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.