Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Paradox of Secular Holiness

Euhemerism, a way of reducing religious references to natural ones, goes back to the ancient Greek skeptics. In the third century BCE, Euhemerus argued that belief in the existence of immortal gods is based on a confusion arising from the passage of time. The gods were originally just powerful humans, especially kings or emperors who were deified out of the subjects’ respect and fear, as in the celebratory process of apotheosis. Over time the memory of such exaltations was forgotten, as was the connection between gods and human rulers, and the divine characters took on their own life in people’s imagination.

For most skeptics, the point of this reductive explanation is to undermine religion. The colossal error of confusing a human king with a creator of the universe must have been the most embarrassing blunder ever to have occurred. The carnage from religious wars and persecutions, the wasted lives in ascetic follies, the oppression of gullible masses in theocratic dominance hierarchies—all of these damages occurred the world over for thousands of years. That could entail that the human form isn’t capable of perpetrating a greater embarrassment than the one responsible for theistic religions.

But there’s another way of looking at the general naturalization of religion. If religions really refer only to familiar natural phenomena, as in the case of the social reality of heaven and hell, the world should be re-enchanted, not deadened by scientific scrutiny and technological manipulation. Instead of just laughing at religious folks for possibly forgetting that gods have only ever been just powerful humans, we might marvel at the reality of those persons, at the natural emergence of creatures that run empires and live as gods in luxury. Moreover, the intrinsic dubiousness of theistic propositions opens up the possibility that the deflationary knowledge is esoteric. That’s to say that religions might become fraudulent, complete with the secret understanding of the insiders, that religious contents are all-too familiar rather than transcendent. To understand what religions are really about, to see past the conventions and appreciate the depth of our foolishness and the brazenness of our schemes might provide an honourable, albeit an ironic religious experience.

Fame, Envy, and Holy Ground

Here, then, is a deflationary analysis of a particular aspect of religions, namely the concept of sacred or holy places and items, in the sense of those felt to have a spiritually pure quality. If you asked a religious person what makes her temple holy, she’d say it’s because God is present in that space. God’s spirit enters the world and inspires the congregants while they worship in that building, or else the temple is indirectly sacred because of its historical connection to the miracles that founded the religion. A classic example of a holy place would be Mount Horeb from Exodus 3:1-5, where Moses climbs the mountain to find God, and God appears as the miracle of the burning bush, and instructs Moses not to investigate the miracle: ‘When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called out to him from within the bush, “Moses, Moses!” “Here I am,” he answered. “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” ’ The same explanation would be given for why scriptures are deemed to be opposed to mundane reality and imbued with a spiritually pure quality: God wrote or inspired the writing of the words on those pages.

If we dismiss such theistic explanations as both confused and spectacularly embarrassing for humanity, we should still search for the root of that real experience that some places and objects are so special that they’re worth killing or dying for. The phenomenon of fame should provide us a clue. Secular celebrities are idolized and worshipped as if they were divine beings. Fans stand in line for days just to look at their favourite movie star and when they’re in the celebrity’s presence, the fans often break down, weeping with joy, jumping and carrying on as if possessed. Indeed, the word “fan” is short for “fanatic,” from fanaticus, meaning that which pertains to the temple and is inspired by orgiastic rites. In short, “fanatical” was originally used as a pejorative term for frantic religious behaviour. But the point is that we have an obvious secular version of that phenomenon. So we can imagine the paradox of the secular equivalent of a holy place, such as the celebrity’s home or other private area.

The interesting question, though, is what exactly makes such places sacred to the fans. Take, for example, Skywalker Ranch, the workplace of George Lucas, which was once the Star Wars fan’s Holy Grail and the basis of the movie “Fanboys,” about fans who seek to break into the Ranch to geek out or worship at the altar of the behind-the-scenes, movie-making magic. Why, then, did the fans think of that workplace as holy ground? In other words, what exactly is the “spiritually pure quality” that makes for the feeling of holiness, assuming that quality has nothing to do with a deity? Again, fame is a clue, so one of the factors should be envy. The Ranch is famous for being the source of much of the Star Wars universe, so tens of millions of people want to be in that place, to learn the secrets and bask in the glory and so forth. Therefore, the fans can tantalize themselves by imagining what it would be like to set foot in a place which is forbidden to almost everyone, many of whom desperately want to be there.

Compare this to Moses on Mount Horeb and notice that that ground wasn’t holy just because it might have been physically hard to reach. There are many places that are relatively hard to get to, such as the midst of a particular cloud in the sky (which would require passage on an airplane to arrive there) or somewhere deep in the Pacific Ocean (which would require a submarine), but that aren’t thereby considered sacred or precious in comparison to most places. This is because those remote locations aren’t famous in that it’s not the case that hundreds of millions of people want to be in those very spots. If you travelled to a particular trench at the bottom of the sea and afterward bragged to others about your adventure, you’d find that most people might be impressed, at best, but they wouldn’t envy you. If, however, you somehow broke into Skywalker Ranch, recorded the film-makers’ behind-the-scenes activities or stole some prototypes for upcoming Star Wars toys, and then visited Comicon and boasted of your exploits, the faithful would receive you as a godlike figure. The perceived majesty of Skywalker Ranch would seem to have rubbed off on you, and fans would want to touch your garments if those, too, had been in that “holy temple.” 

Envy, then, is apparently necessary but not sufficient for secular holiness. You might envy someone who has just purchased a new videogame you’d like to play, but you wouldn’t think of that person’s copy of the game as sacred, since you too could readily purchase a copy. However, add to envy the rarified circumstances needed to come into possession of the object or to find yourself inside the holy of holies, and you have the natural essence of sacredness. In short, the feeling that X is sacred is the schadenfreude of knowing that were you to obtain X, countless others would envy you, where that envy is due to the fame of X and to the improbability or impossibility of most other people’s obtaining of X.

Other examples of sacred places: the Oval Office of the White House, Area 51, being aboard an alien spaceship, or setting foot on Mars (or anywhere else off-Earth). There’s a scene in a 2006 computer game, called “Prey,” that captures this sense of sacredness. You play a present-day character who is abducted by a huge alien spaceship, and you alone among the other few abductees are freed to explore the interior. As you do so, you come across a human-made radio among the debris that had also been sucked up by the aliens. The radio is tuned to a channel that’s airing a talk show in which some experts are discussing the appearance of the alien craft, the very one you—alone out of billions of others—are able to explore. The incongruity of knowing that you’re indirectly famous for occupying a remote spot (inside an alien spacecraft), which everyone on the planet is talking about; that you’re in the middle of the most important moment in human history; and to have that confirmed as you eavesdrop on the entire species that is ignorant by comparison with you makes for the eerie sense that the spaceship isn’t just remote or famous, but so precious as to be holy ground.

There’s an apparent difference, though, which is that because the aliens in the game are malevolent, most people wouldn’t envy you for being abducted. Perhaps they’d envy your first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to be inside the craft that the rest of humanity can only see from afar, but not the prospect of being killed by aliens. Even this element of fear, mind you, is part of the religious feeling of sacredness, because a sacred spot is supposed to signal divinity and thus transcend our expectations. In part, the idea of holiness is of a fearful mystery, as Rudolph Otto and Georges Bataille explained, so the envy that makes for holiness should be tinged with terror. And this fits the two-sidedness of fame. On the one hand, a movie star, for example, is the object of envy on account of the star’s lifestyle and opportunities. On the other hand, we know that to be so famous is to give up the benefits of anonymity; more importantly, we know that abundant wealth and attention tend to warp the famous person’s perceptions, to infantilize her so that in some respects her status doesn’t ennoble her but makes her less than human. She’s liable to become a narcissistic dilettante, a know-it-all busybody whom no one can gainsay, since she eventually surrounds herself with sycophants and thus loses touch with reality. To maintain her self-image and the delusion that she has godlike power even over the encroachment of bodily decay, the movie star undergoes plastic surgery and becomes a laughingstock. The celebrity is worshipped as a godlike hero, since in her youth she can embody certain unrealistic ideals, but the public is just as quick to usher her towards her downfall, as attested by the market for gossip columns. The otherness of a supposed transcendent order of reality, then, is captured by the alienness of the corrupted upper class, of the godlike power elites that occupy most “sacred” secular places because of their exclusive fame.

Return, for a moment, to Moses and the burning bush. At the time the event happens in the story, the Jews hadn’t become fully acquainted with the character of their Lord Yahweh. Moses’ fame had not yet been established, since he hadn’t yet freed the Jews from bondage in Egypt. Like a movie star who drops several hit movies in a row, Moses would eventually draw down ten plagues from Heaven, defeating the mighty Egyptian army. But because those events hadn’t yet happened in the story, and the tale of Moses’s talk with the burning bush hadn’t been written or told while Moses was supposed to have been on the mountain, there’s something peculiar about God’s claim that the ground there is holy. When exactly does the ground become holy? Of course, a believer will say anything touched by God may be immediately sanctified. But as a matter of fact, the story in Exod.3:1-5 could only ever have been read after the tale had become famous through the oral tradition (between 600-400 BCE). Thus, the point of the ground’s holiness is ambiguous, since that spiritual quality could be due to the presence of God in the bush or to the fearful envy on the part of the Jewish readers, who would have been reading long after the event had supposedly occurred. That line in Exodus is therefore consistent with the foregoing account. In other words, if envy and fame are needed for holiness, a huge population has to already know about the spot in question, and in the case of the burning bush, that would have required time to produce the written account and spread the word, time which was supplied by the oral tradition. Without the popular belief there would be no holiness, regardless of what God is doing in secret, which is to say that holiness is largely subjective.

At first glance, the notion of the “Holy Bible” itself seems to be a counterexample, since the Bible isn’t physically hard to obtain, nor would anyone envy you if you possessed a copy. However, a reminder of the history of that name for the Christian scriptures dispels any suggestion of a contradiction. The name derives from the Medieval Latin, “biblia sacra,” and the Jewish scriptures were regarded as sacred by the second century BCE. At that time, the scriptures were rare and hard to obtain; the scrolls were precious, because there was no such thing as the mass production of literature. In medieval Europe, the Bible was written in Latin and most Christians were illiterate, so the peasants indeed would have envied the priests and monks who alone went through the extensive training to read Latin and who were thus the guardians of Christian scripture. Arguably, when the Bible was translated into vulgar languages and mass-produced by the printing press, beginning in the fifteenth century, the book became less sacred precisely because the Bible began to fail to meet the conditions of the foregoing analysis. Mass production reduces the value of whatever’s so proliferated, by trivializing ownership. The current low price of a mass-market Bible reflects that economic fact. Likewise, in the ancient world, travelling great distances was an adventure, but once cars and airplanes were mass-produced we began to take travel for granted. Like all mere merchandize, we now think of vacations as things to be unconsciously consumed rather than savored. Music and movies, too, are trivialized when they’re digitized, because they can be downloaded for free in seconds. So the name “Holy Bible” is as significant as the names “Jesus” and “God” when they’re routinely uttered “in vain,” as in “Jesus, that’s a big fish!” or “Goddammit! I stubbed my toe.”

One other question that arises is whether anything can be holy or sacred for the upper-class celebrities themselves, whose rarified heights are deemed effectively holy by the many lesser mortals. Can a movie star envy someone’s fame or possessions when she already has everything she could ever want? You can hear famous actors claim in interviews to be star-struck when in the presence of their favourite fellow actor, but those claims can’t be taken at face value because of the culture of infantilization which actors inhabit. True, so-called D-list actors aren’t objectively as famous as the A-list ones, but the A-list actors, at least, readily praise each other’s work so they’ll seem humble and not repel their fans with a show of hubris. Certainly, in the puritanical United States, aristocracy and an elitist attitude of superiority are taboo, so the American upper class has to stay out of sight and mind or else—should its members find themselves in the spotlight—maintain a populist persona. Just as the fans gush over the prospect of being near their favourite celebrity, the celebrities, too, might pretend to be fanatical about something, even though their power and fame have, on the contrary, deadened their sensibilities. This accounts for the quiet desperation, drug addictions, and suicides of celebrities.  

Theists may object that the above explanation of holiness is circular, since any secular notion of the holy (based on fame, envy, and so on) would have to depend on the religious kind. So there would be no worship of movie stars if saints and divine heroes had not already been celebrated for millennia. But this objection runs up against the historical fact that theistic religions were, in turn, likely preceded by animistic ones that identified spirits with natural processes. So if we’re going to commit the genetic fallacy in this fashion, naturalism beats theism since there would be no theism or supernaturalism had there not already been pantheism. Regardless of historical precedence—and Euhemerus would remind us that the likelihood of memory loss over the centuries makes any such temporal dependence irrelevant—the secular phenomenon of idol worship is both familiar and functionally atheistic. This exemplar of natural sacredness operates without any thought to theistic religion. If anything, celebrities are so frequently and fervently worshipped because of the cultural death of God, meaning that the celebrities stand in for the perceived absence of the deity. The sobering reality of natural holiness thus hides in plain sight.

I should add that this fame-based explanation isn't a complete account of the sacred, since the question remains why we care more about certain places or items than others. Why are we so concerned with the power elites and their possessions such that we envy and are covetous of them? Pointing out that there are followers and leaders in most social species (known in ethology as betas and alphas) doesn't entirely explain the human version of this hierarchy, since this behaviour would have to pass through the wider understanding of what's going on, supplied by the human brain.

The Secret Purpose of Religion

If the pure spiritual quality of a holy place is at least largely informed by the tantalizing prospect of being envied (and dreaded) for standing in a famous and remote location (if only in your imagination), the notion of the occult might be similarly explained. The original word occultus means covering up something and hiding it from view. Thus, the occult has to do with magic or the secret art of controlling supernatural powers or agencies. This is all easily reconstructed from the above naturalistic concept of holiness. Even if nothing is supernatural in that sense, the exoteric is still distinct from the esoteric—only this is ironically turned around, as I said, so that the outsiders, for whom the truth is covered up and kept secret, are precisely those who chatter about gods and supernatural powers, while the insiders (presumably many power elites and priests in the modern period, after science’s disenchantment of the world), for whom much less is hidden are those who understand that godhood has only ever been for certain deranged primates.

There are, then, three overall ways of interpreting religious utterances, besides the exoteric theistic view which should be dismissedFirst, there’s the “new atheistic” view, which is that because there’s no God in the literal, exoteric sense, religious language is empty and should be ignored; hence the secular humanist’s pragmatic dictum, “There’s no God so get on with your life.” On this view, theism is just erroneous, so we should spend as much energy studying religion as we should thinking about the proposition that one plus one is three or that dogs can fly by wagging their tails. One problem with this antireligiosity is that religions are coextensive with behavioural modernity, that is, with the rise of relatively enlightened humanity which occurred at least 50,000 years ago. Is it likely, then, that the wisest creatures on earth would carry on with a mere vacuous blunder for tens of thousands of years? Clearly, religions have societal functions, so we know they work in that sense, meaning that religions control populations by propping up moral codes and rationalizing social inequalities. We might doubt that religious language could serve those functions while being entirely empty, semantically speaking.

The other two interpretations assume that religious language is anthropocentric, reflexive, and naturalistic, but they differ regarding the significance of that fact. So the second agrees that religious language can be taken to refer only to human or to other natural phenomena, but this interpretation assumes that’s only because religious concepts are poetic and open-ended, and are thus trivially applicable to anything you like. Religious concepts carry meaning only by accident or by the generosity of our imagination. For those reasons, religions may be technically meaningful, but they’re still philosophically unimportant. For example, the concept of “God” can be applied to human power elites, but that interpretation would be arbitrary and therefore useless for understanding the world.

The third view is the one I’ve explored, which is that however religious content is arrived at, religions are, on the contrary, (ironically) important for philosophical purposes. This view subdivides into two possibilities, depending on whether the hidden, esoteric and deflationary meanings are construed as intentional and planned by religious insiders. Prophets, priests and theologians may be only indirectly describing realities such as the heavenly aspects of the life of human power elites or the amorality of anyone who has a monopoly on the use of power. But the substance of such theistic discourse may be both accidental and clueless, as in ironic and happening in spite of the pious intentions of theists. That is, the hidden meanings of religious language may be philosophically and sociologically important because some underlying process is working through them, something other than pure accident or the interpreter’s random or idiosyncratic subjectivity. As I speculate elsewhere, religious myths may spell out unconscious ideals or goals, foreshadowing our transhuman potential, which we aim to fulfill by secular, reality-based means. Specifically, the mythopoeic, animistic mindset might be vindicated by the creation of high-tech civilization, since the latter realizes the na├»ve personifications of nature, in the form of artificial programs (intelligent designs and algorithms). Alternatively, there might be a conspiracy afoot, which is to say that, on average, the religious insiders might have known the exoteric presentation of religion is at best a necessary evil. The esoteric, conspiratorial view would be not mysticism, but a kind of elitist, Straussian humanism: religions would be secretly about us and nature rather than anything transcendent, but that knowledge wouldn’t be fit for everyone.


  1. If celebrity culture is a secular religion, then it just shows how decadent western civilization has become even by medieval standards. Putting aside the fundamental evil of the Roman Catholic Church, it can at least be said in the church's favor that most of her saints were worthy of the veneration they received; even if their alleged virtues were as fictional as their miracles. I would rather see women get hysterical over the relics of St. Brigid than the latest antics of Kim Kardashian.

    1. Celebrity culture is a nontheistic religion in Durkheim’s sense, or at least the worship of celebrities is part of the larger substitute religion of consumerism, the ideology of late-modern capitalism. That’s not quite the point I wanted to make in this article, but it is relevant.

      There’s almost a tightrope you have to walk between condemning the modern substitutes for God, because of their shallowness, hypocrisy, and short-sighted destructiveness, and recognizing the potential for an uplifting spiritual/existential alternative. I try to do both on this blog. The positive potential here is to see that if holiness has always been only natural and fame-based, we don’t need theistic delusions to have the religious, ecstatic experience.

      The problem, though, is that the nontheistic religious experience is undermined if the idols are unworthy, as they tend to be since their luxuries and power over others are liable to corrupt them so that they lose sight of their humility and their hunger to advance in artistic terms. The theistic religion’s gods are also unworthy, mind you, because they don’t exist and were modeled on human celebrities and power elites.

      This was just Nietzsche’s problem: Where are the adequate gods or objects of worship, after the cultural death of the old gods? Nietzsche longed for the arrival of the transhuman. In any case, there will likely always be two classes of idols, one for the enlightened and one for the unenlightened. The latter have their celebrities and their National Enquirers, and the former have their…?

  2. I think that the reason there will never be anything equivalent to a religion for the enlightened is that enlightened ones tend to care more about the message than the messenger. You don't see philosophers making pilgrimages to Athens or vying with each other to try on Friedrich Nietzsche's eyeglasses. I'm not certain I would even want to meet Nietzsche if I could; I'd probably find him to be 'all too human'. The only philosopher who seems to possess anything approaching a cult following is Ayn Rand and that really says it all, doesn't it?

    There are philosphical religions like Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, but the fact that they've fossilized into full-blown religions should send any rational person running in the other direction no matter how much she might admire Buddha and company as sincere seekers rather than demigods.

    Maybe I'm just misunderstanding your use of religion, but to me the idea of an enlightened being bowing before anyone - fictional or historical - is absurd. There is something to be said for the feeling of the sublime and the numinous, but this is something even hardline atheists will gladly admit to enjoying; it doesn't require any religious or quasi-religious context.

    1. I agree that philosophers are less cultish than theists and care more about the message than the messenger. There are some other examples of philosophical superstars and fan worship. Zyzek and now Jordan Peterson come to mind, as do the “four horsemen” of the new atheists (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens). The dynamics of fame and tribalism quickly come into play whenever you have great public success. You see that in the comment section of popular YouTube channels and blogs. Fanbases emerge all over the place and are very protective of their idol.

      Some years ago, when Jerry Coyne's blog was mostly still about atheism, I got banned from commenting there because I harshly criticized Coyne's scientism. His fans ganged up on me, so I saw these (ironic) religious dynamics firsthand. The same thing happened to me on Inmendham's YouTube channel. That guy's as thin-skinned and silly as Trump. Now are those guys enlightened and philosophical? Well, they do argue against organized religion and yet you see the same tribalism rise up around them.

      I explored the sociology of religion in my earlier writings on this blog, and what I did mostly was combine Durkheim and Paul Tillich. So look at Durkheim's definition of “religion”: “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” Notice the social importance there of sacredness/holiness.

      Add to that Tillich’s existential definition of “faith” as a centered act of being “ultimately concerned” about whatever arouses the total personality. For Tillich, the proper object of faith is ultimate reality, but we can see how idolatry becomes possible, given the subjective, existential aspect of religious faith. We can be ultimately concerned about money, sex, popularity, or whatever else we find ourselves treating as sacred. In that case, the dynamics of group formation will cause us to behave religiously towards that sacred thing—unless we’re extremely self-aware and we renounce society, preferring an ascetic response to the sacred.

      If we think nothing at all is sacred or all-important, we’re likely not long for this world, since that’s almost the definition of depression.

  3. I think Nietzsche summed up the essence of the philosophical temperment when he said (paraphrasing) that the philosopher doesn't jump to conclusions, but takes his time and is always open to new information; anything else isn't philosophy, but sophistry and apologetics. But the philosophers who were most well received in their time have never been afraid to pander to the zeitgeist. Some of them, like Descartes and Leibniz, can be excused on account of the power the church exercised during their time; but the very best, like Socrates, never censored themselves for any reason.

    Coincidentally, I just came across Durkheim's thoughts on religion yesterday when I started reading a book I had gotten from the library; I had never heard of him before then. Durkheim's definition of religion is completely different from Tillich's, though I think a lot of atheists confuse the two. A particularly amusing case of this can be found on Youtube in an outtake from one of Dawkin' movies. He's debating evolution with this lady from the Creation Institute and, despite pretty clear signals from her, never seems to grasp the fact that she is more concerned with the deliterious effects of Darwin's theory on Christian civilization (a Durkheimian social religion) than the (to her) trivial matter of whether or not the theory can be justified empirically. I guess we philosophers and scientists have made an idol of the truth, which is why we get kicked off of discussion forums or simply ignored by those who care more about either preserving or advancing human civilization.

    Speaking of nihilism, I'm betting you're familiar with Nietzsche's conclusions about what the will to truth really disguises. In the fable of Eden, the fruit of the tree of life granted immortality; but the fruit of the tree of knowledge was death. The gnostics seemed to have taken this allegory to its logical conclusion inasmuch as they saw life (bios) as a kind of abberant miscarriage that should never have come into being; gnosis (knowledge) meant salvation from life, or death.


    1. Your paraphrase of Nietzsche sounds more like the essence of the scientific temperament, not the philosophical one. I think Plato got at the essence of philosophy in “Symposium,” where he explains what came to be called “Platonic love,” which has to do with spiritual birth or brainchildren, and with philosophy as the love of wisdom where that requires sacrifice in poverty. Whereas science is more practical and conducive to happiness, since the technological applications of science benefit society, philosophy is subversive because the love of wisdom over opinion knows no bounds.

      As I explained in my article on cosmicism and Greek tragedy, the ancient Greek concept of wisdom was teleological and anthropocentric, so ancient philosophy was meant to be practical, at least on the surface. The trial and execution of Socrates proved the opposite was true. When we transition from premodern anthropocentrism to late-modern cosmicism, the “wisdom” which philosophers love ends up being anti-human, meaning that this is the knowledge that destroys the soul and makes us profoundly unhappy—awestruck, yes, but also party poopers and social outcasts. As you say, the fruit of knowledge is death.

      The true philosopher is the bore who takes the slightest opportunity to “dig deeper” and question everyone’s assumptions, to speculate endlessly and follow logic and science to the bitterest conclusions. I’ve done that at parties and have learned the hard way to keep my philosophical musings to myself or to broadcast them (on this blog or on YouTube, etc.) only to those who are searching for philosophy.

    2. I’ve seen that Dawkins debate a few times and I don’t think Dawkins was confused on that point you raised. Dawkins was saying that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, so the opponents must have a hidden, emotional agenda. Then Dawkins would be ready to pounce with the argument that just because evolution is unpleasant doesn’t mean it’s false. The creationist does question the evidence for evolution and she says repeatedly she’s worried about the social implications of evolution, since she believes we’re not just material and useful but have spiritual dignity. Dawkins agrees a Darwinian society would be horrendous (and indeed that it would be a right-wing society; she responds to that devastating charge by confusing atheism with evolutionism, saying that the Soviet Union was atheistic and horrendous; alas, communism doesn’t rest on evolutionary principles, the progressive, Marxist view of history notwithstanding). Dawkins says we should concede to the facts of evolution and use that knowledge for liberal, social democratic purposes, to improve society and avoid a relapse into a Darwinian state of nature.

      They go back and forth in that manner and it’s a frustrating debate for a different reason, I think. The problem is that neither of them was thinking philosophically; neither has that temperament. They were talking past each other for a whole hour, which shows that the echo chambers I talk about in another article (second link below) were constraining the discussion. Dawkins almost got to the bottom of it when he summarized the theory of natural selection and later asked whether she understood the theory in question. She said that of course she did, but Dawkins evidently suspected she didn’t and he was right to do so. There’s zero chance she’d be capable of demonstrating that she understands the theory she supposedly rejects, by layout out in her own words the essence of the theory of natural selection, without just repeating some memorized outline. Once you know enough to be able to put the theory in your own words, you’re in Dennett’s position of realizing that the theory is about an algorithm that couldn’t fail to produce the appearance of intelligently designed organisms. Genes and the environment replace God as the “designer.”

      What that creationist really rejects isn’t biology, since there’s an awful lot of biology to know and she obviously doesn’t know the half of it, whereas Dawkins could easily show he understands the essence of Christianity. (Something similar came up in my exchange with the “Thinking Christian.”) Instead, she rejects the philosophy of materialism, utilitarianism, and totalitarianism which she presumes is the demonic root cause of “belief in” the theory of natural selection. If Dawkins had been philosophical, he’d have eagerly gotten to the bottom of those deeper disagreements and confusions. Moreover, a philosopher would be humble and objective in questioning the implications of his or her deepest assumptions. But he’s a new atheist, not a Nietzschean one, so he doesn’t concede the creationist’s (badly formulated) point that atheistic biology does have unsettling implications, such as that Dawkins’ cherished liberalism is a noble lie. Dawkins thinks he can help himself to liberal morality even though that morality is based on Christianity and theism (as Nietzsche and John Gray point out). Dawkins would say his morality is based on the biological instinct for cooperation, but that would contradict his admission that a Darwinian society would be brutal.

    3. Regarding the Gnostics, I think they were only more consistent in dealing with what Nietzsche would call an implication of the monotheistic dogma that eternal paradise awaits us in a supernatural afterlife. I believe Nietzsche says somewhere that these monotheists are nihilistic since they ground their values on nothing rather than on natural reality. So the Gnostics were against natural life, because they believed there’s a higher kind of life, just as they thought there was a higher god than the one responsible for the material universe. But yes, the Gnostics (along with Plato, Eastern religions, and the perennial spiritualists) were harsh judges of the apparent, sensible world. They’d differ, though, with antinatalists, since the latter are against all forms of life, whereas again, the Gnostics devoted themselves to an allegedly higher, spiritual life. This was a Western form of moksha.

      By the way, if you’re interested in the social consequences of religion, you might be interested in a discussion which just came out on YouTube, between Alister McGrath and Brett Weinstein (two-part links below). Weinstein’s pretty impressive there, I think.





  4. There are countless extremely intelligent religious people who simply wouldnt exist in your model, it is that naive and shallow. But they did, do and will exist. You take the really really low hanging fruit of celebrity madness and blow it out of proportion, constructing an oddity...
    You could always read Pascal Boyer's books on religion if you have time for a solid argument about religion...

    1. It looks like Pascal Boyer's view of the origin of religion is similar to Dennett's. I'm not sure why you'd think an evolutionary explanation of the existence of religion (religion as a byproduct of our innate Theory of Mind or capacity to project mental states onto things) makes for a more flattering picture of religious people than my similarly naturalistic explanation of belief in the sacred as a form of being humbled by fame. In both cases, theistic religion is being largely explained away, not wholly respected.