Are we living in an Age of Unreason?

I have been thinking about how future historians will characterize the period through which we are living and the label ‘The Age of Unreason’ popped into my mind as a suitable one (at least for the US). The reason is that I marvel at the kinds of things that people currently believe and are doing that seem so detached from reality and untethered to reason. Here is a short list of things that immediately came to mind and I am sure that there are others.

Anti-vax: Vaccines are some of the greatest inventions in medicine, saving countless lives all over the world. The rapid development of the vaccines for covid-19 was a stupendous achievement. And yet, we have people refusing to take it because they think that Covid-19 was an intentionally planned outbreak and part of some plot and are willing to trust completely untested and sometimes dangerous alternatives. Some of these people are even giving up on Trump because he does not buy in to all their claims.

QAnon and the Big Lie: There a large number of people who think that Donald Trump actually won the last election and that it was stolen from him by some vast conspiracy of Democrats, election officials in many states, Hugo Chavez and Venezuela, George Soros, Antifa, and the companies that manufacture voting machines and their software. The fact that someone who was actually elected to the office of the US presidency and will likely run again is a major proponent of these ideas shows how widely this idiocy has spread. many of these people believe in all manner of other QAnon-inspired idiocies, including the idea that John F. Kennedy, Jr. is not really dead and will return soon.

Cryptocurrencies and NFTs: We seem to have a bubble in which huge amounts of money are being spent on opaque technological innovations that seem to have little basis in reality. I may be wrong in thinking that there is nothing there, especially when it comes to cryptocurrencies, but NFTs strike me as a classic speculative bubble in which people people seem to willing to invest huge amounts of money on something that has no intrinsic value.

Mass pedophilia: Pedophilia is a real and vile thing. What I am talking about here is an obsession that erupts from time to time that it is happening on a massive and organized scale, that children are being abducted and trafficked in huge numbers all over, and that major figures in the world of politics and business are behind it. I am hardly a fan of the power elites but this is a bit much.

Nicole Karlis lists some of these widely held beliefs and poses the question of whether we are living in a period of mass delusion.

It should go without saying that these kinds of beliefs are fantasy, not rooted in any rational fact or evidence. Hence, someone observing from afar the rise in conspiratorial beliefs and pseudoscience might characterize a vast swath of the American public as delusional. From the COVID-truther movement to people believing the 2020 presidential election was rigged, it appears that the body politic is — to put it mildly — no longer on the same page.

Given the perturbed psychological state of so many Americans, it is worth asking if something is happening — psychologically speaking — that is causing many Americans to live in very different realities.

Psychologists say yes; and, moreover, that what is happening was actually predicted long ago by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. Indeed, Jung once wrote that the demise of society wouldn’t be a physical threat, but instead mass delusion — a collective psychosis of sorts.

Indeed, Jung himself warned that modern society was prone to collapse due to a pandemic of “delusional ideas.”

“Greater than all physical dangers are the tremendous effects of delusional ideas, which are yet denied all reality by our world-blinded consciousness,” Jung wrote. “Our much vaunted reason and our boundlessly overestimated will are sometimes utterly powerless in the face of ‘unreal’ thoughts.”

Notably, Jung believed that the United States was particularly prone to society-breaking delusions.

There is always the danger that we have a tendency to paint with too broad a brush and over-simplify, creating a simple narrative that does not reflect the complexity of the periods. Take for example, what is called the Age of Reason. The Age of Reason is contrasted with what came before, which was the Middle Ages (or more pejoratively the Dark Ages) comprising the 900-year period from the 5th to the 14th centuries, which were thought to be some kind of black hole where the knowledge gained in earlier times somehow disappeared to be replaced by mysticism, religion, and superstition, and where there was little scientific and cultural advancement.

More recently, scholars have described that picture as a gross distortion, that there were many interesting developments in that period and that rather than being a reversion to a more backward way of thinking, actually laid the foundations for all the advances that came after.

So we should be cautious and not too quickly declare the current period as being somehow very far from the historical norm. It may be bad but it may also be that the passage of time has resulted in many of the irrationalities of past decades disappearing from our awareness, leaving us to think that people were not as irrational then.


  1. says

    People -- huge percentages of populations -- have believed in resurrected zombie gods, virgin births, seas that part, divine interference in mortal affairs, etc. the unreason of today seems to me to be new bullshit rushing in to fill the voids in the old. It’s just mythologizing and wishful thinking. Humans can’t stop it.

  2. Dunc says

    the Middle Ages (or more pejoratively the Dark Ages)

    Please don’t do this, it makes people with any grasp of European history twitch. The two terms are not in any way interchangeable.

  3. says

    Short answer: Yes. And it could very well get a lot worse before it gets better. And yes, something like the Hitler or Stalin regimes CAN happen here.

  4. mnb0 says

    “The Age of Reason is contrasted with what came before, which was the Middle Ages.”
    Witch hunts (the RCC opposed them) weriously started after the Middle Ages ended. So called Enlightenment gave mankind justifications for racism and slavery. The Age of Unreason began about 500 years ago. Add the development of the Total War concept and it’s obvious that we should call our Age more pejoratively The Darker Ages.
    This in addition to @2 Dunc.

  5. says

    Sorry Mano, but Susan Jacoby beat you by about 15 years. She wrote “The Age of American Unreason” in 2008. It’s been 15 years since I read it, but I recall that it was quite good. I will also recommend her earlier work “Freethinkers”.

    Arguably the best take on the subject is Charles Pierce’s “Idiot America”. In particular it skewers the religious right with the gusto and derision it deserves, but always maintains a sense of humor (even if that humor is as dark as it gets).

  6. ardipithecus says

    Carl Jung and synchronicity
    Linus Pauling and vitamin C

    Even smart people can contribute to the doofusoshpere. I look at that and wonder what my contribution is . . .

  7. Tethys says

    Once upon a time in America, there were laws that prevented liars from broadcasting propaganda to the entire population via radio and television networks. Infotainment and faux news have become a major source of misinformation under the cloak of free speech.

    I don’t think modern humans are any more or less reasonable than humans have ever been. Every ancient writer laments how modern society has fallen away from some past ideal, never to return to its former mythical glories.

    The Dark Ages is a conceit of various Christian writers and historians, in order to conceal all the genocide committed by various European warlords ie; Karol aka Charlemagne and his equally murderous forefathers. There is a deliberate gap in the historical written records from the period between Rome leaving Britain and Venerable Bede compiling the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, but writers from the late 11th century refer to entire libraries of ancient manuscripts that have been lost. As vellum is expensive, old manuscripts would be cut up and shaved down for re-use into approved ecclesiastical works.

    The church established a complete monopoly on literacy after the 900s, which extended to eradicating anything written by or about pre-Christian religious beliefs and supposed savage barbarian pagans. It also became male only, and barely mentions all the Frankish and Anglo-Saxon women who became Abbesses and actually established the HRC as a social institution. Aid for the poor and early hospitals aren’t usually what you imagine happening in the Dark Ages, but that’s exactly what all the various Christian noble ladies seem to be creating across Northern Europe.
    Archeological evidence shows that Merovingian Era jewelry is some of the finest gold smithing that’s ever been made. The Oseberg, and Sutton Hoo ship burials are filled with stunningly gorgeous examples of ‘Dark Age’ art.

    Gregory of Tours corresponded with many of these well educated, politically powerful women.
    He is quite the gossip actually, and it’s very interesting reading in comparison to the various saints histories that date from that period.
    Boniface got killed and chopped into pieces because he chopped down the sacred tree.
    Karol utterly destroyed what would be a UNESCO heritage site for pre Christian Europeans. It’s recorded that it took two weeks for his troop to completely reduce it to ashes and rubble. Nobody knows where it was beyond somewhere in the upper Rhineland mountains.

    Between the Carolingian dynasty, Viking raids, Norman conquests, Protestants burning down churches, and the dissolution of the monasteries, it’s amazing that anything that isn’t in Ecclesiastical Latin written between 450 and 750 still exists.

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    As Tethys says, I don’t think there is any more ‘unreason’ than there has been in the past. The biggest difference is the internet/social media. All the wackos can now find each other, and the grifters have a readily accessible ocean of rubes to feed off.

  9. Steve Morrison says

    I love the passage about “going medieval” from The Truth by Terry Pratchett:

    “That -ing zombie is going to end up on the end of a couple of -ing handy and versatile kebab skewers. And then I’m going to put an edge on this -ing spatula, and then I’m gonna get medieval on his arse.”
    “How, exactly?”
    “I thought maybe a maypole. And then a display of country dancing, line tillage under the three-field system, several plagues, and then, if my -ing hand ain’t too tired, the invention of the -ing horse collar.”

  10. Canadian Steve says

    To add to several other valuable comments: It’s not long enough to call it an age yet -- the complete overhaul of human socioeconomic systems due to technological change is barely a century underway with huge changes still coming every few years along the way. We haven’t reached any kind of stable state that you could call an age, let alone see how the last few years will eventually fit into the overall pattern. It could be a tiny blip or it could end up a turning point. I have no doubt the globalization of human culture will eventually reach some kind of more stable state, for better or worse, but we’re a long way from it yet.

  11. tuatara says

    I don’t think much has changed for humanity in general (with the exception of the recently reduced incidence of alien abductions -even they can’t stand the q crowd and it would appear that they don’t much fancy experimenting on the genitalia of those who distrust advanced medical science either).

  12. lanir says

    I will admit this might be an artificial distinction but I tend to look at delusions that are fostered by people who have something to gain (con games, basically) in a different light than mass delusions that don’t seem to have any goal. Two examples that show this and even involve the same crowd are the Qanon Conspiracies and Trump’s Big Lie. The latter has a goal and the con artist promoting it really does intend to get something out of it. The former is a lot more vague and doesn’t seem to promote any particular goal.

    I can help with some more recent examples of mass delusion of both types. The Satanic Panic, The Enquirer, WMDs in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, trickle down economics, trickle down economics on seemingly endless zombie repeat, flouride mind control, UFO abductions, AIDS framed as a disease only targeting homosexuals, and I haven’t even dug out my copy of the Illuminati card game for extra ideas yet. All predate ubiquitous cellphones and I don’t think any of them depended on the internet to propagate.

    Some older examples would be the Point Pleasant Mothman, the War of the Worlds radio broadcast, and whatever crazy weirdness gave us black and white video of a man being shot with a cannonball at close range.

  13. KG says


    The church established a complete monopoly on literacy after the 900s, which extended to eradicating anything written by or about pre-Christian religious beliefs and supposed savage barbarian pagans.

    So, er… how is it we know quite a bit about the pre-Christian (i.e., pagan) Roman Empire and the beliefs of its inhabitants, along with a significant amount about those of their neighbours and enemies (two categories with near-total overlap)? Just about all the ancient works written in Latin that we still have survived only because Catholic monks copied and recopied them. This includes the materialist philosophy of Lucretius and the myths of the Olympian deities, as well as some quite explicit erotic poetry. For Greek works, the story is more complicated because quite a few were copied into Arabic* after the Muslim conquest of much of the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire (and the flight of a significant number of Christian “heretics” to Muslim-ruled areas), but effectively all the original ancient Greek texts we have survive because they were copied and recopied by Orthodox monks.

    Between the Carolingian dynasty, Viking raids, Norman conquests, Protestants burning down churches, and the dissolution of the monasteries, it’s amazing that anything that isn’t in Ecclesiastical Latin written between 450 and 750 still exists.

    I guess you’re talking about western and northern Europe, because plenty survives from the Byzantines during that period, ands of course plenty more from further afield as well. But as for what was written in western and northern Europe during that period, do we have any idea how much was written in anything other than Ecclesiastical Latin? Were any of the pre-Christian cultures of the area literate? Beowulf probably dates from this period at least as an oral tradition, but the only manuscript of it dates from around 1000 -- similarly for the Norse sagas. Didn’t literacy, Latin and Christianity generally arrive as a package outside the bounds of what had been the Roman Empire? If you have knowledge to the contrary, I’d be very interested to learn it.

    *After the Christian recapture of Toldeo in 1085, there was quite an industry translating Arabic works into Latin -- both original works, and those previously translated from Greek, again carried out by Catholic monks and clerics but along with local Jews, and this gave a considerable boost to Medieval proto-science.

  14. Tethys says


    Didn’t literacy, Latin and Christianity generally arrive as a package outside the bounds of what had been the Roman Empire?

    No, the oldest thing written in native Futhark script dates to the 1st century. We don’t know much about literacy among the Germanic tribes, other than one line that casually mentions in ancient days the various nobles sent their children to schools in England, centuries before Augustine showed up and discovered that St Patrick had already established monasteries. We know even less about the Druids, but they are referred to in the 300s by Romans as learned scholars. Tutors are a common practice for nobles at least as far back as Theodoric the Great, and they taught all the children, not just the boys. Brunhilde writes letters to her brothers in Runes according to the Volsunga Saga. All those events in that Saga far predate the forced conversion to Christianity that occurred under the Carolingians.

    It was after Charlemagne when the Church very literally banned learning any other script or language than Latin. It’s standard colonial suppression, which has not changed at all since Rome invented Imperialism. There were Medieval Runes used in Scandinavia, but nothing like that seems to have survived on the Continent.

    The Exeter Book has large holes burnt through it, and contains 1/6th of all surviving Anglo-Saxon ‘poetry’. I would not call Widsith a poem, but it is a very sophisticated piece of spoken word prose that refers to multiple ‘Dark Age’ people, and a few sagas that have been lost.
    Scholars date its composition to the 7th century, though the Exeter Book wasn’t compiled until the 10th.

    Some of the oldest books written in Germanic languages are Law Codes. Very, very, boring to read, but they provide a great deal of information on pre-Christian societies and social structures.

    Charlemagne himself was illiterate, but his Mother was not. According to his Biographer, he collected the family books, wooden pagan idols and any sacred artwork from shrines after killing all the people. The family books recorded marriages and any resulting children for the whole community. His son burned the entire collection, because it was heathen. It’s an incalculable loss to both linguists and historians.

  15. Tethys says

    @John Morales

    Yes, the rune stone is about 2000 and the Egyptian papyrus scroll is about 3000. However your comment seems completely random to anyone who doesn’t know that I’ve cross posted about the runes over on TET, where Lynna has linked an article about the scroll.

    This thread is about the early medieval period formerly known as ‘The Dark Ages’.

    I should note that my previous comment about Charlemagne collecting any family books is misleading. The word used is ahrenental, which is an ongoing family tally, but might not be a book at all. It’s possible it was carved into wood tally sticks. Paper doesn’t exist. Vellum is very expensive and only survives for thousands of years if kept dry, away from light, and not on fire or stolen by Vikings.

    The Goths were converted to Xtianity long before Rome adopted it.
    Wulfilas had the Bible translated into Gothic, and there are a few purple manuscripts that still exist that date from Late Roman times. Clearly the various Germanic tribes were literate long before Augustine’s mission to the East Angles, but nobody knows exactly how common it was.

  16. John Morales says


    This thread is about the early medieval period formerly known as ‘The Dark Ages’.

    Huh. Here I thought it was about whether “Are we living in an Age of Unreason?”.

    Um, also, the Pnakotic Manuscripts were written by the Great Race of Yith, around 200M years before now. Pretty old.

  17. consciousness razor says

    Still kind of confusing, since Coptic (specifically) is a lot less than 3000 years old and Egyptian (broadly) is a lot older than that.

    I don’t know which one was supposed to be “the” Egyptian papyrus scroll, but presumably googling it would’ve given you some particular thing to make a claim about … even references to Lovecraft, for instance, if that’s what google happens to deliver. Seems more appropriate than making baseless assertions about mystery objects.

  18. Tethys says

    Meh, I could google it but why bother? I’ve zero interest in fictional manuscripts, but the recent ancient scroll found in Egypt is around 3000 years old. Deserts tend to be quite good at preserving organic materials.

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