Thomas Carlyle’s fulminations against the spiritual damage wrought by factories are almost two centuries old, but the sentiment is current wherever industrialisation is rampant. “The huge demon of Mechanism,” he wrote, “smokes and thunders, panting at his great task, oversetting whole multitudes of workmen … so that the wisest no longer knows his whereabout.”
In China, today, government leaders and dissidents alike worry that, as one commentator put it, “frenzied competition for a better life [has] lobotomized the people of inherent values like common decency, compassion and feelings of fellowship”.
A century ago, Max Weber described the process as “disenchantment”. The German sociologist thought the transition from a culture of faith and farming to the narrow-minded and bureaucratic “iron cage” of modern civilisation required the destruction of a spiritual worldview. He saw a modern society made up of “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart”.
Weber was certainly on to something: industrialisation does break down old religious ways. In pre-industrial societies, the transcendental and the everyday were closely woven together. Social rituals couldn’t be separated from ethical expectations. Such unity is impossible in a world of material plenty, big cities, and high technology.
Vast increases in wealth, consumption and education create opportunities for personal expression and eliminate the economic rationale for many socio-religious restrictions. Urbanisation brings people physically closer, but often as anonymous neighbours rather than in communities with shared values. Omnipresent media, telecommunications and transport erode the borders between the ‘us’ of family or village and the ‘them’ of the outside world. The old religious and spiritual ways cannot survive this transition.
But Carlyle, Weber and many modern social observers make bolder claims: common religious belief and shared moral values are gone forever; modern society has no room for old-fashioned certainties; there is no exit from what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls “A Secular Age”.
Are they right? In a rich economy, the grim fight for survival is eased and there is more time for emotional and religious exploration. Modern scientific knowledge invites speculation and wonder. As Weber noted, spiritual discipline is required for the “worldly asceticism” which makes modern economies so productive. Prosperity and urbanisation might engender greater spirituality.
Karl Marx condemned religion and shared morality as “illusory happiness of the people”. His case is weakened by the failure of his alternative. Marxists in opposition were often idealistic, but in power their rule was both inefficient and cruel. Their promise of an economic justice which would make life satisfying now sounds like a bad joke.
While Marxism has been an outstanding failure, its more successful modern counterparts have failed to convert everyone to secularism. Democracy is desired, but is hardly inspirational, and there’s no need to travel to China to hear complaints about excessive materialism, selfishness and shallowness. In less restrictive nations, praise for freedom is often matched with complaints about the tyranny of the media, the government and society in general.
Relatively few people seem to make prosperity serve spiritual ends. Industrialisation and secularisation have come together, mostly, as inseparable elements of the turn from the transcendental to the worldly. The modern package of high consumption and individual freedom appears irresistible, even if the loss of old ways is sometimes regretted.
But the facts do not support the case for permanent radical secularity. While religion is down in many parts of the world, it is hardly out. In many countries, industrialisation and prosperity seem to nourish Islam. Even Christianity, the religion first threatened by industrialisation and urbanisation, is not doing badly outside of increasingly atheistic Europe. In China, the lamentations over the loss of a moral compass should be set against the rapid growth of indigenous and imported spiritual teachings. The new middle class there seems to be particularly enthusiastic.
More fundamentally, questions of religion and morality are questions of human nature. How strong and how universal is the desire to find something that is higher and more certain than anything offered by the physical world?
The answers are not changed by the onset of industrialisation. Religious practices organised around old economic patterns, social relations and folk beliefs will wither away, but that decline could be followed by the growth of spiritual organisations and the development of moral standards which fit with urbanised, industrialised, societies. In the words of a Chinese investment banker, “The desire to make sense of life doesn’t go away just because I’m rich”. He has been spending more time at a Buddhist temple.