Sunday, March 18, 2018

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


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. But 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.

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