The dictionary defines the term culture as the collection of ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society. There’s nothing surprising about this, but if you look more closely, you’ll notice a second, less commonly used definition: namely that culture is the cultivation of organisms in an artificial medium. And it’s this second definition is the one I want to focus on, because it explains culture much better.
I imagine human culture as a gigantic petri dish into which humans willingly placed themselves to be able to survive and perpetuate. Just like a single bacteria, an individual human life is finite, but as part of the culture, it can reproduce indefinitely, leaving its characteristics to the next generation.
Subconsiously you feel that if you can become an inherent part of culture, if you live your life according to the cultural standards, and especially if you can enrich your culture in some way, you are more than just an individual destined to die, isolated from the rest of existence. Then, you are also something bigger than yourself, something eternal, meaningful and significant.
Preserving culture equals to preserving life symbolically. If a culture dies, the symbolic lives of the past, present and future generations of its members are equally destroyed with it. And I don’t just mean the memories of the elders and the hopes of the young. I mean the entirety of their human identity, because without culture, a man is no more than an animal.
And man knows very acutely that all animals eventually expire. This existential anxiety is the very reason man wants to rise beyond the level of his animality, and this creates the urge to fabricate an artificial system of meaning that imbues him with special significance that today we call culture. Thus as the main function of every culture is to provide supernatural and eternal life, we can conclude that every culture is inherently sacred.
In tribal societies, religion and culture were essentially the same. Besides, one tribe had only one culture, the multiculturalism apparent in our modern world was completely unknown. But even then, both religion and non-religious customs, behaviors and norms served as psychological shields against the awareness of death, and provided meaning for the life of its members.
This symbiotic relation between religion and culture continued for thousands of years in different forms until the age of enlightenment, when they were irreversibly split apart by the cutting edge of science. From then on can we truly speak about a separate secular and religious world, about believers and atheists, about profane and sacred.
However, the split was only superficial, and in essence religion and culture remained the same: an artificially created vehicle of immortality. The only difference is that one features a supernatural fatherly figure, while the other does not. But even if you regard yourself an atheist, you still believe in many things, and you still treat your culture as your religion.
Atheists payed a high price for sheding the delusions of religion: through culture, they can only achieve symbolic immortality, and not literal. Besides, the bar is much higher. Until a believer only has to put faith in Jesus to be physically resurrected at the time of the Final Judgment or to get to heaven, an atheist has to live up to innumerable cultural standards which are sometimes impossibly high.
It’s not surprising that our modern culture is so much riddled with anxiety and depression. We created such unrealistic standards for ourselves that only a minority of the population will ever be able to reach them, and the rest will stay without redemption.
For the atheist, culture is the last line of defense, the last shield against existential anxiety. The only method to gain self-worth and significance is to be accepted by others. To do what’s cool, what’s fashionable, what’s trendy. If one falls behind, one risks nothing less than symbolic death.
If you’re an atheist, you are not in an easy position, but you are on the right track. You shed the illusion of religion, but you are still living in the shackles of culture. It’s not easy to see through the lies of culture, exactly because the glass of your human petri dish is transparent.
But I’m here to help you do exactly that. In my own life, my disillusionment with culture led to a spiritual awakening, and I want you to experience the same. Not surprisingly, it was the same time I started to become interested in immortality, but not in an artificial but in a true sense. In the rest of this episode, I will show you in detail how culture is your secular religion.
In our modern mainstream secular culture, the ultimate truths of religion were displaced with the ambigous truths of science. Although with the help of logic, discovery and experiment we can come to certain conclusions about the nature of reality, we can never be sure whether these conclusions are final.
Besides, these truths are not given, we have to find them out for ourselves, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but still makes life more uncertain. The 10 commandments were replaced with law books, which are not written in stone but on simple paper. Order is upheld by the police instead of our moral compass. It is not God who judges us but a fellow human being just like us.
In general, we took things into our own hands, but at the same time lost the spiritual meaning of our lives. We gained control but we lost purpose. And now we desperately want to find something worth living for in a godless world. But we can’t control death, and we still live with minds conditioned by tribal living, thus no matter how much we deny it, we still crave these ancient and supernatural elements even in the most rational societies.
Although science made cultures anti-religious on the surface, in reality we adopted science as the new religion. Scientists have become the modern priests proclaiming important truths in their white ceremonial robes. The white robe is shared by doctors, who took the place of tribal healers and medicine men. We look up to both of these groups with awe and admiration, just like an average believer would look up to the members of the priesthood in the past.
The other group of authority figures is of course the class of the politicians, who are equivalent to contemporary prophets. They seem to possess some sort of supernatural knowledge, and we are eager to line up behind them so we can follow them like a flock of sheep, so we can help them create their visions of the future, so they can guide us to the promised land.
But once we realize they are just as lost as everyone else, we get disillusioned just as quickly as we got excited, and search for a new leader instead. But today’s leaders don’t promise us spiritual growth, they religiously focus on economic development. If the economy is healthy, then the soul of the nation is healthy too.
Individually, we collect money with the same fervour a zealot would collect sacred artifacts. Wealth is the new religion, money is the new God, and shopping is the new form of worship. The objects of worship have also changed with time. While the Greeks would revere their imaginary gods, we glorify flesh and bone celebrities: famous actors, singers and other members of the entertainment industry.
Musicians have especially become important nowadays, as they took the role of the shaman, who would create an atmosphere of connection in the tribe with his songs and dances. We don’t dance and sing around the fire any more, but we can again feel the same kind of connection with our fellow humans at music festivals, rock concerts and dance clubs.
A primitive caveman would return home tired after a day of hunting, and find relaxation watching the flames of the fire. His family would also gather around him, and someone would tell an interesting story. We don’t do that nowadays, but the television set does both tasks at once: its moving lights relaxes our minds, and we can find entertaining stories in Hollywood movies.
At the end of this episode, I’d like you to ask yourself: how much do you let culture define you? How much do you rely on other people’s opinion to gain self-esteem? How much faith do you put in your culture in an unconscious hope to save yourself from death?
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