We’ve been in transition for a long time. And it’s starting to wear us down.
Cognitive anthropologist Bob Deutsch had a column this morning that talked about the crisis of time we’re all experiencing in our lives. It seems we’re always rushing to do something. In the column, Bob had a paragraph that jumped out at me:
The consumer finds himself at a cognitive impasse, where America is presently “between mythologies.” We are not what we once were, and we do not yet know what we will become. This is a hard place for a culture. Worse, because of the speed of the culture, and the perceived complexity and unpredictability of things, people experience the world as a series of unconnected dots.
His line – ‘between mythologies” – was particularly interesting. Humans are animals that need to share a lot of things. We are herding animals and this need to herd drives much of our behavior. We look for commonalities and feel more comfortable when we find them. It gives us a sense of belonging that is very important. And myths are an essential part of that formula.
For our entire history, our shared acceptance of myths has united us. Myths govern our view of the world. They are the tools we have invented to explain the unexplainable. But, one by one, science and technology have stripped down our myths and thrown them into question. Myths come from the deeper, darker recesses of our brain, down in the sub cortical regions of our neural basement. They don’t stand up very to the cold hard light of rational reasoning. And increasingly, we are forced to be reasonable about the things in our life. Information drives us towards reason, and we have more information thrown at us than ever before.
Myths also served another purpose. They gave us rules to govern our behavior. Most of our myths were religious in nature and came with a corresponding code of social behavior. The basic rules of herd survival, including fairness and reciprocal altruism, were baked into the package. That’s why a variation of the Golden Rule is found in every single religion in the world.
But, when the myths start to break down, what happens to the rules of behavior that came bundled with them? We start to get confused. Things start to become disconnected.
The Atheist Next Door
There’s a mix up of cause and effect that we struggle with when we talk about things like religion. Even if we renounce our religion, we don’t suddenly become evil people. Just because atheists don’t believe in God doesn’t mean they’ve freed themselves from the obligation to do right by their fellow man. In fact, if you had to pick someone to be your neighbor, an atheist wouldn’t be a bad choice. Statistically speaking, the percentage of atheists in prison is far less than the percentage of atheists in the general population. Atheists are also less likely to get divorced. When you look at the types of behavior that govern the continuance of social harmony, atheists have a far better track record than most segments of the population. Religion doesn’t cause morality. Morality superseded religion. You could say morality begat religion. Unfortunately, a lot of the less noble instincts of our species also got tied up in the whole religious bundle – including the tendency of humans belonging to different herds to try to kill each other.
But when our myths, including religion, start to slip away under the scrutiny of rationalization, we start to feel cut out from the herd. We start to become disconnected from our sense of “oneness”. We still try to do the right thing, but the reason why isn’t as clear as it once was. If we stop to think about it, we can come up with a Dawkinesque rationalization using things like game theory and “tit for tat” reciprocal strategies, but it was a whole lot easier just to believe that God would smite us if we weren’t nice. The fact is, we don’t take much time in our lives to “stop and think.” We cruise through live 95% of the time on emotional autopilot and myths are great guidance systems for emotions.
So, back to Deutsch’s point. What happens as we drift between mythologies? The Pew Forum on Public Life and Religion has shown that the percentage of “non religious” people in America has grown from just over 7% in 1990 to over 16% in 2007. What is perhaps even more telling is to see how that group breaks down. Only 1.6% were atheists and 2.4% agnostics. These are the ones who were, to some degree, proactive about severing their ties with an accepted mythology. 12.1% were simply drifting away from their mythologies. They were wandering out there, beyond the idealogical boundaries of the herd.
Deutsch talks abut the increasing pace of our lives being the culprit in our sense of disconnection. And, in that drive to do more in less time, we tend to sample life in little commoditized chunks. Ironically, in the same email that continued the link to Deutsch’s article was a sidebar with the top 10 franchises of 2009, courtesy of Entrepreneur magazine:
Top 10 Franchises Of 2009
4. Hampton Inn/ Hampton Inn & Suites
6. H & R Block
7. Dunkin’ Donuts
10. am/pm Mini Market
It was a fitting echo to Deutsch’s words. The most successful businesses are the ones that slice off some aspect of our lives and serves it up to us fast and shrink wrapped, preferably at a cheap price.
I’m not so sure we are simply “between mythologies” as Bob Deutsch suggests. I suspect we’re moving too fast for myths to keep up. Myths, by their very nature, have to grow to critical mass to be effective. Historically, myths were the foundation for global religions. Today, myths are email strings that quickly get exposed on snopes.com. We deconstruct myths before they get a chance to gain enough traction to serve their purpose: uniting us in a common view. We have access to too much information for myths to stand much of a chance of survival. That’s where I’ll pick up in tomorrow’s post.