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Rationalism as a Humanism: Grounding the Secular

Rationalism as a Humanism: Grounding the Secular by Tylor Lovins

What is the defining quality of the secular movement, if there is a center at all? Merriam-Webster defines secularism as “indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations.” This aspect is self-evident to everyone in the movement. Many prominent secularists have at one point or another declared war on religion, typically by reducing all religious traditions to their fundamentalist, literalist manifestations. Motivated by the theory that religion was a primitive form of science, the mystifying beliefs of divine inspiration, holy-book-inerrancy, and divine-human relations have been shown for what they truly are: linguistic and ritualistic artifacts of a world now left behind by the progress of science.

The movement of secularism isn’t itself contained within this definition of secularism, however. The definition for humanism, which stands today as a largely non-negotiable feature for many in the secular movement, describes the contexture more precisely: “a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values; especially: a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason.” Reason and science, coupled with anti-supernaturalism and displacing religion, appear to be the primary drivers of secularism. This warrants some critical reflection. Although reason can be understood as an intellectual endeavor that utilizes principles of logic, it’s not self-evident whose reason, and which rationality, should undergird the secularist movement. The de facto rationality motivating the secularist movement at present is rationalism.

The rationalist tradition for our purposes can be understood as the tradition of thought that makes truth the outcome of an equation: it proceeds from premises to conclusions that are warranted by logic. This is, in Aristotle’s term, “dialectic.” More broadly, a compelling yet underdeveloped strain of rationalism that creates the framework for secularism subsumes empiricism. Here, the premises of thought do not rely entirely on abstract, a priori conditions but take into account scientific findings and experiential knowledge. Another strain has developed, unfortunately, deducing that our motivated action is grounded by the rationalist equation. Let’s call this “naive rationalism.” The naive rationalist asserts we’re basically rational animals and with our handy reason, we are guided by rationalist equations. The yield of these equations are the truth in the realm of thought, and the good in the realm of action. Proposed as the successor to religious traditions that make claims based on authority, the rationalist tradition appears poised to further the cause of humanism and the advancement of knowledge by the force of reason, in a way that is historically unrivaled and unparalleled.

This ambiguity in the rationalist tradition should be interrogated. For centralizing the naive rationalist tradition in the secularism project devalues the fundamental, constitutive role valence frameworks play in any kind of rationality in the first place. Reasons, as modern philosophy and psychology have shown, do not originate from value-neutral systems, but rather are products of systems of value. The point can be made more explicitly: this rationalist tradition favors facts and reason as the highest goods, virtually diminishing the explicit roles of fitness, creativity, virtue, and meaning in the scheme of human motivations. Secularism could benefit from reintroducing these roles back into the pantheon of humanism.

Situating Rationalism

What I am suggesting is not entirely novel, but it remains sufficiently foreign to many projects sympathetic to secularism that it bears repeating and amplifying here. I am not, after all, calling for a devaluation of reason. Reason is a grand achievement of humankind, and rightfully remains as the symbol of not only progress but of a future world without mass population manipulation by appeal to fantastical claims. I simply want to bring reason back from the clouds of the Enlightenment to the real world,  where values, emotions, and unconscious biological mechanisms propel us to action and thought.

In an episode of The Sopranos, Tony’s therapist explains that rage is the psyche’s way of creating a massive distraction, enabling one to not account for potentially punishing or threatening stimuli (whether in memory or experience), but rather displace them, so as to shut one’s eyes to these stimuli as meaningful or real. The picture of rage here is like the child who hides her head under blankets after seeing a scene from a horror film. The way in which we use arguments to reduce others’ positions to ludicrous strawmen is precisely a type of security blanket, but in linguistic form. Let’s remove this blanket, and confront the ambiguity in the function of rational beliefs that emerges when we ground them in the creaturely realm.  Our beliefs themselves, whether true or not (in the sense that they adequately take into account our place in the world in the present), may be what obstructs us from ascertaining truth in the future. Truth, in this way, returns to the motivational level, and doesn’t remain in the realm of articulate conscious thought. Our knowledge of the present may not be true enough to enable us to thrive or acquire truth in the future. Whether reason itself is (1) a method for finding truth or (2) a claim about the authority of an assertion is a tension for many int he secular movement. Just take a look at all the anti-religious memes and rhetoric flourishing in online secular communities to see just how much reason has been misunderstood as a position or claim and not as a method.

Truth as motivational, as operating in the realm of meaning, is important when the secularism project encounters religious thought, and especially as it invokes science. Humanism’s anti-supernaturalist bent is understandable and significant. With Bacon’s critique of Aristotle’s final cause, the method of science was significantly brought into focus and under these conditions prospered without religious conceptions of the world. We don’t need to know the metaphysical constitution or nature of a thing to determine its efficient or material causes. That there may have been a being that created the material world does not weigh in on the question of why the sky is blue or how bacteria cause disease, or even, now, where humans came from. With Bacon, the weight of supernaturalism no longer grounded science, and it could finally fly freely toward the light of truth.

This is not where the story ends, however. Science appears positioned as Icarus. Important modern figures of secularism and champions of science like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have taken their cue from James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, claiming religion is a primitive form of science, and that with the progress of science, it will be left behind. Although Frazer rightly positions the basis of myth and religion in psychology, the view was unfortunately colored by a naive rationalism. Frazer, among others even today, do not account for the importance religion has for the inward life and the psychological mechanisms that motivate religion in the first place. Seen as an institution that delivers a guide to right action and right thinking based on authority, religion becomes cosmology + ethics, undermined by its supernaturalism.

One reason the rationalism of science fails to adequately give an account of religion is because the tradition of rationality itself hasn’t taken into account the creature that uses rationality, but rather has reduced this creature to something like a more-or-less competent logic-guided robot. This oversight is a significant one. The public and communal nature of the scientific enterprise meshed with the philosophical underpinnings of secularism’s rationalism and empiricism make for a formidable force not unlike that of Christendom’s mix of magisteria and religion in the life-world of Medieval Europe. Still, the potential has yet to be unlocked. At this point in history, especially in the post-industrial, Christian-inspired nations of Europe and North America, secularism is like the potential energy of two tectonic plates producing some seismic activity in the last two or three centuries but overdue for a massive earthquake.

Motivation and Articulation

The religious wars that gave impetus to a non-religiously grounded framework for truth and political institutions birthed our modern secularism in more and less obvious ways. As deism rose to prominence during this time, true religious beliefs were no longer associated with the authority of church institutions, which had enforced the status of these truths by political force. Rather, truth became an inward reality, an “inner light.”[1] The public became private, the communal individualized. The stakes of this reformation, owing much to the ideas of the Reformers who ignited growing ideas of nationalism and equality already in place, couldn’t be much higher at the time. The political leaders who were endowed with authority by the Church weren’t just making sure, as in our day, the beliefs of one person didn’t intrude on the liberty of another, but were charged with the task of safeguarding the souls of their people.

As human history moved to favor the death of ideas over the death of people, the importance of symbols and narratives as the spaces where truth showed itself were lost within the development of rationalism. The separation of church and state has reversed the roles of what fundamentally grounds us. This is easily seen in populations of both religious and secular stripes, with people in both groups claiming that the minimal requirement a valid belief must meet to be legitimate (or, at least, not disallowable) is that it won’t infringe on the liberty of others. With rationalism sectioning individuals into types and tokens, our beliefs have become hyper-individualist, and what motivates us on the pre-conceptual level has been lost as a category for thinking, in the demand to typify everything for the calculus of our secular rationality.

For the kinetic energy of secularism to support life rather than diminish it, it’ll have to not only capture the minds of the masses, but also the hearts, and not just in the equivocal, ambiguous way by assuming and sublating the good, or motivational truth, with the method of rationality. The disparity between the proselytizers of religion and the advocates of secularism might just be measured by the forms made available to religious people in symbols and rituals that haven’t found a functionally equivalent home in secular movements. These forms enable the appearance of content framed as statements of belief, which illuminate, inspire, and unify the mind and heart. And the reasons are somewhat obvious, for those with eyes to see. Image processing and pattern recognition, as forms of thinking that are innate and unconscious, are more primary to and pervasive in consciousness than articulate thought.[2] That the myths of religion are saturated by images and narratives is, as a result, no accident. Stories grab us on a pre-conceptual level and even appear to ground our conceptual frameworks in the first place. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow depicts this secondary role of articulate thought in consciousness even more acutely: our “fast” system, what in common parlance we name “intuition,” this pattern recognition mechanism that I mentioned before, “makes” choices for us on most occasions. It is only when something unexpected or unknown is encountered that our secondary, “slow” system becomes operative: articulate thought.

If the strictly rationalist perspective of the human were true,[3] whereby the givenness of thought were provided completely in the mediation of sense data from the world, through the eyes, to the vassal of our minds, waiting to be formed by our concepts, then the world would, in a significant way, be value-neutral to our biological systems: there would not be a primitive reaction of fight, flight, or freeze, but an immediate compulsion of reason—articulate thought would be more pervasive than non-linguistic thought. This is, in fact, not what we find and doesn’t account for everyday experience.

A now prevailing theory of perception supports the valence-laden notion of the world. Scientists formerly believed that when we look out at the world and perceive the “givenness” of it, those objects with the most salience attract our attention. The consensus is moving in a different direction. We are, rather, attracted to valence: the most meaningful aspects of our perceptual field. And, on a more general level of analysis, when we don’t know what’s going on, when we find ourselves in situations that are new or unexpected, our amygdala goes to work, and in some degree produces the fight/flight/freeze response.[4] This is true not only for situations in the world when we encounter strangers, animals, natural disasters, or darkness in a foreign place, but also for situations in the mind, when we encounter new ideas and beliefs.

To be fair, the disparity I am outlining, between truth as fact and truth as valence, isn’t irreconcilable. The difference rests merely on two images of humankind conceived in “natural” or “normal” states of affairs. The naive rationalism that grounds some strains of secularism would have us believe it is natural for humans to encounter the world in a value-neutral way, although the methods of science itself, and its empiricism, contradicts this claim. On the other hand, religion, as it encourages literalist interpretations of its mythical symbols, would have us think the world is populated by gods and demons, and that it is natural for humans to encounter a world for or against them. These claims are literaly false, but perhaps metaphorically true. The issues arising from naive rationalism on one hand and religious fundamentalism on the other are not inherent to the secular enterprise itself, but are simply artifacts of the pre-Darwinian philosophy of Descartes. It is my belief that becoming more Darwinian will galvanize secularism to a more synthetic and all-encompassing view of ethics, politics, and especially religion.

Religion and Rationalism

If we take Kahneman’s research and conclusions seriously, rationality appears to be a mechanism motivated by the negation of itself. We can put it conceptually this way, using Hegel as our guide, contrasting the understanding from conceptual thinking: (1) the understanding is an immediate (meaning unmediated) interaction with the environment, bellying most of our thinking most of the time; (2) dialectic, or conceptual thinking, is a mediated form of the immediate, and its goal is to synthesize the mediated with the immediate experience to adapt understanding and return to the world, forgive the religious image, as a new creation, better fit to overcome whatever obstacles stand in one’s way. Rationality, as the conceptual aspect of thinking, arises when we encounter a problem or an unknown in our environment, when our unmediated understanding, our immediate experience of the world, becomes questionable. When the issue appears, we mediate the world, so that we don’t have to die to learn, but can predict, contradict, examine, and evaluate new courses of action to map on our environments. Our mental life returns to immediacy until a new problem or a novelty is encountered again.

This cycle of immediacy and mediation seems to account for a significant difference between rationalism and religion. And I think rationalism could gain from learning about this difference.

A piece of a Darwinian understanding of religion will reside in this framework, I believe,  not limiting religion to either a scheme of morality only or a cosmology only, or simply both together in varying intensities. Wittgenstein once wrote “God” is a term like “object,” and with it, you get an entire conception of the world. The first commandment given to the Jews, that they should have no other god before God, can now be interpreted in the way the Father of Modern Theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher, once spoke of miracles: “Miracle is simply the religious name for event. Every event, even the most natural and usual, becomes a miracle, as soon as the religious view of it can be the dominant….The more religious you are, the more miracle would you see everywhere.”[5] Religion makes a move that rationalism doesn’t necessitate but could, and should, incorporate.[6] The moment of mediation, for religion, is not a moment to figure something out about the objective world, whether that be the causal relations of objects or the laws of nature, and to the extent that these are figured out by religious people, it’s an accidental and not an essential feature of the religious disposition. The moment of mediation is undertaken to correct disposition: mediation is a form of meditation, a reception or correction of behavioral patterns. Immediacy becomes transformed into miracle the very moment God is sought in all things. Consider the words of Deanna A. Thompson, explicating the centrality of faith for the Christian life in light of Martin Luther’s theology:

“…having faith means that your whole life is redirected toward ‘trusting [God] with your whole heart’ and looking to God ‘for all good, grace, and favor,’ honoring God through the orientation of your inner life.”

Rationalism, on the other hand, utilizes mediation in a fundamentally different way, and this is what separates the objectivity of rationalism from the existentiality of religion. The point of mediation for rationality is to understand the causal connections and physical makeup of the world. Yet it doesn’t end there. Mediation becomes saturated with facts, more so than the religious disposition strives to attain, and in such a way sets the mediated move of reason as the primary driver of thought, rather than a certain disposition toward the world as it relates to oneself immediately.

This is a significant difference. It doesn’t mean that religion only operates within the realm of value and rationalism in the realm of truth, but it does indicate a different kind of navigation of the world as it presents itself to human beings, as creatures who not only think and plan but also suffer and love. The platitudes, deriving from metaphors, narratives, and images, used to communicate religion by religious people themselves, inspire a depth of life for many that appears simply, at least in this point in history, inaccessible by other existing avenues. Taken seriously, with a more fully Darwinian conception of religion we may acquire a wisdom and appreciation for not just life itself but the lived experience of life that has been hidden in the cliches of the sages of the past. The fact that so many religious people use platitudes or canonical beliefs, grounded in metaphor and imagery, to communicate deep inward experiences tells us conclusively that these inward experiences need forms to carry them to the public eye, and these forms are patterned and universal. It seems otherwise a miracle, for instance, that the myths of the world have global structures and archetypes, which when abstracted from any individual myth fits within a universal framework common to all myths. To go further, an experience that I can’t mediate to myself doesn’t have meaning, and the way I mediate these to myself is the same way they’re mediated to communities I find myself in: by language and images. There is some sense in which, as a result, the meaning and shape of experiences arise within communal constraints and traditions. And these constraints and traditions, undergirded by patterns of categories seemingly inherited, testify to something all too human.

Rationalism as a Humanism

Rudolf Otto introduced the notion of “awe” as central to the encounter with the divine, as the most salient characteristic of a religious experience. And we might say this “awe” is essential to the propensity to live by inward disposition and motivation rather than external manipulation and control. Joseph Campbell asks in Myths to Live By “what the proper source of awe might be”[7] for us who no longer live in a world of gods and demons? What are the sources and symbols of mystery and inspiration that evoke “the impulse to imitative identification?”[8] He traces these sources in history as beginning with animals and their mystical agency, then to the vegetable world where death changes into life, and then to the cosmos and the seven moving cosmic lights that affected the ordering of societies. He finds in our time the individual stands as the source: “as a Thou, one’s neighbor; not as ‘I’ might wish him to be, or may imagine that I know and relate to him, but in himself, thus come, as a being of mystery and wonder.”[9] Every human is a new beginning, a singularity in the history of humankind, and to diminish this novelty is a kind of blasphemy.

Like Nietzsche, Campbell finds the first explication of the human as a source of awe in the Greek tragedies, already in the period of Homer. From the two classically recognized tragic emotions as indicated by Aristotle, pity and terror, we discover a conceptual framework in which to turn the traditionally religious movements into a humanist project. Campbell uses James Joyce’s exposition to spell these out: “Pity is the feeling that arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer. Terror is the feeling that arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.”[10]

In tragedy, we are compelled to relate to the individual by the shared grave and constant reality between us, and we are inspired by the secret source of this grave and constant which unites us. In our case, it is death which is the grave and constant specter that haunts us, and it is life which is the secret source of death, but also of things greater than these: family, creativity, and meaning. In this recognition, we may return to the Father of Modern Theology but without God: life is received as a gift, that which we share with all our brothers and sisters, which we did not ask for or could not acquire by our own actions, but by the happenstance of evolutionary history, are gifted immeasurably.

For rationalism to motivate secularism properly, it must catch up with the times, and not deliver to us an image of humanity dreamed by the ghost in the machine of Descartes, or in the tabula rasa nothingness of Locke’s children. Being clear about the nature of the creatures who use rationality is one thing. We must also understand the motivations of these creatures. Reducing, disregarding, or criticizing religious beliefs by a way of thinking foreign to it, without first taking genuine steps toward understanding it on its own terms, doesn’t seem to be the most reasonable response to a phenomenon that has enamored most people for most of history. Rationalism, itself, is a tradition, a human tradition. It is imperative that secularism recaptures the human element in the heart of rationalism. The best secularism, in my estimation, is the one that takes into account and integrates the best of all human thought, no matter where it may be found. What images of the human we use in this process will be crucial, for it is our metaphors that “mediate between our procedural wisdom and our explicit knowledge; they constitute the imagistic declarative point of transition between the act and the word.”[11]

The West celebrated the God incarnate for millennia. It’s time we celebrate the fact that life became human, and that now, with the gift of consciousness, we may understand, revere, defend, and serve it. We need not pray that God bless us, for life has. Nor should we pray for God to return, for life is here. No more prayers for miracles of God, for the secret source that connects us all, life, demands of us that we act. The only question is whether we will become worthy of this demand. “The old imagery now carried a new song–of the unique, the unprecedented and induplicable human sufferer; yet equally a sense of the ‘grave and constant’ in our human suffering, as well as a holy intimation of the ungainsayable ‘secret cause,’ without which the rite would have lacked its depth dimension and healing force.”[12]

 


 

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

 

[1] See Christopher Hill’s wonderful book where he tracks this in England from 1400-1580 in The World Turned Upside Down.

[2] This is Freud’s insight and it has turned out to be true in an interesting way: our “fast system” heuristics are such that we have systematically predictable errors that we make in our thinking.

[3] I find this especially in the Objectivist ethic, but this idea has advocates from Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant as well as Ayn Rand.

[4] Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning.

[5] Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers.

[6] And already does to some extent. Listen to lectures and presentations by Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson, and you’ll hear a very similar view.

[7] Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By, 58.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 59.

[11] Peterson, 94. We should note, here, a prime example of our danger. The fact that the trolley problem has been posed as a moral problem, in the sense that it awakens our intuitions enough to perceive it as a moral problem in the first place, is disconcerting, as it assumes the moral choice can be perfectly moral while making life expendable.

[12] Campbell, 59.

How the rise of identity politics indicates the decline of religion

How the rise of identity politics indicates the decline of religion by Tylor Lovins

See my follow-up article here: A Brief Overview of Identity Politics: A Liberal Struggles for Perspective.

 

“…to be a citizen has come to mean something else, it means to be an outsider….the relation itself [between people] is on its last legs inasmuch as they do not essentially relate to each other in the relation, but the relation itself has become a problem in which the parties like rivals in a game watch each other instead of relating to each other, and count, as it is said, each other’s verbal avowals of relation as a substitute for resolute mutual giving in the relation.”

Soren Kierkegaard, “Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age – A Literary Review.” March 30, 1864.

 

The rise of the worst kind of identity politics,[1] motivated by group-think, is not a shocking development, given the confluence of Marxist ideology in the social sciences, the pervasion of postmodern philosophy in everything from film to literature, from religion to the concepts of truth and the good, and, finally, the apparent powerlessness of the populace to effect change against known immanent crises like global warming, overpopulation, income inequality, and the like. Most in the electorate feel impotent, considering there seems no route to rouse career politicians to vote on something that doesn’t, in the end, contribute to the lining of their suits or the thickening of party lines. It is the youngest groups that receive the largest blow. So social change must be manufactured. On the most general level of analysis, doesn’t it make intuitive sense that social change can be achieved by sheer numbers, and that the outcomes we desire must be taken, and cannot be given, from the present order?

What may be more surprising to some readers is this development, though with seemingly benevolent intentions,[2] ultimately reflects the direction of history set in motion around the time of the Greeks: nihilism. As an equalizing force, flattening all idiosyncrasies to simple, sanitized ideological order, nihilism is the characteristic movement of thought underlying our age. The list of prophets proclaiming this coming order reaches back to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, though they are by no means the only two. Both attempted to overcome nihilism by appealing to the individual. This last fortress they recovered by reaching backwards in history and deep into the inner workings of language, for the fossils of this concept date to vestigial conceptions of the world as understood by religion.[3]

The nihilism manifested in our secular age finds the Savior not in a God-man incarnate, which signified within Christianity the importance of the individual, but finds the savior of humankind in group power and identification. By replacing the near-infinite complexity of individual personhood with one or two group-based traits, identity politics, in its most extreme forms, aims at both the loss of individual liberty for group directives and the annihilation of individual identity for group belonging. This is a problem. As the religiously affiliated vanish, it is no accident that group-power fills the void religion leaves behind, for the power of suffering is still evident to all. And it is no accident violent protests at universities against free speech, and no-platforming against scientists and conservative speakers, have become commonplace, for the social sciences have told us we can change anything when we work together. The question remains whether by sheer willpower we can change the the realities science reveals in its methods. Although some higher education institutions are stepping up to the challenges these recent developments pose, others have capitulated. It appears even Google has deferred to the ideological order when challenged with scientific viewpoints.[4] Why? Listen to any of the multitude of protests, conducted by so called “Social Justice Warriors,”[5] filmed and uploaded on YouTube typically by the protestors themselves.[6] You’ll find a harrowing reality, where no evidence is given for assertions, virtue-signalling is the only virtue, and logic and reason are received from opposing parties as weapons of violence. In fact, speech itself is understood as violence.[7] This is a strange new world, yet hardly brave. We should be wary of the attempts of identity politics to place our value as persons in the attainment of group traits, in the assertion that mere belonging to a group bestows epistemic or moral superiority. We should be wary, that is to say, of any wisdom we haven’t earned.[8]

The observant viewer might suspect postmodernists are playing an old game, and I think this suspicion is mostly correct. As nihilism flattens the dimensions of selfhood, identity-politics has made us forget our history, while dooming us to repeat it. We must not forget the power of ideology that ruled the centuries before the Enlightenment during which religious violence ravaged Europe, and we must not take for granted the miraculous gift of rationality that followed. The rise of scientific rationality displaced the more primitive strains of religious logic as the speech in which disparate systems of beliefs may come together to debate, change, and compromise.[9] All the same, the gift is never guaranteed. Postmodernists may mean well, but if they cannot dialogue with those who oppose them they simply replay this scene from history, except in reverse. This time it is the abstract language of science that has written the creeds, and the social sciences that play the role of Inquisitors. The language which emerged to save us from the tribalisms of the past has created a new tribe, and this ostensibly uniworld rationality has materialized a new kind of terror. This is the problem secularism, a world without religion, poses. When we forget religion, will we lose our souls? When you watch the videos, you’ll look upon a pseudo-congregation of activists chanting, wailing, gnashing their teeth. They’re like a priestly class exorcising the world of evil.[10] But these priests are of a different order for they haven’t read their Bibles. They don’t understand that just because they believe in God doesn’t mean they’re not demons.[11]

On the Worlds of Science and Religion

 

There is a distinction to be made between the domain in which science works and articulates the world, in which abstract thinking has its efficacy, and the domain in which religion[13] works and articulates the world and mythology has its efficacy. Jordan B. Peterson makes it this way: Science resides in the world of objects, where things that occupy space and time, distinct among each other, establish the domain of the world. Objects occupying space and time are the constitutive reality. Religion operates in the world as the domain of action, the realm of being (not objects), where the most fundamental reality is suffering. The two have different logics, different conceptions of reality, and different ways of interacting with the phenomena they encounter. The problems of science, establishing cause and effect relationships, are not the problems of religion, where the question of perennial importance is the question of what we do with suffering.[14] Whereas theories of science tell us how we’ve gotten here, the culmination of religious teaching seems to be something like this: being (or existence) can be declared good despite suffering. Religious beliefs tell us what we might do to navigate the chaos of the unknown when it manifests itself in forms of suffering or disillusionment. The world of science gives us data; the world of religion gives us meaning. These two categorically distinct ways of living and viewing the world—the scientific and the religious—exist at this point in history in an enigmatic union.

The social science political ideologies are about the closest thing to religion without religion, because they do offer some sort of account for navigating the world as a forum for action where suffering is a fundamental reality. These accounts are altogether insufficient nevertheless because they do not have a theory of good and evil reckoning with the complexity of individuality. They declare evil is a social phenomena and simply the result of propaganda. Change the propaganda and change the world: the mind of the individual is a vessel waiting to be filled.[15] Evil, for political ideologies, is manifest as the opposition, as the opposing group.[16] This appears to explain why postmodernists have an antipathy toward discussing ideas with people they disagree with. You might hear things like, “If they can’t recognize that is racist, I can’t help them.” Evil, both in its origin and manifestation, is entirely a social phenomenon.

What do we lose if we lose religion? We lose one of its fundamental insights: evil doesn’t derive from the public realm, it is only manifested there, and the line between good and evil runs down the middle of every soul. In Christianity this is the teaching of original sin. We’re not entirely rational. This claim is why religion settled the question of whether establishing the perfect state order would bring about the good life for everyone by ultimately deferring the question to the individual. This is the victory of grace over law in the New Testament. A perfect world order won’t heal the blind man, no love or hope or law, but faith will.

And yet another insight dissipates. Kierkegaard prophesied that our present age is one of “leveling,” where the disparities between things and people are not resolved within their relations to each other, and personal, intimate relations are replaced by relations of abstraction. Everything is held as it is, by their appearances, in abstractions: this is the way one should relate to the world and others. We no longer relate to each other as persons, but as white or black, male or female, Jew or Gentile, oppressor or oppressed. The hero of the religious is nearly extinct, the one who, by an inner peace and satisfaction before God, has gained the knowledge of his or herself and attempts to be ruler over carnal desires and passions instead of others, and, with all mustered vitality, embodies the truths discovered within the personal struggle to overcome suffering into the events of the world. The hero of today, when attaining the social aims the monstrous “public”[12] sets before him or her, is to become so educated, to become so consistent in abstracting, that the he or she is flattened to the level of the crowd in complete, brazen equality. To be a hero today is to remain completely within the definitions of a particular group, to have the same history, the same sufferings, the same enemies, and the same thoughts. Another insight of religion that disappears by the leveling of nihilism is the idea that the constitution of the self is not entirely social, but at least partly subjective, and there are things that can constitute the self that are not retrievable in public, and may never be brought to the gradations of abstraction. The religious insight instructs us that the ability to lead a rich inward life requires taking on the sufferings you’ve experienced and declare victory by the way you live. Nobody can achieve this victory for you. And if the battle against inner demons isn’t fought, history has shown us we project these demons to the outside world, onto others.

Religion tells us evil dwells in the self. It gives us the diametrical separation between the public and private sphere, and in so doing creates an infinitely complex notion of the individual. It tells us there are experiences and choices nobody can touch, that nobody can experience or decide about, except for the individual. This is part of the import of religious expressions such as “hearing God,” “feeling the love of God,” “knowing the will of God,” and the like. For thinkers like Kierkegaard, the movement of faith is entirely individualistic. Secularism, as it’s grounded in empiricism and atheism, forgets this distinction, though not necessarily. The residue of religion is rotting in the carcass of culture, and its remnants, ruined as they might appear, still provide some sustenance to our values for the time being. Empiricism and atheism themselves have been grounded historically in religious values (like the immutable value of the self, free will, moral demands on the self, among others).[17] Only in the void religion leaves behind, which grows by the day, can secularism be possessed by something like the political ideology I am discussing here. And it’s characteristic of our age to, in our forgetting of the religious distinction between self and society, argue that feelings are as valid and public as rational arguments. The mere voicing that one feels oppressed has displaced the requirement for the provision of evidence.

Who’s in Charge?

An old expression that both the philosopher Martin Heidegger and the psychologist Carl Jung used helps us understand the loss of religion more precisely: We don’t think thoughts, rather, thoughts have us, they occur to us. The average person has as much power over what kind of thoughts occur to them as they have the power to summon dreams and determine what happens in them. They are, “Historical and linguistic inevitabilities.”[18] This is a terrifying thought. From Freud onward, it has become clear: pictures and images are something like a precursor to abstract thought. Before humankind could objectify its emotional experiences, it had to project these emotions onto the world. Thus it discovered gods. For much of history gods abstractly symbolized the emotions and values of cultures. The historian of religions Mircea Eliade points out that, as disparate societies met and integrated with one another, over a few decades, a battle of the gods would appear in their mythology. This, of course, on an abstract level, is a merging of values between two societies, something like democratic dialogue before we had the concept of democratic dialogue. So it would happen that the victorious deity would not be one god from one culture, but a combination of gods from both cultures.

As may be clear from the rise and fall of communism in the Soviet Union, and the failure of propaganda to change the basic desires of persons involved in the revolution and the leadership that governed it, it’s not self-evident that, if given the chance, our good intentions to diminish suffering in the world won’t lead to an innocent and accidental opening of the Pandora’s box. As Jung has pointed out, humans are more than rational creatures, and, in fact, our minds might be more accurately construed as a dim candle of reason surrounded by whirlwinds of collective unconscious motivation, perpetually under the threat of eradication by primal forces it can neither articulate nor control. Instead of losing religion to the ether of thoughtlessness, by equivocating religion with fundamentalism (a form of nihilism itself), it might be in our best interest to first understand it and explore whether it has chained up or transformed indomitable beasts not unleashed in the world since the chaos that gave rise to culture.

Religion has given us images to reconcile, especially in the concept of God,[19] our unconscious motivations with our tragically limited abstract understanding of ourselves, others, and the world. Secularism doesn’t appear to be in possession of a functionally equivalent concept to the religious concept of God, and this may spell our doom if we don’t understand the import of the religious concept in the first place. We may be blindly walking into battle with omnipotent dragons, armed with swords of straw. What if religion saves us from ourselves? What if the hundreds of thousands of years humanity survived by telling religious stories is actually the Darwinian solution to the problem of the reconciliation of the collective unconscious to the conscious mind and the solution to the problem of suffering?[20]

I hear often from people who think it’s immoral to have children, that humankind is like a cancer on the world. Jordan B. Peterson reminds us that we better be careful which metaphors we use when we’re talking about ourselves and the world, because it’s not obvious whether we’re in control of them or they control us. If we lose religion then we lose the symbolic grounding for our understandings of ourselves, and the conceptions we’ve inherited from religious traditions will float in the air, without the unifying power of mythical symbols and narrative to unite them with our experiences of suffering. Ironically, as we are seeing now, the movements of religion will appear again, but in a much less sophisticated form. Instead of projecting the unspeakable phenomena of suffering from the collective unconscious onto the gods, we will do so on to other people. To harken to a quote from the television series Fargo, just because dragons aren’t on the map anymore doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

We have seen the power of the collective unconscious in the ideological possession that has become common among the most irreligious section of the population: young people.[21] “We’ve done away with stories of hell so we had to make one on Earth.”[22] It is even suggested by the philosopher Hannah Arendt that our capacity to do evil is limited only to the extent that we think, the ability which makes us individuals. From times long before antiquity, thinking was the meaning and consequence of the divine spark that created the individual in a strike of lightning.[23] Controversially, when Arendt coined the phrase “banality of evil,” reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann and his use of cliches, bureaucratic language, and stock phrases in defense of himself, it was this inability which gave rise to the banality, the effect of leveling, the movement of nihilism. “Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing?”[24] Eichmann’s identity had been swallowed up by propaganda and he had become a mere member of a group. We’re children of history, and we’re not so mature as to have outgrown the collective memories and powers that gave rise to the dark period of WWII.

The sea of secularism hasn’t yet swallowed the world. We still have a somewhat functional concept of God, though the functionality seems to be diminishing by the day. Jung pointed out the concept signified the process of individuation, the process by which individuality is formed. This idea is worth thinking about, should we think about nothing else relating to religion. We may have all the abstract and technological prowess in the universe, but if we lack soul, we’ll lose the spark of divinity, and perhaps ourselves. Religious conceptions just might be the key to resolving the disparities between groups and individuals while safeguarding the distinction between the two.

 


Videos of Protests and Protesters

With Jordan B. Peterson:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZP3mSamRbYA

At Evergreen College:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bO1agIlLlhg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTnDpoQLNaY

Middlebury College:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6EASuhefeI

UC Berkeley:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=unnrYfCe4bM

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kku5MX7SFZ8

Endnotes

[1] I want to be clear that I am not talking about feminism in general, or the Black Lives Matter movement in general, or even progressive initiatives in general. I consider myself an adherent to classical liberalism in many ways. I am in fact on the left, and I am pointing out a blind spot to many who I work and agree with on many issues. I am speaking here of a very specific movement that claims the same ends as these just causes-the end of misogyny, racism, sexism, homophobia, inequality, and the like. The movement I am critiquing takes the form of the blind power of herd mentality and the renunciation of reason as the grounds for the general improvement of unjust conditions. Two very specific motives undergird this movement: (1) instead of eliminating inequality by removing obstacles to success people encounter because of their sex, gender, or race, they intend to place obstacles in front of the “privileged,” and, in an ironic bait-and-switch, privilege historically disadvantaged groups; and (2) instead of aiming at equality of opportunity, this movement aims at equality of outcome.

Please see the YouTube links above to witness the kind of groups I am speaking of here.

And see these recent criticisms of identity politics for more perspective:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/12/opinion/sunday/identity-politics-white-men.html

https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-poison-of-identity-politics-1502661521

https://www.vox.com/2017/8/15/16089286/identity-politics-liberalism-republicans-democrats-trump-clinton

And one I highly recommend by Michael Shermer:

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-unfortunate-fallout-of-campus-postmodernism/

 

[2] Jean-Jacques Rousseau distinguished between “good” and “virtuous” in his Reveries of the Solitary Walker, and it’s worth noting here: he thinks humankind exists in a natural state of good, which means that we initially have no desire to harm one another. To be good is to do nothing to anyone, to remain in this “natural state.” But a virtuous person must earn virtue, for it implies a conscious good-will toward others, which is only possible once social relations, language, rationality, and morality have developed. I wonder whether the many who fold-over to the “good intentions” of the postmodernists haven’t yet considered benevolent intentions often are not aligned with benevolent outcomes, and it takes a bit of calculation and compromise, a bit of other-orientation, to conceive of a way of relating to others which isn’t constituted by a master/slave relationship, where one group is always the tyrant and the other the slave.

 

[3] By “religion,” I will be referring to the fundamental conception of the world that is “religious,” and I take as my starting point that each religious tradition is a response to this (namely, the world as constituted by the reality of suffering). My intellectual leanings are with the Christian tradition, however, and you will see the specifically Christian contributions painted in the broad strokes of “religion.” I use the word “religion” instead of “Christianity” because I want to refer to the conception of the world that is specifically religious, albeit instantiated in this article as Christian insights.

 

[4] http://gizmodo.com/exclusive-heres-the-full-10-page-anti-diversity-screed-1797564320

 

[5] To avoid unnecessary animus, I refer to this specific group as “postmodernists” from here on out.

 

[6] See more videos at the end of the article below.

 

[7] See Jonathan Haidt’s wonderful analysis: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/07/why-its-a-bad-idea-to-tell-students-words-are-violence/533970/?utm_content=bufferb0bba&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

[8] “What is my wisdom, if even the fools can dictate to me? What is my freedom, if all creatures, even the botched and the impotent, are my masters? What is my life, if I am but to bow, to agree and to obey?”

 

[9] See Jeffrey Stout’s wonderful book Flight from Authority.

 

[10] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r5_Pv0A-xjE

 

[11] This is the point of James 2.19: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (NIV). Believing in a single good that solves the problem of suffering (like, for instance, the elimination of economic classes), is the attempt of secular society to establish something like a functionally equivalent concept to the concept of God. But it is not functionally equivalent because it misses another key insight of religion: sometimes you do everything right and you suffer anyway. Suffering is a basic element of life. Just because we aim at the good does not mean we won’t bring Hell on Earth in our attempts to attain it.

 

[12] “…the public is a monstrous nonentity….Only when there is no strong communal life to give substance to the concretion [of individuality] will the press create the abstraction ‘the public,’ made up of unsubstantial individuals who are never united or never can be united in the simultaneity of any situation or organization and yet are claimed to be a whole.” Kierkegaard, “On the Present Age.”

 

[13] By religion I don’t merely mean what is referred to by “organized religion,” in today’s parlance. I am referring to the totality of the religious sphere: the myths, the experiences of the divine, and the social organizations

.

[14] See Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, and, of course, Jordan B. Peterson’s work.

 

[15] I refer you here to The Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx.

 

[16] George Orwell implored the social party to organize themselves under the labels of “oppressed” and the opposition as ”oppressors” in The Road to Wigan Pier.

 

[17] A glance at the history of ideas proves this true, and because suffering is what essentially establishes subjectivity (we hear this in the popular psychoanalysts today), it’s not a surprise religion posits the notion of the individual. Most notable see Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, or the more recent work of Nick Spencer in The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values.

 

[18] Martin Heidegger’s Poetry, Language, Thought.

 

[19] I’m using “the concept of God” here to also mean the concepts of “the sacred,” “the holy,” “the transcendent,” and/or “the divine.”

 

[20] “How is it that complex and admirable ancient civilizations could have developed and flourished, initially, if they were predicated upon nonsense? (If a culture survives, and grows, does that not indicate in some profound way that the ideas it is based upon are valid? If myths are mere superstitious proto-theories, why did they work? Why were they remembered?….)

Is it not more likely that we just do not know how it could be that traditional notions are right, given their appearance of extreme rationality?

Is it not likely that this indicates modern philosophical ignorance, rather than ancestral philosophical error?

We have made the great mistake of assuming that the ‘world of spirit’ described by those who preceded us was the modern ‘world of matter,’ primitively conceptualized.”

Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, 8.

 

[21] http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/age-distribution/

 

[22] Jordan Peterson in an online lecture.

 

[23] Carl Jung, “A study in the process of individuation,” 1950.

 

[24] Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, 1978.