When I look around at the culture we currently reside in, I find it unsurprising when I hear that religious belief in America has been declining for years. Nearly 35% of the population claims to have no religious beliefs at all. For Millenials, their most cited religion is “None”. Deep down, I feel those who claim to have no belief are misguided – everyone believes in some god. The question is, which god is it?
In Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, the “old gods” of ancient mythology and lore such as Odin, Loki, Anubis, and Horus go to war against the “new gods” of the modern world like Technology, the Internet, and Pop Culture over the souls of America. I read the book, and while it had some interesting ideas and points to make, I feel Gaiman failed to emphasize the prominent of those new gods – Self.
Self is the god that many seem to worship today, and the path on the worship of Self only leads to a dead end. If you look around the world today, it seems many feel the world is worse now than it was 50-100 years ago, while nearly every piece of significant evidence about numerous factors such as wealth growth, life expectancy, infant mortality, access to clean drinking water and technology seems to suggest the opposite. The West in particular at this moment is the richest, most advanced, most opportunity-filled, and most technologically connected society to ever exist in human history, yet we are also the most lonely, depressed, anxious, and medicated society to ever exist as well. How can these two things coexist?
Various studies have shown that materialism and a self-centered existence tends to lead to unhappiness, depression, and anxiety, yet so many choose to worship Self and live for Self. We’ve been sold the “we only need ourselves” lie, and we always find ourselves lacking. Instead of accepting our non-diety and living in humility, we look for new things to hopefully confirm this fruitless ambition, and the worship of Self continues. Is this a sustaining way to live?
We have made Self our god, and our Self gods don’t tend to play well with others. We fabricate communities and entire lives in digital spaces or in the various things we label ourselves, yet we still hold Self as our highest god. Think about the rise of identity politics. What a person feels about their identity is their most important trait and where they gain all of their value. In the past, a person’s value in the world was defined by what they did, not by what they identified as. Now, what is good for Self is more important than what is good for others.
In an interview with filmmaker Matt D’Avella, Lost Connections author Johann Hari argues that human beings in the modern world are desperately trying to fill the void of lost community and genuine connection with social media and numerous other tools and concepts, to often unfulfilling results. At one point in the interview, Hari said (I’m going to paraphrase here) that “the relationship between social media and social life is like the relationship between porn and sex: it addresses the basic itch but it never deeply satisfies.” His argument essentially states that we have tried to recreate our old tangible communities with hollow parodies of real connection and shared values. Maybe the current emphasis on identity is the same thing. By emphasizing ourselves and our connection to X, we get a cheap sense of status and importance without working within a real community to gain more tangible status and importance. Our society is safer than ever before, so we find ourselves rallying around essentially trivial or overblown issues to feel some sense of belonging or purpose. Many feel they have no real social status, or they have no idea how to gain it and maintain their god, so they update their status online and treasure those little digital signals of passive validation they have convinced themselves are markers of real community and importance. Many don’t have real deep friends, yet they are obsessed with having “followers”. The idea of being an “influencer” is intoxicating to some, but what are you really doing? It all ties back to something comedian Marc Maron said: Every status update is just a variation on a single request – would someone please acknowledge me? Underneath it all, we are asking others to pay tribute to our god – Self.
James 3:16 says that “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.” We are unhappy with our world because the world we see was molded by the slow tide of our millions of selfish decisions, creating the disorder we are so dissatisfied with. It’s no wonder so many choose to hunker down and look out for themselves and rely on their Self to satisfy and blot out the noise of deeper truths knocking on their doors. The truth that’s trying to get in is that if we serve only the Self, we will inevitably become a slave to the world and meaninglessness.
One of the things marriage and fatherhood have shown me is how selfishness cannot exist inside of love (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). This has not only shifted how I interact with my son and my wife, but also my God, a God who calls for the self to be cast aside so that I can follow Him in humility. It’s impossible to live a meaningful life by only living for ourselves, and our world will continue to be defined by disorder until we cast that false god into the fire.