One side effect of the global pandemic is the demise of the conspiratorial huddle, the plotting and the planning over a pint, the dreams of potential realised, riches won, utopias secured. There’s a comfort in the dream, with its glimmer of possibility; though also a buried rationalism that will soften the blow when, in the cold light of the morning, we leave those dreams to one side and pull on our work shoes. Where is the real person in all of this? Is the real person the dreamer, or the worker? Society is largely divided into these groups, of the dreamers and the workers. Most are workers, and some – the artists, musicians, poets – are dreamers. Few get rich – in either category – and happiness appears distributed with a similar consistency.
For good or ill, we share an image of the world, and how it works. That is our ontology. We agree on many things – that the sun rises in the morning, and is (for the most part) yellowish. That measurements are more or less agreed, on time, distance, mass and so on; and a general ethics – that it’s wrong to kill, or to steal, most of the time. That ontology, expressed through language, is neither universal, nor is it fixed. Over time, ontologies change, and from group to group, critical elements can have subtle or not so subtle differences. So for example, the demise of the Divine Right of Kings, the emergence of Newtonian Physics, and its usurpation by quantum mechanics each in its own way upended major components of broad understandings of how the world works. Within our own time, there persist conflicting ontologies. Remote tribes in Africa, Asia and South America persist various sun-worshipping views of the world. While Judaeo-Christian, Muslim, and variations of Buddhist faiths dominate the religions of our civilisation today, they are broadly consistent with one another in the major understandings of the world and its science – life, death, and God are at a high level recognised in the same way, even if treated differently in ceremony and social order.
The conspiratorial huddle of the pub corner may have been eliminated by the pandemic, but the digital huddle has blossomed at the same time. New ontologies have been created in these virutal assemblies, constructing views of the world that are entirely new. To claim that they are false is to pre-suppose an objective non-false ontology – so let’s just say that they are often completely at odds with the physically proximate consensus on the world. There’s no need to rehash the conspiracies that led to the events at the US Capitol building on January 6th, or that anti-vaccination campaigners trot out on social media, but they are often shocking to people who in all other respects seem just like them. They should have the same ontology, more or less. Sure, they might like fishing more than most, or bowling, or noodle soup, but that’s just their preference. We can all have preferences. But we can’t diverge on whether the government actively caused the pandemic in order to establish some bizarre pedophile ascendancy (and no, I’m not linking to that).
There is a problem, however, and a distance that has been created by a combination of digital media, wealth and income inequality, and the relative weakness of representative democracy in dealing with the major crises of our times. The visceral calculus is that what the government is saying isn’t true, because if it is, then why do things keep getting worse for us? And at the same time things seem to be getting better for them. Experts and scientists back up the government, so they must be bogus as well. In those circumstances, what remains? Well – let’s listen to that guy wearing furs and a set of viking horns, maybe he’s got some ideas. Right now, it’s disorganised and massively distributed. Some major interest groups have tried to take control – in the US, the gun lobby, various churches (both left-wing black churches and right-wing evangelicals), pro-lifers, libertarians, environmentalists, and most recently the Republican party itself. With this last category, we witnessed the bizarre separation of the Presidency in the United States from the Government and the institutions of the United States, where despite having captured the White House, the momentum continued to attack the government for various confused and often conflicting reasons.
Looking back through history, you have to wonder whether the capacity of churches to command an ontology that was spiritual and not strategic, that focused on redemption and salvation rather than power and control, was in truth an ontological separation? From our histories, elites appear to have been highly rational stewards of power and control for the most part, with ‘spiritual’ leaders being the exception. Was Constantine’s conversion to Christianity genuine? Henry VIII certainly appears to have had more corporeal concerns in mind when he split from Rome. Does theology then provide an ontology for the masses, one that denies them a truth and conveniently – by design or otherwise – serves the elites? As Karl Marx wrote in his introduction to his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right ‘Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’ In other words, it is a manufactured soul. Real souls are for the elite.
Given the death of religion – whatever about churches – perhaps the spread of conspiracy theories and fake news and alternative ontologies could be read as a search for a new theology. Something is missing, as Juergen Habermas has written about. That work is happening online, and technology is mediating the search -we should tread carefully.