Since the middle of the eighteenth century,
beginning in Northern Europe and then spreading
to every corner of the world, people have
become aware of living in an age radically
different from any other and which they have
called – with a mixture of awe and respect,
trepidation and nostalgia – ‘the modern
age’, or more succinctly, ‘modernity’.
We are now all inhabitants of modernity; every
last hamlet and remote island has been touched
by the outlook and ideology of a new era.
The story of our emergence into the modern
world can be traced in a number of fields
- in politics, religion, art, technology,
fashion, science – all of which have ultimately
contributed to an alteration in consciousness,
to a change in the way we think and feel.
This is some of what becoming modern has involved:
Perhaps the single greatest marker of modernity
has been a loss of faith – the loss of a belief
in the intervention of divine forces in earthly
affairs. All other ages before our own held
that our lives were at least half in the hands
of gods or spirits, who could be influenced
through prayer and sacrifice and who required
complex forms of worship and obedience. But
we have put our energies into understanding
natural events through reason; there are no
more omens or revelations, curses or prophecies,
our futures will be worked out in laboratories,
not temples; even the nominally religious
will – when it comes to it – dermur to highly
trained pilots and cancer specialists. God
has died and modernity has killed Him.
Premodern societies envisaged history in cyclical
terms; there was no forward dynamic to speak
of; one imagined that things would always
be as bad or as good as they had ever been.
There was no more change in human affairs
than there was in the seasons. Empires would
wax and wane; periods of plenty would alternate
with seasons of dearth. Yet the fundamentals
would remain. But to be modern is to believe
that we can continually surpass what has come
before; national wealth, knowledge, technology,
political arrangements and, most broadly,
our capacity for fulfilment seem capable of
constant increase. We have severed the chains
of repetitive suffering. Time is not a wheel
of futility, it is an arrow pointing towards
a perfectible future.
We have replaced gods with equations. Science
will give us mastery over ourselves, over
the puzzles of nature – and ultimately – over
death. Careful calculations and the electrical
spasms of microscopic circuits will allow
us to map and know the universe. It is only
a matter of time before we work out how to
To be modern is to throw off the claims of
history, precedent and community. We will
fashion our own identities – rather than being
defined by families or tradition. We will
choose who to marry, what job to pursue, what
gender to be, where to live and how to think.
We can be free and, at last, fully ‘ourselves’.
We are Romantics, that is, we seek a soulmate,
an exemplary friend who can at the same time
be an intrepid sexual partner, a reliable
co-parent and a kindly colleague. We are in
revolt against coldness and emotional distance.
We refuse to remain in unhappy unions that
no longer possess the thrill of the early
moments. We will move boulders to find a spiritual
twin it can feel as if we have always known.
We have had enough of the narrowness of village
life. We don’t want to go to bed when the
sun sets or limit our acquaintances to the
characters we went to school with. We want
to move – along with 85% of the population
of modern nations – to the brightly illuminated
city, where we can mingle in crowds, observe
faces on underground trains, try out unfamiliar
foods, change jobs, read in parks, rethink
our hair, visit museums and sleep with strangers.
Premoderns lived in close proximity to nature;
they knew how to recognise shepherd’s purse
and make something edible out of pineapple
weed. They could tell when sparrows showed
up and what sounds short eared owls make.
They venerated nature as one might a deity.
But moderns don’t tremble before the night
sky or feel a need to give thanks to the rising
sun. We have freed ourselves from our previous
awe at natural phenomena; we are alive to
the sublimity of technology rather than of
waterfalls. The emblematic modern locale is
the 24 hour supermarket, brightly lit and
teeming with the produce of the four continents,
proudly defying the barriers of geography
and of the night. We will eat pomegranates
from Arizona and dates from the Sahel.
For most of history, the maximum speed was
set by the constraints of our own feet – or
at best, the velocity of a horse or sailing
ship. It might take three weeks to tramp from
London to Edinburgh, four months to sail from
Southampton to Sydney. In 18th century Spain,
the majority died within twenty-five kilometres
of where they had been born. Now nowhere is
further than twenty six hours away from us,
the contents of a national library can fit
onto a circuit the size of a finger nail and
the Voyager 1 probe hurtles at seventeen kilometers
per second through interstellar space, 21.2
billion kilometres from us.
We are modern because we work not only to
earn money, but to develop our individuality,
to exercise our distinctive talents and to
find our true selves. We are on a quest for
something our ancestors would have thought
entirely paradoxical: work we can love.
Much of the transformation of modernity has
been exciting, thrilling even. Fibre optic
cables ring the earth, satellites guide us
across cities, new ideas overthrow rigid assumptions,
airports are conjured from the ground and
colossal energies are unleashed by the promethean
forces of chemistry and physics. The word
‘modern’ still rightly suggests a state
of glamour, desire and aspiration.
But the advent of modernity has – at the same
time – been a story of tragedy. We have bought
our new freedoms at a very high price indeed.
We have perhaps never been quite so close
to collective insanity or planetary extinction.
Modernity has wreaked havoc on our inner and
outer landscapes. We can pick up on aspects
of the catastrophe in a range of areas:
It was the French late nineteenth century
sociologist Emile Durkheim who first made
the sobering discovery of an essential difference
between traditional and modern societies.
In the former, when people lived in small
communities, when the course of one’s career
was understood to lie in the hands of the
gods and when there were few expectations
of individual fulfilment, at moments of failure,
the agony knew bounds; reversal did not seem
like a verdict on one’s value as a human
being. One never expected perfection, and
did not respond with self-laceration when
mishaps occurred. One simply fell to one’s
knees and implored the heavens. But Durkheim
knew that modern societies exacted a far crueller
toll on those who judged themselves to have
failed. No longer could these unfortunates
blame bad luck, no longer could they hope
for redemption in a next world. It seemed
as if there was only one person responsible
and only one fitting response. As Durkheim
showed, in perhaps the largest single indictment
of modernity, suicide rates of advanced societies
are up to ten times as high as those in traditional
ones. Moderns aren’t only more in love with
success, they are also far more likely to
kill themselves when they fail.
Modernity has told us that we are all equal
and can achieve anything: boundless possibility
awaits every one of us. We too might start
a billion dollar company, become a famous
actor or run a nation. No longer is opportunity
unfairly restricted to a favoured few. It
sounds charitable but it is a fast route to
an outbreak of comparison – and its associated
pain, envy. It would never have occurred to
a goat herder in seventeenth century Picardie
to envy Louis XIV of France; the king’s
advantages were as unfair as they were beyond
emulation. Such peace is no longer possible.
In a world in which everyone can achieve what
they deserve, why do we not have more? If
success is merited, why do we remain mediocre?
The psychological burden of a so-called ordinary
life has become incomparably harder – even
as its material advantages have become ever
Modernity has in a practical sense connected
us to others like never before but it has
also left us emotionally bereft, perhaps late
at night, on our own, in a corner of a diner,
like a figure in an Edward Hopper painting,
staring out at the darkness within and without.
The belief that we deserve one special person
has rendered our relationships unnecessarily
fractious and devoid of tolerance or forebearance
and stripped friendship of its value. The
first question we are asked in every new social
encounter is ‘What do you do?’ and we
know how much an impressive answer will matter.
We fall asleep in high-rise apartments with
views onto the distant headquarters of banks
and insurance firms – and wonder if anyone
would notice if we died. The first giant illuminated
advertisement – of a soda bottle – lit up
the darkness of Times Square in the spring
of 1904. It has been harder to sleep ever
If it were not already so difficult, we are
asked – on top of it all – to smile continually,
to hope against hope, to have a nice day,
to have a lot of fun, to cheer on holiday
and to be exuberant that we are alive. Modernity
has stripped us of our primordial right to
feel melancholy, unproductive, surly, in despair
and confused. It has done us the central injustice
of insisting that happiness should be the
norm. Not for nothing did Theodor Adorno remark
that modern America had produced one overwhelming
villain: Walt Disney.
Though modernity may have made us materially
abundant, it has imposed a heavy emotional
toll: it has alienated us, bred envy, increased
shame, separated us from one another, bewildered
us, forced us to grin inauthentically and
left us restless and enraged.
Fortunately, we do not need to suffer alone.
Our condition – though it presents itself
to each one of us as a personal affliction
- is at heart the work of an age, not of our
own minds. By learning to diagnose our condition,
we can come to accept that we are not so much
individually demented as living in times of
unusually intense and societally-generated
perturbance. We can accept that modernity
is a kind of disease – and that understanding
it will be
Our book, A Replacement for Religion, lays out how we might absorb the best lessons of religion, update them for our times and incorporate them into our lives.