Religion: a shield in democracy’s arsenal of narratives


SpaceX has announced plans to send two citizens on a flight around the moon next year.

When they make the trip, I’ll pay special attention to the words they will utter as they retrace a journey made half a century earlier by NASA.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the words are more banal, more exclamatory, than the NASA trip on Christmas Eve 1968.

During that mission, ahead of the lunar landing the following year, NASA astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders recited verses from the Bible, from Genesis, the creation story.

Watching the grainy video now, the Bible verses with the imagery of the moon passing below, the moment seemed one of pure transcendence.

Humanity simultaneously making history while repeating the story of its own origin, drawn from a religious narrative.

Going into the unknown, these astronauts were armed with technology, courage, but also a storyline that could help them frame the much bigger and thornier questions about human existence.

This comes to mind today learning that one of the dimensions of Russian propaganda, which is dividing the West, is “spiritual.”

It recalls how a basic religious story underpinned, guided or at least informed so much of what happened in the US only 50 years ago.

The Civil Rights Movement. The March on Washington. Cesar Chavez and the Latino Farm Workers. Even the morality of LBJ’s Great Society.

Religions provided a collective path of understanding for the public. Where politics and politicians and parties failed, there was the moral system of religion. That system was told in story, parable and gospel. There was a shared narrative to help bind a divided society.

As the Reverend Martin Luther King said in his famous ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ speech, “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

Religion provided a path into the unknown, a dotted line of direction even if it couldn’t offer specific driving instructions.

By religion, I don’t mean the fundamentalism that itself is a form of weaponized narrative today, providing certainty at the cost of rationality.

Rather, I mean religion that acts as one more source of commonality in the broader current of a democratic society.

This is an important distinction to make because recently the West is facing a confusion of the narratives that have long sustained it.

The confusion is driven by a confluence of factors. Secularization is one element. The rise of the New Atheism is also part of it, too.

The notion of progress has become confused with snuffing out our own religious heritage, and with it a societal imagination that lets us transcend differences and uncertainty.

This is occurring as the underlying stories we’ve long relied on, are changing.

Religion was once part of a bigger story: Jim Morrison speaking with a minister in 1960s

Technology is another factor. The shift from an economy based on manufacturing to one based on information has seen whole industries evaporate. The path to prosperity for the middle class is unclear.

The sense of community and continuity once promised by geographical proximity have been disrupted by technology that makes us aware of other cultures contrary to our own.

The internet has, for now at least, misplaced the centers of broad consensus in democracy – and it’s not clear where the new centers will emerge.

Streams of news and information are accelerating and altering our ability to understand what exactly is going on in the world.

As Douglas Rushkoff notes, “Our society has reoriented itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real time, and always on.”

The ability to know what’s happening elsewhere in the world instantaneously disrupts – and for some – threatens their own sense of security.

This state of information overload has created new possibilities for confusion and manipulation – and this is an area both militant jihadists and Russian information strategists exploit.

If there is no shared narrative we’re living in today, it’s hard for society to picture a cohesive future.

For that reason, there is an urgency today to regain a shared narrative.

Reverend Martin Luther King

That’s because the lack of a shared positive narrative has created a vacuum being filled by weaponized narratives confected by organizations opposed to democracy, such as the Kremlin and radicalizing jihadists.

Weaponized narratives “seek to undermine an opponent’s civilization, identity, and will by generating complexity, confusion, and political and social schisms,” write Brad Allenby and Joel Garreau.

They work by exploiting the human response to daily information overload by providing “emotional certainty at the cost of rational understanding.”

In a pre-internet time, a positive storyline that explained ourselves and purpose to ourselves, helped explain the function of a pluralistic democracy in which many voices came together for the common purpose of our nation and society.

Today, without even the basic common story of a broad middle it is increasingly hard to counteract such weaponized narratives used to fragment our society.

With a post-factual but deeply emotional understanding of the world around, those who are sold on these narratives can be guided into positions that are fundamentally contrary to Western democracies. Jihadism. Political radicalism. Ethnonationalism.

This has been under way for some time, although it hit a new level of crisis with the election of Trump.

Whatever you think of the issue of immigration, declaring whole peoples “rapists” , “murderers” or “terrorists” serves only to undermine the public trust necessary for democracies to thrive.

“The emotionally satisfying decision to accept a weaponized narrative — to believe, to have faith — inoculates cultures, institutions, and individuals against counterarguments and inconvenient facts,” write Allenby and Garreau.

Confronting a strange future (Scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind)

They are invading the mindspace of open democracies, which, reliant on open and genuine debate to function, are the most at risk to these distortions.

This is the new world democracies find themselves thrust into. And with so much Western future thinking assuming Western values in its designs for the world, this enormous vulnerability was never anticipated.

As Allenby writes:  “What we must do is understand what is being born. And create new narratives to capture this new reality.”

Now more than ever, the West needs to regain the ability to convey a big story about where it is going. It needs unity in a time when story is being used to unpick the fabric of unity.

Religion, and I mean religion that hews to its traditional place in the human imagination, can be a tool in democracy’s arsenal of narratives.

That’s because it offers context for connection with each other – while offering a code of conduct – essentially important in a time of rapid technological change.

If you roll back the clock to 50 years ago, 100 years ago, the collective story of Western democracy helped connect disparate elements of the West to each other.

The fight against totalitarianism begun in the 1930s extended into an embrace for democratic values well into the 1970s.

This story was told and retold in countless Hollywood movies. There was a constant examination, almost a preoccupation with the notion of civilization, in films that now looks impossibly dowdy and corny today, such as Ben-Hur and Spartacus.

Warlock by Oakley Hall tells the story of the quest for law on the frontier.

But also in stories of explorers, cowboys, sheriffs and the ever-present frontier.

A clear example of is the literary Western Warlock by Oakley Hall.

The ideology of the Cold War gave a spectrum on which people could orient themselves.

The East and West competed with visions of the future.

The arms race thrived, but so did a technological, civilizational race.

In the West, what couldn’t be told by the expansion of liberal rights and freedom on earth – seen in everything from civil rights to scientific progress – could be inferred or underpinned by religion and religious language.

In highly uncertain times, religion provided – and still provides – a storyline into the future. It was an admission that beneath the bedrock of Western values and open democracy are beliefs in the fundamental goodness of humanity.

This was understood during the last time democracy itself was under threat.

As psychologist Gordon Allport wrote after World War II: “The vision, the idea, of the democratic personality is the most exalted conception that mankind has ever devised.

“It is an ideal picture – stemming from Judaic and Christian religions chiefly and developed principally in the Western world – though all the great religions have consonant features.”

In the World War II Frank Capra-directed propaganda film ‘Prelude to War’ asks:  “How did our world become free?”

The film begins the answer by crediting: “Men of vision like Moses, Muhammad, Confucius, Christ.”

“All believed that in the sight of God all men were created equal and from that there developed a spirit among men and nations which is best expressed in our Declaration of Freedom: We hold these truths to be self evident that ‘all men are created equal.’”

An image of the koran from Frank Capra’s ‘Prelude to War’

Religions provided not the political direction but the basis for what it means to be human, upon which a coherent democratic worldview could be built.

Today Western democracy is under assault by waves of stories designed to splinter consensus. So democracy finds itself returned to a frontier situation, in which its very institutions are being overrun and tested.

Now more than ever, democratic culture must live in the hearts of citizens.

But because of technology and societal changes, it’s a frontier with no linking narrative to hold it all together. No coherent religious narrative as in the 1800s, and no coherent frontier myth, as in last century.

But religion, like democracy, is an open system, a code, a unifier. Religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam, are told in story, and we are entering a period in which story, or “narrative”, as the Russians prefer, is the main battlefront between open democracies and authoritarian kleptocracies.

Mainstream religious tradition may have other value, as well.

For the future to work – people need a storyline into it, one that tells them that the future – for all its strangeness – has an understandable pattern and by extension a sort of meaning.

A recent psychological study showed that people “actually thought about the future three times more often than the past, and even those few thoughts about a past event typically involved consideration of its future implications.”

A binding story: Treasure Chest a Catholic Guild comic book

Whether a cause of coincidence, it was clearly a more religious – and less secular – Western society that was also more capable of technological feats.

Humanity could take big strides in technology in the confidence that it retained a moral, religious framework to understand the future. Hence, astronauts reading from the Bible, as they orbited the moon.

Is it possible that some of the anxiety around technological progress today stems from the fear of future it will bring? Especially if the future, like the present, is stripped of a sense of community and shared sense of experience?

After all, the lack of coherent narrative, between left and right, conservative and liberal, can easily lead Western publics into a state of resignation.

With no shared story for interpret the world’s unfolding events, the vulnerability from outside increases. This narrative indirection invites storylines of Western liberal decline and failure.

We should consider how a measure of faith seemingly helped the people of Western society traverse the strangeness of this new world in the 20th century, but also in the 19th and 18th centuries.

Back then Westerners traversed borderlands and frontiers and carried with them theologies that helped them make sense of the unfamiliar. Religion helped them surmount the constant changing strangeness of such frontier life.

“Religion is arguably the most powerful mechanism that societies have found to bind people together in common purpose,” wrote one Oxford academic.

Having a belief system that orders the unseen, allows someone to push on even when their vision is blocked in real life. Having a code of conduct that informs your behavior in unfamiliar situations can help you better prepare for the unknown.

The Russians seek to defend a spiritual element in their propaganda

Like explorers and settlers of centuries past navigating unfamiliar land, whole Western public’s find themselves facing strange and unfamiliar digital realities in which the past gives them little guide.

Networked terror; a President with worrying ties to a hostile foreign power and zeal for dividing allies; the fusing of domestic politics with geopolitical propaganda. Many of these problems challenge our traditional understanding of politics.

Keeping society faithful to itself and to each other may be the new battle in a time when propaganda actively seeks to divide the same society.

Religion: too important to be left in hands of people like Salman Abedi

Information war these days relies on confusion, contradiction, paralysis –  all sapping a nation’s sense of purpose, it’s sense of mission and direction. In these times, a measure of mainstream religion can provide the sense of destiny missing in public discourse as well.

Mainstream religion in the West that fully embraces democracy can occupy a spot contested by terrorists and Russia, too.

Russia itself seeks to defend against “factors threatening spiritual life” while in fact creating propaganda that addresses spirituality in the context of history, politics, culture and society.

This is important in understanding the lure for Westerners of the Russian worldview as Putin positions himself as “defender of Christianity.”

Russia contrasts traditionalist Christianity with the modern world of the West.

Westerners would be wise to reconnect the notion of faith and reason in pursuit of modern progress. Democracy won’t survive into the future without a vision of itself to be carried forward.

It’s something for humanity to consider the next time it finds itself orbiting the moon.

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Star Wars as shorthand for the great slowdown in innovation

It may just be one of those things but the rise and rise of the Star Wars franchise has coincided neatly with the slowdown in productivity-lifting innovation that has been commented on by people like author Neal Stephenson and economist Tyler Cowen. When I talk about “innovation”, I mean inventions that significantly change and improve the life we’re living today. To provide a benchmark, let’s say “significant innovation” would be the breakthrough technologies needed for interplanetary space travel.

When Stars Wars premiered in 1977, there were plans for human travel to Mars in encyclopedias.
When Stars Wars premiered in 1977, there were plans for human travel to Mars in encyclopedias.

The overlap between the triumph of Star Wars and the flattening out of the breakthrough horizon in reality hit home with me while watching my son’s interest in Star Wars grow. I was seven when the first Star Wars movie was released. The excitement for me then was real. And like my brother and friends, I couldn’t get enough of the experience. We drew imagined space ships and colonies, blending what was possible around Earth with what Star Wars spurred us to imagine in galaxies, ahem, far, far away. Decades later, I listen as my six-year-old son reads from his Star Wars Legobook and he asks me what the words “limited edition” or “exclusive” mean. The hardbound book is essentially a catalog of Star Wars merchandise. But the catalog itself is for sale. One more thing to buy.

Although my son is creative, nothing about the hardbound catalog of figures requires creativity. Consuming and collecting doesn’t require creativity. For all the celebration of Star Wars, what the Story has become in my lifetime is an Empire of Marketing, full of reissues, limited editions, and ever-newer ways to consume the brands.

I’ve watched good minds in my generation move from imagining spacecraft and technology in a time when real technological progress was presumed, to collecting figures and compiling trivia. Over the years, the franchise, in order to grow, achieved new life simply by being injected into other formats: Angry Birds and Legos, for example. Meanwhile, the technological progress we believed was imminent, largely because our parents believed it was imminent – in fact, because they witnessed it in their lives – well, aside from the internet, it never came.

An example of the expectation gap: the 1977 World Book Encyclopedia entry on space travel shows a detailed plan for a trip to Mars. Reading the fine print, it turns out Wernher von Braun, the Father of Rocket Science, actually contributed to the entry. Back in 1977 the presumption around human space travel was simple: after the Moon, then comes Mars.

The Mars trip never came. It never even came close.

When kids looked up space travel in 1977, this is what they saw.
When kids looked up space travel in 1977, this is what they saw.

In the 1970s we had the final Apollo missions, Skylab, the Space Shuttle. But by 2014, with Star Wars stronger than ever, the US had lost its ability to put people in space.

This isn’t to say Star Wars is responsible for the innovation starvation, or the lack of game-changing technological breakthroughs. It’s a coincidence. It’s not a cause.

Yet, even as economists and industrialists look for the Next Big Breakthrough, the New Industry, and a new source of wealth and purpose – and see nothing to come – over there in the toy aisle the Death Star of marketing just grows and morphs and grows again.

Societies only have so many hours to spend. What have we been spending ours on? If science fiction is the hieroglyph for the real world, what is the contribution from Star Wars? The franchise expands for the young, the old, everyone in between. It made itself a lifestyle, a collectors item, a cultural touchstone. Heck, it’s a no-brainer from a marketing perspective.

When you think of young imaginations over the past 35 years, looking upward and outward, a lot of time, energy and money has been sucked up by the marketing of Star Wars. Is there something about the excessive moralism and cast of heroes inspired by knights and monks of the medieval times, that has fired young imaginations?  Star Wars has helped to capture the imagination of the multitudes but whatever story

Wernher von Braun's encyclopedia entry in a 1977 World Book Encyclopedia.
Wernher von Braun’s encyclopedia entry in a 1977 World Book Encyclopedia.

it taught, didn’t seem to spark a lot of talk of breaking barriers and achieving the impossible. All of this comes to mind with the release of the book: How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor. No doubt it’s a good account of how Star Wars rose to its place in our pop-culture. By now Star Wars is practically a genre, a flavor, a way of life. But I can’t help but think that one of the fallouts of the conquest of a generation’s imagination is the kind of consumerist helplessness with us today. Compare it to the shared expectation during Cold War that humanity – if it didn’t exterminate itself – would step higher, grow stronger and achieve things that inspired awe in ourselves. Now that’s an idea from long time ago, in a mindset far, far away.

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