Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Horror of Life’s Meaning: from Eastern and Western Religions to Liberal Humanism

Are you doing what you should be doing? Not just right now, but in general? How about your family, your town, your whole country? How about the human species throughout its history? Are we living as we should be living? Is there a profound, perhaps even secret purpose or a meaning of life which we can miss out on? Most creatures can’t conceive of such questions, because they’re locked into their biological rhythms and life cycle. We can imagine abnormalities and can learn to make fictions real, to change the world drastically to suit not just our needs but our whims, and thus to divert ourselves from our genetically preordained path. The existential question of whether a way of life is fundamentally in the right, then, is reserved for brainy creatures like us.

Even most people, however, almost never ponder the deep questions, because they take their practices for granted. For tens of thousands of years, people were forced by the exigencies of surviving in the wild, to hunt and gather food and supplies. Only when large groups turned to farming and organized religion, settled territories, and established civilizations did the philosophical questions begin to arise, because that’s when the upper class elites, at least, were provided the luxury to entertain subversive and even self-destructive doubts. For most of history, the old, theocratic answer satisfied the bulk of the populations, so that most people were spared the anxiety of feeling potentially out of place and could focus on more productive prospects than philosophizing. The most common ancient answer, of course, was that we should live as the gods decide is best for us. And who were the gods? They were thinly-disguised mouthpieces for the human rulers who materially benefited the most from the imperial systems that were driven by the rhetoric of the major religions. Fear of irresistible, miraculous powers kept everyone in line, and their longing for the promised immortality compelled countless believers to sacrifice themselves in wars of conquest.   

Arguably, that god-centered way of life was fatally undermined by the Scientific Revolution, as was recognized by the Enlightenment philosophers that led up to Nietzsche who, far from taking religious worship for granted, could presuppose that God was “dead” so that we had to face the postreligious question of what to do without God. The problem wasn’t that scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin made this or that discovery which contradicted some scriptural passage, since scriptures are typically poetic and can be reinterpreted to accommodate almost any new evidence; after all, that’s largely how a religion can have lasted for centuries in the first place. No, the problem was that scientists after the European Renaissance were humanists who came to trust more in people than in gods. The problem was the rise of the imperative to share knowledge as well as the benefits of technological progress with the masses. The problem was the palpability of human-made progress after the advent of modern science, which seemed to render the old religions superfluous. We found we could save ourselves or at least greatly improve our standard of living, not by praying and hoping for the best or by relying on dogmatic institutions, but by investigating matters for ourselves. So the problem was that the religious answers to the great questions could no longer be taken for granted, once enlightened humans took charge and—crucially—shared the enlightenment: through free-thinking, free trade, and democracy, we created a new world order that gave us all godlike powers. The old gods, then, seemed to be obsolete.

And yet for various reasons, modernity hasn’t made the question of life’s meaning a rhetorical one, as though the answer were obviously that we should be free merely to do whatever we want as long as we respect the same right of everyone else. For one thing, this freedom may be more of a curse than a blessing, a way of talking that reconciles us to nature’s inhumanity which undercuts all myths, even those of our godless, civic religions.

Here, then, I’ll critique some common approaches to the meaning of life. Eastern mystical and humanistic religions, Western monotheisms, and liberal humanism all divide us into higher and lower groups or accentuate natural divisions, so that the masses end up being exploited by the elites. Also, the answers from these religions and philosophies often call for an escape from the horror of what is mistaken for reality or from reality itself. The meanings of life they hold out aren’t always what they seem, and just to notice there’s room to ask deep questions may be to fall into a trap, the trap of enlightenment.

Eastern Religions

Let’s begin our search for answers with how East Asian religions are likely to handle the question of the meaning of life. These religions differ significantly from Western ones. The Chinese and Indian religions of Daoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, for example, are polytheistic, pantheistic, or atheistic. Their practitioners aren’t so concerned with evangelism, with converting foreigners to their beliefs and practices. Moreover, Eastern religions are more practical and philosophical than the monotheistic systems.

Confucianism is ancient Chinese humanism, and with respect to his thinking on ethics and society, Confucius can be called the Chinese Aristotle. For Confucius, we have to look not to the gods but to our potential, to figure out how we should live. We should cultivate virtues, beginning with compassion, and then regulate them by adhering to strict duties that ensure we don’t go off track. In some respects Confucianism is egalitarian, since everyone can learn to be virtuous and take part in at least the basic conventions that hold society together, such as education and respect for your parents. The capacity for virtue is essential to human nature, and Confucianism is mainly about the techniques for efficiently fulfilling that potential. Confucian humanism is founded on the conviction that our primary social obligation is to enable everyone to fulfill their potential for compassion, by educating them in a way that focuses on that moral calling. By contrast, an upbringing that’s loaded with technical training to excel at some profession, without any regard to our moral purpose is dehumanizing, according to Confucians, because our ethical responsibility to love others is essential to our species. Early Confucianism, then, isn’t a religion so much as a philosophy of social engineering. 

Confucian pragmatism is grounded in a concern with morality, but the Confucian point of morality is to sustain harmonious social relations, which means that the Confucian virtues tend to be conservative. To facilitate virtuous conduct, social order must be preserved, so personal creativity mustn’t be subversive. It’s hard to see, then, how a Confucian society could be particularly innovative, since the goal is to be sociable to fit in. Confucianism can thus be compared to modern psychiatry in that both are conservative in protecting the social order. The psychiatrist’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual defines “mental health” in terms of the ability to fulfill social functions. Mental illness is dysfunction, the failure to fit into social norms. But instead of appealing to cultural consensus about which jobs are worth pursuing and thus which types of people are needed to carry out the required functions, Confucians unilaterally posit compassion as the basis of all harmonious social relations.

This is questionable, since collective fear, another primary human motivator, can produce a totalitarian society which is perfectly harmonious. Whether compassion is good and fear is bad is hard for any secular humanist to determine, because of the naturalistic fallacy. Both compassion and fear are part of human nature; both derive from biological mechanisms, evolved to increase our chance of surviving, whether by cooperating or by fleeing or knuckling under the dictatorship of an alpha male. Both drives are factual—which doesn’t indicate how either should be valued, especially if we’re going to adopt a pragmatic approach to religious and philosophical questions. If we’re going to think of reason as an instrument, we might excel at devising efficient means to achieve our goals, but we’re going to be stymied by the deeper question of which goals we should choose in the first place. We’ll see later how modern secular thought addresses this issue with liberalism.

Compared to Confucianism, Daoism is metaphysical, mystical, and almost antisocial. For Daoists, the meaning of life is to follow the ultimate way of things as this way can be discerned by a superhuman view of the ultimate pattern in the universe. Far from deferring to parochial social conventions, as in Confucianism, Daoists say we should lose ourselves in spontaneous, effortless action, humbly assenting to everything’s natural function in the nameless Dao, in the way and source of all particulars and opposites, or the self-transforming totality of the universe. Zhuangzi’s Daoism celebrates the sage whose life is filled with “free and easy wandering,” who grasps her oneness with the universe through what the Western philosopher Spinoza would call the God’s-eye view of eternity. “The Perfect Man,” says Zhuangzi, “has no self; the Spiritual Man has no achievement; the Sage has no name.” This is because the sage, who has fulfilled the purpose of human life, sees through the illusions and absurdities of our ego-driven expectations, and in understanding how everything is what it is in its relation to everything else, wanders through life marveling at the mystical truth even if that results in her failure to fit into mass society. In short, Daoists are comparable to the hippies of the 1960s; cannabis even seems to have facilitated the Daoist’s mystical sense of everything’s oneness, much as it radicalized the American counterculture. 

These two disparate elements, Confucian teleology and social conservatism, on the one hand, and Daoist countercultural mysticism, on the other, are united in the oldest surviving East Asian religion, in the sprawling edifice of Hinduism. Again, a hallucinogenic substance, called soma, likely drove the mystical experiences of the Vedic sages who, in the ancient Sanskrit texts called the Upanishads, identified what they called the divine Self within each of us with the universe’s underlying material substance. But the meaning of life for highly inclusive and systematic Hinduism depends on your social class and stage in life. Hinduism is supposed to incorporate the goods of all aspects of life, including worldly ambition, the search for wealth and power, sexual and other pleasures, and the final aim which is moksha, liberation from the cycle of rebirth and from the shadow world of samsara, the realm of becoming or circuitous change. The Hindu castes and ashramas, or life-stages, are meant to allow everyone to pursue their spiritual purpose in a worldly setting. For example, Hinduism sets out the functions and virtues of labourers and traders, warriors and administrators, and priests and teachers. Each individual is also supposed to succeed in different life-stages, namely those of the student, the householder, and the forest-dweller who begins to renounce worldly goods to achieve the last aim of the ascetic: spiritual enlightenment which involves the realization that the basis of the inner, mental world is identical with the material basis of the outer world, that all of reality is unified.

What distinguishes Hinduism, then, is this pluralistic combination of the perspectives that are at odds with each other in the Chinese traditions. The purpose of life does seem only superficially many-sided in Hinduism, since in practice the priestly class is revered more than the lower-born labourers or administrators. The ultimate duty is moksha, not family life. But the Hindu insists that the worldly stages are necessary to taking on the mystical task of ascetic self-liberation. Daoists would disagree, since they recommend dropping out of the sham of social life as soon as possible. The question, then, is whether you can recognize the oneness of transcendent reality, without first starting a family, owning a house, and seeking success in business. It seems plausible to think that you can tire of something and long for it to be over only after you’ve thoroughly immersed yourself in it. Only in that case would the turn to pure spirituality and asceticism be profound rather than possibly nihilistic. However, it’s just as likely that secular life tempts us away from higher concerns, burdening us with mundane obligations and tribulations that run out the clock of our life. We can lose ourselves in the rat race so that we scoff at the prospect of a higher purpose in life than the chase after pleasure. Indeed, this is partly what seems to have set the materialistic West apart from the more philosophical Far East.

The philosopher Leo Strauss would stress the ancient wisdom of at least maintaining the appearance of giving credit to both the higher and lower aims in life, since the sages need society to function to provide them food and shelter. Citing Plato, Strauss would say that the ascetic, who ends up perceiving the folly not just of social conventions but of the whole domain of natural opposites and cycles when these are understood selfishly, must nevertheless uphold the noble lie that everything has its place, including the profane goals. The sages, then, are two-faced and must debase themselves in this political agenda of manipulating the herd into sustaining their elevated, antisocial aims. The application of this Straussian analysis to Hinduism is complicated by Hinduism’s eclectic approach to spirituality. The karma yoga is a Hindu technique of liberating the self by unselfish, unbiased action, which administrators or even labourers could use as long as they learn not to attach themselves to the consequences of their work, but to choose the actions that are right in themselves. Indeed, this spiritual path seems the basis of Buddhism. Still, escape from the apparent world, which includes the dimension of change in which our labours occur is the overall goal of Hinduism. The aim of all the Hindu techniques is samadhi, a trance state of mental stillness which enables you to see through the illusions of nature. Those who focus on work may ironically be turning some natural cycles against themselves, as it were, but they’re still closer to the illusions than are the ascetics who renounce most activities. 

As for Buddhism, it stands to Hinduism roughly as Protestantism stands to Catholicism, or as Islam stands to Judeo-Christianity, as a purported purification of an unwieldy system of beliefs. Buddhism provides perhaps the most candid, clear answer of all to the question of life’s meaning. As such, like Confucianism, Theravada Buddhism is more like a therapeutic philosophy than a religion. The essence of Buddhism is a humbling solution to the problem of suffering. Axiomatically, for Buddhists, ordinary life is suffering, an endless series of disappointments. The ultimate source of suffering is our tendency to have unrealistic cravings, beginning with the desire to be an independent self. We suffer disappointments of a thousand kinds because we attach to things that naturally pass away. We prefer for things to have permanent essences, as in Plato’s metaphysics or the notion of immortal souls. We grow attached to food, to friends, to our youth, to money, but everything changes because nothing is self-sufficient, and so a shift in the ignored conditions of something cause the thing itself to change. Just as in Daoism, we narrow our focus to the things that interest us and we vainly expect them to persist in the preferred manner, whereas those things are causally interrelated with everything else and so our self-centered conceptions lead us astray. But suffering too can end if only we cease our cravings. And Buddhism offers an eight-step program of disciplining ourselves to achieve that goal, ending in nirvana, in a tranquil state of mind that’s empty of the egoistic errors and longings that cause us to suffer.

While Buddhism initially was meant to reform and purify Hinduism, it later expanded rather like the Protestant sects, becoming the Mahayana school which seems to have adopted the wisdom of the noble lie. Mahayana Buddhists allow for expedient means of enlightenment and thus reconstruct the rich mythology of Hinduism, complete with popular tales of superheroic saints. Also, Mahayana Buddhism, which was once called the larger vehicle of enlightenment, adheres to the Christ-like ideal of the Bodhisattva, of the enlightened master who hovers on the edge of complete renunciation of attachments, by willing to serve as an altruistic model and teacher to help others find nirvana, instead of freeing herself even from moral attachments. Once again, we have the makings of elitism in this division between esoteric and exoteric Buddhist traditions.

Jainism takes elitist asceticism to even greater extremes. Rather like Gnosticism, Jainism posits that the true self is at odds with nature. The natural self that most people identify with is actually a prison, comprised of physical karmic forms, including cravings and delusions which lead us to the dead ends of ordinary rational knowledge such as are found in Western skeptical philosophy. True knowledge is innate and intuitive and its source is the divine consciousness buried within each of us. Our Jain purpose in life, therefore, is to cleanse the inner self by burning off the false self through practices of renunciation. Most famously, Jains abstain from hurting anyone or anything, in the vow of ahimsa. But on their path of purification, Jains also learn to avoid having thoughts of pride, deceitfulness, and greed. Both the profane mind and body are mortified in what should be described as a personal war against nature. The heroes of the Jain faith are called Ford-makers and Conquerors, because their superhuman acts of apparent self-denial testify to a supernatural will power that recognizes the wickedness of natural processes. 

What, then, to make of these ancient Eastern meanings of life? I’ve identified one theme, that of elitism which can be interpreted in a cynical, Straussian way. Another theme is escapism, not in the sense of an idle resort to fantasies, but in the pragmatic offering of real ways to evade the abuses of what we would call nature. Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains all declare that the ultimate good is freedom from a false, shadow reality, from the way everything’s sublime unity appears to us in our ignorance. The Chinese philosophies of Confucianism and Daoism are less radical or perhaps less imaginative. Their goals are, on the contrary, to merge with the more profane appearance of nature, either by perfecting society to allow us to fulfill our compassionate collective inclinations or by following deeper, more mystical—but still natural—patterns that may subvert certain customs of mere political correctness.

Hindus are much more sophisticated and consistent compromisers than Catholics, as we’ll see. Hinduism is susceptible to the problem of there being too many religious paths to God, since Hindus incorporate many seemingly incompatible schools of thought such as monistic and dualistic interpretations of divinity. But Hindus cheerfully explain that a divine power should be expected to have a plethora of manifestations. There are, however, some questionable themes running through the variety of Hindu philosophies, such as the caste system, the admiration of asceticism, and life’s victory as withdrawal from nature. Moreover, Hinduism is vulnerable to the Buddhist criticism that even if everything in nature is interconnected and unified, that doesn’t mean the whole is at some level alive or that consciousness underlies the great multiplicity of things; on the contrary, there may be no self beyond the illusion of the personal ego. Hindus believe there’s this mystical, underlying self largely on the testimony of ascetics and monks who claim to have experienced it while meditating, but if the personal self can be like a mask worn by an actor, as in Hindu philosophy, perhaps the actor might be just as illusory. Perhaps there are masks all the way down, and any experience of the self is generated by assorted brain processes and mental models.

As for the other two religions, Buddhism is a method of ending suffering, but if at least some disappointment is unavoidable for those who participate in the world, Buddhists must be advocating for withdrawal from the world, by deconstructing the human mind and programming it to consent with whatever it encounters. Jains, too, recommend a kind of retreat, by discovering our divine nature which prepares us for a life of infinite bliss and freedom in some higher dimension. But as with the ancient Chinese philosophies, neither Buddhism nor Jainism has a decisive justification for its call for retreat. If you want to be rid of all suffering or to live as a god, perhaps these religions show how to achieve those goals, but just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do so. The three Indian religions have in common, then, an unheroic stance towards nature. Instead of repairing the world or learning to live with suffering and finitude, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains long to be able one day to flee the battlefield. Of course, perhaps there’s wisdom in retreat, especially if the battle is hopeless.

What, though, is at the root of nature or of samsara, so that these religions would call for a retreat through asceticism or the ego’s annihilation? The simplest, most logical answer is that the indifference of natural rhythms is the source of suffering. And note that this refers to the suffering of almost all creatures due to their ignorance which perpetuates the illusion of a self-directed universe. The unenlightened hold themselves to be effectively central to all things, since our primary desire is to keep living. Creatures confuse their subjective view of the world with reality, and that confusion sustains an unimaginable quantity of pain and frustration for all species. There’s little attention paid to the chance of any deus ex machina in these escapist religions. The illusion at the heart of suffering wasn’t the result of any diabolical machinations, nor will mere faith in a deity rescue us. Instead, reality permits the illusion to occur because the real world is indifferent to whether we survive as individuals, and we alone can end our suffering if we deconstruct our myopic mental models or numb ourselves to our desires by ascetic withdrawal from our creatural dimension.

This cosmic indifference to each of us is technically horrific in the sense specified by the writer of classic strange tales, H.P. Lovecraft. He set out a philosophy of horror that he called cosmicism, according to which the essence of horror, especially in the scientific age, is the realization that we’re each insignificant in the universe because our values are parochial and the thing we cherish most, our personal self, is hapless and ultimately inconsequential. Nature’s fundamental processes are impersonal and therefore don’t play favourites. Lovecraft, too, was an elitist in that his stories depict what happens when a meddling scientist stumbles on the grand truth that shatters the vain, human-centered and self-sustaining delusion that we matter on some cosmic scale, that indeed our life has a meaning that depends on something less arbitrary than just our taste in religion or philosophy. But unlike the Indian religions, Lovecraft thought there’s no dignified escape. There’s enlightenment, for Lovecraft, but only in the agony of horror which undoes the sage’s sanity. Most people are unenlightened and misled by the presumption that living things are fundamentally at home in the real world as opposed to being poised at any moment to be crushed and eliminated by some natural accident. But in those religions, the result of enlightenment is inner peace, the opposite of horror. Horror might instead be the residual pain inflicted on the person who paradoxically understands our position in reality, but hasn’t purified her mind to have been able properly to receive that wisdom. Perhaps a little wisdom is indeed dangerous. Then again, maybe the talk of cosmic or fundamental ideals is just one last vain projection of human preferences onto the rest of the universe, to allow us to rank tranquility as existentially superior to horror.

Zoroastrianism

The Western religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are said to be distinguished by their monotheism, but this is an oversimplification, as we’ll see. Their story begins with the lesser known, older religion of Persia called Zoroastrianism, which was formulated by the prophet Zoroaster, who may have lived as early as sometime in the second half of the second millennium BCE. The most important source of our knowledge of this religion is the Avesta text which includes the five Gathas, hymns which historians attribute to Zoroaster. The more detailed Zoroastrian theological texts that have survived are both scant and late, dating to the eighth or ninth centuries CE. This is because Alexander the Great’s army laid waste to the Persian Empire in the fourth century BCE, and then the Islamic Caliphate destroyed the rebuilt, Sassanid Empire in the seventh century CE.

Zoroaster’s great innovation was to coherently combine cosmogonic dualism and eschatological monism. His is a process theology as opposed to a static one, since he envisions the divine order as a struggle to bring about the inevitable triumph of wise and benevolent Mind, called Ahura Mazda in the Avestan language, who is responsible for cosmic order, over its opposite, known as evil, destructive Thinking, called Angra Mainyu, which is responsible for all of the disorder. In the beginning there were these two powers although they existed more as potentials to be determined by the results of cosmic evolution, but in the end only one will remain and our great purpose is to participate in that war, by choosing good over evil in our daily life and by protecting the natural order and helping to prevent a collapse into chaos.

Zoroastrianism, then, is the source of the dualism in the later Gnostic theodicies, which posit an evil or misguided demiurge as the creator of the flawed material world who is blind to the transcendence of mental and moral capacities which are due to a higher deity. For the Gnostics, nature and material pursuits form a prison blinding us in turn to our glorious destiny—if only we acquire saving knowledge and summon the ascetic will power to escape the cycles that captivate us. In any case, while Zoroastrian dualism isn’t Platonic in the sense of being opposed to material things, the ancient Persian religion does have the same benefit of being able to explain all the evil in the world that persists despite the existence of a wise and benevolent creator God.

This religion is the source also of apocalyptic Western expectations of a final cataclysmic battle between good and evil. History for Zoroaster is linear, not cyclical as it is in the Eastern religions. The ideas of divine judgment at the point of death, of heaven and hell as reward and reformative punishment, and of a messiah, or Saoshyant who will bring about the final reformation of the world and the defeat of evil, a conclusion to the process of Creation called Frashokereti—these are all originally Zoroastrian. Perhaps most importantly, though, Zoroaster’s process theology provides a compelling reason for the ultimate God’s oneness. There are cosmic opponents, there’s a universal struggle of good against evil, and goodness is destined to triumph over its evil twin. Zoroastrian monotheism falls out of the logics of war and competition.

Judaism

Although attention to historical detail would illuminate the study of any religion, the Western religions cry out more for such contextualization and deflation, because of their conceits of absolutism and evangelism. For example, the racial and political relations between the Indo-Aryans and the Dravidians of ancient India, and the rise of unconventional, esoteric tantric practices shed much light on the development of Hinduism as well as of Buddhism and Jainism. But I haven’t gone into much of the historical background of the Eastern religions, compared to the discussions to come, because I wanted to use the Eastern religions to introduce the two themes of elitism and escapism, and as I said, the Western religions need to be treated more as hostile witnesses, as it were.

Judaism, then, began as a henotheist Canaanite religion. This means that Judaism started off as polytheistic, since the early Jews worshipped various gods while favouring one god, and they didn’t deny the legitimacy of worshipping different gods. Later Jews were monotheists who went further in believing that only one god exists. The Canaanite pantheon was led by El and his consort Asherah, who had 70 sons, these being the state gods of different Canaanite regions, including the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, whose national god was Yahweh. Canaan wasn’t peculiar in this regard, since the Hittites, Mesopotamians, Egyptians and Greeks were similarly polytheistic.

Polytheism shouldn’t be derided as an arbitrary derangement, since the power of different gods was experienced as real by the devotees and by foreigners alike. The historian Yuval Harari explains that in the ancient world, religions functioned as corporations, the gods and myths establishing their brand identities. Thus, the god Chemosh would have seemed powerful in Moab, where he was worshipped, while Yahweh held sway over Israel and Judah, because of the difference in brand loyalties. The state cults organized social behaviour in different ways, much as we effectively swear loyalty to different corporate brands. Star Wars devotees clash with Star Trek ones and the power of Apple, Amazon, Walmart, or McDonald’s is real and is based in their physical places of business.

In the same way, religions operated rather like businesses in the ancient world, the difference being that there used to be little separation between public function and private, personal identity. This is why the elites’ religion was often not the same as that of the masses, because needed different class identities to make sense of their vastly different experiences. Thus, we’ll see that while the elites might attempt to impose a diluted brand on the masses, often for political purposes, the masses clung to their local lore and rituals, because their cultural identity was bound up with their traditions and brand. But the elites wrote and assembled the scriptures that provide historians with a misleading picture of their people’s everyday religious practices. 

To return, though, to the historical narrative, the Israelites and Judeans began to worship Yahweh as the national god of their respective kingdoms in the ninth century BCE. The Canaanite state gods were all equally matched, which reflected the equality of those kingdoms. Moreover, each state god had a female consort, and Yahweh’s was initially the goddess Asherah. The state cult, then, acquired its power from its basis in real-life practices, using theological metaphors of politics, family, and parentage.

However, Israel attracted the unwanted attention of the brutal Neo-Assyrian Empire, and in 722 BCE, the Assyrian king Sargon II captured Samaria, the capital of Israel, and exiled the leading Israelite citizens, replacing them with foreigners to prevent an organized Israeli backlash. Many Israelites fled to Judah where they sowed the seeds of a more ambitious worship of Yahweh. According to the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, by the time the Neo-Assyrian Empire collapsed in the seventh century BCE, Judah felt liberated to seek its independence and expressed that political desire through a heightened attachment to Yahweh worship, according to which the Judeans believed Yahweh, not El, was the supreme god of the Canaanite pantheon. King Josiah of Judah initiated a short-lived religious reform, forbidding the worship of gods other than Yahweh, destroying the emblems and sanctuaries of Baal, and executing the non-Yahwist priests.

Again, this condemnation of other gods was an elite, political phenomenon, which is why Josiah’s reform ended with his death in 609 BCE. According to the Bible scholar Kurt Noll, there were four ranks in Canaanite society, corresponding to four tiers of deities. At the top were the divine patron and spouse who were associated with the king and his wife; at the second level were cosmic gods controlling natural processes such as the weather, who corresponded to the nobles; at the third level, aligned with the peasants, were practical gods promoting everyday tasks for ordinary Canaanite families, including crafts, the veneration of ancestors, and farming; and at the lowest level were the messenger gods which reflected the status of human slaves.

The king needed the peasants to pay him tribute in the form of sacrificial offerings, to feed the royals, priests and armies who didn’t work the land. In return, the king promised to protect the people from invasions and other crises. While the peasants’ mode of worship focused on the third tier of gods, the elites dealt with issues of political legitimacy and of regulating the kingdom with a divinely ordained legal structure, issues that were settled officially by the patron deities but practically by the human rulers and by the actual kingdom’s needs.

This pantheistic religion encoded the social norms in each Canaanite kingdom, and so the pantheons were constantly in flux, signifying the political turmoil in that region in the second Iron Age. Thus, according to historian Baruch Levine, the early desire to expand the Yahwist brand was partly a reaction to Neo-Assyrian royal propaganda, as though Yahweh had to grow in prominence to counter the influence of the mighty Assyrian king who was called “King of the Universe” and “Lord of the Four Quarters.” When Neo-Assyria collapsed, the political treaty that Judah was supposed to sign with that empire as its vassal was smoothly reimagined in Deuteronomy as the covenant Moses brought between Yahweh and Judah. The enlarged Yahweh that had been evoked to stand against the Assyrian king would have been free to expand after the liberation of Judah from Assyrian rule. Indeed, Yahweh would grow in the elite Judean imagination, appropriating the attributes of both local and foreign deities so that Yahweh could eventually replace them.  

But after the Neo-Assyrian invasion, the Judeans endured further calamities. In 587 BCE, the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem and took the Judean priests and other elites as captives in Babylon. Then in 539 BCE, Babylon was conquered by the First Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great, whereupon the captive elites of Judah were strongly influenced by Zoroastrianism. Imagine what must have been the widening of their theological imagination: the Canaanite clans and kingdoms, together with their local gods were dwarfed in cosmic significance by Zoroaster’s universal process theology. This was likely the catalyst that transitioned Yahwist henotheism into full-blown monotheism, at least for the Judean elites who were preoccupied with gods at that level of the Canaanite pantheon. After all, while the Judeans seem to have appropriated some of Yahweh's grandeur from the Neo-Assyrians and the Babylonians, those imperial religions were also henotheistic and so their pantheons were already similar to Canaan’s. The decisive innovation as far as monotheism is concerned was Zoroastrianism, with its denial of the existence of any gods other than the one morally supreme deity who was prophesied to triumph at the end of time.

Although the Persians allowed the Judeans to return to Judah, which was now called the province of Yehud by the Babylonians and Persians, many preferred to stay, taking advantage of business opportunities in Persia but also seemingly basking in the glory of that loftier religion. Those Judeans who did return denounced what they must have viewed as the small-mindedness of the native worshippers. At that point, the elites were as good as foreigners themselves, since although they descended from the exiles they hadn’t lived yet in what had been Judah. Nevertheless, viewing themselves as the purer Jews and even instituting an ironic prohibition of interracial marriages to avoid mixing the bloodline, they imposed their Zoroastrian-inspired henotheism and eventually their monotheism onto the peasants. This Second Temple Period is when Jews became divided between Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and other sects. This is also when the Jewish scriptures as we know them today were assembled and redacted to reflect the elites’ monotheistic version of Yahwism which still wasn’t necessarily shared by the Jews who were ruled by those emissaries of Persia.

These often devious scriptures projected Jewish monotheism onto prior centuries so that the Jewish people as a whole might be scapegoated for their political calamities. Above all, Yahweh had to be above reproach even though, as Job and Ecclesiastes let slip, Yahweh seemed to have failed to keep up his end of the bargain, allowing his chosen people to be conquered over and over again. The overriding reason why no blame could be laid on Yahweh is that if this god alone were perfect and the Jews alone worshipped Yahweh, Jewish pride would be salvaged even under the worst circumstances. This was thus a foolproof formula for preserving social cohesion.

In any case, Yehud became a theocracy, ruled for two centuries by hereditary high priests with a Persian-appointed governor who kept order and oversaw the collection of taxes. As historian Christopher Hayes points out, in a lopsided socio-political relationship, cultural influence is likewise often asymmetrical, because the dominant culture is more prestigious, so that even when the culture isn’t imposed it’s often imitated by the client state. Still, because the local customs are essential to group identity, the client state doesn’t merely erase its past and copy the religion of its rulers. Instead, we have syncretism, the synthesis of two cultures which merges different elements of each to form a hybrid culture.

Second Temple Judaism, then, proclaimed that Yahweh is the only God that exists and that the Jews are the holy people chosen to keep Yahweh’s elaborate code of laws that regulate every aspect of life for Jews. These pillars of ancient Judaism reflect the exigencies needed to combine Canaanite and Persian cultures. Thus, Jewish obsession with morality in daily affairs derived partly from the exilic Jews’ need to invent a portable form of their religion, after their temple’s destruction, but also from Zoroaster’s concept of the cosmic significance of the war between good and evil. But whereas that mindset evolved organically for Persians, it had to be imposed on Canaanites, so Jews encased their obsession with morality in an oppressive legalistic form.

Likewise, the political purpose of mono-Yahwism—which was to make Canaanite religion seem respectable in Persian eyes—entailed that Jews had to reject Zoroaster’s process theology. Thus, Yahweh became the omega and the alpha, the last and the first thing. This was because if Yahweh were only potentially supreme, depending on the outcome of a cosmic struggle, Jews would be free to choose theological sides, which was one of the main points of Zoroastrianism. For the Persians, we’re free to choose whether to further the interests of divine order or disorder, but we have a moral obligation to choose wisely. Monotheism had to be imposed on Judea, because its source was foreign and therefore unwelcome by average Israelites and Judeans. Thus, Jews were offered no choice in the matter: for Jews, the one and only God is eternal, not merely the outcome of an evolutionary process.

The implications of this divergence from eschatological monotheism are hard to overstate, because whereas Ahura Mazda’s supremacy makes intuitive sense, given our familiarity with how battles often lead to one side’s defeat and even to its total destruction, Yahweh’s supremacy is only a brute, inexplicable fact in Judaism as is made apparent in the Book of Job, for example. The later Yahweh is self-created and has no goddess as his consort, although his maleness is a hangover from the patriarchal prejudice of the region and period. Almighty Yahweh’s eternity follows from the fact that Zoroastrian monotheism was imposed on most Jews, since their lack of choice required that Yahweh’s supremacy be unquestionable. This was guaranteed by the inherent absurdity of Jewish monotheism, of the notion of an uncreated lone male deity who, after incorporating the attributes of all the Canaanite, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian gods, became manifestly self-contradictory. To alleviate the absurdity, Jewish priests maintained the existence of other gods in their scriptures but demoted them to angels and demons.

Finally, whereas later monotheists would feel the need to evangelize, to convert the heathen under the threat of death, Jews handled their monotheism differently, by combining it with their traditional tribal pride as Canaanites. Jews thought of themselves as an elevated tribe blessed to have a special relationship with the one and only God, and so to convert foreigners to Judaism would have deprived Jews of that special status. If everyone began following Jewish law, Jews would have lost their distinction as the single chosen people of the all-powerful God. But as we’ll see, Christians and Muslims would have no compunction against spreading the name of their God across the face of the earth, and this, too, follows from the comparison with Zoroastrianism. Whereas Zoroastrians only look forward to God’s oneness and work hard to help make that apocalyptic event happen, those who subscribe to a bastardized version of monotheism can’t abide religious alternatives, because the multiplicity of religions provides evidence that the supposed one and only God isn’t sovereign over Creation, after all. Again, Zoroastrianism is compatible with that multiplicity in the interim period of cosmic evolution, but the monotheists who descend from Judaism are resentful against the mere existence of alternative religions. They figure that just as God has always been one, so too there should only ever have been worship of that God. Adherents of other religions, then, are demonized and often forced to convert to the one legitimate faith or be exterminated.    

As for the meaning of Jewish life, Jews are fortunate to have a rigorous life manual to answer that question for them. Jews offer only the barest outline of an answer to gentiles, though, since they naturally recommend that gentiles follow only the seven laws of Noah, not, of course, the full 613 commandments in the Torah. As an offshoot of Zoroastrian, morality-centered monotheism, these seven laws are to establish courts of justice, and to avoid blasphemy, idolatry, incest and adultery, murder, robbery, and the eating of animal meat. Whereas Zoroastrians would welcome converts, Jews can’t do so, because their monotheism is mixed with Canaanite tribalism and so it’s rude to think of the world joining Jews in their covenant.  

The Chosen People and their Fear of God

We might have expected monotheism to eliminate social hierarchies, since any distinction between types of humans would be insignificant compared to our relation to the universe’s creator. Yet Judaism retains a curious division between the Jews as God’s favourites and everyone else whom God doesn’t expect to follow his every commandment. Jews shy away from admitting that God’s focus on them amounts to a blessing, in which case Jews should regard themselves as somehow superior to gentiles. On the contrary, Jewish tradition abounds with tales recommending that Jews be falsely modest, a trait which carries over into Jewish comedy. Jews supposedly were offered the Torah last, because no other people were foolish enough to undertake the responsibility, and God was glad that the Jews took up the covenant because Jews are the lowliest people, according to this Jewish tale, so their success in following God’s law would redound only to God’s glory. Nevertheless, unless the Jewish way of life is meant to be meaningless to conform to the emptiness of an indescribable God, Judaism must carry some prestige and this would derive from the tribal side of the religion’s origin. Ancient Jews were so proud of themselves that they preferred to uphold a vitiated version of Zoroastrianism instead of confessing to the Persian form’s manifest superiority to Canaanite polytheism, to a religion that so obviously echoed parochial societal divisions and was thus a mere mental projection, a religion that functioned well socially, like a large corporation, but that lacked cosmic or spiritual depth.

But what’s most curious about this remainder of elitism in Jewish monotheism is that the door plainly swings both ways. Perhaps the Torah is a burden rather than a blessing, given that the legal framework was a political means of imposing the Zoroastrian emphasis on morality even though that emphasis doesn’t make sense outside of process theology. Certainly, throughout history, not only has the Jewish homeland been conquered by various empires, but Jews have been scapegoated and demonized, beginning with the Christian strategy of blaming Jews for killing God, and continuing with the Russian pogroms and the Nazi Holocaust. If Jews willingly live by an archaic, sometimes embarrassing legal code, maybe Jews are somehow defective. This logic may rationalize the abuse of a victimized people, but Judaism presents its abusers this opportunity, by maintaining that remnant of tribal pride in the form of Jews’ allegedly having been specially recognized by a deity that’s supposed to be inconceivable, owing to God’s timelessness and thus to his departure from the Zoroastrian system.

The Indian religions regarded the mundane appearance of nature as a horror to be escaped by way of an enlightened, purified mindset, so that nature might be perceived anew as unified and shot through with divine input. Western monotheism reverses matters. By transforming Ahura Mazda into a counterintuitive tyrant, Jews transfer the horror from the material world to God. Yahweh is the horror, all the Jewish praises and prayers notwithstanding. The theologian Rudolph Otto had it right when he recognized the essence of holiness as a terrifying, awful yet self-destructive attractiveness to the naturally unknowable. Ahura Mazda as a wise victor who has grown in defeating his longtime enemy is at least plausible as a divine mind that will one day reign forever. Yahweh who alone is the source of good and evil and who has always been and always will be is horrific because of the irrationality of this conception of God. We fear the unknown. As a political strategy of imposing a lesser form of Zoroastrianism on some Canaanites, the brute transcendence of mono-Yahweh avoids the naivety of personifying cosmic reality. But this strategy may also double as a theocratic con.

If the unique and transcendent God is the horror, we ought no longer to escape our natural struggles into the embrace of supernature. Thus, the hidden meaning of Jewish monotheism is that Jews should escape the terror of Yahweh by immersing themselves in the concerns of the secular world, and this is what Jews have in fact tended to do. In medieval Europe, Jews fled Spanish persecution and excelled as merchants and bankers, because Yahweh didn’t see fit to outlaw usury, so Jews could issue high-risk loans to farmers which awarded Jews high interest rates. Today, according to the Berkeley Center for Religion, most Jews in Israel and the United States aren’t Orthodox. Half of Israeli Jews call themselves secular, and 38% of American Jews are Reformed, meaning liberal and practically secular. Moreover, compared to Christians, Jews haven’t been inclined to speculate much about God’s nature or about our fate in the afterlife. Perhaps most Jews gather that if the God of Western monotheism makes no sense and is thus appalling for being an all-seeing, yet incomprehensible something that's nevertheless bent on judging our every deed, we should occupy our limited days not dwelling on theological matters, but attempting to succeed in secular terms to have a rich, full life.

 Christianity

The paradox of Christianity is that Christians identified their God with a lowly, subversive Jew who lived in Judea at a time when that region was occupied by the Roman Empire, but this religion became that empire’s official religion in the fourth century. Jews had been awaiting a messiah in the Davidic line to defeat their foreign rulers and usher in the Kingdom of God on earth. The Maccabees, a group of Jewish warriors, revolted against the Seleucid Empire from 167-160 BCE, to end the influence of Hellenism on Jewish culture, and after the Romans conquered Judea in 63 CE, which had been run by the Hasmonean dynasty, Jews formed the political movement of the Zealots to foment rebellion against Rome. Their opposition culminated in the first Jewish-Roman War from 66-73 CE and in the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Although those events scattered the surviving Jews across the Mediterranean—at least those who weren’t captured and sold into slavery—Judaism, the underdog, arguably defeated Rome in the end—but through selfless Christianity rather than by Jewish force. 

The paradox is solved not by positing Christianity’s truth and thus a supernatural explanation of its success, but by attending to the historical context and to the continuation of Jewish syncretism. Christianity combined Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures. Judaism itself was divided at the time between Pharisees, Sadducees and various smaller, apocalyptic and ascetic cults collectively called the Essenes. The Pharisees supplemented the Jewish scriptures with theological interpretations deriving from Zoroastrianism, such as the principles of freewill, resurrection of the dead, and heaven and hell issuing from a divine judgment. Indeed, the name “Pharisee,” often taken to have meant “set apart,” as in the Pharisees weren’t real Jews because of the Persian influence on them, may instead have derived from the Aramaic “Parsah,” meaning “Persian” or “Persianizer.” The Sadducees were less Zoroastrian and confined their thinking to the written Jewish Law. Both groups were secular compared to the Essenes who congregated in caves, took vows of poverty, led a strictly communal life, practiced daily baptism, and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Jewish side of Christianity, apparent from the Gospel narratives, is eclectic, combining elements of Pharisaic, Sadducee, Essenic, and Zealot beliefs and practices. Thus, the compromising function of Christianity begins at the outset even within the Jewish side of the synthesis with paganism. Like a Pharisee or an Essene, the character Jesus speaks at great length of heaven and hell and of the coming judgment at the End Times, but he also argues over interpretations of the Torah with legalistic Jews like a Sadducee, and called Pharisees hypocrites, as an Essene would have done. Moreover, Jesus spent a long time in the wilderness and lauded the poor like an Essene, but he also selflessly went about healing the sick and helping feed the poor instead of shutting himself away in a cave. Like a mystical Essene, Jesus taught in parable form and he said his teachings contained esoteric meanings that only insiders would understand. He’s baptized by the Essene John the Baptist who prostrates himself before Jesus. And Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers and told his followers to carry swords, like a Zealot.

Of course, the Gospel narratives were written decades after Jesus was thought to have lived and were canonized only much later, in the fourth century but officially at the Council of Trent in 1546. But by either point the Second Temple Jewish sects were no more and Christianity had already split from rabbinical Judaism, so there would have been no interest in casting a wide scriptural net to attract different kinds of Jews to Christianity. Instead, the Jesus depicted in the gospels that feature his Jewishness isn’t placed squarely in any one Jewish faction. The point of Jesus’s Jewishness in the Gospels, then, is that Jesus was the perfect Jew who transcended such squabbles and beat the Jewish sects at their own games.

Between Judaism and paganism there already stood Gnosticism in the first century CE, a Jewish-Platonist movement and a more philosophical, anti-natural and even Eastern rival of the universal, ever-compromising form of Christianity that would become known as “Catholic.” Gnostic Christianity was influenced by Plato through Philo of Alexandria, the first century Jewish philosopher who read the Jewish scriptures allegorically to adapt them to Platonic metaphysics. Later, in the third century, the philosopher Plotinus created Neo-Platonism, a religion combining Plato’s philosophy with the Hindu idea of an impersonal source of all being, which Plotinus called the One and which is found in our true self through asceticism and ecstatic meditation. Gnostics were metaphysical dualists who thought that nature was created by an evil or ignorant deity, and that we’re imprisoned in a domain of corrupting material forms unless we obtain secret knowledge to save ourselves, knowledge supplied by a higher, transcendent and benevolent God. Aspects of Gnosticism are apparent in the Pauline epistles, which display little interest in the historical Jesus and in which Paul proclaims that he received gnosis, of saving knowledge, from a vision of the risen Christ. Gnosticism is found also in the Gospel of John in which Jesus is depicted as a heavenly revealer, a representative of the divine light against the darkness of godless nature. In the third century, Manicheanism, too, represented a rival form of universal religion, combining Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Christianity. According to Jennifer Hecht’s book Doubt, while Manicheanism was eventually condemned as heresy, this religion’s enormous popularity, in Persia, the Roman Empire, India, and China astonished Christians, forcing the Church to adopt Eastern ideals of asceticism to meet the public demand for otherworldly spirituality. 

On the Greco-Roman side of the union, there were the Mystery Religions and the fact of the polytheistic Roman Empire itself with its bias towards universalism and expansionism, as well as its tendency to worship its emperors as gods, according to the imperial cult. The Mystery Religions were similar to Gnosticism in that they were underground schools, featuring rituals that provided the initiate with esoteric knowledge of the nature of reality and of his or her ultimate purpose. Specifically, according to the New Testament historian Samuel Angus, “common to all the Mysteries was the faith in communion, or identification with God.” This was achieved in various ways, such as through ecstasy or enthusiasm brought about by vigil, fasting, whirling dances, or hallucination. One of the forms of divine union was deification or apotheosis, the initiate’s literal transformation into a deity. For example, according to Angus, there was “the God-Man conception,” which rose from Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. The Mysteries conceived of deification in three interrelated ways: “mystic identification with the tutelary” or divine guardian, “endowment with deathlessness and transformation into the divine substance,” and “the divine indwelling, by which the material man became spiritual.” As Angus points out, the second form is apparent in the sacramental meal, called the Eucharist, which Christians took over from the Mysteries, while the third form “was so conspicuous in the mystical aspects of Paulinism, and still more in the thought of the Fourth Gospel.”

Thus, the Mystery Religions transmitted Eastern monism to the West, via the routes opened up by Alexander the Great. That form of spirituality thrilled the Romans whose native religion was a comparatively stale and contractual transplantation of Greek polytheism that depended on the correctness of practices rather than on faith or dogma. Ancient Roman religion wasn’t meant to fire the imagination or to call for existential questioning, because this religion had to be neutral enough to accommodate the various cultural sectors of the empire. Perhaps because Roman soldiers faced death on the battlefield, they needed a more uplifting religion and so many of them gravitated to the Mystery Religion of Mithraism.

To make sense of this, consider that if religion generally in the ancient world was akin to a modern company and brand, an imperial religion must have been like a transnational corporation. We know from the arts that when you try to please everyone, the quality of your work declines. This is true of movies, television, music, novels, fashion, architecture, comedy, and virtually every other field of production that has an aesthetic aspect. The more potent the point you wish to make, the more you will alienate some portions of your potential audience, and so your niche must narrow. To reach the broadest possible audience, you must ensure your content doesn’t offend the consumers by presupposing that they have much intellectual curiosity or background knowledge. If you’re running a massive franchise, your best bet is to produce cheap merchandize or insipid entertainment that the masses can afford or easily digest and to fill your storefronts with Muzak, and if you’re running an empire that spans numerous cultures, you’ll want a bland, inoffensive ideology to unite the peoples that you control and protect. While this approach works collectively, at the societal level, it doesn’t work for individuals: it enables people to function in their roles as conquerors or conquered, but it doesn’t inspire them to transcend their apparent limitations or give them an existential reason to go on living. This is where the Mysteries and Christianity entered the picture of the declining Roman Empire. Note that the Roman Empire needed an external source of spiritual vitality, whereas the Persian Empire didn’t, because Roman culture was largely inauthentic, having been borrowed from the Greeks, whereas the Persian religion was based on a vision by the indigenous prophet Zoroaster, although he would have been reforming the prehistoric, polytheistic Indo-Iranian religion.

The Christian Synthesis

But now we need to consider how the Jewish and pagan elements came together to form Christianity. The earliest Christians were Jews, but after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Christians were forced to disavow and even to demonize Jews, to demonstrate their independence to Rome. Thus, even while the Gospel of Matthew has Jesus defend every jot and tittle of the Torah, the Gospels—from Mark to John—lay the blame for Jesus’s execution more and more on the Jews who were supposedly jealous of Jesus’s popularity, not on the Romans who actually would have carried out the crucifixion. Nevertheless, early Christianity was Jewish in its apocalyptic theology, including its linear, progressive view of time. Also Jewish were the seditious implications of the early Church’s ascetic principles and the interrelations between Christian scriptures and Jewish ones. Thus, early Christians thought of Jesus as a Jewish prophet and messiah.

But Christianity also plainly adapted pagan elements, three of which are crucial. First, Christianity offered salvation to everyone, not just to Jews or to those who adopt Jewish morality. Paul wrote to his Christian communities that Jesus fulfilled the law and initiated a new covenant, one requiring mainly faith in the power of Jesus’s sacrificial death to atone for everyone’s sins until the end of time. In the gospels, Jesus goes out of his way to aid pagans and the poor and disadvantaged, because his message was understood to be universal. After he rises from the dead, he exhorts his disciples to convert all nations to the Christian faith.

Second, Christianity is infamous for contradicting itself by being both monotheistic and polytheistic. The incoherence of that theology only lends it a numinous aura for those willing to trust in it. The monotheistic contention, deriving from Judaism, is that the persons of the Holy Trinity share a metaphysical, divine essence, while the polytheistic point is that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are nevertheless separate divine persons. Thus, if you think a god must be a person rather than an impersonal force or shared essence, you’re forced to conclude that Christianity is polytheistic. Its virtual polytheism continues with its cult of holy Mary, mother of God, and with its plethora of saints who are likewise individually sanctified.

Third, the figure of Jesus Christ wasn’t a messiah in the expected mold. Instead, Jesus was eventually worshipped as the mortal incarnation of God. Instead of merely defeating one earthly empire, Christians believe Jesus died to save all of humanity from the enemy of death itself, and from everlasting torment in hell. Judaism was and still is aniconic, meaning that Jews forbid even a representation of God, to avoid the temptation of vainly supposing we might have some power over God by way of our theological knowledge. The names of God were guarded by the High Priest and Jews preferred to speak of God in euphemisms. To imagine that a human person could be literally the Jewish God would have been the height of blasphemy, if not of lunacy. But the Mysteries Religions such as the cult at Eleusis already offered a more mystical theology according to which God is everywhere and is thus in each and every one of us. We merely have to purify our consciousness to recognize our divine potential, as in Jainism.

The gospels might even have been read initially as allegories or metaphors, not as historical records. The point would have been for the Gnostic or Essene to recognize his or her “Christ-like” potential, to die to the fallen world and be reborn in a higher one, with an elevated perspective. This would indeed have been the Gnostic interpretation of the Catholic gospels, since the Gnostics had little use of an historical Jesus, because they believed the transcendent God can appear at any time in spiritual visions, as he was supposed to have done to Paul. This is how anyone can be saved even without having met a historical savior. Sacred knowledge was what was freely transferable, for the Gnostic, and so this knowledge was God’s method of redeeming his Creation. By contrast, not even the risen Christ lingered on the earth, since he was said to have ascended to Heaven only 40 days after his crucifixion. Indeed, the allegorical interpretation of the Bible was forced on the Church Fathers by the challenges of Gnosticism and Marcionism, since the Gnostics pointed out that the Christian God was evidently different from the Jewish one, that indeed the latter seemed more like a demiurge or devil, and Marcion rejected the entire Old Testament. In the second century, Justin Martyr defended the Church’s continuity with Judaism by interpreting the tyrannical or otherwise problematic portions of Jewish scripture as allegorically pointing to Christ. Clement of Alexandria and his student Origen followed suit and read the Bible as consisting largely of symbols that had literal, historical meanings for the illiterate masses, and deeper, often Platonic meanings for Christian intellectuals.

In any case, Gnosticism and Marcionism lost out to the Catholics who did indeed teach that Jesus was a historical figure as well as humanity’s savior who was identical with God. The historian Elaine Pagels explains the political dimension of this conflict which led to the persecution of Gnostics as heretics. A spiritual savior which can appear anywhere at any time is antithetical to creating a religious institution with central authority over the flock. If Christ could appear to Paul, he could appear also directly to Tom, Dick, and Harry. This was the Gnostic point—although being Platonists, that is, elitists, Gnostics were also cynical about the masses’ chance of enlightenment, because most people evidently prefer to remain lost in the haze of material distractions. But as the decades passed and the end of the world hadn’t arrived as early as expected by the apocalyptic Essenes and early Christians alike, Catholics would have been pragmatic in realizing that the growing Christian movement had to be organized if it was to survive, especially after the fall of Judaism which left Christianity at the mercy of Rome. Therefore, to justify their political power over Christians, the fathers of Catholicism would have emphasized or even invented the historical Christ, perhaps lifting the heart of the gospel story from the Suffering Servant metaphor in Isaiah 53, since they could then trace their authority to the transfer of power from Jesus to his disciple Peter, whom they regarded as the first pope. Those so-called Christians who fell outside the organization that spread from that localized event could be discredited.

Catholicism became the dominant form of Christianity within decades after Constantine converted to that religion in 312 CE. By that point, Christianity was enormously popular, and church hierarchies had already developed. The name “Catholicism,” which means “generally, universally, or according to the whole” has a curious implication hiding in plain sight. Christians point proudly at the swift rise to power of their religion, from its humble origin as a movement that glorified the poor and downtrodden to an imperial power a few centuries later that converted the very empire that had conquered the Jews and crucified Jesus. The rather democratic assumption there is that the greater an ideology’s reach and popularity, the more likely that set of ideas is true. On the contrary, we might think, the truth is hard to understand, as is clear from mass ignorance of modern science, and the presence of God in nature should be shocking, not comforting. To be sure, Catholicism soon enough dominated, but that kind of popularity and power should be inherently suspicious.  

Christianity’s historical triumph was only the latter stage of a process of appropriation and compromise that began with the Yahwist faction eight centuries before Christianity. To grow to achieve monotheistic status, Yahweh first had to absorb the powers of the Canaanite pantheon in the Jewish imagination. That’s why “El” lost its meaning as the name of a distinct deity and became a generic term for “god.” Baal was at one time the storm god, but then Yahweh became identified with the storm, as in Psalm 97, for example: “Clouds and thick darkness surround him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. Fire goes before him and consumes his foes on every side. His lightning lights up the world; the earth sees and trembles.” The goddess Asherah was assimilated to Yahweh’s Shekinah, to his divine presence and feminine aspect. And to graduate from being merely the greatest god to the only one, Yahweh had to take on the cosmic and apocalyptic aspects of Ahura Mazda.

Then in the first century CE, Jews were outmatched by a pragmatic empire that wouldn’t have scrupled to crucify a Jewish healer and wise man like Jesus. To reinvigorate their tradition, some Jews began to combine elements of Greco-Roman culture with Judaism, including the element of polytheism but also that of the profound Eastern ideas from the Mystery Religions. This isn’t to say there was a conscious conspiracy, but this kind of syncretism is evidently what works in a cultural version of Darwinian selection. Nor should this point about syncretism be confused with the dismissive contention that Christianity is a cheap copy of pagan dying-and-rising godman cults, as some skeptics and Jesus mythicists insist. Regardless of whether Jesus historically existed, Christianity’s synthesis of Jewish and pagan ideas and practices was original and plainly effective. In the second century CE, Justin Martyr conceded that Jesus Christ resembled the Greek gods that die and rise again to commemorate the seasons and crop cycles, but Justin needn’t have worried about the competition because Jesus’s death and resurrection had no such mundane meaning. Instead, Christians lauded Jesus’s death and rebirth as a morality tale, the meaning of which derives from Judaism’s distortion of Zoroastrianism.

Still, Christian syncretism isn’t pretty. Thus, Yahweh was split apart again to make room for his only begotten Son and for the Holy Spirit that would guide the Church. Thanks to the Trinity doctrine, gentiles could pick between monotheism and polytheism, gestalt-shifting between theological perspectives as the needs arose. Moreover, the moral and spiritual benefits of Judaism were offered up to non-Jews without the stark monotheism or the need to labour under an all-consuming legal framework. And Catholics would hardly stop there. The Eucharist is a pagan reinterpretation of the Jewish symbol of the paschal lamb. Instead of being just an animal sacrifice to commemorate Passover, the wafer and wine in the Christian meal are supposed to miraculously turn into the body and blood of Jesus, thus creating a union with God in the manner prized by the Mystery Religions and the Dionysus cult. Jesus’s birthplace became December 25 so that Christianity could overshadow the pagan festival of the Invincible Sun. Much of the symbolism of Christmas, including Santa Claus, the Odinized version of Saint Nicholas, derives from the Germanic Yuletide festival. At around 600 CE, Pope Gregory wrote a letter to Mellitus, the first Bishop of London and a missionary to England, telling him that instead of destroying pagan temples, he could more easily convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity by reusing their shrines for Christian purposes.

Such borrowing and reworking of mere symbols from pagan culture or even from Judaism were made possible because the essence of Catholicism is to be universal at all costs; like water, the Catholic Church takes the shape of its surroundings to flow onward. More crucially, though, the fusion of moralistic, apocalyptic, and exclusivist Judaism with the amoral pragmatism of the Roman Empire entailed a debasement of Jesus’s uncompromising, otherworldly principles. Saint Augustine advised Christians to plunder the riches to be found in pagan learning, just as the Israelites were said to have plundered the gold and silver of Egypt in the Exodus, because otherwise, said Augustine, pagan philosophy is in the service of devil worship. Christian eclecticism was the opposite of any puritanical fundamentalism. Thus, Christian standards declined, especially in the West with the collapse of that part of the Roman Empire. Monks, nuns, and the priesthood could practice being Christ-like while the majority of Christians would praise God for creating a more foolproof method of salvation, requiring mainly the verbal confession that Christ already did all the work for them. To run the fading empire and manage the emergencies of the Middle Ages, the Church would need a Just War Theory as well as some theological rationales for the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the witch hunts. The Catholic scriptures proved sufficiently malleable and were selected in the first place to promote a lowering of religious standards, as compared with the Gnostic texts. Thus, Christian elites were happy to oblige at least the idea of the Holy Roman Empire, what the philosopher Kierkegaard called “Christendom.” As we’ll soon see, this secularization of the Church seems to have reached its nadir in American conservative Christianity.

Western and Eastern Christianity

With that historical context in mind, let’s consider the meaning of Christian life, which is to be saved from the consequences of our inevitable sin. We can never be as perfect as Jesus and so we can’t save ourselves from death and from divine judgment. Whereas the Church may compromise to provide a sanctuary for the beleaguered masses for two millennia, God’s moral standards are infinitely high. Taking pity on his doomed creatures and seeming to salvage what was supposed to be the pinnacle of his Creation, which he’d apparently botched, God sent a version of himself to pay the price of sin, to meet his impossibly high standards so that we wouldn’t have to worry about our fallen nature. We can be redeemed just by accepting God’s sacrifice of himself to himself. Once we confess that we need such a saviour, and break down in tears in thankfulness that God loves us even though our inherent behaviour is hideous in God’s sight, we’re regenerated by the personal relationships that form between us and Christ and the Holy Spirit.

At least, that’s the Western Church’s answer. The Eastern Orthodox Church carries on the Gnostic practices of eschewing the base notion that Jesus’s death was an all-important god-man sacrifice, and of calling for escape from nature, or for noetic renewal. The Eastern Church’s technique isn’t to bow before an ancient saviour but to save ourselves by becoming God, that is, by recognizing our godhood through spiritual illumination, as in the Mystery Religions. Like the Buddha’s path to nirvana, the Orthodox Church offers therapy to overcome our sinful desires and to liberate our nous, our higher mind, by theoria, by loving contemplation of religious icons, prayers, biblical allegories, ritual meals, and experiential knowledge of God. Jesus’s task was only to conquer death by his resurrection and thus to enable us to improve and rescue ourselves.

The Western and the Eastern churches each regard the other as wildly heretical, but somehow the opposite charges of heterodoxy don’t end in nullification. Clearly, the theological rigmarole of the Western Church’s creed is a thousand times absurd, but Catholicism has assimilated that absurdity, too. For example, the Catholic Catechism speaks of the “mystery” of the Most Holy Trinity, evidently using that word as a euphemism for “absurdity.” There’s even a Catholic line of argument, going back to the early apologist Tertullian, according to which the Christian should feel confident about believing that the Son of God was crucified as a human precisely because this idea is absurd. Tertullian’s point was that the gospel story is so improbable that it wouldn’t likely have been a mere fabrication. He seems to have overlooked the fact that even were this so, a fabricator could exploit the literary preference for verisimilitude and invent miracle stories, knowing that they’d command faith for the reason supplied by Tertullian. Moreover, the Catholic creed was formed not by sheer literary invention, as in the case of artistic inspiration, but by a commitment to political compromise; the theological self-contradictions reflect the attempt to please both sides of an issue by ramming opposite doctrines—or even opposite religions—into each other. And so the fact that Christian doctrines are self-contradictory or otherwise preposterous is in the Jewish tradition of mangling Zoroastrian monotheism, to bypass rational thought and to use religion as a political weapon. The irrationality of a major religion’s beliefs is like the shoddiness or the toxicity of a transnational corporation’s products. The point isn’t to admire them but to submit, to buy into the culture and belong to a social order.

Still, the Eastern Orthodox Church welcomes the apparent contradictions as indications of Christianity’s mystical power. Eastern Christianity was strongly influenced by the Greek-speaking parts of the Byzantine Empire, which preserved the ancient Greek philosophy that in turn influenced many of Christianity’s founding fathers. Whereas the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century, the Eastern side of the empire remained intact until 1453 CE. Thus, the Eastern Church had the luxury to develop sophisticated theology that absorbed Neo-Platonism, Manicheanism, and Gnosticism and that prized mystical visions and ascetic practices. For the Eastern Church, the point of Christianity isn’t that Jesus did all the spiritual work for everyone so that to be assured of eternal life we need merely observe some minimal rites such as baptism, the Eucharist, and verbal confession of sins. Instead, the ascetic Hindus and Buddhists demonstrated a higher form of spirituality. And so Clement of Alexandria and Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, taught that Christians should imitate Christ’s single-minded devotion to God, not out of humble thanksgiving for any sacrificial payment for sin, but to become deified. As Clement said, in line with the Mystery Religions, Christ was the divine Logos who became a man so that all people “might learn from a man how to become God.” Origen likewise taught that by contemplation, the soul gradually ascends, leaving behind its body and gender to become pure spirit. God, for this more mystical and philosophical Christianity, is impersonal rather like the God of philosophers such as Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas. This God is the absolute, metaphysically simple source of all things which isn’t therefore itself a thing that can be said, strictly speaking, to exist or not to exist.

The modern philosopher and East Orthodox theologian, David Bentley Hart, defends this kind of Christianity against Protestants and postmodern theologians who tarnish Christianity with their worship of the Bible, their vulgar personification of God, and their lax, secular standards of Christian behaviour. For example, the Holy Trinity isn’t split really into persons, says Hart, but into hypostases, or metaphysically distinct substances or essences. Thus, God is three distinct substances united by a single, undivided essence. And Christian literalists such as William Lane Craig reply that this so-called sophisticated language is obscure to the point of being vacuous. Indeed, as we’ll see in a moment, mystical philosophy slides into atheism, since theism is belief in a personal creator of the universe, and so the Eastern, philosophy-friendly Church doesn’t offer much of a bulwark for those seeking to avoid secular temptations. What remains are the ecstatic experiences of a transcendent, supernatural state of being, but these are best captured by Rudolph Otto’s sobering analysis. Nature’s causal unity and indifference to life are horrific—at least for those who haven’t undergone the full ascetic operation of annihilating their ego and humanity.     

Americanism and the Horror of Holiness

Thus, while you might expect Christians to feel equal because of their notion of original sin, social hierarchies remain in the Church—and not just between the ascetic professionals and the secularized laypeople. True, Christianity did promote the value of human equality, since Jesus overturned expectations about who would succeed in the afterlife. Specifically, he maintained that earthly and heavenly gains are inversely related, so that it’s almost impossible for a rich person to please God since the material wealth naturally becomes a corrupting idol.

But by altering the Zoroastrian conception of hell, possibly out of what Nietzsche called the resentment that flows from slave morality—that is, by making hell permanent rather than rehabilitative, the Jesus of the gospels pushed the decisive social hierarchy into the afterlife. In Christianity, there are the saved and the condemned, the sheep and the goats, the wheat and the chaff, and the everlasting destinations after physical death are what divide those groups. The infinity of punishment for finite sins is of the same order of lunacy as the notion that there’s one lone, male deity who has always been sovereign over everything for no reason. Again, the counterintuitiveness serves a purpose, which is to force you to choose to have blind faith or to lose that gracious gift of salvation. All that’s required is to humble ourselves and concede that human reason is foolishness to God—even though God must have supplied us with the capacity for rational thought to enable us to survive for tens of thousands of years in a variety of hostile environments. With the mystics, we’re supposed to stand in awe of Christianity’s preposterousness, construing the illogic not as a sign that a monstrous fraud has been perpetrated, but as paradoxical evidence of God’s presence in the Catholic tradition.

However, the Church’s interest in mysticism is superficial. To be sure, Catholics have their assortment of saintly ascetics who have turned to mysticism to make sense of their religious experiences, and the Eastern Church prescribes contemplation of God as a way of purifying the mind. But Christian escapism operates like the Jewish kind: the implicit directive is to regard God as absurd and thus as horrific, and to flee divine matters for as long as possible, seeking refuge in the secular world. Again, the theologian Rudolph Otto captured part of this message, in his analysis of the idea of holiness. The experience of the numinous is of the amoral aspect of a holy being. For Otto, the idea of the fundamental cause of all things ought to humiliate us, reducing our parochial concerns and frivolous conceits to so much drivel; the creature who recognizes the necessary incompleteness of its pitiful attempts at rational explanations suffers awe, terror, dread in the face of this ultimate source’s absolute unapproachability. Faith in God ought to mean primarily fear of God, as it does for Jews and Muslims but not so much for Christians, because the wrath of God was a metaphor for nature’s overwhelming power in the face of which we’re forced to come to terms with our nothingness, with our stature as mere creatures. And yet despite the awe, terror, and dread, we’re drawn to this mystery, because we’re curious to a fault. Like moths to a flame we’re attracted to something radically alien and indifferent to us which snuffs us out.

Why, then, do Western Christians especially tend to speak of the need to love God rather than to fear him? To avoid the genuine religious experience of God’s holiness—which is as unhelpful to modern secular concerns as is an entheogen such as cannabis or peyote. Following the logic and the illogic of Christianity leads us to realize that the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Sacrifice are just repellant enough to legitimize the Church’s secular mission. Dostoevsky captured this mission in his Grand Inquisitor parable in The Brothers Karamazov, according to which the Church had to survive somehow to clean up the mess left by its visionary founder. Christianity is about confronting the choice between submitting as an admission of weakness and of withholding faith out of pride, between accepting and rejecting Christianity’s absurdity. God has consigned us to the wilderness and it’s there that our freedom is tested. The world didn’t end as Jesus had supposedly predicted and God left the Church in charge after he ascended to Heaven. The Catholic institution solves the problem of its shaky foundations by effectively aligning itself with Satan, with the lord of this world, mythically speaking, by promoting mass slavery to idols to relieve us of our burdensome freedom.

There’s no clearer proof of this unsettling thesis than the woeful state of American Evangelical Christianity over at least the last four decades. After a long, long history of Judeo-Christian co-optations and compromises, Protestant settlers of the New World found themselves taking on board the ideology of Americanism. We’ll look further into this ideology soon, since it’s at the center of the modern secular humanistic solution to the problem of life’s meaning. But for now, think of Americanism as beginning with the conviction that every individual should be free to decide how to pursue her private happiness, as long as she doesn’t deprive anyone else of the same right. And think of it as ending in the enshrining of capitalism and democracy as the institutions most conducive to protecting individual liberty. Capitalism, in turn, ends in vast economic inequality and so in plutocracy; thus, capitalism supplies the nature of the demagoguery to which democracy is prone to succumbing.

Superficially, therefore, Americanism is utterly anti-Christian, and when you see the millions of Evangelicals venerating the narcissistic billionaire Donald Trump, holding fast to their self-destructive ambitions even as it emerges that Trump is beholden to America’s rival, Russia, it’s hard to speak in earnest of Evangelicalism as a kind of Christianity. But when we attend to the Christian subtext, to the direction of Christian escapism, an irony emerges. Evangelicals may be truer Christians that the saintly ascetic monks and nuns who shut themselves away from secular society. Evangelicals seem to take to heart the debilitating horror that the God you find at the center of self-contradictory Christian theology is empty. Instead of crippling themselves with religious experience, they prefer to be happy, to escape God’s evident inhumanity while they can, by busying themselves with the idols of Americanism, with the Constitution and the American military, wedge issues and family values, the Republican Party and the free market right to consume the world’s resources like a parasite.

The interpretation of Western monotheism as a retreat from religion’s absurdity to the distractions of secularism is consistent with the philosopher and sociologist Marcel Gauchet’s thesis in his book, The Disenchantment of the World. Gauchet argued that once the social hierarchies of Neolithic civilization undermined the holistic, egalitarian, animistic vision of our unity with sacred nature, religion was forced to undo itself, to make way for the godless, materialistic, science-centered worldview. Monotheism was God’s fatal wound, not Nietzsche’s diatribe or philosophical reason. To understand Gauchet’s point, picture the infinite spirits of primeval animistic religion, the spirit of this stone or of that leaf, the wise ancestor spirits that guide the tribe. Now picture these spirits being compressed into a singularity, and this singularity disappearing like a black hole behind an event horizon. This is what monotheism eventually accomplished, effectively freeing or condemning us to live with a mostly absent deity. As Gauchet wrote, “There is no intellectual access to a God radically separated from the world, so humans are now on their own, with only the light of their investigative faculties to assist them before this silent totality that resists their aspiration for meaning.”

But before God disappeared completely, his dwindling relevance was preserved by his preference for Jews, so that Jews carried the dying light of God’s presence in their ritualistic culture. Christianity completed the deicide, according to Gauchet, by restricting God’s presence even further to a single man in history, with the doctrine of the Incarnation, and then killing off that man and thus God. The logic of monotheism is thus one of localizing and eliminating God, of identifying divine spirits which were once concrete and omnipresent for the prehistoric animist, with literally no thing, or with some alleged thing beyond the universe of all things and immune to being understood by anyone. Perhaps this black hole sun, to borrow the rock band’s phrase, will one day swallow the world, but until then religion no longer structures civilized societies and has been relegated to matters of private faith. It wasn’t that the world fell from God’s grace, but that monotheists realized that civilization made God obsolete, so these loyalists struggled to conceive of ways to enshrine vestiges of divinity.

Mind you, Gauchet argues as though history were bound to unfold according to some metaphysical, quasi-Hegelian logic, but there’s no such logic. True, organized religions look desiccated next to the mythopoeic vision of enchanted nature, but this is like saying we individually die as soon as we exit our early stage of childish wonder. Children experience the world as a magical place, but they don’t understand much of anything. The same would have been true of the naïve, prehistoric animists. Moreover, Gauchet’s thesis has trouble explaining Christianity’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit in Church history or even on Christ’s resurrection and availability in visions to Paul and to the Gnostics. Likewise, Islamic submission to Allah in theocracies, which follows Christianity, seems inconsistent with Gauchet’s claim that religion’s inner logic ended with Christianity, making God politically irrelevant.

But perhaps religion’s origin in prehistoric wonder was bound to end in theological incoherence and absurdity, just as we shouldn’t expect that a story told by a child could hold up to adult scrutiny. So that as civilized people accumulated historical memory and domesticated themselves, they were forced to recognize the silliness of their lingering talk of gods, despite their nostalgia. Preparing the way for the modern break from the childlike vision of nature—before European civilization fully articulated the concept of godless matter—Eastern and Western theists were stuck with the dread of having to devote themselves to manifest absurdities. Their interim faith must have tortured them and so they readily succumbed to the prospects of ignoring God and dedicating themselves, in practice, to politics, war, business, family, art, and other secular enterprises. 

Islam

We shouldn’t be surprised to discover that Islam’s origin persists in the Judeo-Christian pattern of building on often contrary cultures. No Muslim would speak this way about Islam’s historical origin, but this sanctification, too, is part of the pattern. There’s always a chasm between a major religion’s propaganda and the facts of how the religion has operated. The Torah boasts that there was a united kingdom of Israel and Judah under Saul, David, and Solomon between 1050 to 930 BCE, but the archeological record shows there was no such unity. Instead, as the authors of The Bible Unearthed write, these biblical wishes were “creative expressions of a powerful religious reform movement”; specifically, what was longed for was projected into the past as a rhetorical device to shame Jews for allegedly falling short of what had earlier been achieved. Likewise, for centuries Christians maintained that the gospel authors were eye witnesses to the events they described. But when critical historians examined the sources, they determined that the gospels were likely written too late to have been the works of eye witnesses, and in any case, the three, synoptic Gospels are interdependent. Whoever Matthew and Luke were, they likely had Mark’s gospel in front of them when they wrote their narratives. Almost all of Mark is duplicated in Matthew and Luke, often word-for-word, which wouldn’t make sense if Matthew and Luke were eye witnesses with their own stories to tell. And Muslims, too, will insist that their religion began with the miracle of Muhammad receiving revelation from the Archangel Gabriel, which he dutifully recorded to form the Koran. Needless to say, my account of Islam won’t depend on any such propaganda that accretes to religious institutions.

Before turning to Islam, then, let’s consider why this chasm deepens between the propaganda and the historical reality. Notice that the modern transnational corporation likewise purveys self-serving messages which cast the most benign interpretation possible on its business practices. You’d have thought Coca-Cola sells sunshine and happiness, not fattening sugar water, judging from its advertisements that beatify that company. And of course, most large companies leave out of their propaganda any acknowledgement of the ecological damage for which they’re inevitably responsible. Here, though, is a thought experiment that might clarify the matter: imagine growing physically into a giant who towers over the land. Would you still notice the impact you have as you stomp on forests and villages, wreaking havoc for the little people whom you can’t even see anymore because your head is so far removed from the ground-floor reality? Likewise, do we actually notice when we squash tiny bugs in our daily activities, which we can’t see or sympathize with? Our self-image is based on our point of view, and the representative of a transnational corporation or of a major religion that’s existed for millennia can’t be expected to think like any individual person. Great power almost always corrupts, and when you speak as a functionary for a large organization, you tend to flatter the group you serve even if you end up having to spin, obfuscate, and deflect, because that’s just what your job entails. When those distortions accumulate over the centuries, you’re left with a body of self-serving myths. However, those who aren’t caught up in the hype are free to descend to the ground floor to determine what’s really been going on.

Which takes us to the origin of Islam. The intermingling of religions in early seventh century CE Arabia is straightforward but also intriguing because, with some irony, the new religion that would grow from that soil does return to and thus reveal the essence of Western monotheistic traditions. The dominant pre-Islamic religions of the Arabian Peninsula were those of the Bedouins, who were Arab nomads, and of the sedentary Arabs who lived in cities such as Mecca. Bedouin religion was what a member of an organized religion would call “pagan,” which is a euphemism for “primitive.” The Bedouins believed that certain objects have magical properties, including the power to control other people. This fetishism, however, isn’t primitive as much as universal. Fetishism in modern societies is found, for example, in reverence for gravesites and in sexual kinks, or attraction to body parts instead of people. In any case, Bedouins also practiced totemism, the use of spiritual emblems of a society, and veneration of the death. By contrast, sedentary Arabs posited elaborate hierarchies of gods. Their polytheism was henotheistic, Hubal being the lead deity and Allah perhaps being a rain or sky god or else just a way of designating that Hubal was the chief god of the pantheon, since “Allah” is a contraction of “al-illah” which means “the god” as opposed to being a proper name. The ancient building called the Kaaba and its surrounding area, located in the center of what is now Islam’s most holy Mosque, in Mecca, features idols of 360 pre-Islamic deities.

In his book No God but God, Reza Aslan makes what seems the crucial point about the Bedouins, which is that “the nomadic lifestyle is one that requires a religion to address immediate concerns: Which god can lead us to water? Which god can heal our illnesses?” This contrasts with the religion of a sedentary population which has more free time and tends to become decadent, which is to say spoiled by its luxuries. The polytheistic religion, then, reflects the social hierarchy that emerges in a city or a kingdom, as in the Canaanite origin of Judaism, and so the elites in big cities end up worshipping images of themselves. The Bedouins who seem indirectly honoured as the Fremen in George Herbert’s science fiction classic Dune, are hunter-gatherers of the desert and are forced to be pragmatic on pain of perishing in the wasteland. This isn’t to say the ancient Arab nomads were strictly rational. Superstition can be useful, if only for maintaining self-confidence, just as atheists have a habit of converting in fox holes, at least in so far as they involuntarily cry out, “Oh, God,” when under duress. But a nomad would be expected to scoff at the baroque extravagance of city folks, regarding the luxuries as wasteful and the complex pantheon as a sign of corruption. Like prehistoric hunter-gatherers, Bedouins would need to simplify their culture since it had to be portable, but they also needed to be rigid and exacting in their practices, since to err in the slightest regard was often fatal. After all, the desert is an unforgiving place. 

Indeed, a monotheistic reform movement broke out prior to Islam, called Hanifism, in which this call for back-to-basics purity, to the so-called faith of Abraham seems to have reflected the austerity of nomadic culture in the Arabian Desert. Aslan relates the story told by one of Muhammad’s earliest biographers, by Ibn Hisham, of the meeting between Zayd, the Hanif, and the teen-aged Muhammad, in which Zayd scolds Muhammad for offering him meat from animals killed in the name of some of the gods of the Arabian pantheon, whereas Zayd worships only the one true God. Just as the New Testament transformed the Essene John the Baptist from a potential rival into a supporter of Jesus, the early Muslim biographers turned Zayd into a herald of Muhammad.

On the other side of the syncretism which created Islam and which provoked Hanifism, were Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. By the seventh century CE, some Jews had immigrated to Arabia after the destruction of Jerusalem and the messianic revolt of Simon Bar Kochba, and were deeply interwoven in Arab life. A Christian stronghold lay in northwestern Arabia, on the border between Arabia and the Byzantine Empire. These Christians included the tribe of Gassanids who were Arabs that had converted to Christianity and supported Christian missionary efforts further into Arabia. To the northeast was the Arab tribe of the Lakhmids who practiced forms of Zoroastrianism, which was the religion of the Sassanid Dynasty, the remnant of the Persian Empire that lay just further north.   

As in the above treatment of early Christianity, I’ll skirt the issue of whether Muhammad historically existed, since I’m interested not in proving the falsehood of these religions’ claims, but in questioning their meanings of life. What matters, then, isn’t that Muhammad may not have existed, but that early Muslims used the character Muhammad to direct their religious movement. Thus, according to Islamic tradition, Muhammad was an orphaned Meccan and in his youth he worked in his uncle’s thriving caravan business, where he would have travelled widely and contacted the Jewish, Christian, and Zoroastrian tribes as well as been familiar with Hanifism. Even if there were no historical Muhammad or if there were such a founder, but he had lived in Israel rather than Arabia, as at least one revisionist historian concludes, early Muslims apparently had to credit the religious elements of Arabia as foundational to Islam, and these Muslims shaped their budding religion.

As to Islam itself, it began according to tradition, with the prophet Muhammad preaching a moralistic version of monotheism and condemning the immorality of the Meccan economy, which enriched primarily the Quraysh tribe that controlled pilgrimage to the Kaaba on which Meccan power was based. This ancient exercise in crony capitalism, in which Muhammad had participated as a successful merchant, was antithetical to the honour code practiced by the egalitarian Bedouin, who maintain social unity by sharing rights and benefits equally with all members of the tribe. The Quraysh monopoly of the Kaaba meant that one tribe dominated the others in Mecca, and hoarded the wealth instead of sharing it in nomadic fashion. Muhammad attacked the monopoly by expressing his monotheism as a moral objection to the Meccan economy that required the veneration of the pantheon, because of the trade that occurred there as a result of the pilgrimages. When his wife and protective uncle died, Muhammad was persecuted by the Quraysh and so he fled Mecca. Eventually he established his new religion in Medina where he formulated his Islamic Constitution, calling for the elimination of tribal and religious differences in favor of a single, unified tribe, the Ummah.

Islam includes the moralistic monotheism and apocalyptic eschatology as well as the beliefs in angels and prophecy that originate from Zoroastrianism, but what distinguish Islam are (1) the military supremacy which drove the fervency of Muslim faith, (2) the simplicity and purity of Islam’s message, and (3) the requirement for Muslims to submit to a totalitarian legal system called Sharia.

While Jews typically could only fantasize about reigning over adversaries, since for most of their history they were overpowered, Muslims were world-class conquerors. By 651 CE, only 19 years after Muhammad’s death, the Rashidun Caliphates took over all of Persia and parts of northern Africa. By the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1683, Muslims controlled what are now Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Hungary. Muslims are motivated to spread their way of life even at the cost of bloodshed, because they interpret Islam as ideal for human nature, not just for a special class of persons as in the case of Judaism.

As to Islam’s simplicity, Muslims regard their religion as the complete and universal expression of a primordial faith revealed by Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets in those traditions. This idea is encapsulated in the Arabic word “fitra,” meaning in Islam the emergence of true human nature as an inherent state of personal oneness with God. Rather like Jains, Muslims think of themselves not as converting to a foreign mode of cognition, but as reverting to the universal purity of human nature, as exemplified best by Abraham and Muhammad. Putting aside the propaganda, what this concept seems to express is the intuition that the hunter-gatherer’s egalitarian way of life, as exemplified by the Bedouin, is more authentic than the sedentary, allegedly more civilized lifestyle, an intuition Muhammad would have formed from his experience of the economic inequality at Mecca. And indeed, the Neolithic Age began only around 12,000 years ago, whereas Paleolithic humans were hunter-gatherers for well over two million years, since the first stone tools were used. Over 90 percent of human history was defined by the tribal equality of the nomadic, hunter-gatherer culture. While Islam doesn’t teach the need for a return to nomadism, it does preserve the simplicity and pragmatism, the rigour and austerity of Bedouin culture.

This simplicity is apparent from the contrast between how Christianity and Islam attempted to be humanity’s universal faith. For Christian elites, their orthodoxy meant that they should assimilate all manner of foreign ideas and compromise with profane powers, effectively secularizing Christianity until their religion became compatible even with Americanism. By contrast, Islamic universality meant insisting on a pure, unadulterated religion in the form of unwavering submission to the Koran as the final and perfect Word of God and to the Sharia. Even the Islamic form of prayer had to be exact, because Muhammad’s method was taken as the model for all Muslims. Thus, millions of Muslims pray in the famous manner, numerous times a day at the appointed hours, by washing, facing the direction of the Kaaba, and repeating a set pattern of standing, kneeling, bowing, and so on.

True, Orthodox Jews also have an all-encompassing version of strict monotheism, including a set form of prayer and a sprawling legal code, namely the Talmud which interprets and applies the ethics and laws of the Torah and which regulates every aspect of Orthodox Jewish life. But there’s an important difference, which again is that the motive behind adhering to Sharia is to voluntarily submit to God in all matters, whereas Jewish orthodoxy is a matter of distinguishing Jews by demonstrating that they were chosen to accept a special and thus exclusive, non-universal covenant with God. “Islam” itself means submission or surrender, while “Muslim” means “submitter” or “one who surrenders.” According to Karen Armstrong’s book, A History of God, the first of the five pillars of Islam, which is the minimal requirement to verbally profess the faith that “there is no god but Allah, and that Muhammad is his prophet,” has the deeper meaning that Allah is “the only true reality, the only true form of existence…To make this assertion demands that Muslims integrate their lives by making God their focus and sole priority.” Thus, this profession of faith isn’t just a denial that other gods exist; instead, it’s a call to make God’s oneness “the driving factor of one’s life and society.” For Islam, then, monotheism entails the obligation to submit to God.

Submission and Mental Programming

How, though, is the Muslim supposed to submit to God? According to the Takbir, the famous Mulsim slogan, “Allahu akbar,” God is greater—meaning greater than any description or conception we can have in this life. When idolatry is outlawed with such zeal, leaving behind no basis for trust in any religious expression, lest we mistake the expression for Allah himself, how can a Muslim way of life have any content? The traditional answer, of, course, is that God nevertheless reveals himself through his angels and his prophet, Muhammad, and so this is the key self-contradiction in Islam. Judaism and Christianity present the believer with a preposterous deity and adorn him with just enough anthropomorphism to avoid the implication of mysticism, since mysticism, the retreat to the conviction that God is incomprehensible outside of direct experience renders religious expressions empty. To the extent that the believer is attracted to a humanized notion of God, but must continually remind herself that her god nevertheless transcends such a vain attempt at taming the ultimate cause of everything, the believer is liable to be unsettled by the contradictions and to grow weary of the swamp of theological complexities that are supposed to make sense of this kind of religion. The upshot is the behavioural flight to the world of secular opportunities, notwithstanding all the lip service the lay Jew or Christian pays to her creed.

But Islam is more inherently mystical, because of its purity and austerity which it inherits from the Bedouin outlook. Muslims are so hostile to the thought of representing Allah that they’ll conduct violent protests against cartoonists who dare even to criticize or mock Muhammad. The prohibition of idolatry is for Muslims, if it’s for anyone, the cartoonists may not be Muslim, and in any case Muhammad must have been just a man like Jesus if Muslims aren’t to engage in polytheistic idolatry. Nevertheless, Muslims seem so committed to Allah’s transcendence that they can’t tolerate any pretense of understanding Allah well enough to be able to criticize a religion disseminated in his name—except that this can’t be right, because the Koran is obviously a beloved representation of God. The Koran is supposed to derive from Allah, but that’s only what the Koran itself says. Thus, the Muslim must take a leap of faith that Islamic history and the Koran are miraculous so that they alone are reliable even though Allah is, by definition, greater than them. The real problem with foreign representations of Allah or Muhammad is that they tend to be insulting and so the Muslim considers them unjust attacks, which trigger her pride on behalf of Allah’s greatness—as though Allah’s punishment of blasphemers in hellfire for eternity weren’t sufficient and need to be supplemented by the Muslim’s displays of outrage.

How, then, can the Muslim submit to God when God, by definition, must be greater even than Islam, greater, that is, than Muhammad, the Koran, and Sharia? Why should submission to a religion be mistaken for submission to a God who is supposed to transcend any religion? Why make an exception of Islamic revelation, when deferring to that religion proceeds from the very same impulse to prop up the idols of any number of other cults or religions? If God is responsible for the Muslim’s acceptance of the one true religion of Islam, why can’t the same be said for the practitioners of any other religious faith? And if there are many valid religious pathways to the same God, doesn’t God become overly familiar so that he loses his aura of mystery and the faithful merely shop around for the most appealing image of the Almighty?

This is just the problem of the multiplicity of religions, but instead of recognizing the Muslim’s special pleading for the exclusive completeness of Islam as a sign of monotheism’s futility, which warrants a de facto devotion not to God or to theistic religion, but to secular concerns, the Muslim just submits, taking Islamic prescriptions seriously and at face value. This is what Western religions have called for all along since they’re too paradoxical to be incorporated into daily life with much intellectual integrity. They call for faith, not for rational understanding, because the existence of the one God who is a deformity of the evolved and triumphant Ahura Mazda is absurd enough to teach us the inadvertent lesson that reality likely is too alien to be comprehended by mere mammalian cognitive faculties at any rate. At some point we need to stop pretending we understand what we’re talking about and take a leap of faith to get the ball rolling for rational investigation and analysis, because the alternative is to let our curiosity go to waste.

Mental stagnation is what the Muslim advocates: not a free choice to trust one tradition more than another, and not the arrogance of rational, systematic theology, but the command to submit to Allah. Is Allah different from Islam? Don’t think about that! Allah is the only God and Muhammad is his prophet. Period! Now submit and you’ll have peace! Indeed, it doesn’t seem accidental that a Muslim, al-Khwarizmi, founded algebra as an independent discipline or that Muslims gravitated towards mathematics, at least during Islam’s Golden Age in the ninth and tenth centuries. Islam is a set of instructions for programming a person’s mind. The Muslim is supposed to submit to religious programming in the way that everything in nature submits to mathematical laws. The concept of the algorithm, of following step-by-step instructions to be guaranteed to achieve a certain purpose is implicit in Islam, because the Islamic instructions for self-purification and religious submission are supposed to be universal and objective, being based on our inherent, prehistoric inclination to prefer a simple life. Thus, the primordial potential to be one with God which Islam is meant to capture looks like animal slavery to natural laws, except that Islamic practices replace many of the biological regularities we’ve outgrown thanks to our reason-powered autonomy.

Superficially, Judaism and Christianity also require submission through faith, but most Jews recognize the futility of theological speculation and so they trust in God only so far, knowing that in this life we have to help ourselves. Lay Christians also profess their trust in Jesus, but in the back of their mind they know that Christianity is preposterous to some extent by design, and so they too make excuses for their vices and their idols, just as Catholicism has done systematically for centuries. Most Muslims haven’t found a comparable escape hatch. Instead, they submit and so their empires have been surpassed by secular Europe and America. Muslims say they’re submitting directly to God; meanwhile, most Muslims are oppressed by one dictator or monarch after the next. Muhammad preached social justice and equality before the only one who deserves to dominate, and indeed Muslims become equal when they pray in their mosques or take pilgrimages to Mecca. But their societies tend to be vastly unequal. Indeed, most Muslims despise the very political system that’s supposed to be founded on the equality of free citizens, namely democracy, and this is precisely because Muslims don’t want to be so free as to embolden themselves to attempt self-rule. Instead, they want to submit—nominally to God alone, but in reality to Islam and to some theocrat or aristocracy that claims to rule on Allah’s behalf.

Muslims escape the arbitrariness of their preference for Islam by drowning their doubts in daily acts of submission, which requires copious mental conditioning or brainwashing. Millions of Muslim children have their education delayed as they attempt to memorize the Koran, to become huffiaz, guardians or memorizers of the Koran. And the infamous result of this kind of religious programming is the militant Islamist, the suicide bomber who thinks he or she is a martyr for justice but who is in fact merely taking the essence of Islam to one of its logical conclusions. If you only submit to an array of poetic scriptures, you can take them in almost any direction and you’ll have no cognitive resources to pull yourself back from the brink, since to doubt is to stop submitting and to lose touch with Allah, the one true reality. This is the danger of any monotheistic faith, but it took Islam to alert the modern world to it, because most Jews and Christians are secularized, their religions having disposed of themselves by failing to disguise their absurdity. Islam has the temerity to demand that the Muslim ignore its absurdity, by holding out the option of total mental surrender to that belief system.

Of course, Islam has this strategy in common with the many cults led by charismatic personalities such as L. Ron Hubbard, Jim Jones, or David Koresh. True, Muslims found a way to scale up their mental programming and they did this primarily by military conquest. That’s the missing ingredient, since if Scientologists suddenly took up arms and managed to defeat the American government, going on to conquer Canada, Mexico, and the other Americas, the cult of Scientology would become a religion like Islam, renewing itself with the kind of blind indoctrination and peer pressure that enable a Muslim to pretend to be submitting to God even though, by Islamic definition itself, God is necessarily nowhere to be found on Earth, including anywhere in Islam or in human history, because Allahu akbar: God is always greater and thus is beyond the world we can perceive or understand. That kind of mysticism evidently leads either to a flight to secularism or to mental programming that protects the believer from horror or embarrassment.     

Muslim submissiveness could also be interpreted charitably, as arising from the same mystical impulse that leads the Hindu or the Daoist to speak of surrendering to the will or the way of the whole of nature. If in reality everything is unified in an underlying substance, change and the multiplicity are illusions, so struggling against reality is foolhardy. But Islam spoils this interpretation by upholding the political aspect of its monotheism, as indicated by the first pillar of Islam. If the point were just that Allah alone is divine, then indeed centuries after Muhammad, Muslims might have found themselves among the Eastern mystics writing inclusive, self-help books about how to surrender to the flow of the divine totality. But Muslims are quick to add that Muhammad is Allah’s prophet, which means in practice that Muslims must submit indirectly to Allah, through the revealed teachings and laws of the Islamic tradition.

Just because a religion manipulates its believers doesn’t mean the religion has no truth in it. Maybe Islamic mental programming is especially revelatory of God’s nature; I haven’t claimed to show otherwise. Still, the meaning of Muslim life, to submit to God alone by submitting to the institutions of Islam as his best intermediaries, will be characterized by measures taken to avoid severe cognitive dissonance, because Islam’s primary message is incoherent. Admirably, Muslims don’t often fake dedication to their religion while making excuses for their forays into the world of secular occupations. But most Muslims are forced to overcome the weakness of Western monotheism by shutting off or ignoring the critical and creative parts of their minds, so that they can take advantage of what they deem to be sacred revelation of Allah.

Islam’s equivalence with total submission to a religion makes Islam the dead end of monotheism. The choice not to understand or even to love God but mainly to submit to some scriptural commandments is what it would take to live as a perfect Jew or Christian. Muslims think their candidness in this respect is only fitting because monotheism excludes all other ways of life as idolatrous and blasphemous. But what Muslims usually ignore is that, if that’s true, it’s because Western monotheism in general is absurd; God is incomprehensible not just because our brain power is limited, but because our religions develop in conflicting ways and contrary conceptions of God become enshrined so that the resulting creeds are self-contradictory. Sure, if the natural universe were created by a supernatural power, we need have no reason to think we’d be able to understand that power. But that only means that these monotheistic religions are doubly absurd: God would be beyond our understanding, and the descriptions and explanations we take for divine revelations always add up to something preposterous. That’s why if we insist on taking any such religion seriously, we can do no better than accepting the Muslim’s advice and just submit.

Modernity and Secular Humanism

Science isn’t just reason. Our distant ancestors would never have survived for tens of thousands of years had they not known how to think objectively or even how to test hypotheses by checking the evidence. Reason would have been indispensible in classifying foods, for example, in separating the nutritious plants from the poisonous ones, which would have required some understanding of cause and effect as well as dangerous experimentation. True, the early modern scientists, or “natural philosophers,” as they called themselves, were radical in assuming that every question should be rationally answered, not just practical ones. But what was revolutionary about modern science was the Renaissance philosophy out of which it grew. The reason European intellectuals began shutting their Bibles, ignoring the Church’s pontifications, and conducting experiments and following the evidence wherever it took them is that they gained confidence that their relative Dark Age, which followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, could be ended by human effort. Having rediscovered classical Greek wisdom which long predated Christianity, and having learned more of the independent development of foreign cultures, Europeans came to realize that people themselves are worthy of faith. We could progress, but only by regaining something like the more realistic, pagan mindset that the Christian Church had banished.

For example, the recovery of the Roman poet Lucretius’s didactic poem On the Nature of Things, in 1417 CE, taught those recovering from the Middle Ages about ancient Greek atomism and Epicurean philosophy. According to the poem, which was written sometime in the first century BCE, religion is the enemy of progress, because fear of the gods prevents us from using reason and technology to empower ourselves, to solve our problems and improve our prospects. The gods are irrelevant to nature, because they’re supernatural. The universe consists of atoms in the void and of the complex patterns formed by chance and natural law. Everything we experience, therefore, can be rationally explained. Even death, says Lucretius, is nothing to fear. Reading Lucretius now, we could almost be forgiven for assuming that he must have acquired his ultra-modern perspective while he lived during the European Enlightenment and that he travelled back in time to the ancient world to write his poem. For example, Lucretius writes, “And so religion in revenge is cast beneath men’s feet and trampled, and victory raises us to heaven…again and again our foe, religion, has given birth to deeds sinful and unholy.” Thus Lucretius and the ancient Greek philosophy about which he rhapsodized sounded the skeptic’s alarm long before Voltaire and Nietzsche.

Again, Lucretius writes, “For as children tremble and fear everything in the blind darkness, so we in the light sometimes fear what is no more to be feared than the things that children in the dark hold in terror and imagine will come true. This terror, therefore, and darkness of mind must be dispelled not by the rays of the sun and glittering shafts of daylight, but by the aspect and law of nature.” Thus did Lucretius’s paganism anticipate not only Bruno’s and Isaac Newton’s view of the universality of nature, but the progressive rhetoric of Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins.

“Ah, miserable minds of men,” says Lucretius, “blind hearts, in what darkness of life, in what great dangers you spend this little span of years, to think that you should not see that nature cries aloud for nothing else but that pain may be kept far sundered from the body, and that, withdrawn from care and fear, she may enjoy in mind the sense of pleasure!” Thus did Epicurean hedonism anticipate the libertines, such as the Marquis de Sade, Lord Byron, and Aleister Crowley, as well as our present obsession with consuming whatever we see advertised on television.

Virtually the entire post-Renaissance vision of humanity and of the universe lay dormant in just this single ancient poem by Lucretius. What was revolutionary about science, then, was its underlying optimism; indeed, the new, philosophical human-centeredness was radical. Early modernists retrieved from the ashes left by the fallen Roman Empire the intoxicating idea that the universe is both infinite in space and time, and entirely natural, meaning that the world evolves according to causal relations that have nothing to do with the intentions of any god, and that the truth can therefore be rationally ascertained to solve the problems that stand in the way of our happiness.

According to this rediscovered worldview, we both lose and gain a central place in the universe. Nature was hardly made for our benefit, according to the ancient and modern humanists, and there may be billions of other planets sustaining intelligent life forms, none of which is inherently more important than any other. Still, as the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras said, we’re the measure of all things. We take the place of the gods in the world as we experience it, since we alone can interpret its significance for us. As the philosopher Sartre would much later say, our existence precedes our essence, meaning that in a natural world, with no divinely prescribed answers, we’re forced to define ourselves by creating truth at least with respect to our choice of values.

Thus, the modern secular world is typified by functional atheism or deism, but also by both the loss of naïve human-centeredness and the rise of humanistic individualism. We become objectively trivial in the natural course of things, but subjectively crucial since our rational potential equips us to attain godlike powers over nature. Also, in so far as we’re rationally in control of ourselves, we earn the right to attempt to improve our welfare as we see fit and to rule ourselves politically, in a capitalistic and democratic society.

What stood in the way of this progress was of course traditional faith in the gods, dogmas and superstitions which allowed corrupt churches to exploit the majority’s ignorance for centuries. The Protestant Revolution was supposed to alter that dynamic in Western Christianity, but Protestants also opened the floodgates to new breeds of Bible-toting charlatans, and the Muslim world has yet to reckon with the global rise of secular institutions. In any case, what the Scientific Revolution overthrew wasn’t just ignorance and irrationality, but the fatalism and complacency of the medieval mindset. “Modern” was almost synonymous with “liberal,” before that latter word became pejorative in American circles. In its philosophical underpinning, science itself was liberal in that the point of examining nature and of sharing the wealth of knowledge was that we should work hard enough to come to expect technological improvements from one generation to the next, instead of fearing that paradise lay only in a utopian past, because the gods have proscribed certain advances as in the biblical myths of the Great Flood and the Tower of Babel.

Liberalism and Personal Freedom

What, then, is the modern secular meaning of life? What ultimately should the godless person be doing? The short answer is: whatever she wants as long as she doesn’t prevent others unfairly from doing whatever they want. The basis of this liberalism, of this tolerance of all non-coercive ways of life is humanism, the reverence not for gods in the sky but for the human potential for progress and especially for individual freedom. That’s the theory anyway. In practice, liberalism evidently negates itself—just as any miracle would have to be fleeting before nature regains its footing and reestablishes its age-old patterns. Early modern myth-makers from Descartes to Kant argued for the absolute freedom of the human will, but whatever the merit of their arguments, in celebrating that freedom they were looking on the bright side of a dark situation.

To be free in the humanist’s sense is to be abandoned by the God of our dreams, consigned to the wilderness to fend for ourselves. To be absolutely free to choose how to live is to be disconnected from the rest of the world so that natural causes couldn’t overwhelm our willpower and we might be solely responsible for our direction in life. Even the illusion of that kind of self-control and responsibility would be bound to land this godlike individual in a morass of anxieties, since she’d fear her life might have been better if only she’d made different choices. Moreover, there would be no universally correct life choice, contrary to the world’s major religions; for modern liberals, human life is open-ended and we can experiment with cultures rather like the way scientists experiment with hypotheses. We can explore lifestyles and even remake ourselves with self-help therapy, positive thinking, and support from the welfare state and bankruptcy protections. Values are correct only in so far as we happen to commit to them, so there is no fact of the matter with respect to the best way of life. There’s only our personal taste or character that leads us to prefer some options. 

The result of this liberalism is the familiar quandary of the consumer who has all the choice of merchandise in the world, when standing in the supermarket or when shopping online, but little confidence in any deeper significance of her lifestyle. This is because the notion of any deeper meaning is dismissed at the outset as the price of personal freedom. We’re free only if no higher reality has any hold over us, to capture our will and dictate how we should attempt to fulfill our potential. What’s sacred for the liberal is to let each flower bloom, each free mind learn what’s best for itself and to pursue its interests without being coerced by any higher power.

So when superheroes like Spiderman say in the comic books or the movies that with great power comes great responsibility, they understate the problem. A superhuman’s freedom is in virtue of his or her power to dominate others, so that the world couldn’t force a choice on the superior person even if it wanted to do so. This means the superhuman must decide in the first place whether to be a hero or a villain, and it’s only the rare comic book story that presents the superior person’s anguish in her struggle with that cost of freedom. With great power comes great anxiety, although in reality as opposed to fantasy, we know the natural consequence of power is that such existential struggles are short-lived and the powerful person is typically corrupted. So with great power comes a decline in moral character that begins with fruitless internal searching for some anchor for the superhuman’s all-too free choices. There is no anchor, we’re on our own, and so the liberal notion that personal freedom is good in itself is a myth. Absolute freedom would be a curse, not an ideal, and no clever mammal has the wherewithal to withstand the temptations of power and liberty without degrading herself and turning into something of a tyrant. This is what happens in corporate offices and government buildings, on movie sets and in restaurant kitchens, in hospitals and laboratories, and in almost every other walk of life.

Capitalism, Democracy, and Social Decline

Of course, in practice we’re seldom so free that we feel disconnected from the whole world and are wholly responsible for our choices. Indeed, capitalism and democracy relieve us of the burden of freedom which those systems are supposed to uphold, according to the secular humanist’s civic religion. Capitalism began as a liberal alternative to aristocracies, since competition is supposed to reward anyone with initiative or talent, not just those with family connections. There’s a social Darwinian view of capitalism as being meritocratic: the rich earn their wealth while the poor earn the result of their failure. This assumes that the economic competition is fair, which is of course fanciful. Unlike a race in which the runners begin at the same starting line, a capitalistic economy hardly controls for all the variables that render the outcomes unfair but naturally expected. For example, chance and luck are allowed to dictate the rise and fall of companies. Nepotism still reigns in capitalism almost as much as it does in an aristocracy. And although wealth is taxed, it’s inherited so that some children begin life with golden spoons in their mouth while others have to hustle to survive on the streets. Upward mobility may be possible but rare. There are gatekeeper institutions such as the Ivy League colleges in the United States, and although they accept some applicants from poor families, most of their students hail from the upper class.

Democracy is supposed to honour the citizen’s right to self-determination, and so all of the citizens have an equal vote, which is meant to prevent the rise of a tyranny. In practice, democracy goes awry in one of two directions, depending on how well the education system is regulated. In the United States, where capitalism is more important than political governance and so public schools are starved for funding, democracy is distorted by demagogues, because tens of millions of Americans lack the critical thinking skills to fend for themselves in the marketplace of ideas. The results are political apathy and polarization, as most Americans feel disenfranchised and don’t vote at all, while those who do vote demonize their political opponents and have lost sight of the big picture, which is that the American government is a sideshow. America is governed only superficially by its politicians; indirectly, the country’s political policies are determined by its economy and by the special interests of its plutocrats who fund the political campaigns and the party apparatuses.

In Canada or Europe, however, where the economy is more tightly regulated according to social democratic values, the democracy is made irrelevant not by the monopolies and oligopolies that form from capitalist competition, but by the technocratic bureaucracy that’s required to manage those regulations. This is the same neoliberal bureaucracy of experts that underestimated the population growth in Toronto and is thus responsible for perhaps the weakest public transportation system of any major city in the developed world, or which missed or ignored the mass discontent with globalization in the West and is currently dealing with populist challenges from Brexit and neo-fascist parties. Canadian and European elections are riven by numerous micro-constituencies, creating stalemates between the elected officials, which channel political power inadvertently to the bureaucracy or to what radicals call the “deep state.”

Liberal, humanistic societies are supposed to feature free individuals, but ironically their economic and political systems degenerate, creating plutocracy, demagoguery, and ennui, and internationally the superficial freedoms of the anxious-ridden hyper-consumer are secured by imperialism, by the installation of dictators in foreign countries where much of the labour has been exported and where low wages are enforced in draconian fashion, as in the Middle East, Africa, and Central and South Americas. “Freedom at home must be protected by superpowerful military action abroad,” says the neoliberal, “because many in illiberal societies are jealous especially of American freedoms and so seek to destroy that land of the free and home of the brave.” In reality, this is all wrong. Many people in poorer parts of the world loathe America not because they want to be free enough that they can no longer believe in anything to make their life worthwhile. Instead, they resent American imperialism in their lands which exploits their resources and feeds the ravenous culture of American consumerism which is largely responsible for destroying the planet as a whole. And America isn’t really free nor is it brave: it’s a plutocracy with a dysfunctional government, tens of millions of apathetic nonvoters and anxious or depressed consumers with no chance of upward mobility, who are beset by a massive prison industry and who zone out on opioids; in addition, the so-called home of the brave has a fighting force that no longer represents the country by way of a military draft.

Does Chinese meritocracy present a viable alternative to the degenerative free world? Invented by Confucius, the meritocracy can test everyone’s aptitude for a prestigious and lucrative position in the civil service. But the standardized test is blind to the important kinds of intelligence, thus creating the kind of bureaucracy that’s likely to succumb to the Peter Principle, and to be competent only in narrow areas. As the education theorist Bill Ayers wrote, “Standardized tests can't measure initiative, creativity, imagination, conceptual thinking, curiosity, effort, irony, judgment, commitment, nuance, good will, ethical reflection, or a host of other valuable dispositions and attributes. What they can measure and count are isolated skills, specific facts and function, content knowledge, the least interesting and least significant aspects of learning.” And the Peter Principle states that because a candidate’s selection for a position is based on evaluating the candidate’s performance in her current role, rather than on an assessment of how well the candidate’s abilities are suited to the new role, employees stop being promoted only when they’ve reached their maximum degree of ineffectiveness. They thus rise to their level of incompetence. This kind of inhuman bureaucracy—created by standardized testing and sustained by an automatism that reflects the predominance of machines and computers—will be efficient mainly at missing the forest for the trees.

The Escape from Horror

How, though, do the ancient Chinese religions compare with modern humanism? Recall that Daoists say we should find our place in the flow of nature, acting spontaneously and effortlessly rather than swimming against the tide, while Confucians say we should organize society to enable us to fulfill our natural potential for compassion. These religions stand apart from the others we’ve looked at and from liberal humanism, too, in that Daoism and Confucianism are pragmatic rather than escapist. By contrast, the individualistic, science-centered society is geared towards preserving liberty and happiness by way of technological progress, which provides for a tangible escape from nature.

Leading up to the modern revolt against nature are the other religions’ more mystical or bumbling attempts at escape. Hindus are offended by the illusion of multiplicity which obscures the oneness of pure consciousness and being, Buddhists are disgusted with causal interconnectedness which produces endless suffering for self-involved people, and Jains are anxious to abandon their profane, material self to reveal their inner divinity. Monotheists are at least subconsciously terrified of the monstrosity of the God they’ve imagined: the tyrannical, puffed-up tribal god Yahweh would hold Jews captive to a host of commandments and so Jews seek refuge in professional endeavours; Christians are forced to concoct a Frankenstein theology because their early ambition to convert the world to their religion by creating a malleable Christian empire is diametrically opposed to the intransigence and otherworldliness of Jesus’s message, and because a coherent Christian life is therefore impossible, most educated Christians ignore their jumbled scriptures and sermons and find excuses to participate in secular culture; Muslims avoid the fear that Allah is empty or monstrous, by programming themselves for inner peace, surrendering their autonomy and submitting to dictators and to an austere heritage befitting a harsh life in the desert.

In turn, modern liberals and secular humanists reserve their horror for a more present threat, namely the natural world which scientists and engineers are bent on understanding and controlling to liberate our species from the tyranny of natural law. The more proud humanists are of their potential for free acts of reason and creativity, the more alienated they must be from natural forces and effects which are indifferent to their survival, let alone to their seemingly miraculous, anti-natural triumphs. Godless nature offers them no justice or worthy purpose, but at best a sublime cosmic symphony on which modern investigators can only eavesdrop because their sentience is an accident and needn’t be suited to reconciling with nature’s alien magnitude. The situation is ripe, however, for human vengeance, and so technologically-developed societies are so many engines for replacing the wilderness with artificial habitats that answer to our beck and call and to some extent vindicate the conceit that the prevailing inhabitants are godlike. Left to our devices in the wild, we’re little better than the other animal species, but enhanced by science and technology, we’re lords of the Anthropocene. We destroy the planet to remake it in our image, and if transhumanists have their way, the rest of the universe will be next.

Thus, Judaism and Christianity entail a retreat from their creeds’ childish anachronisms and gross power plays, to secular diversions, while Muslims revel in those flaws by way of their mental programming. Liberal humanists perfect that same refuge for Jews and Christians, but they substitute the palpable indifference of nature for the emptiness of an absurd creator God. The Indian religions have that disgust with nature in common with modern humanists, but instead of the self-serving artificial habitat, their refuge is union with some underlying reality. And in the name of pragmatic realism, at best, the Chinese religions call for us to adapt or to surrender to certain natural processes.

The ancient Chinese and modern Western humanistic stances towards nature are both problematic. The trouble with Daoism is that it’s hard to differentiate it from social Darwinism. If we should allow natural processes to rule, why is rape wrong? Why shouldn’t the strong subdue the weak? Aren’t morality and scientific reason unnatural in so far as they’re anomalous even within the animal kingdom? And both Daoism and Confucianism have a problem with the naturalistic fallacy: both assume that what tends to happen is right for happening that way. This is a problem also for religions such as Jainism and Islam, which make similar appeals to human nature. Even if human nature were compassionate, that fact alone wouldn’t dictate that compassion is good or that society ought to facilitate empathy or altruism. Chinese pragmatists may be realistic, but something else that’s evidently real is our anomalous creativity, which indeed enables us to recreate our nature or to override our instincts. So even if compassion were morally proper, Daoism and Confucianism don’t provide much of a reason to be compassionate, considering that we’re free to override our nature and to realign certain natural processes. In any case, compassion and selflessness may be innate, but so is antisocial selfishness, as is apparent from the behaviour of most children, regardless of their upbringing. Moreover, going with the flow of nature is easier if we’re ignorant of the extent of nature’s inhumanity. Modern science showed us the universe’s mind-boggling scale, which renders all of human history an insignificant outgrowth as far as the cosmos is concerned. This disturbing view of our estrangement from nature is axiomatic for the modern humanist, which is why she much prefers to go against the flow of nature and even to attempt to redefine her identity in accordance with the dictates of neoliberal self-help, life-hacking culture.   

The problems with the liberal humanist’s escape plan begin with the fact that, as with the monotheist’s disinclination to confront the historical truth, modernity unfolds according to an unconscious repulsion. Liberal societies are destroying the natural environment’s ability to sustain life, because the impulse behind science and technology, capitalism and democracy isn’t just to maximize human happiness. Liberals define that happiness as the contentment we feel when our right to freely create ourselves is respected, which means we can be happy only if we’re afforded self-control. And that’s possible only to the extent that we can oppose the harmful effects of nature’s indifference towards us, such as with genetic engineering or space exploration to prevent diseases or catastrophic meteor impacts. But liberals seldom admit to the corollary that the opposite of their contentment is horror for the alienating cosmos. This lack of self-awareness entails that modernity is a desperation move, an irrational and potentially self-destructive overcompensation in the directions of scientific enlightenment and technological mastery.

Another drawback of this kind of collective progress appears to be the dehumanization of most individuals. For modernity to work, the masses must conform to what Lewis Mumford called the demands of the “megamachine.” Whereas our personal liberty is supposed to be the highest good, we must sacrifice ourselves to the true agenda of the Age of Reason: we must occupy certain degrading conventional roles to ensure the smooth functioning of liberal societies, what economists call growth. This economic growth is the mark of progress, but the benefits of belonging to an unnatural hall of mirrors, to the social media culture of narcissism and safe spaces, for example, aren’t equally distributed. Like indoctrinated Muslims, the Western secular masses submit to the imperatives of over-consumption, which entails for most consumers their going into debt to finance their habit of heeding the flashy advertisements and purchasing junk products to signal their social status to their neighbours. The real gods that remain have at least been named as “the top one percent,” since they alone are truly free, albeit saddled with the sociopathy that’s a byproduct of such an obscene concentration of wealth.

This, then, is the liberal humanistic meaning of life, and it’s as shallow as the notion of modernity itself. The word “modern” is vacuous as an honorific term, because the members of every historical age—even the ones we call “dark”—consider themselves progressive in some respects. Western intellectuals call themselves “modern” because of the scientific and technological supremacy stemming from certain European revolutions beginning with the Renaissance in the fourteenth century. And most Western secularists are content not because they feel their life is meaningful but because they’re too busy to care about such an esoteric, philosophical question. In American and European colleges and universities, the humanities in general are being absorbed by the more practical disciplines of science, business, and engineering. This is a sign that secular humanism is crumbling like the neoliberal’s civic religion that’s facing an anti-globalist backlash or like President Obama’s “audacity of hope” which was followed by the audacity of President Trump. But none of this provokes much reflection about the very purpose of human life in these societies, because philosophy and religion themselves aren’t official parts of the megamachine, of the engines of technological progress. The mere opinions of the arts or of the humanities are deemed to be private matters unworthy of being brought into the public spaces that have been built by scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and technocratic city planners.

But the fears of a meaningless life are palpable because they tap into our instinctive fear of danger. In the wild, animals fear being eaten or challenged by a rival in their dominance hierarchy. In civilized society, we suspect we might fail to achieve some more rarefied ideal. Having mastered most of the basic problems of survival, at least in the wealthier countries, we focus not on the physicality of things, but on their cultural significance. And if the culture is deeply flawed, its members won’t feel at ease. They may channel that fear into short-sighted political movements or idle disputes in a culture war, but the underlying alienation will remain.

In some ways, if you’re informed and detached enough to stand apart from your way of life just to ask whether that lifestyle fulfills some deeper purpose, it’s already too late for you. The availability of the outsider’s vantage point, from which we can ask about life’s meaning, indicates the lack thereof, because the meaning of life isn’t something to be found like a Holy Grail that happens to be buried under this mound of dirt rather than that one. Even religious people tend to admit that the deepest meaning preserved in their traditions is found not in the doctrines or rituals but in the possibility of a humbling religious experience. And again, as Rudolph Otto pointed out, that experience should be filled not with a sense of tranquility, but with one of holy terror. This is the enlightened person’s panic that everything familiar to her—her society, her worldview, her family, her soul—is pointless because the whole material plane vanishes into nothingness next to some more important being. And this dread is the true source of religious compassion. We feel we owe even a stranger some sympathy and aid, because everything caught up in the tragedy of being other than God is pitiful, and so we cheer for all of us as underdogs. If nature replaces the cartoon gods, that only accentuates the holy terror, because anyone can experience nature’s inhumanity without years of training in meditation and asceticism.

Perhaps, then, the medium is the message with regard to the question of life’s meaning. To ask the question is to wonder whether your life is meaningless, however happy you might think you feel. Most conventional answers to that question offer certain remedies for despair, and they often function as the proverbial opiates for the masses, as excuses for unjust social inequalities. But instead of escaping into some fantasy or grotesque societal endeavour, we might try learning to live with the horror and with the nature of reality that it signifies. Yet we would have to play catch-up, because connoisseurs of horror have been with us from the outset, from perhaps the first social outsiders, the shamans of prehistoric hunter-gatherer tribes. These outsiders include the ascetics and mystics and itinerant monks and prophets of organized religions, as well as the Essenes, the persecuted Gnostics, and the Bedouins who informed Islam. In the Age of Reason, these existentialists are the tortured philosophers and artists and madmen, from Kierkegaard and Lovecraft to Byron and van Gogh, to Lenny Bruce and Kurt Cobain. The tortured artist is a stock character, but we seldom reflect on why exactly many intellectuals or geniuses exile themselves. What is the expertise of those who stand apart from society and flout its conventions? What do they see, lonesome in the wilderness, their rational faculties agonizingly intact? Whether it’s confronted by religious faith or by godless reason, the world seems a horror show, without the familiar societal pastimes to reassure us. The outsiders who paradoxically excel at becoming both less and more than human, at renouncing worldly life to glimpse the shocking indifference of things in themselves may lack the wisdom to accommodate their alien visions. There may not even be any such wisdom. But these outsiders struggle to live meaningfully, alone with horror, so the disturbing question of life’s meaning may belong to them.

2 comments:

  1. I was seized by a ravenous urge to find familiarity tonight, if not clarity. True understanding, perhaps filtered by a dearth of personal sympathy. I found this page within minutes after googling most recent pages for "misanthropy," after pouring through three pages of worthless first results. The chronological order and content of these meditations reflect ones that have been tumbling through my own skull lately. So sharply it seems uncanny.

    The final image of a lonely soul on the cusp of eternal horizon seized my heart. It's been burned into my head for days.

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    1. Glad to be of service, Crazy Grapefruit. Have a look at my Map of the Articles, to see a categorized list of the articles you'll find on this blog.

      This very long one here, "The Horror of Life's Meaning," is a little unusual in that it was meant to be the script of a three hour documentary I was going to put on YouTube. Most of my articles are much shorter.

      http://rantswithintheundeadgod.blogspot.ca/2013/02/map-of-rants.html

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