Saturday, March 10, 2018

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

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.


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.


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.

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