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Our Loneliness Has a Secular Shape

The topic of loneliness came up at a breakfast meeting this morning. This is the devastating norm for Western cultures these days. Anxiety, depression, addiction, bitter cynicism, yes, all these things are rampant. But loneliness and social isolation seem to be the common thread that runs through the despair of our cultural moment. I see this nearly every day in my work as a pastor and as a prison chaplain.

When I got to my office, I reread this fascinating exchange between Nick Cave and Seán O’Hagan in Faith, Hope and Carnage (I warned you there would be more quotes coming!). Cave is, in my view, making some critical connections between the lonely despair of so many in our world and the steady, if inconsistent encroachment of secularism.

Nick Cave: It’s interesting that one of the most common concerns from people who write in to The Red Hand Files is a feeling of meaninglessness or emptiness. Also a deep bitterness and cynicism towards the world, that the world and humanity is essentially shit. And a loneliness, too. I guess what I try to do through the songs and the through The Red Hand Files is to make the case that our lives are more valuable than perhaps we sometimes think them to be, or, indeed, than we are told they are. That our lives are, in fact, of enormous consequence, and that our actions reverberate in ways we hardly know.

Seán O’Hagan: Well, to be fair, many atheists would agree with that.

NC: I’m sure you’re right. Still, there seems to be a growing current of thought that tends towards the opposing view, a sort of cynicism and distrust of our very selves, a hatred of who we are, or, more accurately, a rejection of the innate wonder of our presence. I see this as a sort of affliction that is, in part, to do with the increasingly secular nature of our society. There’s an attempt to find meaning in places where it is ultimately unsustainable—in politics, identity and so on.

SO: But hang on, are you saying that atheism—or secularism—is an affliction? And that you equate it with cynicism? I mean, come on, non-believers can have a sense of wonder at the world—with nature, the universe, with the wonders of science, philosophy, and even the everyday.

NC: No, I am not saying secularism is an affliction in itself. I just don’t think it has done a very good job of addressing the questions that religion is well practised at answering. Religion, at it’s best, can serve as a kind of shepherding force that holds communities together—it is there, within a community, that people feel more attached to each other and the world. It’s where they find a deeper meaning.

SO: What kinds of questions, in particular, would you say religion is more adept at answering?

NC: It deals with the necessity of forgiveness, for example, and mercy, whereas I don’t think secularism has found the language to address these matters. The upshot of that is a kind of callousness towards humanity in general, or so it seems to me. And I think callousness comes out of a feeling of aloneness, people feeling adrift or separated from the world. In a way, they look for religion—and meaning—elsewhere. And increasingly they are finding it in tribalism and the politics of division.

SO: The decline of organised religion may be one reason for that, but there are others, of course, social and political.

NC: Well, whatever you think about the decline of organised religion—and I do accept that religion has a lot to answer for—it took with it a regard for the sacredness of things, for the value of humanity in and of itself. This regard is rooted in a humility towards one’s place within the world—an understanding of our flawed nature. We are losing that understanding, as far as I can see, and it’s often being replaced by self-righteousness and hostility.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Chris #

    Whenever this topic comes up, I remember James Sire’s book The Universe Next Door. He tells the story of the Western world’s journey over the last few centuries from Christian theism to Deism to scientific naturalism and finally to nihilism, with the array of responses to nihilism. Our culture’s present state has been a long time in the making. People don’t really even know what they’ve lost–they only have an uneasy sense of being lost.

    January 13, 2023
    • Absolutely, Chris. Well said.

      January 15, 2023

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