By Robert A. Vella
Many years ago in a far-away land, a young man and his youthful comrades would laze around on a pleasant Saturday afternoon pondering the meaning of life and other metaphysical topics while sharing a seemingly endless supply of very smoke-able joints. We covered it all like renowned philosophers in an open-debate forum. Is the universe open (expanding) or closed (contracting), or is it infinitely constant (i.e. the Steady State model)? Is time travel possible? What exists outside our universe, if anything? How did our universe originate, if it even had a beginning? Did God create Man, or did men create gods? Is human nature essentially good or evil? Do the concepts of good and evil exist anywhere beyond the human mind? Why is miscommunication so prevalent between cultures, between the sexes, and even between similar individuals? What are the best social systems? Why is war so common? Etc., etc., etc.
Those young, idealistic pot-heads were intensely curious about their world because it was new to them. Their passion to learn was guided by genuine altruism as was their passion to change a very real world which appeared totally incongruent. Today, we see such youthful vigor and optimism as admirable, yet obviously naive. As we get older, the world begins to look quite different to us. Our pessimism grows. Our acceptance of imperfection strengthens, albeit reluctantly. We tend to take ourselves less seriously. More and more, we realize that which we do not know. In its final stages, life itself becomes an existential absurdity (i.e. nihilistic).
What a contrast of perspectives we typically experience! At some point in life, reality crashes down on our dreams. Nihilism takes root. Neither is right, and neither is wrong. It is all so subjective. We constantly struggle for some objectivity, for some semblance of external frames of reference. We hopelessly search for these things. We desperately hope for these things. But, alas, we are forever lost.
Into this psychological void, steps the dogmas of religion. However, institutionalized spirituality has a problem, and it’s a big one. Even the most intricately organized religion is based solely on myth and contrivance. In order to attract followers, belief in its precepts must be secured through steadfast adherence to faith (i.e. loyalty). This can be simple to achieve in strict, authoritarian societies; but, it’s not so easy in cultures which promote intellectual freedom. Nevertheless, religion offers an attractive alternative to nihilistic thinking because it is its polar opposite – safe, secure, and well-ordered.
In what I – and many others – refer to as this “dystopian” 21st century, the rise of nihilism appears to be occurring in people of increasingly younger ages. This is inherently dangerous. Civil society is dependent upon the altruism, optimism, and vigor of young people. Widespread disillusionment would act like a social cancer. Wary, we must all be.