Scriptures of the secular age

Scriptures has always held an important role in human culture and society. Scriptures, sacred texts of various religions, promoted a set of non-negotiable principles on which to construct a worldview. Our collective history shows us that we are peculiarly dogmatic creatures. So much so that G. K. Chesterton once quipped, “There are two kinds of people in the world, the conscious dogmatists and the unconscious dogmatists. I have always found myself that the unconscious dogmatists were by far the most dogmatic.”

Scriptures or dogmas (among many other things) fulfill 2 important functions in human society. It provides a set of common precepts or beliefs which serves as a framework upon which a culture is developed. To paraphrase, it provides a set of non-negotiable, self-evident, absolute truths which become the foundation on which human societies, cultures and nations are formed. Scriptures provided eternal truths to its subscribers.

Furthermore, no scripture was ever written simply as a list. The truth that it represented was always communicated as a part of a story. A narrative. A myth. It may be a complete fabrication as it was the case with Greek mythology or it may be based on a historical narrative as it is the case with Judaism and Christianity. Whatever the case may be, scriptures were generally not communicated as mere lists of absolute truths. The truths were always communicated in the context of a story. And they can only be interpreted and understood in the context of that story. And when interpreted in the context of that story, the truths fused the story with a meaning. The truth gave meaning to the lives of people in that story. This is the second function of scriptures. To provide meaning. And isn’t that the eternal human quest? To find the meaning of life? If it is so, then the fundamental longings of the human hearts are eternally linked with scriptures.

It is no secret that our post-modern, post-truth society has rejected the notion of absolute truth. It is a widely held belief that truth, and especially moral truth is only subjective and relative. That what’s true for you may not be true for me and vice versa. What this means is that dogmas or principles as laid out in scriptures no longer provide the framework on which to build the cultural values (or the melting “pot”) of the society. And advocating universal moral values based on a certain religion has become the intellectual equivalent of committing a political suicide. As a consequence of the absence of commonly held dogmas within a culture, the ideal of pluralism has become the driver of sectarianism instead of liberty. By the minute, the secular society is becoming ever so fragmented.

In this context, I want to draw your attention to a very peculiar phenomena that is being experienced around the world. In olden days, what was shown on screen was judged based on scriptures. Now, what is shown on the screen judges the scriptures. In days past, the content of any movie or TV serials was judged by the scriptures of a culture to be moral or immoral. Now the roles have been reversed and it is interesting to see how whole worldviews are being re-interpreted and re-aligned to comply with what is shown on the screen. The rise of Trump, the sexual revolution of the west, even the rise of suicide rates around the world can reasonably be traced back to the power of the screen. But I must ask, why does the screen hold such power?

Historian Yuval Noah Harari, in his book Sapiens: A Brief history of Humankind promotes the idea that the secret glue that is binds the human culture and society is a myth, a story. When people believe the same story or a myth they come together and work towards a world that the myth promotes. Even Nietzsche in his Parable of the Madman where he declared the death of God asks, “What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent?” Having declared the death of God, Nietzsche immediately asks what new myths will need to be invented to take the place of God? Both of these great thinker seem to suggest that without a unifying myth, Human civilization will break down.

Earlier I pointed out that the scriptures provide 1) common absolute truths and 2) context within which the meaning of life can be found. But the scriptures are nothing more than the container for the myth. Religious texts are prime examples of such myths and we can see it’s power throughout history. But as the dogmas and myths of the old are being driven out of the mental landscape of culture, it has created a want of meaning. People are quite content making up their own truths but these truths without the context of a narrative have no way to provide meaning. Recently in a TED talk, Chris Anderson, the prime curator of TED asked, “What are humans for?” as a question that’s been haunting him in recent years.

Today, media houses around the world are churning out myths at an unprecedented scale. Even elections around the world are being won or lost based on who’s myth is more appealing to the masses. The myth doesn’t need to be true to gain momentum, it only has to be appealing. Because “the need of reason is not inspired by the quest for truth but by the quest for meaning.” as Hannah Arendt pointed out. Truth and Meaning are two different entities. And humans at an existential level are more concerned about meaning than truth. Having abolished the traditional myths, the hunger for meaning has become a cultural phenomena rather than an individual crisis. Is it any wonder that facts and truth holds less weight in public discourse? Today, we have amassed more knowledge than any point in human history and still the metaphysical question of meaning continues to haunt the masses.

Having denied the “True Myth” people continue to look for other myths that may provide meaning to their lives. The screen provides myths in abundance. And thus the masses turn towards the screen as if it is the oracle of God. Peering intently into it as it narrates the myth of the secular dogma. Because the scriptures of our secular age are not written on pages. They are shown on the screen.