Sunday, May 22, 2011

are we entering a 'post-secular' age?

"There are many problems in today’s society that cannot be resolved by the application of reason, logic or medical science." So says Professor David Tacey of La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. "We are emerging from a long period of materialism and rationality," he says.

Is this true? Is it good, or bad? And why does he think this?

Dr Tacey has been researching such diverse topics as health and wellbeing, spirituality, medical science, philosophy, psychology and sociology for more than 20 years, and presents some grim facts in his recently published book, Gods and Diseases:

  • The number of Australians suffering from mental health conditions is rising dramatically. The University’s counselling centre has revealed that 1 out of 5 students suffer from a mental illness.
  • Alcohol and drug addictions, phobias, allergies, as well as severe social and family dysfunction are among the issues people deal with everyday.
  • The book has chapters on incest, child abuse, depression and suicide.
  • "We can all see that the available solutions are not working. Reason, logic and medical science simply cannot resolve so many of these serious problems."

Tacey is not a follower of any religion, though he does believe there is a mind or force behind the universe. But his diagnosis of the problem may be somewhat surprising to some.

"Modern society has invited us to seek a false security in the material world and this has amounted to a shift in the course of civilization. We seek material security, but naturally we do not find it and cannot find it, since the search is self-defeating. But the longing for real – that is, spiritual – security is innate and this search continues despite the contrary impulses of society. Without true security we fall prey to nervous disorders, obsessions and illnesses. It seems that if we fail to care for the needs of the soul, we pay a price at both individual and collective levels."

He quotes the Bible's book of Proverbs ("without a vision the people perish") and says that "People do need something deeper to believe in .... [belief] has survival value ... these deeper ideas are required in order for us to live properly."

Psychologists have long known that wealth and owning things does not make people happy, and that happiness comes more from relating to other people and helping them. But Tacey is going further than this, and arguing that we need some deeper meaning that goes beyond the logical and physical world we inhabit, some deeper story that explains our existence.

In this, he is coming to similar conclusions to his colleague and Professor of Sociology, John Carroll, in his 2001 book The western dreaming : the western world is dying for want of a story - but more on John Carroll in another post.

It is possible to argue, I suppose, that these academics are mistaken, that when we understand the human brain's process better we will be able to diagnose and cure mental illnesses, anti-social behaviour and self destructive behaviour by changing the brain chemistry, though that possibility may be more scary than the present situation. (After all, who gets to decide what is normal and who needs to be treated? It sounds too much like Brave New World and 1984!)

But I find it interesting that those who study the brain tend to draw reductionist conclusions that humans are no more than their brain processes, whereas those who study human behaviour conclude that there is much more to being human.

If we agree with Tacey that a reductionist*, materialist* approach to life is causing us harm, we may still not agree on the solution. Do we need spiritual values regardless of whether there is actually a God to give life meaning, or must the two go together? Is our need for spiritual values an indication that there is a God who made us that way?

Here is David Tacey discussing the value of spirituality


* Reductionist - reducing an account of the human mind to accounts of the brain's physical processes. Materialist - the only thing that exists is matter.

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