The major Western religions are monotheistic, at least in principle, but in both theory and practice Islam is the world’s purest form of monotheism. However, I believe monotheists keep a secret about their God from others and also from themselves. They worship one supreme God, or at least they claim they do, but they don’t think through the psychological implications of any theology that holds as axiomatic God’s oneness and supremacy. Most monotheists, then, find themselves exotericists, meaning that their understanding of monotheistic teachings is superficial. The esoteric meaning of monotheism, which I’ve laid out elsewhere (see here and here), was unraveled by a German philosopher, Philipp Mainlander, and by Gnostics before him. The inner meaning of monotheistic religions is mostly forgotten, ignored, or misunderstood, because when you put the implications into words you can’t help but thereby say the worst thing that can ever be communicated. The secret of monotheism is darker than a black hole; it’s blacker than black, the worst, most depressing thing you can imagine, and for that reason we should test our mettle and our reserves of creativity, by conceiving of ways of sublimating the horror stirred up by this secret. Even if there is no God, atheists can benefit, in the Nietzschean manner, from contemplating monotheism as a challenging work of fiction.
In what follows, though, I’d like to test my hypothesis, if you will, by analyzing the basic distinguishing features of Islam, since if any religion offers clues that monotheists generally repress the meaning of the idea that there’s just one God, that religion is Islam. I’ll summarize first the forgotten secret, then the basics of Islam, and then I’ll show how Islam whispers the secret to those heroic or twisted enough to want to hear it.
The Dark Secret
Monotheism is the idea that if there are many gods or at least impersonal forces, one god reigns over them all and this is the only god worth worshipping. This god is The God, and because this supreme deity stands alone, God transcends our comprehension. For example, since God isn’t part of any society or lineage, having no parents, children, or lovers, God is neither male nor female. God is the creator and sustainer of all natural kinds and thus is supernatural. So far, monotheism is consistent with the sort of mysticism that in turn is consistent with atheism. Where monotheists depart from mysticism, and where they construct an exoteric worldview that allows most people to live happily, albeit with existential inauthenticity, is by nevertheless personalizing and idealizing this transcendent source of everything we can know. Thus, God is supposed to be good, mighty, wise, just, and merciful. The familiar contradictions follow, and these have been laid bare by skeptics at least as far back as Xenophanes.
But the secret of monotheism isn’t that this idea of God is incoherent. No, the secret is that if we accept the idea that this transcendent source of nature is somehow personal, or at least best thought of by us as such, and we apply some rudimentary psychological analysis of any person in that divine position, the finding must be that God is the most horrible monster and that the main theme of monotheism is one of destruction, not creation. You can read a sketch of the analysis through the above links, but the gist is that an almighty God would become corrupted by his concentration of power as well insane by his isolation. The upshot is that if we entertain monotheism, we’re thinking of a tyrant that hopefully would have destroyed himself--perhaps precisely by turning himself into the natural universe and so “creating” it--even if by doing so this God would have doomed us all to our existential predicament.
The Principles of Islam
Now to Islam: “Islam” means peace through submission to God. What distinguishes this religion, though, is its explicitness in laying out a legal framework to apply strictly monotheistic principles to every aspect of human life. Judaism, too, has the Talmud, a great body of commentary on Jewish scripture, the Torah, addressing the minutest questions of theological interpretation. But as even the Torah shows, Jews haven’t always been so monotheistic. When ordinary Jews were not worshipping golden calves, Pharisees idolized Jewish law. The Essenes and Christian monastic orders likewise had strict, all-encompassing codes of conduct, but the Essenes were ascetics and, according to Muslims (and commonsense), Christianity is much less monotheistic than Judaism. So Islam distinguishes itself by systematically applying the principles of monotheism to all aspects of everyday life. This system of laws is called Sharia, derived from the Koran and the Hadith (traditional accounts of the prophet Muhammad’s life), and the Muslim way of life is called, in the opening of the Koran, the straight path. Westerners have come to separate politics and the public sphere from religion, because Westerners succumbed to greed; specifically, Westerners saw the opportunity for progress in the form mainly of material advancement thanks to the Scientific Revolution, and so enshrined the principles of individual autonomy and of private property in Europe and North America. Muslims see this separation as obviously sinful and, from a theistic viewpoint, their judgment here is impeccable. If you’re a genuine monotheist, you should think first and foremost about submitting to God in all aspects of your life and not just in superficial, verbal ways. Thus, society should be regulated by monotheistic principles, with no compromises made to atheists or agnostics who are preoccupied with the prospect for mere human-made progress in nature.
I’ll come back to this point about submission, but returning to the basics of Islam, I should add that Muslims affirm the exoteric principles of monotheism, as summarized above, and maintain that Muhammad was God’s last prophet. Muhammad is believed to have been helped by an angelic messenger to have written the Koran, and so the Koran is Islam’s central scripture. What I’ve just said amounts to the Islamic creed, which is the first of five pillars of Islam. The remaining four are mainly ways of applying that creed. Thus, Muslims are obliged to pray often, to give charity to those in need, to fast during the month of Ramadan, and to make a pilgrimage at least once to Mecca. Constant prayer means frequent interruptions to secular preoccupations, reminding the Muslim that only God is worthy of being worshipped and that we, God’s lowly creatures, are not divine and are thus imperfect and liable to sin. For example, we often err in deifying ourselves or our creations, and so constant prayer is meant to put us in our place. Only the one God, creator of the universe, is worthy of being worshipped and our main task in life is to worship God by submitting to God’s will as revealed by all of the prophets but most practically by Muhammad.
Likewise, charity is meant to prevent us from worshipping idols; we should curb our greed and apply the main lesson of Christianity, which is the Golden Rule. Now in authentic Christianity, which has been mostly extinct since the time of Constantine, charity was just the tip of the iceberg of asceticism on which Jesus stood. Authentic monotheism is quite subversive from a secular humanistic perspective, because submitting to God entails that we detach ourselves from the many distractions in nature, such as our jobs, our earthly families and friends, and our sinful desires and animal instincts. The average Muslim is much more ascetic and thus authentically Christian than the average Christian, and charity is only part of that detachment from natural concerns. As I said, the Muslim fasts for a whole month every year, but also abstains from gambling and intoxication. Finally, pilgrimage to Mecca shows Muslims their equality, since there Muslims exchange their clothes and thus their status symbols with humble uniforms and pray with equal submissiveness.
Now, because the Muslim subscribes to the exoteric notion of God’s identity and character, according to which God is (for no good reason) preoccupied with morality, God is expected to judge our actions after the last human-made social orders, in which we’re free to live outside of the straight path, end in apocalypse. Thus, the Muslim takes seriously the metaphor that God is all-knowing and all-powerful, meaning that God knows everything we do and has the power to reward or punish us as we deserve. Simultaneously, the Muslim affirms that humans have freewill, so that it makes sense to speak of morality and of God’s interest in it in the first place. Again, the familiar contradictions follow (how can we be free to act against God’s will if God has power over everything?), but these are of little consequence from the esoteric perspective, according to which this picture of God is just a metaphor and is indeed a fiction in the full sense.
Echoes of the Dark Secret
Nevertheless, the Muslim’s obsession with submitting to God is suspicious. As a moral crusader, Muhammad would have found monotheism and the fear of an almighty God socially useful, but skeptics have long appreciated the strangeness of the idea that such a deity would want or need to be worshipped. The desire to be praised stems from character flaws, such as a lack of self-confidence or shame and the need to cover up your failings. If God is all-knowing, he knows he’s supreme so he clearly wouldn’t need anyone else to inform him of that fact, let alone a creature as comparatively inferior as any of us. The Muslim must say, then, that submission to God is for our sake alone, not God’s. We’re the ones who need to submit to prevent us from sinning out of hubris. This is the pragmatic aspect of Islam which I’ll come to in a moment. But first, I just want to point out the obvious: the injunction to systematically submit to God is consistent with the idea that God is an insane tyrant, and this idea follows from the most plausible psychological analysis of God’s character.
If you think through the conventional notion of God’s personality, you’ll realize pretty quickly that the notion is incoherent. If God is all-knowing and benevolent rather than evil, he wouldn’t have made creatures that could find peace rather than eternal hellfire only by sacrificing themselves as slaves to God as their master. Just imagine that scientists eventually create intelligent life and they arrange circumstances so that these artificial creatures either suffer forever as a punishment for their misdeeds or find happiness only by worshipping their makers as slaves. Mind you, these creatures would have the potential to guide themselves according to their limited abilities, but would have to choose to forsake their individuality. What would we think of the character of such scientists? Surely, they’d be closer to deranged sadists rather than benevolent parents. And the freewill defense doesn’t rescue monotheism from this incoherence. A good God wouldn’t gamble by creating free creatures in the first place, knowing that the gamble wouldn’t pay off for many of them who would choose poor life paths and suffer forever for those choices.
No, the dark secret of monotheism offers the best way out of this mess. God would have created free creatures because God himself would be insane and tyrannical, and if we’re liable to misuse our freedom and turn on each other, acting as tyrants ourselves, that only indicates that God indeed would have made us in his image. Just as we tend to misuse our freedom, so God would eventually misuse his independence. Just as any free creature becomes alienated and terrified by the power that comes with freedom, such as the power to take a person’s life, so too God would be horrified by the lack of any constraint on his actions. The difference is just that God’s alienation would be inescapable because his freedom and power would be infinite and unmatched. Free creatures are relatively equal and so there’s at least the possibility of deterring each other with the threat of punishment. No one could threaten to punish God, so his freedom would be unlimited. As I point out elsewhere, this means that our best models for understanding God’s character are the infant and the dictator. The infant holds its parents hostage to its whims and the dictator likewise commands obedience, because the dictator is paranoid and sadistic, thrilling to each opportunity to degrade his minions by having them debase themselves. This implication of monotheism would tend to find its way into any insistent form of this religion, and so we have the Islamic fixation on our need to submit to God.
What of the second meaning of “Islam,” peace? At first, you might think this is a harmless and indeed laudable goal for any religion. What could be wrong with seeking inner and outer peace, meaning peace within and between us? But notice that peace is not the same as happiness. Peace is a kind of stillness which might remind you of the Buddhist idea of nirvana. Inner peace is the death of the self. And permanent peace between individuals and nations likewise signals an absence of life in the form of what Nietzsche called the will to power, the interest in pursuing your unique vision even if this entails conflict with competing visions. Were there global peace, this would mean erasing the divisions between nations and so outer peace would reduce to the inner kind; that is, everyone would effectively be clones of each other, with the same goals, and so peace between individuals or nations would be trivially impossible, since there would be just one type of character or nation in question.
Inner peace, then, would amount to psychological or cultural inactivity, as in Buddhism; peace would require detachment from the flow of thoughts, a carefreeness due to a lack of egoistic ambition, a renunciation of your natural self. As I say elsewhere, the theist’s notion of eternal life is actually based on a conception of deathliness, the opposite of liveliness. Likewise, the peace of the Muslim’s soul, as found through servitude to God, is a form of death; what dies is the Muslim’s independence as an individual. By pointing out what’s theologically obvious, that each of us would be metaphysically dependent on God, since God could destroy everything if he wished and thus chooses to sustain our being, the Muslim goes several steps further and demands such psychological dependence that our individuality is annihilated when we function as God’s slaves. Inner peace for the Muslim must be the feeling of this loss of individual identity.
So the esoteric meaning of “Islam” is that submitting to God’s plan brings us a deathly peace, that God plans for our destruction. As we’ll see in the next two sections, death would lie even at the end of all Creation, because an eventual peace of nonbeing would be nature’s purpose. The creation of nature would have been God’s way of systematically annihilating himself, transducing his infinite being into a multiverse of material bodies that could be destroyed in a heat death or in a Big Rip at the end of time. The mass death in question is precisely one of perfect peace: the stillness of nonbeing, the erasure of the absurdity of an almighty God who becomes a monster that needs to be put down. God’s suicide is the secret of monotheism and you can read this secret in the very name of Islam.
Apocalypse and the Death of God
Buttressing this interpretation is the Muslim’s exoteric view of history, according to which there will be an apocalyptic Judgment Day at history’s end, when God will finally reveal himself and give everyone their due, establishing the divine kingdom after wiping out our upstart civilizations. This linear, apocalyptic conception of history is a nod to Eastern dualism, according to which the present reality is relatively insignificant and at any rate illusory compared to God’s transcendent reality. Were God’s hand to break into nature at the end of all things and take full, direct control over Creation, the implication is that this would confirm the irony of Jesus’ ascetic, anti-nature message that those who are first will be last and those who are last will be first.
But the idea of an apocalyptic, once-and-for-all end of history is very strange. Why would God be confined to just one attempt at Creation? Why couldn’t God create an infinite variety of universes, letting each take its course? Obviously, we’d be most concerned about the fate of our world, but the point is that the End Time is only subjectively apocalyptic. Our world might end on some Judgment Day, but why think this particular day is so important to God? Perhaps God’s presided over trillions of other Judgment Days, sending untold alien sinners to their equivalent hells. There’s no hint of any such downgrading of the importance of our Judgment Day, however, the assumption being that the time of our reckoning will be just as important to God as it is to us.
I see this monotheistic talk of the end of days, then, as a garbled telling of the dark secret: what will end is not just human reign over our particular planet, but God’s reign too. At the end of all things, God himself will be no more; more precisely, the truth at the heart of the monotheistic myth is that such a God would be so horrible that he ought to die, and so hopefully in some transcendent dimension he’s somehow done away with himself, since no one else could slay that dragon. That’s the apocalyptic event, the death of God, and that’s why monotheists assume that God is so concerned with that End Time. On the one hand, then, Islam is about the peace of death through strict adherence to God’s plan, and on the other, there’s this dark cloud hanging over monotheists, an expectation of some barely imaginable catastrophe that God’s planned all along. What ends is the life of God for all its intolerability and what comes after is the absurd decay of God’s undead corpse, which is the self-transformation of the cosmos. And after that, perhaps: total extinction so that no one will be the wiser.
Algorithms of Islamic Law
Finally, I’d like to return to the explicitness and practicality of Islam. Surely, it’s no accident that the algorithm was invented by a Muslim, al-Khwarizmi--and soon after Muhammad, in the ninth century CE. Muhammad’s Koran and the applications in Sharia had already laid the groundwork for this idea of a step-by-step procedure leading to an inevitable result, by designing a religion as precisely a set of such explicit procedures for pleasing God and avoiding hell. The explicitness of these procedures in Islamic law virtually presupposes the idea of the algorithm, of a program in the technical sense that’s central now to computer programming. In his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett identifies natural selection as an algorithm in the sense that the evolution of life is a formal, mindless process that has a guaranteed result (the design of species that fit their environments). At the most general level, an algorithm is any mechanical process and so any natural process qualifies, even those whose results don’t interest us.
Now, by submitting so systematically to God’s will, the Muslim turns herself into a robotic slave, following an established procedure that belittles and ultimately eliminates her individuality: she prays constantly and applies every detail of Islamic law to her life. A Muslim won’t even shrink from the coldbloodedness and obsoleteness of many of these laws, such as the law that a thief should have his arm amputated. If we draw back in horror from such laws, we merely betray our pride in our independent judgment which of course is folly compared to Allah’s. Moreover, the function of Islamic law is to set the Muslim on the straight path, to turn an independent sinner and pseudo-god into a drone that follows God’s program, the end point of which is the peace of nonbeing.
Why the Islamic obsession with practicality? Muslims assume there’s such a thing as God’s will for each of us, that there’s a program we’re meant to follow and that if only we follow it, we’ll be guaranteed peace in the deathly afterlife in which everything loses its value because change then is nonexistent or illusory. (When a virgin woman in heaven is enjoyed by a recreated man, does she grow her virginity back? What happens, then, to the meaning of “virgin”?) But if the idea of the algorithm is implicit in Islamic law, and as Dennett argues, an algorithm is substrate neutral, meaning that any process that can be formalized counts as algorithmic, nature is full of algorithms. In this case, if the end of nature is the Big Rip or some other cosmic catastrophe, there’s a formal level of explanation--tantamount to a teleological level--according to which all natural processes are mindless steps in the securing of that endstate.
The algorithm, then, is at the heart of nature’s undeadness. As I’ve argued elsewhere, nature is best intuited as being neither living nor dead but undead, meaning that natural processes aren’t caused or infused by any mind, but neither are they inert and lifeless: instead, these processes are simulations of mental labours. The universe creates forms in an orderly fashion that allows for scientific explanation, but there’s no mind at the bottom of those creations. The cosmic body of nature is a corpse, but an animated one, and so nature is comparable to a zombie. This phony rationality in nature is explainable in terms of the algorithm: there’s a formal, mindless process that can perform any task a mind might just as well perform. But this algorithmic level of explanation reintroduces teleology and is thus part of the scientific re-enchantment of nature.
As far as I know, scientific theories of the end of our universe predict tragedy for all forms of life, which is to be expected if the universe wasn’t designed with life in anyone’s mind. But if natural laws imply algorithms at work everywhere in nature, this raises the philosophical (nonscientific) question of whether the guaranteed ultimate end of all of these programs was at some point intended by an intelligent designer. I don’t think the concept of a natural algorithm requires this theistic interpretation, but I do think the most aesthetically satisfying interpretation of this formal description of natural order is the theistic one--at least for imperfectly rational mammals such as us. (Scientific explanations are confined to nature, whereas the foregoing teleological question is of some supernatural purpose of nature about which we can only speculate with stories. Even if the universe was intelligently designed, the best explanation of that process is to assume that God created nature by destroying himself, so at most this myth of nature’s undeadness would be deistic.) So if the end of nature entails the peace of everyone’s death, monotheism implies that this end was chosen by God, that God created nature as a colossal mechanism for carrying out the extinction of all life and perhaps also the destruction of everything whatsoever.
Natural selection is a process of filtering those species that can thrive in an environment, but any such process is ambiguous: what looks like a process that favours some configuration of traits, by selecting for it, could just as well be thought of as disfavouring it by trying out the species only so that it can be discarded, making room for a new configuration. Natural selection looks like the ultimate disposal service for some anti-life purpose: each possible species is likely created somewhere in the multiverse and each is eventually extinguished in its turn. And if all natural processes implement algorithms, again natural regularities in general look like methods of disposing of quantum possibilities. If the catastrophic end of nature is a deathly peace, as implied by Islam and predicted by modern cosmologists, and quantum mechanics tells us that a multiverse of actual universes brings into being infinite quantum possibilities, this amounts to saying that nature is a system for disposing of infinite being by actualizing quantum possibilities in finite forms that can play themselves out to some deathly state or other, such as heat death or the Big Rip. Perhaps there’s some lucky universe in which life has the last laugh by creating an actual timeless heaven, but for the most part organisms are unable to survive the termination of their universe.
And so Islam’s explicitness and practicality call to mind the destructive purpose behind all of Creation. The exoteric conceit is that God is a generous, benevolent creator, whereas the esoteric reality is that the opposite would be true (on the monotheistic assumption that there’s a God at all). God’s apparent creativity would be a means of systematic destruction, and Islamic monotheism alludes to this with its naturalization of God’s will: Islam is the detailed program for psychologically killing ourselves, for turning ambitious, curious mammals into neutered slaves, which is what Allah is supposed to want, and likewise all of nature can be thought of as a giant, self-destructive machine. The destruction proceeds by the converting of all timeless possibilities into finite actualities so that those possibilities can be ended in some suitable dimensions. Allah would be bent ultimately on destruction because monotheism is so absurd, and anyone put in the position of being the one true, almighty God ought to put herself out of her misery.