The human species is in a long transition from its current major cultures into a new global multi-culture. Technology has made this unavoidable, whatever some may wish. If we are to avoid destroying ourselves, we will have to find a language of experience we can hold in common. This must replace the competing mythological structures we use to ward off our gut fear of death. It must also replace the use of science, technology & materialism as a metaphorical structure used in place of religious mythologies. It is not necessary to dissolve all cultural differences. But it will take a while to learn new ways of coping with the terror that comes with being creatures who will die, & who know they will die. For millennia, traditional cultures, based on groups of humans with common geographies & deep family histories, have been growing as partial answers to this fear. They have passed down belief systems that combine elements of animism, deity worship, rituals & metaphors, deeply ingraining them across generations. Science, technology, & materialism have their own mythological structures, for example that rational Enlightenment by itself can solve the human existential problem.
Cultures change slowly. Scientific knowledge & technology change faster & faster. Cultures only adapt as they are forced to cope with new material realities over time; a single generation can only bend the shape of its culture so far. Cultures seem to include natural groups of conservative & progressive temperaments. There’s evidence to think this has survival advantages for the larger group; some ability to change is good—to adapt to drought, conflict with other cultures, new tools, such as weapons, money, farming, printing, & now digital tools. Too much change too quickly can lead to instability. The two impulses balance each other.
More cultures than ever before are encountering each other because science & technology continue to make it easier to communicate & travel. At the same time, the ability of a blend of simple beliefs in gods, rituals & metaphors, to balance our mortal fears, is being eaten away. Although many cling to these ways of managing our fears, it is clear this will be a losing battle. We seem to be splitting into two diverging groups, with a third in between. One group follows traditional beliefs only in name, in terms of group identity, (“I am a white Christian man”), while desperately meeting deeper needs by purchasing things, or becoming addicted to digital entertainment, drugs, food, sex, violence, &/or extreme political views. Another group veers toward desperate doubling down on irrational beliefs, increasingly stressed by the resulting cognitive dissonance until anyone who threatens those beliefs must be destroyed. A third group, caught in between, sees the despair & decline of these extremes but no way to help. Of course, these trends flow into each other.
Two responses to this seem doomed: Going back to some imagined past (before technology & global cultural encounters) & ignoring the issues.
I believe we must recognize the need for a new way to cope with our collective fears, a new language & practice for understanding what it means to be human & how to cope with it. This language & practice must be able to exist in a world constantly changing through science & technology, in which old remedies for the fear of death no longer work. It must provide a reasonable path from existing beliefs—whose moral & ethical aspects need to be respected & transformed, even as their surrounding mythologies shed their simple beliefs & survive only as useful, possibly clarifying, metaphors.
This is the long game: To begin to shape a new language, a new set of understandings & practices based on psychological truths, on insights from how humans & their cultures have evolved. The elements of morality, community & ritual must be re-imagined for the world that now exists, so that we can abandon the worn-out habits that now lead only to disillusionment & conflict. Crucially, this change must take place closer to the speed of digital technology, not the multi-generational pace of culture.
I believe that one starting point for this new language can be based on the teachings of Siddhattha Gotama, better known as the Buddha. While there is a complex set of cultural beliefs surrounding his teachings, by letting go of the cultural understandings of his person & his teachings, & focusing on the key insights & practices he developed, we can build the foundation of a new understanding of the human condition & how to experience it with balance, calm, & true happiness.
This site offers some ideas for what that might look like.