It’s not a minor point, nor one restricted to twentieth-century French intellectuals. Shatter the shared figurations and abstractions that provide a complex literate society with its basis for collective thought and action, and you’re left with a society in fragments, where biological drives and idiosyncratic personal agendas are the only motives left, and communication between divergent subcultures becomes impossible because there aren’t enough common meanings left to make that an option. The plunge into nihilism becomes almost impossible to avoid once abstraction runs into trouble on a collective scale, furthermore, because reflection is the automatic response to the failure of a society’s abstract representations of the cosmos. As it becomes painfully clear that the beliefs of the civil religion central to a society’s age of reason no longer correspond to the world of everyday experience, the obvious next step is to reflect on what went wrong and why, and away you go.
Religion can accomplish this because it has an answer to the nihilist’s claim that it’s impossible to prove the truth of any statement whatsoever. That answer is faith: the recognition, discussed in a previous post in this sequence, that some choices have to be made on the basis of values rather than facts, because the facts can’t be known for certain but a choice must be made anyway—and choosing not to choose is still a choice. Nihilism becomes self-canceling, after all, once reflection goes far enough to show that a belief in nihilism is just as arbitrary and unprovable as any other belief; that being the case, the figurations of a religious tradition are no more absurd than anything else, and provide a more reliable and proven basis for commitment and action than any other option.
The Second Religiosity may or may not involve a return to the beliefs central to the older age of faith. In recent millennia, far more often than not, it hasn’t been. As the Roman world came apart and the civil religion and abstract philosophies of the Roman world failed to provide any effective resistance to the corrosive skepticism and nihilism of the age, it wasn’t the old cults of the Roman gods who became the nucleus of a new religious vision, but new faiths imported from the Middle East, of which Christianity and Islam turned out to be the most enduring. Similarly, the implosion of Han dynasty China led not to a renewal of the traditional Chinese religion, but to the explosive spread of Buddhism and of the newly invented religious Taoism of Zhang Daoling and his successors. On the other side of the balance is the role played by Shinto, the oldest surviving stratum of Japanese religion, as a source of cultural stability all through Japan’s chaotic medieval era. - John Michael Greer