One important dynamic of change during the 20th century was the decline of religious institutions and the rise of secular humanistic philosophy. Rational humanism is the proper basis of civil societies, but innate human tendencies prefer the dogmatic and irrational.
Joseph Campbell celebrated the rational humanism that emerged about 2500 years ago in the Buddha in India, Confucius in China, and the poets and philosophers who emerged in the Greek civilization that shaped the culture of Rome, then Europe, and then the colonies in the Americas. These three traditions “generally realized local myths for what they were --versions of universal imagery." Campbell epitomized the three approaches to rational humanism: The realization that an adult human being is autonomous and capable of self-government. The proper aim of education is not the imposition of rules or dogma from without but the opening of each person to knowledge from within his own genius, whether as an independent mind (Prometheus), the expression of an inborn nature (Confucius), or as enlightenment (the Buddha.)
With the ascent of China in the 20th century, Confucius has returned as an important architect of civil society. Confucius lived in China from 551 to 479 BC. He was a philosopher and a sociologist, a practical man who advocated a civil society based on the understanding and discipline of citizens who sought social harmony. Ideas associated with Confucius were written by disciplines and then scholars over many centuries, representing a Chinese view of proper human conduct (virtue). Mencius in the 4th century BC, for example suggested that innate goodness is a source of the ethical intuitions that lead humans to Yì(right conduct). Others insisted that morality required adherence to tradition, education and discipline.
Campbell regretted the “the emphasis on local forms over and against all others…the cardinal dogma of Judaism, Christianity and Islam… Such calcification of the local masking means that archetypes become locked and elementary ideas become ethnic. All the passion that might become illumination is short-circuited into inflating programs for the world. There is no sense of humor with regard to one’s own myths. Mistaken for natural and historic facts, they are especially vulnerable to science and when the light of day has dissolved them like a dream, there is no supporting ground to one’s life. This is a pity because the time has come when everyone of the world’s ethnic systems is dissolving. There are no more locally fixed horizons within which ethnocentric bigotry can be maintained.”
Campbell may have been overly optimistic about the disappearance of the divisive aspects of old myths and ethnic dogmas. Old myths do look obsolete, but old myths continue to function as story-boundaries that support the tendency to form exclusive groups with special privileges. New religious groups often co-opt old stories with little or no understanding of the origins and significance of the original stories. In the 20th century USA, for example, the Bible was co-opted by hundreds of small groups that use old biblical stories to support divergent points of view – some fanatical and most at odds with the large religious institutions that once regarded themselves as owners of the Bible. At the same time, old myths from many cultures have been revised and promoted by groups with motives that range from personal interest and inspiration, to inventing new religions to commercial exploitation of the gullible. The commerce in old religious myths is something like the weight loss industry; the same old stuff is packaged and repackaged, apparently with no end in sight. Myths are packaged with renewed enthusiasm for superstitions and rituals that should be recognized as obsolete, but instead, have renewed currency in the marketplace.
Lester suggested: “The assumption is that advances in the rational understanding of the world will inevitably diminish the influence of that vexing sphere of irrationality in human culture: religion. Inconveniently, however, the world is today as awash in religious novelty, flux, and dynamism as it has ever been—and religious change is, if anything, likely to intensify in the coming decades. The spectacular emergence of militant Islamist movements during the twentieth century is surely only a first indication of how quickly, and with what profound implications, change can occur. It's tempting to conceive of the religious world—particularly when there is so much talk of clashing civilizations—as being made up primarily of a few well-delineated and static religious blocs: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and so on. But that's dangerously simplistic. It assumes stability in the religious landscape that is completely at odds with reality.”