‘There are 2 gunman at the university – tell your friends on campus’.
The text arrives from a friend, who knows I’m often on campus. But I can’t believe it: surely this is spam?
So I ring my friend to confirm. Yes, the text is legit: A colleague of his has a contact at the university. There really are gunmen at Southern Cross University in Lismore.
I well up with anxiety. My head starts racing. Is this really happening? A gunman, on the campus where I’ve spent the last decade of my life? This only happens overseas (or at least, in major cities) – but never in laid-back Lismore. It feels surreal.
Thankfully, I decided to work from home. But I text some student friends who study at the uni. They’re also off campus, and are OK.
I look online, and see that Southern Cross university really is in lock-down. Police have cordoned it off. And they’re bringing in the heavy firepower from the Tactical Response Group (SWAT) to help out. This is serious. And I could have been caught up in it all.
My kid’s primary school tells me I have to go pickup my son – he can’t ride home (his school is close to the uni). I meet him at school, with other anxious parents. I hug my son, thanking God it wasn’t his primary school that was targeted.
He tells me there are bad guys at the university. Yes, I say: but the police are taking care of the situation. And we’ll be safe. (Interestingly, my son isn’t scared. If anything, he’s a little excited by it all. I’ve probably got former Navy SEAL turned children’s author Jocko Willinck to thank for that).
But we’re all in the dark. Nobody knows what’s going on. The most we know is that there are gunmen walking around on campus.
It’s scary stuff.
Thankfully, by the end of the day it turns out there were no gunmen walking around. The whole situation was sparked by a threatening phone call to a local police station. (It must have been very threatening to launch such a massive police operation).
But there was no active shooter walking around at the university. It was all a rumour.
Yet thanks to that rumour, people’s stress levels went to stratospheric heights. It caused enormous anxiety among the local population (even my daughter’s downtown music lesson’s were called off as a result). People’s behaviour changed because of that rumour.
A rumour, or any idea – even one that’s untrue – can sway large amounts of people. It’s easy to believe what everybody else around you believes. It’s easy to go with the herd.
But the herd mentality isn’t limited to stressful rumours about active shooters (as bad as they are). Any idea can lead to herd mentality, as it spreads among a population.
And it’s this idea of herd mentality that’s picked by British author and political commentator Douglas Murray in his new book, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity. I read a long excerpt in the Weekend Australian, and it’s worth thinking about what he says. Especially when it comes to Religion.
Murray seems to get religion, and the impact of religion on a society – even though he’s an Atheist.
Here are some important things Murray brings up:
1) People Are Behaving in Increasingly Herd-Like Ways
But no convincing account has yet been given as to why.
We are going through a great crowd derangement. In public and in private, both online and off, people are behaving in ways that are increasingly irrational, feverish, herd-like and simply unpleasant. The daily news cycle is filled with the consequences.
Yet while we see the symptoms everywhere, we do not see the causes. Various explanations have been given. These tend to suggest that any and all madnesses are the consequence of a presidential election or a referendum.
Yes, we’re an increasingly tribal – and polarised – society. We look down on others who think differently to us. There are fewer good-faith conversations between opposing groups of people. And civil society is worse off as a result.
2) The Underlying Cause Of This Herd-Like Behaviour:
The Collapse of a (shared) Grand Narrative
This is where Christians should sit up and take notice. Murray is onto something. Have a read of what he says:
For far beneath these day-to-day events [of elections and referendums] are much greater movements and much bigger events. It is time we began to confront the true causes of what is going wrong. Even the origin of this condition is rarely acknowledged. This is the simple fact we have been living through a period of more than a quarter of a century in which all our grand narratives have collapsed.
We’re increasingly divided because there is no shared narrative uniting us.
One by one, the narratives we had were refuted, became unpopular to defend or impossible to sustain. The explanations for our existence that used to be provided by religion went first, falling away from the 19th century onwards. Then over the past century the secular hopes held out by all political ideologies began to follow in its wake. In the latter part of the 20th century we entered the postmodern era. An era that defined itself, and was defined, by its suspicion towards all grand narratives.
When societies grand narratives (such as Christianity) are increasingly seen as oppressive (e.g. by the sexual revolutionaries), then it’s not surprising that people start ditching them.
But what happens to a society when all the grand-narratives are ditched?
3) Human Beings Need Narratives to Make Sense of Their Lives.
We can’t live without narratives.
As all schoolchildren learn, nature abhors a vacuum, and into the postmodern vacuum new ideas began to creep, with the intention of providing explanations and meanings of their own. It was inevitable that some pitch would be made for the deserted ground.
And such a vacuum cannot last, even for secular westerners:
People in wealthy Western democracies today could not simply remain the first people in recorded history to have absolutely no explanation for what we are doing here and no story to give life purpose.
Whatever else they lacked, the grand narratives of the past at least gave life meaning. The question of what exactly are we meant to do now, other than get rich where we can and have whatever fun is on offer, was going to have to be answered by something.
We need meaning in our lives. And meaning is provided not by mere ‘reason’ (as some Atheists assert) by the big picture story of why we’re here, what life is about, and where we are headed. Take away this story from people, and what are we left with? Hedonism (if it feels good, do it) , and eventually Nihilism (life is utterly meaningless).
And so, to fill this narrative-void a new narrative that is taking root in the West:
4) The New Grand Narrative:
The ‘Religion’ of Social Justice.
It’s worth quoting Murray at length:
The answer that has presented itself in recent years is to engage in new battles, ever fiercer campaigns and ever more niche demands. To find meaning by waging a constant war against anybody who seems to be on the wrong side of a question that may itself have just been reframed and the answer to which has only just been altered.
Murray identifies this new movement as ‘social justice’:
The interpretation of the world through the lens of “social justice”, “identity group politics” and “intersectionalism” is probably the most audacious and comprehensive effort since the end of the Cold War at creating a new ideology.
Murray goes on to point out why this new religion of ‘social justice’ is dangerous. Namely, it demands agreement, or else pressures people to shut up. It’s intolerant, even though it calls itself tolerant.
The Consequences of Ideas (Including Bad Ones)
Looking at this as Christians, we know that everyone believes in some grand narrative. Whether a formal religion, or less formal ideas around ‘progress’ etc.
To put it another way, everyone has religious beliefs of one kind or another. We are beings that worship – whether the Creator, or a false god(s) (Rom 1:18ff). And what we worship will influence our actions, including our political actions.
What we’re seeing in the West, according to Murray, is what happens when the Judeo-Christian narrative is replaced by another one. There are consequences, not least that previous certainties are called into question – including around ideas such as gender, identity, and freedom.
As a wise person once said: ‘When people don’t believe in God, they don’t believe in nothing: they believe in anything.’