A brief theory of religion and the current situation

The way things are today is novel enough that to get a grip on it you have to look at the grand sweep of history, and at basics like what people think about themselves and the world. Here’s an attempt:

Before the first cosmopolitan civilizations arose in antiquity, men lived in a world that seemed all of a piece, in which the traditions of their people or city defined for them the nature of things. Later on, trade and empire, written records, technological advances and so on made it easier to identify and describe the mechanical, technological and amoral aspects of the world and see that they formed a system that had to be taken very seriously. Once that had happened, to view the world as real and all of a piece was to view it as an amoral mechanical or random system. Hence the views of Democritus and the ancient Chinese legalists, as well as those of modern physicalists.

Such views do not describe a habitable world, so very few if any have ever accepted them thoroughly as the final truth of things. Everyone needs to make sense of the world so he can make sense of his own life. To do that we need a dimension beyond the material here and now, and mechanism and randomness won’t give that to us. Hence (humanly speaking) the higher religions that accompanied the rise of cosmopolitan civilization and told men that in addition to the secular and pragmatic world around them there was another more important transcendent world. And hence, upon the decline of higher religions in modern times, the substitutes for religion that attempt somehow to create ultimate standards and objects of devotion out of things immediately present to sense experience:

  • Human desire is the most obvious choice to provide the additional dimension we need beyond our bare material surroundings so that our lives will have some definite sense. But desires fluctuate and come into conflict, so it doesn’t seem they can provide us with an ultimate guide. Besides, to understand our actions or anything else is to see them as part of a larger setting that’s real in the sense that it doesn’t depend on what we happen to want at the moment. So simple desire won’t work as an ultimate principle. Therefore, men have abandoned simple desire and turned desire into a grand impersonal principle: the principle of equal freedom, which is the principle that all desire should be satisfied to the extent possible simply because it is desire. That principle is obviously much more stable and reliable than desire itself. To the extent one accepts it, he makes progressive politics the meaning and justification of his life (and incidentally turns personal indulgence into a public benefit).
  • Not everybody’s a progressive, of course. If desire is too wandering and conflicting to serve as the ultimate standard that gives sense to things a lot of people think it’s stupid to try to make it work by substituting for desire as a simple reality desire as an ultimate principle (a.k.a the cause of equal freedom). Rejecting both understandings of desire as a standard, they ask what in the world around them can be viewed as supremely reliable and authoritative and decide it is not Desire but Success that rules everything. They therefore make success their God. The political form of that view is fascism, the cosmic form evolutionism.*

Neither principle really works as a religion. The human function of religion is to bridge the gap between us and the world so that we have a place in which we can live. Hedonism doesn’t do it because it’s not clear what our pleasure simply as such has to do with the way things are. And worship of success doesn’t do it either, because it’s not clear why the way things happen to end up should have anything to do with anything we’d be inclined to favor. Hence the instability, superficiality and hyperactivity of the modern world. To the extent we accept modernity, we’re stuck with a choice between two religions, neither of which works, so we end up avoiding thought and understanding as much as possible and ruin our lives trying to force the world into the mold of what we think we want.

It’s hard to avoid seeing the higher religions (some more than others) as the most stable configuration for human life and thought. If that’s right, and man is fundamentally an animal that tries to make sense of things, then the current state of the West is an anomaly that won’t last. Which indeed is what demographics and other social statistics would lead one to believe.

[* Conceivably a third possibility might be worship of form as such. That possibility appears in aestheticism and played somewhat of a role in fascism. I don’t think that in the absence of a definite understanding of the transcendent it can have an important function as an independent principle because form is hierarchical and anti-transcendentalism destroys hierarchy. In the case of aestheticism love of form has to be backed by snobbery and social position that are based on something else, and in the case of fascism it had to be backed by violence and worship of power.]

3 thoughts on “A brief theory of religion and the current situation”

  1. Desire

    Therefore, men have abandoned simple desire and turned desire into a grand impersonal principle: the principle of equal freedom, that all desire should be satisfied to the extent possible simply because it is desire.

    Perhaps this is why we moderns can not actually do anything about illegal immigration… It would violate the principle of equal freedom to curb it. How can we moderns justify stuffing their desire to come here and create a better life?

    • It keeps leading back to nihilism — no matter how you slice it.
      “Perhaps this is why we moderns cannot actually do anything about illegal immigration… It would violate the principle of equal freedom to curb it. How can we moderns justify stuffing their desire to come here and create a better life?”

      …which is of course nihilism: when order is abolished, on the grounds that it excludes disorder “which has an equal right to exist,” the ultimate result of course is entropy, i.e., meaninglessness.

  2. Getting (surrogate) religion
    While modern western society increasingly operates without reference to spirituality or truths that cannot be quantified, there is still something deeply embedded in the human psyche that desires a supreme good. All three of the principles you noted have been widely adopted as a substitute, albeit mostly unconscious, for the search for God.

    Each of the three priciples appeals to a different type of person, the choice being based to varying degrees on social roles, status, and individual background. They also represent different degrees of what might be called intellectual respectability.

    What you describe as the desire for Success as a life-organizing principle I would call the drive for Power. (“Success” is the euphemistic way it is usually described.) The principle of Power is chosen by those whose ambition is to be influential, to tell other people what to do, to manipulate the course of events. Classic examples are the corporate-ladder climber, the politician, the organizer.

    Although this life-organizing principle is quite widespread, it is not quite socially acceptable. Most people sense, if only on a deep level, that the desire for power for its own sake is not compatible with humanity’s ideals or the social contract. Power seekers thus tend to clothe their drive in terms of some approved value—making the company more profitable, passing laws to improve the lot of citizens,etc.

    The life-organizing principle of Desire is fully sanctioned by modern corporate capitalist society, and is practiced quite openly, even pridefully. There are infinite ways of satisfying Desire, so many that you would have to live many lifetimes to experience them all (which is exactly why, according to Hinduism and Buddhism, we keep reincarnating—Desire drags us back to the physical plane). Sex; pleasures of the senses; alluring material goods for every temperament. Consciously or not, the great majority of people living in a world where God is officially an irrelevance have chosen Desire as their central motive.

    Worship of form is indeed a third life-organizing principle. This is not as proportionally common among the population as the other two principles, but its devotees can feel all the more elevated for that reason. They can scorn those crude enough to chase Power, can bask in their superiority over others ruled by material consumption. They are the elite, the artistes and those who worship art and its acolyte, “creativity.” It doesn’t matter whether the art or creativity is good or bad, uplifting or degrading. In fact, this class of people can scarcely imagine such a distinction. Being an object of worship, all art is, for them, the supreme good.

    Metaphorically speaking—and I am influenced here by eastern religions—God seems to be playing a great game with us. He offers us an endless array of attractive feelings and objects; which of them we chase depends on our personality and beliefs. The goods of this world are all in plain sight, the path to them is straightforward, and to some degree they are attainable by almost everyone. But it’s a game of hide and seek. The True Good is hidden. We cannot know for sure the path to it, cannot fully know its nature. In modern secular society, only some organizations on its fringe even acknowledge the importance of this life-organizing principle.

    Nevertheless, we all have the ability to choose our guiding principle. No human institution can give us free will, and none can take it from us.

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