ladders, I actually believed all this nonsense shoveled into our throats how we are developing to be more moral species, and how this liberal revolution carrying us on the top of this particular historical wave is leading to better world, and shall never hit the shore and broke. After years of innocence, after going around and actually seeing and working with and within populations who never had wholly grasped concepts of "enlightnement" and "progress" I understood how hypocritical and hollow these mentioned belief systems are. High priestesses of Progress indoctrinate into you what is good (female emancipation, affirmative action, more personal liberty, equality and all that stuff) and what is bad (like patriarchal family model, some 12 000 years old winner in Darwinian race of survival). What they do not tell you is WHY they good and bad. There is no value base behind all those tricky academic wordplays other than assumption this kind of progressive model should lead to greater material prosperity for all, if given enough time. Well, this one and only reason giving value base for Western religion of Progress has abysmally FAILED.

While drinking alcohol made from fermented milk with some co-workers at the rooftop of our globe and trying to explain for them why this horrid mess of divorce, slutty behavior, loneliness and broken childhood describing Western family values for educated conservatives among them is actually GOOD, I suddenly found no words anymore... I just had no convincing arguments left. So I personally just gave up on this whole project of enlightnement. Old ways are better.

Only sane thing left to do is to cannibalize as much resources from this failed system around us as we can, build solid patron/client-networks and ensure safety of our beloved ones during forthcoming dark ages. You should take Soviet citizens under regime of Ilyich Brezhnev as your role model, living your own life to the fullest and not believing a word your leaders and their politruks tell you. Any "betterment campaign" thrown upon us by our contemporary leaders should be seen as it is, as desperate attempt to squeeze blood and resources once more from taxslaves by current historical brand of delusional leadership.

Western Progress shall wobble to the grave JMG described in this post, and sheltering yourself from impact has enormous importance to well-being of your family, only thing in this world that truly matters.

Jon said...

Once you’ve abandoned belief in god, you give up your tether with anything sane and solid, even though it was just an illusion to begin with. I coined the phrase “The lie we live by” to describe the cultural building blocks we use to organize our societies: Things like wedding traditions, clothing styles, favored and forbidden foods, gods and demons and anything else that helps identify us with a particular group. We made a Faustian bargain with fiction, turning story telling into faith, in order to take the next step beyond clan life into villages, cities and empires. Like Dawkins’ memes, these are atomic thought sacraments that are so ingrained in our psyche that we are not even aware of them. Dawkins considers religious memes as evil and scientific memes as good, but in a world where chance has supplanted cause; there is no good or evil, only success or failure. And according to evolution, if not believing in evolution succeeds, not believe we will.

I agree that progress has become a large part of our religion, but when the ashes of our current failed fellowship clear the next generation will busily invent their own flood myths and morality tales to explain why we received our justly deserved punishment and how they, alone, can succeed. Then they will cross that river into the Promised Land and build that perfect society based on reverence and belief, just like every other society that ever existed.

You’d think we’d learn.


JacGolf said...

Funny how you describe the 'replacement' of Chritianity with another belief modeled on its tenants. I understand that they did the same with the pagan culture! The circle of life!

Yourmindfire said...

This seems an appropriate place to recommend Béla Tarr's recent film A torinói ló aka The Turin Horse, in which he considers the moment of Nietzsche's breakdown and proceeds to answer the question "what happened to the horse?"

Twilight said...

Excellent! After so many years of contemplating the many follow on consequences of our exploitation of fossil fuels, I've grown weary of numbers and data. These are the aspects of the crises that interest me now - the impacts of the crisis on human societies, and how we are likely to react. I'm glad you have decided to dive in, as you are uniquely well qualified to address this topic.

wiseman said...

Good article. I am going to quote this one whenever I make a point to my friends about the current paradigm.

Another thing I have noticed on the lines of religion of growth is the religion of science, science or at least the scientific method used to be about skepticism, spirit of inquiry, search for numbers and constant questioning of current paradigm. It had nothing to do with products of 'science' which were merely the fruit, not the tree.

Nowadays it's about gadgets and endless miracles from a 'lab' (temple) where white coats (priests) perform 'experiments' (rituals) to please the gods of science.

Scientific method which if applied properly to the world would provide the realization that our current lifestyle is unsustainable has been relegated to the dustbin of history.

Nestorian said...


I read your posts “religiously,” and this is one of your best. I, for one, agree completely with the historical sketch you have provided in it. It is, in essence, a postmodernist overview of the history of worldview shifts in Western civilization over the past few centuries; and I for one believe the postmodernists have the real nature of the historical trajectory exactly right.

It is not without reason that Nietzsche is considered the originator of Postmodernism in practically all the important senses of the term in contemporary academic philosophy. And it is also quite ironic that, in my experience at least, those very academic philosophers who identify as postmodern tend to be as averse to the death of their own faith in progress as any of the parties you identified in last week’s post.

The truth is that the death of the Religion of Progress is built into the core of the postmodern perspective every bit as much as the death of the Judeo-Christian God is built into the perspective of Modernity - as 19th century denizens of Western civilization were all too slow in discovering. But 21st century postmodern academics are proving equally slow in discovering the radical incompatibility of their professed postmodernism with their own personal faith in progress.

The reality of Peak Oil, above all else, ought to be powerfully convincing them of the full logical implications of their professed postmodernism. But in point of fact, they are as little willing to abandon their “heretical” adherence to Modernity (and Progress), in general, as the average person - as I have discovered to my lasting disappointment over the years.

I was wondering what your sources are for today’s post, for the historical trajectory you describe is one I have great interest in exploring further. The reasons for this interest are hinted at by my blog handle, “Nestorian.” Nestorianism represents the oldest form of Christianity in existence, being unaltered in its core profession of faith since the Council of Constantinople of 381. It is also, in my considered view, the historically and doctrinally purest form of extant Christianity.

The Council of Ephesus of 431 instigated the breaking away from Nestorianism of all the forms of Christianity of the Roman Empire - both Eastern and Western, and inclusive of historically important Christian churches such as the Egyptian Copts, who were fully Romanized at the time. (The Nestorian Church, being centered in the Parthian empire, was never culturally embedded in Roman civilization – an important feature of its history, at least in my view.)

Coming back to the reason for my interest in your sources, one might say that I subscribe to an altered version of the metaphor you yourself coined in this week’s post. 18th and 19th century Europeans were wrong to begin with in thinking that the details of the King’s banquets, servants, and courtiers that comprise so much of the fabric of Western civilization were ever about the King in question to begin with. That King (and I believe He is real) has rejected a great deal of this fuss all along as incompatible with the true nature of His Kingdom – as “Pharisaical,” to borrow a biblical allusion that even many 21st century readers are no doubt still familiar with.

It is with that in mind that I am interested in following up in what you have summarized in greater detail.

Angela said...

Long time reader, first time poster. I won't be commenting on this week's post, for many reasons; I can see why you avoided the subject for so long.
I'm about halfway through a book that you mentioned last week: Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think. I don't think I can stand to read any more "meretricious twaddle". Happily, I got it from the library.

phil harris said...

I for one did not know the Nietzsche stories; neither the fiction nor the fact: very affective.
Thank you.

I grew up embedded in the cultural Christian tradition in England; although we did not go to church. As a child I was anti-pathetic to the church authority structure when I came across it. A daily religious service was obligatory in schools (c.f. USA), but used an abbreviated form; ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, but not the Nicaea Creed. For a while my primary school switched the service to the actual church building next door (the established church under the Monarch, with representation in the UK Parliament Upper House) and to a service conducted by a ‘deaconess’ (a nice well-meaning woman I came to appreciate later). Our 1944 Education Act had allowed parents to opt their children out of the religious service on grounds of separate faith. Such was my personal antipathy that my parents had to invoke the opt-out and I found myself in the ‘minorities’ classroom with my friend ‘Kipper’ Haddock, who, although I had not noticed it before, was already an ‘opt-out’ Roman Catholic. My younger brother did not have the same problems and rather liked his new experience.

I did not properly meet the Nicaea Creed until I was 17 and was rather shocked when I did. I took strict ‘truth telling’ rather seriously, as one can do at that age, and found the exegeses provided by the nice priest when I attended the local church, to be a bit like crossing my fingers while repeating a prayer, and the whole business became stymied.

Last year I read a book recommended as “beautiful” by our recent Archbishop, Rowan Williams (head of the world-wide Anglican Communion): Christian Beginnings: from Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325”. Geza Vermes sums up more than 40 years of his scholarship (he published Jesus the Jew in 1973). Vermes was a Catholic priest but left the church and reasserted his Jewish identity and became the first Professor of Jewish studies at Oxford University. He has provided me with the thought-provoking text book I need, and a study in ‘truth-telling’.

My enquiry into the conjectural pre-lapsarian past continues, and, ‘needs must’, I have to include my own occasional experiences and insights of the kind that perhaps might have given rise to some Platonic descriptions.

I tried the religion of ‘Progress’ as a young man, but it fell under the same bus to ‘Truth Telling’ as my foray into the dear old Church of England.

Thanks again
Phil H

Odin's Raven said...

Egotism and the desire to dominate others is not going away; nor are its assistants Force and Fraud going into retirement.

Ryan said...

I think that this is an earth shaking post for many of us. I literally burst out laughing (due to acknowledging a hidden and obvious [to me] truth) when I read: " it meant abandoning any claim of meaning, purpose, or value to humanity or the world, other than those that individual human beings might choose to impose on the inkblot patterns of a chaotic universe." Whew! That will be hard for many to wrap their contemporary brains around.

This post gives me a context to develop a better foundation for my perspective on "Why am I here?" Now the task is to reflect on what to do with this information? How do I relate to the world from this perspective? Whew!!

No question for JMG today, just profound gratefulness for this post.

Andy Brown said...

A couple of years ago, I was researching people's understandings about the arts and whether they served any kind of public good. One of the things that struck me, was the fact that the long established story of "culture" (entomology: to grow) and the idea that the arts played some role in the development (progress) and elevation of human spirit and society - was pretty much gone without a trace from the public consciousness. (Except among certain arts insiders and others who were wondering why average people didn't see any reason to have their tax dollars go toward arts.) I think your diagnosis and your historical analogy is spot on. I'd certainly maintain that people no longer "believe" in progress in any meaningful way (iPhone iterations don't count) yet the entire structure of our collective social world takes it for granted. Like N.'s madman's declaration, your incantation that "there is no brighter future" is just too radically obvious to be borne.

Unknown said...

But what god will replace "progress"? It seems to me that what we all need is a central value system not because it makes everyone else happy but to keep ourselves sane. Having a god, any god, seems to be a psychological necessity. Even if we can no longer believe in scientific and technological progress, we may have a necessity of believing in something like progress: "Pilgrims's Progress"? Maybe, historically, we have outsmarted ourselves by going beyond our superstitions. Our superstitions have protected us from all out insanity, until now. Nietzsche rings true on too many levels.

Villager said...

To slightly paraphrase Paul Simon

"What's the point of this story?
What information pertains?

The thought that things will get better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains."

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

JMG writes, "By the time Nietzsche wrote God's epitaph, ... the core claims of Christianity were taken seriously by only a minority of educated Europeans." This is, if literally true (I am not sure of it), at any rate misleading. Many educated Victorian Europeans were Catholic either in the Roman Church or in the Eastern Church. Protestantism had a geographically circumscribed sway in Victorian Europe.

For the educated Roman Catholic, then as now, the following is the case: (a) You are under an obligation to attend Mass on all Sundays. (b) In Mass, you are under an obligation to recite, without inner reservations, whichever of the two Creeds the celebrant is using on that day. You are required to mean your recital without special hermeneutics, attaching to it the same meaning as previous generations have. It is not, for instant, licit to say that you mean your language metaphorically when you say "rose again on the third day". (c) You are required to take Communion at least once a year.

Communion itself you are required to understand in the sense of previous generations. As was explained to me by my guiding priest when I was, after some months' instruction, late in 1983 received into the Roman branch of the Catholic Church, this in particular means that, mindful of the doctrines of Transubstantiation and Real Presence, you are willing to point to the consecrated wafer and say, "That is not bread", and to the contents of the consecrated chalice and say "That is not wine."

I cannot comment on the state of Mass attendance in the USA. Here in Richmond Hill, and also at the Toronto cathedral, the various morning Sunday Masses I see manage, without exception, to fill around 70% or 90% of the pews. It is common to see no empty pews at all.

There is some temptation to postulate a "left wing" in Roman Catholicism which understands the Creed metaphorically. I have not, however, met persons who openly profess being from such a "left wing". Perhaps, for all I know, there are masochistic people who take the trouble to go to Mass, and yet are with this heavy Sunday-morning inconvenience nevertheless secretly imposing metaphorical interpretations. But then with what motive for masochism? How can we ever even know how many such people there are?

"Left wing" is a term from secular journalism, not from Roman Catholic theological debate.

There will be some temptation for journalists outside Catholicism to represent the Church as containing lots of left-wingers who understand the Creed metaphorically. If we have journalistic spin on Peak Oil, perhaps we also have journalistic spin on the admittedly very troubled Church.

What one does meet, in the troubled Church, are Roman Catholics who have problems with governance - who object to the encyclical Humanae Vitae, or who object to the Church's instructions on same-sex sexuality -I myself protest, or at any rate query, as far as I think licit in my essay "Total Catholic Woof", at www dot metascientia dot com - or who object (in my mind rightly; I join the vociferous ranks of the Catholic scandalized) to the Roman Church's failure to protect the economically, sexually, or politically weak.

One does also have problems with a disastrous turning away from the Mass obligation in Europe, and with a decline in seminary vocations perhaps everywhere, and with a decline in vocations at many (not at all) monasteries.

In general, we must be careful not to take Protestant adjustments in theology as representative of Christianity at large. This is a little difficult in the USA, since in the USA Catholicism, be it Roman or Eastern, echoes less loudly than the Protestant theologies.

hoping everyone is able to
get over this piece of
unavoidable preaching,
and to smile again,

Toomas (Tom) Karmo
(in Richmond Hill, near Toronto)

Esther said...

Sir: I of course love to see the religion of progress attacked: it is worthy of infinite scorn. Like a cancer, it is with us still.

Regarding Nietzsche and the death of God: "Nietzsche borrowed Schopenhauer’s concept of Will and gave it a direction, the Will to Power. He also dropped the ideas and regarded the world of appearances, all superficial, i.e., not as appearances of anything transcendental. The Will to Power, as a particular manifestation of Shakti, is feminine, and the denial of transcendence eliminates the masculine element totally from his system." (C. Salvo, from "Gornahoor" website).

Wouldn't Nietzsche's narrative over privilege the alchemical female? As psychologist, Nietzsche is virtuoso, with all the limitations and weaknesses that implies: that is, a tendency to skate over abysses, hide mountains, etc., and in general, privilege his own point of view, which is definitively biased.

For example, Nietzsche seems to never have understood the concept of suffering and abnegation as will-to-power itself, but rather conceived of strength and weakness as binary opposites in the same exoteric manner which he mocks in the Christianity of his day.

He also seems entranced by his own rhetoric. But the most important point is that he rejects all classical ethics and metaphysics, not just Christianity. But this makes sense if all there is is manifestation, the centrifugal female.

Jeff BKLYN said...

'Without music, life would be a mistake.'

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

I often think about music in relation to our troubled times. Popular music today is an off-shoot of the machines that keep us alive. A merciless beat defining the age. In the age just ahead of us, I like to think that music will take on new meaning. Looking deeply into the past is to look deeply into the future. Singing from the soul will be the very thing for the beaten and weary after the hard facts of pollution, climate disasters and currency conflagrations have re-defined our ways of living. I don't look forward to it but I will keep an ear out for the 'new' music that comes from the soul, that looks for the divine and rejoices in the search. In the meantime, I've found myself pushing the other way, embracing silence. Silence is not for the modern mind. Silence is the voice of the creator and I think this is why the human mind has long abandoned it. The creator, or God if you will, had no place in the machine world. That may not be the case for the world that lies ahead. Looking forward to next week's post.

ganv said...

That is brilliant. I can't think of any other short essay that contains such a density of insights that are clearly true but so many religiously refuse to recognize.

I see modernity as poly-theistic, but progress is a pretty good candidate for the place of Zeus, and if progress is dead then there will be a lot of agonizing about how to fill the religious void. Many in our age seem to be unable to recognize how important the religious aspect of our evolutionary heritage is to our thinking and social structures. I am looking forward to the continuation.

derekthered said...

i really enjoy reading your posts, relevant and to the point. the premise that the west is searching for an alternative deity is absolutely spot on, as is the observation about moral relativism.
right and wrong has turned into a question of opinion, it's not pretty watching a bunch of people running around screaming how they are right, and so and so is wrong when there really is precious little jusification for anybody's viewpoint.

what i notice is the new puritanism, don't smoke, it's not "smart", just take a pill. so, we have depressed people taking drugs that may cause suicidal thoughts. lovely. and the mayor of nyc tries to outlaw sugary drinks, which really, are bad for you, but then so are hydrogen bombs and radioactive emissions from melted down nuclear plants.

there is a new tyranny at loose in the land, the tyranny of reason, and it is a harsh mistress. no wonder andy warhol said he wanted to be a robot.

Ronald Langereis said...

Impressive reasoning, and so true. Remember the symbolism of deified Progress in the early Soviet Union and its likes (China, N-Korea) in posters and art, borrowing from the 19th century Industrial Revolutionary art tradition.
As it took several hundreds of years before acceptance of the death of God became mainstream, if mainly in Europe, one would expect the believe in Progress to be hard to snuff out overnight, apart from the situation on the ground.
In this respect, I'm wondering if western civilisations will have the last say on such matters. Economically challenged, will they yield to value systems from other parts of the globe?
I'm looking forward to the sequel, next Thursday.

Mister Roboto said...

Your post this week made me think of the nihilism and fatalism that I've noticed in much of popular music coming out of Europe since the eighties (and maybe even prior to that). You can hear it in a range of musical styles, from pop soft-rock band Abba to hard rock/ heavy metal bands such as Accept.

Michelle said...

Oh bother. I hoped to get straight to 'what that implies,' but now I have to wait a week.

Excellent description and summary, sir - thank you for the effort you put into the writing of this piece.

D^2 said...

I anticipate that Christian fundamentalist sects will be further invigorated. There is already a portion of Americans that believe we are living in the end times and the Rapture is imminent.

Every stair step down the path of catabolic collapse will be further evidence of divine punishment - the four horsemen of the apocalypse punishing the wicked and paving the way for the second coming. Or do they come along afterwards? (I haven't read Revelations in over 20 years, so my recollection is foggy.)

Matt and Jess said...

Just wanted to offer this song in response to the beginning of your discussions on religion! The video is just an image of the artist with the song playing, not a live performance.

Jeff said...

Thank you for that.

I wouldn't count Christianity out just yet. It's quite vibrant in many parts of the world. In fact, it does best in difficult situations, and stagnates in times and regions of prosperity.

Secular progress is indeed looking tattered at the edges, but Christianity will endure.

stevenstrange said...

Through reading your blog and many of your books I had begun to see the difficulties that likely would be imposed on our society by the slow death of the myth of progress. However, until reading this post I never really had a firm grasp on the existential depths that the end of progress had the potential to take us to. I'm looking forward to your thoughts next week.

Brian said...

I'm eagerly awaiting the comments - the discussions I find there week-by-week are second only to the profound insights from JMG. I wish I had more to bring to the table than just this comment.

Also, the right navigation bar sometimes shakes like crazy while I'm reading the page (Google Chrome on Windows 7) - has anyone else seen that?

Brother Kornhoer said...

Archdruid Greer,

Fascinating - I'm looking forward to the rest of this series. I suppose it can be argued that the Muslim world is undergoing a similar crisis of faith several hundred years after Europe's. Do you agree? I would hazard to say that the faith in progress explains why Muslim, Hindu, etc., immigrants to the United States integrate so well - they're typically firm believers in progress, and as long as they keep that faith, they fit right in. I also think that there's a faint strain of Southern US culture that rejects the notion of progress - a remnant of the experience of losing the Civil War.

Due to a recent need to find a new job, I'm moving from Florida to Alberta - just like yeast to sugar, I'm moving towards the energy supply (despite working in a field [environmental engineering] unrelated to oil or energy). My very first impressions are that the Albertans are firm believers in progress, and are in fact a little puzzled at why the US is getting caught in political/cultural dead ends rather than innovating. Fortunately they appear to have good social cohesion as well.

I also noticed that they live at the end of a long food supply chain. Eating local is well nigh impossible for them (unlike my section of Florida, where I can eat very well year round from food caught or raised within 50 miles). If they didn't have some faith in the industrial machine delivering, they'd be mentally on edge.

onething said...

I had not realized that the loss of faith in Europe went that far back. I'm wondering what was the cause. I suspect the Inquisition to be the single greatest one.

A hobby of mine is thinking about Christian theology and how it might legitimately be very different. In that light, I'm not too impressed with the Protestant Reformation, which reformed almost nothing. The religious pamphlets and calling cards of which I have a little collection amount to little more than "Believe or else."

People may respond in certain ways when they are made afraid, but after some time for the rational mind to reassert itself, the experience may not be appreciated, and the logic of fear may be wanting. Certainly wanting in inspiration.

The God of Progress has another aspect than just techno goodies. There is the hope that humanity can slowly progress in wisdom and justice. It is in fact disheartening to think that we can't, and a certain feeling of hopelessness bothers certain sensitive souls such as myself, when contemplating that we might be doomed to a couple steps forward, a step or two back, until the next time a meteor strikes the earth, wiping out enough life that all our sweet memory dies and we're back to square one, thinking that perhaps the human race is 6,000 years old.

We'd like to live in a universe in which there is some sort of rational hope, a hope of nonfutility. Perhaps the reason we expect this is that on a personal level it is true. (Which is what I think it going on with reincarnation.) So, if people are distressed at the demise of the God of Progress, it isn't really the electric can opener convenience lifestyle that is the deepest problem, but rather a loss of hope that the human race is not an exercise in futility.

Perhaps the easy technology has given us a false sense of progress in the realm of justice. Don't electricity, appliances, and automobiles give us the luxury of not exploiting the poor as much as before? Or is that just another facet of the plague of hypocrisy, since they are indeed still exploited but not close at hand?

Ian said...

Oh, I much prefer translating the title The Gay Science; it captures the allusions wrapped up in the title to France and Nietzsche's enjoyment of contrasting Germans and their hopeless dourness to the French. Which has more than a little to say about contemporary uses of the word 'gay.'

Thanks for this--it's invigorating to read all this intellectual history. I have a very different take on it than you, but in matters philosophical that is itself part of the pleasure.

When it comes to facing the death of progress, I have found it worth revisiting Nietzsche's discussion of Socrates in Twilight of the Idols and The Birth of Tragedy. Dated, to be sure, but it still pricks. Obviously, everyone's philosophical mileage varies.

escapefromwisconsin said...

"Progess, I say to you, what is this progess? We have killed it, you and I. Like Icarus we have flown too close to the sun, and the wax is melting from our wings..."

The philosopher John Gray in his book "Straw Dogs" gives an epitaph to the idea of progess, as does Ronald Wright in "A Short History of Progess," and Christopher Lasch in "The True and Only Heaven." The idea seems to be gaining currency as we survey our mess. There's a good article in Aeon Magazine about how cutting-edge philosophers are now turning their ideas away from ethical concepts toward contemplating human extinction.

I've often heard the claim that we're living in the post-Enlightenment era, and there is a oft-repeated trope that the Enlightenment died in gas chambers of Auschwitz. How does that square with this idea - isn't the idea of progess an outgrowth of Enlightenment thinking? And is Malthus finally winning the argument against his father (and Condorcet) two hundred years later now that the fossil fuels are running out?

Is the rise of religious fundamentalism due to the failure of this progess idea for increasing numbers of people? I'll note that fundementalism is most on the rise where progess seems to have passed people by, such as the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, or where progress is rapidly receeding such as the more remote parts of the former Soviet Union and the United States heartland.

I'd also note that economics has become the secular religion of our age, complete with its own ideas of mathematical certaintly and obscure terminology, with economists as the high priests of progess. I and many others have compared economists to medieval scholastics arguing over finer points of a theology that has long ago been discredited, and excluding any alternative ideas with the same fervor with which the Catholic Church once surpressed the ideas of an old earth and a heliocentric solar system.

blue sun said...

Just as there are myriad subgroupings of any religion--take Christianity for example, there are Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and perhaps hundreds of Protestant denominations alone--it seems to me there are several subgroupings of the religion of Progress.

For example, there are those who concern themselves mostly with "social progress" (and don't pay much attention to technology), and of course those who obsess over technological progress, to name a couple.

It would be a fun (if trivial) exercise to try to identify these subgroups, and perhaps even classify them. I don't know that anyone's tried, but I'm sure someone could come up with a nice family tree, complete with dead ends, schisms, and all. The big obstacle is that next to nobody consciously acknowledges Progress as an overt religion.

It's also difficult to understand Progress-as-god in the context of Western monotheism: I don't think Progress has swapped out God; for most people its power is accepted as inevitable, among a pantheon of other gods (self-pleasure and wealth-accumulation are other old standbys). In that sense what we see with modern Christianity is more like the ancient Hebrews lapsing into worship of the local gods of their neighbors. Many modern Christians would do well to study these accounts detailed in the Old Testament.

Rick said...

A quick reaction (after Blogger swallowed my last attempt): From an American-centric point of view, John Winthrop's "City on the hill"-->Manifest Destiny-->the modern argument over the meaning of "true" American exceptionalism (and countless points in between, including the "white man's burden") = a larger process of removing God from the machinery of divinely mandated progress, or, in your terms here, a religion of progress. I look forward to the next installment.

Raymond Duckling said...

I cannot help but think that this too has been foretold in the book of Revelations. That another Christ, a fake one, was to come and with miracles gain the hearts and minds of all nations, but a select handful who would see through his lies. That his power would be such that no one not bearing his mark would be able to engage in commerce. But as great his hegemony as might be, it is not meant to be lasting.

Mr. Greer. Having read your "Apocalypse NOT" I cannot help but repeat: as far as prophesies go, this sounds like a solid hit to me. :)

Joseph Nemeth said...

Lovely post! Thank you!

Long ago, in graduate school, I noted that quantum theory could only have come into existence in a post-Nietschean world where God was long-dead. Indeed, that was the meaning at the heart of Einstein's famous quote, "God does not play dice with the universe."

It isn't the mathematics of it. Quantum theory has classical underpinnings. The Schroedinger Equation, for example, is just the usual equation for harmonic motion, a "wave equation," but with the time variable being treated as an imaginary number. The classicists had done this sort of thing long ago with electromagnetism, in their formulation (still taught) of the "advanced" and "retarded" potential fields, and I believe it's implicit in Maxwell's original quaternion-based formulation of his famous "Maxwell's equations," quaternions being related to complex numbers, which are in turn related to "imaginary" numbers.

What changed in the early 1900's was the philosophy behind the mathematics. This revolved around the "hidden variable" conjecture. Classical theory posited that quantum processes had internal deterministic structure that was, in principle, knowable: these were "hidden variables" that governed the interactions of subatomic particles. The problem was the Heisenberg Principle, which said generally that you could never observe any of these hidden variables because all of the "stuff" you might use to observe it (like light) was so big and clumsy that by observing any hidden variables, you altered them. By analogy, it would be like trying to practice observational naturalism when every glance from your eyes would vaporize anything you looked at. How could you purport to be describing a bunny rabbit when, by observing it, it ceased to exist? Or became a deer, or a sequoia?

It was a crisis for physics. The solution eventually adopted was to draw a curtain across the whole subject. Philosophically, since hidden variables could not be observed, then they did not exist in any meaningful way.

Can you hear the echo, here, of the death of God? Since God cannot be observed, God does not exist in any meaningful way. Since hidden variables cannot be observed, they do not exist in any meaningful way.

As a result, all of the hidden variables were lumped together as unknowable and unmeasurable, and quantum events became non-deterministic, describable only in aggregate as statistical probabilities based upon underlying processes which were treated as completely random. The deterministic "wave function" -- the original Schoedinger wave equation -- became the "probability bracket" of Heisenberg. Quantum theory has never looked back.

Einstein resisted this philosophical idea. Hence his quote.

There are many reasons that it is difficult to unite gravity with quantum theory, but one of those is this deep philosophical divide between classical physics, which is something rooted in the European Christian tradition, and quantum physics, which is part of this stumbling new philosophical base you've aptly labeled the Religion of Progress. The idea of simply excising unwanted parts of reality, like gods or hidden variables, is a big part of the idea of Progress.

It cuts across a wide range of disciplines, too. Look at the radical change in the classical musical tradition around 1900, for instance. It isn't so much a transformation as a total break with tradition, where the "classical wisdom" of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms was simply fed into the fire, to be replaced by "modernism" which -- I might note -- almost immediately stagnated. Musicians still use the word "contemporary" or "modern" to describe musical styles nearly a century old.

Ned Mills said...


Are you familiar with the works of David Foster Wallace? I see similarity between your and his work, but where you are concerned with the myth of progress, he dealt with the rise of TV culture and its effects on our ideas of meaning and self. This is another the two largest popular religions of our time. For an introduction to his thought on TV, I recommend his essay E unibus pluram,

Here's a rather long quote from his This is Water that is relevant to today's post:

"Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.
They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation."

SMJ said...

Hello JMG

Do you think the rise of present-day atheism is a result of the religion of progress?

Also, will you be covering religions / philosophy from Asia (Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism etc) in your discourse?

SLClaire said...

I pointed out late in last week's comments that scientists and engineers, as the purveyors of progress, could be thought of as the religious figures of our time. I was thinking of popular representations of scientists in their religious temples (labs), dressed in religious garb (lab coats) manipulating religious implements (lab equipment)in religious rituals (experiments). The results of those religious rituals, translated from arcane religious symbols (mathematics) by other religious figures (engineers) become objects of religious devotion (cell phones, computers, and all the other material goods of progress). Maybe that's why I became a scientist, as a way to participate in a religious enterprise blessed by society, a way to make life worthwhile for myself and others. I was captivated by Marie Curie's story, enough to become a chemist like her. However, I was at best barely competent at it, so I left the profession when that became obvious enough to me that I could no longer ignore it.

It was almost 20 years ago that I started to give up on goods, to live a simpler life of LESS. It may not surprise you to hear that one aspect of that has been a religious exploration on my part. I think both of the religious practices I'm engaging with have been a way to anchor my life in a broader pattern, to live with the grief of decline and still enjoy life as deeply as possible.

Jon said...

Mr. Greer,

I am a software engineer and grew up watching rocket launches from my front yard, adjacent to Kennedy Space Center. My father bought me my first computer in 1979 as a teenager. I've seen progress, and I can see how much it has slowed down from those heady days.

But I am an optimist. When I ended my tithing to the God Progress, I found a much more interesting world. I suspect others will too.

If you haven't had an opportunity to do so, google Robert J. Gordon. He's written a fascinating paper on the end of progress from an economist's point of view.

By the way, thank you for the time and thought you put into your weekly blog. You are making a difference in a lot of people's lives.

Playful Librarian said...

This week's discussion of Nietzsche is an interesting follow-up to last week's observation that defenders of conventional wisdom tend to present themselves as Ubermenschen whose innovative thoughts rise above the herd.

DaShui said...


While reading your post I could not help but remember that 2nd to the bible, "Pilgrim's Progress" was the most popular book in the Protestant world. Even the deist egomainiac Ben Franklin said it was his favorite book.

And don't u think if Nietzsche's parents would had called him "Freddy" he would not have been so dour?

sgage said...

@ Yourmindfire said...

"This seems an appropriate place to recommend Béla Tarr's recent film A torinói ló aka The Turin Horse, in which he considers the moment of Nietzsche's breakdown and proceeds to answer the question "what happened to the horse?"

Of course. And I am wondering why weeping at the side of a broken horse that has just been beaten to the ground by a person whose best descriptor would never make it past JMG's profanity filter is somehow an indication of insanity...

Juhana said...

@Tom: You are absolutely right. As reformist doctrines are practically rotting corpses at least here in Europe, Catholic Churches of East and West are doing just fine. Difference is actually so great, that many Western Europeans seem to just turn blind eye for this fact, even if they witness it firsthand. Even sour pessimists like me tend to stay in the flock, even after having serious doubts. And I mean really, really serious doubts.

@Nestorian: Do you mean Nestorius of Antioch, who got into quarrels with Emperor's sister Pulcheria in Constantinople, and was opposed by monastic orthodoxy led by Dalmatius? Bishop's old teacher Theodore advised him to moderate his zeal during his trip to sacrum cubiculum of Constantinople. Nestorius was more like victim of political fight than truly heretical, if I remember it right from what was taught to me long time ago. Main quarrel was over Virgin's epiteth, I guess. Eastern monasticism has my respects, got to say...

Kathleen Reynolds said...

Looking forward to this series of posts!

Somewhat off-topic, but I came across a song that made me think of your posts:

It's a tribute to the best of the era of space--and more openly pro-progress than most.

But with a slight modification, the chorus could become a green wizard's anthem.

"I am
willing to sacrifice
Something I don’t have
something I won’t have
But somebody will

If it were "something I do have", it would be a question I'd have to face.

Bill said...

Hum. As a Lutheran who is on his way to becoming an atheist and who has been reading Nietchze of late, your essay this week resonates with me a great deal.

I understand something of what Nietchze expressed in the passage that you've reprinted. There is this sense of the loss of something warm and familiar and this sense of falling in any direction. But mostly there is this question: Now that you/I've have killed God, what do you do next?

For me the response is to survey the wreakage and see what is left -- family, community, my work, this wonderful Earth, and my response is to see what has been gained, which is some engagement with truth.

What is next? Certainly not falling down at the feet of the progress god (perhaps Apollo?), or at the feet of the gods of decadence (perhaps Dionysus?), as tempting as those options may be. For me the next step is the work of transfering some positive legacy, however small it may be, to my family, my community, and my environment, all in the face of these inconvenient truths of resource depletion and environmental pollution. That should keep me busy for a while.

Yupped said...

Well, having read the first batch of excellent comments it certainly seems true that bringing religion into the room stimulates a good level of conversation. This should be fun, but I suspect your comment-reply workload will be increasing in the next few weeks.

Personally, I've found that the more I get religious and other ideological concepts out of my headspace, the calmer and happier I am. I try to keep room for a few principles, but avoid getting too thinky about them. Being more, conceptualizing less; that's working for me at least. That doesn't sound too good, reading it back, but it seems to work. It certainly makes for less disappointment when life goes where it will.

Wayne A. Shingler said...

I'm eager to see where you take this. Just as Christians often have trouble disentangling the existence of morality from the existence of God, I find it difficult to untangle the relationship between a belief in progress and hope for a better future. That is to say, I understand the myth of progress, and that there's no rational reason to believe that future generations will be any more advanced than we are, but when I see people struggling through present troubles, and they cheer themselves with the thought that things will eventually get better, I see the value of this "positive thinking," but at the same time wonder if it's just a misguided habit resulting from the worship of Progress. Why should we believe things will ever get any better?

kleymo said...

I think this about sums it up as far as how the world is going to go:

Peter Conklin said...

What a delightful place to begin a discussion of religion! I thoroughly admire your courage, you Druids are truly made of oak!

The Joyful Science precedes Nietzsche’s self-proclaimed and impenetrable masterpiece Thus Spoke Zarathustra where the theme of the death of the Christian God is expanded to the limits of our human moral horizons. In so doing, Nietzsche claims to reveal the catastrophe of modernity: that empirical science has undermined the foundations of human thought, moral or otherwise, through the revelation that the universe is meaningless. This catastrophe he names nihilism and hopes it is only a “transitional pathological condition” of the antithesis of the rational and irrational. Nihilism becomes the titanic antagonist of his thought and in its terrible grip can be found reason enough for the collapse of his living mind. The loss of the Christian God is a welcome holiday in comparison to this abyss. So I look forward to a consideration of this critical aspect of Nietzsche’s thought in future posts. It is the philosophical analog to something on the magnitude of a Venus syndrome ecocide.

On a hopeful note, Nietzsche cannot claim first right of discovery of this condition, nor is the self-destructive and futile war he wages with nihilism the only possible response. In both Eastern and Western philosophy there are examples of thinkers who saw what Nietzsche saw but were able to keep their mental sphincters tight. But they cannot be understood as religious.

If your treatment of religion is anything like your treatment of magic I am absolutely looking forward to the ride. Many thanks for the good work you do, and good luck!


Thijs Goverde said...

Aaaah, thank you so much for mentioning the pivotal role of Kant! One of my all-time philosophical favourites(I don't really regard Nietzsche as a philosopher, actually - I think his merits, such as they are, are mainly literary).

Also, funny you should mention Voltaire. I myself am a very deeply irreligious person - I find I need God in much the same way a fish needs of shoes. My thoufghts on progress are best summarised by Vonnegut's sublime line 'History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again.'

So whenever anyone starts talking about the meaning and value of life I just shrug like Voltaire's Candide: 'That's as may be, but what we really need to do is tend our own gardens.'

Heh. Reading my own comment, I am once again struck by the fact that my answers to the great questions tend to come from novels.
Art, and a bit of philosophy, can give you all the meaning and value you need, I guess - but I'm not at all sure that road can be traversed by the mass of mankind.

All the more reason to keep my head down. And work in my own garden

Sulok Kolinahru said...

I’m happy that Jon mentioned memes, because that’s the model I like best for religions: collections of viral ideas and behaviors (“memeplexes”) that take on a life of their own in human minds, growing and propagating in competition with rival memeplexes. I see John Michael Greer as an advanced memetic engineer (though he might prefer terms like “thaumaturgy”, “thoughtforms”, “demons” and “egregores”), creator of impressive memes like "the Long Descent" which structure the thinking of many in the Peak Oil memosphere.

Nietzsche and Marx were two of the most powerful memetic engineers of the past two centuries, creating potent memes like “God is dead”, “the Superman”, “will to power” and “dictatorship of the proletariat” which would infect large numbers of minds and lead to world wars. The process of rebranding Christian values as the “religion of progress” (great meme by the way, any idea who coined it?) could be thought of as a clever adaptation of Christian memes to an ecosystem which had become dominated by the Enlightenment memeplex.

Today the “Peak Oil” and other “doomer” memes are in direct competition with the “religion of progress” memeplex and seem to be doing fairly well. I wonder if doomer memes could become the foundation of a new religion of their own? Regarding post-Christian, postmodern European nihilism and despair, those memes are probably heading for extinction, because they don’t seem to be propagating themselves as successfully as the more “optimistic” and fecund religious memeplexes.

I would be interested in hearing JMG’s thoughts about this memetic perspective, which, though modern, combines some old occult concepts with Darwinism in a way that I find illuminating.

MidMichMatriarch said...

@Juhana - I don't believe we've left the patriarchal society model behind to gain greater material prosperity. We left it behind because we believe it is wrong to lump women up because you don't like the consistency of your gruel.

Nano said...

Wonderful post and quite an opening to chapel perilious.

The post also made me recall this quote from the late Dr. Leary

""Think for yourself, question authority.
Throughout human history, as our species has faced the frightening, terrorizing fact that we do not know who we are, or where we are going in this ocean of chaos, it has been the authorities — the political, the religious, the educational authorities — who attempted to comfort us by giving us order, rules, regulations, informing — forming in our minds — their view of reality. To think for yourself you must question authority and learn how to put yourself in a state of vulnerable open-mindedness, chaotic, confused vulnerability to inform yourself.
Think for yourself, question authority."
Timothy Leary

John Michael Greer said...

Hmm! I was wondering whether this week's post would get no response at all, or a big one. Now that that's settled...

Leo, no argument there. One of the questions that's been central to this blog since the beginning is how to salvage the best achievements of the last three centuries as the material basis for our civilization drops out from under us.

Joel, the situation is considerably more complex than that, in that 18th century Christianity was already dying of self-inflicted wounds; going back to that would simply reopen them, and land us back again in Nietzsche's predicament. More on the alternatives as we proceed!

Richard L., if you've got a Lutheran upbringing you're probably better prepared to appreciate Nietzsche's work than most of us!

News, of course secular humanism is a religion. It's one of the denominations of the religion of progress -- one of the evangelical fundamentalist denominations, to be precise.

Richard C., nice! Given that Marlowe himself was a member of one of those early and secretive atheist circles I mentioned, and grappled with some of the same challenges that drove Nietzsche to the brink (and over it), there's much to be said for such an analysis.

Flute, nah, Progress is the Father, Science is the Son, and Growth is the Holy Ghost dispensing far-from-spiritual blessings to the faithful. We'll get to that in a bit.

Anywhere, your comments are an example of what Blake called "single vision" -- the flattening out of a complex reality into a one-dimensional analysis. All religions, and indeed all human institutions of every kind, end up playing a part in the maintenance of social order, but that's only one part of the whole, and treating it as the whole leads to a distorted and unhelpful understanding.

Thomas, yes, it's a tangent, but a worthwhile one. Have you read Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind? He does a good job of pointing out the fallacies in current AI research, and especially its blindness to the essential role of meaning and value in intelligence.

Andrew, thanks for the links!

Ondra, thanks for the data. That makes perfect sense -- and I'm sorry to say that the situation is likely to get far worse as we proceed.

Beetleswamp, I can always be contacted privately by sending an email to info (at) aoda (dot) org -- the volunteers who staff that are used to forwarding things to me.

John Michael Greer said...

TomK, why are you so certain you know what the future of religion is going to contain?

CGP, excellent! Yes, that's a crucial element of the mythology of progress; just as the shiny Star Trek future is its heaven, the dark irrational past is its hell.

B-man, we're heading into that wilderness. Good choice of metaphor, btw.

Ando, thanks for the quote!

James, good. I've never owned a car, either, and it's precisely because I've been watching this coming since the late 1970s.

Juhana, that's one approach; I'm far from sure it's the only one, or even the best available option in every context just now. More on this as we proceed.

Jon, why would you expect us to learn? If some unverifiable presupposition is necessary to found a workable society, and having a workable society is better than not having one, the question is simply one of finding a new basis for blind belief that as many people as possible can embrace. Mind you, I don't think the situation can be summed up so easily -- but we'll get to that as we proceed.

JacGolf, stay tuned. We'll get to that.

Yourmindfire, fascinating! I hadn't heard of that.

Twilight, thank you. Fasten your seat belt; it's going to be a bit of a wild ride.

Wiseman, exactly! I've sometimes tried to talk about that by drawing a distinction between science and scientism -- between, that is, the scientific method, which is one of the great creations of the human mind, and the currently accepted set of opinions and beliefs that are upheld by the institutions our culture assigns to practice the scientific method, which have gradually slipped back into mythology and blind faith. More on this also as we proceed.

Joel said...

The deity Change seemed like an odd choice for the cornerstone of a fictional new religion in Octavia Butler's best-known series of books, but by the end of your article, it made perfect sense: it makes claims of the omnipotence of an entity like Progress much more believable, by removing any constraints regarding benevolence.

John Michael Greer said...

Nestorian, I'd wondered about your handle! I don't know that I'd accept the label "postmodernist" for my own stance without blinking -- the great failing of the postmodernist movement, as its chosen name suggests, is its failure to pass from criticism to creation, and be for something rather than simply after and against various things. More on this as we proceed.

Angela, my sympathies. I'm not looking forward to reading it, once the local library gets a copy.

Phil, fascinating. If I understand correctly, active involvement in the Church of England has plunged in recent decades; your story, to my mind, helps explain why.

Raven, perhaps you can explain to me what relevance that remark has to the subject of this post. I'm genuinely curious.

Ryan, glad to hear it.

Andy, that's a crucial point, and shows the narrowing of the definition of progress that's been such a powerful force in recent cultural history. I'll be addressing the point as we proceed.

Unknown, exactly. That was Nietzsche's question: given a cosmos without meaning or value, and a human psyche that requires both, how do we respond?

Villager, true enough, so long as you're only talking about people in those societies that believe in progress. More, much more, on this as we proceed.

Toomas, er, I think you're greatly overstating the degree to which socially mandatory religious practice in 19th century Europe could be equated with actual faith. For that matter, though I don't have any exposure to Canadian Catholicism, I've encountered a remarkable number of American Catholics whose actual beliefs are indistinguishable from those of their vaguely Protestant neighbors, but who go to mass on Sundays (or Saturday afternoons, which is when the Catholic church up the hill from my house has its services) instead of heading across the street to the Baptists because St. Mary's is where they've always gone. We'll be discussing this more later on.

Esther, hmm! It would take a good deal more space than I can really spare just now to respond to you in detail. Of course you're correct that Nietzsche has all the usual failings of a virtuoso, but the specific criticism you aim at him -- failing to recognize that suffering and abnegation are forms of the will to power -- won't stand; you might want to reread his discussion of asceticism in The Genealogy of Morals, where he covers that point at some length. More broadly, borrowing a symbolic structure from an outside source (such as the Shiva-Shakti polarity) and applying it to a thinker who's working within a very different symbolism is not always a route to clear understanding; that's the risk a Traditionalist approach always runs, especially in grappling with so radically untraditional a thinker as Nietzsche.

John Michael Greer said...

Jeff, I can think of no discipline more necessary in our age of compulsive noise than hours spent in perfect silence. For me, it's not a burden but a delight -- but then I'm weird. ;-)

Ganv, an interesting point! I'll be arguing that the religion of progress is an intolerant monotheism, but I'll be interested to see your arguments to the contrary.

Derek, thank you. One note, though -- did you know that you tried to put through the same short comment eleven times? Please don't do that in the future; all posts here are moderated, so they'll get put up when I have the chance to review them and post them.

Ronald, and of course that's a crucial question. Buddhism and African Diaspora religions such as Vodun and Santeria are both rapidly gaining converts in the US, and may well become dominant forces in the religious landscape down the road. We'll be talking about that as we proceed.

Mister Roboto, a fascinating point.

Michelle, thank you. It may be a bit more than a week before we get all this wrapped up, by the way...

D^2, quite the contrary, I expect to see the Christian fundamentalist movement implode over the next few years, for reasons I'll discuss later on.

Jess, thanks for the soundtrack!

Jeff, it wouldn't surprise me at all to see it remain a major presence in Africa, say. Still, I'd encourage you to think back two thousand years or so, to all the people who were perfectly sure that the worship of Zeus would endure despite it all.

Steven, good. Now you know why so many people cling so frantically to the insistence that "they'll think of something..."

Brian, that's one of the reasons I won't use Chrome.

Brother K., the rapid urbanization of the Muslim world is creating explosive religious strains -- as well as less metaphysical ones! It'll be interesting, in much the sense of the apocryphal Chinese curse, to see how that plays out.

John Michael Greer said...

Onething, good. It's exactly the conflation of moral with technological progress that gave the myth its power, just as it's the collapse of that faith that's turning the worship of progress into an increasingly demonic cult. I'll be discussing this in detail further on.

Ian, well, I'm going to have to bring in Nietzsche's sexuality here before long, so wanted to avoid the obvious pun. Still, glad you're enjoying the discussion!

Escape, good. Very good. We'll be discussing the rise and fall of the soi-disant Enlightenment in some detail as we go.

Blue Sun, as I see it, it's the conflation between several different senses of progress that helped drive the emergence of the religion of progress, just as it's the unraveling of that conflation that plays a major role in that religion's increasing troubles. As for the monotheism of progress, that's going to take a post of its own, or much of one.

Rick, exactly! You get today's gold star.

Raymond, the Church of the Sub-Genius used to insist that one of the signs that their peculiar version of the End Times was imminent would be a Plague of False Jesii -- "Jesii," you understand, being their distinctly Texan plural of "Jesus." There are any number of ersatz Christs lurching about the cultural landscape these days, so I'm by no means sure the Sub-Geniuses were clueless.

Joseph, I've heard it claimed that mathematical analysis of the decay of radioactive materials suggests that in that case, at least, there are no hidden variables -- that the moment when a given atom pups a beta particle, let's say, can be shown to be a function of pure uncaused chance. I'd be interested to hear your take on this. As for music, oddly enough, we'll be discussing that in some detail, as it bears directly on the core themes of this series of posts.

Ned, no, I wasn't, and thank you for the reference! This feeds in nicely to a theme I have in mind for an upcoming post, the theme of idolatry and its discontents.

SMJ, atheism in its modern form is basically inseparable from the cult of progress -- it's the equivalent, among believers in progress, of the commandment "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." As for the religions of the rest of the world, I'll be discussing them to some extent, but my usual caveat applies: I can't claim to speak for anybody but me, out of anything but my own necessarily parochial experience.

SLClaire, it doesn't surprise me at all. I hear from a fair number of people these days who are being drawn to religious exploration of one kind or another.

Jon, thank you! I'll certainly look up the paper; thanks for the tip.

LynnHarding said...

I always look forward to Thursday mornings to see what you have to say. In your early posts, years ago, you spent quite a bit of time on historians who claimed to find a direction to history. Christianity also holds that history has a direction. Replacing the story of a Christian God leading mankind towards the kingdom of heaven with the story of infinite material progress is not such a big leap.
Both belief systems lead to destruction of the earth because the "here and now" is never good enough. I think the corruption of the catholic clergy and wealth that flowed into Europe from new world discoveries allowed Europeans to slide comfortably between belief systems.
I have recently been persuaded that climate change is coming a lot faster than I had imagined it would. There are no new continents to exploit and the pie is shrinking. That western societies are going into reverse - economically and physically - is becoming obvious and it is going to be pretty hard to reconcile with progress whether man made or divinely ordained.
It's hard to say what angry, scared people are going believe next. Will you tell us?

Iuval Clejan said...

That's funny synchronicity. I just blogged about the religion of Progress myself:

John Michael Greer said...

Librarian, it does indeed -- not least because Nietzsche's concept of the Overman has precisely nothing in common with the sort of posturing I parodied last week. More on this as we proceed.

DaShui, good. Have you read Bunyan? There's a reason it was so popular. As for "Freddy," I'm sure he went by "Fritz" or even "Fritzchen" as a boy, and he was anything but dour.

Sgage, that wasn't what made them decide that he was insane. After he was hauled off the horse by the police, he proceeded to write some stunningly crazy letters to all and sundry, and then lapsed bit by bit into a catatonic stupor that ended only with his death. More on this, again, as we proceed.

Kathleen, good. It's one of the common pathologies of our time that so many people are ready to sacrifice what other people have, but never what they themselves have.

Bill, that's certainly one response. "Before God dies, chop wood, draw water; after God dies, chop wood, draw water."

Yupped, and that's also one response!

Wayne of the many aliases, good. You've touched on the core emotional appeal of the myth of progress -- and the reason why its collapse will be so traumatic for so many people.

Kleymo, funny.

Peter, excellent. You've caught something that most western intellectuals have been doing their level best to miss for the last century or so: ours is hardly the first civilization to run into this specific crisis. More on this as we proceed...

John Michael Greer said...

Thijs, it's precisely because Nietzsche was so brilliant a writer -- I wish he'd taken the time to write novels; they'd have been stunning -- that his questions and tentative answers have so much to offer philosophically. He wasn't obsessed with creating an airtight system -- the black hole that swallowed so many of the best intellects of his time.

Sulok, have you read my book Apocalypse Not? It uses meme theory as a central theme, in making sense of the history of end of the world predictions.

Nano, classic Leary, with all his strengths and weaknesses right out there in the open. I may just refer to this in detail down the road a bit.

Joel, she may have gotten it from ancient history. Tyche, "Luck," was a much-worshipped goddess in classical times.

Lynn, I'll have some suggestions for where to look, but you ought to know by now that it's hardly my place to tell people anything in any authoritative manner!

Iuval, thanks for the link -- I'll check it out.

dowsergirl said...

Hey, it's Easter...and certainly all religions have some sort of ressurection story? The Phoenix from the ashes?
So we would most likely believe that progress will somehow become something more beautiful in the end? The ugly duckling becomes the swan.
The gravediggers will always be there, but can they bury belief...

Yupped said...

One of the spiritual benefits of the death of the progress belief might be that it encourages us to appreciate more what we each have right here, right now, today. If we can get out of the habit of dreaming of a greater tomorrow, we could be more alive now. That's the theory. It's even possible it might become actual practice, after a worldwide nervous breakdown or three.

Odin's Raven said...

To clarify:
Somebody once told me that God made Man in his image, and Man has been returning the compliment ever since!

Progress is clearly a debased materialistic substitute religion. Human nature will still be around to project a substitute deity based on its own ego when Progress joins the other failed man made deities.

Another wise man said that the Devil is how bad people experience Divinity.

If the best spiritual experience or aspiration that the debased modern culture can create is so low, then it is likely that the replacement for its current religion will be even worse, a creation of the worst egos in control of the culture, inveigled and implemented on the mass mind through the usual means of fraud and force.

Georgi Marinov said...

A few things to point out.

1. If there is no God, there is no God, and what the consequences of that are irrelevant. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that a God exists

2. If the universe is meaningless and in turn our existence in it is meaningless, then that's just a sad fact of life and that's the way the world is.

3. A fully-informed atheistic view of human nature and the basic drivers of human behavior actually provides a very good foundation for a society that does not devolve into chaos, does not worship the god of progress and does not self-destroy ecologically, and by that I do not mean any of the "We're free to create whatever meaning to our lives we want" nonsense you see so often. The problem is that one can only reach that well-informed state of understanding of his own species after ingesting a lot of not very user-friendly scientific information and concepts. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people ave absolutely no incentive of investing that amount of effort, as there are much more immediately obvious ways of increasing one's inclusive fitness, and that creates a situation which I see no way out of. But substituting one superstition with another simply because it helps maintain order is not a solution.

Approliving said...

I think that all religions, from early tribal beliefs all the way up to the modern religion of progress, have one fundamental thing in common: they are all striving (in their own ways) for a better existence for people than the one we are alloted by the natural world.

Unlike all other religions before it however, the religion of progress is based on the idea that a better existence can be obtained by human effort in and upon the natural world: it empowers humanity to actively take charge of its own fate, rather than just exhorting people to give up on the world, rely on the mercies of unseen (and unverifiable?) spiritual forces, or wait for a better afterlife.

This is a very appealing prospect to any self-aware creature, and it is hard to imagine how any other religion which isn't based on the same fundamental prospect of human empowerment could adequately replace the religion of progress.

Moreover, the religion of progress is given added validity by the fact that it's mythology of the past *is* substantially true: who wants to go back to a tribal lifestyle of cyclical revenge-driven warfare, constant fear of starvation, constant paranoia about sorcery, and the very real prospect of ultimately dying as a result of a broken arm or leg?

I reckon the religion of progress will remain, but progress will be redefined in a way that isn't so materialistic. Imo it is not the god which is the problem, but how we assess holiness.

Helix said...

Reading The Genealogy of Morals was a turning point in my life. Especially as it was packaged together with The Birth Of Tragedy under the same cover.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG - My take would depend on the specific argument.

The idea of "randomness" is subtle. It means "non-repeatability," and since this is formally unprovable (you need an infinite number of data points to prove that it never repeats) resorts to the "spectral properties" of a finite series of random numbers. Basically, you want to see them spread out in a uniform smear that remains uniform as you add more and more numbers. If they tend to "clump" -- particularly if the spectrum forms a "comb" structure, which is (as the name suggests) a regular series of spikes like the tines of a hair comb -- then your numbers are demonstrably non-random. You can see this clearly in computer-generated pseudo-random numbers, which are typically based on linear algorithms which lead to non-random chains of numbers.

In certain non-linear systems, the situation changes. The so-called "sensitive dependence on initial conditions" of some non-linear systems can result in situations where you need arbitrarily high precision to predict the outcome: even though the equations themselves are fully deterministic, trying to predict the outcome is a practical impossibility. A simple example is water coming out of spray gun. Say you have microbe in the water. You can predict its path pretty easily until it enters the suction tube. It gets nasty at that point, but with enough computing power, you can follow it up the tube. Then you hit the nozzle, and all bets are off. If you were off by even a nanometer in your estimate of where that microbe was when it hit the high-pressure vortex right at the nozzle, it could come out of the nozzle in a completely different direction than you predict.

Yet all the equations are completely deterministic. So is the particle direction random, or not? It isn't physics: it's a philosophical question.

I watched a fellow giving a talk on this subject back in the early 1980's get verbally eviscerated by one of the grand old men of statistical mechanics. The old man didn't actually refute him: he asked things like whether the speaker even had a degree in physics, and from which disreputable institution he had purchased it. Not the usual Tuesday afternoon sleep-fest. It was unpleasant to watch. It seemed clear to me that it was a theological dispute, and a High Heresy had been spoken.

This was thirty years ago. I don't know where the question stands today, but I would guess in pretty much the same place.

What nature is being claimed for the hidden variables? If the claimed behaviors are classically linear, then the randomness of radioactive decay probably disconfirms that claim. But if the claimed behaviors are non-linear, I'm not sure that the apparent randomness means anything at all.

I don't personally have an opinion whether there are any hidden variables in subatomic physics. My point was that the idea of drawing a curtain behind which lie the Dragons of Eris was an idea would have been anathema to Enlightenment physicists. It would have been an idea more acceptable, I think, to the Medieval mind, but there it would not have been "randomness," but "mystery" claimed -- an inscrutable teleological determinism, the Mind of God.

Did that answer your question?

Doctor Westchester said...


Once I started reading about the religion of Progress in your blog, the thought that the God of Progress was born from the rape of the goddess of Science and Technology by Mammon, the God of Money immediately sprang to mind. Perhaps the metaphor was not accurate in the beginning of our age of progress, but it sure feels that way today.

derekthered said...

sorry about the repeat, i thought i was messing up the captcha code. at least the machine was telling me that.
it's tough for those of us who remember mimeograph machines.
i really enjoy your writing.

Joel Caris said...


I had a sneaking suspicion that it was a bit more complicated than I was making it out to be. Good enough--I can't say a return to 18th-century Christianity sounded particularly lovely to me.

Interesting to see you mention you expect the Christian fundamentalist movement to implode soon. I wonder if this will relate to your discussion of it as a form of deviance in Not the Future We Ordered? (Which was a fascinating claim, I might add. And I might further add that the entire book was fantastic, and I heartily recommend it to everyone here--it covers a lot of helpful ground you haven't covered here on the blog.) Anyway, if Christian fundamentalism is a form of deviance set against the religion of progress, then the failure of progress, it would seem to me, could strip Christian fundamentalism of its energy as it no longer has something to deviate against. And if it's been founded merely as against something, then it has no basis for existence once that something it's against ceases to be a dominant paradigm within society.

Or maybe you're going somewhere else! Idle and fun speculation for a Thursday evening.

Fascinating to read the comments. I'm not only thankful to you for this blog, JMG, but to the many ridiculously smart commenters who add so much to the discussion. Thanks, everyone!

John Michael Greer said...

Dowsergirl, nah, some religions have resurrection stories and some don't. The great good news of Buddhism is that the Buddha doesn't come back to this world. Of course people will believe in something, but will they keep clinging to the myth of progress? My guess is no.

Yupped, excellent! Yes, faith in progress is a collective form of what psychologists call "provisional living" -- the sort of thinking that puts off having a life until after something else happens -- and is subject to the usual drawbacks of that habit.

Raven, okay, that makes a little more sense. Still, you're jumping to conclusions so hard I'm surprised you don't leave boot marks on them when you land.

Georgi, to my mind your first two claims are stunningly simplistic, and your last one is completely unproven. You're entitled to your opinions, of course.

Approliving, what you've said here is a fine example of how the myth of progress redefines all other cultures and all other eras to fill roles in its own mythic drama.

Helix, that would be a pretty fair one-two punch!

Joseph, not quite, but it's very useful as perspective. I'll see if I can scare up the specific reference.

Doctor W., good! I suspect the relationship seemed happy at first, but Mammon has become a brutally abusive spouse over time.

Derek, not a problem -- I also remember mimeographs, and for that matter hektographs.

Joel, nah, it's a simpler thing. Popular religious movements in the US, when they hit the big time, normally stay there for 30 to 40 years and then implode. American Christianity in particular has about a 70-year pendulum cycle between liberal and conservative forms -- from the Civil War to 1900, for example, liberal churches and the social gospel were in the ascendant; from 1900 to the Depression, the first version of fundamentalism was big; from the Depression to the 1970s, the liberal churches were the influential ones again, and then fundamentalism was resurgent. I expect to see the fundamentalist churches dragged down by scandals and a general disgust at the way they've allowed themselves to be used as a stalking horse for politics, and 30-40 years in which liberal churches return to their relative predominance, before they collapse in their turn.

The same cycle also affects other religious movements; there's every reason, for example, to think that the Neopagan scene and the New Age movement are both facing steep declines in the near future, while other religious movements are preparing to occupy leading roles in alternative culture.

Georgi Marinov said...

JMG said:

Georgi, to my mind your first two claims are stunningly simplistic, and your last one is completely unproven. You're entitled to your opinions, of course.

I can elaborate but it would be quite long and I doubt it will be appreciated given your history of shutting down opinions that differ from yours, so I prefer to save myself the time and effort

Regarding simplicity, all I have to say is that Nature is very complicated but the laws that drive are not, so I don't see the criticism that something is "simplistic" as always being a valid one. To begin with, it's a logical fallacy as it does not really address the statement at all.

shadowheart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric said...

Interesting post this week.

I once hiked from DC to Cumberland in the winter and went to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Cumberland and had one of the most moving Sunday's of my life there. But, I digress.

I just spent the weekend in Boston checking out all the Unitarian Universalist history. It was really interesting to visit Emerson's Grave. Did you know he has a giant piece of quartz in the middle of the family plot? Those Transcendentalists!

Anyway, your post puts Emerson (and Thoreau, Hawthorne, Alcott and the rest of the Unitarians and Transcendentalists) into a different perspective for me. All you have to do is find Emerson's Commencement address to Harvard Divinity School in 1829 and it spells out exactly what you are saying about the death of Christianity. Except he was a bit more up front about it.

As a UU, I find many times that there is a break between what we are supposed to believe and reality. What I mean is that even in this supposed "free thinking" religion, if you aren't a Democrat you are not excepted (and it doesn't matter if you are Green or Republican). They stubbornly cling to their progress just like everyone else. I have trouble reaching or even discussing these issues with them.

I must say though that the youth I work with there are great and well ahead of the adults. It seems to me that they see the writing on the wall.

Blindweb said...

"given a cosmos without meaning or value, and a human psyche that requires both, how do we respond?"

In recent Nassim Taleb (I'm glad to see he's moved away from speculating into straight philosophy) lectures he pointed out that most technology (technology in the broad historic sense) came from a heuristic approach. Most of the theory came after the technology was invented. He stresses a heuristic approach coming from his Western philosophy background. Coming from my Eastern philosophy background I ended up in a similar place... philosophy leads you to no answers and no systems, its only useful to see ingrained systems. Is it possible to live in a society following more of a Wu Wei principle? I'm not highly read in history. I know this idea can be tied into original sin. I know Taoism was balanced against Confucism, and I know JMG is a believer in various rituals.

Now that I've thought it through it seems society will naturally head towards heuristics and Wu Wei. There will be a whole lot more wood choppers and whole lot less beaurcrats; a lot less information flow and fine print.

Justin Wade said...


Its funny to me how Nietzsche's most well known quote, "God is dead", is often cited completely out of context by educated people without any awareness that his next line was essentially, "we are murderers for killing him."

Nietzsche's reductio ad absurdim game is credited for inspiring Nihilism, believe in nothing, & Nazi ideology, which functioned with a Godhead cult of personality figure wielding old testament God like powers of genocide. That he could be given credit for a deconstructive philosophy and a political movement that took construction to an extreme - elevating man to God-hood is evident of the schism he saw.

I've always been confounded by the requirement of an objective metaphysical bedrock for meaning. Lots of religious people say that the absence of God dissolves the foundation of morality and renders everything meaningless, there is simply no right, wrong or value judgments possible. The part I never seem to get are why arbitrary constructs cannot rest upon their own subjectivity even if I get the 'logical' part of the argument. Nothing matters, ok, but for the sake of argument, I'll still take my shoes off before walking into your house. Reductio ad absurdum is no way to live.

Joseph Nemeth said...


I'm starting to view this entire sweep of human history as merely successive adaptations to ever-increasing human population.

In the beginning were the scavengers. And it was good enough.

On the morning of the Second Day, Man learned to poke things with a stick, and both hunting and gathering were born. And it was very good, and the people grew fat and populous. But by the evening of the Second Day, the people had become so numerous they were beginning to trip over each other in the dark, and ate each others' breakfast and stripped the land bare of things to hunt and things to gather, and there was wailing and gnashing of teeth.

On the morning of the Third Day, Man invented the Fence, and Property, and Agriculture, and then villages and cities and governments. And it was very good, and the city-dwellers grew fat and more populous and very pleased with themselves. But by the evening of the Third Day, the cities had become so crowded that they could no longer feed themselves by farming the lands around themselves, so they turned to raiding each other for food, and there was wailing and gnashing of teeth.

On the morning of the Fourth Day, Man invented the Disciplined Army, and War. And it was very good, for the excess population could be sent off to cause trouble and die far away, and if they returned, they would bring with them much spoil and plunder. And so the armed cities became kingdoms and empires and thrived and grew fat and still more populous and wealthy and feared by all. But by the evening of the Fourth Day, the the wars proved exhausting to the land and the people, and the Ghost of Malthus rose to chide Man, and there was wailing and gnashing of teeth.

On the morning of the Fifth Day, Man invented Technology, and Science, and Progress. And it was very, very good, for this drove away the Ghost of Malthus and created an abundance of food, and much complexity, and the Oscar Awards. The people grew fat and enormously populous and wealthy and like unto gods in their own sight. But by the evening of the Fifth Day, the Earth itself had begun to die under the burden of Man. The Ghost of Malthus sat quietly by, watching: there was no longer any need to chide, nor much point. Some saw the signs and wailed and gnashed their teeth. The rest partied on down.

On the morning of the Sixth Day....

Well, that's what this blog is about. :-)

godozo said...

JMG: I would say that the Fundamentalist Implosion seems to be well underway, if news from the two Megachurches near me are any indication:

1: One church has been caught up in a sex scandal involving their lead pastor and a 16 year old girl, and their donations have been dropping rapidly over the past five years.
2: The other church has been found in such dire financial straits that a large portion of their properties are threatened by foreclosure (including their main property) – again, something that doesn't happen overnight, especially when the flock's giving 10% of their earnings to said church.

Wondering if you (or anyone else who reads this blog) has heard of any megachurches in your area suffering from scandals and inability to pay bills.

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

What I find interesting about this post is not the parallel to our own time, but the difference. In Nietschze's time belief in god was fading but the culture, norms, and institutions were all still thoroughly rooted. Progress was also well on the way as Christianity declined. Indeed, progress was already moving in on god's turf before before he died.

Today, however, the death of progress is going to bring down culture, norms, and institutions together (roughly in step with our declining fossil fuels) and there is no budding replacement to take up the mantel.

There was a relatively smooth transition last time, but unless I miss my guess, this time we are going to left mythless. Peak oil is going to pull the rug out from under our high standard of living and our cultural narrative at the same time. I'm sure that there are historical parallels, like the Maya, where the gods failed them at the same time the crops did.

I don't know much about the ancient Mayans but Orlov tells me that a lot of middle aged men suicided, drank themselves to death, or just gave up when the Soviet Union imploded. Other folks had a rough go of it, but middle aged men had built their identities around their careers in the soviet system. When the meaning went out of those careers they floundered badly. I think the US will have a worse go of it because our identities are also entwined with the consumer products that we won't have and the loss of breadwinner status (in a communist system middle aged men weren't bringing home the bacon). It's going to be a very tough slog.


team10tim said...

Hey hey Joseph,

The hidden variable hypothesis was refuted by Bell's inequality. Not dismissed as unknown or unknowable, but refuted as impossible. And physicists have never liked quantum. I had a physics teacher who told me that if Einstein’s theories had gone up for a vote the physicists would voted it down. The quantum world is all together alien to us. We can't see electrons, we don't move around near the speed of light, space time is very nearly flat in our day to day world.

It may very well be that our our classical world is an emergent property of 11 dimensional, not local, noncausal, quantum loop gravity house of mirrors based on bizarre maths we haven't conceived of yet. Regardless of our world views it is a foregone conclusion that whatever it is we aren't going to like it.


John Michael Greer said...

Georgi, as I said, you're welcome to your opinion. Please be aware, though, that nearly everything that I'll be talking about in the months to come will be of no interest to you.

Shadowheart, er, the fact that you don't see the meaning in formal theology doesn't make it meaningless, any more than the fact that you don't read a given language makes that language meaningless. One of the great blind spots in contemporary thinking, to my mind, is just this habit of assuming that one's personal preferences ought to be defined as objective properties of the things preferred -- or, in this case, not preferred.

Eric, I've had similar experiences with Unitarian Universalists -- all the more ironic, that, because one of the traditions that went into the Druid order I now head was a schism from the (pre-Unitarian) Universalist Church. I'm glad to hear that the youth are more openminded.

Blindweb, that's one way to look for a way out of Nietzsche's tangle.

Justin, Nietzsche even predicted that. "I know my fate," he wrote: "something monstrous will cling to the memory of my name." It's all the more ironic that the Nazis who hijacked his name were the apotheosis of everything he despised in German culture, from their fetishistic militarism right through to their wallowing in the esthetics of kitsch. As for the possibility of subjective value judgments as a valid basis for ethics, well, that's one of the many points we're going to explore.

Joseph, hmm. Perhaps something a little less linear?

Godozo, I've seen multiple repetitions of the same thing, so yes, I think it's well under way.

Tim, well, a smooth transition if you don't count two world wars and the collapse of European rule over the rest of the globe! I'll be tying that in as we proceed.

wiseman said...

Buddhism does have 'resurrection'. (The correct term is 'rebirth') the difference is that rebirth is usually considered a curse, the goal of life is 'moksha' where you don't come back to this mortal world. Buddha has attained 'moksha'.

Jataka tales are tales of the 'Buddha' in his previous lives.

Helix said...

@Georgi Marinov re "Unfortunately, there is no evidence that a God exists."

Really? Then how do you account for the world that you find yourself in? And by the way, I'm up on Russel's "first cause" argument. I understand his reasoning, but it rings hollow with me. And I'm also pretty certain that my own wiring is insufficient to understand what accounts for all this. I call it "God", but it's beyond my comprehension.

Regaring many of the comments I've seen about science in these posts -- in my view, many of these comments reflect a popular but misguided view. No true scientist believes that science is or ever can be all-inclusive. Science deals in phenomena that can be observed by any normal person with appopriate equipment and training, and in developing theories -- general principles -- which can explain disparate observations as particular cases.

The domain of science is limited in a number of ways:

1) There are limits to our ability to observe. Heisenberg's uncertaintly principle is a famous example. But note that this doesn't mean that we sweep everything behind this veil under the carpet as suggested by some posters. It just means that we can't see behind the veil directly, and so the kind of observations that are crucial to science are not available to us. At some point a new theory could come along that lifts the veil, but at the moment, it looks impenetrable.

2. Logic fails us beyond a certain point. Oddly enough, this fact was proven -- logically! -- by Kurt Godel in 1931. Needless to say, his findings stunned and humbled the math/science community. Given that science proceeds by drawing logical inferences from observed phenomena, it must also be impacted by these limitations of logical deduction. We might not know where the limitations lie, but we know they're there.

3) The more complex the system, the more difficult it is to observe it and reason about it. Systems such as a planet orbiting about a star are simple enough to reason about, at least as far as gross motions are concerned. We can calculate the orbits. Add another star or two and the situation rapidly gets out of hand. This too has been mathematically proven. Once we get to the level of, say, atmospheric dynamics, we have to restrict ourselves to closely proscribed aspects of the system in order to say much of anything definite. For the system as a whole, we're basicly into modelling -- an open-ended endeavor. And social dynamics... even making relevant observations proves challenging. There are certainly things that are true of such systems, but they don't readily lend themselves to the scientific method.

4) We are never confident that a given scientific theory is the last word on the subject. The theories underpinning classical physics are a prime example. Some stood the test of time for more than three centuries, but were found to be incomplete during the great scientific revolutions of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Others theories, such as those in biology, deal with systems that are so complex that it's hard to see an end to the observations that could support or refute them.

These are not limitations that are going to go away as science advances. We may push the envelope, but there will always be an infinitely large domain of knowledge that lies outside the sphere of science, either in its present state or permanently. Any scientist worth his/her salt knows and respects that.

If only the population at large respected that as well!

streamfortyseven said...

Speculating about the future of religion - secular or theistic is a hard thing, but I think it's a fair assumption that the 1965 World's Fair/Walt Disney World vision of The World of Tomorrow will be viewed at best as a quaint and poignant relic of What Could Have Been, when the cheap energy runs out and the real climatological consequences ensue.

Perhaps "A Canticle for Leibowitz" will be the best predictor of the future of Christianity - hopefully sans the nuclear war scenario; the Church was in existence for a long time before 1750, when the Industrial Revolution got its start. I can see the Church going back to its monastic roots pretty easily; monasteries were self-sufficient communities and centers of learning and preservation of culture. Monastic communities still exist in the US. I know of a working Benedictine monastery in Missouri ( and I think the future of the Catholic Church, if not the rest of Christianity, lies in places like these. It could be that Pope Francis is taking the first steps in this direction.

Atheism I think will share the same fate as secular humanism and Scientism and the worship of High Technology. In a society where the energetic basis for high tech and high-powered science does not exist any more, while the need to adapt to and explain our future circumstances will be of very great concern, I think people will be more interested in supernatural explanations - and willing to believe in a transcendant Force or Deity - rather than set their trust in what will be viewed as the basis for the troubles which humanity is forced to adapt to and suffer from. Perhaps some groups will exhibit Luddite tendencies, and become Iconoclasts with regards to the religion of Technological Progress. It's hard to tell what will happen, though.

Cherokee Organics said...


Yes, this makes sense. I've often felt that people adhere to the form of things rather than the substance. I've sometimes wondered whether this has arisen out of a desire and pressure for society’s participants to conform? The historical context is interesting.

For if we do not kill God, how else do we justify the continuing raping and pillaging of the environment? Don't really know where that came from, but it was at the back of my mind.

Hmmm, yes, objective moral standards have been converted into personal preferences. This perhaps is why they shout them ever more loudly as time goes on?

Unfortunately for me, a claim twice repeated (often at ever increasing volumes) does not increase in weight.

The language of moral exhortation and denunciation is quite strong in our legal system too and no one seems to notice. I often chuckle to myself when I see the side of a church plastered with something along the lines of "Thou shalt repent blah, blah, blah" and then it gives a bible reference. It isn't that great a leap to the legal system - "Thou shalt repent" and a legal precedent (or legislative) reference...

Sometimes, I also think that the push towards the cult of individualism and personality is an off shoot of the whole religion of progress?

Dunno, but it makes me wonder.

I went out last night (by train) to see the film "Promised Land" which is about fracking and small town USA. I really enjoyed the film, it was excellent. I received another 25mm (1 inch) of rain yesterday and am starting to breath a big sigh of relief that perhaps the summer is now over - the greens have even self-seeded and are growing again too!

Your essay was excellent.



Jon said...

Sulok Kolinahru said, regarding memes “…which would infect large numbers of minds and lead to world wars.” Interesting thought, but it is the opposite of what I was saying. Memes (or the lie we live by) are ways we account for things we already have done but for other reasons. In other words, they are the explanation for the inexplicable. We do things, and then we make up stories to explain them. Or to paraphrase: Christianity doesn’t oppress, torture and kill people. People oppress, torture and kill people and then invoke a self-righteous, indignant god for justification. (Please note that this is not unique to Christianity. Christianity just happens to be the tool of our day and culture. When gone, another will take its place.)

A subtle distinction, maybe, but I still assert that group behavior is instinctual. The memes, religions and complex philosophies are just paperwork.

By the way, if someone wants to site the many good things done in the name of Christ, the same logic applies. People behave altruistically for evolutionary reasons, then invoke a loving god as a reason for doing so. It’s the same dynamic.


Cherokee Organics said...


Marion Zimmer Bradley produced a fictional quote for Merlin: 'All gods are one god.'

This quote stuck in my mind from the first reading, much in the same way your future spell did.

They are both quite astute observations and also allow for dissensus.

However, they both are mildly unpalatable to an audience held in thrall to other ideas.

I am most likely out of my depth in this discussion, but the above quote seemed somehow appropriate to me and it is at least an interesting perspective with which to view people's comments on this subject.



Juhana said...

@MidMichMatriarch: You are attaching quite dualistic assumptions to patriarchal extended family. From those examples from real world I have seen, that model has caring fathers and mothers and well-behaving childrens at least as often as Western families. From where you have got this perception that patriarchal family is somekind torture punishment against whole female gender? If you would actually ASK from, let's say Pakistani women about it, their trust level towards their husbands would be probably higher than in USA. Things are not that simple: old ways to organize human society are not that dark and cruel as progressive feminists in universities would like them to be, and these new and shiny ways to organize society are not working as well as claimed by Western elites.

I admit that I suffer from kind of trauma after losing my trust towards current Western ways to organize things; that makes my comments little bit hyperbolic from now and then. Yet experiences that I had leading to this loss of faith are not unreal; they are not just personal preferences, but wider observations about what is working and what is not. I hope to gain myself little wider perspective again by communicating other people, like the ones in this blog. We will see if future brings some synthesis to me, after antithesis phase.

zedinhisbigflyinghead said...

Nietzsche was wrong wrong wrong.

God was never killed; just stuffed into a new costume and forced to "get out there and dance"

But there's nothing new in that. After all, that's how "he" got to be "god" in the first place.

I find it wryly amusing to wonder where TAFKNAP (AKA the artist formerly known as progress) will pop up next?

Perhaps a druid will somehow "resurrect" "him"? ;)

Cherokee Organics said...


You've got my brain working...

In your upcoming essays, are you going to cover how Progress became a religion where people are upfront and centre?

It kind of seems like the exact opposite of the monastical life where the objectives and life were far different?



Dan Craig said...


Speaking geographically, I think that you'll find "the answers" or the “replacement values” are likely to come from places in America where the old societal values were most recently challenged, that is, where the positive and productive values of the Sixties have truly flourished and not just the cosmetic superficialities.

It will be places where there is also money and a high level of education so that people have the luxury of not having to merely survive.
It won’t, in my opinion, be an urban area either. There are too many competing interests, ethnic divisions, physical space and financial constraints there.

Small towns, or suburbs of large cities are the most likely hotbeds of such change.

The areas that I am familiar with are on the west coast. In the Portland and Seattle and San Francisco Bay Area. The small town around the University of California at Davis is such a place. However, it’s an isolated bubble. A truck crash yesterday blocked the interstate all day and everything came to a stop in the town except the activities of pedestrians and bicyclists.

Marin County just north of San Francisco is the most likely in my opinion. Best fiscally managed and healthiest in California, home to permaculturalists and the implementation of many novel ideas at the municipal level.

If I ran my own high school, I’d make your weekly writings mandatory reading for history students. Thank you.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Juhana, you wrote: High priestesses of Progress indoctrinate into you what is good (female emancipation, affirmative action, more personal liberty, equality and all that stuff) and what is bad (like patriarchal family model, some 12 000 years old winner in Darwinian race of survival). What they do not tell you is WHY they good and bad. There is no value base behind all those tricky academic wordplays other than assumption this kind of progressive model should lead to greater material prosperity for all, if given enough time.

In the United States, the organized movement for women's emancipation and equality of the sexes goes back to the early Nineteenth Century, where it arose among women agitating for an end to slavery.

Nineteenth century feminists wrote very clearly about why equality of women and men is a good idea. They had to be clear because advancing their cause depended on persuading men to change the laws. Working state by state between the 1840s and 1920, women won the rights to address public audiences, get an education, control their property, get custody of their children after divorce, serve on juries, and finally to vote.

The United States was founded on the idea that all people are created equal and have a God-given right to decide for themselves where their happiness lies. We think that applies to our daughters as well as our sons.

As for your belief that patriarchal marriages are the most enduring, Jewish marriages are known for stability and I believe that is because they are based on a model of partnership rather than domination. This is a generalization of course. It's normal for Jewish women to choose their own husbands, earn money, manage the family finances, get an education, and their husbands had better not be drunkards or raise a hand to them.

My mother's line emigrated from the Ukraine around 1905 and so far has had four generations of stable egalitarian marriages in America. My late mother, who celebrated her fiftieth wedding anniversary before she died, was a Girl Scout leader, joined the National Organization for Women when she was in her fifties, and cared deeply about women's rights to a safe legal abortion.

pond said...

I would say that the Money Cult is the predominant religion today in the industrialized, oil-dependent world. It seems far stronger in actual influence than the Progress Cult. For example in the recent economic crisis, world governments have been far more active in helping the High Priests of Money rather than laying sacrifices on the altars of Progress.

Even in Nietsche's time, I imagine that in Europe anyway, the Race Cult was stronger than the Progress Cult. In America back then, the Race Cult was strong but I would say the Progress Cult was stronger.

DesertedPictures said...

So; How long before the theory of decline becomes it's own religion. Even if we follow you're perspective; that we will see the end of industrial civilization in the next hundered years; at some point we (or our decendents) will hit 'rock bottom'. But they will have no experience with things not getting worse every year. That must have it's own tremendous (and possibly disastrous) effects...

Alex SL said...

Always surprised how hard it appears to be for people of faith to accept that at least some of us can simply do without it. We don't need Christian religion, nor druidic faith, nor progress as a god, neither to know how to be decent people nor to give meaning to our lives nor to structure society. Really, no faith or god whatsoever will do fine, thanks.

It could be added that faith, any faith, can reasonably be considered counter-productive if what you are really interested in is figuring out what is factually correct and what is wrong, and getting that right is of course crucial to know what to do.

Finally, this:

It meant giving up the basis on which governments and institutions founded their claims to legitimacy, and thus leaving them no means to maintain social order or gain the obedience of the masses other than the raw threat of violence—a threat that would have to be made good ever more often, as time went on, to maintain its effectiveness.

Is this meant to imply that European societies before the 16th century did not maintain their social order predominantly through the threat of violence? That the people living through the collapse of the Roman Empire, the migration period, the high middle ages with all its peasant uprisings etc were much more happy and loyal subjects than we are today, because they believed in the truth of the Christian religion and we don't?

phil harris said...

Thanks for your reply among so many. JMG wrote
"Phil, fascinating. If I understand correctly, active involvement in the Church of England has plunged in recent decades; your story, to my mind, helps explain why." "
Well, yes, but I would not have said it was very recent. ‘Involvement’ was only nominal at most for 90% of us; a social genuflection. I actually get fonder these days of the Church of England (CoE) as I learn more - despite the old, partly true, canard: - "the Tory Party at prayer".

Some of it has been the said Rowan Williams and his meticulous personal truth-telling and scholarship. He is exceedingly well-informed. Sometimes I come across bits I did not know. For example, Archbishop William Temple intervened in 1942 wartime in a very important statement on monetary policy. To wit, when he pointed out that " ... namely money, or credit which does duty for money - has become in effect a [private] monopoly ..." The Bank of England was nationalized in 1946. Maybe we come round again to a crunch point and I hear noises occasionally from the CoE.

I also value CoE’s somewhat weary, if sometimes opportunist, 'broad-church' attempt to deal with 'entryism' on the part of 'Creationists' – the drive behind these literalists comes in no small part from USA. Cognitive dissonance on gays and women priests stymies institutional reforms (reform is not the same thing as 'Progress'), but they stagger on. End of Empire perhaps simplified the religious politics somewhat inside UK – African Anglicanism must go its own culturally dynamic way - and I hope something similar occurs across the entire religious-cultural landscape in the USA.


John Michael Greer said...

Wiseman, yes, and that was my point -- in Buddhist thought, we all get reborn, and the miracle of the Buddha is that he didn't; in Christianity, nobody comes back from death, and the miracle of Christ is that he did. It's a useful reminder of the radical difference between religious conceptions.

Stream, that's always one possibility. I wonder if a future monastic historian will pen accounts of the Technoclastic movement...

Cherokee, excellent! The connection between the death of God and the mugging of Gaia will be a theme in posts to come.

Jon, by the same logic, your theory that all ideologies are paperwork over the top of instinct is itself just another round of paperwork over the top of instinct, and your argument is therefore self-refuting.

Cherokee, Marion Zimmer Bradley stole that line from the California Pagan community, who stole it from Dion Fortune. I may take the time to challenge it down the road a bit.

Zed, nah, I come not to praise progress but to bury him.

Dan, having lived for many years in Seattle and Ashland, OR, I beg to disagree. My guess is that the American future is being invented right now in dilapidated Rust Belt towns by people whose incomes and privilege don't tie them to the status quo, and the future of the world more generally will come out of what's now the Third World. I'll talk more about that later.

Pond, nah, money is the sacrament of the Church of Progress, handed out like communion wafers as an earnest of secular salvation.

Deserted, I'll offer you a hint: what happened, in terms of religion, in other times when civilizations went through extended periods of decline?

Alex, yes, I mentioned that a fair number of my readers would object to Nietzsche's argument; you're one of them. As for the role of violence in maintaining social order in the Middle Ages, you might want to do some reading in the sociology of the period, because yes, the risk of insurgency and class warfare does seem to have been considerably less in periods when a widely accepted religious tradition upheld existing institutions.

Phil, I hope the C of E works something out; if it can extract itself from its current flounderings, the Anglican tradition might achieve much.

shadowheart said...

You misapprehend me. I was a Fundamentalist Baptist most of my adult life from the age of fourteen. I am now a Catholic in name only, as I've been drifting away from traditional Christianity towards the older, more earth-friendly---and less sin-obsessed---outlooks.
I've read the entire bible several times and much commentary on it. I had even started reading the Bible years before my conversion at fourteen. I've been a student of Christianity most of my life and have read the holy books of other faiths as well. Currently, I'm nearly finished reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1997 edition. So, it's not as though I speak from a void.
Just because a person doesn't buy into the tenets of a particlar belief system doesn't mean that person doesn't understand it. I disagree with the Judeo-Christian perspective and its Islamic offshoot because I understand it. Not from lack of understanding.
I didn't intend to disrespect all formal theology, because not all formal theologies are the same. Just several months ago I received The Book of Druidry from Ross Nichols that I had I ordered online because I want to learn more about Druidry---when I finish my other reading projects.
Religion and faith and spirituality have always intrigued me, I'm just not as easily bought as I used to be. I apply the same intellectual standards of critique for a world-view and religious belief as I would anything else---even more so, as the stakes are higher and the sacrifice greater.
But, one thing I will not entertain is any belief system that is hostile to nature. Such a system is false from the start and we're seeing the fallout all around us.
From the little that I know, Druidry isn't hostile to nature, otherwise I wouldn't have ordered the book.

Peace and understanding,

James M. Jensen II (badocelot/shiningwhiffle) said...

Not the start I expected, but then I should have expected that, shouldn't I? Ha.

I really hope you'll get to the issue of religious freedom. In the West it seems like we've based it on a condescending view of other religions.

Look at how we view indigenous peoples: should we preserve their cultures as relics or help "bring them into the twenty-first century?" The suggestion that they have a viable way of life is given lip service.

Look at how the religion of progress vehemently insists that it is not a religion. If it were, it would have to be marginalized, too.

Look how indignant people get (even people who are otherwise religious) when you suggest their views constitute a religion. It means you're dismissing their ideas.

I just wonder: How did it come to this?

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG -- Now, now, cut me some slack. I thought it was pretty good for 4096 characters.... ;-)

Zeno Izen said...

I think you make a good point when you say "Ultimately, it meant abandoning any claim of meaning, purpose, or value to humanity or the world, other than those that individual human beings might choose to impose on the inkblot patterns of a chaotic universe. "

The human mind insists that there be a pattern. The devotion to progress, and the folk axiom that "everything happens for a reason" is an expression of this need for a pattern.

God was never a platform for our sense of meaning, but an artifact of it. Take away god and we still have this sense of meaning, though we can't prove it in any logical valid way.

If future history challenges this sense of meaning, there will be dissonance in the collective cognition. Something will emerge to cure our anxiety.

Truth seekers, though, will carry on in spite of this. Good luck.

Fidelius said...


I don't know if you're familiar with the later works of Ivan Illich, especially "The Rivers North of the Future". Essentially he is saying that the myths and foundations of modern industrial society are a corruption of Christianity, and he gives a very detailed and interesting analysis of the subtleties of that corruption, far beyond the simple phrase "progress is the new god". He writes from the viewpoint of a theologian and scholar, which makes that book quite different from his "pamphlets" of the 70s (which you probably have read, as it seems they made quite an impact back then).

Also, I'm looking forward to further posts. :)

onething said...

On one hand, there are the various questions about whether a good society is possible; is there enough energy for the ecotechnic vision?

The root of all these problems it seems to me is in the end the problem of greed and selfishness. There is a choice for society, whether to promote the good of all, or whether to allow the greed of some to have no boundaries. It is a matter of vision, too. I have a vision, not in which it is impossible to be wealthy, but in which people in general hold to a desire to see humanity and specifically their own community do as well as possible, as a whole. This could involve someone with extra money building a public park rather than owning a yacht. It would involve most types of businesses being nonprofit and cooperatively owned rather than enriching one or a few families.
I've been thinking about this most of my life. I used to wonder when I was a kid, why is it that if a house can last so many years, does not everyone own a nice house free and clear? Maybe I'm wrong, but I think if we could build toward things that last just a little longer than the current lifetime of use and keep adding, that we could have beautiful communities everywhere.

It seems to me that if there is even a slight possible edge in energy and production possible, that we must learn not to squander it as we have done but to build on it. I am not talking about the recent squandering of fossil fuels, but rather the deeper structures of society that preceded it.

And there are the problems with religion, which ought to help us achieve the above but usually gets hijacked. Some think atheism can do better. (I do not.)
People believe what their emotional preferences tell them to believe, and they erect the logical edifices to support it afterwards. I think Georgi's post is a fair example of that (not to pick on him particularly, but he has a nice outline there). But an equally good example is Christianity, whose many groups use the same texts and come up with rather different moral interpretations and emphases.
The problem with religion is that people seem to want something from it, but it is something which can't be easily given, and thus cheap substitutes, tedious theologies and silly salvation plans are promoted to soothe our existential fears, being, as we are, lost in the dark without a compass, without a north star, not knowing who we are, what we are, or where we are.

No wonder people worshiped the sun.

Hal said...

"Religion," and therefore belief, seem to me to cover two slightly different ideas that tend to clash in my mind. That is "faith" and "hope." I was a long-time believer, in the sense of faith, in progress. From civil-rights era liberalism in the 60s to dabbling in Marxism, to a more vague, broad belief that I was part of a movement to bring about environmental sanity and a more egalitarian, inclusive modes of living, I believed that that progress was manifested in history and quite inevitable.

Peak oil and the more global environmental issues emerging in the 90s did much to erode that faith.

But I still harbor certain aspects of belief, in the form of a limited faith that my actions can make a difference in a small scope, and a hope, or belief that making a difference in some small way would be a good thing.

I have faith that if I continue adding organic matter to my gardens, and fallow and cover crop other areas, that it will lead to an improved condition in my land. Sounds like progress to me.

I have a somewhat lower faith, but much hope, that if I can do a good job of demonstrating and teaching what I know about land care and productivity, others will do somewhat like I do. That might not sound like much, but it does represent a certain form of progress, from the scale of my farmstead, out toward the bigger community.

I have not much faith, but do it anyway out of hope, that by working in my local community and helping to build institutions of resiliency such as our Farmers Market, things can also be a little bit better in the future. Well, at least a bit better than they will be otherwise, and actually, maybe qualitatively better than the psychotic, destructive system we live in now.

I also notice that some here have taken the idea of the decline of the religion of progress to grasp for a resurgence of "old ways." Remember, the "old ways" were just the previous religion, either explicit or not, that failed in the face of progress, and probably for a reason. And the era of the religion of progress will no doubt be viewed as an "old way" some day. I wonder if, rather than cursing us as profligate wasters, some people in the future will look back at the ancients that dared to challenge the gods with some degree of admiration, in much the way that we can look back at a Caesar and overlook the little stuff like murders and slavery and admire the empire they built and the civilizing of sundry tribes.

(Sure I'll catch it for that. I am NOT saying empires and subjugating others is a good thing.)

onething said...

Justin Wade,

You said: "Lots of religious people say that the absence of God dissolves the foundation of morality and renders everything meaningless, there is simply no right, wrong or value judgments possible. The part I never seem to get are why arbitrary constructs cannot rest upon their own subjectivity even if I get the 'logical' part of the argument. Nothing matters, ok, but for the sake of argument, I'll still take my shoes off before walking into your house. Reductio ad absurdum is no way to live."

Might I gently suggest the possibility that if I am right and there is a divine source of existence and that you do have a soul, then the reason that you can't get why "arbitrary" subjective preferences for moral decency can't just stand alone and unexplained is because a moral compass is inherent to you, and the truth of goodness is built, not only into the fabric of the universe, but into the divinity itself.
Morality is, indeed, subjective.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@Team10tim, @Helix:

I'll reiterate: I have no fixed personal opinion on hidden variables in quantum theory.

Bell's Inequality wasn't around in the 1920's when quantum theory was being introduced, and I'm not sure I follow how this "refutes" hidden variables anyway. It drives a stake through the heart of locality, which was something else that (I believe) Einstein didn't want to give up. But as a counter-example, Feinman's QCD (Quantum Chromo Dynamics) -- more popularly known as "quark theory" -- is a kind of hidden-variable theory and certainly still stands. However, it retains quantum theory's reliance upon randomness (rather than determinism) underlying the quark behavior. It isn't clear to me how non-locality of random behavior is any less bizarre than non-locality of deterministic non-linear behavior.

All that aside, my point here is historical: 1920. 1920. 1920. The cusp between the Old World of physics, and the New World of physics. My point was and is that (IMO) quantum theory would never have gained traction in the scientific community at all before God was good and murdered. The medievals would have imputed the unknowability of quantum processes to divine mystery, and the classicists would have imputed its unknowability to mental laziness. None of them would have accepted "randomness" as in any way sensible.

I'm also going to go WAY out on a limb and say that IF I were to have an opinion on the matter, I'd be inclined to say that quantum mechanics is a philosophical and scientific dead end. A fundamental mistake, not computationally, but as a mental construct for trying to understand the universe.

I certainly feel that is true of what happened to music around the same time. And art. And philosophy. It was all a monstrous Mistake, and we can loosely call that whole extended Mistake the "death of God," though that language no longer resonates in our post-Mistake world.

Western Civilization turned a blind corner and ran into a wall. The Myth of Progress tells us that there are no blind turnings, and no walls, and keeps us pounding our head against the bricks, trying to break through.

As a result, we still have "contemporary" classical music in styles that are indistinguishable from something written a century ago. We have High Art that has made no aesthetic sense for a century. Philosophy dissolved into semantics. Politics dissolved into Realpolitik and propaganda. And physics -- well, it had stalled out by 1980, when I entered graduate school, as I discovered. One of probably two dozen excellent reasons I got out of the field. Read Lee Smolin's book, The Trouble with Physics. He blames it all on string theory, others blame it on government money, but I think the problem goes back to quantum theory itself, which ties back into this Grand Mistake, the murder of God.

Smolin lived the bullet I dodged. I think we could have a delightful discussion over beers.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG -- besides, it isn't linear at all, because the time-axis is logarithmic.

Scavengers: ~2,000,000 years
Hunter-Gatherers: ~200,000 years
Agriculturalists: ~10,000 years
Empires: ~3,000 years
Science: ~400 years

::mischievous grin::

zedinhisbigflyinghead said...

I come not to praise progress but to bury him.

Making much... er ...headway with that? ;)

I know, I know. I'm a cheeky bu**er.

It's just that the last say 30-40 years have seen most people (in the "west" at least), sell their independence, dignity and intellects in return for what essentially amounts to unfettered access to shiny baubles. One could say that the supply chain revolution was expropriated by an all pervading spirit of "wampum economics" through expansive promises of "cathedrals and indulgences" for all.

In other words, the "progress" you so rightly criticize is about as close to the antithesis of my personal conception of "progress" as it is possible to be.

Not that I'm interested in any of that "thesis/antithesis/punchup" nonsense.

It just makes me chuckle is all...

Sulok Kolinahru said...

It's probably a bad idea trying to defend the Religion of Progress on this blog, but what religion is preferable? The Religion of Regress? The basic idea of the RoP, that humans can use reason to make positive, incremental changes to society, rather than be bound by taboos and traditions, is surely one of the most radical and successful ideas ever tried. We're part of an experiment, to see if such an ideology can be sustained, and where it will take us. The beauty of the RoP is that it is very flexible; the RoP of 1850 or 1950 had somewhat different beliefs than it does today, or than it will in 2050. I'm sure by then some of the ideas being talked about here will be incorporated into the RoP. The core idea is rational pragmatism, not dogmatism. Personally I'm not giving up on it, because I don't see a plausible alternative.

zedinhisbigflyinghead said...

Hi Cherokee

I've often felt that people adhere to the form of things rather than the substance. I've sometimes wondered whether this has arisen out of a desire and pressure for society’s participants to conform?

I might think of it as occurring this way.

Remember an experience that you shared with a friend(s) and then imagine discussing that experience with them

I would label the experience as the "substance" and the discussion as the "form"

Now imagine discussing that experience with someone who wasn't present at the time.

Unlike yourself and friend who were present during the original event, this third party must construct their understanding of the event from "forms" abstracted from a different underlying "substance".
Often we are close enough to our partner in discourse culturally and geographically that this will not create confusion or problems

But now imagine the degree of "abstraction" that will occur during discussion of the event, as this process is occurring across cultures and over centuries. What happens now?

One could imagine that over time the "form" will eventually come to be entirely built, not from any underlying "substance", but on other "forms"

This ability to create "substance" through the transmission of "forms" is both a strength and a weakness of language

jollyreaper said...


"I think that all religions, from early tribal beliefs all the way up to the modern religion of progress, have one fundamental thing in common: they are all striving (in their own ways) for a better existence for people than the one we are alloted by the natural world.


I reckon the religion of progress will remain, but progress will be redefined in a way that isn't so materialistic. Imo it is not the god which is the problem, but how we assess holiness."

I think that's a very good point. Progress isn't the problem, is what we imagine progress to symbolize. It's like our concept of wealth. I was listening to the caustic soda podcast and the topic was rhino poaching. In particular, the Vietnamese are now promoting rhino horn as the ultimate vulgar display of success, when mixed with an expensive liquor becomes the cocktail of the wealthy and wicked. "It is like a new luxury car!"

How do we measure up the nations of the Earth to decide which is the greatest? Which metrics do we use? Population? Territory? GDP? Per-capita wealth? GINI coefficient? Megatons in the nuclear arsenal? Head count in armed forces? Average life expectancy? Overall health? Child mortality rates? Number of hours worked in a week? Overall happiness? Socialized medicine? Welfare programs? Free education? Environmental impact?

Our conventional view esteems the paper tigers who project an illusion of strength and ignore the seemingly meek yet resilient.

simon.dc3 said...

hello JMG, great post. Am glad you're touching on it, am sure it'll give me plenty to look up, as always.

Just last weekend I tried --yet again for the umpteenth time-- to get some fairly conservative Christians in the circles I frequent to question, just a bit, some of their hardwired ideas.

This time, their concept on what constitute blessings curses and mandates as imparted by the Bible, and whether most are simply curses mistaken for blessings.
(Mind you, we've been gathering for quite a long time so am no longer automatically labeled a tool-of-he-who-must-not-be-named, rather a simple lost soul needing lots and lots of prayer, likely kept simple by he-who-must-not-be-named. Plus my other ramblings on the hubris of High Finance, Tech-as-Savior and a slightly better understanding of the implications of entropy in finite systems --thanks to you and others-- has given me some cred of impartiality.)

I started by having them reflect on and accepting how all organisms no matter their genus, given enough space and food, will multiply until there's no food andor until the space inhabited is so crowded and polluted it becomes their demise, unless another empty space and source of food is found. Various examples were provided, which had them thinking up their own, until they were satisfied.

Once they agreed such was the case, I got them on to considering that perhaps such was the case with humans too --given we are also His creation and encoded with same mandate to multiply, and also to dominate the rest of creation.
(The hardest part on this one was getting them to see humanity as just another cog in the whole of creation, not above it as most are hardwired to think of themselves)

Eventually they saw how most all reflexively revert to "is-our-duty; is-our-mandate; God-told-us-to"-type of mindsets when made to consider the logical conclusions that it is to our collective disadvantage and eventual demise to seek continual growth and continual monetizing of the commons. That perhaps most past civilizations came undone --not because of some curse or breach of trust with God but-- because they simply outgrew their ecological/resource niche.

It was very hard to get to that part, but we did. At which point the conversation automatically veered to something else, though just as it veered away I saw a glimmer of the realization of the feckless mythos our whole cultural paradigm is built on forming in their minds.

Unfortunately, all of this has to be approached from the viewpoint of a Creator and His-Eternal-Antagonist which I really refused for very long but I concluded it is the best way to get them to consider and analyze the in-built shortcomings of our mythos. And maybe, just maybe, use some critical thinking in the process? Though am really apprehensive of being the cause that'd sever their comfort zone, I don't want to be the cause of such dissonance. People can get hurt having to deal with such cognitive warping.

The parts I'll attempt to get them to consider next are:
(1) That a new paradigm based on mandates of symbiosis, equality, and respect by humanity for the rest of nature has to be created in order to break our species' Boom-Bust cycle that previous cultures went through and thus stop the pain, violence and loss of civility and knowledge that's happened with each successive collapse.
(2) That perhaps the pagan cultures that preceded Judeo-Christianity might have functioned on much more equitable terms with the rest of nature --which most other secular thought is aware of but believers seem to have no concept of, nor of the concept that victors are the ones who write history.

So am glad you're dabbling into this as am sure it'll be an education. Thanks.

Raymond Duckling said...

@JMG - Nice perspective! Being firmly rooted in the sub-genius category, I am going to check out that Church.

@Georgi - If our host permits and considers the debate relevant to a wider audience, I'd be glad to discuss with you (provided you're good sports).

Your original comment caught my attention, since it is not the first time I heard those arguments. In particular, the first two of them seem a lot like instantiations or corollaries of the Litany of Gendlin:

"What is true is already so.
Owning up to it doesn't make it worse.
Not being open about it doesn't make it go away.
And because it's true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
Anything untrue isn't there to be lived.
People can stand what is true,
for they are already enduring it."

Now, the fact that this idea has already a name should clue you to the fact that its meaningfulness comes from the shared values of the subculture that produced it. I prefer to believe that Mr.Greer dismissed those as "simplistic" due to being an outsider to that culture, and thus missing the point, instead of censorship.

Also I find it pretty enlightening that this idea was called a "Litany" of all things. If I understand it correctly, its use is as a prayer to draw the strength to face and accept unpalatable but proven realities. But then, you have to concede that there's some degree of religiousness in this practice, not just an objective statement of facts.

Concerning your 3rd argument. I have to say that it is not only unproven but suspiciously unprovable. To me, it seems like it was by design constructed to use the "Not True Scotsman" defense: so every piece of evidence that rationalism leads to worship of progress will be dismissed as a defective form rationalism. This does not invalidate your argument automatically, but we must recognize that this is a possibility, in order to fix a criteria to falsify it before we try to do any sort of analysis.

Glenn McCumber said...

I want to offer the term "cult of empiricism". The adherents of which seem to think, not only that, that which can be known empirically is all that can be known, but also, that which can be known empirically is all that is real. This make real a very shallow place. For example, Love is *really* *only* chemical reactions which can be described in such and such a way. There are other less blatant examples, some of the arguments above about God, for example.
It is as problematic to exclude real things from our experience of reality, simply because they are empirically unverifiable, as it would be to limit our experience of reality to only what we may see, or what we may smell.

sgage said...

@ onething wrote

"... a moral compass is inherent to you, and the truth of goodness is built, not only into the fabric of the universe, but into the divinity itself.
Morality is, indeed, subjective."

The truth of goodness is built into the fabric of the universe? What can you possibly mean by this? Seriously. This strikes me as a semantically null statement, and, frankly, absurd.

Juhana said...

@Deborah Bender: Interesting story, thank you for sharing it with me. I am not advocating serfdom for any group of human beings here; only pointing that death of progressive thinking may have surprising consequences. You know, all these people dreaming about sustainable future with serene communes of small-scale farmers without any cars, they are only telling substory inside Religion of Progress; they are like heretical movement inside same corpus of faith. In their fantasy, they are still PROGRESSING to higher and better state of earthly existence from this purgatory of industrialism.

True contraction and scaling down shall probably have very different outlook altogether than in any fantasies; it is probably more chaotic, grim and less planned, if real world regions under acute difficulties can offer any guidance. People who endure through it may come from different background and have surprisingly different attitudes than any of "post peak oil" fantasies predict.

But I am no philosopher, and my vision to this higher plane of thinking is very narrow. Earning my earthly living is much more important and time consuming task than having lot of thoughts about things. Like they say in Egypt, العين ماتعلاش عالحاجب. There is truth in that eye and brow riddle. Your status is what it is. Thanks for these conversations, work trip is waiting and free time for internet debates is over for now :).

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Alex SL--

"Really, no faith or god whatsoever will do fine, thanks."

For individuals, sure. For societies and entire cultures, not yet demonstrated. Religion (in a broad sense that includes secular religions like Marxism) has been present as an organizing system in every known culture to date. A few prosperous countries in Western Europe are now mostly irreligious and secular, but those nations have been without religion for only one generation which is too soon to tell.

I think religious inclination is an inborn human trait which people have in varying measures, a natural difference without moral significance. Even the most religious societies include people who are indifferent to religion. People with a middling religious inclination can be encouraged or deterred from developing it; those at the extremes can't be.

James M. Jensen II (badocelot/shiningwhiffle) said...

@ Glenn McCumber

Honestly a lot of modern philosophy (both in academic philosophy and in the presuppositions undergirding much scientific work) seems to me to have boiled down to epistemological gerrymandering to get the answers you want.

As G.K. Chesterton put it, "Since the modern world began in the sixteenth century, nobody's system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody's sense of reality."

Sometimes it's even blatant: look at all the claims recently that the Universe could have arisen from nothing because of the peculiar properties of nothingness, or because of the laws of gravity or some other, um, something.

Myriad said...

When you thread a classic labyrinth, at the start of the fourth circuit, you are right next to where you started.

Yet you're also about halfway through your journey to the center.

When a binary digital counter counts up, there are times when the number of ones builds up steadily, while the zeros (that is, the ones in the more rapidly changing digits toward the right that you're paying attention to) seem to decay away. And then... catastrophe! The hard-earned ones disappear leaving a lot of zeros.

Except off to the left, beyond where you were looking (because those digits change so rarely), a zero that has been there since timing began has turned to a one. Moments later, on the right, a few ones start reappearing. The count goes on. The true total (which you can't even tell exists unless you know the code) continues to increase.

The history of biological evolution on earth has numerous extinction events, some of them massive. At times, something like 90% of the species on the planet have disappeared in a geological eye blink.

Yet, like the digital counter, evolution never stopped, nor was even set backward. (Unlike the labyrinth or digital counter, evolution has no goal and no direction, so technically there is no "backward" for it to go, but we can note that extinct creatures and previous epochs were at no time restored or repeated.)

What do these examples have in common? The reversal of illusory progress in the course of ongoing real evolution. Your geometric distance from your starting point in the labyrinth; the number of ones in the digital counter; the number and diversity of species -- all suffer collapses or declines. But that's just resetting the registers, as it were, for the next stage of the computation that's still going on.

Human culture, too, is an evolutionary process; it too has suffered extinction events before and will do so again. But while local patterns repeat, the whole cannot. Some things that have been zeros since humanity climbed down from the trees will be ones henceforth. Maybe those things won't after all be technological or epistomological, maybe they will be narrative instead, but whatever they are, it will make a difference.

That's the kind of progress I care about. I don't know whether that means I've evaded the religion of progress you're talking about, or am singing in the choir. I'd accept either assessment.

onething said...


"... a moral compass is inherent to you, and the truth of goodness is built, not only into the fabric of the universe, but into the divinity itself.
Morality is, indeed, subjective."

The truth of goodness is built into the fabric of the universe? What can you possibly mean by this? Seriously. This strikes me as a semantically null statement, and, frankly, absurd."

I mean that that which is good is not arbitrary, and there is not an arbitrary God who makes up rules by personal whim, but that which is good is aligned with the nature of God and the nature of our own spirit, that we have a spiritual faculty which, if awakened, will be a fairly accurate rudder for our ship of soul, but that even when less awakened, in a sincere person, (which many atheists are) will be the true source of their moral compass even though they cannot acknowledge it as such.

Kyoto Motors said...

You're leading us into some very interesting territory indeed. Thank-you!
I anticipate you'll equate the "death of God" with the rise of industrialism; or add it to the list of things that are effectively a function of the combustion of fossil fuels.
Interestingly, in describing the current predominant faith, you could replace the word progress with "petroleum" and make the same argument... it is the deity of progress after all.

Kyoto Motors said...

what Charles Taylor decries in "The Malaise of Modernity" -- the popular but facile relativism we see today, was clearly what Nietsche saw coming: a society where a mere opinion trumps logic and ethics...

C Young said...

I believe one can look to the Rural South, and Appalachian communities until around 1960 (before the war on poverty) to find Christianity and the value of the Church as a means of protecting and producing community in a world where progress hard times were everyday and progress was considered a dream. Studying the attributes of a common-unity may be the answer to your riddle.

Many great characters came from this place and time. Authors, artist, musicians, and theologians from the Rural South and Appalachia ring in popular culture still today.

I recall when my middle son heard Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" for the first time. He began researching everything concerning Mr. Cash. He was astonished to find that Cash worked the cotton fields barefooted as a child because his family couldn't afford shoes.

Poverty breaks more than it makes, I told him. And. living that life is the reason kids from the suburbs can't write (or sing) "Sunday Morning Coming Down".

Gaianne said...

@ Joseph Nemeth 3/29/13,9: 55AM

Thanks for your clarification: Your point now makes more sense.

I agree that by the time of the arrival of Quantum Mechanics (QM) God was already dead. Consider: With Newton, God sets up the Laws of the Universe and then gets to sit back and relax—sort of like the Seventh Day in the Bible except that it goes on and on as an extended vacation. But with Quantum Mechanics, God gets called back—or should get called back! He has plenty of work to do, including making gazillions of decisions every second (a gazillion is a lot more than a million) and not only making them, but cross-checking each against each to make sure outcomes do not wander too far from probable outcomes. Lots of actuarial tables! Also, he has to look deep into the past and far into the future to make sure he does not accidentally paint himself into a corner. Busy! Only no one calls him back—despite the job opening. Why not? He's already dead.

Perhaps hidden variables can be resurrected, if we accept non-locality, which we probably have to do anyway. Good. But even if we choose this route and can make it work, we are still stepping out of Western thought, which was the problem with QM in the first place.

I disagree that Quantum Mechanics is a mistake, though it is a dead end in the sense of a limit. It says: This is as far as you go—Western thought, with all its real successes, stops here, and does not go beyond this point. Like you say, a wall. Some folk realized this immediately: Neils Bohr took up Buddhism and put the yin-yang symbol on his coat of arms.

Bohr's solution was not accepted by everyone, nor is it clear that it is the best way. However, physicists reacted a lot like the Post-Modernists JMG mentions—rather than looking for a way out, they rejected the implication of limits to Western thought and contented themselves with playing with their shiny (and very powerful) new toy.

Eventually, and especially since Bell's Theorem was shown not to be merely and artifect of Quantum Theory but confirmed in reality, more thought has gone into what QM actually means. A while back Nick Herbert wrote a book “Quantum Reality” describing eight distinctly different world-views for understanding QM. All are non-Western, all are basically consistent with what is known, and most are mutually incompatible. He does not include African magic, which I wish he had (or had been able) to do since African magic deals easily with things like entanglement (contagion) and locality (their isn't any).

Lee Smolins!--had to look him up and get more current: Interesting stuff! But I agree: If we ever face up to what reality is we are not going to like it: It is not going to agree with what we think nor with what we want to think.


John Michael Greer said...

Shadowheart, if you're called to an earth-centered spirituality, I honor that. Still, the point I tried to make earlier is that "wrong for you" does not equal "wrong" -- and the notion that this equation ought to be made, ironically, came into the religious history of the world with the religions to which you're applying it.

James, oh, granted. I occasionally have fun pointing out to atheists just how massive a role faith plays in their belief system.

Zeno, if you're right that God is an artifact of the sense of meaning, rather than (say) the source of that sense, then your theory that God is an artifact of the sense of meaning is itself an artifact of human thought imposed arbitrarily on a cosmos that doesn't explain itself. A pretty paradox!

Fidelius, no, I wasn't! I read him back in the 1970s and 1980s, of course -- everybody in appropriate tech did -- but haven't followed up on him since that time. I'll see if I can make space in the reading pile for some of his later work.

Onething, sun worship has a lot to say for itself. You don't have to wonder whether your god exists, and you can say with absolute certainty that your god is the source of light and life in the world. Can it be a source of transcendent meaning? Ask any practitioner of Shinto who prays to Amaterasu-no-Omikami...

Hal, good. You've got a definition of faith considerably more useful than most of those that get bandied about these days; we'll talk about that extensively later on.

Joseph, linear on a log scale is still linear. What would you think of a theory of the year that went "winter, spring, summer, uber-summer, uber-uber-summer, and so on until the world catches fire and burns up"? Whether the seasons in the theory were the same length, or each was half the length of the one before, it's still a linear vision of time. More on this next week!

Zed, just remember that after thesis, antithesis, and synthesis come parenthesis and paralysis. If you're not familiar with those last two stages, stay tuned for the upcoming discussion of Hegel.

Simon, you can fairly easily map your new paradigm onto the Biblical concept of covenant, and go from there to argue that our current society's boom-bust cycle parallels that of Old Testament Israel. Speak in their metaphors and you can make a lot of headway.

Raymond, you may be in for a few surprises if you do. The Sub-Geniuses are either a put-on disguised as a real church or a real church disguised as a put-on, and nobody anywhere is entirely sure which.

John Michael Greer said...

Glenn, that's certainly one sect of the religion of progress. I'm reminded of Viktor Frankl's comment that nowadays nihilism takes the form, not of nothingness, but of nothing-but-ness.

Myriad, the belief that change as such is good, that it will "make a difference" in your words, is the barebones form of the religion of progress. (I'm not sure what Praise-God Barebones would think of it, however.) Does it make a difference? To whom or what -- for "making a difference" is always and only relevant to a given observer from a given point of view?

Kyoto, it's a good deal subtler than that, because this isn't the first civilization that's been through comparable transformations. That's the detail nobody talks about in the "death of God" debate: it's only from within the myth of progress that the religious crisis of the last three hundred years or so is unique. Much more on this later. As for the malaise of modernity, I'd phrase it a little differently: a society in which logic and ethics are mere opinions.

Alex SL said...


I admit that I am not a historian but I have always had a strong interest in history and have read a lot, and the idea that medieval societies (or those of antiquity, for that matter) were not stabilized predominantly by the threat of violence seems seriously off. I already mentioned that they had violent social struggles at that time, from peasant uprisings to guild apprentices' strikes in cities, and it could be added that the serfs were not bound to the land they were working by religious dogma but by social custom enforced by the sword of the feudal lord. Heck, even so much as wearing the wrong type of clothes for your social class would have been severely punished.

I would argue that all societies are necessarily held up by the threat of violence because they all at times contain people who are desperate, who will convince themselves that the gods don't care or are on their side, who assume that they can always get absolution for their sins later, and so on. On top of that, societies do of course need some legitimacy - but it comes from protecting their members from external enemies and severe economic instability. If people are starving to death while the prince trows lavish parties no amount of religious piety will protect him from a popular uprising, and the leaders of that uprising will probably cite the bible for justification!

Deborah Bender,

Religion (in a broad sense that includes secular religions like Marxism) has been present as an organizing system in every known culture to date.

Ah, but that broad sense is the crux, isn't it? In a broad sense such as used in the original post above, one could rebut every example of a functional irreligious society by saying that it also has a religion - "progress", "Marxism", "the feeding trough of the welfare state", whatever you want. But that makes the argument perfectly circular. The way to escape from this circularity would be to start with a decent definition of what religion is, and I find it hard to define it in a way that would include the belief in everlasting economic growth, naive as it indubitably is. In that broad sense the word religion would be at best a synonym for "any unfounded belief" and at worst meaningless.

As for the one generation of secular societies only, first of all JMG seems to think that the relevant time span is longer, unless I have misunderstood the post. Second, no society lasts forever. By that measure, religious societies have a track record of very nearly 100% failure, excluding only those few that still exist today.

Matty C said...

What the author is getting at is covered by a recent article on a new anthrpological paper looking at how culture shapes our choices. Highly relevant to this post and cutting edge enough to have those in the establishment concerned -

xhmko said...

JMG wrote to SMJ:

"I can't claim to speak for anybody but me, out of anything but my own necessarily parochial experience."

Couldn't help but read 'my own necessarily parochial experience' as a euphemism for a certain oriface.

Like faces in the clouds.

Great post btw. As someone who has read all your posts and many of your books, I can say this post sits high on my list of your best writing. And that's not a small list.

Georgi Marinov said...

@ Raymond Duckling

This blog has on numerous occasions talked about the tragedy of the mismatch between what people wish reality to be like and what it actually is. I am simply baffled by the response I am getting when I point out the same applies to the existence of God and purposelessness of the universe.

And religion is not without consequences for sustainability. I am having doubts whether this comment will get past the censors, but I will still state it - there is a direct causal (though not purely unidirectional) relationship between the anthropocentrism of the Abrahamic religions and the damage we have done to the life support systems of the planet.

Now I know very well the objection I will get to this - religion does not have to be like that. But that is not a good objection because there is absolutely no reason why people should live in harmony with their environment because they believe in some sort of mythology when they can do so based on a good (and constantly improving) ecological understanding of that environment and their place in it.

Concerning your 3rd argument. I have to say that it is not only unproven but suspiciously unprovable. To me, it seems like it was by design constructed to use the "Not True Scotsman" defense: so every piece of evidence that rationalism leads to worship of progress will be dismissed as a defective form rationalism. This does not invalidate your argument automatically, but we must recognize that this is a possibility, in order to fix a criteria to falsify it before we try to do any sort of analysis.

It has nothing to do with the "No True Scotsman" defense. In the simplest possible terms, once you realize that humans are nothing more than Darwinian machines whose behavior is primarily driven by the urge to maximize their inclusive fitness, you can take Hamilton's kin selection paradigm, extend it from the transition from one generation to the next to a grander evolutionary scale, and see that the worst thing you can do to your inclusive fitness in the long term is to contribute to the extinction of the species you belong to with short-sighted suicidal actions aiming at maximizing your inclusive fitness in the short term. Because most of us are quite closely related genetically and there can be no reproductive cost due to altruistic behavior that's greater than the reproductive cost of extinction.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Juhana,

I've noticed that you champion traditionalist family values, which usually equate to a patriarchal society. I was going to write a withering critique of your opinion because I understand that your own house is not in order on this front.

Then, I stopped myself and thought about a more compassionate approach because I think such views - as yours - arise from hurt, not from a desire to control.

If you consider Finland's history after WWII you'll note that initially there was a large percentage of youth unemployment. Plus, the country had just successfully fought off the Russians and were still fully aware of their vulnerabilities on both fronts.

What else to do, but to industrialise the country? It solved both problems in one hit. The youth found employment and the heavy industrial capacity was increased which decreased the likelihood of another invasion.

Yet, in doing so, the carrying capacity of the environment was exceeded and society was altered. Finland is a fragile and difficult environment and cannot sustainably support a large human population (much like Australia for opposite reasons).

So, you find yourself today unhappy with the choices of your countrymen and you blame it on the shift away from traditional existence and role models. You also have stated that you believe it to be the workings of a liberal agenda.

It isn't either scenario, it is just a question of people making choices that they thought were best at the time.

However, this leaves you in the uncomfortable position that you realise that something is wrong, but you don't know what it is and so you lash out at what you perceive to be the source of your angst.

But the source of your angst is that you may know deep down that your population lives in excess of the carrying capacity of your fragile environment and so you advocate a return to traditional values.

It may be that a return to traditional values is appropriate in your environment? Who knows? But in other environments other responses are equally appropriate and perhaps it may be advisable that you considered this aspect of the future?

I do realise that novelty and innovation are not necessarily good survival traits in a fragile environment, so I get what you’re saying, but this response is not applicable everywhere and it would be far more useful to have a diversity of responses to see which one works best.



Cherokee Organics said...


Thank you. Living in the midst of nature, makes it very hard to ignore!

Oops! I hope I haven't unintentionally offended? If the spell is a dodgy one, I can certainly work towards purging it. It is very good to find the ultimate derivation of an idea. As you said about the alchemists and their ability to dispell...



Hal said...


I'm mostly with you on the argument about the use of violence to maintain power relationships throughout history, and would extend it a lot further into modern times than you have. But I think you're missing the point in the side argument with Deborah Bender.

If you disagree that the belief in Progress is functionally (and JMG might not like that equivocation) a religion in our age, I think you're free to do that, but you can't just dismiss it out of hand by insisting on a definition to your liking. That really just amounts to saying "tisn't," and I think you can do better than that.

There would appear to be a reason he wants to use the language of religion to discuss the current situation and the mind-sets involved in the current series of posts. I'm personally finding that language helpful, and I think a lot of other people are, too.

Now, maybe you have a point that "religion" needs to be defined a little more clearly. This is not the first time he made that assertion but I can't come up with a post where he defined it off the top of my head. Remember, in this post, he called the discussion of Nietzsche a "starting point," for the discussion of religion in relation to our time, so maybe he's getting there.

Emmanuel Goldstein said...

Hi JMG--
After reading the blog and most comments, I went downstairs to find my wife watching "Dance Moms" on the tube. A jarring experience!
Another excellent and thoughtful posting! I don't believe that anyone attached "Evolution" to "Progress;" This is curious, since they have much in common, and big-E "Evolution" IMHO is more of a faith than "Progress" ever was.
Also, the rotation of the Seculum described in the book "The Fourth Turning" may indicate that we are due for another 20 years of fervent religious belief, starting soon. Do you believe that the loss of cheap-energy-based civilization will interrupt the cycle of the Seculum, or perhaps reinforce it? Keep up the good work, JMG and all commenters; I look forward to reading it each week.

John Roth said...

@Alex SL:

Would you find the term "myth" more appropriate than "religion," in the sense that it's a defining and largely unexamined belief that underlies a society's structure?

@Emanual Goldstein:

You might want to go back to Generations, by the same authors. Using their methodology we're headed into a Crisis (interesting that JMG uses the same term).

James M. Jensen II (badocelot/shiningwhiffle) said...

@Georgi Marinov

This blog has on numerous occasions talked about the tragedy of the mismatch between what people wish reality to be like and what it actually is. I am simply baffled by the response I am getting when I point out the same applies to the existence of God and purposelessness of the universe.

We don't like how you're attacking everyone you disagrees with you, especially JMG, or the tired hyperbole you're repeating, like "there is no evidence."

Of course there's evidence: the Bible, the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, the vision of St. Teresa, the Hindu milk miracles... the list goes on and on.

Evidence doesn't mean an idea is true, of course. But you can't discount something as evidence until it's shown to be fraudulent.

And debunkings can themselves be fraudulent: see the sTARBABY affair, in which data from a bungled debunking was unethically manipulated. Also see Randi's "debunking" of dowsing where a significant positive result for water was mixed with a failed result for metal to get an insignificant overall result.

The matter of theism and religion is all a lot less simple than you're painting it.

Finally, when it comes to the religion of progress, we're not pitting claims vs. a lack of evidence for them, we're pitting claims vs. positive evidence against them. Very different things.

John Michael Greer said...

C Young, as a current resident of Appalachia, I'm quite aware of that!

Alex, of course all societies use violence and the threat of violence as a sanction against those who threaten the existing order of things -- ours as much as any other. (This is why your local police carry firearms, you know.) There's no great difference here between medieval and modern society. The point Nietzsche was making is that there are other sanctions in a religious society, which make the direct use of gun or sword much less common than it would otherwise be -- and that's equally true whether the religion in question is Christianity or the worship of progress.

To say that legitimacy is purely the product of defense against outside enemies and economic instability, though, is a massive oversimplification. You might, as I suggested earlier, do some reading in the sociology of the Middle Ages, so you can discuss the matter on the basis of knowledge rather than some fairly inaccurate generalizations.

Matty, thank you for the link! That's a fascinating article.

Xhmko, funny. Thank you.

Georgi, pay attention a bit and you'll notice that people don't get banned here for the content of their comments; when they get banned, which isn't that often, they get banned for rudeness or the usual assortment of weary troll-games. By the way, thanks for your last paragraph here; it's a perfect example of the simplistic way that rationalists conflate "is" and "ought," and thus so often fail to predict how people will actually behave. I'll be referencing it on those grounds in an upcoming post -- it'll be a few months on, since we have a lot of additional groundwork to cover first.

Cherokee, no, you haven't offended -- it's simply that I have a very different attitude toward gods. More on this as we proceed.

Emmanuel, good. One problem here is that most people say "evolution" and mean "progress." The notion that some species (or societies or people) are "more evolved" than others is a classic example; since we all have the same two billion years of evolution behind us, you and a pool of blue-green algae are equally evolved -- but if you try saying that to most people, they'll reject it heatedly.

Georgi Marinov said...

John Michael Greer said...

Georgi, pay attention a bit and you'll notice that people don't get banned here for the content of their comments; when they get banned, which isn't that often, they get banned for rudeness or the usual assortment of weary troll-games.

I don't think I have met any of those conditions in the past when I have had comments deleted and have been told to shut up. But anyway, that's not worth arguing over.

By the way, thanks for your last paragraph here; it's a perfect example of the simplistic way that rationalists conflate "is" and "ought," and thus so often fail to predict how people will actually behave. I'll be referencing it on those grounds in an upcoming post -- it'll be a few months on, since we have a lot of additional groundwork to cover first.

I am not conflating those things - I know very well what people do in real life and I have little hope for them to change in the future. I always insert a big fat caveat when I speak on this topic that the only way to change human behavior substantially in a rational direction is through enormous amount of training (and even then that goal is far from achieved) and it will be very difficult to have everyone go through that, the resources to do it aren't really there even today. I mentioned that here too.

CGP said...

@ Georgi

Georgi said ”… once you realize that humans are nothing more than Darwinian machines…”.

Your statement about human nature is as much a leap of faith as those religions that you condemn so heatedly. Darwin was a scientist and a human being and as such was fallible. Darwinian evolution is a theory not gospel truth. I do not say this to dismiss its validity outright; I do perceive it as a theory with much supporting evidence and often attempt to understand human behaviour and the surrounding world in light of evolutionary theory. However, if you are truly as enamoured of science as you seem to be then you must realise that theories are representations of and approximations to truth rather than indubitable, gospel truth. What makes one theory better than another is that it is a closer approximation to the truth based upon our most empirically valid understanding of the truth.

When you espouse the “nothing more” line of thought you come across as having shut your mind off to other possibilities which ironically is rather unscientific. Science, in the truest sense of the word, is about a process and a state of mind. That process is the scientific method whereby questions are asked and answers are sought using a variety of tools known to be effective and that state of mind is a constant openness and an awareness of how much it is we do not know and the perpetual vulnerability of even our best and most cherished theories.

One more point. You seem to think that a scientifically enlightened mindset will set us free and lead humanity towards a better way of life, one that is sustainable, one that is humane, one that is based upon enlightened self-interest. Yet you espouse the dogma that “humans are nothing more than Darwinian machines” which reduces humans to mechanistic automatons. In my view this dogmatically reductionist view of humanity has much to do with some of the worst problems of the past few centuries; the devaluation of human life, the objectification of people, the proliferation of smut, growing superficiality and mindless materialism. It is from such a viewpoint that the murder of innocents can be called “collateral damage” and infanticide “post-birth abortion”.

mappatazee said...

Enjoyed reading your post.
Regarding unlimited 'progress':

Lidia17 said...

JMG: "James, oh, granted. I occasionally have fun pointing out to atheists just how massive a role faith plays in their belief system."

I'm glad that you have fun doing so, but what you say is non-sense, and the smugness you as a religionist display towards non-religionists is hardly different from the smugness you might (rightly) perceive exists amongst many a-religionists or anti-religionists in regard to religionists.

Personally, I don't "have faith" that there is no God. It's not a matter of "belief" in the slightest! It's the very idea of "belief", in fact, which is at issue! What religionists seem to have a hard time breaking out of is the box that says "belief is a given" in the first place.

To a person of "belief", any belief (Druid, Christian, Muslim, Hinduism) is better than "no-belief". Why is that? Have you thought sincerely why it is that Americans would elect an ("enemy"!!) Muslim as president sooner than an atheist?? This is surely a situation which calls for some investigation.

As an atheist, faith plays NO role in my belief system, because I don't have one. It's so simple that its very simplicity seems to evade religionists who insist that there be something more.

"Not believing in a God" is not the same as "believing in no-God". I don't know why that is not clear. My life does not revolve around
"non-belief" the way my sister's revolves around Christian fundamentalism. I don't give 10% of my income (pre-tax, of course!) to "no-belief" charlatans. There are no "no-belief" schools for me to send my non-existent children to. John Michael has already laid out for me the fact that I can't join the Rotary or the Grange or the Masons or the Lions or whatever, because they are all founded on irrational supernatural "belief", to which I cannot in good conscience subscribe, no matter how worthy I find the institution, nor how needful they are of my material assistance.

I see religion as sheer protagonism. Humans enjoy being protagonists in either BEING gods (or priests or archdruids: being intermediaries for gods whom they might channel) or they enjoy, as does my sister, abjectly supplicating gods. None of these positions seems rational outside of perhaps Sado-masochism. None of them seem particularly advantageous to me for survival either, although JMG's cynical advice that enterprising folks set up shop as astrologers tells me more than I need to know about possible motivations for claims of access to the supernatural.

John Michael Greer said...

Georgi, what you're saying, then, is that your viewpoint is useless, in terms of providing a practical response to the crisis of industrial society. I can certainly agree with that.

Mappatazee, thanks for the link!

Georgi Marinov said...

John Michael Greer said...
Georgi, what you're saying, then, is that your viewpoint is useless, in terms of providing a practical response to the crisis of industrial society. I can certainly agree with that.

I don't think yours is of much use either.

Going back to the middle ages and never exiting from them again is equivalent to the quick doom scenario for me. I look at the situation on a time scale of hundreds of thousands and millions of years, not only at the next few decades, as crucial as they are going to be.

The number one priority right now should be preserving the hard earned over the last few centuries scientific knowledge, because it is our best evolutionary asset into the future, and if it gets lost this time, it is unlikely it will be regenerated - particle accelerators are quite complicated machines, it took the efforts of many thousands of scientists and several decades to sequence the human genome, etc.

But I don't see how scientific knowledge can be preserved by the anti-science attitude you seem to be promoting.

I am not a believer in doing the right things for the wrong reasons - such situations tend to inevitably evolve into doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons. The main reason the ancient Celts did not enter a state of ecological overshoot and did not wreck their environment was not the wisdom of their druids but the simple fact that they were mostly conquered before they could do so and that other people had the dubious honor of accomplishing that task on their territories.

Science-based ecological literacy seems a much better foundation for sustainability to me than mythology.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Juhanna--I hope that when you get back from your work trip, you will have time to post again. In the meantime, here are some points we may agree on.

The harder times are, the more people are expected to pitch in to help the group survive, and the less choice many people will be offered about what kind of contribution they make.

I believe that before the industrial revolution, modern feminism could have gotten no traction. Economic and technological changes allowed and in some instances encouraged women to move out of the roles which patriarchy had assigned to them. If advanced capitalism falls, that may be reversed whether we like it or not.

Traditional ways of doing and thinking are not necessarily better or worse than new ways. I belong to a people that has seen some good times and some very bad times. Passover, the holiday we are currently celebrating, is partly to remind us of that.

My people's written records go back about three thousand years. We have been tribal nomads and nuclear physicists and everything in between. When conditions change, which is often, we try to figure out what from the past is still useful to do and what needs to be remembered but not practiced for awhile. If we dump all of it, we won't know who we are. If we don't make any adjustments, we don't survive.

Cherokee Organics said...


Thanks. I look forward to getting a clearer understanding of the thought.

Are you compiling this series of essays into a book? I respect that you do not waste your written thoughts.

Hi zedinhisbigflyinghead,

Thanks for that.

Somehow it reminded me of the game of Chinese Whispers which I used to play as a kid.

I guess your example also depends on how much interest and/or effort the individuals put into understanding the source?

It is funny that you mention that particular example, because I've given up on a few things this year because I'd realised that I'd forgotten the reason as to why I was doing them in the first place!

Quote: "sell their independence, dignity and intellects in return for what essentially amounts to unfettered access to shiny baubles"

Shiny baubles aren't very impressive because they only stay shiny for a short period of time. They don't impress me. As you say, not everyone has given up their independence. In the past few years, I've found that time is more valuable than wealth. Life is short.

Now compost, that also impresses me.



Juhana said...

@Cherokee Organics: I should have no time to answer to your comment, but I still do :). You had very good points in your commentary, and it always helps to look your own opinions from position of outsider. So you probably nailed many things there.

It is true that I have had this uneasy feeling that our system here in Nordic countries is heading for disaster right now, and vulnerability and harshness of our environment will make that fall much harder than in warmer and more fertile countries. Way we do things right now is not sustainable, and because our environment is not forgiving when it comes to failure, check is going to be bitter.

My worries are made bigger because I witnessed from time to time firsthand horrible casualties caused by fall of Soviet Union on the Russian side of the border. It is different when you actually see it, all that decay and chaos. When central government and logistics breaks down in taiga region, ordinary people take a heavy hit.

When it comes to this "accusation" of being systematically anti-liberal, picture is little bit more complicated than that. Progressive liberal thinking just is main narrative driving our Nordic system onwards right now, it is belief system of our elites here. Because of this, I am more acutely aware of it's weaknesses facing chronic contraction and scaling down we have hit here in Europe than I am aware of, let's say, neoconservatives. If it would be some other modern narrative unable to face harsh realities of physical limits to growth facing me in my everyday life, I would be more aware about that system's inherent failures. I believe this aspect of my thinking is lost in translation; I seem to be perceived more rigidly anti-liberal than I am when I try to communicate with English language.

About traditional family values and traditional ways of doing things: they have worked in the past, they are reality tested solutions. It seems to me that being innovative and fresh thinker is so central for anglo-saxon thinking, that just saying: "Hey, these guys were doing just fine couple of millennias doing things like they did without extensive energy resources, maybe we should learn from them?" is considered being somehow insulting and heretical. I have to say that none has proved my thinking in that aspect to be flawed. I have seen so-called indigenous people, buryats and bargas, and they seem to be astonishingly well-adapted to their environment and astonishingly conservative when it comes to viewing world around them. I do not claim to be any kind specialist of these nations, but just seeing glimpses of their life makes you have deep doubts about ways of you own culture.

I have lost my faith to state's continuing capacity to be provider for individuals. If there is economic crisis dwarfing any experienced in history of mankind looming upon us, like I believe, then you just have to have solid social networks fixed to place, supplementing official state doctrines.

Finland is peculiar mix of eastern and western influences when you scratch away solidly western surface, and we have traits from both traditions. Trust level towards government and state is markedly lower than in other Nordic countries, and when you consider future ahead, it is probably good thing it is like that.

Juhana said...

@Cherokee Organics & others: You wrote: "I do realise that novelty and innovation are not necessarily good survival traits in a fragile environment, so I get what you’re saying, but this response is not applicable everywhere and it would be far more useful to have a diversity of responses to see which one works best."

I agree totally with your last sentence. Why do you think I am writing commentary to this blog? Having useless word fights with people living other side of globe is completely useless and in some cases damaging for your reputation. I am doing this because I am trying to gain wider perspective than my own alone is, and clear my somewhat confused and blurry opinions about what is happening in the world around me.

I am no environmentalist; I do not come from academic family; I had no great political or ethical opinions when I was growing up. I was more interested of ice hockey, boxing and driving old Mazda wreckage you can barely call a car. So waking up to this ongoing crisis of nature, resource depletion and human society came to me outside all convenient subcultural narratives talking about it. It came through seeing things and thinking what I saw, and from my deep interest in studying history. So I am not telling anyone that my opinion is only truth there is, because my opinion is best described as fragmented and hazy. But I am also very good at smelling hypocrisy and "enlightened elitism" behind comments of other people, and that is something I am not buying, never.

Environmental movement of West is best described as hermetically sealed upper-class way to feel better person that hilly billy redneck next to you, nothing less or more. This fact is glaringly obvious in movement's utter failure to reach out to people outside their own circles. Movement is incarnated in figure of Marie Antoinette asking why proles of Paris are not eating cake if they are so hungry.

That is why I challenge this kind of minx opinions very easily, even if I am fully ready to absorb new information humbly and realistically presented. And I have got many new ideas from this blog, from JMG and commenters alike. This Australian dude from other side of planet has also given me many new perspectives, you know :). Thanks for that, everyone.

wall0159 said...

Re: Georgie's thread, seems to me there are a few parts to this:

1. What myths/mental tools are useful (to ourselves and society)?

2. What's the difference between a myth and a religion?

3. Where does the evidence suggest the truth lies?

4. Does a belief in atheism also encourage belief in progress? I personally think not.

5. Does an absence in organised worship lead to other pathological psychological effects (as per David Foster Wallace quote)? I'm unsure, I think this is possible.

I'm a materialist atheist scientist (boo! Hiss! ;-) and I don't think I fulfill the generalisations JMG outlined. I agree that our understanding of the universe is very limited. But I also think that we should try to understand the universe based on what we think is the truth - not based on some estimate of the utility of a belief system to ourselves or society. Isn't a large part of our predicament due to our unwillingness to accept inconvenient truths?

I found this post very interesting and look forward to seeing where you take it, JMG.

Jon said...

JMG said “Jon, by the same logic, your theory that all ideologies are paperwork over the top of instinct is itself just another round of paperwork over the top of instinct, and your argument is therefore self-refuting.”

Precisely. And that is the dilemma. It is impossible for the brain to understand how the brain works, for logic to prove logic or for intellect to explain itself. That’s why Euclid started with “Five things that are just true. Trust me. I’m a philosopher.” Of course, when people questioned one of them, entirely new geometries were possible. Possible, but were they real? The first postulate (faith) of science is ultimately not about what is ‘real’ but about what can be measured. That’s the ‘Trust me. I’m a scientist,’ beginnings of science. The first postulate (faith) of religion is that knowledge cannot be obtained by humans without divine revelation. That’s the ‘Trust me. I speak for God,’ beginnings of religion.

I wrote an essay called ‘The Causality Buffet’ where I explore this idea. And explore is all we can ever do. We can never arrive at a conclusion. So my conclusion (sic) is that the existence of God is impossible, as is the nonexistence of God.

But that’s not very satisfying, much less helpful. So we invent stories to make ourselves feel better.

Joseph: “...besides, it isn't linear at all, because the time-axis is logarithmic.” You then go on to list progressively improving stages of human organization, from Scavengers to Science.

People take it for granted that 1) it is linear and not a messy slurry of two or more types coexisting, and 2) that each one is better than the previous, even though hunter gatherer and horticultural civilizations certainly appear to be happier than their more rigidly organized agricultural brethren. The government system was often matriarchal or bi-cameral with the houses consisting of all males and all females, the females deciding which men will belong to the male house. Is our organization better even if it is more advanced? We apparently are not evolved for patriarchy, yet there it is. And more Europeans went native than the other way around in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We are now staring down the barrel of extinction because of our logarithmic growth, yet we don’t question the rightness of it. Maybe we should.

By the way, I am not advocating Rousseau’s ‘Noble savage’ meme, nor Hobb’s ‘Nasty, brutish and short’ prejudice. I am merely saying that, compared to Europe in the sixteenth century, horticultural societies were happier.

Lei said...

Although I have been really enjoying reading this blog for some time and appreciate the precision and calm thinking in analysis of the more technical issues connected with peak oil, including deep-delving diagnosis of contemporary system and society in general, I am almost always disappointed by excursions into the domain of socio-politics, belief, (history of) ideas. I cannot help, but especially in comparison with the keen insight observable in those other topics, they often appear to me too simplistic and too biased by American conservative perspective, although simplistic thinking seems to be here a common label to be applied on "worhshippers of progress" (on this particular point, I am with e.g. Georgi).

I have been also surprised to observe in all the discussions in comments also elsewhere in the sphere of peak-oil blogs how profoundly conservative the audience tends to gather there. Which is not a problem on some points, but definitely is on others. And what I can see is usually not critical thinking, but scapegoating of progress, secular values, of enlightenment, of liberals, of welfare state, of atheists, "rotten Europe". I have the same feeling when I read time to time about that utterly evil "alopathic modern medicine". That surprises me after all: so many people enthusiastically awaiting the end of modern medicine, of equality, of those "stinking" liberal values etc.

Of course it is closely related to the fact that my "spiritual" and "political" background is so different - traditionally anticlerical and atheist country, leftist European academic environment...

One thing is that we will have to do without much modern infrastructure, and that it is very problematic to take for granted social institutions and beliefs of today. Another thing is rejoice in the sight of coming regress. Well, maybe the thoughts were fostered by fossil fuels, though I do not think it is that easy to explain, but they are not so bad as depicted in the commentaries here.

And, simply said, the "religion of progress" that is so loudly collectively attacked here in the comments, seems to me to be just a straw man, and that it is not (at least not only) adherents of progress who are simplistics. It appeat to me that what is regularly done here is mere subsitution of pluses for negatives and vice verse. It is just an anti-image, and not critical thinking. But I know, critical thinking belongs to the church of progress and is to be substituted by something better and more real anyway in the future.

What strikes me is the typically "progressive" way of writing this blog (including the old goog method of historical materialism in explaining social changes etc.) in cotrast with the agressive anti-progressive agenda.

Joseph Nemeth said...


"Joseph, linear on a log scale is still linear."

I think what you meant to say was "progress is still progress, whether it's linear or exponential."

Because a straight line with a logarithmic X-axis means the curve is exponential. And I don't think you meant that exponential is linear.

I don't disagree with what I think you meant. Linear progress or exponential progress is still progress. There are other ways of looking at the world, most notably the cyclic and steady-state views. Interested to see where you take this.

OTOH, entropy keeps increasing. But since entropy is a rather "soft" theoretical concept that is difficult to apply to open thermodynamic systems, let's just look at human population. It's gone up, it's gone down, but the overall trend has been upward throughout recorded history, and I THINK it's fair to say that the human population has never once reached seven billion before now.

This is an "arrow of time" on the human scale of reference that we can't ignore, because with every increase in population, we have new practical problems that we need to solve, whether it's feeding people or burying them.

Just for scale, in the fourteenth century, the population of Paris, one of the largest and most sophisticated cities in Europe, was around 100,000 people. Our small-town Fort Collins has a current population of 144,000. Our small town -- our little dot on the map -- is bigger than fourteenth-century Paris!

The entire Roman Empire in the second century had under 100M people. One fifth of that number now lives in Shanghai -- a single city.

As I say, interested to see where you'll take this.

Ruben said...

@Georgi, et al,

I believe humans are Darwinian Machines, inasmuch as I believe we are all evolving, all the time. But, Darwinian doesn't mean doing what is individually best. In fact, the longer scientists spend looking, the more evidence they find for social interactions in virtually all organisms--including trees.

And the fact that humans do not do what is individually best is well-studied. Because of our complex environment and our cognitive limitations, we have outsourced a lot of our decision making to our peers--as well as a lot of our knowledge and memory.

I have a talk on Vimeo where I show how flawed many of the reductionist statements about human behaviour are.

And then a slidecast, where I try to show the tiny amount of rational decisions we make, compared to the enormous amount of social and systemic choices we make.

For those interested in social decision making, the book I'll Have What She's Having is very, very useful, and I would say cutting edge.

Simply looking around the world offers countless examples of how humans change--in very significant ways, and often without any training (regarding your specific example).

I do agree that getting most people to change in a way that makes sense to you is very, very difficult, and as you say, is hampered by a lack of resources. I hope my work will help us be more effective in how we spend our limited resources--so we stop throwing them away on on false narratives.

Quos Ego said...

JMG, a quick message to thank you for this week's essay.
The peakosphere is awash in analysts obsessed with the purely practical implications of the end of the exponential curve, without ever bothering with meaning and the loss of meaning. That's fine, but I think that as they do so, they are missing something fundamental. You don't fall into that trap, and your voice is more than ever necessary.

A quotation to take with us down the road:

"I take it, no fool ever made a bargain for his soul with the devil; the fool is too much of a fool, or the devil too much of a devil—I don’t know which. Or you may be such a thunderingly exalted creature as to be altogether deaf and blind to anything but heavenly sights and sounds. Then the earth for you is only a standing place—and whether to be like this is your loss or your gain I won’t pretend to say. But most of us are neither one nor the other. The earth for us is a place to live in, where we must put up with sights, with sounds, with smells, too, by Jove! — breathe dead hippo, so to speak, and not be contaminated. And there, don’t you see? Your strength comes in, the faith in your ability for the digging of unostentatious holes to bury the stuff in — your power of devotion, not to yourself, but to an obscure, back-breaking business."

Joseph Conrad

John Michael Greer said...

Lidia, do you believe that the world is knowable by reason? That belief is an act of faith; it can't be proved. Do you believe that there is no god? That also can't be proved, and to hold any belief at all on the subject other than a straightforward "I don't know" is an act of faith. I could go on indefinitely. No human being has direct access to truth; all we have are mental models, and the faith that those models have some relation to truth. All forms of knowledge are belief systems, because all start from unprovable presuppositions -- yours as much as anyone else's.

As for atheist schools or community organizations for those whose belief systems do not include gods, if you want those, you need to get out there and start them. The people who founded religious schools and fraternal orders didn't wait for somebody else to provide them with the instutitions they wanted, you know.

Georgi, I've spent the last six years insisting that preserving the scientific method is among the top priorities for the future, and yet, since I don't accept your atheism, you insist that I have an anti-science attitude. That would be funny if it wasn't so sad. I'd point out that the founders of the scientific revolution were one and all deeply religious men, and that a great many highly religious people have contributed mightily to the development of science -- shall we talk about Gregor Mendel, for example? More broadly, as I've discussed here many times, the primary challenge in dealing with the end of the industrial age is not technical -- it's about human motivation, and beliefs are central to that. More on this as we proceed.

Cherokee, of course. The working title is After Progress.

Wall0519, good. You're asking some of the crucial questions. I agree that the value of a belief system depends in large part on its relation to truth, but truth is a slippery fish, and the habit of confusing truth with what can be caught in the very wide meshes of the human mind's various conceptual nets is a constant source of trouble.

Jon, excellent. Thank you for the clarification. I'd like to suggest that we can do a little more than simply invent stories -- or, rather, that we can do a good deal more with the stories than invent them. More on this later.

Lei, you've given quite a thrashing to that straw man of yours! Still, if you don't find the discussion here useful, there are plenty of other blogs you can read instead, you know.

Joseph, ah, I see the confusion. By linear I mean "going in the same direction over time" -- it's not a matter of rate but direction. The recent population spike (recent in historical terms -- since 1700 or so) is a case in point. As far as I know, it's unique in human history, and the chance that it will ever be repeated seems fairly small. How do we conceptualize it, though? As a straight line leading to infinity? As a cycle -- first up, then down? As a "waveform pulse,"
just one extreme outlier in the general static? More on this as we proceed.

Quos Ego, thank you -- and many thanks for the quote! Conrad's always apposite.

Robert Mathiesen said...

In response to Georgi's post today at 1:55AM:

So, Georgi, I finally see where you are coming from, and your position finally makes some sense to me. Also I see now why I have always found it so hard to agree with much of anything in your posts.

Here's why: I really don't think it matters all that much, over the timescale you mention of millions of years, whether humanity goes extinct or not, and whether everything we have accomplished as a species over the last several million years is irrevocably lost sometime in the very distant future. So what?

Multiply your time scale by a factor of one thousand, please, and look ahead billions of years into the future, not just millions.

On that scale, it is as close to certain as anything that nothing whatever of human achievement will have survived. Several more billion years or so and the sun itself will changed so much that recognizably human life will be impossible on earth. Also, there seems to be no realistic way of transplanting enough of our species for biological survival, together with its best achievements, to some other planet around some other sun, where it might survive for billions of years more. Earth's gravity well is almost certainly far too deep, and earth's supply of cheap energy needed for that massive project is running out far too rapidly.

It is not being a doomer, at least if one is inclined to science and materialism, to acknowledge that one's own lifespan is limited, that someday one's very name will be utterly forgotten and all one's achievements either abandoned or surpassed.

Neither is it being a doomer to acknowledge the same thing for our species. Then where will all its achievements be?

Someday Beethoven's last surviving symphony will be played for the very last time ever, whether live or in the form of a recording. Not too much later everyone who heard that last playing will have died. Someday, too, the last surviving dialogue by Plato will have been read for the very last time, whether in the original Greek or in translation. Someday no one will have the faintest idea of algebra, or calculus, or the theory of relativity, simply because there will be no human being left alive anywhere in the universe to have that idea. The final destruction of anything you or I care about is as certain as anything else you might care to mention. You can't overturn the laws of thermodynamics. Human ingenuity reaches only so far, and then is halted without recourse.

To say all these things is most definitely not a counsel of despair. It does NOT inevitably lead to "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die." It may lead, instead, to small, limited acts of compassion, to finite and impermanent creativity, to love and kindness that will matter only in the short run -- simply because it is easier, for some of us, to get up and face the day if we have done these things yesterday, and intend to do them again today. That can be enough by far.

Robert Mathiesen said...

On the definition of "religion":

One definition, quite popular in the middle of the twentieth century, is simply whatever deals with matters of "ultimate concern" to a given person or a given society. The details may vary from time to time and place to place, but there is (as a rule) something that is of ultimate concern. That something, nowadays, is often Progress or Money or Survival . . .

Isis said...

Hi Juhana,

Here's one problem that I have with traditional values and (especially) the traditional patriarchal family: it entails large families, with lots of children. This is the last thing we need on this overcrowded planet of ours. We are in overshoot, and our numbers will go down. The only question is how this happens. Please note that a declining human population (which is at this point inevitable) is not incompatible with high birth rates. The way to make the two compatible is to have sky-high infant and child mortality rates. This, in my mind (and most people's minds, I would hope) is not a desirable outcome. Much, much better to limit the number of children brought into this world, so that those few children can get adequate resources to grow up and live decent lives.

This means that we have much to gain by promoting small families, including childless ones. And yes, this means that gays are your friends. So are childless heterosexual couples. So are the people who choose to remain celibate. And please note that many such people are actually fond of children. So, finding ways to get them involved in raising other people's children, in one way or another, is a plus for everyone involved. The kids get some extra resources (including non-material resources), the parents get some weight lifted off their shoulders, and the lesbian aunt and the celibate family friend get the emotional satisfaction of being involved with child rearing.

The point is that we are moving toward a much poorer future, one that can accommodate only a fraction of the current population. The values and practices that are best suited for this future are not the traditional ones that we abandoned, nor are they the ones that we have now. A return to some of the old traditions (e.g. frugality) would help, keeping some current ones (chiefly small families) would help, but on the whole, going back to the traditional family is just as unhelpful as trying to hold on to our current material excesses.

wall0159 said...

I think a belief is something that can't be proved. Is the end, that's pretty much everything. Particularly if we're sticklers for accuracy.

I think faith is a personal commitment to a particular belief. I think religion requires faith in addition to belief.

Thus, a scientist should not have faith in a theory, since all science is provisional. It might be possible to argue that commitment to the scientific method is faith, but I think the goal of science is to have as few faiths as possible (ideally, none)

I actively believe there is no God, because I've seen no evidence of one. This is not a faith though, and I would change my mind if there was some new evidence that convinced me (eg. The second coming would be good evidence of a Christian God). Maybe some people have faith in atheism -- whether that is a religion, I don't know but am doubtful.

Regarding truth, I think humans can never know pure truth. I think we can get incrementally closer to it using the scientific method (eg Aristotle to Galileo to Newton to Einstein). Note that General Relativity is almost certainly not correct and that future discoveries will improve it (should humans have the capacity to conduct the research).

Having said this, I agree that these are approximate truths for us, and that aliens might experience/explain the world in very different ways. This doesn't mean relativity is wrong, or a "mere belief" -- it is just not the whole picture (and we will likely never know the whole picture)

To clarify my previous post, I think we should pursue knowledge with truth as the goal. In this sense, if we're seeking truth we should not be distracted be considerations of the utility of different outcomes. Eg. I'd really rather climate change wasn't true, but when looking at the data, this should not influence the interpretation or conclusion. Of course, even in science this sort of bias happens all the time, hence the saying "science proceeds one funeral at a time"

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

JMG, you write, "I've encountered a remarkable number of American Catholics whose actual beliefs are indistinguishable from those of their vaguely Protestant neighbors." You will forgive me for pushing, but I do think it would be good for you to write a paragraph of explanation.

In theory, every adult American Catholic passes either through Confirmation classes (if a cradle Catholic) or through some months of RCIA (if a convert). Which doctrinal muddles, then, have you experienced in probing numerous American Catholics?

(a) It could be that you have asked abstract questions, such as "What is God?" In this case, you are likely to have received pop-theology answers, such as "God is a life force." I would, however, plead in mitigation that dreadful lay-Catholic answers to abstract questions are natural. Deep Catholic philosophers have likewise been reduced to mumbling. According to one strain among those deep philosophers, humans cannot say much at all - being reduced, in large part, to saying merely what God is not. Aquinas is, I guess, not in this sense "apophatic". But even he does not attain anything like the level of clarity that we moderns, trained in the secular rigour of Frege, Anscombe, Geach, and Dummett (indeed of Carnap-Quine-Davidson, or again of Lewis-Plantinga) rightly demand. Aquinas's "God is Pure Being, Pure Actualization" get us little further than apophatics unless and until we somehow further develop contemporary analytical philosophy.

(b) It could be that you have asked concrete questions: "Do you speak metaphorically when you recite the Nicene Creed?" "Is there any sense in which it is right to invoke some dead people - for instance, St Maximilian Kolbe - in prayer?" "Is there a difference between saying, in solitude, to God that you are sorry and saying it to God through the priest at Confession?" "Is there a difference between praying in an empty field and praying, in an empty church, at the Tabernacle?"

Since "It is deeds that speak," it might additionally be useful for you to write, briefly, on what behaviours you have observed. Keeping my eyes open this Triduum, I noticed not only some weak deeds at my big, drab, filled-to-bursting "local" (e.g., some tendency to use vapid hymns), but instances of strength, of which I cite the following: (i) the man who prostrated himself before the empty tabernacle on Holy Thursday (not a normal, socially approved, posture); (ii) the lady who stroked the Tabernacle doors in adoration (again, not socially inculcated behaviour - her deed might rightly make some parish priests uncomfortable if they saw it); (iii) the little groups of people who stayed on a whole hour, or more, after the Good Friday 3:00 pm service was over (there is no social pressure to do this, even though there is some mild social pressure to linger for the formal Adoration that follows the Mass on Holy Thursday night).

Here I am perhaps asking a little too much, since it would be cruel to call on you to enter a church. Tongues might wag, in small-city Cumberland. However, if they did, you could point out firmly that an Archdruid is welcome in church, and may indeed ask, hands folded, for a blessing at the instant of Communion, and that anyone who - erring - feels uneasy can phone the Archbishop for a canonical ruling.

Juhana (your posting "Catholic Churches of East and West..."): Agreed; there is indeed some temptation in journalism to downplay the extent of faith among Catholics. At some level, the attitude of TV and metropolitan dailies is like the attitude of the Party in pre-1991 Soviet Estonia. The Church was there then, and is now in EU-Canada-USA, felt (rightly) to pose a potentially decisive challenge to the "Party Line".

Toomas (Tom) Karmo (near Toronto)
www dot metascientia dot com

Georgi Marinov said...

JMG said:

Georgi, I've spent the last six years insisting that preserving the scientific method is among the top priorities for the future, and yet, since I don't accept your atheism, you insist that I have an anti-science attitude.

That's because there is no way to separate the scientific method from atheism. Religious faith is not compatible with the scientific method. This is why I am so perplexed when you start saying these things.

I'd point out that the founders of the scientific revolution were one and all deeply religious men, and that a great many highly religious people have contributed mightily to the development of science -- shall we talk about Gregor Mendel, for example? More broadly, as I've discussed here many times, the primary challenge in dealing with the end of the industrial age is not technical -- it's about human motivation, and beliefs are central to that. More on this as we proceed.

Mendel was never a scientist and he wasn't a founder of the scientific revolution - that happened before his time. Of course, the founders of the scientific revolution were religious - what else could thy have been given that there was no scientific revolution to provide the intellectual foundation for an atheistic worldview before them? That's evidence for atheism, not against - because scientists did not become atheists just because they wanted to, evolved out of the intellectual activity of philosophers in the Middle Ages who are almost all monks, and all scientists were religious for a while. But then it became more and more difficult to be religious as we learned more and more about the world around us. It also happens to be an argument from authority, which is a fallacy, and in this case all of those great scientists from the past are not even authorities as they simply not relevant to our world today - they knew a fraction of what we do today and a lot of what they thought they knew has turned out to be wrong.

When I use the word "Darwinian machine", the last thing I would like people to think is that I consider Darwin an authority on evolutionary biology - he's not, nobody reads Darwin other than for historical reasons and modern evolutionary biology is not Darwinian _ that term is specifically reserved for outdated versions of it that we have outgrown a long time ago.

Anyway, I am looking forward to where you're going to take this

James M. Jensen II (badocelot/shiningwhiffle) said...

Wall0519 and JMG,

One of the slipperiest parts of truth is how to define "true." The two major types of theories -- coherence and correspondence -- both have deep flaws and all theories suffer from the inability to show that it's the true theory of truth without presuming its own definition.

I think recent pragmatists, following Donald Davidson and Richard Rorty, make the right call in refusing to define truth at all. Truth is one of the conceptual primitives that all other concepts are based on.

However, I don't think you can really separate what we think is true from we think is useful to believe, from either direction. There's no good a priori reason that true beliefs lead to the right choices practically, yet we can't decide what would be useful to believe on any other basis than truth (at the least we have to believe it's true that some false belief would be more useful).

My own thinking on this issue had lead me to the view that true beliefs are valuable as means, but not as ends, and that truth is an inescapable consideration but not the only value when deciding what to believe.

Georgi Marinov said...

Robert Mathiesen said:

Multiply your time scale by a factor of one thousand, please, and look ahead billions of years into the future, not just millions.

On that scale, it is as close to certain as anything that nothing whatever of human achievement will have survived. Several more billion years or so and the sun itself will changed so much that recognizably human life will be impossible on earth. Also, there seems to be no realistic way of transplanting enough of our species for biological survival, together with its best achievements, to some other planet around some other sun, where it might survive for billions of years more. Earth's gravity well is almost certainly far too deep, and earth's supply of cheap energy needed for that massive project is running out far too rapidly.

I have considered that scale too - I simply didn't want to list extremely large numbers. As far as we can tell, it is highly unlikely we will ever leave the planet or be able to fully understand the universe. But that does not mean it is absolutely certain this is the case and I would like to at least try, for curiosity's sake. There is no bilogical law that mandates we go extinct any time soon. It's up to us.

Liquid Paradigm said...

No true Scotsman, that Mendel fellow.

John Michael Greer said...

Robert, that's certainly a workable definition. I have a somewhat more specific one, which I'll be proposing and developing here as we proceed.

wall0159, of course a scientist shouldn't have faith in a theory -- though most do; nothing is so common in science, as I'm sure you know, as the filtering of experimental results to make them fit existing theory. To be a scientist at all, though, requires faith -- in the sense of personal commitment to a belief -- that the practice of science has value, that the forms of knowledge (or, as I'd say instead, the mental models of phenomena) it produces are worth the effort, and ultimately that there's such a thing as truth, to which scientific theories can approximate. All those claims rest on faith. That doesn't mean they're invalid -- quite the contrary.

Toomas, I'll pass; we're already way off topic, and no, I don't plan on going up to St. Mary's any time soon. Have a happy Easter.

Georgi, Gregor Mendel created the science of genetics through a series of experiments that are still considered classics of their type. Yet you insist he wasn't a scientist. Why? Oh, of course, because he was a devout Catholic monk; we're right back into the "no true Scotsman" argument. When you claim that the scientific method can't be separated from atheism, you're quite simply wrong -- there have been, and continue to be, countless thousands of competent scientists doing excellent research who also believe in the existence of one or more gods. The fact that this doesn't make sense to you might suggest to you that your biases need a good hard second look.

James, good. The circularity of arguments about truth is of course a major issue; it's arguably one of those places where what's needed is a postulate rather than a proof. For working purposes, though, I'm fond of Popper's standard of non-disconfirmation: a theory may be tentatively accepted as true so long as every effort to disconfirm it has failed so far.

Georgi Marinov said...

JMG said:

Georgi, Gregor Mendel created the science of genetics through a series of experiments that are still considered classics of their type. Yet you insist he wasn't a scientist. Why? Oh, of course, because he was a devout Catholic monk; we're right back into the "no true Scotsman" argument. When you claim that the scientific method can't be separated from atheism, you're quite simply wrong -- there have been, and continue to be, countless thousands of competent scientists doing excellent research who also believe in the existence of one or more gods. The fact that this doesn't make sense to you might suggest to you that your biases need a good hard second look.

Mendel was not the founder of genetics - he was the first to do those experiments, but his work had to be rediscovered by others for him to be appreciated. It had no immediate impact. When I say he wasn't a scientist, I mean precisely that he was a monk - he was a monk doing experiments, but not a scientist.

It is absolutely true that there are thousands of people who are religious and whose profession is doing science. That does not prove the the scientific method is compatible with religion. First, a lot of science is not done by following the scientific method and it is is entirely possible for a person to contribute significantly while violating core principles of it (with the rest of the scientific community fixing up things for him where he messes up). Second, and more important, what the existence of religious scientists proves is that people have the capacity to hold mutually incompatible beliefs in their heads in the same time. The religious scientists are simply switching off the scientific mode of reasoning in their brains when they think about religion - it is perfectly possible to follow the scientific method during the day while you're in the lab then completely forget about it when you go to church. But that does not mean it is compatible with religion.

The most basic principle of the scientific method is that one should never take things to be true on faith, and this is where the incompatibility lies.

Matt Mc said...

JMG and the commenting community.

What an absolute cracker this week's post is!

I've been a reader of this blog for 5 years or so, but not commented. Its been an amazing opener of mental doors and possibilities, which has led me to gardening, woodwork and an ever-increasing reading list.

For me personally, I could cite 3 or 4 posts by JMG that have blown open new vistas, and I think this week's post is another.

Many thanks to JMG and the spirited discussions, especially the comments which make me sputter into my tea. They make me question my own bias, some of which I come to realise are very deep.


CGP said...

@ Robert Mathieson

Robert said: “To say all these things is most definitely not a counsel of despair. It does NOT inevitably lead to "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die."”

Sorry but I cannot agree with you there. Focusing on all that you have outlined does lead to despair, despondency and a sense of meaninglessness and hopelessness. That’s not to say one should not have an awareness of these possibilities but as far as I can tell that awareness, once achieved, should be buried deep in the mind. What good can possibly come of focusing on the eventual demise of the entire human race and everyone and everything that ever meant anything? When we engage in acts of goodness, compassion and humanity it comes not from a realisation that it is all going away sometime; it comes from a deep seated faith that there is something special about humanity, its place in the universe and what we would understand as virtue. Ultimately it’s all about faith anyhow. We don’t know for a fact that the complete demise of humanity will come to pass any more than we know for a fact that humanity will never assume its place in the stars.

Robert said...

On the question of God and science there is no way to ascertain the ultimate reality of existence. To many working scientists their work suggests an ultimate reality, namely a materialist one, but materialism is a metaphysical concept. There is no contradiction and never has been between fully accepting the claims of science and holding non materialistic beliefs. This being so dogmatic atheism is unscientific.

Dornier Pfeil said...

Mr. Greer,

I have about a billion different thoughts trying to escape my fingers and have since relocalization became the dominant theme at year's beginning but have prefered to wait for you to go on the following week and see how it pans out. Maybe I'll yet ask some of them before you lose this theme soon but I do have one question to ask now. Are you already familiar with Isaac Asimov's essay "The Relativity of Wrong"? Sometimes I can convince myself you are and other times I feel mistaken. If not you can read it in about five or ten minutes here:


James M. Jensen II (badocelot/shiningwhiffle) said...

Oh, I wonder if you noticed that a really good example of the decay of Christianity in America presented itself today? A lot of Christians are outraged by Google featuring Cesar Chavez in today's doodle instead of having an Easter doodle.

Many are threatening to leave for Bing because they featured Easter eggs on their front page.

So, featuring a secular symbol of how commercialized the holiday has become is now apparently preferable to celebrating the birthday of a devout Catholic whose activism revolved around his religious faith. Because let's face it, Jesus was never an option here.

More indicative still are how many are upset because of Chavez's politics. "Republican Jesus" strikes again!

KL Cooke said...

I'm often struck by the antagonism that atheists (at least those who comment publicly on the subject) direct toward religion. It seems they don't so much disbelieve in 'God' as dislike 'Him.' However, that's understandable if one's concept of a deity is based on the malignant narcissist presented in the Old Testament.

Agnostics, of course, don't experience this conflict.

onething said...


"That's because there is no way to separate the scientific method from atheism. Religious faith is not compatible with the scientific method"

This is such an astonishing statement, I wonder how you can think it, unless the key is the second sentence, because the scientific method might turn up something at odds with some scripture?

People speak of a lack of evidence, or contrariwise, someone spoke of the evidence in the scriptures. But the real evidence must always lie within. Even if a scripture has truth, it only resonates with you due to your inner senses, or it would find no place. Direct, personal experience convinces most strongly. This is where religion is so often lacking, because the faithful have a weak inner sense and let the blanks be filled in with dogma and belief without knowledge.

There are various evidences. I know, not believe, that mind to mind communication happens, because I have witnessed it. The book, The Conscious Universe, lays out in tedious detail the many thousands of valid experiments which have proven that an assortment of psi abilities are real. That the mind is not confined to the brain is proven.

The near death and out of body experiences are also very valuable. They cannot all be dismissed; there are simply too many.
There are researches and memories of past lives, compelling and profound.
That people everywhere and everywhen have this constant inner intuition of an unseen reality is certainly a clue of something. To dismiss it all as wishful thinking on the part of a humanity which has learned of their own death might be too simplistic. How is it that all cultures have come to believe in something fundamentally nonexistent? That people should come up with an idea such as God when there is no such thing seems very odd to me. I have some doubt that if it's possible.
To assume that there is no God is to assume that matter is primary, rather than secondary. Why shouldn't it be secondary (derivative)? There is much evidence and thought available leading to consciousness as the prime reality, not matter.

The existence of matter is to me the strongest proof of God, as matter as we know it cannot cause itself. Something able to cause it has to be very "other".

When people say there is no evidence despite much evidence, I am wondering what sort of evidence they expect. And it is odd that in this time of science, when we have found that there is a huge unseen world of microbes, molecules, cells with millions of atoms all doing organized functions invisible to the eye, an electromagnetic spectrum that takes special instruments to find - why do some people suppose that this is it and we have discovered all there is to discover? Is that not an astonishingly shortsighted conclusion to come to in this particular time in history?

I can well imagine going to some medieval or Roman intellectual group and trying to explain about the dangers of radiation and having them reply that there is no evidence for such a preposterous notion!
How can you demand evidence of spiritual things from with the realm of matter? Oh, maybe I should not have said that, for I do not actually separate them, but only for convenience, because of the limitations of our senses.

It is like that Mitchelson-Morley experiment, in which they proved that there was no ether because their instruments could not pick it up!
There is also the evidence of the mystics, who all speak the same language even when they seem to adhere to a particular religion. Here I would also include the spiritual wisdom of many indigenous and aboriginal cultures. There is a common human spiritual experience. The same themes repeat. The more a person has their own sense of connection to the numinous, the less they care about or depend upon others to tell them what to believe. Where does this confidence come from? Of course, a paranoid schizophrenic is also very confident in his elaborate belief system, but every schizophrenic is crazy in their own way, whereas sane, mystical people understand one another easily.

Richard Clyde said...

Re: the atheist faith issue, I guess I'd make the mild observation that "is there a God?" is a theological question; and while "is there evidence for the existence of God?" is not a theological question, its necessary precursor "what counts as evidence for/against the existence of God?" is. It is an unprovable credo, for instance, to say that the world is the kind of thing that could exist without God.

Agnosticism is the only position that does not involve faith, and it is respectable. Humans being what they are, though, it tends to be a vacuum easily filled. Chesterton's quip about believing in anything comes to mind as a cautionary.

Which brings us back nicely to JMG's latest theme: what belief replaces belief?

Georgi Marinov said...

KL Cooke said:

I'm often struck by the antagonism that atheists (at least those who comment publicly on the subject) direct toward religion. It seems they don't so much disbelieve in 'God' as dislike 'Him.' However, that's understandable if one's concept of a deity is based on the malignant narcissist presented in the Old Testament.

How can one hate something that he does not thing it exists? That's an old canard.

I cannot speak for other atheists, but I can speak for myself - the reason I speak so passionately against religion are the consequences of religion. And by consequences I don't mean the relatively minor things you will see Dawkins or Sam Harris talk about such as Muslim fundamentalism. I said it above and I will have to repeat myself here for which I apologize: there is a direct causal relationship between the anthropocentrism inherent to the world's major religions and our ecological overshoot. Religion is far from the only reason for that but it contribute a lot - once you start thinking you are above and separate from the rest of the ecosystem, it becomes a lot easier to engage in that kind of behavior.

Georgi Marinov said...

onething said...

There are various evidences. I know, not believe, that mind to mind communication happens, because I have witnessed it. The book, The Conscious Universe, lays out in tedious detail the many thousands of valid experiments which have proven that an assortment of psi abilities are real. That the mind is not confined to the brain is proven.


To assume that there is no God is to assume that matter is primary, rather than secondary. Why shouldn't it be secondary (derivative)? There is much evidence and thought available leading to consciousness as the prime reality, not matter.



Well, I am astonished by these statements for they are 100% false and contrary to everything we have learned about the mind and the world around us in the last 200 years.

John Michael Greer said...

Georgi, you just keep on digging yourself deeper. Have you done a study to show that scientists who are religious think differently in church than they do in the lab? Of course not; you're taking it on faith, because the circular logic of your atheist convictions demand that conclusion. Your argument is therefore self-refuting, not to mention arrogant, and you have thus quite efficiently disproved your own case. (Mind you, your claim is also inaccurate; you might want to do some reading on the philosophy of science. No logical system can prove its own first principles, and that applies to sciences as it does to everything else.)

Matt, thank you! 'Tis an ill wind that blows no minds.

Robert, good. I've also seen it argued, very convincingly, that the scientific method only applies to things that can be measured in quantitative terms by material instruments. There are plenty of things that can't be so measured, and to criticize science for not being able to deal with them is like criticizing a hammer because it's not a very good saw. Even so, a hammer isn't a very good saw, and recognizing that a hammer shouldn't be used as a saw is a good first step to becoming a competent carpenter.

Dornier, yes, I've read it. Have you read Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions? Kuhn argues that the model of the history of science Asimov is using is fatally flawed, and that it's defended -- as in Asimov's essay -- by cherrypicking details from history that support it and ignoring those that don't.

James, Michael Harrington in The Politics at God's Funeral comments that God's death deprives conservatives of one of their foremost spokesmen.

KL Cooke, I've met a lot of atheists who were not so much a-theists as anti-Christians, and yes, in a lot of cases there's plenty of emotion under the veneer of logic. Human beings are like that!

wall0159 said...

Georgi, as a fellow athiest I must disagree with you. I think that Mendel is without doubt a scientist and that religious-minded folk can certainly be scientists.

Everyone has their personal biases and blind-spots, and this affects their work. I personally view a religion mindset as an error, but I could be wrong. Having a diversity of viewpoints can only be a good thing in science (as long as scientists take an evidence-based approach, which is how I define a scientist).

JMG, regarding scientists having faith in their pet-theories -- I think often happens. There's a self-correcting mechanism here though -- the death of old scientists. I presume this is what led Bohr to say "science proceeds one funeral t a time" ;-)

wall0159 said...

James M Jensen,
I think I understand what you mean by human inability to access hidden truths (or whether such hidden truths even exist).
I'm not a philosopher, but my feeling is that it doesn't matter. I'm kind of a "whatever works" sort of person. This is not being slap-dash, but if we can repeatedly demonstrate a measurable phenomenon in our perceivable universe, and can't reject a theory we've developed to describe it, I count that as a success. I'd even go so far as to say that such a theory in some way captures the complexity of that phenomemon (at least as it manifests to us).
JMG also mentioned it, but I too think that Karl Popper's approach has merit when it comes to the scientific approach. I understand, though, that there are pretty hard limits about what can and can't be learned using this though...

dragonfly said...

CGP wrote:
" Focusing on all that you have outlined does lead to despair, despondency and a sense of meaninglessness and hopelessness"
Err, sorry but I cannot agree with you there. After reading Robert's eloquent setting of the ultimate demise of everything we know of, I was filled with neither despair nor despondency. Rather I took it as an opportunity to reflect on how I can live my life in a meaningful way right now, knowing that right now is ultimately all we have.
If nothing that the human race does can never amount to a hill of beans in the heat-death of the universe (mmmm, baked beans !) well then why not look to your friends and loved ones with a little more love, a little more compassion, a little more understanding. Help someone today. Make someone laugh. Create something of beauty that will soothe someone's soul, at least for a while. After all, ultimately you've got nothing to lose.
"When we engage in acts of goodness, compassion and humanity it comes not from a realisation that it is all going away sometime; it comes from a deep seated faith that there is something special about humanity, its place in the universe and what we would understand as virtue. "

You are of course, speaking for yourself here. I have no such faith regarding humanity. Oddly, that doesn't seem to prevent me from trying to be a decent human being.

Grebulocities said...

I live in central Illinois. During the 2012 drought and heat wave that destroyed a substantial fraction of the season's corn harvest, I remember driving by a church whose sign said "The Bible predicted global warming 2000 years ago."

I had a sudden flash of insight about where Christianity (as it's expressed here) might go. The effects of climate change and resource depletion are becoming difficult to deny even to the most "conservative" citizens, and indeed, they may look apocalyptic to those who wish to interpret them as such. Do you think there's a reasonable chance that a strain of Christianity might arise that interprets our ecological predicament as a punishment for our excesses over the past few decades?

Justin Wade said...

Well, this thread is buried. But in continuation of the Nietzsche points... I think we see eye to eye on the to logical extremes of God's death that Nietzsche saw in Nihilism and Nazism, one being the reduction of meaning to nothing and the other the elevation of man to Godhood as successor.

For the religion of progress, I think we can see the two strains of reduction ad absurdum already at play and the contradictions are irreconcilable.

In the one, you have the environmental movement that offers reduction and recycling as an answer to environmental problems. What they are really offering, if their prescriptions are done at scale, is economic depression and the bigger the depression, the more closely followed are their ideas. I think Derrick Jensen and that strain of thought that advocates actively dismantling dams, pieces of the electric grid and pipelines is that set of memes taken to its current extreme.

The other side of this are the find energy at all costs and with complete disregard to the laws of thermodynamics or ecology that is searching for sustained exponential expansion and places GDP at the Godhead, the altar at which everything may be sacrificed.

A few notes on the Georgi discussion. Georgi, I think some of the trouble here is your use of language, within which you may find evidence that your thinking is somewhat circular.

"humans are nothing more than Darwinian machines”
This is a great example of irony. Darwinian machines is an
oxymoron, as the theory of evolution explicitly applies to living matter and machines are explicitly not-living. Once you make this metaphorical connection in your mind, living organisms to machines, you've made a reduction that also puts the subject out of scope of Darwinian theory.

"We're free to create whatever meaning to our lives we want" nonsense...

This 'nonsense' is also known as self-actualization.

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