Are we seeing history repeat itself?
Thousands of years ago, the Greeks and the Romans worshipped a pantheon of gods: Jupiter, Juno, Venus, Mercury, Artemis and Athena. If you search for a list of Greek and Roman gods, they number at least 100. These gods reflected human frailties and their strengths. The deities were lusty, vain, cruel and competitive, just like the humans who worshipped them.
In the Judeo-Christian-Muslim religions, we find an all-mighty, all-powerful, all-knowing God who demands high levels of obedience, one who is both punishing and forgiving, just and merciful. Humans are viewed as sinners, needing forgiveness and godly direction to guide their lives.
In the 17th century, Isaac Newton’s theories about motion and light helped bring about the rise of science, which emphasizes reason and thought. The period was called the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason. God was seen as orderly and rational. By following God-created natural laws and reason, it was believed possible for humans to create governments that both protected the common good and individual rights.
By the 18th century, many of the framers of the U.S. Constitution were deists. They perceived God as a giant clockmaker, who created the universe like a complex timepiece with gears and springs that worked in complex and wonderful ways. After he had created his universe, he stepped away, letting humans work out their own destiny and use their minds to perceive and use the mysteries of his creation.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the Age of the Industrial Revolution. During this period people believed in absolutes. They became optimistic about the potential for human perfection. Marxist communism and early evolution, both arising from this century, have the common thread that humans would evolve into a perfect society where wars and class struggles would cease. People would live in harmony and peace over time.
This belief in human perfectibility was brutally crushed by the horrors and savagery of World War I and II. Millions died in senseless battles, torn apart by war machines invented and perfected by the factories of the Machine Age. The creation and use of nuclear weapons that ended World War II stunned the world into the horror of potential total annihilation. The era lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and has only recently returned with the threat of war with North Korea.
Over the last 40 or so years, millions of Americans have abandoned Protestant Christianity and Roman Catholicism. Part of this is due to disillusionment with religion because of the negative feelings brought about either by political militancy of the fundamentalist right or the permissiveness of the religious left.
Sex scandals involving pedophilia have dampened the appeal of the Catholic Church. Governmental incompetence and venality have soured many people to any respect for authority figures. Loving father role models in the media are hard to find, having been replaced by inept, insensitive, clueless males who cannot be depended upon to provide for their families or even take care of themselves.
Political parties have become secular religions of absolute certainty: both major parties condemn compromise, believing instead in the correctness of their political doctrines.
Professional sports teams have also become the new churches where millions follow their “idols” on a weekly or even daily basis. Their devotees spend millions of dollars on sports memorabilia and tickets to home games – the new church service. Others are fascinated by the lives of the rich and famous. Magazines by the millions are produced that follow the lives, marriages, divorces, addictions and affairs of movie and music megastars. Some have turned to science and atheism/agnosticism. Human reason and human potential are the ultimate heights for mortals to attain.
Other gods abound in our secular age: Money, beauty, sex, power and technology. These new gods have replaced the pantheon of deities found in ancient Greek and Roman cultures.
In that sense we are little different than the ancients. We all search for certainty, when there is little to be found. Psychiatrist Victor Frankl noted in his book “Man’s Search For Meaning,” that there are three ways to attain meaning in our lives: work, love and, the most importantly for him, the ability to rise above oneself.
Is there a religion gene? There does seem to be a desire to find something higher than humans among most people, something that provides both a sense of security and a sense of purpose for our lives.
Richard Elfers is a professor at Green River College.