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Rants Within the Undead God


Rants Within the Undead God

Benjamin Cain


Copyright 2011 Benjamin Cain

Dedicated to the omegas


The Rant Within the Undead God

i i 1 1 15

Happiness is Unbecoming

Part One: Religion Theism

The Theism vs Atheism Farce The Psychedelic Basis of Theism Theism: Does its Irrationality Matter? Life of Pis Argument for Theism The Helpful Strangeness of Fundamentalism Does God Write Books? Christian Chutzpah: Why Christianity is the Worst Religion Christian Crudities: Aesthetic Condemnation of Christian Myths

16 19 31 46 57 69 78 94

The Curse of Reason Should Atheists Mourn the Death of God? Hyper-Rationality and the Two Cultures 111 123 130

Scientism: Modern Pagan Religion Untangling Scientific and Philosophical Atheism Sam Harriss Scientific Morality Jerry Coyne on Scientism and Freewill Can Evil Derive from Atheism?

136 152 169 182 195

Existential Cosmicism
Nietzsche and Secular Liberalism From Theism to Cosmicism Lovecraftian Horror and Pragmatism Inkling of an Unembarrassing Postmodern Religion The Worlds Creation as Gods Self-Destruction Varieties of Mysticism Darwinism and Natures Undeadness Science and the Matrix Metaphor Science and God: The Ironic Theophany New Atheist and Spiritual Atheist in Dialogue Buddhism and Existential Angst 206 215 228 234 248 256 266 278 286 298 316 327

Part Two: Politics Liberalism and Conservatism

Liberalism: From Scientism to Nihilism Should Liberals Try to Win More Elections by being Less Rational? Existential Grimness and Cornel Wests Catastrophic Love Atheism Plus and the Liberal Conceit of Hyper-Rationality Conservatism: Myth-Making for Oligarchy

328 338 353 367 372

Oligarchy: Natures Inhumanity to Humans How Godlike Oligarchs Train Consumers by Eliminating Babies and Old People from Pop Culture Untangling Liberalism and Libertarianism 404 417 387

Political Correctness: Spellbinding the Masses


American Politics
Obama or Romney? The Subtext of the First Romney-Obama Debate The Closely-Divided US: A Case Study of the Matrix 441 452 456 460 461 473 485 491 498 508 517

Part Three: Sexuality

Is Love the Meaning of Life? Embarrassment by Sexual Ecstasy The Perversity of the Sexual Norm Sex is Violent: Why the F-Word is Taboo Individualism and the Sexual Attraction of Opposites Should We Procreate to Honour our Ancestors?

Part Four: Pop Culture Ethics and Culture

Modernism and Postmodernism The Philosophy of Existential Cosmicism Morality and the Aesthetic Conception of Life Case Studies of Aesthetic Morality: Abortion and Gay Marriage Comedy and Existential Cosmicism Philosophy and Social Engineering Existential Cosmicism and Technology

518 524 538 548 561 566 579

Games, Sports, and Mixed Martial Arts The Emptiness of Postmodern Art (and of its Consumers) Male-bashing in Advertising: A Sordid Business Sheldon Cooper: The Nerds Paradox The Abuse of Light in the Films of Spielberg and Michael Bay Woody Allens Curious Intellectualism Sacrificial Offering to Our Lord, The Dentist 584 594 604 607 614 620 628

Mental Health
Mental Disorder as Monstrosity The Question of Antinatalism Revenge of the Omega Men Defending Existential Cosmicism 633 642 656 665 676 Were the Squishy Monsters! Dirge in the Undead God 676 681


The Rant within the Undead God ____________________________________________________

Some centuries before the Common Era, in a sweltering outskirt of the ancient Roman Empire, a nameless wanderer, unkempt and covered in rags, climbed atop a boulder in the midst of a bustling market, cleared his throat and began shouting for no apparent reason: Mark my harangue, monstrous abode of the damned and you denizens of this godforsaken place! I have only my stern words to give you, though most of you dont recognize the existential struggle youre in; so Ill cry foul, slink off into the approaching night, and well see if my rant festers in your mind, clearing the way for alien flowers to bloom. How many poor outcasts, deranged victims of heredity, and forlorn drifters have shouted doom from the rooftops? In how many lands and ages have fools kept the faith from the sidelines of decadent courts, the aristocrats mocking us as we point our finger at a thousand vices and leave no stone unturned? And centuries from now, many more artists, outsiders, and mystics will make their chorus heard in barely imaginable ways, sending their subversive message, I foresee, from one land to the next in an instant, through a vast ethereal web called the internet. Those philosophers will look like me, unwashed and ill-fed, but theyll rant from the privacy of their lairs or from public terminals linked by the invisible information highway. Instead of glaring at the accused

ii in person, theyll mock in secret, parasitically turning the technological power of a global empire against itself. But how else shall we resist in this world in which were thrown? No one was there to hurl us here where as a species were born, where we pass our days and lay down to die--not we, who might have been asked and might have refused the offer of incarnation, and not a personal God who might be blamed. Nevertheless, were thrown here, because the world isnt idle; natural forces stir, they complexify and evolve; this mindless cosmos is neither living nor dead, but undead, a monstrous abomination that mocks the comforting myths we take for granted, about our supernatural inner essence. No spirit is needed to make a trillion worlds and creatures; the undead forces of the cosmos do so daily, creating and destroying with no rational plan, but still manifesting a natural pattern. What is this pattern, sewn into the fabric of reality? What is the simulated agenda of this headless horseman that drags us behind the mud-soaked hooves of its prancing beast? Just this: to create everything and then to destroy everything! Let that sink in, gentle folk. The universe opens up the book of all possibilities, has a glance at every page with its undead, glazed-over eyes, and assembles miniscule machines--atoms and molecules--to make each possibility an actuality somewhere in space and time, in this universe or the next, until each configuration is exhausted and then all will fly apart until not one iota of reality remains to carry out such blasphemous work. How many ways can a nonexistent God be shown up, I ask you? Everything a loving God might have made, the undead leviathan creates instead, demonstrating spirits superfluity, and then that monster, the magically animated carcass we inhabit will finally reveal its headlessness, the void at the center of all things, and nothing shall be left after the Big Rip. I ask again, how else to resist the abominable inhumanity of our world, but to make a show of detaching from some natural processes of cosmic putrefaction, to register our denunciation in all existential authenticity, and yet to cling to the bowels of this beast like the parasites we nonetheless are? And how else to rebel against our false humanity, against our comforting delusions, other than by replacing old, worn-out myths with new

iii ones? For ours is a war on two fronts: were faced with a horrifying natural reality, which causes us to flee like children into a world of make-believe, whereupon we outgrow some bedtime stories and need others to help us sleep. We conquered masses in what will one day be called the ancient world have become disenchanted with Roman myths, as the cynicism of the elites who expect us to honour the self-serving Roman spin on local fables infects the whole Roman world. Now that Alexander the Great has opened the West to the East, we long for revitalization from the fountain of exotic Eastern mysticism, just as millennia from now I foresee that the wisdom of our time will inspire those who will call themselves modern, liberal, and progressive. And just as our experiments with Eastern ideas will afford our descendants a hiding place in Christian fantasies, which will distract Europeans from their Dark Age after the fall of Rome, so too the modern Renaissance will bear tainted fruit, as technoscientific optimism will give way to the postmodern malaise. Our wizards and craftsmen are dunces compared to the scientists and engineers to come. Romans believe theyve mastered the forces of nature, and indeed their monuments and military power are staggering. But skeptics and rationalists will eventually peer into the heart of matter and into the furthest reaches of the universe, and so shall confirm once and for all the horrifying fact that nature is the undead, selfshaping god. The modernists will pretend to be unfazed by that revelation as they exploit natural processes to build wonders that will encourage the masses: diseases will be cured and food will be plentiful; all races, creeds, and sexes will be made legally equal; and--lowly mammals that they are--the future folk will personally venture into outer space! Alas, though, I discern another motif in realitys weave, besides the undead behemoths implicit mockery of God: civilizations rise and fall according to the logic of the Iron Law of Oligarchy. Take any group of animals that need to live together to survive, and they will spontaneously form a power hierarchy, as the group is stabilized by a concentration of power that enables the weaker members to be most efficiently managed. Power corrupts, of course, and so leaders become decadent and their social hierarchy eventually implodes. The Roman elite that now rules most of the known world

iv will overreach in their arrogance and will face the wrath of the hitherto conquered hordes. As above, so below: the universe actualizes each possibility only to extinguish it in favour of the next cosmic fad. And so likewise in the American civilization to come, plutocrats will reign from their golden toilets, but their vanity will undo their economic hegemony as theyll take more and more of the nations wealth while the masses of consumers stagnate like neglected cattle, again laying the groundwork for social implosion. For a time, that future world I foresee will trust in the ideal of each persons liberty, without appreciating the irony that when we remove the social constraints on freedom of expression, we clear the way for the more indifferent natural constraint of the Iron Law to take effect, and so we establish a more grotesque rule of the few over the many. Thus, American government will be structured to prevent an artificial tyranny, by establishing a conflict between its branches and by limiting the leaders terms of office, but this hamstringing of government will create a power vacuum that will be filled by the selfish interests of the mightiest private citizens. In whichever time or place theyre found, those glorious, sociopathic few are avatars of undead nature, ruling without conscience or plan for the future; they build economic or military empires only to bring them crashing down as their animal instincts prove incapable of withstanding temptation. Conservatives excel at devising propaganda to rationalize oligarchy; modern liberals will experiment with progressive socialism only to inadvertently confirm the Iron Law, and so liberalism will give way to postmodern technocracy, to the dreary pragmatism of maintaining the oligarchic status quo while the hollow liberals pretend to offer a genuine political alternative to conservatism. What myths we live by to avoid facing the horror of our existential predicament! We personify the sun and the moon the way a child makes toys even out of rocks and twigs. The scientists of the far future, though, will investigate not just the outer mechanisms, but will master the workings of human thought. Theyll learn that our folk tales about the majesty of human nature are at best legends: we are not as conscious, rational, or free as we typically assume. Our ridiculous lust for sex proves this all by itself. We have

v contempt for older virgins who fail to attract a mate, even though almost everyone would be mortified to be caught in the sex act; at least no one remains to pity the throngs of copulating human animals, save the marginalized drifters who detach from the monstrous world. Psychologists will discover that while we can deliberate and attend to formal logic, we also make snap, holistic judgments, which is to say associative, emotional and intuitive leaps. Most of our mind is unconscious and reason is largely a means of manipulating others for social advantage. But even as modern rationalists will learn as much, rushing to exploit human weaknesses for profit, they will praise ultraconsciousness, ultrarationality and ultrafreedom. These secular humanists will worship their machines and a character named Spock, and theyll assume that if only society were properly managed, progress would ensue. Thus, Reason shall render all premodern delusions obsolete, but that last, modern delusion of rationalism will be overcome only through postmodern weariness from all ideologies. The curse of reason is that thinking enough to discover the appalling truth of natural life prevents the thinker from being happy. That curse might be mitigated, though, if we recognize that the irrational part of our mind has its own standards. We crave stories to live by, models to admire, and artworks to inspire us. Our philosophical task as accursed animals is to assemble all that we learn into a coherent worldview, reconciling the worlds impersonality with our crude and short-sighted preferences. Happiness is for the ignorant or the deluded sleep-walkers; those who are kept awake by the ghost story of unpopular knowledge are too melancholy and disgusted by what they see to take much joy. When you face the facts that there is no God, no afterlife, no immortal soul, no transcendent human right, no perfect justice, no absolute morality, no nonhuman meaning of life, and no ultimate hope for the universe, youll understand that a happy life is the most farcical one. We sentient, intelligent mammals are cursed to be alienated from the impersonal world and from the myths we trust to personalize our thought processes. We are instinctive story-tellers: our inner voice narrates our deeds as we come to remember them, and we naturally gossip and anthropomorphize, evolved as we are to negotiate a social hierarchy. But how do we cope with the fact that the truest known narrative belongs to the horror genre? How shall we sleep at night, relative

vi children that we all are, preoccupied with the urges of our illusory ego, when were destined to look askance at optimistic myths, inheriting the postmodern horror show? Shall I proceed to the final shocker of this woeful tale that enervates those with the treacherous luxury of freedom of thought? Given that nature is the undead self-creator of its forms, what is the last word, the climax of this rant within the undead god? While theres no good reason to believe there is or ever was a transcendent, personal deity, we instinctively understand things by relating them to whats most familiar, which is us; thus, we personify the unknown, fearing unseen monsters in the dark, and so even atheists are compelled to blame their misfortune on some deity, crying out to no one when they accidentally injure themselves. But if theres no room in nature for this personal God whose possible existence were biologically compelled to contemplate, and theres nothing for this God to do in the universe that shapes itself, the supreme theology is the most dire one, namely the speculation that Philipp Mainlander will one day formulate before promptly going insane and killing himself: God is literally dead. God committed elaborate suicide by transforming himself into something that could be perfectly destroyed, which is the material universe. God became corrupted by his omnipotence and insane by his alienation, and so the creativity of his ultimate act is an illusion: the worlds evolution is the process of Gods self-destruction, and we are vermin feeding off of Gods undying corpse. Sure, this is just a fiction, but its the most plausible way of fitting God--and so also our instinctive, irrational theistic inclination--into the rest of the ghastly postmodern worldview to come. Is there a third pattern manifesting throughout the cosmos, one of resistance and redemption? Do intelligent life forms evolve everywhere only to discover the tragedy of their existential situation, to succumb to madness or else to respond somehow with honour and grace? Perhaps well learn to re-engineer ourselves by merging with our machines so that we no longer seek a higher purpose and well reconcile ourselves to our role as agents of the universes decay and ultimate demise. Maybe an artistic genius will emerge who will enchant us with a stirring vision of how we might make the best of our predicament. From the skeptical, pessimistic viewpoint, which will be so

vii easily justified in that sorrowful postmodern time, even our noblest effort to overcome our absurd plight will seem just another twist in the sickening melodrama, yet another stage of cosmic collapse; a cynic can afford to scoff at anything when his well of disgust is bottomless. But theres a wide variety of human characters, as befits our position in a universe that tries out and discards all possibilities. I rant to the void until my throat aches and my eyes water. The undead god has no ears to hear, no eyes to behold its hideous reflection, and no voice with which to apologize or to instruct--unless you count the faculties of the stowaway creatures that are left alone to make sense of where they stand. So may some of you grow magnificent flowers from the soil of my words! The sun had set and most of the townsfolk had long since returned to their homes, having ignored or taken the opportunity to spit upon the doomsayer. A few remained until the end of his diatribe, their mouths hanging open in dismay and when they glanced at each other, asking what should be done, they lost sight of the preacher as he had indeed scurried away as promised, homeless, into the dark.

Happiness is Unbecoming ____________________________________________________

Many people profess to be confused about the question of lifes meaning, of whether theres a best way of life: the question is a philosophical one, and since philosophy has so little cultural prestige, people suspect that the question is idle. These people are doubly mistaken, since their behaviours if not their words indicate that they typically accept not just the question, but the hedonists answer to it. The best way of life is assumed to be the one filled with the most happiness, which is to say the most contentment and pleasure. But should happiness be the ultimate goal of a persons life? Theres a clue in the fact that people are widely thought to be perfectly happy only in heaven, when God shows his face and directly rules over creation. The myth of heaven, in which disembodied people feel ultimate joy on a spiritual plane, implies, of course, that there are presently obstacles to feeling happy. In theistic terms, the main obstacle is Gods remoteness from the world, which permits the inhumane forces of nature to dictate the course of our lives. Some people win the lottery, others get hit by lightning, while nothing of lasting significance happens to the majority.

2 In nontheistic terms, theres no God and theres just the frigid, impersonal universe, evolving along its alien trajectory. Far from being at home in nature, we live in one of the few, relatively miniscule spots that arent perfectly lethal to us; were we to try to explore the outer reaches, wed be snuffed out. We can take pockets of the Earth with us in spaceships, but wed die within them before passing much beyond merely the neighbourhood of our own solar system. Most of the universe is thus effectively hostile towards us, has no mind that can be changed on the subject, and seems far beyond our power to modify to our benefit. Even on Earth, our oasis, the universe rears its alien head in the frugality of natural selection, which equips species with barely enough adaptations to survive, if even with those, so that shortages of resources are commonplace and many people suffer rather than flourish. A meteor could destroy us all as one wiped out the dinosaurs, making nonsense of any pretension to our cosmic importance. Ill call the set of such obstacles to our happiness, whether they be characterized theistically or nontheistically, Our Existential Situation (OES). OES, then, necessitates the myth of heaven in an afterlife, on the assumption that happiness is the ultimate good in life. We cant be perfectly happy here and now, and some of us are prevented from being even remotely happy, but there will be a time and a place in which everything will change for the better. Id add, though, that when our response to OES is weighed by an ethical standard, were left with the normative implication that happiness should not be our ultimate goal in the first place.

Kinds of Happiness Despite OES

To see this, consider the spectrum of possible relations between happiness and OES. At one extreme, in heaven, theres an ontological split between the two. The situation becomes ideal for happiness, because the natural barriers are obliterated by God at a metaphysical, supernatural level. Next, the philosopher, Robert Nozick, conceived of a thought experiment in which theres only a physical split between the two: imagine theres a virtual reality machine that makes the user happy in a simulated world, as the machine prevents the real world from impinging on the user. In this case, the persons

3 happiness would be more fragile than the supernaturally-guaranteed sort in heaven, because the machine, being just another part of nature, could break down, interfering with the virtual paradise. Then theres the case in which theres only a psychological split between them: a happy person may be ignorant of the facts of OES or else may pretend that theres no such thing, subscribing to myths or fairy tales so that the individual effectively lives in a make-believe world without the need of an external happiness machine. Finally, theres the case in which theres no split between them, in which OES thus prevents someone from being happy. This prevention can be physical, as in the case of a natural disaster or a genetic deformity, or psychological, as in the case of the melancholic pessimist or ascetic who becomes morbidly fixated on the facts of OES and feels that contentment is unseemly under those circumstances. Lets consider the positions in this spectrum from an ethical standpoint. Details are sketchy about heaven, and not just because no ones been there and back; as Christopher Hitchens likes to say, heaven represents a celestial dictatorship in which were swept up in Gods arms and forced to have our minds blown by the infinite majesty of his presence. The fact that theists are more scared of hell than of heaven shows that they still operate with a childishly anthropomorphic view of God. Being hugged by a human parent may be comforting, but the prospect of being hugged by the necessarily alien source of all creation, and thus of OES, should terrify us, which is why fear of God is a proper synonym for faith in God. Ethically speaking, then, a finite creatures endurance of heaven should be heroic. But of course, this esoteric, mystical understanding of what theism amounts to undermines the exoteric promise that people are happy in heaven. Anyone who would be so happy must have access to a psychological means of keeping the terror at bay, which reduces this position in the spectrum to the case of the psychological split between OES and happiness. Ill reserve judgment, then, until I come to that position. What of the ethics of entering the happiness machine? According to Nozick, were we given the option, most would choose to remain in the real world despite the loss of perfect feelings of happiness, which suggests that happiness isnt a matter of mere

4 feelings. Regardless, the ethical failing of opting for the machine would seem to be cowardice, since the machine would provide an escape hatch from earthly troubles. The nobler, heroic choice would be to face those troubles regardless of the cost to ones feelings. As for the psychological split, the ethical judgment seems similar. The mental walls have the same effect as the machines physical walls that prevent harsh reality from intruding on a dream world. Its hard to believe anyone could be ignorant of any aspect of OES, but even were this possible, such a person would be either mentally incompetent and thus incapable of human levels of happiness, or else guilty of the vice of incuriosity if not that of cowardice. Lastly, theres the tragic hero who carries on with no illusions, whose confrontation with the facts of OES takes its toll on his or her capacity for pleasure. Such a person could be expected to lose in lifes races, because the pessimist tends to be shunned and social connections are needed for success as well as for happiness. Now, the person who is physically prevented from being happy may be just a victim with no special virtue, unless she stands up to the alien face of nature despite the personal cost, as in the case of someone who chooses to go on living with a severe physical deformity. In any case, ethically speaking, the tragic hero shines. Assuming, then, that we should be ethical and that OES is a fact, we shouldnt seek to be happy. Thats my unsettling conclusion. Note that the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, could take the primary ethical goal, on the contrary, to be happiness, because he anthropomorphized nature instead of knowing about the stomach-churning reality of OES. Aristotle viewed all of nature as imbued with purpose, so that rocks literally succeed when they move downward to their natural home, while air succeeds when it rises, and all of nature works towards The Good. We could feel at home amidst so much teleology, so many human values possessed animistically by everything in the universe. But scientists have shown that thats not our existential situation. And so happiness, contentment, or joy makes sense in some situations but not in others: in our actual situation, happiness is not just often mixed with anxiety, sorrow, or pain, but is always awkward and guilt-producing as soon as we step back and appreciate OES.

Knowledge versus Happiness

Take, for example, a child who begs his mother for a lollipop, is awarded the treat and is overjoyed, slurping the sugar out of it. This is an uncontroversial, perhaps even archetypal case of joyous contentment. We praise the boy for enjoying his treat, for taking life easy while he can (assuming the boy doesnt have excessive access to candy, causing obesity). We smile and perhaps feel a tinge of bittersweet nostalgia, longing to relive our own such carefree moments. But widen your perspective to encompass the childs existential predicament, his inhumane physical environment that makes possible his pain just as much as his pleasure. We then see that his pleasure is due partly to his ignorance of the scope of OES, to his disinterest in planning obsessively for the future in which the indifferent world will threaten to crush his dreams. The child doesnt know the evolutionary reason why he loves the taste of sugar despite its ruinous effect on the body when consumed in abundance. Moreover, the child lacks self-control and his parents have to restrain his self-destructive impulses. Mother Nature thus created this grotesque relationship between the infant or child, on the one hand, and the parent on the other, betting that the parents pity for the formers helplessness will cause the adult to care for the little one. And does Mother Nature do this for the childs benefit? No, nature selects the genes, and the parents pity is a mechanism for propagating them. What good are the genes by themselves? Whats their value without the travails of their host organisms? If none, then those travails are absurd. When viewed in this broader context, it becomes harder to smile innocently at the childs beaming face as he stuffs his gullet with candy, harder to excuse his moment of joy as a respite from OES: there is no escape from the fact that sensitive, sentient beings dont belong in brutal nature. This problem with happiness is a very old one. In one of the founding myths of western cultures, the story of the Garden of Eden, Life is divided from Knowledge, our human representatives eat from the Tree of Knowledge, but before they can eat from the other tree, theyre cast out of the garden and condemned to years of toil and misery. The Tree

6 of Knowledge symbolizes, in part, an appreciation of OES, a gods eye view of whats outside the garden, such as the fact that God sent a serpent to test his human creations, and the Tree of Life symbolizes not just immortality but the capacity to live well, as a god in heaven. From the beginning of recorded history, then, weve suspected that consciousness of our surroundings may be a curse, or at least that its comparable to a two-sided sword. Theres a conflict between understanding whats actually going on in the natural world, and being able to feel good about being in that world. The monotheist tends to whitewash this conflict by blaming us for it: we simply suffer from original sin which prevents us from seeing that this is the best of all possible worlds, that theres good in everything and that God who is the ultimate good sustains the universe for a higher reason which makes sense of the suffering and of the universes apparent indifference to life. Thus the monotheist blames the messenger. We dont make the world as it is, nor are we responsible for our manifestly dark existential situation; we just discover that the enchanted perspective enjoyed by people who lived prior to modern science is like the ignorance of Adam and Eve before they ate from the Tree of Knowledge. Even as they frolicked in the garden, blissfully unaware of the serpent (i.e. Gods higher plan for humans) or of their capacity for tragic knowledge, the serpent and the tree existed in the garden, according to the myth. Likewise, the natural properties of the universe, which are quantified by exotic mathematical languages and explained by mind-blowing scientific theories, and which alienate animals with anthropocentric instincts like us, have always been objectively there, the causes of all of our potential pains. My point, then, isnt that pleasure of any kind is always wrong; rather, my point is that ethical pleasure must somehow overcome knowledge of OES. What counts as happiness is typically pleasure that derives from luck, ignorance, or vices such as cowardice or self-absorption, and is thus condemnable. Whats the ethical alternative to this pleasure thats artificially walled off from knowledge of OES? Pleasure tainted by a tragic sensibility, joy periodically cut short by an internal reminder of the terrifying

7 broader context of all human affairs, and a heroic commitment never to feel perfectly comfortable in nature, a place which can no longer be our home. Science shows that were effectively stranded in hostile territory, and that our activities are irrelevant to cosmic processes that are beyond our control and that impinge on us in many ways. Ethical pleasure must therefore be felt by a tragic, Nietzschean hero, someone who understands OES and has the will to creatively overcome it.

Instrumentalism and Consumerism

Theres a liberal gambit for avoiding the thrust of this conclusion, which is to identify happiness with success in attaining any goal at all. Thus, the serial killer who succeeds at murdering is happy and the tragic hero who successfully overcomes OES is simply happy. What makes this response a liberal one is its telltale avoidance of evaluating goals, its scientistic, systems managerial focus on the abstract efficiency of means. The liberal thus misses the difference between the positions in the spectrum, considered above. The persons in heaven, in a happiness machine, in psychological denial of OES, and tragically at one with OES may all be abstractly successful in achieving some goal or other, but the difference between their goals makes for different kinds of life, and those differences have ethical consequences. The liberals notion of happiness is individualistic and subjective, and thus facilitates consumption-driven societies in which mental states are sold along with material goods, by associative advertising. As I say in my rant on liberalism, the liberals anachronistic faith is that everyone is equal, as rational beings who have sovereign authority over themselves. If people come to different conclusions about what makes them happy, so be it: the world is ambiguous and can be interpreted in different ways. This Kantian individualism collapses into postmodern nihilism, into a power vacuum occupied in capitalistic democracies by demagogues who tell so-called autonomous moral ends unto themselves (i.e. rational persons) what to think, feel, and consume.

8 Then theres the positive psychologist who explains the mechanisms associated with happiness as opposed to those that cause mental illness. For example, one aspect of happiness is thought to be a feeling of flow, rather than of anxiety, while at work. As with the liberal, the positive psychologist cant address the normative question of whether happiness should be a persons ultimate goal, and still claim to be practicing science. Just as a psychologist can only presuppose the badness of quantitatively abnormal mental states, or risk committing the naturalistic fallacy of attempting to derive normative statement from scientific factual ones, the psychologist can only presuppose the rightness of the most desired goal, for the same reason. Liberalism and positive psychology, then, are accomplices to the double failure of the pursuit of materialistic happiness. The first ethical failure is the foolhardy plan to be happy in spite of our existential predicament. In the long run, OES wont let us be happy unless happiness is understood as something tragic. The second such failure is our settling for the lowest kinds of pleasure and for fleeting moments of contentment, which are all that a capitalistic, materialistic culture can afford us. After all, the reason pleasure is our highest goal in the west is that capitalism is driven by our weaknesses, such as our egoism and greed. As I explain in Conservatism, the idea is that human society should be just as wild as the jungle, since competition compels the environment to pick out novel forms of complexity, and according to libertarian conservatism, this natural selection is the most divine creative force. So instead of trying to out-think nature, we should unleash our primitive impulses, thinking only of short-term, personal profit and giving in to fallacious associative advertisements; thus, we let nature take its course and separate successes from failures. When reduced to pleasure-seeking animals, we feel that happiness, rather than some more ascetic duty, is our lifes purpose. But this social Darwinism backfires. Even were happiness our ultimate good, capitalism tends to make the majority miserable. Businesses churn out an endless stream of services and toys to play with, but in a free market in which the government is naturally corrupted, the predators at the top devise Ponzi schemes to siphon money from the bottom and--thinking only of their own short-term, personal profit--restrict the wages of

9 the middle class so that eventually they cant afford most products. In this way, the holy pecking order is safeguarded. And instead of living like hedonic kings enjoying a feast in our mansions, we often eat fast food and live in houses we cant afford, but were manipulated into believing that were living the good life. Ronald McDonald is always smiling, so a flash of base pleasure from consuming fatty food must be the very stuff of happiness; like that clown, we wear painted-on smiles. On top of the pressure on us from wall-to-wall advertising, cognitive psychologists have experimentally confirmed that were prone to a host of fallacies and biases, called heuristics, most of which have the evolutionary function of inuring us to unpleasant facts by papering over them. Our thought processes are evidently adapted to distort the truth to make us feel comfortable in what would otherwise seem a terrifying alien environment, to distract us from OES so that we can conduct our sexual transactions and preserve the genes. Again, liberal and psychological instrumentalism complement this charade, since these cheerleaders for happiness cant challenge the societys underlying normative assumptions and can speak only to how we might more efficiently succeed at being happy, within the status quo parameters. If we want, above all, to be happy, despite the facts of OES that make our world horribly absurd, and we delude ourselves into feeling happy when were really victimized and bewildered, thats because our cultural standards have been so lowered to make way for oligarchic capitalism, for the reduction of high renaissance culture--the product of religious rationalizations of monarchy, the rise of scientific reason, and godlike artistry--to a beastly struggle for survival so that a new class of more nihilistic predatorial oligarchs can lord it over the rest of us from their perches in the natural pecking order. Given this calamity, the liberal and the positive psychologist accept its underlying causes and, respectively, merely fine-tune the system like a wannabe engineer or investigate the more nitty gritty, proximal causes of the most desired mental state.


Most people want to be happy; if they cant be rich or famous, at least they can still be content with what little they have. But an appreciation of OES turns everything on its head. The rich and the famous are ethically worse off than the poor, not because the poor inherit the kingdom of God, but because the poor cant build such elaborate fantasy worlds to protect them from that which makes their life absurd: their alienation from the natural world. Human life does have a meaning, in the sense of a value, and that value is, as Kurtz says in Apocalypse Now, the horror, the horror. Our life also has an ethical purpose, which is to deal heroically with that horror, not to try to escape from it by fleeing to transitory, base pleasures that arent earned by confronting our predicament which is the fact that were fragile, sentient beings in an alien cosmos that destroys as freely as it creates. Precisely because we are so fragile, because we evolved not to ethically challenge the cosmos but to be preoccupied with a social game that mixes the gene pool so that Mother Nature can keep her options open to fill some future niche with a fresh species, we succumb to vainglorious myths and to the temptation to follow our instincts and submit to religious or to capitalistic dominance hierarchies. One of these myths is that we ought to be pleased when we succeed in our work so that we can rest contented, with no regrets. This myth fails to take into account the fact that the more knowledge we acquire, the more we must regret having been born at all in the nightmare of our dependence on the practices of an inhumane cosmos for our very survival, let alone our happiness. No amount of hard work can obviate that regret, unless its the work of suicide which is itself cowardly. That regret is just the anxiety of a hapless animal thats cursed to have discovered its existential plight. Pure happiness, joy or contentment is a nonstarter for such a tragic creature. Ethically speaking, anyones happiness on Earth is as obscene as any immaterial spirits bliss in heaven while knowing about the everlasting holocaust in hell. So if we must smile when the natural cycle spins to our benefit, lets smile half-heartedly, sparing some revulsion for

11 the fact that for sentient beings alone, that cycle, spinning mindlessly, uplifting and crushing each of us in turn, might as well be a torture device.

Appendix: The Rich, Full Life

Among the throngs of shiny, happy people, theres an upper tier in which are seated those renowned for their more monumental contentment: not only are these blessed few pleased with their lot and so unmoved by empathy for the suffering masses and undisturbed by knowledge of our existential predicament, but theyve managed to accrue for themselves what we dub a Rich, Full Life (RFL). These champions of egotism are personally fulfilled, to be sure, but that understates the completeness of their triumph, since theyre happy many times over, as it were. The happiness of a hundred ordinary folks doesnt equal that of a single hero whos blessed with an RFL, who has traveled the whole world, garnered a bewildering variety of experiences, succeeded in numerous fields, loved and been loved by countless life partners. Enduring their torments far beyond that upper tier and the herd of cheerful consumers and pragmatists, the inured losers moan in agony, crying in despair, trembling in horror. The worst of these are said to be cursed with the opposite of the RFL, namely with an Empty, Wasted one (EWL). Sometimes intentionally withdrawing from the race to flourish, these self-tortured existentialists, mystical ascetics, and assorted omega men and women are unhappy, to be sure; but time also passes them by, as do opportunities for advancement, and so their mind comes to resemble a barren echo chamber filled by their harping inner voice, bereft of memories of mountains climbed, friends and lovers enjoyed, conventional challenges met, or luxuries consumed. All the struggles of their ancestors have led, pitifully and tragically, to their withdrawal, to their dropping of the torch. Such is my dramatic way of drawing the politically correct distinction between the happiest and unhappiest people. But lets look closer at this pair of categories. Much of the meaning of an RFL and of an EWL is relative: the person with a wide variety of

12 enjoyments and successes is deemed all the happier by comparison with the person with few if any of them. An RFL is praised and an EWL is pitied because theyre so far apart from each other: the happiest people have won the race only by leaving far behind the losers, and the unhappiest are those who can regret that they havent seen or done as much as the winners. Another way to frame the distinction is to rank each life next to the plethora of potential experiences that humans can have, in which case the happiest are those who have at least a representative sample of those total experiences, while the unhappiest are subhuman in that their accomplishments fall below that threshold. However, if we broaden our perspective, we can compare the total number of types of experience for humans to the number of potential experiences of more powerful creatures who might roam solar systems or whole galaxies. Simplifying, we can stipulate that there are, say, a million types of experiences for humans, confined as we are to Earth and its near orbits, and that a person with an RFL accumulates a representative sample of that total, say, ten thousand types of experience (including pleasures and successes but also sorrows and character-building failures, of course). In that case, there must be, say, a trillion potential experiences for organisms throughout the natural universe. With that bigger picture in mind, we can compare even the human RFL to the cosmic RFL and argue by way of analogy that just as the human RFL is supposed to render someone with less depth contemptible, by comparison, the human RFL must be likewise contemptibly vacuous and provincial compared to the cosmic RFL. Compared to British magnate Richard Branson, for example, the life of an omega man living in his mothers basement or a poor farmer scraping by in Haiti is a void perhaps not even worth enduring. Likewise, though, compared to the manifold perceptions and challenges of a member of a technoscientifically advanced spacefaring species, Branson might as well be a hermit, since neither the human RFL nor the human EWL includes a representative sample of the total number of potential macrocosmic experiences.

13 Thus, were faced with a dilemma: either we follow the broader comparison which belittles the accomplishment of the human RFL, in which case praise of the latter is optional, at best, or else we spare the human RFLs dignity and decline to engage in that cosmic comparison or in the analogous one, with the human EWL, in which case we should no longer despise the latter by its failure to measure up to the human RFL. An objection should immediately come to mind: the analogy afforded by the so-called broader perspective is weak, because the human RFL is possible for all humans whereas the cosmic RFL is impossible for any of us. But the analogy appears strong after all, because the human RFL is actually impossible or at least highly unlikely for most unhappy people, whether because of their less fortunate outer circumstances or because of their inner character which lacks the arrogance, egoism, sadism, narrowmindedness, or whatever conglomeration of vices is required to out-compete the hordes of human beasts. Of course, no human can presently journey to other planets, let alone galaxies or dimensions. But likewise, most people cant afford a life as rich as Bransons: they lack the drive, the resources, and the opportunities. True, many unhappy people likely have the chance to lead richer, fuller lives, thus approaching at least a few steps toward the human RFL; but likewise, there must be some potential even for present oligarchs to make great strides in space exploration. (See, for example, Bransons Virgin Airlines which takes customers into suborbital space, and Planetary Resources Inc, the new business backed in part by James Cameron and Google founder Larry Page, which will attempt to mine nearby asteroids for precious metals and water.) Suppose, though, my response to that objection doesnt work and the analogy is weak in that sense, because the cosmic RFL is much less possible for any of us than is the human RFL. Still, the comparison thats relevant to the normative difference between the happiest and the unhappiest humans may be between only the conceptual possibilities, not the practical ones. Intergalactic travel may be wildly impractical for any of us, but we can all still imagine the grandeur of such a macrocosmic life (the longer life span, the power of controlling whole worlds, the fellowship with other intelligent species,

14 and so on). Likewise, unhappy people tend to be practically incapable of experiencing much more of the worlds copious offerings, but they can still be tortured by the knowledge of what they might have been and indeed--now that the internet has made the planet much smaller, in a sense--of how happier people actually live. We dont yet know of actual extraterrestrials, but thanks to science fiction we can all imagine the cosmic RFL and thus compare such a life to the human RFL. That conceptual comparison still plucks the happiest humans, with their relative RFL, out of their heavenly tier and hurls them into the ranks of human sufferers, since next to even the imaginary cosmic RFL, a human RFL seems parochial and pathetic. Of course, a human with an RFL cant be morally blamed for failing to achieve whats actually impossible, a cosmic RFL. But the conceptual possibility of the cosmic RFL should provoke us to think twice before pitying the unhappy person with an EWL. When we broaden our perspective, we all tend to become more pitiful, tragic, and absurd.


Part One: Religion

____________________________________________________ Theism Atheism Existential Cosmicism


The Theism vs New Atheism Farce ____________________________________________________

The current incarnation of the dispute about whether theres a god is a perfect storm of confusion.

The Players
On one side, there are the New Atheists, those who see themselves as zealous defenders of reason and of liberal values against fundamentalist religion and terrorism. Atheists proclaim that religion is thoroughly irrational and dangerous. On the opposing side, there are the literalistic monotheists, sometimes called fundamentalists, who see themselves as conserving revealed transcendent truth against the demonic distractions of science and of liberal society. They maintain that faith or intuition accesses deeper truth than does reason, and that the liberals so-called defense of liberty is actually an excuse to sin. The literalists are joined by religious moderates who see no conflict between reason and faith, science and revelation, or liberalism and theism. Then theres the publics misunderstanding of this controversy, as caused by the old media that profit by entertaining consumers with stories of sensational, ideally-endless

17 conflicts. Journalists tend to report the social and political battles between atheists and theists, and also the latest scientific finding that has only ambiguous or tangential consequences for religion. Rarely do journalists investigate whats really at stake in the controversy. Finally, there are the cloistered professional philosophers who have lost credibility with the anti-philosophic public. Despite frightening signs of civilizations collapse and despite their being equipped to shed light on issues that concern everyone, these philosophers prefer to practice a pseudoscience thats equivalent to the counting of angels on a pinhead. They thus cede the floor to ideological partisans, to New Age hangers-on, and to profit-driven, bar-lowering journalists.

The Muddle
The result is a colossal muddle. The New Atheists pretend to be more rational than anyone can be. Only the narrowest, quantified questions can be answered purely with logic or with empirical evidence. The broader questions that people care most about and fight over divide us because of differences in our values, character, life experience, and power. Religious people who affirm some myth or other in answer to the grand question of whether the whole universe has a purpose, are bound to express their personal biases, commit numerous logical fallacies, and cherry-pick the data. The New Atheist is surely correct to that extent, but is wrong to think he or she is in a different boat, sailed by Star Treks Vulcans with no values, character, or other nonrational factors that determine their fundamental beliefs. Theists personalize the cause of the universe, but New Atheists likewise treat their loved ones as though their mere organic bodies were made precious by some attachment of theirs to an immaterial spirit. Theists dont exercise cold, calculating reason when they bow their knees and pray to an invisible cosmic parent, but neither do

18 atheists when they make love. We are all of us animals, after all. There's not much of a defense in saying that romantic love is private, since like religious faith, an emotional bond has public consequences.

The Cause
The real problem isnt just that theres a clash of cultures; rather, its that the cultures at stake, secular liberalism and religious conservatism, are both so decrepit that their adherents forget that a cultural commitment ought to be personal. Only when a culture lives and breathes do its people appreciate the importance of being enchanted by a myth. Our problem is the postmodern one that theres no suitable myth to guide us: the Enlightenment myths of progress through reason and democratic capitalism led to the world wars and to a host of current oligarchic injustices, while the anachronistic myths of monotheism can only mislead us to squabble over stale metaphors. When our interaction is driven by those moribund narratives, we defend them like zombies, unaware of what we are, what were doing, or why our culture war seems both endless and meaningless. Were a suitable myth for our time found, an atheist would quit reducing religious and philosophical questions to logical or to empirical ones, while the monotheist would leave behind the old myths that were forced on her as a child and that an adult can support only with techniques of gross mental compartmentalization.


The Psychedelic Basis of Theism ____________________________________________________

Why is there now, just as there has always been, anything as outlandish as a theistic religion? Why have most people always believed there are immaterial spirits and a perfect mind at the root of reality? Why the angels and demons and the all-importance of morality as the condition of an afterlife in heaven or in hell? How did our species become sidetracked with such apparently crazy beliefs? The lazy answer is that most people are not so smart and are prone to fallacies and superstitions and are themselves lazy, which is to say gullible; thus, the bigger the lie, such as the one told by corrupt rulers throughout the ages, the more likely the masses will believe it. But theres a more interesting answer, one that addresses the fact of religious experience which indirectly challenges the alternative, nontheistic worldview.

From the Brain to the Immortal Spirit

Lets begin with some elementary facts of the human brain and its thought processes. The higher-level thinking that distinguishes us as a species takes place in the cerebral cortex which is our brains thin outer layer and most recent evolutionary addition. This part of our brain is responsible for our special, top-down control over our internal processes, which we take for free-will and which is in some ways illusory but which is nevertheless more pronounced in our species than in others. Instead of always acting

20 automatically on instinct, we can search our memories and evaluate our abilities, concocting elaborate plans to succeed in our environment. Because the brain evolved largely by natural selection, though, there were severe constraints on how the brain developed, so that the central nervous system we inherit is inevitably flawed, from a design viewpoint. For example, our top-down access to our mental states and thus to the brain activity that generates them is limited by our finite memory; thus, we cant access all our brain activities at once. Moreover, since the brain was an adaptation that enabled us to survive in the wild, we evolved skills at making snap judgments, based on intuitions as opposed to exhaustive considerations of evidence. Thus again, instead of having total access to our thought processes, we think in highly simplified ways, relative to the amount of brain activity associated with each thought. These simplifications take the form of biases, heuristics (mental shortcuts based on rules of thumb rather than logic or all available evidence), stereotypes, or models of our environment. Theres a sort of competition between neurons as they transmit information across their synapses in response to some internal or external stimuli, and we become aware only of the winners so that our conscious self can be compared to the top of an iceberg that pokes out of the water of our unconsciousness. Additionally, our thinking is distinguished by our sophisticated form of communication, by language, which is processed in the cerebral cortex (in Wernickes and Brocas areas). We think largely in words which we use as labels for concepts, allowing us to organize and search for our ideas as though we were thumbing through a labeled file system. Just as we have a simplified way of thinking about everything, thanks to our abstract concepts and top-down self-control, we have a commonsense, simplistic feel for how language works. We think of language as consisting of systematic relationships (syntax) between meaningful units (symbols). Words bear intentional relations to what theyre about, and so we map the world in our head. This linguistic nature of our thinking further sets the stage for human misery, as will become clear in a moment. To the extent that we identify ourselves with our stream of consciousness and with the linguistic thoughts that sail that stream, as it were, our selves become vanishingly small

21 compared to what we perceive in our external environment. We become what Sartre calls nothingness and what Thomas Nagel describes as the view from nowhere. As David Hume said, there is no self but only a bundle of transitory mental states. What happens is that we identify with our thoughts and feelings, not with the objects to which those mental states are assumed to be intentionally directed. So if you have a thought about trees, youre on the side of the concept TREE, which is in your head, of course, and a thought is always insubstantial compared to what its about. When a mental state represents something in our outer environment, all of our senses may be feeding our brain information pertaining to what we represent, whether directly in an act of perception or through our memory or imagination. Even the senses themselves only model the outer world for us, abstracting from or filtering out the noise, presenting us with just a slice of reality; still, we have much more input from the outer world than we do from inner ourselves, and this is surely for the evolutionary reason that our brain evolved as a control system to deal with external threats to the genes we carry. Now, when we do think about ourselves, forming a higher-level thought, for example, about our concept of trees, we again identify more with the subject of that mental act, not with its object. That is, wed think of ourselves more as the conscious processes involved in having that higher-order thought than as the part of our mind that becomes an object of our attention. When we contemplate our belief, desires, or dispositions, we divide those parts of ourselves from the active part thats currently doing the contemplating. Thus, we reestablish the dichotomy between subject and objective environment--within our mind. But because we also personally (and vainly) identify with the most conscious and rational part of our mind, which has top-down control over our inner world, thanks to the cerebral cortexs implementation of this part of ourselves, the most active and subjective part of ourselves is also the most abstract and simplified. Thus, the more abstract and higher-order our thinking when were self-conscious, the more we identify with an increasingly insubstantial self: a self which we neither see nor hear nor smell nor taste nor touch; a self which we thus have less diverse information about than we do about anything in the outer, sensible world; and a self

22 which is closer to the top of the pyramid of mental associations/neuronal connections and is thus all the more isolated and detached. These facts of human nature--the cerebral cortex and its top-down, pyramidal and thus highly simplified view of the labyrinthine connections throughout the rest of the brain, wandering the maze whistling linguistically-filtered thoughts to keep our spirits up-naturally give rise to what was only in the last century called the existential problem, but is actually a problem that goes back at least to the ancient Gnostics. Descartes later took up this problem in its modern, rationalistic guise, and the existentialists made a fad of it which faded away some decades ago. The problem is universal because it arises from the brains structure and from the intuitive picture of language, one of our two most crucial instruments, the other being our opposable thumb. The elementary human problem is that our default feeling is one of alienation from the world. This is the price the human brain pays for developing the ego, which is the relatively conscious, free, and rational part of the self: while the ego has those advantages, which we apply in our bodys dealings with the outer world, the ego can also turn them loose on the mind, producing an ever more abstract personal identity which is subjectively all the more removed from the rest of the world. This primordial separation between the selfaware person and the sensible world is the source of all our existential woe, of the fear that we dont belong in nature and thus have to transform the world to suit the alienated self, literally putting technological images and extensions of us all over the globe so that we feel more at home. As a consequence, were faced with the tragically heroic task of finding meaning in our absurd life as ultraconscious animals inhabiting a mindless cosmos. In so far as a person is identified roughly with the mental work of the cerebral cortex, which Freud called the ego, a person is an invisible stream of fleeting abstract mental states, and this ghost haunts the planet, literally seeming to float above it somehow from its perch at the top of the head; as a matter of fact, thats exactly where the inner person exists, in the cerebral cortex. But the point is that when this part of the brain tries to access itself, to acquire a clue as to its inner identity, the brain finds mental states

23 that compensate for their height in the pyramid of neuronal connections by offering up a correspondingly simplified view of the blizzard of synaptic information, which cant be cognized all at once. The result is the narrowly focused conscious self that lumbers from one thought to the next. Thus, the more we know of ourselves through introspection, the more ghostly or vacuous we seem, and thus the less we seem to belong in the material world that the five senses present to us as so much richer. Our plight then becomes the absurd one of feeling homesick while being deprived of any ordinary knowledge that we even have a proper home. Were like a prisoner born in a prison cell, realizing eventually that she doesnt belong there, but able only to hope that theres anything at all outside the prison, let alone some more welcoming place. There are three main solutions to this existential predicament, only one of which is ideal. The ideal one is tragic heroism, based on existential, aesthetic, and ascetic virtues. Ive sketched this ideal elsewhere and Ill explore it further in later writings. The two inferior answers are secular and religious, respectively, and I want to focus on the religious one here. Briefly, though, the dubious secular answer begins with ignorance or denial of our existential situation and so proceeds to foolish, dehumanizing distractions. Fascist and communist political projects are examples, since those secularists trust in progressive myths without first recognizing the philosophical implications of where we stand in nature. All political arrangements degenerate into corrupt, self-destructive oligarchies unless some heroic effort is made to overcome our basic absurdities and tragedies. The dubious religious answer begins with the nave view of the self as an alienated, immaterial spirit in a material world, but then codifies this intuition, adding baroque speculations about the spirit world which is supposed to be our true home, about other invisible entities such as angels, arc angels, and fallen angels, and a mind-first ontology centered around God.


Religious Experience is Psychedelic

What generates the shameless range of theistic speculations? Not just gullibility or other such cognitive vices. Theres a telling fact of all religions, which is that they begin with visions due to altered states of consciousness. The earliest religions were shamanic rather than organized, meaning that they were led by solitary figures who acted as magicians and doctors and whose power was thought to derive from their special relationship with the spirit world. The shaman delves into that world by ingesting psychoactive drugs or by fasting, rhythmic chanting, or hyperactive dancing to bring on visionary states of consciousness. Shamanism dates back at least to the Neolithic period and was present all over the world. Theres even a special name for a visionary plant thats used for religious purposes: entheogen. Thus, Egyptian religion was inspired by Psilocybe cubensis (a magic mushroom), Hinduism by soma, native American myths by peyote and ayahuasca, the Greek Eleusinian Mysteries by kykeon; ambrosia, the nectar of the gods, was either the fly agaric mushroom or fermented honey, which was an early entheogen; ancient Jews may have used cannabis in their holy anointing oil, while early Christian art depicts mushroom trees. As Graham Hancock argues in Supernatural, there are patterns throughout the major religions, in prehistoric cave paintings, and even in faerie folklore and modern alien abduction narratives that attest to the same altered states of consciousness. Terence McKenna advocated the use of entheogens and mesmerized audiences with his descriptions of DMT trips. Even my meager experience with cannabis confirms what everyone knows, which is that if you take a psychoactive substance, you will assume youre sensing things that arent apparent to normal consciousness: you may hear a voice that seems omniscient and perfectly trustworthy, and you may see an alternate world made of lights and populated by strange beings. The question of whether the visions are hallucinations or higher realities I leave aside for the moment. My point here is just that theres abundant evidence that religions all over the world have historically been based on the shamanic, prophetic, or mad ravings of stoned individuals. As a religious institution naturally degenerates into a corrupt oligarchy, the religious

25 structures are bureaucratized and the entheogens are outlawed or reserved for the elite, to prevent challenges to the leaders power. This secularization of religions is typically a stage in the conflict between the two ignoble responses to our existential problem, with secular distractions replacing theistic ones. And what religious distractions entheogens bring! Not only the litany of spirits, monsters, faeries, and aliens, but whole theologies and the general religious outlook can be ascribed to the culture that springs up around the use of visionary plants. Monotheism and Eastern monism derive from the inner authoritative voice you may hear when in a state of deep relaxation, when your inhibitions are stripped away, while tripping on a psychoactive substance. One part of your mind asks the more authoritative part a question and you receive an answer which seems revelatory. Moreover and notoriously, there are good and bad trips, depending on whether you come to the drug with a clear conscience. If you hide from unpleasant personal truths, your ego defenses will be annihilated in the visionary experience and your consequent terror seems projected in the visions of demons or of other evil spirits youll see; hence, the religious idea that morality is a precondition of living peacefully among the spirits. The speculation that consciousness is immortal and thus that it lives on after the physical bodys death follows from the common experience of self-consciousness and alienation, explained above. But now the myth arises that your condition in the afterlife depends on how you lived while embodied: as the Egyptian myth has it, your heart (mind) will be weighed against the Feather of Truth, and if youre lighter than the feather, youll be admitted into heaven. Even the physical highness of heaven and of the spirit world is actually felt while on something even as relatively weak as cannabis: you feel your mind shooting upward into a realm of hypercognition; hence, the phrase getting high. The emphasis on authority in religion derives from trust in the shamans or in other ancient hippies who were brave enough to put their sanity at risk when they confronted the very apparent and alien spirit world. Moreover, the call for faith to override reason when dealing with ultimate questions is likewise an artifact of psychedelic experience, since while tripping

26 youre overwhelmed by the visions strangeness and by emotion which breaks down your ego and forces you to question your presuppositions. Afterward, when you come down, the challenge is to assimilate the seemingly profound revealed truths into the worldview of your waking consciousness. Moreover, DMT, the most powerful hallucinogenic, is naturally produced in the brain, and the release of that chemical during sleep seems responsible for our surrealistic dream imagery. Likewise, as consciousness fades in a near-death experience, its reasonable to assume that the dying person experiences a DMT flash and the associated dreamlike imagery; thus the reports of travelling down a tunnel towards a bright light that feels warm and inviting, and the conviction that the spirit world is real and awaits us all after we die. In fact, the process of dying may be like falling asleep and dreaming until we become so unconscious that we dont notice the dreams end; nature may pay us the courtesy of singing us each a bizarre lullaby before she turns out the light. The moral is that if you don't learn in life to surrender your pride and detach from your ego, you'll have a bad trip when you're nearing brain death, just as those who take DMT often wish their ego wasn't along for the terrifying, mind-shattering ride.

Two Forms of Personal Inauthenticity

Whats wrong with this psychedelic basis of religion? Well, while the ancient or genuine theist, as opposed to the modern, secularized one, neednt be wholly blind to our existential condition and may even evince courage in facing it head-on with an entheogen, theistic speculations tempt us to ignore our fundamental plight and to lose ourselves in the fantasy world of the speculations we tell to make sense of weird visions. The social aspect of religion, too, provides the familiar temptation to lose ourselves in tribalism, as we come to identify with one herd of followers rather than another, worshipping idols which are mere images of the unknowable that derive ultimately from someones psychedelic experience. In any case, my goal here isnt to argue for theisms failure as a solution to our existential problem. Im interested, instead, in theisms challenge to philosophical

27 naturalism, which is the main alternative to the theistic worldview held or presupposed by the bulk of humankind. The point is that most people have been and still are theists because of genuine religious experiences. Thats why religions are universal: they arise, first of all, from the brains capacity for self-awareness, which generates the impression of the alienated, ghostly self. This impression is then elaborated by our imagination which duly speculates on the nature of the spirit world to make sense of our absurd homesickness. Religions persist not because most people are stupid, but because religions are grounded in observation, in genuine, albeit highly ambiguous data. Daniel Dennetts explanation of how we overuse our mind-reading capacity, projecting personal qualities onto inanimate objects, is only part of the story. We do personify nature, but those projections are encouraged by what we seem to perceive when stoned--which is indeed an enchanted world. To make my point plain, consider this typical refutation of theism: Theres no evidence of God or of any reality that transcends the material world. Youre just making it all up because youd prefer to think you're going to live forever in paradise. Atheistic naturalism, by contrast, is based on ordinary evidence derived from the senses, and the theories that explain that evidence are tested by scientific experiments. Moreover, naturalism is simpler than theism since theism posits two substances, spirit and matter, whereas naturalism is materialistic. Also, naturalism is more fruitful since its been successfully applied countless times in the technologies we take for granted. Thus, the atheistic worldview is more rational than the theistic one. Notice that when we consider the actual primary cause of religion, which is the visionary experience due to entheogen use or to other forms of altered consciousness, this standard dismissal of theism seems weak. True, the content of naturalism derives from ordinary perception of material objects, but the content of theism seems to derive from extraordinary perception. If were not to beg the question in favour of materialism, its all just input to consciousness, right? The brain receives signals that contain information which the brain must process and interpret. So the assertion that theism is simply made

28 up or based on loose analogies between, say, a human king and the supposed ruler of the universe, is mistaken. The question is how empirical data should be explained and interpreted. The choice of epistemic standards rules out certain hypotheses as crazy or as otherwise not worth investigating. Occams Razor, for example, which says that we shouldnt multiply kinds of theoretical entities beyond necessity, isnt neutrally rational but is pragmatic in a conservative sense, and pragmatism is normative, presupposing some values rather than others. Just ask yourself: beyond necessity for what purpose? Conservatism makes sense as a form of caution which serves the genes, the point being that we evolved to survive in the immediately apparent environment and so we risk our safety when we ponder matters that are far removed from that primal task. This epistemic principle ultimately validates the state of nature thats intolerable as it stands, whereas we might just as well prefer an aesthetic standard of originality and a creative rather than a conservative worldview. Again, fruitfulness makes sense if youre interested in elevating the materialistic standard of living, with technoscience, but what if youre interested in ascetically detaching from that world by way of facing our existential situation and discovering a heroic way out of it? In fact, the mystical traditions are psychologically fruitful in transforming the ego into an ascetic rebel with a taste for subversive wisdom. Naturalism or secular humanism may well be more useful to modern mainstream society that teems with the unenlightened herds, but who says that materialistic developments are more important than psychological ones, without begging the question? Likewise, calling naturalism more rational than theistic supernaturalism begs the question, assuming reason is defined by such biased epistemic values. Now, Im not arguing that entheogens present us, indeed, with a supernatural reality. Im interested in the prior ethical and aesthetic question of which values should guide the pursuit of knowledge. I assume that these values are seldom chosen. Instead, the main camps are split into those who temperamentally prefer secular distractions and those who prefer religious ones. Some want to be rational, to defend the modern enterprise of

29 using science to neutralize natural processes, and the relatively conservative, naturecentric worldview effectively enforces our biological function as vessels for genes. Meanwhile, others prefer to shirk our ethical and aesthetic responsibilities, by losing themselves not in a surreal world they personally create, but in one that was clichd thousands of years ago and is all the more so today, and in myths that few theists test for themselves by personally confronting the supposed spirit world. It goes without saying that if you load the dice by presupposing or prioritizing rationalistic values, youll conclude that psychedelic visions are just hallucinations that tell us nothing about reality. As in The Life of Pi, if you insist on a philosophy thats concerned with just the flat facts, youll naturalize weirdness, exercising the caution that our biomechanical overlords would surely welcome if only they werent just undead molecules. By contrast, if your scheme for evading your obligation as a potentially heroic creature leads you to open the floodgates of speculation, denigrating reason to allow yourself the freedom to imagine an escape hatch into a fantasy world, youll downgrade the metaphysical category of facts and interpret psychedelic visions as illustrative of a deeper, mental reality. In short, metaphysical realists and idealists have rival explanations of religious experience, because they have opposing epistemic values. You might think that metaphysical idealists are rare nowadays and arent worth discussing, but thats because youre likely reading this on the internet and are thus a full participant in the postmodern secular monoculture. Never forget that most members of our species have been theists and thus metaphysical idealists who believed that mind (God) is ontologically deeper than matter; moreover, most people currently alive are likewise theists. Instead of dismissing theism as based on trivial fallacies and smallmindedness, we should be aware of the power of theism that derives from the very real religious experience. If you think the experience is bogus, just take up Terence McKennas challenge and smoke some DMT; as he says, the only long-term danger of doing so is the risk of death by astonishment. The psychiatrist Rick Strassman conducted a clinical study of DMT trips and the participants reported having life-altering

30 experiences. The religious/psychedelic experience is no joke: if you drastically alter your consciousness youll naturally interpret the world very differently. This is, of course, why visionary plants tend to be banned in secular societies, since religious experiences are bad for business. Its worth recognizing, though, that the dubious secular answer to the existential question likewise transforms the self: instead of becoming a flaky theist, the alienated ghostly ego can take on the role of the obsessed consumer, throwing herself so far into the material world, which she longs to possess, that she willingly dehumanizes herself to become just another material object--typically one owned effectively by the corporations that brand her. Whether we merge with organic biotechnologies, such as entheogens (or inherit our compromised religion from the ravings of those who so merged), or with the lifeless technologies that depend on applied rationality, we transform ourselves in the process: we spare our detached consciousness the horror of being estranged from the sensible world and we preoccupy ourselves with one dubious mission or another. While the religious delusion seems to end in fundamentalism and zealotry, the secular one seems headed for so-called posthumanity, for our complete takeover by technoscience and by the sociopathic oligarchs who profit most from the science-centered industries. We should hope that theres a third path.


Theism: Does its Irrationality Matter? ____________________________________________________

Theism is the belief that there is at least one supernatural god, a perfect (all-powerful, all-knowing) person who created the natural universe and who intervenes in that universe, particularly in human affairs. Theism is the philosophical content of religions which is almost never discussed in mainstream journalistic coverage of religions, whether on the radio or TV, in newspapers or magazines. In the West, addressing the philosophical merits of theism would inevitably call the monotheistic religions into question and alienate consumers of news, most of whom pretend to follow a traditional religion without actually doing so. In short, monotheistic religions are currently farcical. The farce begins with the theists erroneous notion that theism can and should be rationally supported, as though theism were something like a scientific theory. The scientistic blunder here is monumental and often motivated by comically misplaced arrogance, as in the case of Catholic pomposity or the militant Islamists woefully perverse delusions of grandeur. A monotheists condescension towards a nontheist or an Eastern mystic is like an ants deeming itself to be taller than a giraffe. (Ill speak of nontheism rather than atheism, because atheism has negative social connotations which are irrelevant to the core issue I mean to address.) However, the farce ends when we see that theisms irrationality may not matter and that the theist may have the last laugh. The rational case against theism may itself rest on a category error. Indeed, the

32 rational ideal that our philosophical beliefs be logical and attuned to the evidence conflicts with the more Humean reality confirmed by cognitive scientists, that humans are not as rational as we might prefer to think. Ill provide an overview here of why theism is indeed irrational, but then Ill turn to what Ill call the existentialists nonrational case for theism.

Mysticism and Literalism

First of all, we need to observe the split in all religions between their mystical and exoteric traditions. The mystic seeks transcendent experience of the divine, not a rational justification for intellectual beliefs. She understands that language and logic simplify and thus to some extent falsify reality as they map it, and that in any case those tools evolved to provide us with practical knowledge of how to get by in the natural world, not to contact anything that might lie beyond that world. The mystic prefers a direct, intuitive grasp of supernatural reality, but if shes forced to speak of what she thereby grasps, she often resorts to myths and metaphors which she knows shouldnt be taken seriously. Mysticism is central to Eastern religions but marginalized in Western, monotheistic ones. What replaces mysticism at the heart of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is a colossal misunderstanding, called literalism, which is the mistaking of exoteric knowledge for the esoteric, mystical kind. Literalists err in literalizing the mystics metaphors. So while a mystic may compare God, that which transcends nature, to a loving parent, the literalist falls in love not with God but with the image, succumbing to our primitive, tribal inclination to worship an idol. From the mystics viewpoint, the literalists ego gets the better of her; like Narcissus shes captivated by her own reflection, in this case by an image poured out of a mystics mind to provide a sketchy map of what transcends our rational comprehension. So one of the initial mistakes made by Western theists, at least, is the elevation of their anti-mystical tradition. Thus, Christians persecuted their Gnostics and Muslim jurists have a strained relationship with Sufis.

33 Indeed, when theism is reduced to literalistic idolatry, the contents of theistic beliefs become ridiculous. The images contradict each other or are otherwise preposterous, leading the indignant literalist into a web of falsehoods as she has to rationalize the absurdities that inevitably follow when she naturalizes and anthropomorphizes something thats supposed to be supernatural. For example, how could God literally have thoughts and feelings with no physical brain or other substrate? If a substrate is needed for psychological states, who made Gods? Needless to say, if God evolved, hes not the creator of everything. Literalists have traveled far, looking for Eden or Noahs ark, always ready with a spurious explanation when they fail to find any archeological evidence for the biblical tales historicity. And literalistic theology becomes the proverbial tennis match played without a net. So-called systematic theology tomes are written to map every nuance of theistic imagery, arriving at creeds that purportedly specify Gods attributes--including, no doubt, what God had for breakfast the other day.

Divine Revelation
To return to my narrative, though, the mystics metaphors are eventually written down, and literalists come to write their own teachings in response or to misinterpret the mystics texts. Thus we have the spectacle of so-called divine revelation, as though that which begat the universe would write a book or create more or less free creatures and then turn some of them into puppets, inspiring them to read Gods mind and translate his commandments for everyone elses benefit. Why wouldnt God inspire everyone at once and for all time? That would interfere with our freedom and God cherishes humans above everything else in Creation. Why then would God still inspire a handful of prophets? Because God has a soft spot for the odd human sacrifice. Thats just one out of a million contradictions in literalistic theology. At any rate, were then faced with the impossible task of correctly interpreting Holy Scripture. This is the hermeneutic problem that besets all religions, because the symbols in natural languages are ambiguous: the words have multiple meanings and this ambiguity ramifies when the text is translated into other languages. The ambiguity is

34 ramified even further, since there are multiple scriptures, leading to many sects and religions, and the adherents of each monotheistic group claim exclusive divine authorship for their religious texts. So which meaning or text is the divinely intended one? We must all be ignorant of Gods intentions or else God wouldnt have stooped to writing out his manifesto for us in the first place, but God leaves us to squabble over how to interpret our preferred manifesto and over which manifesto is the genuine article. Inevitably, interpretation of religious texts becomes an exercise in cherry-picking: we ignore some passages and highlight others, usually to suit our own preconceptions. As for which religion we adopt, despite the competing religions available, thats decided in almost every case simply by where we happen to be born and by the religion of our parents. For evolutionary reasons, children are highly gullible, having to learn quickly in their formative years, so when parents fill their childs head full of nonsense, as was done to them by their own parents, the child's theistically prejudiced for life and the religion recycles itself through the ages. Of course, the theist who regards her religion as exclusively correct needs to explain why God would create people who are so influenced by their parents and their geographical location and time period, that most would thus be innocently misled to adopt a different, false religion, and why God would then punish those people, in effect, for being born to the wrong parents or in the wrong place or time. Incidentally, another fact that should unsettle a theist is that our brain is adapted to read each others mind, giving us an instinctive grasp of human motivations. As the philosopher Daniel Dennett argues in Breaking the Spell, we often overuse this capacity for mind-reading, viewing just about any pattern in the world as susceptible of a psychological interpretation, and so we anthropomorphize everything from clouds to automobiles to what we suppose must be the ultimate reality. Heres why this sort of evolutionary fact should worry the theist: its much more likely that we overuse our innate capacity for mind-reading and anthropomorphize the ultimate reality, arriving at theism, than that that reality is actually a person.

35 Now, in the case of Christian revelation, haughty Catholic priests come to the rescue, alleging that theyve been given the authority by God to provide Christians with the orthodox interpretation of the Bible and with infallible guidance on moral matters. Indeed, Christianity is the most literalistic, and thus the most absurd, of all the major religions. Official Christianity started in the fourth century CE as a gambit by the Roman Emperor Constantine to unite the far-flung and religiously-divided regions of his collapsing empire. Whereas in earlier years the Roman military achieved that goal by quashing rebellions, the fading empire could no longer employ that blunt instrument, so Constantine turned to a subtler approach. What better way to unite than to temper Roman polytheism with at least the appearance of monotheism? Were there only one God, thered be only one correct way to live (assuming God doesnt have multiple personalities and chooses to issue logically consistent commandments). So the Romans adopted Judaism as the basic ingredient in their recipe. Of course, Judaism would hardly suffice since Jews are famously antisocial, distinguishing themselves from everyone else with their peculiar observances and ceremonies, including circumcision and arbitrary restrictions on diet. So the Romans opted for an offshoot of Judaism, for a literalistic Jewish cult that promised to combine Jewish monotheism with Roman polytheism, yielding the best of both worlds. That cult became Christianity, and so the one immaterial Jewish god, Yahweh, became a Trinity which included--of all things--a man named Jesus who served as the equivalent of a Roman demigod. And whereas Jews were more interested in how humans can live well by following Gods orders, than in speculating on how God might otherwise be acting throughout the world, Christianity doubles down on the literalistic confusion, adding that God, the Holy Spirit, not only speaks through the odd prophet, but passes its power through the greatest prophet, Jesus--just dont say so to a Muslim--to Peter, the first Pope, thus adding the Catholic institution to the list of Christian idols.


Secular Christianity
Ironically, a secular critic of Christianity who points to these historical facts should feel a little guilty. Being first and foremost a secular ploy to preserve the Roman Empire, institutional Christianity has greatly served the purposes of secularization, furthering what Max Weber called the disenchantment of nature. By bringing God so far within nature, actually identifying a single man as equal to the universes creator, Christianity degrades God, preparing the way for nontheism when scientists explain more and more of nature, leaving nowhere for the literalized God to hide. In this way, Judaisms relation to Christianity is like that between the philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. Plato posited abstract, immaterial Forms or Ideals which account for natural categories. Aristotle brought these Forms down to earth, identifying them with material processes. Just as Aristotle naturalized Platonism, Christians naturalize monotheism--and do so only sometimes unwittingly. Christianitys covert disservice to theism is seen most strikingly in the way most Americans can pretend to be followers of Jesus even though their behaviour attests to their worship of money and worldly pleasure. Mind you, all these Christian consumers do is substitute one idol (Jesus) for another (Mammon). From a mystical viewpoint, theres surely a slippery slope here: once you initially mistake a symbol for the terrain which the symbol imperfectly maps, youre led further into carnality, egoism, and rationally conceptualized nature, and away from the mystics experience of the worlds transcendent unity. Thus, an American can identify herself to a pollster as a Christian, implying that she wants to be like Jesus who was, roughly speaking, a hippie pacifist and communist who cared nothing for worldly conventions, and then hang up the phone in her mansion and drive her kids to school in her Mercedes--all without feeling guilt for any hypocrisy or fear that perhaps a spiritual life is antithetical to a comfortable secular one. The point is that this materialistic Christian isnt really so hypocritical; she goes where the Roman handlers of Christianity wanted the religion to go. Coincidentally, this utterly compromised Christianity is practiced in a country whose founders explicitly took

37 themselves to be re-instituting a Roman social order. (See, for example, the Roman style architecture of Washingtons government buildings.)

Theistic Proofs
How about the philosophical arguments for theism? As Kierkegaard said, none turns a nontheist into a theist. Take the First Cause Argument, which is that everything in the universe has a natural cause, and since there cant be an infinite series of natural causes and the first natural cause cant cause itself, the first cause of everything has to be supernatural. But who says there cant be such an infinite series? Also, things in nature are organically rather than mechanically connected, and so rather than being separate from its effects, the first natural cause, that is, the Big Bang singularity or quantum fluctuation, is more like the whole of nature in seed form that evolves into more and more complex forms. And if God can be an exception to this principle about what can or cant cause itself, why cant that singularity somehow be another exception that causes itself, in which case the supernatural cause would be superfluous? As for the Design Argument, that the universe is like a human artifact, which implies that the universe was intelligently designed, this argument was more compelling prior to Darwins naturalistic explanation of biological design. Also, for everything in the universe to be comparable to human artifacts, everything would have to have a function. Whats the function of the moon, of an asteroid, or of dark matter? Certainly, we can imagine functions, but those would be what biologists call Just So Stories, meaning ad hoc speculations that may be more or less plausible but that are unsupported by independent pieces of evidence. The notion that the universe is Gods designed artifact makes sense only from an anthropocentric standpoint thats long been rendered quaint, from Copernicus onward. Then theres Pascals Wager, according to which no one knows whether theres a God or what God would be like, because by definition God is infinite and transcendent, but its prudent for the agnostic to gamble that a divine Judge exists, because a person making that bet has the most to gain (heaven) and the least to lose (the relatively little

38 effort of going to Church, etc). This argument has many problems, one of which is that the chance that God would appreciate such a gamble and reward the gambler are surely very low. Indeed, who would want to worship such a utilitarian god? Moreover, if God is infinite and transcendent, as the argument assumes, the correct position would be the mystics, in which case the image of God as a casino operator who cares about our utilitarian calculations should be discarded as a gross oversimplification. Next, theres the Moral Argument, according to which morality is impossible on the assumption of nontheistic naturalism, and so the existence of morality requires the supernatural, which includes God. The shortest answer here is that there is a complete evolutionary explanation of morality, after all. As Ive been saying in my other rants, though, any complete, scientific explanation of morality will commit the naturalistic fallacy. Science might explain how morality originated and how it works, but this explanation wont justify any moral prescription, which is a philosophical matter. The better response to the Moral Argument is just to point out that the anthropomorphic notion of God that this argument presupposes is so parochial as to be a nonstarter. When the universe was believed to be a relatively small place, with Earth at its center and all the stars forming meaningful patterns for our benefit, it must have seemed obvious that God is like a human king or judge who attends to our behaviour and readies himself for the day when hell render his final verdict. This image is simply no longer credible to any scientifically-informed person. No such person can sanely suppose that the creator of black holes, dark matter, supernovas, and of all the galaxies, stars, planets, and probably other species thinks just like a human. That anthropomorphic image of God has been suspiciously self-serving for monarchs throughout history, who have used it to glorify themselves and pacify the masses. The image no longer has the same power and so its no longer sensible to thank God for human morality. A recent and popular theistic argument goes by the name of Presuppositionalism, according to which not just morality but logic and even science presuppose theism. For example, scientists posit natural laws and thus they assume nature is intelligible, but

39 only a mind could cause that intelligibility. (You can find this argument in Dinesh DSouzas book, Whats so Great about Christianity?) Again, there are many problems with this argument. First, natural laws are descriptions, not prescriptions, although early Western scientists muddied these waters with their deism. Second, cognitive scientists explain what human reason is, and they show that were not so rational, which is just what wed expect if our cognitive faculties were products of natural selection. Third, who says nature is fundamentally intelligible? Quantum mechanics is paradoxical even to the few whove accomplished the superhuman feats of study to master the mathematics needed even to begin to describe what goes on at that level of reality. Christians in particular like to say their religion is unique for its abundance of historical evidence in favour of their theistic claims. So theres supposed to be adequate evidence, for example, that Jesus miraculously rose from the dead. This is simply not so, given standard inductive rules of evidence. In a court of law, of course, the historical evidence of the New Testament narratives couldnt even be entered into the record as having any value, because the narratives are now hearsay; indeed, theyre hearsay not just because theyre one or two steps removed from the present, but because theyre hundreds of steps so removed. (The anonymous Gospel texts have been copied and recopied for centuries.) Would the earliest Christians have died for their religion if their belief that Jesus rose bodily from the dead wasnt well-justified? Sure they could have, since people can be very deluded or desperate. Look at the radical Muslim terrorists who even today throw away their lives believing theyll enjoy seventy-two virgins in heaven. If Jesus wasnt raised, why was his tomb empty? Lots of possible reasons, each of which is more likely than that a violation of natural law occurred. Jesus might have been put in the wrong tomb or thrown into a lime pit to rot with other bodies, and in the panic caused by Romes unwanted attention to Jesus, his followers could have scattered and confabulated all sorts of stories to rationalize their loss. In fact, from where we stand with the limited evidence we have, its much more likely that there was no historical Jesus in the first place, and that the whole religion is the result of confusion and fraud than that Jesus rose miraculously from the dead.

40 Again, the Christians penchant for idolatry has served the cause of secularism well, since its drawn theism into the realm of inductive reasoning, which works entirely to that religions detriment. Thus, objective Bible scholars and archeologists have duly investigated the biblical claims and found them wanting in most instances. But after nearly eliminating the supernatural, by identifying what would be a transcendent entity, God, with a Jewish Middle Eastern guy and with a human institution or two, thus betraying perennial mystical traditions--for a Christian then to turn around and pretend that theres a rational case for Christian supernaturalism takes some chutzpah. Christians need to sleep in the bed theyve made: theyve gone along with secular Romes subversion of Jewish anti-idolatry, so they have to live with the fact that, as mystics have always understood, secular reason works against belief in the supernatural. Christians cant have it both ways. If God was actually a man and we want to know what were rationally entitled to believe about that man, standard inductive methods apply. As it happens, the scientific historian subscribes to methodological naturalism, which pragmatically assumes there are no miracles. So much for inductive reasons to be a Christian! Finally, Ill say something about the Problem of Evil, which has made theism dubious for millennia. The deductive problem isnt as powerful as the probabilistic one. If you define God as being all-powerful, all-knowing, and benevolent, and you grant that theres evil (unnecessary suffering) in the world, you have to give up one or more of those divine attributes. For example, God might have preferred that there be no such suffering but lacked the power to create a perfectly good world. This argument is weak, because the theist is free to modify the list of divine attributes. (Remember that theology is like a tennis match with no net.) The real thrust of the problem comes from our having to face the question of which explanation of the apparent world is best, the theists or the nontheistic naturalists. Were life an accident of natural evolution, unnecessary suffering would be easily explained in terms of the impersonality of the forces that sustain life. But the odds seem low that the deity that most theists actually think about would create just the natural

41 world that actually exists. In fact, monotheists concede as much, which is why they blame nature on our Fall from Gods grace and expect that the intended world of heaven or of Gods kingdom will eventually replace this imperfect world. This just pushes the problem back a step, since now the theist must consider the probability that God could be responsible for such a rigmarole. Sure, God could have an unknown reason why he allowed the Fall to happen or why he created Satan to tempt humankind into sin, thus somehow corrupting all of Gods creation. Again: tennis without a net. Likewise, an insane person, locked away in a mental institution, can explain away any piece of evidence that conflicts with her elaborate fantasy. But such a person will not be thinking properly. At some point, a decision has to be made about whether a certain explanation is the best available and is accepted for impersonal reasons or whether, instead, the explanation is an all-too comforting, ad hoc rationalization, protecting a tradition thats cherished for its ability to unify a family or a society. After all, the root meaning of religion is to bind.

The Existential Argument against Nontheism

In summary, theism isnt rational. Especially after the start of modern science, theres just a wealth of reasons not to believe that a perfect person created the universe and works miraculously in our favour. In the first place, literalistic theism is a childish confusion next to mysticism. Literalistic theists hardly agree on the details of their religion, because of their insuperable problem of interpreting scriptures. The anthropocentric assumptions that historically have lent theism whatever rational credibility it may once had had have been thoroughly undermined by scientific discoveries of the universes inhuman scale. Scientific standards of explanation count against theism and are especially damaging to the historicity of the Christian narrative. None of the classic theistic proofs is rationally persuasive in itself, and none of the modern proofs improves significantly on the older ones. Luckily for the theist, none of this should matter. The notion that theism needs to be rational is a piece of scientism, which can be discredited. Humans may be the best thinkers around, but were still animals and few if any of our important decisions are

42 rational. We choose our deepest beliefs not because we calculate the odds or look over a set of arguments, but because of our experiences, feelings, and character. Once that nonrational work is done, we look for reasons to add to the cognitive edifice, but even here we seldom exercise pure logic; instead, we incline to the many biases and fallacies that our genes have built into our brains, upholding, for example, confirmatory evidence and passing over evidence that counts against our assumptions. With this in mind, I want to discuss what I think is the best argument against nontheism, which I call the Existential Argument because it focuses on the nonrational nature of our major decisions. I begin by describing the typical nontheists attitude towards theism. Most nontheists are highly interested not just in the content of modern scientific theories, but in the scientific method of inquiry, which is currently the Western paradigm of objectivity. Religious people fail, therefore, not just because their supernaturalism is incompatible with scientific ontology, but because they elevate faith above reason. The nontheist assumes that metaphysical and empirical questions should both be addressed from an impersonal, objective frame of mind, using rigorous modes of reasoning, avoiding fallacies wherever possible, and paying careful attention to the data. From that frame of mind, nontheism becomes the only viable option. Presumably, theists have roughly the same capacity to reason as the average nontheist, so the nontheist goes on to diagnose the theist as suffering from delusion, brainwashing, superstition, wishful thinking, dogmatism, social pressure, or a mind virus. At any rate, some such nonrational power overcomes the theists capacity to reason, while the nontheist is liberated from such forces, seeing the situation clearly and going where pure reason takes her, to the rejection of theistic beliefs. This may all well be so as far as it goes, but the nontheist has to face the question of whether she deems herself to be so rational with regard to all issues of such personal importance as whether theres a god who will take care of us when we die and whether the universe is fundamentally good. The nontheist often boasts that he or she deals with the theistic issue in a rational fashion, discarding theism for reasons like the ones I give above. Is the nontheist hyper-rational, though? Does the nontheist consistently side with

43 reason rather than with some nonrational factor, like feeling, intuition, or institutional power? Take, for example, the issue of sexual relations, which is just as personally important to almost everyone as the question of whether to be a theist or a nontheist. Should the nontheist find a mate and have an intimate relationship, and if so, with whom? Most nontheists do have intimate relationships. But note that were they to adopt the same attitude towards intimacy as they do towards nontheism, their efforts in dealing with the former would surely end in abject failure. Unless youre living on planet Vulcan, you cant expect to attract a mate and have a successful intimate relationship if you scrutinize every detail of the partner with cold, hard logic and adjust your behaviour based strictly on impersonal observation of the evidence. To take a commonplace example, many people form bonds of intimacy by dancing, which is a ritual that tests a persons ability to let go of reason and to literally go with the flow of the music. In addition, dancing is often a prelude to the sexual act itself, the whole point of which clearly is to bond emotionally with the partner rather than to overanalyze the situation or conduct anything like a scientific experiment. To put the upshot as bluntly as I can, I ask you to compare the nontheists image of the theist in the grip of her delusion or mind virus, loudly protesting that God does exist and making a fool of herself in the process, to the image from, say, a hidden camera, of the nontheist in the throes of passionate sex with his or her life partner. Reason clearly has little to do with ensuring the success of either way of dealing with a personally crucial decision. The nontheist puts reason aside when bonding with a significant other, submitting to a cocktail of sex hormones. And the theist puts reason aside both in that situation and when confronting the big philosophical questions of whether theres anything beyond nature and whether that transcendent reality is personal. Why trust science and logic to deal with one decisive personal issue but not with another? Does the nontheists failure to be hyper-rational, to decide all personal matters using pure reason, undermine nontheism, making the rejection of theism a case of special pleading? If the wisest course is to put our best foot forward when searching for a mate,

44 for example, doing whats practically necessary to be as happy as possible, why not be equally as pragmatic in our choice of what to think about God? Note that the existentialists point here isnt quite the same as Pascals. Pascal advocates a cynical calculation, whereas the existentialist says we should go with our gut: if our temperament and experience happen to direct us towards nontheism, then nontheism will make us happy, and the existentialist concludes that such people have an ethical or aesthetic obligation to be nontheists. Most people, though, clearly find theism more palatable than nontheism. Now, Richard Dawkins likes to emphasize the perfectly logical point that something isnt true just because we want it to be so: even were theism ethically or otherwise practically preferable to nontheism--for most people, at least--that fact wouldnt indicate that God actually exists. But this is just to repeat the category mistake. Granting that theism isnt rational, should everyone reject theism purely for that reason? If you cant bear to live without assuming that youll see your loved ones again in heaven after you physically die, is the wisest option nevertheless to side with reason and science, to condemn yourself to angst? Again, the nontheist surely agrees we should adopt a less-than-fully-rational attitude with respect to our love life, since rigorous analysis and skepticism are counterproductive in that endeavour. So why doesnt the ethical goal of happiness trump the dictates of reason and science in answering transcendent philosophical questions? The point isnt that emotion or character logically or scientifically proves anything; instead, the question is whether ethical standards should override rational ones in dealing with matters of existential importance. For the sake of argument, Ill assume that nontheism is indeed in some trouble here. What conclusion should be drawn? What conclusion should be drawn? Not, of course, that theism is rationally justified. What we need are nonrational criteria, such as ethical or aesthetic ones, for evaluating both how people fall in love, including the partner they choose for themselves and their subsequent behaviour, and their decision to be a theist or a nontheist. Which life decision in either context is superior in terms of character

45 development and the quality of life experience? I leave this question for my fellow nontheists to ponder.


The Life of Pis Argument for Theism ____________________________________________________

The story in the novel The Life of Pi (LP) is framed as an argument for Gods existence. The argument is made explicit near the novels end and it can be paraphrased as follows. In our postmodern time, were properly skeptical of appeals to absolute truth; instead of grand theories or systematic treatises, were left with stories. With regard to philosophical as opposed to scientific matters, at least, reason is not the final arbiter. The question of whether God exists is such a philosophical matter, and atheism and theism tell us different stories. Theism is the better story and so we postmodernists should be theists. This argument is a postmodernist mix of William James pragmatic argument about the will to believe, Kierkegaards argument about the need for an irrational leap of faith, and Pascals Wager. Ill outline these prior arguments here. James assumes a pragmatic theory of truth, according to which truth is whats useful to believe, given a conceptual scheme. James then argues that some beliefs are more useful than others; in particular, theistic belief would be useful in that, according to the belief, sufficient evidence in its favour is granted only to those who first accept the belief without that evidence. On pragmatic grounds, then, theism would be epistemically justified. One problem with this argument is that it doesnt discount the possibility of self-reinforcing delusion. Once you entertain certain dangerous beliefs, you change your conceptual scheme until you

47 acquire the ability to interpret all conceivable countervailing evidence in a way that favours your new way of thinking. Thus, instead of finding evidence that really points to Gods existence, after you choose to believe, you might gain instead an invincible hermeneutic facility, a sort of infinite creativity in interpreting evidence, so that you read theism into everything with which youre confronted. Kierkegaard emphasized the need for passion in theistic faith. Contrary to the philosopher Hegel, who thought we could reason our way to theism by means of an elaborate metaphysical system, Kierkegaard took a more mystical position, according to which God, as far as atheists and theists alike are concerned, is the possibility of a transcendent mystery at the heart of reality. The Christian God, at least, is the absurdity and the paradox of God made into a human or of the deity that commanded Abraham to kill his son. The theistic argument thats implicit in Kierkegaards writings is that we ought to be existentially authentic, and that an authentic Christian who has blind theistic faith exhibits virtues of an inner struggle, indicated by bouts of angst and dread. Likewise, Pascal assumed the mystical premise that God is rationally unknowable, or infinite. Thus, reason wont settle the issue since the evidence and the arguments will be ambiguous. Nevertheless, because the question of theism is so philosophically important, we must choose what to believe, and since we can gain more by choosing theism than we can by choosing atheism, and we can lose more by choosing atheism than we can by choosing theism, we should choose theism. The LP argument for theism also assumes that atheistic naturalism and theism both can account for the facts at hand, for life, the universe, and everything, as it were, and that reason alone doesnt dictate which worldview is best. Thus, these worldviews become mere stories and we need to evaluate them in aesthetic terms. Given that theism is the better story, or as LP says, that theism surprises us, makes us see higher, further, and differently, as opposed to being a flat, dry story of mere factuality (336), we should prefer theism to atheism on aesthetic grounds--which are the only remaining grounds. In this respect, LP avoids the crassness of Pascals Wager, since LP equates religion with the enjoyment of literature rather than with a selfish calculation. Of course, the novel

48 illustrates LPs argument by contrasting two narratives of how a boy survives disaster at sea. On the one hand, theres the horrendous story of the mere facts, which are that after his ship sinks, the boy, Pi, winds up in a lifeboat with his mother, a sailor, and an evil chef, and the chef kills his mother, Pi kills the chef and survives alone in the lifeboat, facing starvation and despair of never being rescued, of being eaten alive by sharks, and so forth. But then theres the fantastic and uplifting story, that Pi gets stuck in the lifeboat instead with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a tiger, eventually befriends the tiger, and the pair survive against all odds. There are many technical objections that can be raised against this argument. For one thing, theres the matter of a storys coherence as opposed to its correspondence with the facts. Even if theism and atheistic naturalism were indistinguishable with respect to their ability to explain all of the empirical evidence, one storys explanation might be superior in light of epistemic values: theism might be less fruitful or logically consistent; for example, the definition of God might be self-contradictory and semantically empty. Moreover, far from expanding our minds, theism explains the world by appealing to a miracle. For these sorts of reasons, a theory can be distinguished from a story, postmodern relativism notwithstanding. But these objections miss the point. Granted, scientific theories are not mere stories when applied to everyday practical matters; even Pi relies on his understanding of tigers to tame the one in his lifeboat. But scientific theories are ambiguous when applied to the philosophical question of whether ultimate reality is personal or impersonal. Theism appeals to a miracle, but so does the Big Bang. Even though theism doesnt enlighten us regarding how the universe would have been created by God, science-centered epistemic values beg the question in favour of atheism, by presupposing methodological naturalism.


Philosophy and Religion as Fiction

In any case, Im not interested in a technical assessment of that arguments merit. Instead, Id like to address two questions. First, what would it even mean to speak of entertaining a philosophy or a religion as a mere story, letting aesthetic standards govern our preference? Second, is theism aesthetically superior to atheism, as LP contends? So what could be involved in accepting a worldview as a mere story? In some ways, treating philosophy as fiction would be a step up for philosophy, since fiction can matter more than a dry, abstract philosophical argument. Scientistic philosophy, which needs to appear as rigorous as physics to earn respect within the Ivory Tower, has ceded the traditional philosophical problems, of how to find meaning in life and of what sort of person we should be, to such ghouls as self-help gurus, televangelists, New Age whitewashers, and happy-talking psychiatrists who are funded by pharmaceutical companies. Even when we know a story is just fiction, the story can shape our character by giving us a model (the protagonist) and a warning (the antagonist). So were an answer to a philosophical question regarded as a mere fiction, the answer might then be more widely understood and easily applied. But wouldnt the philosophy then be just a game, an entertainment? In the back of your mind, youd know that were theism just a story, you wouldnt believe that God is real; youd just be pretending, suspending disbelief for the sake of enjoying the narrative. However, we can see the more serious role fiction might have if we look at another kind of art, such as music. Many people keep music on in the background, while theyre driving or taking the bus, while theyre at work or eating or having sex. Music consists of sounds that have metaphorical significance and so can trigger our emotions and affect our mood. Music thus has an implicit narrative, in the highs and lows of the rhythm, in the pregnant pauses between the sounds, and so on, and this narrative can be made explicit if the music has lyrics. Chanting of mantras can alter your state of consciousness, producing hallucinations or deep meditation. And so art more generally

50 can be used as an instrument to achieve a certain goal. Note that tools can be very serious business. In war, weapons are hardly taken lightly, the Mars rover shows us the surface of another planet, and oil refineries and nuclear power plants produce the energy thats the lifeblood of modern civilization. Likewise, one goal that fiction used to serve for children was to scare the daylights out of them, to warn them that the world is a dangerous place. Catholic religion still has this effect in its private schools, when nuns teach children about hell and Gods bloody death on the cross. So whats it like to accept a philosophy as a mere story? Well, it could be a matter of keeping a story in mind, to brainwash yourself, as it were, or to affect your mood to achieve a certain goal. This seems to have been William James point. Whether the story is factual or not is irrelevant if the story is used as a tool to get a job done; instead, the issue is whether the story is effective. Music can calm your nerves, inspire your painting, or give you courage before battle. Likewise, theism or atheistic naturalism can serve as a metaphor that teaches us about ourselves or establishes a cultural mindset, standing by in our memory of first encountering the worldview, as a continuing source of inspiration or fear. Stories can offer powerful models that we try to emulate or ideals that we want to achieve. The main reason many atheists and theists alike will scoff at the notion that their philosophy may best be understood as a powerful story, which is to say as a myth, is that postmodern culture is frankly scientistic. We think art is dead, because were too busy enjoying the fruits of science to notice that weve become Philistines. Even when science is put to use in technology, we contrast the colossal institutions of capitalism and of applied science with the humble, private use of art to change your life, and we cant help but dismiss the latter as relatively insignificant. This in turn I take to be our animalistic response to a display of overwhelming power. Were cowed and mesmerized by technoscience, and so we settle for the low-brow, mainstream culture, time and again preferring mass-produced consumer kitsch and hackneyed excretions of corporate cynicism.

51 A corporation is, in fact, a system that squeezes the humanity out of its members and transmogrifies that humanity into forces of cynicism and misanthropy; this is achieved when the members of the corporate body are forced to see themselves as functionaries playing a role or just doing their job, as the meme would have it. Put differently, a corporation provides legal cover for its members to set aside their altruistic impulses and to regress to a precivilized state of animal narrow-mindedness; the corporate system functions, then, as a smokescreen that allows its members to betray their principles and to escape unscathed by pangs of conscience. When you enter the corporate world, you lose sight of the humanity not just of your competitors or of your target consumers, but of yourself. You get lost in something akin to the fog of war and so blindly oppose any elevation of cultural standards. You become antihuman in your subservience to the corporate collective, which collective itself is a fiction, the proverbial curtain behind which sits the overwhelming beneficiary of free enterprise, the oligarch. And that power which corporations (oligarchs) now wield over democratic and dictatorial governments and over the global economy flows from technological applications of science. We increase our power by learning how things work and science discovers those mechanisms. Thus, like deer frozen in the headlights, we witness corporate and other technoscientific displays of superhuman power, and we naturally dismiss anything that would seek to challenge them. The only valid role of art, we presume, is as a means of corporate control of our mindset. Art becomes serious and respectable only when its blessed by corporations and by their zombie functionaries, as indicated by that arts mainstream status, or else when art is used cleverly in postmodernist cons. But the prospect of philosophy or of religion serving as art, as an instrument of selfimprovement or of social evolution, threatens that social order because the Socratic and esoteric mystical traditions present rival forms of psychological and social subversion. That is to say, the use of scientific knowledge in a free, naturally oligarchic society subverts our potential for spiritual/existential advancement; corporate art, the dreck that slithers and slimes its way out of mainstream TV, movie, music, and publishing studios preoccupies us with fantasies. To take an obvious example, the American corporate media present democratic politics as a conflict between democrats and conservatives,

52 whereas the true political conflict, between the American oligarchs and the rest of the population, ended in the 1970s after Ralph Naders consumer advocacy sparked the corporate takeover of the US government by means of lobbying power. (See the terrific TVO documentary, Park Avenue.) Socratic philosophy threatens that corporate abuse of technoscience--polling, marketing, public relations, infotainment, and other forms of media manipulation--by offering the ideal of obsessive self-knowledge; were we to think more like Socrates, taking him as our model protagonist, wed be compelled to watch ourselves as we consume corporate media, to recognize how mainstream messages distract or numb us, exploiting our sex instinct, for example, to sell everything. With its cosmicist implications, mystical religion, too, challenges the delusions that tend to hold societies together, such as the ideal of personal happiness. My point, then, is that were a philosophical argument or religious creed treated as a story, which is to say as an instrument that has practical relevance as opposed to being merely academic, the science-centered institutions would have rivals. To the extent that our culture is scientistic, we dismiss the very possibility of such a rivalry, and so we oversimplify the postmodern reduction of philosophy and of religion to art. We assume that any piece of art is as good as any other, that art must be dead because artists tend to be impoverished and thus can pose no threat to the established order. And we say this even as we consume the very-much-alive art that serves those ruling powers. The fact that dehumanizing, corporate art--advertisements, infotainment, and various mainstream spectacles and diversions--is mass-produced by Serious businesspeople proves that art has the potential to modulate our consciousness and character. We forget, too, that Socrates and the character Jesus were hardly wealthy when they inspired their revolutionaries. As a philosophical viewpoint, atheistic naturalism, then, would be a myth to the extent that the viewpoint engages our emotions, moving us to act, as an artwork that illustrates its message with a narrative of struggling, concrete characters (protagonists and antagonists). The practical aspect of this viewpoint is better known as secular humanism, although its been corrupted now for mass consumption, in New Atheism,

53 becoming the scientism Ive described in this section and elsewhere. The atheistic naturalists implicit protagonists are the scientist, the engineer, and the businessperson (especially the oligarch, as Ayn Rand appreciated), who are agents of progress, while the antagonists are the ignorant, superstitious savage and the dogmatic, armchair philosopher or theologian who arrogantly presumes to tell us what to think without first doing the hard scientific work to discover whats what.

Atheisms Aesthetic Virtue

So much for the preliminary question of what it could mean to speak of theism and atheism as mere stories. Which is the better story, then? LP implies that the deciding factor is theisms optimism compared to atheisms pessimism. Theism is uplifting with its fantastic characters of gods, angels, demons, and even human immortal souls, while atheism is depressing with its sober, fact-confined view of reality as the series of accidents that form patterns within the impersonal dimensions of space and time. Theism affords us the satisfaction of believing that, despite the inevitability of biological death, ultimately people win since deep reality for the theist is personal. But this shouldnt be the deciding factor, since many great stories are tragic. Another basis for deciding would be to compare the richness of the characters in the two stories. Theism has extremely colourful antagonists and protagonists, such as God and the devil; indeed, these characters have influenced most Western art. Meanwhile, atheistic naturalism has, at best, the implicit and mere mortal heroes and villains I referred to above. How can even Newton, Einstein, or Tesla compare to God, and how can a prescientific tribesperson, a religious fundamentalist or an upstart academic philosopher compare to a demon, even assuming youre in the throes of scientism? Moreover, this second worldview can be construed as having no explicit characters to speak of, since science reduces subjects to objects. Assuming a good story requires characters in the first place, not to mention compelling ones, theism would be aesthetically superior to the alternative.

54 But this raises what to me is a crucial meta question about the nature of fiction. Classically, fictions role is to give the reader or viewer the experience of catharsis, which requires that she identify with the hero and live vicariously through that character. In effect, fiction appeals to our social predilection, by introducing a virtual social network which we can negotiate and in which we can enhance our status. The more fiction we consume, the more characters we become acquainted with, the larger our circle of virtual friends and enemies. We feel we come to know those characters, admiring some and condemning others. To this extent, fiction can be compared to comedy: both reinforce our comforting anthropocentrism which shields us from the alien wilderness. The wider our social circle, the less alone we feel and the more we can occupy our minds with thoughts of personal matters, of our real or virtual friends choices, deeds, physical appearance, and so forth. Fiction thus has social utility, in that a good story helps unify society by adding more characters with whom we can mentally interact. Luckily, our hunger for social interaction and for discerning mental patterns is so boundless that we can be just as emotionally affected by tales of unreal characters as by those of nonfictional ones. Again, to this extent, theism may well have an aesthetic advantage over atheism. But perhaps we need a new kind of fiction after the Scientific Revolution, just as we might now require a grimmer, genuinely subversive kind of comedy. Perhaps the most authentic kind of postmodern fiction belongs to the horror genre, since a story should address the cosmicist implications of what we now know scientifically about our natural position. Instead of reinforcing our social instincts, fiction can challenge them and drive us to become transhuman, something that has a chance of thriving in our newly perceived environment. One way this new fiction might work is by following the existentialists advice and forcing us to look into the void, to accept reality as it is instead of hiding in the alternate, artificial reality that we substitute for nature. Only when weve first wrestled with the dire philosophical implications of science can our cultural creations be existentially authentic, since only then can they express our virtues rather than our vices. Mental projections arent always bad, but anthropocentric ones that depend on our preoccupation with personal or social matters at the expense of our

55 understanding what the cosmos is really like seem to me detrimental. As Thomas Homer-Dixon says in his book, The Ingenuity Gap, technology is advancing much more rapidly than society, so that we become less and less able to solve the problems in our increasingly fast-paced, technological environment. Id add that one such hindrance is a vestige of theism, which is the sort of art that preserves a personal mindset and a culture that distract us from our existential obligation to confront the cosmic reality in which such distractions are pitifully absurd. At any rate, to show that atheistic naturalism is aesthetically superior to theism, we may first have to question fictions traditional role. You see, if we should tell stories to reinforce anthropocentrism and to maintain widespread ignorance of sciences cosmicist implications, then of course theism will make for the better story. But if anthropocentrism is obsolete, so is traditional fiction and thus so may be the aesthetic judgment in theisms favour. I should add that this is so only for those born into theistic as opposed to cosmicist societies. What I mean is that when theism rather than cosmicism is socially taken for granted, theism contributes to existential inauthenticity since that default culture prevents a sober assessment of cosmic reality. And yet imagine what life must have been like for prehumans many thousands of years ago, prior to the advent of religion. Those ancestors would have faced cosmic horror at every turn. Granted, they wouldnt have known how impersonal nature is, since they wouldnt have thought about the size of the universe or about the lack of our centrality in it. But neither would those prehumans have had the comfort of living in an animistic world, which is to say a world animated by their imagination. Life would have been nasty, brutish, and short, with some pleasure and wonder mixed in. Now, after those millennia of facing nature as it is, without its being clothed to look like a camouflaged person, the invention of religion may initially have been a virtuous creation of our species, an existentially valid way of overcoming the ugly facts of life, with honour and grace. In the early part of religions history, religious people could still be said to have come to religion without having taken a shortcut to escape from their existential predicament. But now, even after science has rediscovered the basis for cosmic horror, when we Westerners have an extensive track record of religious decadence and dogmatism, religious people no longer have

56 ownership of what was likely some such primordial horror in our prehistoric ancestors confrontation with wild nature. So in our postmodern time, certainly, theism would be aesthetically inferior to atheistic, cosmicist naturalism, given what should be the new function of fiction. This would be because theism now doesnt deal nobly with cosmicism, whereas theistic myths may once, long ago indeed have been ethically respectable acts of existential rebellion.


The Helpful Strangeness of Religious Fundamentalism ____________________________________________________

How should the atheist respond to the religious fundamentalist? The atheists inclination is to flood the theist with arguments proving the manifest irrationality of that worldview. Ive attempted to do this many times over the years, entering into long debates and dialogues especially with committed Christians. Moreover, I believe that all forms of exoteric (literalistic, inerrantist) theism are in fact irrational. The problem is that this irrationality is all too obvious; atheists miss the point when we prepare an exhaustive treatment of the theists fallacies, and indeed when we pretend that philosophical naturalism or secular humanism is a matter purely of observation and logic. We forget that a rationalist too has certain epistemic values that mark even the secular worldview as partly a matter of choice, of artistry. Ill show what I mean by considering the rational and the existential responses to a particular Evangelical Christians sermon.

The True Believer Speaks!

Joel C. Rosenberg is an Evangelical Christian and author of several novels about how modern terrorism is prophesied in the Bible. In one of his recent blog posts, he offers his readers insight into why theres so much gun violence in the US:

58 How is it possible, he asks, that violent crime in the United States has surged by more than 460 percent since 1960? The answer is as painful as it is simple: the further we turn away from God in our nation--the further we drive Him out of our society, out of our schools and courts, and out of our media, and out of our homes; or the more we give mere lip service to religion; the more men are holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power (2 Timothy 3:5)--the worse things are getting. The Lord God Almighty is a gentleman. He wont force us to accept His great love and many blessings. If a nation tells Him to leave, He will leave. But what are we reaping as a result of a society that increasingly ignores God and hates or dismisses Jesus Christ? We are witnessing a horrifying explosion of murder. We are witnessing a gruesome crime wave unprecedented in American history. What is the future of America? Is America in a Jonah moment, or a Nahum moment? Will we hear the word of the Lord that we have strayed far from the teachings of the Bible and allowed our land to become polluted with abortions and pornography and violence and wickedness of all kinds? Will we admit how far we are from Gods plan and purpose for our lives? Will we confess that our hearts are far from Jesus Christ and plead with the Lord for His mercy and grace and forgiveness? Will we fast and pray and earnestly seek Gods face, and implore Christ to give us a Third Great Awakening? Or will we ignore the word of the Lord and continue in our sins and watch our nation continue to decline, or even implode? There is a point of no return--a point at which God removes His hand of grace and mercy and turns to the judgment of America. If we dont repent for our sins, we are going to face that judgmentperhaps sooner than we think. Where are you today? Have you received Christ as your Savior and Lord? Are you absolutely certain that if you were to die today that you would spend eternity in heaven

59 with the Lord? Are you leaning on Christs everlasting arms for complete forgiveness for your sins, for hope, for peace, for comfort, for wisdom and direction in this life, and in the life to come? If not, let this be the day of salvation for you.

Fundamentalisms Flagrant Irrationality

I trust that any atheist or even Christian with an insiders grasp of the metaphorical nature of myths, who reads Rosenbergs explanation will be able to think of a thousand reasons why its grossly, obviously, embarrassingly wrong. From a rational point of view, the faults of literalistic theism are endless; whenever a true-believing theist speaks about her religion, she commits a dozen more fallacies, gets numerous facts wrong, and betrays her ignorance of one whopping irony after another. You could fill a library with texts demonstrating just a single religious fundamentalists errors, illogic, and characteristic vices. Ill just rattle off some examples before I turn to a more interesting question. Rosenberg feels--I wont say thinks--that the cause of Americans troubles is secularism and that if only Americans were more authentically Christian, they wouldnt now suffer so much. For example, theyd have less gun violence. Indeed, he says, the rise of gun violence is a sign that God is losing patience with the US and will eventually destroy that nation. How do you live as an authentic Christian? By following (parts of) the Bible and by paying heed to (some of) your inner voices, which are actually Gods. Rosenberg thus oscillates between Jewish and Christian theologies, equivocating to suit the facts that authentic Christianity is untenable and compromised by its history, and that Americans can afford to adopt only whats effectively secularized Judaism even while they blather on about Jesus. The New Testament sets out an antireligion of radical otherworldliness. To be sure, there probably was no historical Jesus or if there was, his exploits are irrelevant to the NTs thorough mythologization of his life. In any case, the character Jesus was obviously opposed to natural life, because he had his eyes set on the spirit world, having likely hallucinated the holy shape of that world

60 during his years in the desert as an ascetic. The forces of nature were thought to be those of what Paul calls powers and principalities, the fallen angels who have taken over the cosmos while--as every mystic and Platonist appreciates--the true, transcendent god cant directly be found anywhere in nature. Thus, Jesus taught an ethical system so extreme as to be practically unworkable in secular terms; that is, any society on Earth that would apply Jesus principles would collapse. This is because Jesus ethics were intended as means by which we could renounce the whole world and so save our immortal souls. For example, in an authentically Christian society, there would be no biological families, since those depend on fallen instincts that distract us from the transcendent God. Also, there would be no capitalism since that form of business is premised on egoism. Oh, and politics, which reduces to the Iron Law of Oligarchy, would likewise fall by the wayside. Thus, such a society would boast the anarchy of the 1960s hippie movement. Everyone would live as if the present life were insignificant; theyd give away all their possessions, ignore their sexual instinct, be willing to sacrifice their personal welfare at every turn, and think about God more than anything else. That is, theyd live exactly as the character Jesus lived: theyd sacrifice their earthly life because theyd trust that another one is in store for them in the afterlife, that once their corporeal body gives way due to all of their anarchic, altruistic, and ascetic practices, theyd be reborn in the spirit world and live with God for eternity. Jesus was a Gnostic hippie, a radical anarchist, pacifist, and socialist who was opposed to natural life. Thats Jesus message and thats the New Testament; thats authentic Christianity. Of course, this mystical asceticism is quite counterproductive if youre interested in establishing a religious institution in the here and now. The Church that pretended to represent Jesus naturally degenerated into a corrupt secular oligarchy. This is true of the Catholic Church and of the Protestant fiefdoms led by an assortment of megalomaniacs (televangelists, street preachers, cult gurus, and so forth). The Church literally merged with the secular Roman Empire and then with many more such empires, including the present American one. The upshot is that when Rosenberg speaks of

61 authentic Christianity, he really means secularized Judaism. The Old Testament has much more balanced and realistic ethics than does the New, because the Jews were preoccupied with furthering the political lot of their particular tribe. God for them was their God, a God who favoured the Jews, who would commit genocide to make room for Jewish prosperity, who would punish the Egyptians for abusing Gods chosen people and promise the Jews earthly happiness if only theyd follow their covenant with the Lord and obey his practical, this-worldly laws. And indeed, Jews have followed that ancient regime, with its dietary and other social rules, and are still with us today. But the point is that Rosenberg is a closet Jew, substituting Americans for Jews and the Old Testament for the New one, while throwing around the name Jesus every once in a while to make his readers think his savage tribalism has something to do with Jesus Gnostic asceticism. Indeed, Rosenberg happens literally to be a Jew for Jesus, but there are many evangelical Christians who likewise blend American nationalism with childish, literalistic theism, thus practicing a religion that has much more in common with Judaism than with Jesus mysticism. Rosenberg feels that God cares especially about Christians and thus about Americans. This requires that Rosenberg substitute an idol for the transcendent deity of monotheism, that he project an image onto the divine to flatter his ego. Rosenberg is the biased one with nationalistic pride, not the Creator of the universe. How can God choose favourites if choice requires a mind which in turn requires a brain? How could an omnipotent being limit itself to a brain that would exist in space and time? Even if Jesus represented God, the Christian gives a nod to the mystic by speaking of God the Father as transcending human categories (even while contradicting herself by calling that deity male). Why would God care more about Americans than about North Koreans? Because Americans worship God? Why would God need to be worshipped? Why would he want us to pray to him? Why would he care to save us from hell? God can have no desires, no character, and no personhood while also being the precondition of such particularities. Rosenberg feels that God can literally lose his patience, that Gods gracious only for so long before he turns to judgment and punishes the wicked. This is simply, obviously idolatry. God cant literally be a person with such a thing as patience

62 or an interest in morality or justice, without rendering theology absurd. If God has desires, he automatically has limitations, meaning that he has some desires but not others; thus, he becomes a contingent, particular thing rather than the source and precondition of all things. God becomes a created being rather than the ground of all beings. This is the point of mystical, esoteric theism which escapes the Evangelical Christian. When we try to understand something, we apply categories to it and so what we comprehend is always limited, meaning that it can so fit into our conceptual boxes. Thus, we cannot understand that which is supposed to be unlimited, infinite, and eternal, which is God. So Rosenberg must be very proud of his insight into Gods nature and purpose. Perhaps he should be canonized. Sure, he attributes this understanding to Gods revelation, but many people have read the Bible and disagree with Rosenbergs interpretation of it, just as many have claimed to speak directly with God through the inner promptings of their conscience, but have come away with an altogether different message than Rosenbergs. Nevertheless, Rosenberg can write with a straight face that he effectively represents God, that his advice on how to fix American culture correctly interprets and applies God's revealed wisdom, as though the creator of the universe would also write books and would need a human interpreter. Rosenberg feels that if we dont want God around, God will leave us since hes a gentleman. God wont force his love on those who dont want it, like a Catholic priest; instead, God loves us from a distance like a dirty old man spying on children. God makes himself present only to those who invite him in, because the presence of God is identical with the fiction you imagine as soon as you begin to seal your mind within a self-reinforcing delusion, with that initial insane act of faith in an absurdity. The creator of black holes and dark matter, of quantum mechanics and a multiverse of universes also wants a loving relationship with some clever mammals who happened to evolve by natural selection? No, that tall tale isnt fit even for children. And Americans dont turn God away with their secularism; instead, they embrace a Jewish-Christian hybrid form of idolatry and equate God with the anthropomorphic fiction they create in their image.

63 Instead of worshipping a supernatural source of every particular thing in the universe, American exoteric theists and all religious fundamentalists worship a mental projection of themselves. They prefer worldly freedom to sin and then they betray their prophets, debase mystical wisdom, and redefine God to suit their sinful lifestyles. Thus, they invent theological justifications of war, sex, family, business, and all manner of vices. Rosenberg merely uses his idol to condemn those sins to which hes personally opposed, while some other fundamentalist will condemn the secular habits that Rosenberg cherishes. Rosenberg implies that hes absolutely certain that when he dies hell spend eternity with God. But perfect certainty is cheap. Plenty of insane people in mental institutions are absolutely certain that theyre Napoleon Bonaparte or an alien from another galaxy. If you bid farewell to the rules of evidence, to the standards of rational thought, you can cheaply build up invincible confidence in any outlandish proclamation. Thats unimpressive; on the contrary, the spectacle of an adult so belittling himself is grotesque. Rosenberg should reflect on the fact that critical thinking has been instrumental to billions of heroic acts, stretching back thousands of years to our prehistory when our ancestors had to decipher environmental clues in their hunt for food, in their farming, and in their evasion of predators. How many billions of times have human children been saved by their parents rational thinking, by their commitment to think responsibly, to base their beliefs on the evidence and not to get caught up in foolish games? Whats the comparable track record of blind faith in some patent absurdity peddled by simpletons and charlatans? Of course, it goes without saying that the more religious society is hardly the more peaceful one. Organized religion is an expression of the tribal instinct to preserve one dominance hierarchy at the expense of another. No more proof of this is needed than the fact that the American religious right has replaced gentle Jesuss message of extreme self-sacrifice with a xenophobic, warmongering cult of infinite consumption. Instead of denying themselves for the sake of helping others, rightwing Americans demonize all foreigners and worship an extension of themselves in the form of their

64 tribal God who blesses social Darwinian capitalism and American military hegemony. They select an already-mutilated religion to rationalize their woeful predilections. And so rightwing Americans, who make up the bulk of evangelical Christians and who live in southern states that are by far the most violent, love guns, because they celebrate wild western individualism. That is, because the American religion is more Jewish than Christian, the most religious Americans are also the most nationalistic, and because guns were so instrumental in forging the American identity, through its War of Independence, its Civil War, and its experience of anarchy as a colonial society lacking a long monarchical history, the most religious Americans are also the most steadfast supporters of guns. Hence the egregious gun violence in the US. The problem is hardly American godlessness; rather, its that the most passionate American theists derive their absolute certainty from the childishness of their theology, and pretend to be concerned with God at the very moment they reveal that theyre blatant narcissists. Theres far too much exoteric theism in the US for that to be a relatively peaceful country.

The Irrelevance of that Irrationality

I could go on and on and on, and Im not just saying so. But notice that a rational takedown of some pitiful theistic assertions makes no difference. It solves nothing. Reason has no pride of place in religious fundamentalism. Moreover, most logical and empirical refutations of theism are hackneyed and so uninspiring. All of the crucial New Atheistic arguments were made by the old atheists a few centuries ago. Thus, I think the above sort of refutation is a distraction (as fun as it can be to formulate). Instead, we should ask ourselves what we can learn from religious fundamentalism. When I read Rosenbergs nauseating sermon or when I see a self-righteous Christian or Muslim on TV or harassing bystanders on the street, Im struck most of all by a feeling of alienation. Here, you see, we have a real sense of strangeness: between the minds of a philosophical naturalist/cosmicist and of, say, an Evangelical Christian, theres an abyss that cant be bridged. Rosenberg might as well literally be an alien from another world, or at least an alien pod thats invaded a human body, and Im sure the feelings mutual,

65 which is to say that New Atheists, for example, must seem just as bizarre to born-again Christians or to militant Muslims. This leads to the postmodern sense of vertigo, of inescapable relativism, as we come to view our way of thinking more objectively and to wonder whether we could likely be in the right when we atheists are also the bizarre, foolish aliens according to some opposing perspective. Every culture is preposterously arbitrary from an outsiders viewpoint. However natural and thus caused our beliefs may be, we are also cursed with limited freedom to create our worldview, to assign meaning and to prefer some mental associations to others; we sculpt our memories, surrender to cognitive biases, and otherwise personalize our mindspace, to feel at home in the cosmic wilderness. The result is that whereas our biological body is mostly forced on us, our mind is more artificial just to the extent that our philosophy is a matter of taste and subject, properly speaking, to aesthetic evaluation. Even the ultrarationality of a Sherlock Holmes, a Spock, or a Sheldon Cooper is a lifestyle, a work of art in which the rationalist lives. Again, then, when I read Rosenberg, I dont feel proud that I think I can eviscerate his toy religion. In the last section, I meant to present such a refutation only to set it aside, to show that someone who can think in that way also appreciates the futility of those criticisms. Instead, what interests me is the opportunity for self-knowledge afforded by the experience of such palpable strangeness. The religious fundamentalist is weirdly foolish to the secular humanist, and the feeling is mutual, and were all weirdly foolish next to the undead flow of natural processes. The universe continues to evolve and to complexify regardless of our awareness of what the universe is doing or of our ability to call processes by some names. Theres enough strangeness to go around, so we should be more impressed by displays of genuine humility. The next time we come across some theistic prattle, maybe we should be less quick to attack and more prone to reflect on the existential significance of such a meeting. Read the deranged diatribe and astound yourself by reflecting on the fact that if a mighty human body can choose to be so wrongheaded, there is no hope for anyones perfect

66 rightheadedness. Our worldviews are largely works of art and we are all silly little artists, with our pretentious berets and oversized palettes, vainly preferring to live among our self-portraits. This is not to say, with the lazy postmodernist, that all worldviews are equally meritorious, but only that we need to appeal to aesthetic and ethical standards when we judge between them. As I argue elsewhere, Christianity is currently the most hideous major religion, so it badly fails a worldviews existential test. Secular humanism is superior but still not to my taste, and Im trying to create a more aesthetically appealing worldview, which is to say an emotionally moving and rationally powerful one, sharing the results in these rants within the undead god.

Appendix: The Definition of Prayer

Prayer: obviously among the top five most embarrassingly asinine acts a person can undertake while clothed. (The top five such acts done while unclothed are all sexual in nature.) To begin briefly to count the ways (and to paraphrase Wittgenstein), prayer is as pointless as a widget attached to nothing: either the outcome you ask God for comes to pass and would have happened anyway or it doesnt because God knows better. Then theres the blatant contradiction of assuming that God is knowledgeable and powerful enough to be listening to all prayers and able to fulfill them, not to mention to have created the universe in the first place, but also dimwitted and pliable enough to need a lowly humans advice on how to run things or to be the least bit pressured by our entreaties. Next, theres another contradiction. Whoever prays is sure to clasp her hands together and close her eyes, thus signifying that she poses no threat, that she comes to God humbly and doesnt demand anything with a threat of laughably inadequate force. Moreover, prayers are generally sprinkled with self-deprecating qualifications, with incantations designed seemingly to assure any god whos listening that heres someone

67 hard done by who could use a favour. However, all of this clearly amounts to the falsest humility, since the very notion of prayer presupposes that the creature can influence or control the Creator. As is apparent from so-called primitive, shamanic religions, the medicine man goes as far as to explicitly cast spells on divine forces, as though gods could be hypnotized by magic formulas. Thus, the contradictions of modern prayer betray the origin of that form of pseudocommunication. Evidently, religions began with visionary states of consciousness caused by psychedelic drugs or trance states, in which an authoritative, seemingly all-knowing voice is heard from within. In Hinduism this gave rise to mystical monism, to the view that theres only one true consciousness and that our minds and all material forms are mere disguises worn by God. To that extent, then, prayer has at least a modicum of logic behind it: even we can influence God because were really identical with God; moreover, we can communicate with God by closing our eyes, turning inwards or perhaps whispering, since as indicated by the psychedelic voice, God resides within as pure consciousness. But western religions are individualistic, holding such monism as blasphemy. Thus, the modern prayerful theist must play an awkward charade, attesting to her profound humility while acting like she has power over God. Shes superficially passive and pleasant when she prays, since theres no point in getting mad at herself; after all, religions are based on the misinterpreted experience of being identical with God. But she nevertheless means to cast her more sophisticated magic spell, to enchant God to do her bidding, since her modernist religion elevates the individual human as the one who Nietzsche will later call the god killer. It goes without saying that every such act of prayer is a grotesque fiasco. At best, prayer distracts and comforts the one who prays, but so do a million less preposterous pastimes, like taking a long walk or reading a good book.

68 The final absurdity of prayer, though, befalls those who ridicule prayer, like the present writer, but who nevertheless find themselves instinctively calling out to no one when scared or angry. Prayer thus avenges itself on those who know better than to try to converse with an invisible person, since prayer apparently has some genetic support which drives even the most self-conscious atheist to debase herself in that fashion.


Does God Write Books? ____________________________________________________

The three main monotheistic religions each appeal to the divine authority of their exclusive religious texts. Jews, Christians, and Muslims assume that God used human authors to reveal certain moral and metaphysical teachings, which these authors wrote down to form the scriptures. Jews believe that God dictated the Torah to Moses, Christians that the Holy Spirit inspired either the overarching themes or every word of the New Testament, and Muslims that an angel dictated the Quran to Muhammad. With these farfetched presumptions in place, officials use those scriptures to command the consent of the religions members.

The Necessary Ambiguity of Revelation

There are numerous problems with the notion of a texts divine inspiration. First, theres a slippery slope here, since there would be no point of transmitting the divine message were that text to be buried in competition with mere human works and lost forever to posterity. Gods intervention, then, must extend from inspiring or dictating the text itself to manipulating social and political forces so that the text becomes popular and accepted, and even to ensuring that the divine message is properly interpreted by its millions of readers or listeners. The prospect of that degree of miraculous intervention becomes especially dubious when we appreciate that theres a multiplicity of religions,

70 each with its own holy book that conflicts with the others. Assuming God is behind only one or perhaps some of those works, God must ensure that the true divine wisdom outcompetes the pretenders. Since God is omnipotent, we might expect the most successful religion to possess the most authentic revelation. But two factors count against this assumption, both having to do with Gods interest in preserving our freewill. First, according to the theistic worldview, God doesnt want to force anyone to accept his message, and thus even though he might intervene in the world to give his message a fighting chance of being heard, God wouldnt prevent false, seductive messages from surfacing. Second, because were free we can sin and be led astray by those false teachings and even by demonic counterfeits of divine revelation. Thus, the most popular religion in any time or place neednt be one initiated by God. This raises another problem, however, which is that given this context within which God would be operating, God would had to have foreseen the near futility of his endeavour of sending us his message. The root of the problem is that theres a conflict between Gods supposed interests in preserving our freedom and in successfully informing us about how he wants us to live. On the one hand, God cant force us to listen or to understand his message; on the other, God believes that our listening and our understanding are crucial to our afterlife status. Thus, divine revelation is supposed to be a compromise: instead of speaking directly to everyone, laying out the facts about heaven and hell, angels and demons, and so on, God only imperfectly transmits his wisdom, perhaps manipulating history so that his message doesnt disappear entirely, but allowing geographical, cultural, and biological factors to take their toll on the scriptures fate. For example, God would have to concede to rationally-inclined individuals that the whole business of divine revelation is, at best, highly ambiguous. Gods hand in the revelation is so indirect that anyone should be forgiven for regarding the religion and its sacred text as entirely human-made. The multiplicity of religions, the contradictions or errors in the scriptures, the exploitation of the scriptures by unscrupulous religious

71 officials, the availability of infinite interpretations of such poetic statements as are typically found in the sacred books--all such facts add up to reasonable doubt as to whether a deity is remotely responsible for any scripture. To repeat, the only way God can allow us to choose whether to accept his advice on how to live, to render his moral judgment of our lives relevant, is for God to present his advice to us with great ambiguity, leaving room for our reasonable doubt. This means God couldnt just tell us all directly, in person, what were supposed to do. Thus, God would have to rely on human intermediaries, sacrificing their freedom by forcing them to physically write his message down and then to edit, copy, and advocate for it. But this means that those intermediaries would get to inject their biases into the work, giving the text the appearance of having no divine inspiration at all.

Grotesque Anthropomorphism
Faith is supposed to be required to look past the human context in which a scripture is actually authored, proliferated, and interpreted, and this faith is a choice. You can go with your reason which tells you to err on the side of caution and to favour the naturalistic explanation as the most likely one, this being that God would have obviously nothing to do with any of the messages spread in his name. Alternatively, you can side with your hope that the meaning of life is indeed so nicely packaged in one or another holy book. Assuming the rational path leads to damnation and the wild hope to heavenly bliss, this sort of theistic narrative is appropriately preposterous, which is to say that this tall tale is just the sort youd expect to be favoured by clueless souls trapped in the decaying corpse of the actual god who is altogether undead. To believe that theres a living God who creates the universe and gives us the capacity to reason, but sets up life as an elaborate test to see whether wed submit to absurdity in an act of reckless faith, against the overwhelming force of logic and evidence, is to fade into the ludicrous background of the natural order instead of heroically and creatively resisting that order. What I mean is that all natural, which is to say mindless, patterns are tragic and absurd, and that when you take a leap of faith that the creator of

72 dark matter, black holes, and trillions of stupendously huge nuclear fusion infernos stoops to tell us a story about which foods we should eat, who we should have sex with, and how many times a day we should pray, you participate all too closely in the ebb and flow of natural processes: you adopt natures inhumane hallmarks and make yourself horrible to look upon; you become a true child of the cosmos, a plaything of natural forces which create and destroy with no rhyme or reason, a fittingly ridiculous splatter of paint thrown up by a mad and blind artist; you make your life as preposterous and as inexplicable as the natural creation of anything from nothing. Need anyone be reminded that even were there in fact a personal God who indirectly publishes works of nonfiction for our edification, wed each have separate rational, moral, and aesthetic duties to utterly reject that theistic hypothesis, to live as though there were no such abomination? Rationally speaking, it goes without saying, all scriptures are written entirely by certain clever mammals; there is no extraordinary evidence warranting the extraordinary judgment that the universes creator had a hand in any of them: no miraculous foreknowledge, no superhuman writing skill or method of transmission, and so on. (Again, any such miracle would interfere with our free choice to reject God.) Morally, were each obligated to overcome the rank cowardice and vanity that take hold of all those theists who project an image of themselves onto the patently inhuman cosmos, when they speculate that the First Cause of quantum fluctuations, of supernovas, and of hurricanes also writes books for our benefit. That very notion is so monstrous that every time a pitifully desperate Jew, a comically hypocritical televangelist, a pompous and self-righteous Catholic, or an ignorant Muslim fanatic parades his or her odious drivel, which humanizes and so trivializes the mystery of gods undeadness, dignified people everywhere should shun those beasts, refusing even to look at them for fear of being turned to stone by their hideousness. Aesthetically, then, we should strive to beautify the entropically decaying corpse in which weve evolved; for example, we should rebel against the natural forces that exploit us, which entails abandoning childish hope, taking a more accurate measure of our existential predicament, and creatively expressing that grim awareness.


Revelation, Evil, and Freewill

However divine revelation is thought to happen, the theist is left also with a problem of freewill. Whether God or an angel would dictate a book to an author or manipulate the human authors natural faculties to write the text, thus remaining more behind the scenes, supernatural agents would thereby possess the human to some extent, turning him into a puppet. Yet the most common theistic solution to the problem of evil is that God allows us to act evilly as a result of our freewill, since our freedom is a greater good. Why, then, would God make an exception for the sake of revelation? Why would God care more about revealing certain messages to us than about the authors freewill, but more about freewill than preventing all the suffering caused by our evil acts? The clearest answer is that our suffering in this life is insignificant compared to our status in the next, and that Gods revelation is intended to inform us of that lopsidedness. That is, whether were happy or miserable in our present, earthly life makes no difference in the grand scheme, because our souls are immortal, and so God isnt much concerned with the plethora of pains to which were subject in our natural bodies. Thus, God isnt motivated to correct natural injustices, by interfering with evil peoples freewill. Gods much more concerned with our eternal destination in the afterlife, and so hes motivated to interfere with some peoples freewill to reveal the path to the best such destination. This solution, however, should be unacceptable to the theist, since it renders theism nihilistic and incoherent. Even were there a supernatural heaven and a hell which are vastly more important than planet Earth, this wouldnt mean the events in the afterlife must be all-important whereas earthly events are completely insignificant. Surely, if God created the natural universe, that fact alone would dignify nature and indeed Genesis says that God called his Creation not just good but very good. So what happens in nature must interest God to some extent, which means it should interest us. But as long as what allegedly happens to us in the afterlife matters more than what happens here and now, the theist has reason to treat everything in nature as having merely instrumental rather than inherent value. Moreover, our supernatural destinations are

74 ineffable, or at best understood imperfectly with religious metaphors, and these two facts together would seem to deprive the theist of any well-grounded values at all. In other words, the theist believes she has a divine promise of ultimate goodness or suffering in another life, an eternal destination for the spirit which requires faith here and now, because we cant rationally understand anything so disconnected from nature. The theist trusts that that promise is contingent on what we do in the present life, but because the next world is more important than the present one, all earthly events can have only secondary importance. In particular, the theist must regard them as means to achieving her ultimate end of reaching her best endpoint in the next life. Since the theist would thereby credit all natural events with mere instrumental value, and must confess that she cant understand her ultimate values of heaven and hell, the theist would be left without any tangible value to speak of. She should be hopelessly adrift, blindly following religious orders like a robot with little or no conception of their meaning. Moreover, if natural life has only instrumental value compared to the supernatural kind, but the latter depends on a divine judgment of the former, which sends us either to heaven or to hell, the relative unimportance of natural life saps the ultimate value of our supernatural destination. Heres an analogy: an Olympian athlete trains for months to run a race, she wins and is awarded a gold medal. Her training and the race itself have entirely instrumental value to her, meaning that her ultimate goal is to win the medal. Now the medal is made of gold, which gives it an independent, albeit not an inherent value, since the demand for gold is greater than the metals supply. But suppose the medal were made of paper so that the medals only value is its abstract representation of the fact that its wearer comes in first place in the race. And suppose also what happens to be counterfactual, which is that the training has no purpose other than to win the competition, that the athletes lose their added muscles and skills after the race, for example. In that case, I submit, the goal of being such an athlete and of winning the race would be arbitrary, which is to say, pretty much pointless. If the value of the journey is solely to reach a certain destination, and the destination is nothing but the

75 outcome of that journey, both the journey and the destination are vacuous. The meaning of the whole affair becomes stipulated and arbitrary. Now, just as the medal is actually made of gold, which has independent value, heaven and hell are supposed to include great pleasure or pain, which should be independently reckoned with. But because where we end up would depend crucially on Gods judgment of what we do in our natural life (whether we follow Gods laws, accept Jesus as our savior, and so on), and that natural life would be a game to test where we belong in the next life, the gravity of heaven and of hell would be lost, as it were. Those in heaven would suffer from the anticlimax that their great joy rests on something as comparatively trivial as what they did in a world that would have passed away, fulfilling its purpose as a mere cocoon for their benefit. Meanwhile, those in hell could content themselves with knowing that although they suffer horribly, their misdeeds must have been relatively insignificant in the first place, since they would have affected only embodied spirits in a game of natural life, and so the divine judgment of sinners must be farcical. If this is the case, though, theism becomes incoherent, since now the supernatural destination loses its ultimate value and the choice of whether to construe natural events as mere means to achieving a supernatural end becomes the choice of whether to play a certain game. Granted, the game in question would be Gods, but it would be a mere game nonetheless, with arbitrary rules and an end state with ultimately artificial, stipulated significance. God would declare those in heaven to be good and those in hell to be bad, but the value of the earthly actions that land those spirits where they end up would be instrumental, which is to say that the only reason to care about earthly happiness or suffering would be because either is a means to our supposedly much more important placement in the afterlife. Remember that were earthly suffering to have some independent value, God would have reason to value that suffering more than the freewill of evil people, so that he might prevent the former by interfering with the latter. Only were the importance of natural events trumped by that of the afterlife, because the former are the means by which we achieve our status in the latter, would God clearly

76 have reason to value our freewill more than our corporeal happiness or suffering. But the mere instrumentality and thus game-like quality of natural life would deprive life's conclusion of its ultimate significance, rendering heaven and hell absurd.

Comic Relief
The notion of divine revelation through scripture is one of the more prevalent but nonetheless loathsome features of exoteric theism. Luckily, critics of theism can spare themselves the physiological damage of apoplexy from contemplating these religions, by paying attention to the comedic value which lies safe and secure in the fact that though most theists claim to have in their possession some such God-written text, they typically either ignore each and every one of its teachings or else substitute their laughably primitive perceptions for what would be Gods, by cherry-picking the parts of their scripture which they deem relevant or plausible. Needless to say, the magnitude of this theistic hypocrisy is beyond measure. Again, when anyone subscribes to such extravagant balderdash in the first place, she dehumanizes herself and submits to natural processes of complexification; thus, the pattern of her daily activities becomes as monstrous as the universes scale, her hypocrisy as grotesque as the imbalance between the evolution of a galaxy and its being swallowed by a black hole. That is to say, believing that God writes books is bad enough, but because the cosmos is a perverse cornucopia, spouting endless tragedies and absurdities, the theist must go one step beyond even that foolish affirmation; she must cast aside all pretense of being a dignified, sentient rebel against the cosmic horrors, and perpetrate a bonus bit of nonsense: she must pretend to care about her manifestly fictional deity while actively ignoring most of what this deity is supposed to have miraculously penetrated the present world to tell her. Having resigned herself to the undead gods tyranny, with no thought of resistance, the theist utterly abandons herself to the sway of mindless forces, heaping one absurdity upon another until the local process of complexification is complete: natural forces, including the biases and fallacies to which were prone, produce a fantasy world in the theists mind, a mental map that bears as little relation to

77 natural reality as one cosmos would bear to another in the multiverse. The theists worldview, complete with anthropomorphisms, delusions, fallacies, and so forth, stands as an emergent level of reality, like scum floating to the surface which nevertheless boasts patterns of putrefaction that can be divined by an intrepid anthropologist. The fortunate point, though, is that this abyss between the theistic worldview and the reality of nature, between the theists self-indulgent conception of the First Cause and her vice-driven, beastly lifestyle which reveals the vaingloriousness of theistic religion as efficiently as any atheistic counterargument, is enormously funny! Instead of criticizing the theistic notion of divine revelation, which after all requires little more than stating the obvious, enlightened individuals might choose instead to allow this corner of the cosmic drama to unfold like a devastating but still existentially arresting train wreck. The evident contrast between our godlike technoscience and our savage or petty confusions is the stuff of classic tragicomedy. Indeed, the spectacle of American culture, in particular, in which those two opposites flourish, will be as universally laughable centuries from now as are the backwards aspects of premodern cultures to the modern mindset.


Christian Chutzpah: Why Christianity is the Worst Religion ____________________________________________________

Even though Islam is arguably now a much more dangerous religion, the favourite target of Anglo-American so-called New Atheists, inspired by writers like Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, P.Z. Myers and Jerry Coyne, is Christianity. One obvious reason for this is that Christianity is the predominant western religion, especially in the US which is the most religious western nation. Many Christian commentators complain on places like Fox News, Christian Broadcasting Network, talk radio programs, and (in Canada) on Michael Corens shows, that Christians are thus persecuted, that secularists have a double standard, professing to be tolerant and respectful of personal liberties, but waging a bitter campaign against Christianity, a religion thats conspicuously the greatest force for good in the world. The implication, of course, for the Christians who keep one eye on such media and the other on the Bible, is that New Atheists are literally in league with the devil and therefore beneath contempt. The typical New Atheist response is to produce a hackneyed list of grievances with Christianity, including crass statistics on the numbers of people historically killed in the religions name; the religions failure to measure up to scientistic standards of evidence; and the religions opposition to politically correct liberal views on social issues like abortion, gay rights, and science education. Regardless of the status of those issues, Christianity is indeed supremely worthy of criticism--but for another reason entirely, and

79 so Ill lay aside the standard New Atheistic arguments. (For a summary of general arguments against theism, see Theism.) A sufficient reason why Christianity is the worst religion is aesthetic in flavour, picking up on Nietzsches psychological critique of Christian resentment. Nietzsche wasnt interested in whether Christian beliefs are true, since for him all truth is subjective, reflecting the will to power. So instead of tediously pointing out biblical contradictions, the absurdity of miracle claims, or the fallacies in arguments for Gods existence, he focused on tracing the character of Christian theology back to its psychological origins in the experience of the earliest Christians. Somewhat in that spirit, I want to highlight an aesthetic reason why nontheists ought to be critical especially of Christianity. The most unforgivable fault of mainstream and elite Christians--and its unforgivable because the fault offends good taste, and the taste of something is visceral and thus highly memorable--is their chutzpah, their sheer audacity, their shameless participation in historical reversals that pile irony on top of irony until today the whole grotesque Christian edifice--what Kierkegaard called Christendom--is a glaring sign of the universes absurdity and perhaps the clearest proof of Gods nonexistence. Tertullian is infamous for saying that he believes the Christian message because of the messages shamefulness, silliness, and impossibility, but Christianitys absurdity is much deeper than the content of its creeds. Again, Im not interested here in the epistemic status of Christian theology. I stress instead that when you compare the content of early Christian documents, including the New Testament and extracanonical, Gnostic scriptures, with the thrust of the Churchs historical development, youre bound to be repulsed by the gall of so-called Christians simply for their association with the oldest, most hypocritical institution which is the Christian Church.

Jesus Repudiation of the World

I begin by summarizing Jesus ethics as found in the gospels and as highlighted by liberal Bible scholars such as those who formed the Jesus Seminar. If we look at the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus other teachings, we find that, regardless of whether

80 he existed in history, the character of Jesus was an iconoclast. He railed against the Pharisees for their legalistic aloofness and he sided with the suffering poor, with the outsiders and outcasts. Not only did Jesus heal people like prostitutes and lepers, but he prophesied that the poor will inherit the earth, that the kingdom of God will undo the perversions of secular kingdoms in which a minority of privileged elites rule over the starving, impoverished masses. His parables and aphorisms reverse expectations by comparing heaven to a leavening agent in bread (leaven being symbolic of a corrupting influence), and by declaring that the first will be last and the last first: that a rich man will have as easy a time getting into heaven as would a camel of going through the eye of a needle; that earthly standards of ethics are meaningless in Gods eyes, and that therefore instead of following your gut and seeking revenge against someone whos wronged you, say, by striking your face, you should turn the other cheek; that your earthly family is inconsequential compared to the bonds between everyone as Gods children, and that therefore you should give away all your possessions to the poor and follow God instead of pursuing a comfortable life here and now; that good deeds are of minor importance compared to the intention which must be pure, since God judges even our thoughts and feelings. In short, Jesus was a radical socialist and ascetic who condemned all expressions of human pride, from power imbalances, to war, to the narrowly-defined human family, to hypocritical shows of piety. All such natural excesses are preposterous given the nearness of Gods kingdom, whether this nearness is understood in temporal or in metaphysical terms. That is, regardless of whether Jesus assumed that God would soon terminate the natural course of things for everyone at once and personally reign after an imminent Judgment Day or that Gods reign is near for each individual who, after all, lives for only several decades before dying and waking to Gods judgment, Jesus main point was surely that wed agree that radical changes are needed in all of our lives if only we could appreciate the spiritual context. Like horses with blinders on their eyes, we see only the present world, with all of its temptations and injustices, but Jesus claimed to be intimate with a spiritual source of nature, with divine creativity that renders the whole of creation comparatively insignificant.


All of this can be gleaned from the apparent influence of Essenian Judaism on Jesus, perhaps through John the Baptist. According to Josephus, Philo, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Essenes, who lived from the second century BCE to the first century CE and, as Josephus says, were present in large numbers in every town, were also dedicated to voluntary poverty, baptism, and the ascetic renunciation of worldly pleasures. Moreover, as I said, the radical nature of Jesus ethics is evident even in the New Testament which--aside from Pauls portion--contains the mere exoteric Christian documents from the Churchs earliest period (although forgeries and obfuscating English translations render Pauls letters orthodox). But by a wild improbability, an esoteric Christian library survived over the centuries and was discovered in Egypt in 1945. The Gnostic Christians were persecuted as heretics by the orthodox, literalistic Christians, but some of the Gnostic texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas, are as early as the canonical ones, especially since they effectively include Pauls authentic letters which are the earliest Christian texts. Moreover, the Gnostic texts make sense of clues in the canonical gospels regarding the basis of Jesus radicalism. When we put together the cosmologies implicit in the Gnostic gospels with Jesus ethical teachings in the canonical gospels, were forced to regard early Christianity as a God-intoxicated, and thus anarchical, antisocial, ascetic, utterly unworkable rebellion against the natural world. As Nietzsche put it, Christianity was otherworldly to the point of being antinatural and nihilistic in the sense that the earliest Christians valued only a ghostly world beyond the present one. The fact that many of the earliest Christians were Gnostics means that Christianity was continuous with the perennial wisdom traditions that gave rise to eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Indeed, as the mystic Manly Hall says in Lectures on Ancient Philosophy, the entirety of the Christian good news is easily interpreted as an allegory of the spiritual enlightenment that each individual ought to experience, of the need to renounce the standards fit for our natural bodies and to identify instead with the divinity within, which is our own conscious self. The good news, for those with esoteric

82 insight, wouldnt be that one particular man named Jesus rescued us all from the cosmos in which were trapped by the evil lord of this world, by being crucified at the start of the first century CE. Instead, according to the insiders version of Christianity, the mystical, psychological truth is that we each have our own power of Christ within us because, as Plato said, we can remember our higher, spiritual home; that is, we have an innate conscience, or sense of the good, which forces everyone eventually to condemn the physical cosmos in favour of our ideals. In Christian terms, we each already have the power of self-transformation, of sacrificing the life of our natural bodies, which are sources of sin and suffering, casting off those shells to free our true spiritual or conscious self. Again, according to this view, the crucifixion of Christ isnt a unique historical event that happened only to one person, but an obligation for each suffering individual, whos trapped in Gods spoiled creation and forced to sin just by being born into this world with a distracting animalistic body, to realize that this world is a sham compared to our true home with God. The point is that many early Christians carried Jesus radical viewpoint from ethics to metaphysics and cosmology, condemning not just imperial Rome but the whole natural order as monstrously unjust, as a prison for spirit (consciousness). As the scholar of Gnosticism, Hans Jonas, points out in The Gnostic Religion, the Gnostic Christian shares the modern existentialists feelings of alienation, and Id add that Lovecrafts science-centered cosmicism is consistent with this antinatural viewpoint. Indeed, contrary to Nietzsche, Jesus hostility to nature is admirable as far as it goes, since it presupposes an appreciation of what I call our grim existential situation, or what Christians call our fallen state. Both Jesus and Nietzsche appreciate the horrors of nature, although they disagree on the virtues needed for the best response. But whether Jesus was himself a Gnostic or even whether he lived at all as an historical figure who preached and was crucified, as stated in the canonical gospels, is irrelevant for the purpose of my aesthetic case against Christianity. The unavoidable conclusion, though, is that earliest Christianity was astonishingly radical. We know this now not just from Jesus ethical teachings in the New Testament (NT), which for many centuries were available only to Christian elites who spoke Latin, but from the Gnostic gospels, which

83 again were unavailable for many centuries, because most Gnostic texts were burned along with the Gnostics themselves by literalistic Christians.

Jesus versus the Imperial Church

And so we approach the first absurd, stomach-churning turning point, the first indisputable moment of irony in Christian history, which was the Constantinian shift in the fourth century when Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, introducing state involvement in the religion and beginning the long process of making Christianity the empires official religion. Max Weber called this caesaropapism, the complete subordination of priests to secular power. No words can adequately characterize the chutzpah of those so-called Christians who went along with that imperial use of what was once indisputably an iconoclastic, anti-imperial, indeed antinatural cult of rebellion. Just try to imagine: youre an early Christian who claims to follow the teachings of a Jewish radical who was crucified by the imperial powers of Rome in league with Jewish elites who rejected Jesus preaching. (We can now surmise that what many Jews rejected in Jesus was the Greco-Roman syncretism with Judaism, which formed a Jewish brand of Gnosticism called Christianity). Now Christianity is embraced by Rome, and you decide to curry favour with the empire by representing your local church in the Ecumenical Councils, to produce a version of Christianity that might be graced by Romes stamp of approval. Jesus loathed and was killed by Rome, you claim to follow Jesus, and now you align yourself with Rome in Jesus name? The irony is breathtaking! However, not all Christians went along with Rome. The Gnostics didnt attend the Rome-sponsored councils that hammered out Christian orthodoxy, remaining true to the otherworldly spirit of Jesus message. The Donatist Christians as well went as far as to reject the authority of priests who thrived under Constantine but who had betrayed fellow Christians to save themselves, during the earlier Roman persecution of Christians by the emperor Diocletian. At the Council of Arles in 314 CE, the Donatists were condemned as heretics, while for obvious Christian reasons the Donatists in turn

84 condemned the Roman Empire as evil due, for example, to its wealth which went hand in hand with sin. In 317 Constantine sent troops to kill or banish the Donatists, withdrawing the troops in 321. Donatist opposition to Rome-backed Churches persisted until the seventh century when the Muslim conquests rendered the inter-Christian conflicts moot. Why many Christians went along with pro-Christian emperors is easy to understand. Rome had destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE; moreover, according to Christian beliefs, Rome had slain Jesus himself as well as other Christian martyrs. Although Rome was tolerant of and often indifferent to the religious practices of the cultures it ruled, the empire smashed anti-Roman uprisings with an iron fist, which indicates again how radical Jesus would had to have been to be executed. On top of that understandable fear, theres the passage of centuries between Jesus and Romes conversion to Christianity, which means that the memory of Jesus intentions would have faded even for the Gnostics, Donatists, and others who best understood what Jesus was up to, let alone for the fair-weather followers who might have come and gone with not even an indirect connection to Jesus himself. Just as pedophiles presently exploit Catholic Church policies, many Jews and gentiles would have joined a movement that synthesized Judaism with Hellenism--but in pursuit of their own agenda, especially once Rome stopped persecuting Christians and favoured the religion. Still, the effrontery of those later Christians is repellent. There was sufficient evidence of what the religions founder would have said and done, in those myriad gospel narratives and other Christian scriptures. Although those texts conflicted with each other, which is why the Ecumenical Councils were needed to unify the Christian Roman Empire, something like the summary I give above must nevertheless have shone through. Indeed, the audacity of those Christians who betrayed what they must have regarded as their founders clear message, by accepting state power to establish Christianity as an imperial religion, is matched only by the Romans cynicism. Granted, the gospel narratives that were selected for inclusion in the Christian canon whitewashed any Roman involvement in Jesus death and scapegoated the Jews. But Jesus radical

85 message remains even in those sanitized texts, and that message is at least implicitly opposed to all grand secular endeavours, including political ones. (Presumably, the gospels couldnt have been entirely rewritten for the purpose of Roman propaganda, because theyd already become popular, thanks to their mystical and thus implicitly antiRoman message.) For example, Jesus was evidently opposed to war and family, which were bedrocks for Rome. Nevertheless, Constantine and later emperors chose to help unify their failing empire by converting to a religion founded by a Jewish radical anarchist, socialist and antinaturalist, which made Jesus at least implicitly an antiimperialist. Partly, the emperors must have grown comfortable with Christianity because Roman religion already had its own plethora of rising and dying demigods. Also, their familiarity with the Roman versions of the perennial wisdom traditions, such as in the mystery cults, would have made the emperors privy to the esoteric view, according to which the story of any dying and rising god-man is allegorical, and thus the emperors would have realized that Rome didnt actually kill the Son of God. Yet another reason for Romes eventual use of Christianity, to which Ill return in the next section, is that the subtext of the Christian message actually favours secularization, a point which opens the way for a second level of Christian chutzpah. If Rome could assimilate even Jesus radicalism, the Empire could stamp out any anti-Imperial sentiment. As Elaine Pagels points out in The Gnostic Gospels, literalistic Christianity was embraced by Rome as orthodox because it empowered a hierarchy of Church officials (Jesus had to personally confer power to Peter, the first Pope), whereas the Gnostic Christian was more like the Protestant in his or her pursuit of individual salvation without the need of any connection to a religious institution. Gnostic Christianity was thus useless to the emperors in their attempt to revive their empire by unifying its culture. Rome needed a bureaucracy to exercise top-down control of mass religion. Ultimately, the reason for the split between the hierarchical, literalistic Church and the individualistic, Gnostic one is the exoteric-esoteric divide in any mass movement in which the masses have unequal cognitive capacities. Just as gifted children in private

86 schools are given the freedom to pursue their own interests, whereas less intelligent children are forced to follow a technocratic curriculum, the more sophisticated Christians were attracted to the philosophical character of Gnosticism, to the idea that salvation requires secret knowledge of the grim reality of nature, whereas the poorer, illiterate, or less intellectually-curious Christians had to be led, and that demand for leadership was naturally met by a supply of Christian leaders, who became the Catholic priests, bishops and popes. Catholics will respond that the state involvement in the Church benefited both sides, that the Christian Church obviously flourished thanks to its access to secular power. But this response misses the point: the Churchs flourishing in the evil, fallen world, governed by what Paul called powers and principalities, is a bad thing from Jesus radical, antinatural perspective. Authentic Christians want to escape the prison of nature, not build an empire within that prison. The audacity of early Catholics was their pretense to be followers of both Jesus and the Roman emperor. As Jesus said, you cant serve two masters, God and money. The fallout from the decline of Jesus ideological influence on the Church is well-known. Just compare Jesus anarchic, socialist, pacifistic, otherworldly rhetoric to the language used in the Roman Edict of Thessalonica in 380, given by emperors Theodosius, Gratian, and Valentinian II, which formally established the Catholic Church as the exclusive religion of the Roman Empire: We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title of Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since in our judgment they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give to their conventicles the name of churches. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of the divine condemnation and in the second the punishment of our authority which in accordance with the will of Heaven we shall decide to inflict.

87 Were looking here at the difference between day and night. That the one should turn into the other requires a revolution, which is to say that the Church that was established in Jesus name betrayed the heart of his message, the spirit of his rebellion. The ironies are many and palpable. And so for centuries, Christians acquired secular power by persecuting other Christians and then non-Christians, leading to the destruction of pagan society; to the imprisonment, torture, or burning of heretics including Gnostics, Jews, pagans, witches, and scientists; to the pogroms and inquisitions against thought crimes; to the crusades against the Muslim Empire; to the European wars between Catholics and Protestants; and to the genocide against Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans. Again, my point isnt to judge Church history from a modern, secular perspective, but to condemn the cognitive dissonance and audacity of at least the educated and non-monastic Christians, which enabled them to call themselves followers of Jesus even while their lifestyle seldom had anything to do with his otherworldly renunciation of natural life. Their chutzpah is appalling. Sure, Jesus vehemently condemned people to hellfire, but the type that he condemned would have included the exclusivist and hypocritical friends of secular power who came to run the Church. And granted, the Catholic Church also fed and clothed the poor, through its monasteries and missions, and a minority of Christians lived ascetically as monks, nuns, and mystics. Catholic history is mixed from a Christian perspective. But in the first place, the standard of living might not have been so low that there arose such a demand for Church charity, had the Church not destroyed pagan society and stifled intellectual progress, holding medieval Europe in a dark age while the more rational Muslim society prospered. Secondly, the extent to which the Catholic Church cared for the poor and advocated asceticism, thus staying true to its founder, is outweighed by the magnitude of its betrayal of Jesus, especially since, as in todays Christian charities, the assistance was rendered with secular as well as spiritual intentions: the poor were helped as long as they supported the Christian institution which empowered and enriched the elites in the Church hierarchy. Still, the charge of unbearable chutzpah doesnt apply to those Christians who actually tried to live like Jesus.


Secular Christianity: a Second Level of Chutzpah

Catholics will reply that the Church isnt like a constitutional democracy which is tied mainly to its founding documents: the Church ought to evolve wherever the Holy Spirit takes it. This brings me to the deeper level of Christian audacity. The first level is the most obvious one, which Ive been highlighting: Jesus was an iconoclastic and otherworldly anarchist, socialist, pacifist, and ascetic, whereas the institution that arose to spread his message clearly betrayed his ideals by joining with the secular power of the Roman Empire. As indicated by the Gnostic gospels, Pauls letters, and the NT gospels, Jesus was opposed to all of Creation in so far as Creation was governed by natural rather than divine powers. Jesus was a dualist who didnt assume that God works through all natural forces, such as the Roman Empire. On the contrary, as Jesus reportedly said, we should render unto Caesar whats his and unto God the things that are Gods. From the original Christian perspective, those two allotments differ from each other, because Gods will is opposed by demons that enslave Gods children by distracting us with secular goals of money, power, and pleasure that are inconsequential in the divine scheme. (The NT gospels even depict Jesus resisting the devil's temptations in a face-to-face confrontation with the devil.) Thats why Jesus ethics seem to us so radical and impractical: weve fallen far short of divine standards because weve lost sight of the big picture; were so distant from God that we cant save ourselves and so God needed to leave his heavenly abode and be incarnated in the midst of evil, in the natural world of darkness, and die on the cross as our sacrifice. But the Catholic is a monist who shares the Jewish belief that Creation is good, that God isnt alienated from nature but works within it in the form of the Holy Spirit which guides the Church, animating the body of Christ. So the Catholic can say that there was no Christian audacity, because Christians arent bound even by the New Testament, but must attend to the ever-developing Christian message as its revealed especially to the Catholic hierarchy which was empowered to be Gods chief instrument for our salvation, next to Jesus. Thus, in effect, the Catholic can move the goal posts to justify the secularization of Christianity. After all, the subtext of Jesus

89 message, as its presented in the NT, is found in the prevailing interpretation of the Pauline gospel, according to which Jesus ethical standards are impossible for fallen humans to adopt and so all that should be expected of us is that we claim Jesus excellence as our own, by proclaiming him our lord and savior. That is, the orthodox view of Pauls formulation of the gospel came to dominate Christian thought, but that view effectively undermines Jesus antinatural radicalism and excuses bad, secular behaviour on the part of Christians. Note the order in which the NT texts are presented in the Bible: the gospels come first even though Pauls letters, which barely mention the historical Jesus, are older. The resulting impression on the reader is that Paul implicitly criticizes Jesus for being unrealistic. The gospels tell of Jesus harangues against humanity for being so impure, and then of his being executed for his trouble. The subtext is one of realism: in the fallen world thats distant from God and at best indirectly controlled by heavenly forces, humans will either fail miserably to live up to Gods standards and save ourselves from the hell which is our lot or else the forces of evil will avenge themselves on those saints who reveal an escape hatch in the form of an ascetic life. Then comes the real good news in spite of the apparent bad news of Jesus lofty standards and ignominious death: as Paul seems to say, theres a short cut, an easy way out for even the greatest sinner, which is that we simply need to confess our sins and call upon Jesus to save us, in which case the credit Jesus earned for himself will be transferred to us without our having to personally live like Jesus and earn our own way. (As indicated in the previous section, that latter point is one where Gnostics and Catholics differ in their reading of Paul. Gnostics believed we each have our own power of Christ to overcome ignorance and liberate our state of mind, whereas Catholics contend that we acquire that power only from external sources of salvation, namely from the concrete event of Jesus sacrifice and from the Catholic institution.) On this realistic, quasi-Pauline subtext of the NT, then, there are two Christian excuses for sin and thus for a rejection of Jesus ethics. First, contrary to Gnostic Christianity, God works throughout the imperfect natural universe and so Gods representatives in

90 the Catholic and Protestant Churches need offer no apology for allying with such secular forces as the Roman, Russian, Spanish, French, British, and American Empires. But compromises are needed because we do live in a fallen world, just as God limits himself by achieving his goals for Creation by mysterious and convoluted means. Second and contrary to Judaism and Gnosticism, God expects very little from us in our fallen state (were fallen in that were spirits which have lost our unity with God and been imprisoned in matter); we cant save ourselves and so were bound to sin even after we become Christian. With these two assumptions in mind, the full meaning of Church history comes into view. On a nave level, discussed in the last section, the Church repulses me with its wholesale treachery against its own scriptural ideals. But when we interpret those scriptures like a jesuitic Christian, we discover that most Christian leaders havent shared Jesus radical ideals since perhaps the second century. Instead, these leaders embrace the secular world and its natural ideals of wealth, power, and pleasure, viewing them as they think God views them, as instruments that ultimately serve Gods will even if only God knows how. By incarnating on Earth, God conquered and sanctified fallen nature, and so God blesses secular powers as long as we inevitable sinners follow Gods path through the wilderness. By severing the Church from Jesus otherworldly radicalism and worshipping God the Holy Spirit as it historically preserves the Church by adapting it to changing circumstances, Catholics effectively deify the natural forces of time and of social evolution, including all of the biological and psychological factors that determine how Christians respond to events and how Catholic officials make pivotal decisions for the Church. In this sense, Christianity brings God down to Earth just as Aristotle reduced Platos transcendent Forms to natural processes. The upshot is that Christianity reduces to a kind of pantheism. Far from undermining pagan secularism, the Church merely renames some gods and prunes the over-abundant mythical celebrations of mystical experience by focusing on a Jewish version of the pre-existing myth of the dying and rising god. From the elite Christian perspective, Christianity is just as this-worldly or practically secular as Judaism and Roman religion, which means that

91 Christianity is ultimately just another ideology in the service of secular powers, similar even to the most primitive form of tribal idolatry. Again, where Christians distinguish themselves is their monumental audacity, their delusion that their religion differs from a garden-variety rationalization of secular injustices and dominance hierarchies. The deeper level of Christian chutzpah, then, is that Christians typically assume a self-righteous posture, paying lip service to Jesus ascetic ravings but practicing a religion that effectively justifies any secular activity, no matter how counter-productive or even abominable from a spiritual, antinatural viewpoint. To be sure, this audacity would be impossible without their uniquely radical scripture that speaks of Jesus ethics, since that scripture serves as a fig leaf concealing the shame of Christians secular preoccupations. The most familiar case of Christianity as a handmaiden of secular powers is the American conservatives brand of the religion, which very obviously bears not the slightest resemblance to anything that Jesus would have welcomed. From the warmongering to the fetishes for guns, violent sporting events, and Ken and Barbie doll-like nuclear families; and from the greed for money and material goods to the seamless union between religious and Machiavellian schemes in the Republican party, conservative Christianity in the US is a farcical charade, a preposterous amalgamation of opposites that brings shame to all its informed participants. By contrast, Jewish and Islamic scriptures openly sanctify secular forces, including war, as long as the participants compensate by chanting some magic words, eating select foods, and performing other comparatively meaningless rituals. This is why whatever excesses the Israeli military or the mujahedin may be guilty of and however complicated their scriptures may be which allow for moderate and liberal interpretations, their killing for the secular purposes of protecting land, exacting vengeance and so forth are never obviously wrong from a Jewish or Islamic frame of reference, respectively. Sure, Jews have their Ten Commandments, but they also have volume upon volume of rabbinical commentaries on the Hebrew Scriptures, making every manner of legalistic distinction which effectively justifies any conceivable action a person might take. Thus are Jews

92 secular survivors above all else, which is why they're not hypocritical when they reject mystical ideals.

The Worst Religion in the World

With regard to the major extant religions, only Christianity begins with the preaching of so uncompromising a form of antinatural dualism, wearing the record of that preaching like an albatross, and double-crosses that radicalism so quickly and fully while Christians so blithely attempt to have it both ways. No other religion can tempt its practitioners to exhibit such disdain for what the religion itself proclaims is the ultimate truth. That sin against its own stated principles, that forced hypocrisy makes Christianity the ugliest religion, the one thats most embarrassing to people of good taste. Christians ought to be the most confused members of a major religion, because their scripture is so utterly opposed to their religions history. That conflict isnt accidental. Jesus radicalism was unworkable from the outset, because Jesus condemned all natural works, all natural forces, all our thoughts and inclinations that arent Godsoaked. Jesus was opposed to this whole world, to this kingdom not yet ruled by God. The very notion that a religious institution, such as the Church, should be erected in his name is grotesque. Evidently, Jesus didnt take matters into his own hands and write an account of what sort of institution he wanted to create. As the Gnostics understood, Jesus wanted to create no institution at all, since he didnt want to add one more natural burden to distract us from what he regarded as the ultimate, harrowing truth, that we need to abandon this present world entirely by way of loving God alone with all our emotions, intellect, and consciousness. Naturally, no sooner had the Church gained a sizeable following so that it became useful to the local secular power, than that leviathan, the Roman Empire, swallowed the Church whole. The fact that the Church promptly dropped all pretense of following Jesus contempt for natural life and united not with God but with one hotbed of natural vice after another, from one secular empire to the next, earns Christianity the title of

93 Worst Religion in the World, aesthetically speaking. Moreover, the Christian religion is thus the most richly deserving of philosophical and scientific criticisms, if only because those intellectual criticisms prettify the more gut-level but nevertheless warranted response, which is just that of vomiting in the presence of any educated, non-ascetic Christian. For centuries, these lapsed Christians have had the habit of wearing precious metal crosses around their neck, ostensibly to remind themselves of Jesus crucifixion. What they should at least subconsciously appreciate, though, is that they themselves symbolically condemn Jesus just by owning those crosses instead of giving them to the poor, not to mention by betraying their so-called Lord in a thousand other ways. Their audacity knows no bounds when they feign to follow Jesus the ascetic, the socialist, the pacifist, and the anarchist, even as they belong to a treacherous Church and live as hedonists, war supporters, and eager members of secular institutions while wearing about their neck a perfect symbol of their own apparent contempt for Jesus.


Christian Crudities: An Aesthetic Condemnation of Christian Myths ____________________________________________________

Christian theological assertions are illogical and highly improbable, but those faults have almost no place in a proper denial of them. Religion is the irrational core of every worldview, of every belief system, mindset or way of looking at the world. Its currently fashionable for so-called New Atheists to castigate mainly Christians and Muslims for the palpable irrationality of their religious beliefs, as though the issue that separates socalled secularists and theists were the Manichean conflict of Faith versus Reason. No non-autistic or otherwise sane atheist is a hyper-rationalist, a Data-like figure who turns solely to reason in all her affairs, never speculating, feeling, intuiting, trusting, or caving to higher powers. A viable defense of atheism doesnt reduce to the following argument: (1) A worldview should be fully rational; (2) Theism is irrational; (3) Therefore our worldview shouldnt be theistic. A person does not live by Reason alone. As the sociologist Durkheim explained, youre bound to form a religion around what you hold to be of ultimate importance. Id add that only a machine truly cares about nothing, which implies that all people, all clever animals with primitive emotions and instincts, are religious. Indeed, those atheists who rest their case by showing that theists commit various fallacies and that their key assumptions are preposterous, reveal their irrational

95 commitment to certain unexamined philosophical assumptions of their own, be they pragmatic, positivistic, or scientistic. The issue, then, isnt whether a person should reject all religions as foolish, but rather which religion should be discarded. When you appreciate that logic and science stop short of fully justifying a worldview, that a human brains perspective on the world should be coherent, which means, in effect, that it should satisfy all of our cognitive faculties, including the rational and irrational parts of our mind, you should find yourself adopting subtler criteria in choosing what to believe at the philosophical or religious level. (For more along these lines, see Theism, Scientism, and Scientific and Philosophical Atheism.) Now, Christianity happens to be execrable, but the pseudo-rationalist underestimates the religions inadequacies, by banally demonstrating that Christianity isnt perfectly logical or scientific because, after all, the Bible contradicts itself and Jesus allegedly performed miracles. Proving as much shows only that Christianity fails as a mathematical proof or as a scientific theory, and such a demonstration would thereby in turn amount to a category error. Christianity contends for peoples religious commitment, and thus the religions inconsistencies and improbabilities are relatively insignificant. The more loathsome aspects of the religion, to my mind, are ethical and aesthetic. What I mean is that the religion fails now, in modern and postmodern times, to uplift as a work of imagination; on the contrary, in the present context, Christian belief degrades a persons character. When combined with modern myths and values--as every current, responsibly-held worldview must be--Christianitys shortcomings are outrageous. The point, though, isnt just that Christianity contradicts modern truths that should be taken for granted, which it obviously does, but that a synthesis of Christianity and modernism would make for an atrocious, wildly incoherent work of art that disappoints rather than fortifies. This is, of course, the Nietzschean point. What appalled Nietzsche wasnt some assortment of petty cognitive defects of the religion, but the anachronism of Christian values, the anticlimax of the Christian narrative, the unethical effect of the religion which

96 is to reconcile the gullible masses to secular excesses rather than energizing people with stories (myths) worth trusting. In Christian Chutzpah, I develop this aesthetic case against the religion, focusing on the historical context, the main point being that Christianity dulls the senses and redirects the crucial capacity for shame, because the religion reconciles the believer to the most egregious betrayals which are the Churchs compromises with secular powers. The Christian feels only the inconsequential shame of failing to suffer like Jesus, and is relieved by Pauls assurance that faith is much more important than works, that a Christian neednt be even slightly Jewish, let alone ascetic, because Jesus already carried out on our behalf all the good deeds we could hope to accomplish. Historically, this theology plays out as a rationalization of the Churchs betrayal of Jesus Gnostic rebellion against the natural world, and so associating with the religions present grotesque shell has all the charm of bullying a child with a machine gun. Now I want to expand on the criticism by contrasting the content of Christian theology not with Church history but with modern ideals. Ill emphasize the monstrous Christian deformities that emerge from that contrast and that repulse from an aesthetic viewpoint.

The Essence of Christian Theology

But first Ill summarize the narrative in question, the so-called good news, as I understand it. The problem that this religion is meant to solve is our inability to relate properly to God. Most religions codify means of pleasing God, holding out commandments to obey and rituals to perform, such as animal sacrifices. These religions perpetuate injustice and keep God and his children at a distance, because they fail to deal with the fact that God is holy whereas we are inherently imperfect and thus sinful. Even those religions which catch a glimmer of divine truth end up as human schemes, corrupted by their sinful practitioners and heaping useless burdens on their followers. This was the New Testaments point about the Pharisees (not the actual Pharisees but the characters in the Christian legend): the Jewish officials aligned

97 themselves with Rome and kept the letter of revealed Jewish law while ignoring the spiritual intention behind the law. Instead of building the kingdom of God on Earth, the bureaucratic Pharisees supported oppressive political systems that kept people apart from God. The problem was that humans are inherently corrupt and liable to sin, that because were not gods, we cant possibly live up to Gods standards. Even when God reveals his plan for us, inspiring prophets and lawmakers, people ignore or misinterpret the revelation. In modern terms, a Christian would say, this is because of our animal nature, which causes us to act as desperate, selfish beasts, not as the supernatural, altruistic beings were designed to be. Christianity is supposed to have solved this problem. Instead of relying on human initiative, God came to our planet and paid the price of our sin, sacrificing himself and thus both extricating us from the burden of wrongheaded religious hierarchies and further revealing the thrilling truth of Gods benevolence. The Creator of the universe isnt just perfectly powerful and knowledgeable, but hes a loving parent who cares about his creatures and mercifully fulfills the requirements of justice by undergoing the punishment we deserve for the myriad ways we fall short of Gods glory. Indeed, according to Christian theology, Jesus was the only begotten Son of God, which means that he was both God and a man. Thus, when Jesus was crucified by some of the very beings he was trying to save from eternal agony in hell, his intentions were Gods and so we can praise God for his mercy, and his sacrifice was meaningful because Jesus human body permitted him to genuinely suffer. Just as a human ruler can be surrounded by sycophants in a bubble of affluence and thus lose touch with his peoples miseries, God and humans had become estranged, and just as a king can reacquaint himself with his subjects by disguising himself and traveling among them, God dressed up as a human and lived amongst us. God literally walked a mile in our shoes, breaking bread with ordinary humans, to show us not just how an ideal human lives, but how much God empathizes with our plight. Gods Son, or human incarnation, felt our pain; however, instead of merely telling us so, he showed us by demonstrating both his divinity and his wretched sharing in the worst that the human

98 condition has to offer. Jesus was shown to have been divine, by the wisdom of his parables and by the supernatural power of his miraculous prophecies and healings. But Jesus humanity was apparent in his poverty, his humility, and especially in his mortality, which is to say his capacity to suffer while being tortured and executed by the Romans. The horrible irony of the Christian message is that Gods incarnation as a human revealed not just Gods identity but ours. God arrived to save us from divine retribution for our beastliness, and humans welcomed him largely by rejecting him as a foreign body. Gods creatures tortured and killed their creator, but this was Gods plan: knowing what he was getting into and how his created world would devolve, he used our wickedness to devise a way for us to be reborn: God means to shame us by demonstrating our moral failings. The Jewish and Roman authorities dutifully, if unknowingly, played their part by showing why were so helpless, because they couldnt recognize holiness when it literally stared them in the face; on the contrary, they went to war against whats most sacred, against the fleshly incarnation of the Master of the cosmos. They double-crossed noble, loving, and wise Jesus, turning him over to the cruel Roman Empire; they stripped and beat him, nailing his wrists to a wooden cross like an insect specimen in a museum--and just as biologists thereby exhibit the arrogance of the technocratic mindset that uses our capacity for quantification to exploit other species, the Jews and Romans showed why Jesus had to live in the first place, why they needed a saviour, because left to their own devices theyre forlorn, headed for the agony of everlasting separation from God. The good news is that the human reaction to Gods incarnation wasnt one-sided, since some people recognized Jesus divinity and saw the potential for a divine arrangement of human interrelations. Some Jews and gentiles followed Jesus even at the cost of their lives, giving up their livelihoods, their possessions, and their dignity in the sight of their ignorant neighbours and Roman occupiers. They fled after Jesus was executed, but continued to meet out of remembrance of what Jesus taught and what they came to understand that he represented. They formed small churches, they were persecuted by Rome, but a few centuries later the empire that had crushed Jesus was itself overcome

99 by a wave of Christians; Constantine legalized the religion and so Christianity continued to spread. Christianity became not just the worlds most powerful religion, but the only one that deals head-on with the fundamental conflict that motivates all religions: we profane beings glimpse the sacred in nature, but are unable to live in harmony with it because, after all, the sacred and the profane are so contrary to each other. On its own, the profane cant reach a state of perfection, but a perfect being can degrade itself, just as a fast car can travel also at a slow speed; thus, God took on a profane form so that he could save us from ourselves, from our estrangement from him and from our inability to satisfy his holy ideal.

The Need for an Aesthetic Appraisal of Christian Myths

So much for my most charitable presentation of the Christian message. Now, the typical New Atheist would recite a litany of Christian howlers: Jesus probably didnt live even as an historical figure, let alone as an incarnation of the ultimate creative power; the notion of a god-man is incoherent; the Bible is quite errant, so it doesn't adequately support any of Christianity's extraordinary claims; there are no supernatural events, as the philosopher Hume showed, so Jesus miracles never happened; theres no original sin, so there would have been no need for Gods self-sacrifice; the notion of an anthropomorphic deity is preposterously vain for anyone to take seriously; a deity who prepares the punishment of hellfire so liberally is a demon deserving of scorn rather than worship; Jesus and Paul's ethical teachings are inferior to those of the ancient Greeks, so Christianity fails even to uphold human wisdom. All of these criticisms are reasonable, but none is decisive. When the New Atheist finishes arguing those cases, the edifice of Christian theology will remain as influential as before, and this isnt just because Christianity has grown powerful, thanks to its long history. The underlying reason a religion becomes so powerful, in the first place, is that it satisfies a demand, and this isnt the demand for a logically airtight belief system or for a reliable hypothesis about how a natural process works.

100 To see the futility of pretending to dismiss Christianity solely on rational grounds, you need to appreciate the depth of our irrationality, what Hume called Reasons slavery to the passions (emotions). Observe how even the average scientist, engineer, mathematician, or analytic philosopher, let alone someone whos less likely to uphold the Enlightenment creed of hyper-rationalism, can be brought to tears after her reading of a craftily-written sad novel. Again, notice how virtually anyone can be terrified by a sufficiently scary movie or be compelled to pump his fist in the air when watching his favourite sports team score the winning goal. As cognitive scientists have shown, what happens is that our instinct to read each others minds and navigate our social environments can spill over, causing us to anthropomorphize everything from words on a page, to images on a movie screen, to groups of people like sports teams or political Parties. We cope with the inhumanity of natural patterns by humanizing them. Sure, we have the rational capacity to abstract from our preference for a human-centered world, for a heaven in which everyone gets what she wants. But again, no sane person is both fully and constantly rational, that is, hyper-rational. And so my point is that if we cherish arts and sports, for example, so we can vent our emotions or hone our skills at social interaction, we can also feel strongly about a theological narrative, whether its that of Jesus salvation of humanity by his sacrificial death or of humanitys utopian triumph over natural forces by the power of technoscience. Thus, even if Christian theology fails utterly in rational terms, even if Jesus never lived at all, there is no personal God, and the Christian creed is full of holes, the theological narrative can persuade on the level of metaphor, as an emotionally satisfying story like any other powerful work of fiction. Millions of Christians believe, at the very least, that even if their religious creed were literally false, humans are so tragically misguided that we would slay God in the flesh were there a personal Creator and were he to so manifest himself. And that counterfactual contention is plausible and indeed sobering. Besides the Churchs earlier power over peoples bodies, which was lamentable, here then is the heart of the religions power over peoples hearts and minds: the Christian narrative has undeniably succeeded as a work

101 of fiction that rose to the level of myth, taking hold of peoples imaginations and stirring their emotions. The irrational commitment to Christianity--which is of apiece with our attachment to our favourite novels, movies, sports teams, political Parties, or anything else we anthropomorphize and irrationally celebrate--can withstand every logical refutation, every disconfirming experiment. After all, even the cognitive scientists who understand how and why our capacity for anthropomorphic projections works, engage in the practice, emotionally identifying with their favourite fictional characters. Even a physicist who speaks the mathematical language of nature can use pornographic images for sexual gratification, and even a biologist who understands the chemical properties of love hormones can find herself falling in love. Likewise, a theist who suspects that her theology would fail as a mathematical demonstration or as a scientific argument, can have whats commonly called religious faith. Understanding the truth obscured by an illusion wont immunize a brain thats less than fully rational. This is why we should examine the aesthetic merit of Christianity, treating its theology as a story told in the context of the modern narrative of reason, freedom, and progress. (For more on the modern narrative, see Modernism and Postmodernism.) Can Christian theology now sit well with those who have had modern values thrust on them in the wake of the Age of Reason? Does the creed inspire and uplift, engaging with our emotions in a way that helps us cope with modern challenges? In other words, does Christianity make us better human beings in the modern context? I emphasize the latter because art and other outlets for our irrational side arent used in a vacuum: what engaged the imagination of someone two millennia ago in Palestine might be pass today in Europe or North America; what myths were naturally regarded as sacred in one culture may be alien and ridiculous to another.


Christian Misanthropy versus Modern Progressivism

Ill illustrate with an aesthetic evaluation of some key elements of Christian theology. Take, for example, the part of the story which Christians seem to care about most, the idea that the Almighty degraded himself by living as a mortal man and suffering out of compassion for us. The subtext of the Christian story of Gods self-sacrifice is that God offers us a backhanded compliment. On the one hand, were supposed to be worth saving, but on the other were supposed to be incapable of saving ourselves. The New Testament tells only half the story when it says that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in the power of his sacrifice should have everlasting life (John 3:16). Anyone who could love a depraved worlds potential to be good must loathe its actual depravity. The unstated corollary, then, is that God must have contempt for our choice to sin so abominably that we become unable to save ourselves from everlasting punishment. Jesus sacrificial death symbolizes not just Gods mercy but his contempt for what his prized creatures have become. After all, God could have paid the penalty for sin in private, without shaming us with a public demonstration of his moral superiority. By transforming himself into a human and living the perfect life, according to the Christian story, God effectively humiliates us, showing that we all along had the power to live well but always choose not to do so. With his supposedly sinless life as Jesus, God is like a business manager who, frustrated by his receptionists poor typing skills, shoves her out of her chair and types his own memos at record speed and with no errors, publicly shaming her while assuring everyone that he acts only to edify. To preserve Gods underlying benevolence, the Christian apologist (in both senses of the word) typically distinguishes between Gods love for the sinner and his hatred for the sin. It takes no more than a moments reflection now, though, to see why this distinction has never made the least bit of sense and is thus a ham-fisted attempt to sell the Christian narrative. A sinner is a person and sin is ungodly action. The sinner chooses to act well or badly and the action is the result of that choice, the mental command that causes the hand to feed the poor or to steal someones wallet. Thus, hating a sin is like

103 hating the rock you trip over. We anthropomorphize and emotionally react to inanimate objects or events because we have primitive programs running on our naturally selected brains. God would have no such excuse. If someone chooses to sin so abundantly that the person deserves everlasting torture, the proper target of hatred for those offenses is the sinner, not the offenses themselves which after all are just mental images, bodily movements, and their effects. So if were so wicked that were unable to please God and wed torture and execute our saviour, God must be much more ambivalent about us than the orthodox summary of the Christian narrative suggests. The only way God could love us in spite of our original sin is if were not responsible for our imperfect nature since, after all, God would have made us that way. Of course, with that assumption in place, the whole Christian story would unravel since then we wouldnt deserve punishment in hell or need Jesus sacrificial death. (As everyone knows whos raised a child or owned a pet, when a creature develops from an early age into a monster, that does speak badly of the creatures parent or owner. Our tendency to sin might thus indicate that God has been the quintessential absentee dad.) Again, priests and preachers like to emphasize our worthlessness by saying that Gods self-sacrifice was done out of grace, meaning that we do nothing to earn a way out of perdition, but that God chose freely to intervene out of compassion. This formulation likewise assumes both that we could be so wicked as to deserve hell and that God punished himself in front of us purely out of unconditional love. But love for whom? For the unrepentant sinners who arrogantly live by our own lights instead of praising our Creator at every opportunity, who are so corrupted that wed each kill or at least shun that Creator if only we were given the chance? No, in terms of narrative logic, that story makes no sense, meaning that it cant grip our imagination or stir our emotions. Gods boundless love must be for himself, for his greatness which he demonstrates by doing our job for us, by showing us how its done and then taking the high road, pretending that he doesnt act out of jealousy for our pride. This interpretation is consistent with the rest of the abysmal story, that for Jesus sacrifice to work, we have to confess Gods greatness and our worthlessness, we have to attribute all good things to God, avoiding pride like the plague, in which case were reborn as proper children of

104 God and Jesus heavenly Father comes to resemble nothing as much as a typical human despot whos naturally been corrupted by his absolute power. The Christian subtext of Gods misanthropy is unappealing in its own right. Mind you, misanthropy within reason is thoroughly justified, since we are appalling creatures, but Christian misanthropy is absolute. According to the Christian story, God sacrificed himself because we suffer from original sin, which means that even though we somehow have the freedom to be as sinless as Jesus, well always choose to sin if left to our own devices. In practice, we never redeem ourselves, and our only hope to avoid Gods wrath was the miracle of divine intervention. This implies not just that were miserable sinners, but that as far as the natural world is concerned were hopeless; at best, we have the metaphysical potential to save ourselves, thanks to our alleged supernatural capacity for self-control (our freewill), but naturally well always disappoint. Whats aesthetically unappealing about this is that it renders the Christian narrative anticlimactic. As Christopher Hitchens would say, if the character of God the Father is that of a duplicitous egomaniac who intends to save worthless, wicked creatures mainly to demonstrate his superiority and to remake us into slaves after were chastened, the promise of Christian salvation becomes exactly as tempting as the offer to be a citizen of totalitarian North Korea. More importantly, this absolute pessimism about human nature conflicts with modern optimism about human progress. With no help from divine revelation, modernists during the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment surely proved that we can create exciting new cultures and can learn how the world actually works and gain more control over threatening natural forces. But the aesthetic point is just that theres no compelling story to be told that combines the modern narrative of humancentered progress with the Christian story of how God decided one day to humiliate us so that we might be transformed into obedient children obsessed with singing Gods praises.

105 The root of the conflict is that Christianity assumes a static view of human nature, whereas modernism assumes an evolutionary one. Again, according to Christianity, we cant improve our situation except in some abstract metaphysical sense (without supernatural freewill, the Christian narrative doesnt even get off the ground); that is, human nature is completely corrupt, but we have an immaterial spirit that technically has power over that nature (over our mind and body), even though we never choose to live in a spiritually laudable fashion. This is why Jesus was supposedly the only human who perfectly followed the spirit of Gods law with no help from God (of course, Jesus was God, but no matter...). Ancient Christians took not just human nature but the whole universe to be static: the outer, heavenly realm was one in which the stars or gods never waver in their orbits, because theyre perfect and thus changeless. The modern view of nature is, of course, very different. Nature evolves: stars are created in nebulae and eventually theyre destroyed, as are whole galaxies; the physical laws of nature may be mere environmental properties in an evolving multiverse, as opposed to timeless dictates; biological species change into each other over time, as Darwin explained; and human history can evidently progress on its own at least in certain respects. So a modernist would say that our capacity for change and indeed for progress rests not on something as remote as a ghostly spirit, but on our connection to the natural world. Because were naturally selected, we acquired the power to understand how many things work, and because the forces of natural selection are blind, they have to live with the consequences of their handiwork, as it were. Those forces endowed us with some freedom from our basic genetic programming, which is how the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution were possible. Were we governed by a jealous god who prefers us to be humble rather than proud of our accomplishments, he could change his mind about having given us Reason and lobotomize us. Alternatively, he could wait until were all dead and surprise us with his displeasure by consigning most of us to hell, like a jerk. Whatever those facts may be, the aesthetic point is that modernists (liberals in the authentic, non-corrupted sense) trust in the natural potential of human progress,

106 whereas theres no room in the Christian narrative for the practicality of that potential. The Christian story is presently told with modernism in the background for all people educated in industrial or postindustrial societies. The prospect of combining modern and Christian myths, to forge a coherent, presently-viable Christian worldview is so daunting that few even try to harmonize them. Modernists tend, then, to be lukewarm, secularized Christians, if not atheists or more philosophical mystics in some Eastern tradition. When Christianity and modernism are combined, the result is a hideous bastard tale, like Joel Osteens prosperity gospel. Osteen concedes the benefit of what human greed can produce, namely material wealth, while he disingenuously attributes that success entirely to God--as though Jesus perfect Christian morality lay in anything other than his renunciation of natural possessions, let alone wealth, so that he could dedicate himself to altruistic endeavours.

Theistic Anthropomorphism as Childish Twaddle

For another example, take the bedrock theistic assumption that theres a personal god who therefore could expect us to live well, sympathize with our inability to do so, and sacrifice himself for our benefit. Even were there such a god, only a Philistine could presently be moved by a theistic tale of his exploits, just as an adult must revert to a very silly frame of mind to enjoy playing with her childrens toys. As I said, we all irrationally anthropomorphize the outer world, personalizing the patterns we detect. Spiders spin webs, birds fly, fish swim, and humans over-socialize. But no bit of anthropomorphism is as conspicuous as the theists, especially when judged in the modern context in which the world has been remade by the application of rational methods. Infants look all the more childish when their behaviour is compared to an adults, and so theistic anthropomorphism is all the more clearly an over-extension of our drive to socialize, when we indulge in such obsolete metaphors even in the Age of Reason. Of course, this means were much more likely now to regard theistic statements as wildly false. But the aesthetic point is that these statements about Gods personality, his

107 moral deeds, his war with demons, and so on, really do become as emotionally compelling as a tale intended for children. Because of the unavoidable modern context, theres an unfortunate parallel juxtaposition established between the childs unlimited anthropomorphic projections and the adults partial rationality, on the one hand, and the theists personalization of natures ultimate creativity and the modernists ideal of hyperrationality, on the other. The New Testament does modern theists no favour by accentuating this conflict, with its prescription of childlike qualities: Jesus says that those who inherit the kingdom of God are like children (Matt.18:3) and Paul repudiates the natural wisdom of the world, comparing it with Gods spiritual wisdom which seems foolish to arrogant pagans (who wed now call secularists) (1 Cor.2:13-14). Likewise, the sort of Christian paternalism I criticize in the previous section exacerbates the current tone deafness of Christian theology. In the present individualistic era, when were fed a steady diet of capitalistic propaganda, promising happiness if only we consume enough products, were not going to be genuinely moved by the deeply misanthropic idea that were all hopelessly headed for hell unless we abase ourselves before the egotist who made the universe and who rubbed our noses in our wickedness a couple millennia back. Sure, consumerism is grotesque and the masses cry out for an alternative, for a postmodern myth that can guide us in spite of our rampant skepticism. Fundamentalist religions and New Age cults can fill the void, but no postmodern religion has emerged which truly ennobles its followers, in my view. Certainly, the orthodox Christian story can teach us nothing about our predicament. Children live in a fantasy world that they havent yet learned to distinguish from reality, regarding everything they encounter as extensions of themselves. This is because their evolutionary task is to passively download information from their parents; instead of being fully-formed individuals, they have a window opened in their minds, as it were, so that they can be trained. But that window allows not just for unimpeded parental input, since the childs personality, too, spills out into her experience of the outer world so that everything seems to her magically imbued with life. We cant say in a positivist spirit that the ancients generally were more childlike than modernists, that history recapitulates

108 the developmental arc from human infancy to adulthood. The ancient Greeks as well as the Hindus, for example, were skeptical of theistic anthropomorphism; Hindus used theistic metaphors purely for the utilitarian purpose of developing certain emotions. Still, our irrational drive to socialize tends to be given free reign when unchecked by the wellmotivated use of a competing mental capacity. The Scientific Revolution gave a boost to Reason, picking up where the ancient Greeks left off, and technoscientific progress now dignifies the sort of objectivity thats anathema to childlike personifications of the environment. What this all means, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, is that theistic narratives feel embarrassingly retrograde and even dehumanizing. Even though its fallacious to automatically attribute value to natural developments, including the childs physical and mental growth into an adult, we all surely believe, for one reason or another, that that growth is necessary and ultimately for the best. Granted, we can suffer nostalgia for childhood innocence, but we tend to share the modern faith in the benefits of godlike human creativity, which requires the power that comes with understanding how the world works. When an adult regresses to an infantile state, acting severely ignorant or even wearing a diaper, whether because of a mental illness or a sexual kink, the adults behaviour is invariably kept secret--partly out of the embarrassment felt for what looks like the ultimate cowardice. So when the theist becomes engrossed in tales of a personal hero who acts throughout nature for the greater good, what looks like the shameful abandonment of adult sensibilities is off-putting. Were all irrational at times, but we also have the capacity to think objectively, and when theists brazenly feed their inner child with the most extreme anthropomorphisms even in the shadows of the most stunning edifices of Reason, the gut reactions should be feelings of shame and disgust. Theistic myths just feel misplaced and artificial, even though they inherit the illusion of still possessing the power to exhilarate, from their glory days of yore. Instead, these myths no longer uplift as much as they stultify and then require elaborate rationalizations to preserve the theists dignity in the modern world.


The upshot is that Christianity isnt just absurd, from a modern, rational viewpoint; the religions creed also makes for a bad story when told in the context of the modern one of how Reason empowers us. Instead of being encouraged by a coherent worldview, modern Christians are forced to create mental compartments, awkwardly abandoning one story for the next as the situation dictates, moving from Church to the workplace, for example. Never mind that Christianity fails utterly to meet modern epistemic standards; as far as our irrational side is concerned, Christian metaphors are stale and ineffective, as Bishop Spong said. A religion thats long overstayed its welcome, Christianity runs up against the modern and postmodern zeitgeists. But like Muzak spilling out of speakers everywhere, the Christian narrative is still told and retold, enchanting hardly anyone. To be sure, there are still so-called Christian missionaries and other altruists who feed and clothe the poor, but who is to say whether theyre inspired now by the Christian message or by the modern story of human-created progress? Both are in the atmosphere and only the latter is supported by recent history. The Church and its myths remain, but Christian institutions have lost their political power and so they must compete with the modern myths that serve the dominant social classes and that best explain recent historical upheavals. That competition is devastating to the current literary value of Christian stories. Just as many early movies are historically great, in the sense that theyre highly influential for later filmmakers, Christian myths should obviously be appreciated for their historical importance. But the fact that an artwork once had the power to move people for the better, to speak to their sensibilities and reassure them or broaden their perspective, doesnt mean the art retains that power under all circumstances. Indeed, the books or movies that move you when youre young often seem crude and paltry when you later encounter them. For many sociological reasons, there are currently around two billion Christians. But the most popular art is seldom the most tasteful. Kitsch, for example, is highly popular. And the current aesthetic value of Christian

110 fictions is less than nil: in their exoteric formulation, at least, Christian stories are embarrassingly irrelevant, besides being obviously false. Now I dont expect that anyone will abandon Christianity after reading this aesthetic condemnation of the religion. My aim is only to identify the queasiness that I assume virtually every educated person feels when contemplating the Christian narrative. That suspicion that the gospel is vacuous, that the Church is like a colossal used car lot, that Christians are literally kidding themselves? Thats your good taste telling you to appreciate worthy art instead.


The Curse of Reason ____________________________________________________

Reason is a double-edged sword. Our abilities to model reality in our minds, to detach from our immediate sensations and experiment on mental representations, to apply abstract categories with language, and to think logically or holistically and so discover how our environment works, are largely why humans presently flourish. Weve mastered much of the world because of our cognitive powers; indeed, the wonder of reason is the godlike power it places in a beasts paws. But knowledge can be a blessing or a curse, depending on what there is to be known. As it turns out, weve learned that our nave, anthropocentric preferences are mostly false. The universe doesnt care about us; were not at the center of things; our ideals count for nothing in the cosmic cycles; were not immortal, nor as conscious, free, or even as rational as we assume when we childishly compare ourselves to a divine source of the whole natural universe. Reason makes us godlike but only compared to the unknowing beasts that struggle alongside us; were still beastly, given the potential for evolution of intelligent species over millions of years.

How Reason makes Human Life Absurd

As the philosopher Thomas Nagel pointed out, reason makes life absurd in other ways. When we think objectively, seeing things as they are and not as we might wish them to be, we take up what he called a view from nowhere. We can view a situation more or

112 less impersonally, ignoring our feelings and following the data or the logic wherever they lead. The danger in this is that we can view ourselves objectively as well, and when we do so its hard to avoid a destructive sense of irony. Take any highly specialized form of complexity, like a biological adaptation. The giraffes long neck makes sense from the giraffes limited perspective, but were the giraffe able to view itself dispassionately, from a neutral, non-giraffe viewpoint, it would surely regard its specialized neck as a ridiculous albatross. Granted, the adaptation enables the giraffe to survive by affording it access to highly-placed food, but the narrowness of that way of life simultaneously takes the giraffe out of countless other races. The further a species evolves in a single direction, the less flexible its members become and the more absurd their behaviour when theyre removed from their comfort zone. Language and culture, too, become absurd when viewed by an outsider. The symbols that carry meaning to a language speaker are so many noises or curious squiggles to anyone else. Taboos, rituals, and social conventions can appear as extravagant follies to anyone who isnt invested in the culture. The rules of games or sports are relatively arbitrary and thus the players strenuous exertions to follow them are comical: were the rules changed, the player would have to play the new game instead, rendering his or her earlier efforts meaningless. Relative to the perspective in which a set of rules matters, the game makes sense, and fans can even become obsessed with a games vicissitudes. But someone who views a game objectively, from the position of nowhere in particular, thereby prevents herself from identifying with its dynamics or its symbols. Instead of personal involvement, then, theres ironic detachment and a sense of the futility of complex developments due to their narrowness and thus their transience. Complex forms are often inflexible and thus unstable. In so far as you depersonalize yourself and view something critically or scientifically, you cease to care about it and are bent on understanding the mechanisms that make the thing work. The more you understand, the more power you have over the thing, and that power further deprives the thing of its dignity. Reason transforms the natural into the artificial, making nature our playpen. We turn members of other species into toys,

113 domesticating or consuming artistically-prepared portions of them. We use what we understand to our benefit, and just as a gods might is presumed to give the god the right to treat its creation as a means to the gods end, we convert whatever we understand into instruments that lose any inherent worth. Because were beasts rather than gods, the power we acquire from reason corrupts us, and so reason lands us in a quagmire of nihilism and decadence. Thus, we share with the giraffe the embarrassment of overspecialization. While reason obviously makes us much more flexible than the giraffe, our evolutionary gift becomes just as much of a curse when certain circumstances change. In the giraffes case, tall trees can become scarce, leaving the giraffe ill-equipped to compete for low-hanging fare. In our case, we change our own environment, creating a feedback loop as we use technology to customize natural processes, and as we adapt to the newly-created artificial environment, thanks to our ever-flexible capacity for reason, we become alienated from the way of life that insulated most of our ancestors. To wit, we become postmodern, mythless cynics or arrogant, reactionary zealots. Just as an adult may long to recapture a state of childlike innocence, a technoscientifically advanced society can only yearn for the naivety of a blindly anthropocentric culture that hasnt discovered natures impersonal processes. Having lost touch with a childlike perception of nature and been corrupted by the technological prison with which we surround ourselves, we exacerbate our beastly instincts and head out on a path towards inevitable cultural implosion. Replacing childlike creativity and optimism with cold, calculating reason, with impersonal instrumentalism and materialistic consumerism, we build a high-tech society but strip ourselves of the innocence and the passion that might fruitfully direct our godlike power. Ironically, then, the society that becomes outwardly godlike, using science and other modern institutions to acquire power over nature, also becomes inwardly more beastly so that the godlike shell, consisting of the military-financialindustrial-governmental complex and the postmodern lifestyle of disenfranchisement, suffocates the beast within.

114 (This isnt to contradict Steven Pinkers recent thesis that modern people are less violent than the ancients. Our greater beastliness lies not in a penchant for brute force, but in our greater corruption, nihilism, and decadence; in our servitude to the overwhelming systems we create; in the sociopathic rationalism we adopt to master natural forces and to compete with the machines we build; and in the scientistic idolatry that co-opts the religious impulse. Of course the ancients resorted more to brute force: they lacked the infrastructure to punish their enemies and victims in a safer, more sophisticated fashion, with advanced legal regimes and mass-produced, maximum security prisons; with engineered propaganda for social conditioning; and with economic, cyber, and drone warfare. We channel our aggression with more sophisticated instruments, but the use of those instruments doesnt ennoble us.) As an example of the curse of reason, consider the mundane task of editing a piece of writing. While in the midst of constructing sentences, a writer feels emotionally connected to the words as brainchildren, and editing them is more difficult. Only when the text is cold to the writer, after several days during which the text is forgotten, can the author objectively assess the writings strengths and weaknesses, and modify it as needed. The objective criticism can improve the writing, but the distance needed to view the text from nowhere precludes an emotional connection to it. Now, the value of something is more felt than puzzled out by logic, experiment, or any cognitive algorithm. We value what we care about, and objectivity is the opposite of caring. Thus, we care less about what we most understand. Another example is found in a comparison of sociological criticism of ones own culture with that of a culture that no longer exists. In the former case, passions arise more easily, because more is at stake and the critics may be emotionally invested participants in the society in question. With regard to ancient societies, historians and social scientists more readily dehumanize their subject matter, offering mechanistic, reductive explanations of our ancestors behaviour which mock the way the ancients would have understood themselves. However much historians may care about past societies, they cant be as emotionally tied to them as they are to their own society. Just as the

115 emotional bonds to something must be at least temporarily severed to take up a detached perspective and to master the thing, the lack of such bonds invites objectivity which establishes a master-slave relationship between the objective observer and the passive subject matter. There are, after all, roughly two levels of explanation that can be given of human behaviour, the commonsense and the scientific ones. We naive folk think instinctively or in ways we inherit from our amateur training. Thus, we explain peoples behaviour by positing such familiar entities as beliefs and desires, and we assume the person has consciousness, freedom, and perhaps an immaterial soul that makes her sacred. This level of explanation is drenched in normativity, since the talk of beliefs, desires and of much of the rest presupposes standards of behaviour and the special value of human beings. And so we establish the famous Cartesian divide between humans and the rest of nature, since while we may still animistically import psychological categories to the nonhuman world, we more readily take up a scientific attitude in our dealings with that world. The wilderness of impersonal natural forces falls outside the scope of modern social laws, and since weve evolved to be social we naturally care most about persons and our pets. Scientists ignore these considerations and use impersonal and more precise, mathematical language to understand nature, on the pragmatic assumption that nature ultimately consists of impersonal entities and processes. Of course, psychologists, economists, anthropologists, and other social scientists have turned their attention to human beings and so have undermined the traditional, commonsense level of explanation. While the latter presupposes moral bonds and capacities such as autonomy, which dignify us, a scientific explanation reduces a person to much more abstract categories. When we understand human behaviour in terms of causes, whether these causes are found in physics, the brain, the genes, the environment, or in evolutionary history, we inevitably dehumanize the person and think of her, in effect, as a ridiculous puppet. Even if we retain some form of dualistic worldview, according to which the levels of explanation are all valid because reality can be understood in many

116 ways, depending on our interests, the Scientific Revolution compels us to assume that some levels are deeper than others. In nature, as objectively understood by scientists, minds are not fundamental, meaning that while beliefs, desires, and some degree of consciousness, freedom, and reason may be real, its more accurate to speak in scientific terms that disenchant human nature and posit a more deterministic, generally inhuman world. This leads to postmodern irony and cynicism, since while we naturally fall back on our nave picture of ourselves in polite society, in the back of our minds we simultaneously know about genes, hormones, the brain in general, and the whole atheistic panoply of impersonal causes and effects that operates throughout the universe, including in our own bodies. Reason is thus the messenger that reports our foolishness, our ridiculous existential predicament. Theres a genre of comedy in which a character pursues silly goals using serious, highly logical means. This is human life in a nutshell: our nave, commonsense goals are delusions sustained by our ignorance of more fundamental causes, and when we apply reason to understand those causes, we eventually destroy ourselves if only to avoid laughing at our own expense for all eternity. Whats so amusing isnt just the gap between what we think were doing at the nave level and whats really happening as understood best by scientists; rather, the point is that the familiar social world in which were most comfortable is an illusion compared to the deeper reality of natural processes. Our actions are as absurd as a puppets flailing: the puppet is an unknowing actor, following a script and wholly controlled by a puppeteer who looms off-stage. Were the puppet somehow to come alive and learn of the disparity between its nave selfconception as an agent in its own puppet-centered world, and its deeper reality as a stooge on a stage within a much larger, puppet-indifferent world, the puppet would surely be afflicted with angst. In the film, The Truman Show, the protagonist learns [Warning: spoilers ahead] that his whole life has been staged for a television show in which hes the star, and in the end he chooses to leave the show and enter the real world. But we have no exit, no means of cutting the puppet strings that incarnate us as

117 natural beings. The Truman character leaves one stage only to step onto another, that of nave human society the dignity of which is undermined by rationally-obtained knowledge.

Dawkins on Scientific Wonder

The biologist Richard Dawkins responds to this sort of criticism of reason, in his book Unweaving the Rainbow. More specifically, he responds to the charge that science takes the wonder out of life and provides little material for great poetry. On the contrary, he says, poets waste their gifts on romantic fantasies that spring from their imagination and if only theyd stop ignoring scientific discoveries, theyd find a wealth of inspiration. By explaining how light works, for example, Newton spoiled only the fairytale of rainbows and leprechauns, but allowed us to learn about electromagnetism, special relativity, and the immense size of the universe and the properties of other star systems. Science thus replaces minor wonders with major ones. What is so threatening about reason? Dawkins asks. Mysteries do not lose their poetry when solved. Quite the contrary; the solution often turns out more beautiful than the puzzle and, in any case, when you have solved one mystery you uncover others, perhaps to inspire greater poetry (41). In the first place, Dawkins talk of mysteries and puzzles personifies nature and thus whitewashes the damage science does to the nave, exoteric worldview. To have a mystery, properly speaking, you need a secret and thus a mind that sets the mystery in motion for others to solve (from the Greek mysterion, meaning secret rite). Scientists are not like Sherlock Holmes in that respect. Much of nature is unexplained prior to scientific investigation, but the metaphor of the intrepid British detective who tracks a murderer by following clues left unwittingly behind, is as anthropocentric as any monotheistic fairytale. The philosophical upshot of scientific theories is the Nietzschean and Lovecraftian one, that no one else cares whether humans explain and master natural processes or succumb to them. There is no Mother Nature who hides from the scientist like a guilt-ridden temptress.


As to whether disenchanted nature is beautiful, the question is trivial since beauty is subjective. Anything can seem beautiful or ugly depending on the viewers criteria. Since aesthetic criteria are normative, there is no factually correct set of them. Even if natural selection biases us to prefer symmetrical faces and hourglass figures, for example, no judgment of beauty is proven correct or incorrect just by citing that evolutionary fact. Normative judgments arent justified by force; instead, they flow from values. Biologists can explain why certain aesthetic judgments are normal, in the sense of being prevalent, but not why anyone ought to favour a prevalent standard. Scientific theories have no normative implications. Thus, biologists may find insects beautiful, while others may have a different opinion. Scientific wonder is also normative and thus subjective. There is no error made if someone doesnt agree with a scientist that electromagnetism is wonderful. Moreover, if we define wonder as astonishment mixed with admiration, were surely speaking of the initial shock from being surprised by a natural phenomenon that isnt yet understood, and then of the dawning admiration as the phenomenon is explained and eventually tamed by technological applications. This sort of wonder is harmless, because its analogous to a gods bemusement by its controlled creation. A patron of a zoo feels this wonder, this delightful mixture of shock and admiration, when beholding a caged lion. But place this admirer of lions in the African Savannah, alone, unarmed, and staring into the eyes of a hungry pride of the beasts, and wed likely have on our hands a different kind of wonder. Here, you see, wed have that same initial shock and surprise, but instead of admiration from a position of safety, we must assume the admirer of zoobound lions would suffer from raw fear due to the reversal of power. We can call this second kind of wonder awe, and it includes the idea of respect or reverence due to fear from a lack of control. In this sense, a religious person is said to fear God, because God would have power over us and not the other way around. With this distinction in mind, we can see that Dawkins is right to some extent: scientific wonder can be felt towards nature in so far as nature doesnt threaten us, whether

119 because the phenomenon is too far removed from us or because we control it with technology. But in so far as science alerts us to some natural phenomenon that does threaten us, whether because we dont yet or can never control it, awe is more appropriate than admiration-filled wonder. And, of course, scientific theories are filled with information that should terrify us. For example, scientists learned that the dinosaurs were probably wiped out by a meteor, and nothing prevents the same from happening to us except chance. Obviously, leaving aside our own self-destructive use of science, scientists are just the messengers and shouldnt be blamed for discovering, in effect, our grim existential situation (the surprising degrees of our irrationality, unconsciousness, and lack of freedom; and our manipulability, mortality, and aloneness in the universe). But the dire existential implications of scientific theories are surely why people dont rush to science for poetic inspiration. Even were a poet interested in writing a tragedy or a dirge, for which science could indeed provide abundant material, most people prefer the comfort of their nave anthropocentric worldview and so dont even want to know the details of our existential predicament. In his book, Dawkins criticizes astrology and talk of psychic and other paranormal phenomena for encouraging people to indulge themselves in unscientific wonder, but for most people these are at best entertainments. Their deeper quarrel with the rationally-understood world lies not in any such unfulfilled New Age interests, but in their suspicion that reason makes a mockery of our whole commonsense self-image, that the most rational philosophical position begins, in effect, with Nietzsches atheism and Lovecrafts cosmicism. And the problem with that philosophy is that it conflicts not just with frivolous supernaturalism, but with the socially-necessary assumption that humans have dignity as rational, free, elevated beings. Dawkins distinguishes between the mystic and the scientist. Without analyzing these three synonyms, he says that both feel awe, reverence, and wonder, but that The mystic is content to bask in the wonder and revel in a mystery that we were not meant to understand. The scientist feels the same wonder but is restless, not content; recognizes the mystery as profound, then adds, But were working on it (17).


These caricatures of mystics and of scientists follow from scientistic mythology, but are embarrassing when read outside of that context. Was Joan of Arc content rather than restless? Does the Buddhist monk who sets himself on fire to protest a dictatorship bask and revel in wonder? What Dawkins misses is that while mystical consciousness alienates the mystic from secular society, the peace felt in meditation is spoiled as soon as the mystic is forced to confront the unenlightened masses. Far from being complacent, the mystic often leaves the cave or monastery and works tirelessly in the pursuit of moral aims. Moreover, the mystic claims not that we cant understand ultimate reality, but that reason and science are the wrong methods. Not only can we understand that reality with disciplined consciousness, but thats our highest purpose, says the mystic, to escape from the world of illusions by recognizing our divine nature and the oneness of what seems a multiplicity. Also, as Ive pointed out, the scientist doesnt feel the very same wonder as the mystic. Scientific wonder is tinged with patronizing admiration, stemming as it does from our scientific power advantage. The mystic regards as absurd the egoism at the root of power games. While the enlightened mystic doesnt fear the absolute oneness of everything, existential angst and the detachment of a merely semi-enlightened mind arent so far apart. Finally, theres Dawkins arrogant assurance that the scientist works to dispel profound mysteries instead of leaving them unexplained and untamed. The idea here is that the scientist doesnt fear even those parts of nature that arent yet subdued, since the scientist assumes that because science has worked in so many cases, it will probably work in all cases, leaving no unknowns to fear and no powers too great to harness. This optimism is like the subtle anthropocentrism in regarding nature as a keeper of mysteries/secrets. Why assume that some mammals with an accidental capacity for reason are equipped to understand everything that exists or that were sufficiently ingenious to overcome all obstacles with technology? The pragmatic position may be that defeatism with regard to those two issues is counterproductive, and so scientists

121 are actually open-minded even while theyre professionally optimistic for the sake of their work. But Dawkins goes further when he speaks of the restless character of scientists. Here Dawkins is speaking of what Ive called scientistic faith, or of whats typically called secular humanism. In this case, the anthropocentrism consists in a glorification of human nature rather than in a projection of human categories onto the nonhuman. This scientistic quasi-religious confidence in technoscience is ironic, since Dawkins means to oppose secular confidence to mysticism. Scientism is insidious, since its effectively a religion whose practitioners dare not recognize it as such, since they pretend to be hyper-rationalists who condemn religious impulses. Dawkins condemns trust in astrology, UFOs, psychic predictions, and the Loch Ness monster, but not in secular humanistic ideology, not in the philosophical conviction that we should bravely face the unknown with science rather than shrink in fear. Part of this science-centered optimism is what the political philosopher Leo Strauss calls the modern conceit that everyone can handle the unvarnished truth. Without this added assumption, the scientists business-oriented hunt for the truth might be counterproductive, after all, since were natural facts unpleasant enough and were the report of them shouted from the rooftops, they might upset society and ruin the scientific enterprise itself. But the secular humanists lack of self-awareness indicates that theres no such widespread appetite or tolerance. Dawkins chastises theists for their irrational religious faith, but trust in humans and in secular institutions like science, democracy, and capitalism is no less irrational. More precisely, reason is insufficient in deciding what to believe about such philosophical issues. There is no calculation proving that humans potentially can understand everything, nor is there an experiment demonstrating that capitalism is ultimately constructive rather than destructive. To be sure, there are relevant data that should be weighed, but these arent purely empirical matters. For example, whether capitalism is destructive depends on whats valued, and this is yet another normative issue.

122 However much evidence there is of sciences success and of technologys power, faith is needed to bridge the gap between what logic implies or the data indicate, on the one hand, and what the secular humanist philosophically declares, on the other. The reason the secular humanist denies that shes beholden to a science-centered religion is that the philosophical tenets of her faith are anthropocentric reactions to the grim reality unveiled by science. Just as the masses flee from the horrors of the Lovecraftian gods, into the arms of New Age phonies, so too the more sophisticated secularists seek religious comfort in a science-centered, partly-irrational ideology. So instead of holding up the scientist as a heroic model next to the mystical defeatist, the secular humanist should look in the mirror and appreciate the extent to which were all animals and thus ill-equipped to defend against a flood of harsh truths. A secular humanist like Dawkins would insist that reason is far from a curse, since reason allows us to pacify natural forces so that we can safely marvel at their beauty. By contrast, a cosmicist points at the abyss between what we naively prefer to think of ourselves and what reason shows us to be, and suspects that without an infinite capacity for mental compartmentalization, which evolved animals aren't likely to possess, we can expect that reason will drive us ultimately to insanity and to social collapse; thus, reason is accursed.


Should Atheists Mourn the Death of God? ____________________________________________________

Recently, a Catholic priest, Robert Barron, criticized the exuberance of New Atheists, contrasting the New Atheists slogan, Theres probably no God; now stop worrying and enjoy your life, with the dark existentialism of earlier atheists like Nietzsche and Camus. According to Barron, only the existential atheists follow atheism to its logical conclusions, that life is meaningless, that theres no hope, and as Dostoevsky implied, that everything is permitted. The biologist and New Atheistic blogger Jerry Coyne replies as follows: The answer of course, is that we, not a sky-father, give life its meaning, and can find joy and fulfillment in the limited time we have. Is that frivolous? I dont think so. Given our finite span, why spend our time being dolorous, weighed down by the supposed futility of life? There is so much beauty and love to be had, not to mention friendship, books, music, food, drink, and cats; and I for one am happy to be happy about these things. I think most New Atheists would agree with Coyne. And of course, as a practical, political matter, the bus slogan is fine because it militates against the theists conviction that atheism is a highway to hell. In that theological context, exaggerated cheeriness in New Atheism is defensible on political, or what Dawkins calls strategic grounds.


New Atheisms Naturalization of Values

But as to the substance of the disagreement between existential and New Atheists, the memes (prepackaged platitudes) contained in Coynes response hardly settle the matter. The theist contends that if atheism is true, life has no meaning and therefore the atheist has no right to be merry. The New Atheist replies that while there may be no higher, transcendent meaning, value or purpose of our life, there are still local, subjective meanings relative to our interests. Thus, Coyne finds meaning in books, cats, and so forth, and thats why hes happy. The theist can then say that this merely raises the further question of whether the atheists particular interests ought to be pursued, or whether her values are justifiable. If theres no higher authority, why isnt everything permitted? Coyne values music, food, and cats, while a serial killer enjoys killing children. If theres no God, is this all just a matter of taste? Suppose reason shows that killing children is illogical or impractical (risky). To infer from this that such killing is wrong and ought not to be valued would be fallacious, since illogicality and impracticality are matters of fact which have no normative entailments. Whats needed to save atheism from giving a license to chaos, then, is the axiom that all human life is precious, in which case killing children would be wrong. Ideally, this normative assumption shouldnt itself turn out to be subjective or relative, since otherwise atheism would imply just that most people feel that children are nice to have around, and that were you to happen to lack that feeling, there would be nothing fundamentally wrong with pursuing your murderous inclinations. Like all values, morality would run only as deep as our personal preferences. The atheist seems faced, then, with the worry at least that for anyone who understands that right and wrong are matters merely of personal interest, like taste in art, life becomes a game or a joke. Our normative opinions become arbitrary, not because theyre uncaused or unmotivated, but because, despite our bias in their favour, theyre ultimately inconsequential. Fashions go in and out of style, rendering the fashion

125 industry absurdly comical because of the discrepancy between fashions transience and the intensity of some peoples interest in personal style. During the 1980s, Westerners preferred brass furniture, cheesy digital music, and spiky hairdos. Now, those fashions appear ridiculous, and decades from now our tastes will certainly seem foolish to our descendants. Likewise, some ancient cultures were centered on human sacrifice or gladiatorial combat, while today many Western liberals regard life as so precious that they protect their children even from playing outdoors. According to the New Atheists egocentric notion of value, all of culture is more or less like fashion and other matters of taste. Unlike in science, where facts in the outer world make scientific statements true or false, there are no correct or incorrect value judgments, given the typical New Atheists notion that morality is entirely a matter of personal, subjective opinion, which is to say, roughly, taste. The question is then whether the atheist can hold onto her private interests with a straight face. Due to peer pressure, you may adopt your cultures attitude toward clothing, food, pets, and so on, but can you take pride in those values when you also understand the transitory and arbitrary nature of all values? Can a New Atheist be nationalistic and patriotic, for example, given the atheists objective, cynical perspective on value judgments? Were a liberal secular humanist to confront a serial killer, the emotions associated with her moral opinions would likely compel her to forget her postmodern, positivistic belittling of normative questions, in which case shed vociferously condemn the murderers evil and rush to subdue him. But in the atheists bigger picture, in which human value is naturalized, secularists celebration of their way of life when they form a mob, hold up signs, and cheer at the murderers execution must be similar to the stampede to buy the latest Apple device. In both cases, values derive solely from our interests, and interests change and come in a variety of forms like everything else in nature. Perhaps there are some universal features of human morality, due to our brain structures and common evolutionary origin. But again, no normative statements follow from a recognition of the fact of such

126 universality. Just because humans tend to think the same about stealing, murder, and so on, doesnt mean we ought to do so. The atheist who appreciates that our morality is just a natural process is forced to experience a sort of vertigo, a feeling of alienation, of standing outside yourself and looking in with an objective viewpoint. As the philosopher Thomas Nagel explains in The View from Nowhere, theres a double life in which you have your private attitudes and opinions but also the ability to detach yourself from them when you think rationally about their natural causes. What the existentialist calls angst, alienation, and horror follow from the combination of the atheists naturalistic understanding of her values and her inevitable concern for only a partial set of issues. Can she still care about her fellow humans, let alone her favourite foods, authors, and shoe styles, when nothing but ignoble distractions or mental disorders could prevent her at any moment from rationally detaching from those concerns as she comprehends the atheists naturalization of moral and other values? Likewise, while the atheist may be biologically driven at times to feel sexually excited, can she surrender to her feelings and her experience, given her knowledge of the biochemical basis of romantic love? More relevantly, can she do so when acting with what the existentialist calls authenticity or must she fool herself, suppressing her rationality so that she can enjoy her life?

The New Atheists Religion

Indeed, theres one giant atheistic distraction, which I take to be the primary source of the New Atheists lightheartedness. This distraction is the atheists substitute religion of secular humanism, or what I call, somewhat idiosyncratically, Scientism. Just as theists are spared the horror of rationally dissecting the intimate details of their life, because theyre preoccupied with matters of irrational religious faith, the typical New Atheist has quasi-religious faith in democracy, capitalism, reason, and the beauty and majesty of natural creations. That is, not only does the secular humanist rationally defend these elements of her worldview, but she feels strongly about them--indeed, so strongly that theyre of ultimate value to her, in which case, as the theologian Paul Tillich says, her

127 modern ideology passes beyond an idle, academic pursuit, becoming a matter of personal faith. Any such faith is irrational in that feelings and personal character rather than just logic or science account for why that ideology is upheld. You can see an indication of this paradoxical secular faith in Coynes pragmatic preoccupation with time in his response to the priest. Given our finite span, he says, we shouldnt waste time being weighed down with philosophical worries about lifes futility--as though the efficient use of time were an end in itself. Indeed, this value of efficiency is commonplace now because of the monoculture of capitalism. The idea is to work hard and earn as much money as possible, to ignore the social and environmental consequences of most lines of work, since modern workers should be instrumentalists, being instruments of oligarchs who set the social agenda and determine much of the culture by their control over the mass media. This pragmatism derives also from the consumers ideal of the so-called rich, full life, of having a maximally wide variety of socially acceptable experiences, which motivates the consumption of the ever-shifting array of mass-produced products. So the New Atheist can afford to overlook atheisms existential implications, because this carefree modernist is beholden to her own quasi-religious faith of secular humanism/Scientism. Shes caught up in the wonders of life, swept away by the power of technoscience, and generally mesmerized by the modern Enlightenment ideology even though this ideology has now imploded. The New Atheists cheerful disposition, as she lists her personal matters of taste as being sufficient to assuage anyones fear that shes liable to commit suicide, is thus comparable to the Jehovahs Witnesss glee as he knocks on your door and rattles off the benefits of being a Christian. As the existential atheists point out, unchecked reason, or what Enlightenment thinkers called freethinking, causes angst, horror, and alienation, which do in turn sap the joy from life. However, New Atheists are happy rather than despairing not just because they have some personal preferences which inspire them to pass the time in some pleasing way, but because those preferences are grounded in deeper, faith-based convictions.

128 Their emotional commitment to the modern, atheistic religion (lifestyle or worldview--call it what you like) prevents them from pursuing naturalistic atheism not to its logical conclusion but to its psychological nadir. The existential atheists who are melancholy rather than content are just those who are so paranoid or otherwise considered mentally ill that they truly lack faith in anything: not in a life partner, nor in themselves, nor in government, technology, art, celebrity, or anything else. To borrow a clich from the Matrix movies, these melancholy atheists know the path but cant walk it; they cant fully identify with their preferences, because they lack mental checks on their capacity to philosophically question their values, to remind themselves that in the bigger picture, supplied by rational detachment, those values are foreign, arbitrary, and ridiculous. These rarer atheists sabotage their happiness by their compulsion to live in a selfalienated, vacillating condition. The problem, then, isnt with atheism so much as with the modern naturalistic humanists ideal of hyper-rationality. A wannabe hyper-rationalist, who despises faith, superstition, and all manner of irrationalism will still have emotional and religious impulses but will disown or rationalize them. This lack of self-awareness produces the scientistic, positivistic aspect of the subculture of New Atheism. Meanwhile, those who fulfill the ideal of being passionless are the autistic, paranoid, introverted, skeptical, or philosophically-inclined atheists, the point being not that the latter are omniscient but that they constantly step outside their parochial viewpoint, second-guessing themselves at every turn so that they cant relax and enjoy themselves, like the over-analytical mouse in Dostoevskys Underground Man or like the character Woody Allen plays in his films.

So should atheists mourn Gods demise? Not exactly, since the transparent folly of theism makes for a more degrading replacement for the nobler reaction to our existential predicament than does the New Atheists convoluted modern faith. But should the atheist be happy, lighthearted, and cheery rather than melancholy, dour, and

129 wistful? In effect, I answer this in Happiness and in Postmodern Religion. Happiness is unbecoming to anyone in our tragic existential situation, but especially to naturalists and secular humanists who pretend to care more about truth than fantasy. The facts of our condition are much worse than what anthropocentric theists proclaim, but theyre worse also than whats accounted for in the modern glorification of the rational, free, conscious individual. Moreover, however much pleasure, wealth, and fame an atheist may enjoy, those facts--of our mortality, our animal nature, our aloneness and alienation from the undead (mindlessly creative) cosmos, of the ultimate futility of our endeavours and the comical narrowness of our everyday vision--remain to haunt her.


Hyper-Rationality and the Two Cultures ____________________________________________________

The physicist and novelist C. P. Snow is famous in academic circles for distinguishing between the cultures of the arts and sciences. When he wrote on the two cultures in Britain, in 1959, academic scientists lacked the prestige of those in the arts or humanities, whereas now the situation is reversed, with English, philosophy, and other arts programs closing down in North American business-oriented colleges, and economists and other social scientists emulating physicists by attempting to quantify their subject matters. During the Scientific Revolution, Newton, Galileo, and other great scientists had to glorify reason in their war with the faith-governed Church, which was dominant at the time in Europe. Thus, as mathematician Mike Alder points out in his recent article, Newtons Flaming Laser Sword, Newton laid out an austere scientific method according to which no statement should be accepted unless its directly testable or it follows logically from a testable statement. The skeptical philosopher David Hume zealously defended this empiricism, for the sake of his assault on intellectual elitism, going as far as to say that if a book contains statements that arent based either on observation or on logic, the book should be tossed into the flames. The philosopher Karl Popper took the main point of empiricism to be a falsification criterion of meaning: if theres no way of showing how a statement could be proven false, the statement is at best pseudoscientific and cognitively worthless. Thus, all knowledge is derived from this broad scientific method.


To clarify some terms, empiricism is hyper-rational compared to rationalism, or to the claim that reason arrives at fundamental truths without the use of observation or of logic, because the so-called rationalist contends that reason processes other inputs besides sensations, such as those from intuition or faith. According to the empiricist, intuitions and leaps of faith are unreliable, to say the least, and deductions on their basis, such as those in systematic theology, are pseudoscientific and ultimately irrational.

The Empiricists Disdain for Philosophy

Midway through twentieth century Anglo-American philosophy, this extreme empiricism was rejected as self-refuting. After all, the definition of empiricism itself is philosophical, not scientific or meaningful in the empiricists own terms. In their zest to champion science against the forces of irrationality, empiricists put forward an anti-philosophical philosophy so worshipful of science that it destroys itself, like Douglas Adams god that proves its own nonexistence and "promptly vanishes in a puff of logic. But as Mike Alder points out, mathematicians and scientists still adhere to the spirit of empiricism and for that reason they loathe philosophy in particular. The problem with recent, socalled analytic philosophers, from this viewpoint, is that they pretend their discipline is serious and rational, whereas their philosophizing consists of time-wasting, fruitless word games that go nowhere. So-called postmodern philosophers merely waste time with word games as well, although instead of pretending to analyze concepts, they obfuscate with pompous rhetoric. At least the theologian openly declares her irrationality when she speaks of the need for faith and revelation, but the philosopher pretends to possess a form of rationality that stands apart from scientific methods. According to friends of empiricism, modern scientists showed what the rational search for knowledge is, so there is no rationality apart from gathering data from the senses, testing hypotheses to explain the data, and following the implications with mathematical logic.

132 Thus, as Alder says, When you ask of a scientist if we have free will, or only think we have, he would ask in turn: What measurements or observations would, in your view, settle the matter? If your reply is Thinking deeply about it, he will smile pityingly and pass you by. He would be unwilling to join you in playing what he sees as a rather silly game. Again, as to whether a computer program could really be intelligent or thinking, or only able to simulate it, the scientist asks What procedures would you use for distinguishing these cases? Again, the answer Thinking hard would earn a tired smile and a quick exit. According to Alder, most scientists are essentially Popperian positivists [that is, empiricists]... The idea that one can arrive at reliable truths by pure reason [without input from the five senses] is simply obsolete...Such is the conventional wisdom among scientists, and it would be wrong of me to attempt to conceal that this is, broadly, my position too. Thus, Alder takes care not to be caught doing philosophy, preferring to wrap his philosophy magazine in a brown paper bag in the hope that it will be mistaken for a girly-mag. At the end of his article, though, Alder points out that Newtons empiricism is impractical. Only a Vulcan or an artificial person like Data from Star Trek could so rigorously restrict his beliefs to what logic and the evidence support, without speculating, expressing feelings, going with a hunch, or taking a leap of faith. As he puts it, such a genuine empiricist would be a notably poor conversationalist. But Alder maintains that the use of the testability criterion as a weapon against philosophy is still justified when the philosopher meddles in science which he does not understand. When he asks questions and is willing to learn, I have no quarrel with him. When he is merely trying to lure you into a word game which has no prospect of leading anywhere, you really have to decide if you like playing that sort of game.


The Absurdity of Antiphilosophical Philosophy

Theres a great deal of confusion here on the part of the wannabe hyper-rationalist. You can spy a clue to the confusion in that hostility to philosophy, by reminding yourself that the supreme scientist and arch empiricist, Isaac Newton, was also a thoroughgoing occultist, Rosicrucian, and Christian theologian, a proponent of alchemy and an interpreter of Biblical prophecies and codes. This pseudoscientific side of his work has been expunged from the record, as far as current students of physics are concerned. Notice, though, how much more impressive empiricism seems when the method is attributed to a nonexistent hyper-rational version of Newton. The weakness of empiricism isnt just thats its absurd as a piece of antiphilosophical philosophy, but that the nonrational side of this philosophy is cognitively necessary. Even Star Treks Vulcans idolize and spiritualize logic! Intuition, insight, vision, and imagination are needed to bridge the gaps between the instinctive, emotional, and logical parts of the brain. Knowledge isnt just a matter of having a set of beliefs that maps onto the facts. In addition, the beliefs must relate well to each other, and for human animals these interrelations arent merely logical. Instead, as epistemologists say, our beliefs should form a coherent worldview. What counts as coherence is a matter of philosophical, theological, or otherwise normative debate. To see an example of a presupposed principle of coherence, on the part of an antiphilosophical philosopher, notice how Alder speaks of the need to arrive at reliable truths. Have scientists proven that reliability ought to be the mark of knowledge? Does that pragmatic principle follow logically from testable statements? Of course not, since this is a philosophical, normative principle that derives from intuition, faith, or some other nonrational factor. Indeed, the notion of reliability here presupposes the secular humanists instrumentalism, the Baconian use of science in a struggle with inhumane natural forces. In my view, this presupposition is part of the modern religion of what Ive called Scientism in a broad sense.

134 Now, if philosophical statements arent as reliable as scientific ones, in that philosophy is less cumulative or technologically fruitful, this is because both western and eastern philosophies are traditionally concerned with self-knowledge and ultimately with mystical, cosmicist self-realization that destabilizes the ego and so obviates power games. Philosophy thus makes for a poor weapon in a struggle for progress, to use the euphemism for our war with nature. Ultimately, the intellectual culture war between the sciences and the humanities is a conflict between pragmatism and mysticism. Instead of confronting that meta-issue, Adler presupposes that knowledge ought to be reliable, or sufficiently stable to produce technologies that empower us. But the point I want to stress here is that this normative presupposition is quite unjustified, from an empiricist perspective, and yet some such principle of cognitive coherence is needed for human animals, with our self-conflicted biological nature. Data from Star Trek has no emotions, so he neednt worry about nonrational ideals to guide his beliefs. Empiricism is a hyper-rational philosophy fit for machines, not for animals like human beings. Another lacuna in Alders defense of empiricist antiphilosophy: he speaks to the scientists condescension towards the childish, game-playing philosopher, when the scientist offers the philosopher a tired, pitying smile and quickly exits instead of publicly philosophizing. The conceit in this case is the presupposition that scientists earn their prestige strictly because of the cognitive progress in science. As obvious as that progress is, its not why empiricist scientists can now get away with condescension to philosophers and indeed to all academics in the humanities. The crucial factor is the scientists enjoyment of power that the philosopher lacks; more precisely, the scientist is credited for empowering technoscientifically advanced societies and the philosopher is blamed for doing nothing of the kind. But power is yet another nonrational interest that directs the search for knowledge. The postmodernist says that knowledge is nothing but the expression of some such nonrational interest, as though there were no scientific methods that can be followed more or less without bias or other interference. However, my point is just that empiricism is flawed in its disregard for the extent to which we are animals, after all,

135 who often survive by struggling for power, expressing our feelings, or acting on instinct. If the philosophers pretensions are unbearable, so too must be the empiricists disdain for philosophys inferior use of reason, given that modern science is hardly just an algorithm fit for computers. Scientists are animals driven by a tribal instinct to espouse whats effectively a religious faith (secular humanism or scientism), and scientists provide pivotal aid in humanitys war with those forces of nature that could potentially extinguish us. Hence the philosophical, relatively nonrational nature of empiricism, presupposed by presumed anti-philosophical scientists and mathematicians; hence also their coherence ideal of knowledges reliability; and hence their power-based condescension towards relatively powerless philosophers and other nonscientific academics.


Scientism: Modern Pagan Religion ____________________________________________________

Traditional religions were holistic, uniting normative and empirical speculations in a mytho-poetic vision of the world. Eastern religious philosophies are still holistic, whereas dualism dominates in the West, and not just because of Descartes attempt to reconcile the scientific picture of nature with the intuitive picture of ourselves. Monotheism itself has contributed to Western dualism. By centralizing divine power and elevating God above all conceivable forms, the monotheist effectively kicks God out of the rationally explainable domain, which is the domain of nature or the cosmos, the order of which corresponds to our conceptual grid. The supreme form of rational understanding is the modern scientific kind, but precisely because science is supremely impersonal and objective, its methods dont provide direct answers to normative or subjective questions. But ethical and aesthetic values, intuitions, and the subjective appearances of things have been central to the human experience. And so rather than giving them up, despite the lack of forthcoming answers to those questions from science, which reigns supreme only in a limited field of inquiry, religious people externalized those ghostly intangibles along with God. God is supposed to sustain everything, and while scientists have discovered more and more of how the physical world sustains itself, dualistic monotheism saves the subjective, intuitive, value-laden, faith-based appearance of the world, by locating this in the deitys supernatural domain and in the earthly fragments of

137 that domain, in our so-called immaterial spirits. After all, according to monotheists, God originated our moral perspective, by inspiring prophets to gain insights into divine commandments, and were able to think in terms of what ought to be done, instead of slavishly following natural law, because our immaterial spirits are supernaturally free. Skeptics would contend, though, that the true originators of official moral laws were the human rulers who codified our instinctive sentiments, to hold social groups together, maintaining their elevated position in the pecking order by attributing societys laws to gods who are just grandiose versions of those human rulers. Far from being supernaturally free, were just social animals who are subject to natural control systems, such as the system of monotheism. And of course, the more scientists have been able to explain empirical facts without appealing to God or to the supernatural, the more theism has declined in most informed parts of the world. Many early Western scientists inhabited the halfway house of deism, and most educated people currently living in relatively wealthy countries in Europe and Asia are nontheistic in both word and deed. Even in the US, which is an exception to that rule, nontheism has grown more popular due to the so-called New Atheist movement. Such is a common way of contrasting traditional Western monotheism with modern secularism. But I want to consider another interpretation, according to which nontheistic naturalism has itself developed into a religion that can be called scientism. Narrowly speaking, scientism is the belief that scientific knowledge is the only kind of knowledge, that if a question cant be answered using scientific methods, the question is meaningless or otherwise illegitimate. In this respect, scientism is just radical empiricism, or positivism, deriving from the Vienna Circle, Wittgenstein, and David Hume. While positivism has since been mostly rejected in academic philosophy, for being self-refuting and for ignoring studies of how the sciences are actually practiced, most analytic philosophers still subscribe to naturalism. Naturalists assume that even if some legitimate questions cant be identified with scientific ones, everything that exists depends on things that are scientifically explainable.

138 That's how scientism has played out in rarified academic circles and it's the meaning I've had in mind in these rants, such as when I referred to "scientistic liberals," in Liberalism. But there's also a more popular form of scientism, which has to do with the way technoscientific progress has shaped the capitalistic social order. The main social effects of that progress are anti-philosophical pragmatism and the ideology of materialistic consumerism. In this broader sense of the centrality of science, scientism serves as a religion that we dare not name.

The Capitalistic Reduction of People to Machines

As I point out in Theism, traditional religions have insiders and outsiders, mystics and literalists. Mystics are supposed to have direct, rationally incomprehensible experience of transcendent reality, and for the most part the price of that experience is ascetic withdrawal from secular life. Literalists have no such mystical experience, and their adherence to secular conventions and their submergence in what mystics call the world of illusions (maya, samsara, etc) bring them suffering. In the purportedly secular West, there are also insiders and outsiders: the wealthy or well-connected oligarchs and the poor, weak, misinformed masses of consumers. Whereas the nonrational component of theistic religion is the mode of access to allegedly supernatural reality (faith, intuition, mystical experience), whats nonrational about scientism, despite the paradigmatic rationality of science itself, is the behaviour of people who have been systematically reduced to machines. To spell this out, consider that in the British Industrial Revolution, labourers--including children--were dehumanized and treated as mechanical components of a system managed for the owners profit. Frederick Taylor streamlined the process, creating the influential field of scientific management, which again turns employees into functional parts of a system while the managers seek ways to cut costs and maximize profits. The goal was simply for businesses to run as efficiently as possible, and since a machine is better at following orders than a human, human labourers compete in the marketplace by becoming more like machines. These workers need to slavishly follow the

139 corporations rules, ignoring any compunctions they might have about the dehumanizing effects of a capitalistic economy, and they must work longer hours for as little pay as possible, often with no union to represent their interests. In short, business became operationalized, which is to say that sociopathic theories of exploiting a labour force for maximal profit were applied within corporations, forcing the workers literally to play the role of machines. While on the job, a worker in a systematically managed business environment must perform a certain function, just as a component of a machine has its function as dictated by the machines design. Beginning with Edward Bernays work on how the human unconscious can be exploited for government purposes or for profit, by propaganda that links the propagandists esoteric objective with the fulfillment of the consumers craving, the dehumanization within corporations was extended to peoples private lives in their capitalistic role as consumers. Prior to public relations and the near-perfection of mass propaganda through television, people could leave their offices and resume their personal activities that they defined for themselves. But because human greed is a bottomless pit, the corporate techniques of converting a person into a functional component of an artificial construct had to be extended to those personal activities. Now there is, in theory, no time at which a participant in a capitalistic economy is off the job, since as soon as a person stops being an employee, she becomes a potential consumer and the scope of consumable goods is as wide as the scope of what can be attached to our unconscious desires. Thus, instead of selling only those products that people objectively need, businesses learned to manufacture conscious desires along with their products, by associating the use of the product with the fulfillment of an unconscious wish. And while this science of mass market propaganda hasnt yet been perfected--after all, a consumer can still watch an ad on TV and choose not to buy the product--the effect of watching so many ads from such a young age is that a person comes to accept the principles of a consumer culture, which are that our ultimate goal in life is to be happy and that this goal is achieved mainly by consuming material products.


The Nonrationality of Consumerism

So to return to the comparison with theistic religion, while the nonrationality of theism is due to its attempt to address normative questions head-on, by nonrational means, the nonrationality of exoteric scientism is a consequence of its reduction of people to machines, by way of indirectly addressing normative questions. What I mean is that scientism is minimally an anti-philosophical philosophy. Scientisms exoteric message is that there is no progress outside of science, technology, and the free market, and that philosophy and religion are therefore illegitimate in secular society. But scientisms esoteric agenda is that of erecting, roughly speaking, what Lewis Mumford calls the megamachine and what Ive been calling in these rants an oligarchy, a social order run by a minority that holds ultimate political power over the majority. How is the stealth oligarchy achieved? By presupposing answers to normative questions, which is to say a philosophy of life, and by turning society into a machine and assigning it the function of applying those answers. The unspoken philosophy of life in a stealth oligarchy like the US is that were all mere social animals, not godlike creatures capable of heroically confronting our dire existential predicament of being alienated from nature by our consciousness and reason. Moreover, the ultimate meaning of life for mere social animals depends on our position in the natural dominance hierarchy: the aggressive sociopaths who dominate in the social order earn the right to behave as gods, exercising power over the masses, while those in lower positions ought to be content to live as sheep, preoccupied by consuming as much grass as possible to inflate the minoritys profits. The masses are meant to be happy in a degraded sense, feeling base, ephemeral pleasures that are constantly being undermined due to our existential predicament, while the oligarchs are meant to rule and to enjoy the subtler pleasure of schadenfreude. The meaning of life is thus a nonsexual analogue of the sadomasochistic power dynamic. With everyone instinctively playing this sadomasochistic game, a capitalistic economy forms to exploit those instincts, and in the vicious competition that sacrifices the weak

141 on the altar of wild, cosmic creativity, the most vicious rise to positions of power. Further corrupted by the hunt for that power, the American oligarchs self-destructively consolidate their control by busting unions and taking control of the government, the economic regulators, the medical establishment (through pharmaceutical and insurance companies), the educational system (by turning universities into businesses to pump out drones, forcing skeptical liberal arts departments to shut down for lack of profit), the legal establishment (by supplying an endless stream of prisons for profit), and the military (by selling arms all round the world, including to potential enemies, and by facilitating wars with mercenaries and cleanup services). By deregulating as much of society as possible, the oligarchs thus forestall democratic challenges to their dominance. Meanwhile, those who are ruled in such a society are misled into thinking that the ability to vote in a duopoly gives the voters ultimate political power, and that the freedom to choose between a host of fabricated goods is the long sought-after secret of happiness. The consumer is as confused as the literalistic theist, but for a different reason. Theism combines intuitions and speculations to form a holistic, all-encompassing worldview, but the literalist mistakes this worldview for something like an objective, rationally justified theory. The consumer is proud of her secularism and of her hard work, producing tangible results in a capitalistic economy, not playing idly with philosophical ideas or introspection. Shes a pragmatist, not an ideologue, but unbeknownst to her, pragmatism is, at a minimum, a philosophy or rather an ideology in the Marxist sense, meaning a set of ideas that rationalizes an economic order which serves the interests mainly of a small minority of the population. Pragmatism is an excuse to act like a machine, to work hard and to be contented with the consumption of mass-produced items. And so this kind of secularism is a stunted way of life, leaving the handling of normative questions to the oligarchs who most shape American culture with their billions spent on political, corporate, and Hollywood messages over the decades. Instinctively, the oligarchs understand that the ultimate good in life must be just what a capitalistic

142 economy can deliver: shallow, fleeting moments of security and pleasure for drudges and automatons, where these moments are surrounded by anxieties about blowback from the oligarchys concomitant military occupations abroad, and by suspicions that materialistic happy-talk whitewashes our dark existential situation. Another wondrous coincidence: that which can fulfill the scientistic meaning of life is just what empowers the oligarchs to consolidate their control, namely the free market economy that efficiently rewards the vices that take the oligarchs to the top of the pecking order.

Why Call Modern Worship of Nature Scientism?

You might still be wondering what exactly makes consumerism and pragmatism scientistic, or science-centered. After all, one reason Americans are so pragmatic is, as Weber showed, that Protestantism had the unintended consequence that people worked extra hard to prove they were elected by God to enter heaven when they died. But what enabled Protestants to imagine they could read Gods mind is that their Christian religion had been thoroughly secularized for centuries, being a Frankensteinian patchwork of Jewish and Pagan elements. No, the underlying factor seems to be that the US was established to empower capitalists, or so-called special interests, meaning wealthy and well-connected individuals who fill the power vacuum left behind by the constitutionally divided and conquered government. And capitalism in turn empowers technoscience, which drives innovation and economic growth with scientific discoveries and their applications. The chief connection between modern science and capitalism is mass production, the ability of machines to supply an abundance of products. Science thus indirectly provides the opportunity for immense profit, and whereas in earlier centuries only the aristocracy could take advantage of scientific advances, in the modern world the individual won the right to own the fruits of his or her labour. The abundant supply of sellable products requires an equal amount of demand, which in turn requires capitalistic propaganda, the manufacturing of the consumers desires by advertising. The machines, of course, are made possible by advances in scientific understanding, just as effective advertising is

143 the result of advances in the soft sciences, particularly psychology. Lacking the naivety of aristocrats or dictators who deem themselves untouchable and who rely on tradition and counter-productive military oppression to pacify the masses of have-nots, modern titans of industry seek to protect their wealth under the cover of democracy, and as Ive said, these conflicting interests gave birth to the stealth oligarchy. Like liberals inspired by the furious pace of technoscientific advances, these modern oligarchs use democracy as an instrument, albeit merely for their own progress. Mesmerized by technoscientific progress, liberals used to trust that there are objective solutions to questions even of social progress, and so they re-engineered the American economy, adding regulations to prevent the catastrophic busts that attended the booms. This fostered a pragmatic, can-do culture, reinforced by the academys positivistic and behaviouristic hyping of science and by optimistic science fiction, which celebrated the American militarys clean-up job in WWII and the establishment of something like an American empire. On top of these science-driven causes of consumerism, there was the cultural influence simply of all the technological innovation in the twentieth century, of the frantic pace of technological progress which forced people to keep up or lose their jobs to the machines. They say that if you cant beat them, you should join them, which is just what workers and consumers do in capitalistic stealth oligarchies: we pass ourselves off as machines so our meddlesome human qualities might go unnoticed. One such quality is our potential awareness that not only is materialistic pleasure not genuinely fulfilling, but theres a higher, ethical ideal to confront the fact that our happiness is existentially absurd--even if this means sacrificing the possibility of contentment. So the reason I speak broadly--and somewhat idiosyncratically--of scientism, of a science-centered modern worldview, is that science directly or indirectly causes all the cultural elements that add up to the naturalists religion, including technology, capitalism, stealth oligarchy, advertising, consumerism, and pragmatic hostility towards philosophy.


Case Study: Televised US Political Debates

An egregious example of that hostility towards philosophy in secular culture, and especially in the US, is that which passes for public political debate. As has been pointed out by many political commentators, television has been mostly detrimental to political discourse. In particular, the first televised debate, between Kennedy and Nixon, showed politicians that on TV image matters more than substance. Nixon sweated and looked less heroic than Kennedy; therefore, Kennedy won the debate. Thats what people remember about that debate, not any engagement with ideas. And in his debate with Clinton and Ross Perot, Bush Sr. looked at his watch, revealing his boredom with a question about how the recession affected him. Such issues of personality and of superficial appearances are magnified by the medium of television, and so successful politicians have to project politically correct images. Most of the time, no questioner on television will try to look beyond the faade, because watching TV isnt like reading a book and TV excels at presenting disjointed representations rather than a logical, coherent model of reality. For those reasons alone, we should expect that the quality of political debates would decline, but the collapse of American journalism is also to blame. Once upon a time, people trusted journalists, such as Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow, believing that they were tough, independent, and looking out for the citizens interests, speaking truth to power. Then it became clear that journalism is a business, not a vocation, as more and more news agencies were bought up by fewer and fewer megacorporations. As is evident from a comparison of any American full-time TV news outlet with BBC, for example, American journalists caved to pressures from their electronic medium and corporate managers. Their overriding goal now is to maximize profit for those managers, and that goal can be achieved on TV only by churning out infotainment rather than investigative reporting. News anchors, analysts and pundits therefore put themselves in direct competition with real entertainers, like Jon Stewart or Bill Maher, a competition in which the journalists must sacrifice their intellectual integrity to perform as clowns. As a result, theyve lost not just their credibility with the viewer, but their

145 leverage on politicians to appear on their programs and submit to the inquisitions they deserve as elected officials. Journalists now need access to politicians more than politicians need to be seen on TV, and so the confrontations between them occur on the politicians terms. Thus, during political campaigns, American politicians engage in numerous televised political debates which are not debates at all. A debate requires an interrogation of each opponent, so that the viewer can judge which side has the better arguments on each point that arises in the interaction, and also a deeper concern about ideas than about image or personal advantage, on the part of each speaker. The debaters must be intellectuals in that they must engage with each others arguments, trusting that the truth emerges from a Platonic form of dialogue. None of this happens in televised American political debates. In the first place, the ego-tripping journalist replaces the moderator, and instead of merely enforcing the debates rules and time limits, the journalist proceeds to ask each debater a question, to which the politician gives his or her canned one minute response. The journalist then either moves on to the next question or reframes the first speakers answer so that if the second speaker chooses to recite a talking point about it, he or she can at least have the cover of engaging only with the know-nothing journalist. Thus, the interaction between politician and journalist replaces that between politicians, and instead of a debate what were shown is just an interview, or a press conference. Thats what politicians prefer; they dont want to rationally engage with each others ideas in a public format, whether because they privately agree on the narrow set of issues that arises for a politician in a stealth oligarchy or because they know that on TV, rational political dialogue actually tarnishes the politicians image. Viewers expect TV to supply them with entertaining images, like those seen in jumbles of advertisements. They dont want to attempt to follow complex lines of reasoning while staring at a TV screen, knowing that music and ads will break in at any moment and that its harder to go back and forth to check the inferences on TV than it is to track the inferences written on a books pages.


So the televised political debate in the US has become a complete farce. The problems arent just that politicians spin the issues, dont answer the questions, and anyway are given only seconds to answer since the viewers attention span is short and time must be reserved for commercials. To be sure, these factors contribute to the miserable state of affairs. But the primary absurdity is very simply that what the journalists and politicians routinely call a debate isnt close to being a debate. No political debate has actually been seen on American television in at least several campaign cycles. The closest thing to one recently was the vice presidential debate between Cheney and Joe Lieberman, but of course the civility of their discussion was due to their agreement on most issues. The lack of actual public debate between American politicians is absurd for three reasons. First, what are actually just journalistic interviews of politicians are nevertheless always called debates by all parties responsible for them. Second, the viewer neednt be fooled by that misnomer, despite all the false populism and antiintellectualism in American political culture. This is because most Americans are still familiar with the essence of debate, having viewed dozens of movies featuring the Hollywood stereotype of the courtroom drama, in which a witness is vigorously questioned and cross-examined, yielding the truth in the end. Third, Americans are free to compare their laughable televised "debates" with the much more mature and potentially interactive Canadian ones. The format of televised Canadian political debates isn't as infantile as that of American ones, largely because Canadian journalists who serve as moderators aren't as rich or successful as their American counterparts, and so their egos aren't the size of planets. The Canadian moderators therefore tend to do what obviously should be done and simply get out of the way and let the politicians interact. Unfortunately, the Canadian debaters are uninspiring, because even the conservative Canadian politicians are effectively postmodern liberals, or cynical nihilistic pragmatists, lacking vision, values, or trust that we can improve our civilization so that it resembles something other than a concrete jungle. These debaters, therefore, tend to forgo the opportunity of actually interacting with each other's ideas, to help the voter

147 decide which side can make the better case; instead, the politicians recite talking points, dodge questions, take cheap shots, run out the clock, and so on and so forth. Here, then, the unintended consequences of television on American politics are the polarization of the citizenry and the infantilization of their discourse. Lacking evidence of rational dialogue between their leaders, American citizens vent their frustration by heading towards the opposite extreme when conversing with each other, resorting to hyperpartisan shout-fests. Demagogues rush to harness the chaos much as militant Islamists exploit the disorder in failed states. Like the medieval peasants who learned the purpose of their society by gazing at the Churchs stained-glass windows, most Americans learn from TV rather than books, and what they learn is that rational political dialogue, which is rumoured to take place at the UN, is cowardly and idle. Again, courtroom dramas provide an opposing stereotype, but the prevailing view seems to be the anti-intellectual one. As Obama has continued rather than changed most of Bushs foreign and economic policies, despite the optimistic rationalism of Obama's campaign speeches, his administration has effectively reinforced the American prejudice against reason in politics. Americans tend now to be pragmatists who worship strength. But the American citizenry is weakened by its internal divisions and thus the citizens can take no pride in themselves, despite the fact that, theoretically at least, the majority of them indirectly rule as rational, autonomous and informed citizens. Instead, the majority doesnt actually hold ultimate political power, nor is the majority fit to do so. The citizens democratic control was hampered from the outset by their countrys founders who created three separate, equal, and thus hamstrung branches of government. Just as the medieval Church benefited from the masses inability to speak Latin, which gave the Church absolute control over the Bibles interpretation, American oligarchs benefit from a divided, confused, and frustrated populace. These weaknesses restrict the masses to the lower levels of the natural dominance hierarchy, ensuring and even justifying the dominators power over them.


Scientisms Re-enchantment of Nature

The upshot is that American secular society is split into esoteric and exoteric groups, both of which are as opposed to reason as are the insiders (mystics) and outsiders (literalists) of theistic religion. Granted, that similarity isnt sufficient to make scientism a religion. What we find, though, is that a technoscientific stealth oligarchy like the US caters to religious impulses not with mere lip service to its own theology--although it surely does that too--but by consummating Christianitys naturalization of monotheism. Christianity reduced God to a mortal man, the esoteric (Gnostic) meaning of which is the Eastern idea that human nature is fully divine and that divinity begins and ends with sentient, intelligent life. Moreover, the theistic Gods presumed interventions in nature have been thoroughly demystified by science, although scientists have also shown that nature is much weirder and scarier than any anthropomorphic projection of ourselves. But we understand now why it rains, why the earth periodically shakes, and how diseases generally work. Whats seldom said, though, is that this disenchantment is coupled with a secular reenchantment of nature, as human beings actually replace God in the myths that explain the new wonders for which we alone are responsible. Human monarchs have always been the models for the tyrannical god in heaven, just as their feats of social and architectural engineering have always been the sources for the myth that the universe was intelligently created. The difference is that in the Western imagination, todays oligarchs and scientific wonderworkers have replaced their supernatural counterparts, because the re-enchantment has been preceded by such a thorough disenchantment by Christianity, the Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment philosophy. Thus, when corporations build shopping complexes with wall-to-wall products, the experience of consuming them is the only feeling of being in heaven that consumers know, deep down, they can ever enjoy, and when money separates the haves from the have-nots, that is the only divine judgment left that divides the wheat from the chaff, the blessed from the damned. When oligarchs now live in obscene splendour, sitting on

149 golden toilets and moving from one monstrous mansion to another, those living, breathing humans are the demigods, the angels or demons who stand above human law, whereas hitherto people could have clung to the delusion that the myths spoke only of supernatural beings quite removed from our earthly home. When natural selection churns out biological designs and rewards and punishes economies, that is the divine creative force, perhaps the very same one, at a microcosmic scale, that shapes our whole universe as it mindlessly evolves within the multiverse. And when physicists speak in an arcane mathematical tongue, they are literally wizards whose elite knowledge makes possible the actual wonders of modern engineering, wonders that are subjectively as magical to the layperson as any miracle of nature must have seemed to the ancient theist. These are the great ironies of secularism. First, by demolishing the rational basis for theism, technoscience, capitalism, and stealth oligarchy add new dress to the primitive social divisions that served theists as exemplars in the first place, re-creating an ignorant mass of people (workers and consumers) over which a minority of superior beings (oligarchs) has sovereign control. The masses are even designed, after a fashion, by the oligarchs who dictate the acceptable social functions, effectively training people to behave like machines. Second, those three allegedly secular forces now stand in for what traditionally were conceived of as supernatural ones. After all, theism has always been a coded way of speaking exclusively about nature and human beings, and now that, in the modern world, theistic religion has been intellectually discredited, secularists are free to openly worship the natural powers that in ancient times were mistaken for transcendent ones. Scientism in the wider sense is this religion that re-enchants nature--including an elite minority of human beings--by undermining dualistic theism, which diverted attention to what were mistaken to be denizens of an otherworldly realm. Dualism was a relatively clumsy but necessary scheme for monarchs to preserve their power: the ancients were much more ignorant of the workings of nonliving things than they were of themselves, and so they anthropomorphized the causes of natural events. But since those all-

150 powerful persons (gods, angels, demons, fairies) were evidently hidden from view, ancient theists assumed they inhabited a secret, far-removed world. And to secure his right to dominate, the human ruler had to assure the masses that he had the allegiance of those hidden beings. In the modern world, however, when we perhaps know even more about nonliving things than we do about ourselves, theres no need for the inference that natural events have supernatural causes. Weve looked under the bed and found no monster. But when we nevertheless behave as monstrously as any imaginary boogeyman, we come to fear ourselves as much as any child was ever terrified to look under the bed. And when power and knowledge are still so unevenly distributed, the internet notwithstanding, theistic myths apply to so-called secular societies--except that the myths openly refer to earthly beings and events.

My point isnt just that this re-enchantment is a hidden message of secular society. No, the point is that the behaviour of most so-called secularists is best explained by saying that theyre members of a peculiar religion that goes by other names. Naturalistic humanists worship usefulness and efficiency (machines), money and power (oligarchs and cosmic creativity, which in microcosmic terms is the evolutionary force of a minimally-regulated market), cognitive mastery and miracles (modern science and engineering). We secularists wont speak of ourselves in religious terms, since were under the impression that all religions are classically theistic and we foreswear any theistic belief in the supernatural. But so-called secular culture isnt a hyper-rational alternative to faith-based religion. As social animals, members of a pseudodemocratic, capitalistic society tend to be mostly nonrational, which in our case means deluded, confused, and frustrated. We literally buy into hedonistic and dehumanizing myths that crop up around a stealth oligarchy to keep the money flowing mostly to the top through self-destructive consumption. Were often aware of our societys grotesqueness, but we trust in the superiority of our way of life, just as members of one monotheistic religion may be aware of other such religions and can only rationalize their leap of faith.

151 Nor am I saying just that scientism, including pragmatism and consumerism, is an ideology in a Marxist sense--unless ideology is effectively given the same meaning as religion. Scientism is at least an ideology in the Marxist sense, but so too is traditional theology. Some belief systems tend to serve economic interests, but thats not what makes them religious. Am I, then, overstretching religion so that the word loses its meaning? Not if by religion we mean a set of delusions that binds a social group together, by sidestepping our existential predicament and rationalizing the absurdity of the rituals that are caused by those delusions. Admittedly, thats a pejorative, only slightly facetious definition, but it covers the traditional religions as well as scientism. For this definition to be meaningful, however, there must be a set of ideas that falls outside its scope. If even naturalistic pragmatists and hedonic consumers are religious, who isnt? My answer: at a minimum, the mystics whose enlightenment is the esoteric purpose of the traditional religions that outsiders grasp to reconcile their inferior lifestyle with that mystical ideal, and the ascetic, artistic loners who are alienated from materialistic culture. Religions are methods of mass hallucination, so naturally those who--for one reason or another--are antisocial dont practice religion.


Untangling Scientific and Philosophical Atheism ____________________________________________________

New Atheism is riven by a seldom-discussed split between scientific and philosophical atheists, which reveals some surprising relationships between scientistic atheism, Socratic philosophical skepticism, and theism. In particular, each should be understood as a response to the mystical perception that the reality behind the apparent natural world is far from ideal for us. Western philosophers and Eastern mystics wrestle with this harsh truth and its implications, sacrificing their capacity for happiness in the process. Scientistic atheists pretend to reject all religions even as they belittle philosophical atheism to purify the membership of their science-centered cult. Scientism and literalistic, exoteric theism each represents a flight from the tragic implications of mysticism, and this is the chief weakness of each of these ideologies, according to the philosophical atheist who, unmoved by pragmatic social conventions, shares with the Eastern mystic the burden of suffering from a confrontation with the horrible truth of our existential predicament. In what follows, I explore these ideas with a view to clarifying the differences between scientific and philosophical atheism.

Some Recent Historical Context

The New Atheist movement began as a counterattack against Muslim fundamentalists who took the longstanding war between white American and European oligarchs, on the

153 one hand, and the Muslim world, on the other, into the open with their 911 terrorism. (Moderate Muslims object that theres nothing Islamic about the members of al Qaeda, but since theology isnt a science, theres no non-question-begging criterion for distinguishing between genuine and phony Muslims. The terrorist cherry-picks some passages from Muslim scriptures, taking them out of context, while the moderate, secularized or reformist Muslim does the same with other scriptures.) The war between secular civilizations and the Muslim hordes has been waged for decades via the secular oligarchs proxies, that is, by the West-friendly dictators who have--until the recent Arab Spring uprisings--kept a lid on the nationalist aspirations of the Muslim majorities in the Middle East. Secularists hardly need to enter an intellectual war of ideas with the stillmedieval Islamic religion since, as Hitchens was fond of saying, the secularists already humiliate Middle Eastern Muslims daily by ruling them via the US military and its proxies. Still, New Atheists Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens took up the call for overkill, launching verbal assaults on theism with their books and inperson debates. Again, these verbal assaults satisfied an emotional need to deal with the trauma inflicted by the highly successful 911 terrorist attacks. The Western secularists presupposition is that Muslims are subhumans who deserve to be ruled by brutal puppet regimes. The terrorists miraculous PSYOP of 911 undermined this narrative, and many New Atheists mean to reestablish the prejudice against true-believing Muslims with a media campaign, featuring something as dastardly as an uncompromising tone on the part of atheist intellectuals who had for the most part hitherto declined to speak out on any social issue, being postmodern, nihilistic liberals. Moderate religious folk, or what atheists like Jerry Coyne and P.Z. Myers like to call accommodationists, object to the strident tone of the New Atheistic case, as though intellectual New Atheism werent a superfluous rubbing of the Middle Eastern Muslims nose into the excrement of his or her premodern state of affairs. Strident words are as kisses by a spring breeze compared to the secularists direct or indirect military rule of the Muslim world. (This reminds me of CNNs Wolf Blitzer, who reflexively reacts to any effective use of rhetoric on the part of his interviewee by calling the results strong words. Someone should

154 inform Blitzer that all words are comparatively very weak.) Criticizing New Atheists harsh tone is absurd for numerous other reasons, such as the fact that the Muslim world is hypersensitive, owing to its living under military oppression by Western secular powers, and so those Muslims are wont to riot at the drop of a hat or the sketching of a satirical cartoon, demonstrating both a double standard for harsh rhetoric (their vitriol against Jews is legendary) and a very low threshold for what they deem inappropriate rhetoric against them. Moreover, focusing on the tone of New Atheism is boring and thus aesthetically off-putting, since as has been clear since at least Nietzsche, the implications of atheism are rather earth-shattering.

Scientific Atheism
To paraphrase Nietzsche and to come to the point at issue, the scientific atheist believes that science is the primary if not the only weapon that kills God, that theistic belief is rendered irrational as a result of a wealth of modern scientific discoveries. Science presents us with a natural world in which theres no room for God, and so traditional theistic religions are now backward and anachronistic. Moreover, scientific methods of rationality amount to rationality as such, and thus religious faith is a piece of irrationality. Much of this is accurate, in my view, but scientific atheism is to philosophical atheism as is literalistic religion to the esoteric, mystical kind. Scientific atheism is philosophically primitive, and this is hardly an accident since the science-centered atheist typically pretends to reject philosophy along with theology. And while some religious beliefs are indeed fairly addressed by institutional science, the deepest ones are left untouched because theyre philosophical in nature. The scientific atheist suffers from a massive blind spot, which is the extent to which the case for atheism must be philosophical and not just scientific. Take, for example, the truth that scientists explain the universes natural processes. Does the existence of the natural cosmos entail that theres no god? Of course not, since God is esoterically if not exoterically defined as the supernatural

155 Creator of that cosmos, as a transcendent, immaterial mind or spirit that transcends our ken. How could a scientific experiment show that theres no such being? Scientists actually presuppose methodological naturalism, according to which anything studied should be assumed to be natural and thus scientifically explainable, for the studys sake. This pragmatic optimism about the scope of scientific methods is justifiable as far as it goes in science, but the methodological naturalist only thereby ignores the question of theism. Moreover, whereas the practice of science may indeed be quintessentially rational, the scientist and the scientific atheist tend, as human animals, to invest their ultimate emotional stock somewhere, and as the sociologist Emile Durkheim and the theologian Paul Tillich said, that ultimate object of faith will serve as their god, the sacred center of their universe. But whereas philosophical atheists like Nietzsche are free to address this threat against the atheist's humanism, the scientific atheist tends to be blind to this problem. Although theres plenty of empirical evidence that humans are inherently tribal and idolatrous, the scientific atheist prefers to ignore the normative questions of which idol should replace the traditional God or of whether a repudiation of any sort of myth or religious faith would be wise even were this possible. By construing the question of Gods existence as decisively scientific, scientific atheists play to the greatest strength of secular society, which is the power of technoscience. But in so doing, this sort of atheist demonstrates the same warped single-mindedness as that of the warmonger who thinks theres a military solution to every sociopolitical problem or of the proverbial hammer-lover who sees everything else as a nail. There are indeed facets of religion that are susceptible to scientific testing and thus falsification; for example, the Darwinian revolution in biology directly challenges literalistic interpretations of monotheistic scriptures. These literalists typically do themselves the disservice of following Thomas Aquinas in assuming that the best way to combat heathenism is to wield the heathens weapon of Reason. Thus, literalists treat their scriptures as though they were concerned primarily with empirical rather than with normative truth, despite the fact that outside of ancient Greece and perhaps India, the

156 ancients had no conception of an absolute division between fact and value. Whereas today its commonplace to speak of whats factually the case regardless of whether we approve or even know about the matter, the ancient worldviews that gave rise to the current monotheistic religions were anthropocentric or animistic. The natural world was assumed to depend on divine people just as the local artificial world depends on mortal humans. Natural facts, then, were assumed to be artificial, which is to say that everything from the movement of the sun to the oceans waves were thought to be directly intended by some deity, in which case any question of empirical fact was inextricable from some psychological question of the deitys purpose or from the social question of whether some group of humans properly worships the deity to steer the course of nature. In short, the scientific atheists error is as gross as the literalistic theists. Science conflicts with religion only when a religious creed is reduced to a scientific theory or when values are reduced to facts, and prescriptions to descriptions. Granted, even if religions deal primarily with practical questions of how we should live in the face of death, religious statements are easily interpreted as having empirical implications. Certainly, the theist is committed to the notions that God designed the universe to sustain life and that God interacts with the natural order, responds to prayer, and performs miracles--especially those miracles which are crucial to monotheistic narratives. But refuting these notions on purely empirical grounds, amassing scientific data to demonstrate that theres no such interaction is a fools errand, since the theist is always free to reinterpret her scripture or to rework her understanding of Gods relationship with us. This is largely why theology isnt a science in the first place, because the theist assumes that matter is everywhere dependent on some mind and not the other way around, and that since Gods mind is much greater than ours, we have only a flawed understanding of Gods plan. Even folk psychological interpretation of our own intentions is endless and inexact, because our beliefs and desires all bear on each other in a vast network of ever-changing mental states that corresponds somehow to

157 the brains architecture, so that theres always the possibility of explaining someones behaviour by emphasizing some other relation between her beliefs and desires. But the theologian obviously has even less reason to be fixated on a single interpretation of Gods state of mind, since Gods mind would transcend our comprehension and so we could never be certain we understand what Gods doing. On top of this, as I said, a mind is concerned with normative questions of how we ought to live, which are never answered solely by pointing to some empirical fact and which scientific methods therefore dont address. In this way, theism is subjective rather than objective, because theism is distinguished by the positing of a great mind. As the philosopher of science Karl Popper said, theology and (Freudian) psychiatry are both nonscientific in that their statements are unfalsifiable.

Scientisms Ironic Vindication of Philosophy

Now, the scientific atheist typically regards the unfalsifiability of theological statements as a disastrous defect that renders religion worthless and pitiful. But this is because the scientific atheist is plainly and quite ironically beholden to the religion Ive called Scientism, which is equivalent roughly to a combination of positivism and Enlightenment humanism. Specifically, this atheist tends to reach the conclusion that scientific methods are the sole providers of knowledge, and that any belief that would fail on scientific grounds is worthless. This positivism is epistemologically primitive and otherwise embarrassingly clueless. First of all, humans are animals, not robots, and so were seldom interested just in knowledge for its own sake. Obviously, we have many other interests, including political, personal, and aesthetic ones. When the positivistic New Atheist pretends to be hyper-rational, like a Vulcan from Star Trek, sneering at the theist for her ancient superstitions, wishful thinking, and other emotional weaknesses, just ask the atheist about her sex life: request a cold-hearted computation of the range of her sexual positions, a dissection of her perverted fantasies, and visual records of her sexual practices. See whether that superficially hyper-rational atheist lives up to her religions calling as a posthuman, abiding on a higher plane than that of our primitive

158 ancestors, or whether instead she succumbs to responding like the animal she actually is and retreats to an emotional defense of her embarrassingly primitive private life. Second, because were animals and not robots in the classic SF sense, our knowledge is value-laden, which is to say that our beliefs are intertwined with our interests so that knowledge isnt just a set of propositions that corresponds to some facts, with a theory in tow that predicts and explains the evidence of why that correspondence should obtain; in addition to that strictly rational business, theres the need for our beliefs to cohere with each other and with our desires and emotions. While as a matter of fact the Earth may be approximately 12,700 km in diameter, knowing about that fact involves assimilating the belief into a larger worldview which is informed not just by scientific methods of evidence-gathering and testing, but by our practical concerns. A machine can merely record a representation of the Earths physical characteristics, but a person knows those characteristics by understanding their relevance, given a wider, partly normative perspective. That perspective is always informed by disciplines other than institutional scientific ones, even for a wannabe hyper-rational atheist. Scientism in the wider sense accounts for the ongoing phenomenon of positivism in science-centered culture, and thus for scientism in the narrow sense. (For clarity, Ill now capitalize my references to the former sort of scientism.) In the narrow sense, scientism is just the view that all knowledge is obtained by scientific methods and that nonscientific academic disciplines are therefore of much less importance, if not wholly useless. In the wider sense, I define Scientism as science-centered religion that covertly substitutes for a more traditional one and that depends on a severe lack of selfawareness on its practitioners part. In particular, a Scientistic atheist notoriously pretends that philosophy is effectively as worthless and as counterproductive as theology, even though this atheists case against theism is always fundamentally philosophical. For example, in his blog Why Evolution is True the scientific New Atheist Jerry Coyne cites Stephen Hawkings appeal to the pragmatic principle that science is superior to

159 philosophy because science works (see the entry, How can we justify science?: Sokal and Lynch debate epistemology.) Theology and philosophy fail to progress, on this view, because theologians and philosophers fail to achieve consensus on answers to their intellectual questions, and in any case their disciplines are fruitless in that they dont help us control natural forces to enhance our standard of living. Again, this positivistic, antiphilosophical philosophy is as embarrassingly juvenile as a libertarians worship of Ayn Rand. For no more than a moment of thought is needed to appreciate that pragmatic hostility to philosophy is perfectly self-destructive. Just run through the key terms in my above summary of pragmatism in the present paragraph and ask whether their use is scientifically or philosophically justified. Science works in that science enables us to control natural processes by means of determining their causes. In that respect, technoscience is indeed highly useful, but is it accurate to say that neither philosophy nor theology works in its own way? Of course, to say that philosophy needs to work exactly like science is just to beg the question in favour of scientism. No, philosophy and theology work as cognitive disciplines that attend to the normative and wider coherence dimensions of knowledge. Philosophy works by engendering skepticism with regard to social conventions, while exoteric theology works by unifying tribes around emotionally-satisfying totems or other idols. And just as philosophy and theology nevertheless have their great weaknesses (philosophy causes angst and alienation, while mainstream theology thrives on gullibility, ignorance, and authoritarian impulses), technoscience clearly has its drawbacks as well. To quote Erik Davis, in Techgnosis, Any serious observer must find herself questioning the sustainability of our extractive, industrial, and agricultural practices, our levels of consumption, and our myopic insults to the biosphere. All the cool commodities in the world cannot compensate for a future that promises a massive extinction of plants and creatures, the devastating loss of topsoil and rain forest, a cornucopia of pesticide-laden monocrops and lab-engineered Frankenfoods, and the climatic instabilities of global warming. And while globalization may thrust some social

160 groups and regions into relative affluence, such prosperity could prove to be an ecological time bomb if the exuberant consumption patterns of the West are simply replicated on a global scale. (314) Science isnt solely to blame for these dangers, but science nevertheless is the chief enabler of globalization, and to the extent that globalization has a dark side, science doesnt simply work. But to appreciate the normative aspect of the pragmatic lauding of science is already to enter into at least a philosophical (ethical or aesthetic) comparison of science with other disciplines. Likewise, to say that philosophy doesnt progress is to issue a normative judgment that no series of scientific tests in the world can suffice to justify. This is because what counts as social progress depends on our interests, and institutional science cant prove what we should want. Is consensus or unanimity necessarily the mark of progress or of a working rather than a dysfunctional discipline? What strictly scientific method could demonstrate this as an empirical fact? Perhaps disagreement on largely subjective matters has the social advantage of fostering variety and thus greater human adaptability. Perhaps theres more disagreement in philosophy and in religion, because normative, highly general, and emotionally crucial questions are harder to answer than empirically testable ones. More likely, though, perhaps answering them decisively isnt the point, because grappling with a philosophical question is a way of shaping a personal outlook or a culture, without the benefit of presuppositions, whereas scientists are free to presuppose methodological naturalism, pragmatism, platonism, or some other philosophical stance without neglecting their duties as scientists. Scientific, allegedly hyper-rational atheism, though, is actually a philosophical position, and despite this atheists superficial hostility to philosophy as the baby in the bathwater of theology, the oblivious worshipper of science inevitably vindicates philosophy and at least the need for theology, albeit not any outmoded religion. The mental compartmentalization needed by a modern monotheist to maintain a coherent worldview despite the conflicts between any such religion and a modern mindset, is comparable to

161 that needed by the Scientistic atheist who perceives the world through science-tinted lenses, leaving the blind spot of the philosophical and theological frame that holds those lenses in front of her eyes. Indeed, Coyne is wont to equate science with rationality in general, to conceal the absurdity of his antiphilosophical philosophy and his underlying religious faith in science. (See, for example, his blog entry, A new definition of scientism, in which he says, As for me, I maintain that if you define science broadly as I have above, then yes, plumbing is a form of science, for it uses empirical investigation and reason to do things like locate and fix leaks.) That is, instead of maintaining that all knowledge issues from institutional science, Coyne and likeminded scientific atheists draw the line between atheism and theism at the point of general rationality. But because they equate rationality with science, by way of mere stipulation, they feel entitled to award science and not, say, philosophy, with the credit for atheism, thus satisfying by way of equivocation their religious and highly reductive preference for science in the narrower sense. By all means, let the scientific atheist tout the glories of technoscience, which are many and awesome! But when the hubristic atheist ventures into the religious fundamentalists territory, having been mesmerized by those glories so that the atheist sees nothing of cognitive value outside of science, the scientific atheist creates a selfdestroying worldview, abandoning her philosophical allies for the sake of religious purity.

Philosophical Atheism and Mystical Pessimism

By contrast, the philosophical atheist regards the question of theism as philosophical. But how does this atheist preserve philosophy while rejecting theology? After all, as the scientific atheist likes to point out, philosophy has more in common with theology than does science. Well, on the surface, the philosophical atheist proceeds by building an a priori case against the so-called god of the philosophers, an abstraction thats rationally

162 reconstructed from religious myths. For example, a philosopher is free to deconstruct a definition of God, reducing the definition to absurdity by deriving contradictions from the reconstruction of the theists assumptions. This is mostly a futile endeavour, since theres always a gap between the rational reconstruction and the God that religious people actually worship, what with philosophy not being theology. Thus, the theist is free to say that the god of the philosophers is a red herring, that the rational definition of God would need to be altered to represent the deity figuring in a particular religion, and that theres no end to the needed alteration since ultimately mysticism trumps literalism. As Ill show in a moment, this theistic retreat to mysticism isnt just an escape hatch to evade criticism, but points to the crucial difference between philosophy and theology. There are other philosophical arguments an atheist can deploy, though, in building a nonscientific but rational case against theism, some of which I summarize in Theism. Of course, a philosopher can criticize the theists a priori proofs of Gods existence and in general can show that theism is fallacious. In other words, the philosopher can construe her atheism as a moderate version of the science-centered variety, much as American Democrats can sell themselves as moderate Republicans. But this doesnt reveal whats actually at stake in the conflict between philosophical atheists and theists. As suggested above, rational or so-called natural theology is something of a political strategy adopted by the likes of Catholics and Muslims to convert certain unbelievers. The idea is to show that all sacred paths lead to God, that science and reason generally pose no challenge to religion. But this raises the question of whether reason and science are sacred rather than profane, or God-favoured rather than demonic. Clearly, from a Jewish, Christian, or Islamic perspective, secular powers dont fit well within those religious narratives, assuming the narratives havent been secularized. After all, reason is a skill weve evolved in our fallen state to survive in what the monotheist regards as our mere temporary home, while technoscience is an elaboration on reason that enables us to re-engineer the world God would still have created for us, forging our own path by our own intelligence and power. Clearly, the monotheist requires no leap of imagination to label rationalism a mark of sinful arrogance--literally a following in Satans path, Satan or Prometheus being the

163 archetypal rebel who creates his own world rather than serving as a slave to Gods plan. Paul of Tarsus said that natural as opposed to spiritual wisdom is folly to God, while the New Testament has Jesus say that you can gain the whole natural world but lose yourself on Judgment Day. Some monotheists try to co-opt secular instruments, but in so doing they inevitably corrupt their religion. As I say in Christian Chutzpah, the most appalling current case of this is the revolting spectacle of American so-called conservative Christianity in which the religion functions purely as a political weapon wielded by Republican demagogues, having absolutely nothing to do with the original Christian principles. True, in Genesis God commands that we subdue the whole world, but as Jack Miles shows in God: A Biography, the character of God in the biblical narrative evolves as he discovers his preferences by interacting with his favourite creatures, having apparently no prior history to determine his character. Thus, God commands us to be fruitful and to multiply only to discover later that he doesnt really approve of that commandment, since it has the unintended consequence that we become too powerful, and so God has to destroy us and start again. That initial commandment to the creatures made in his image represents only Gods most nave conception of his purpose for us, reflecting in turn his most superficial understanding of himself, and thus would hardly still be ineffect. What the Bible shows God discovering along with his creatures is that the pride needed for us to rule the world leads to wars between us and thus to the breaking of Gods later proscription of killing, and to a demonic rebellion against God. Not content with ruling the world, humans build the Tower of Babel to reach the heavens, and so God has to weaken his creatures by impeding our ability to communicate. In fact, the literalistic reading of the Bible as inerrant betrays an underlying hostility to the Bible, a resentment that the Bible is so difficult to understand, and a confession that the literalist lacks the patience to read the text with the eyes of a literary critic. Memorizing and mindlessly repeating cherished quotations as relevant equally throughout all time and space, in their most superficial guise with no need for interpretation or understanding of historical and literary contexts, is just lazy and disrespectful to the authors and editors.

164 To return to the point, though, the canonical arguments in Western philosophy of religion are mostly unimportant, which is one reason that that philosophical field is so marginalized even in the US despite the abundance of American interest in religion. The rationalism implicit in the theistic proofs and secular counterarguments betrays a mere exoteric understanding of God, and thus leaves aside the distinction between literalism and mysticism. What theology represents is actually a call for our ultimate humility, given faith or nonrational knowledge (direct perception) that theres something much greater than ourselves to which we owe our lives. Theistic religion is primarily a check on our pride; at least, thats an implication of the mystical heart of that sort of religion. But the problem is that most religious people get caught up in the oversimplified conception of God as a person--as a creator, designer, warlord, father, son, or provider of gifts. The god of exoteric, literalistic theism may be easier to understand and to affirm, but the drawback is that this god becomes one of us instead of a transcendent being that renders our pride foolish. Indeed, the literalists analogy between God and a human secularizes her religion, by implicitly deifying human nature. Literalistic theism justifies humanism, whereas mystical theism condemns our nature as illusory or as nothing compared to the transcendent oneness of ultimate reality. Even an argument like the so-called cosmological one, that God is the First Cause, reduces God to a natural being for the sake of our rational understanding, and thus misses the point of mysticism that is essential to theism. So as I said above, a theists appeal to mysticism is no retreat from the need for rigorous philosophizing; rather, academic Western philosophy of religion is a study mainly of red herrings. That philosophy is naturalistic and thus science-centered and humanistic, whereas for thousands of years theistic religions have challenged those who are tempted to assume that they can find their own happiness. Nonsecularized religious belief always rests on faith, intuition, or an interpretation of experience rather than on science or logic, which renders the belief nonrational (subjective and emotional). The theist feels convinced by her experience that however great our knowledge and power, there are much greater forms that humble ours; she suspects, therefore, that our pride in ourselves is a vice, a result of short-sightedness. The mystical theist grapples with the challenge this intuition

165 poses to the now-treasured secular faith in the autonomy of the human individual, in her rights and dignity as a godlike being in her own right who subdues nature with technoscience. Meanwhile, the literalistic theist loses sight of the intuition and becomes an unknowing pawn of secular powers, as she embraces religious metaphors that covertly deify human nature. What, then, divides Western mystical theism from philosophical atheism? Thats the deeper question. My answer is that the former is comedic whereas the latter is tragic. Western mysticism is so marginalized compared to the Wests interest in exoteric monotheism, that the Western mystics lesson is tainted by the exoteric metaphors. That is, even the sophisticated Westerners God becomes all-too-human, and so Western theism loses its potential to challenge secular humanism. Even the sophisticated liberal Christian who professes to reject the literal meaning of most biblical passages nevertheless identifies God with something as insipid as love or perhaps with a quasinatural force like the platonic Good that steers everything towards its happy destiny. Western theism is comedic in that its highly optimistic about human beings. Jews, Christians, and Muslims currently dont fear God, because theyve humanized him, failing to grasp the meaning of mystical insight. Theistic humanism, in turn, is a force for secularization. (Granted, Islam gives the appearance of being an exception, but this is because the current dire circumstances of most Muslims compel them to latch onto the warlord metaphor which happens to be scarier than, say, the Christians metaphor of God the Father or Son.) Now, Eastern mysticism has much more vitality and immunity from exoteric contamination. But for just this reason, Eastern theism is revealingly regarded by Westerners as more philosophical than religious, despite the fact that Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Taoists are much more concerned with practice than with creeds. And this brings me to the important difference between philosophical atheism and theism: theists flee from the destructive implications of mysticism, whereas philosophers courageously (or foolishly?) grapple with those implications. Western theists flee to the comfort of simplistic metaphors, whereas Easterners tend to

166 depart from theism itself, honouring the philosophical confrontation with mysticism and thus effectively embracing atheism. Granted, many Hindus worship various gods and many Buddhists worship various gurus, but mysticism is much more central to those religions than it is to current Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. Again, by mysticism I mean the denunciation of natural appearances as the causes of ignorance and thus of suffering, and the renunciation of pleasures and rational powers that distract from that anti-natural realization. This mysticism began with Hinduism and filtered to the West after Alexander the Great opened channels of communication between the ends of the Old World. Eastern religions are tragic in that they regard the spirits liberation as an escape from the prison of nature and thus from human personality: we win in the end only by grasping that were nothing, that the notion of bliss in a personal heaven on some ethereal plane is just a fantasy. By contrast, Western religions are comedic: showing no mystical turning from the apparent world, and revealing the extent of their exoteric individualism, Jews, Christians, and Muslims envision heaven as life in a resurrected body, with Muslims even emphasizing heavens physical perfection. In Western religions, our wildest dreams are ultimately fulfilled, including the dream of perfect justice for the wicked in hell, whereas in Eastern religions those dreams are rejected precisely as such and replaced with detachment from the world that looks a lot like the existentialists alienation and angst. And this brings me to philosophical mysticism, that is, to the Socratic philosophers hostility to social conventions, which is central to the Western philosophical tradition even if many Western philosophers arent Socratic. Whereas the Western mystical theist slides into exoteric happy-talk, rendering her monotheism comedic and thus contrary to mystical hostility to natural (samsaric) inclinations, the Socratic philosopher shares the Eastern mystical view that the beloved wisdom destroys the ego and society at large by undermining optimistic or pragmatic opinions, what Plato called noble lies. This is why Socrates was executed. He recognized that his sole piece of wisdom was that he knew nothing, which ironically made him the wisest person in Greece; he knew nothing in that he stubbornly lacked faith in tradition or authority. Socratic philosophy

167 is self-destructive, since this sort of philosopher is compelled to reject what society values, which naturally alienates her. The parallels between the Socratic philosopher and the Eastern mystic should be clear. Now, the updated version of Socrates trenchant skepticism is informed, of course, by modern science which undermines the theists faith that history will end in our favour. On the contrary, implies the scientist, no one survives bodily death and since were evolving animals, well become extinct like any other species. No deus ex machina for us (unless the transhumanists hopes for technological apotheosis are realized). But again, the rational case against theism misses the mystical point, which is that our reason, our power, our love, and everything else we do or possess are of no consequence in the greater scheme. The mystic perceives miraculous potential in this scheme--mainly the interconnectedness of everything that appears independent. What the Socratic philosopher finds distasteful in theism, then, is the cowardly backsliding into optimistic, humanistic, and thus secularized literalism. By contrast, the philosophical version of mysticism looks like a synthesis of existentialism and cosmicism. Instead of trusting that were each saved by a divine Son, that divine Love conquers all, that our personal spirit is eternal, or that God is good and in control of the universe, the philosophical mystic, or hyper-skeptic, is preoccupied with horror: horror for the absurdity of our self-centered delusions, horror for the universes palpable inhumanity which we still find ways to deny, horror that every society depends on fraud and vice, horror that nature evolved self-aware beings who are forced to live as degraded beasts or to torture themselves with grim knowledge. To see this in dramatic terms, recall that the exoteric theist demonizes the character of Satan for daring to defy God by rejecting his place in the divine plan and acting as god in a world of his own creation, called hell. Again, on this account of the myth, secular humanism (Scientism) becomes Satanic. But the mystical, Gnostic Christian reinterprets the myth, casting Satan as the wise hero who escapes from the tyranny of a false God. The literalists god is indeed false, a projection of her self-centeredness, motivated by her fear of facing the horrible truths of our existential predicament that modern science

168 now makes clear for all educated people. Like the Eastern mystic and the Gnostics Satan, the Socratic philosopher falls from grace, meaning that shes socially ostracized for her boundless skepticism; indeed, this is the underlying reason for academic philosophys wider unpopularity. As Satan was flung from a false heaven, from participation in the Matrix of illusions which is the natural plane, the Eastern mystic hopes to be liberated from the cycle of rebirth, to be extinguished so that her suffering and her embarrassing incarnation as a clever ape can end. And as Satan suffers in hell, so too the philosopher and the mystic are angst-ridden, jarringly dislocated as they perceive irony and folly everywhere, drawn to the transcendent mystery in all things while condemning every rational or optimistic solution. In short, Socratic philosophy and Eastern mysticism both interpret the world as a monstrous tragedy and as absurdly ironic. The philosopher should reject exoteric theism not because this theists arguments are fallacious, which of course they are, but because theistic literalism betrays the mysticism to which theists and atheists alike are entitled. When the theist dresses up God to look human with anthropocentric metaphors, she tastelessly showcases her narcissism and opts for the pragmatic, secular humanistic lifestyle of pleasing herself with delusions. For the Socratic philosopher, most cases of theism are insufficiently mystical (Lovecraftian or existential), and the problem with scientific atheism is likewise that this atheists Scientism amounts to another comedic, humanistic faith. The exoteric theist and the scientific atheist both fail to appreciate the mystical, utterly tragic upshot of modern science, of Socratic hyper-skepticism, or of Eastern traditions of enlightenment. So while the scientific atheist properly rejects literalistic theism as fit for children, this atheist nevertheless swears allegiance to the wrong faith, to Scientism or positivistic humanism, which itself is preposterously anti-philosophical. In my view, the religious faith needed in a postmodern, highly technoscientific culture looks rather like some combination of existentialism, cosmicism, Eastern mysticism, and science fiction.


Sam Harriss Scientific Morality: A Case Study of Scientific Atheism ____________________________________________________

Sam Harriss The End of Faith was perhaps the first major book in the wave of New Atheist books published after 911. Harris argued for the importance of challenging our so-called private beliefs, since beliefs (mental representations) cause our behaviour and thus have public consequences. He argued also that so-called moderate religion shouldnt be off-limits to nontheists, since moderates enable more dangerous, fundamentalist religion by contending that since religion has a harmless form, religion itself is never a primary cause of violence. That book defended a commonsense realist philosophy, according to which beliefs are made true or false by the facts, and the facts support atheistic naturalism. Whatever you might think of his earlier case for a certain philosophical perspective, you should be struck by the shift taken by his more recent book, The Moral Landscape, in which he attempts to show that social conflicts between groups who disagree on moral issues arent inevitable, because science has the potential to show us the truth about moral values just as science has done with regard to the rest of nature. Harris uses his case for a science of morality as a weapon against religion, since theists claim that religion (along with philosophy) are valuable in part for providing the only conceivable framework that justifies morality; that is, the theist means to bash science-centered

170 nontheism for the latters inability to justify morality. In the process of countering this moral argument for theism, however, Harris throws the baby out with the bathwater. If morality is actually in the purview of science, then neither the philosopher nor the theologian can have anything crucial to say about moral issues, just as a chef or a politician has no authority to speak about biology or physics. Unfortunately, Harris case for scientific morality conforms to the positivists pattern of ironically celebrating science with a philosophy that must be kept in the shadows. In Harris case, he should have two reasons not to call attention to the philosophical nature of his arguments for scientific morality. First, those arguments would demonstrate that there is a crucial philosophical debate about morality after all, namely the debate about whether morality can be scientifically justified; the nature of this meta-debate, in turn, prevents a fulsome, Scientistic worship of science at the expense of philosophy. Second, his arguments happen to be badly flawed, often resting on evasive verbal tricks or contradicting each other, due presumably to his contempt for philosophy and thus for its ideals of clarity and rigorous logic even in discussions of nonscientific issues. Harris case for scientific morality, therefore, illustrates the perils of scientific, as opposed to philosophical, atheism.

Facts and Values

Harris says that he sees no reason to pay much attention to philosophical ethics or meta-ethics, because that philosophical work increases the amount of boredom in the universe (Chapt. 1 n.1). In a talk he gave in New York about his book, he says we dont have to pay attention to such intellectual backwaters (see the YouTube video, CFINYC | Sam Harris: The Moral Landscape, approx. 12 minutes in). His goal, he says in his book, is to write for a wider audience, not just for academia. This complaint with academic philosophy is all-too-convenient, though, since Harris book naturally contains many references to scientific research which are surely just as boring to many people. There are popularizers of either science or academic philosophy, who simplify the cutting-edge research and arguments without crudely misrepresenting them or slanting

171 the discussion with amateurish errors. Harris many, more technical footnotes at the back of his book, not to mention his undergraduate degree in philosophy from Stanford, show that hes equipped to engage responsibly with the philosophy of morality. The reason he doesnt, therefore, may be just that even a half-way rigorous philosophical analysis of his arguments for scientific morality reveals their egregious flaws and thus his true technique for persuasion, which is his implicit reference to the power of technoscience. Once Harris philosophical arguments are disposed of, all that remains is the tribal expectation that science will dictate our moral beliefs just as science has come to dictate so many of our others. Standing in the way of this inductive inference is the philosophical distinction between facts and values. Science is usually thought to discover what the natural facts are and how they work, not to show how we ought to behave or to settle any other normative matter. According to Harris, theres no such distinction. After all, he says, science itself rests on certain built-in epistemic values, such as the value of critical thinking (11). But this postmodern observation is irrelevant to the point of the fact-value distinction, which has to do with logical spaces of justification, or with the giving of reasons to accept a belief, not with causal connections. Sure, a persons values can cause her to act and thus to bring about certain facts in the world, perhaps even to make a scientific discovery. This doesnt mean that the persons values by themselves logically entail a reference to any of those facts, or that a reason to believe some fact obtains follows just from a belief about what ought to be the case. As the postmodern skeptic is often reminded to her chagrin, to reason otherwise is to commit a form of the genetic fallacy, of reducing an empirical beliefs justification to its subjective origin, such as to the believers feeling, character, or some other normative factor. To take the hackneyed example, just because Hitler was evil doesnt mean all of his empirical beliefs were false; again, rationally assessing whether an empirical belief is justified doesnt end with considering the believers values. Harris commits the same error in his neurological argument against the fact-value distinction. He points to some evidence that beliefs about facts and values respectively

172 arise from similar brain processes. Again, even were this evidence strong, it would be irrelevant to the distinction at issue since it would show only a certain causal connection--in this case, between mere beliefs about facts or values and their neural origins. Just because those beliefs might be processed in similar ways by the brain, doesnt mean theres no logical difference between reasons in support of either kind of belief. This is just another form of the genetic fallacy. What about the other direction of inference, from facts to values? This is the direction made famous by Humes argument that you cant infer a normative statement merely from factual premises. Harris gives short shrift to this, the more relevant aspect of the fact-value distinction. His most direct response, buried in a footnote, is a citation of Dennetts hand-waving protest that an ought just has to be derivable from something like an appreciation of human nature or a sense of what a human being is or might be or what the person wants. According to Harriss quotation of Dennett, theres no fallacy in that sort of derivation (Intro. n.13). But there obviously is. Just ask yourself whether wanting something makes it right. If Hitler wants to kill Jews, does that mean he ought to do so? Sure, facts about our capacities as humans informs us of our moral limits, but this doesnt mean that the rightness or wrongness of what we do reduces to facts of those limits. A sociopath may be incapable of acting morally, but that limit by itself doesnt tell us that his actions are immoral. Perhaps his lack of a conscience is like a gift and his manipulation of weaker people conforms to a posthuman moral standard. And were the facts of our nature that we have no real freedom at all, values would be illusory and thus so too would a derivation of normative from factual statements. In his New York talk, Harris raises Humes point about is and ought statements, and in the very next sentence pretends to answer it with his postmodern point about the value-ladenness of science (see just before the 25 minute mark of the talk cited above). It doesnt seem to bother Harris that these points are headed in opposite directions, inferentially speaking.

173 Dennett and thus Harris (who quotes him) want to know from where moral statements are derivable if not from factual ones. Scientistic atheists are stumped, you see, because theyre wannabe hyper-rationalists. They assume that moral beliefs have to be logically inferred or based on evidence. But morality, like theism, might be irrational and thus either might be particularly fitting for us--as smart as we are compared to all other known species--considering that were animals nonetheless.

Is happiness the only moral value?

So Harris hardly overcomes the philosophical distinction between facts and values. But put that aside. According to Harris, whatever can be known about maximizing the wellbeing of conscious creatures--which is, I will argue, the only thing we can reasonably value--must at some point translate into facts about brains and their interaction with the world at large (11). Harris main argument is that the only intelligible object of value is the welfare or happiness of conscious beings and that morality therefore reduces to facts about what makes those being happy, facts which scientists can discover. (Harris emphasizes another point, about the origin of values. For example, he says, consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value, consciousness is the basis of human values and morality, and any other source would be the least interesting thing in the universe (32). He speaks as if these statements were equivalent, which theyre not, since whether something is interesting has to do with whether its the object of value, not with whether its the source or sustaining cause of values. In any case, this point about the source of values is once again irrelevant. You might as well say that morality reduces to facts about our solar system, since that system produced and sustains the conscious creatures who evaluate things. The origin or vehicle of morality may be scientifically interesting, but its irrelevant to the philosophical, meta-ethical question of whether science can tell us everything we could want to know about morality.)

174 Harris relevant premise, then, is that our welfare is the only possible thing we can value. His meta-ethical defense of this statement proceeds by way of thought experiments, not by any scientific evidence. Harris merely appeals to his readers intuition, asking whether it would make any sense to call the most miserable state of affairs morally good. He contrasts The Good Life, in which a person is successful, emotionally fulfilled by social connections and a worthwhile job, and fortunately blessed with a long life free from much pain, with The Bad Life in which an illiterate, impoverished, starving, terrified woman in war-torn Africa watches as her child is raped and killed, and is forced to flee from a gang of soldiers who rape and kill her (15-16). Harris wants to know what someone could possibly value were the difference between those two lives not to matter to her. If someone wanted to steer another persons life in one or the other direction, as it were, could we conceivably have the same moral opinion of that controlling person, regardless of the direction? Harris wants to say that this difference between happiness and unhappiness is all there is to moral value, that a moral value not captured by the distinction between The Good Life and The Bad Life is inconceivable and impossible (17). And since that distinction has to do with facts that relate--in a scientifically explainable way--to the brains of conscious creatures, if you share Harris intuition about the distinction, youve got to agree that there can be a science of morality. Clearly, theres a difference between happiness and unhappiness and clearly most people would rather be happy than otherwise. Most people prefer pleasure to pain, for well-known natural reasons. The question is only whether this preference is all there is to morality, or indeed whether its even relevant to the question of moral value. All thats logically required to refute Harris conceivability argument is to provide an example of a moral value not captured by his point about the majoritys preference for happiness. One such example is found in my existential argument for the aesthetic value of suffering due to knowledge of our absurd and tragic plight as naturally accursed creatures, a value that trumps the more conventional, materialistic preference for personal fulfillment. Ask yourself not just whether we can or actually do prefer a life of personal pleasure to one of misery, but whether we morally ought to, given our tragic

175 knowledge of our animal nature, of the obviousness of atheism, and thus of the absurdity of our theistic delusions. Instead of appealing fallaciously to an intuitions popularity, as does Harris, consider whether we ought to be happy on Earth even though Earth isnt Heaven. Take even the fortunate soul in Harris example of The Good Life. In that thought experiment, the heros job is actually to help other people, including children in the developing world by means of a billion-dollar grant. So a happy person neednt be selfish. But notice how Harris own thought experiment self-destructs as soon as you start to examine it. Anyone interested in dedicating her life to helping people much less fortunate than her is bound to be motivated by suffering due to her knowledge of their misery. That suffering will compete with her pleasure, tearing her away from her cocktail parties, rendering her enjoyment of her comparative luxuries petty and awkward. How could she enjoy her success and her friends, knowing that millions of children suffer each moment shes offered some pleasure or other, and knowing too the ultimate cause and consequence of that grotesque inequality? The cause, of course, is the fact that were byproducts of mindless, inhumane natural processes, and the consequence is that were thoroughly natural creatures, namely animals whose fates are tied entirely to our bodies, for whom theres no perfect justice. Harris own example reveals that happiness isnt crucial to moral value, after all, since the morally praiseworthy person living The Good Life is bound to be unhappy! Sure, she may be successful, wealthy, popular, and so on, but shell suffer from anxiety rather than be contented. Her angst is what will motivate her to live a more respectable, altruistic life, thus freeing Harris argument from the counterintuitive implication that selfish pleasure is all thats morally valuable. If that heros happiness (in the sense of a set of higher and lower pleasures tied to her brain states) isnt what makes her life morally valuable, why do we morally praise her? Surely, because she chooses to sacrifice her pleasure to help others, and she chooses this out of a sense of duty to respond well to her suffering from the horror of our existential predicament. Because were the spawn of a mindless, inhumane world and

176 not children of any loving god, some people succeed in the struggle for life while others fail, some are lucky while others are not, and many of us live effectively as subhumans exploited by posthuman demigod overlords (globe-trotting oligarchs). The hero cant bear to live selfishly, because her conscience prevents her from contributing to an aesthetically appalling pattern in which she enjoys luxuries while millions of impoverished children starve. Again, whats morally praiseworthy about this hero isnt just that she happens to succeed in helping others, but that she chooses to try even at the inevitable cost of sacrificing her peace of mind and her enjoyment of her privileged lifestyle. Remove this altruistic aspect from Harris example of The Good Life, and the intuition is no longer triggered that theres anything morally right about the persons pleasures from her fortune, social network, and her long life, that is, about her happiness. As I say elsewhere, not only is happiness not the only morally correct goal, but happiness in the sense of personal contentment is especially unbecoming for creatures in our existential situation. We morally ought to be restless and angst-ridden, given what we now know, thanks indeed largely to Harris cherished modern science. I stress the aesthetic aspect of existential morality, but the philosopher Immanuel Kant provides a third example that refutes Harris contention, that is, an example in addition to my case against the moral value of happiness and to the self-destruction of Harris example of The Good Life. Kant famously argues for what ethicists call deontology, which is the philosophy that morality is a matter of duty, not of happiness. Naturally, Harris gives short shrift to Kant as well, stating in a footnote that Kant's categorical imperative (that we have a rational duty to act as if our private reason for acting were a universal law, so that wed expect to reap what we sow), amounts to a covert form of consequentialism (Chapt.1, n.10). This is supposedly because, as Mill allegedly showed, Kants rational basis for morality works only on the assumption that rationality is generally beneficial and thus maximizes happiness. Even were this so, which Kantians will hardly concede, happiness might be a morally irrelevant byproduct of rationality. In any case, as Ive argued elsewhere, rationality rather produces angst and alienation than contentment. Were everyone good Kantians, always worried about

177 treating each other as ends rather than as means, wed suffer from our awareness of how often nature treats us all as means rather than as ends. In another footnote, Harris criticizes Kants notion of treating people as ends, arguing that were split between our present and future selves, so that when we act prudently to benefit ourselves in the future, we abuse our present selves as means to that end (Chapt. 2, n.45). But once again, Harris own philosophical assumptions undermine his scientistic notion of morality. Harris says that morality is a concern only for conscious creatures. According to the philosopher John Lockes view of personal identity, a person is essentially the interconnections between a set of mental states, especially memories. A stream of consciousness can be interrupted without losing personal identity as long as memories are retained of the earlier mental states. So a Kantian could reply that present and future states of a self are united by memories. Moreover, according to Kant, were ends rather than means because we have freewill in the sense of autonomy, and without that attribute morality is nonsensical in the first place. Note also that Harris example of The Bad Life is morally irrelevant. The victims misery is surely not to be preferred, but this doesnt make it morally wrong, precisely because shes a colossal victim who isnt to blame for anything, and even those who immediately persecute her arent to blame (the soldiers are drug-addled and indoctrinated as children). The true culprits who are morally blameworthy are the oligarchs who control the political and economic relations between countries. But the point is that immorality isnt just a lack of happiness; rather, its the cowardice or folly that causes us to ignore our existential predicament, retreating to theistic or to other delusions, as well as the tastelessness (unoriginality) of reinforcing that predicament by contributing to inhumane dominance hierarchies. Finally, a word about Harris dismissal of objections to his conceivability argument for the equivalence of moral value with the welfare of conscious creatures. In talks and his book, he often belittles his critic's objections by saying that they run up against the self-

178 evidence of Harris arguments and therefore dont need to be taken seriously. For example, he says, if we dont want everyone to experience the worst possible misery, we shouldnt do X. Can we readily conceive someone who might hold altogether different values and want all conscious beings, himself included, reduced to the state of the worst possible misery? I dont think so. And I dont think we can intelligibly ask questions like What if the worst possible misery for everyone is actually good? Such questions seem analytically confused...if someone persists in speaking this way, I see no reason to take his views seriously. (Chapt.1, n.22) Here, Harris dismisses a strawman argument, reducing the conclusion of his own conceivability argument to a mere analytic statement that depends on the stipulated meaning of words. The reason it makes no sense to ask whether the worst possible misery for everyone is good is that worst includes the meaning bad. But the description of The Ultimate Bad Life, in which misery is maximized, neednt use that particular loaded label, worst. Indeed, we shouldnt beg the moral question at issue by initially describing this scenario as very bad, but should rather neutrally say that that misery is complete, extreme, permanent, and so on. Then the question becomes whether, say, complete misery for everyone is actually moral. Given existential and Eastern philosophical traditions, this question can hardly be dismissed as easily as an irrelevant one about the loaded use of words. The renunciation of our pleasures may indeed be the moral choice, given our predicament that those who know too much are condemned to live with angst, and that we can either flee to delusion or nobly persevere as tragic heroes. Of course, the philosophical and indeed the scientific standard is to go out of your way to ensure that youve made no error, to work with the critic to formulate the best possible objection to see whether your argument holds up. The alternative is to dogmatically presume that youve got a godlike handle on the truth and to belittle objections, like a self-righteous theist. Harris evident pride goes before the fall of his

179 argument, and the source of his pride is his commitment to the religion of Scientism, which assures him that somehow science has all the answers--even if youve got to employ shoddy philosophical arguments to prove as much.

Just what is Harris' science of morality?

Were Harris conclusion just that science can show us how to be happy, assuming happiness is sustained by certain brain states, there would be little to criticize. The problem is that he thinks we can replace the philosophy of ethics with that sort of science, because the equivalence of happiness with moral value is allegedly selfevident. As Ive shown, his argument for that equivalence is deeply flawed. But put that aside for the moment and consider what exactly Harris wants to show. He says that his general thesis isnt merely that science can help us get what we want out of life, but that, in principle, science can help us understand what we should do and should want-and therefore what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible (28). But this is a slippery rather than a clarifying statement of his thesis. The weakness in saying that science can merely help in this regard trivializes his notion of scientific morality, since even his critics will agree that an ought can follow from a combination of is and ought statements. The main criticism is just that a prescription doesnt reduce exclusively to descriptions, in the sense of being implied by factual premises without any normative ones. Harris proves himself to be an even slipperier fish when he compares morality to health, pointing out that medical science proceeds regardless of philosophical worries about the definition of health, but also conceding that Science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should value health. But once we admit that health is the proper concern of medicine, we can then study and promote it through science (37). As far as I can tell, this admission is devastating to Harris overall argument, since it reduces his thesis to what he explicitly rules out as such, namely to the statement just that science can help us get what we want (i.e. happiness). If science cant tell us why we should value health, and health is comparable to morality for Harris purposes, then science cant tell

180 us why we should value happiness (the welfare of conscious creatures). In that case, the science of morality doesn't replace the philosophy of ethics, and that science becomes the instrumental business of helping many people achieve their philosophical or theological goal of being happy. As Ive said, Harris conceivability argument in support of his main premise is itself patently philosophical rather than scientific, so his own case for scientific morality bears out his admission that science doesnt settle the key philosophical issue of what we should morally value. But the slippery fish squirms yet again, adopting the same ploy as the scientific atheist Jerry Coynes, of defining science broadly as our best effort to understand what is going on in this universe, the boundary between this science and the rest of rational thought being sometimes impossible to draw (29). With this Quineian holistic view of the relation between rational endeavours like math, philosophy, and science, Harris can credit science in the broad sense for the work of philosophy and thus satisfy his scientistic preference for science in the narrow sense. Why not instead use philosophy broadly as the name of our best effort to understand the universe, and thus credit philosophy for the work of Newton, Darwin, and Einstein? Again, if you hollow out science as a weasel word, you can have a cheap scientific morality, but philosophy will still be needed to settle the normative questions about morality, which are the crucial ones about what goal we ought to pursue, while science in the proper sense will consist of discoveries and explanations that enable us more efficiently to pursue that goal. Harris is clearly all over the map with regard to what exactly a science of morality amounts to: because of his disdain for philosophical rigor, and because of the conflict between his scientism and his philosophical method, Harris is unsure of how hes entitled to state his conclusion. Thus he equivocates, backslides, and contradicts himself. Theres more in The Moral Landscape than what Ive discussed here, but I think the above demolishes Harris main argument and exposes the amusing ironies of scientific atheism. The scientific atheist thinks that science rather than philosophy is the best, if not the only useful, weapon against religion. But the scientific atheist typically

181 subscribes to what is effectively the religion of Scientism, and inevitably resorts to philosophy in arguing against theism. Thus, scientific atheism self-destructs twice over.


Jerry Coyne on Scientism and Freewill ____________________________________________________

Jerry Coyne is a popular new atheist and biologist. In his blog, Why Evolution is True, he often defends two positions among others, both of which I think are dubious. The first is scientism in what I call the narrow, academic sense, that science is the only source of empirical knowledge. (Note that this sense of scientism is different from my broader use of the word as a synonym for the substitute religion of secular humanism. That broad sense of "Scientism" isnt relevant to the present discussion. Whenever I refer to scientism in this particular article, then, I have in mind the narrow sense.) The second is that freewill is an illusion, since science shows that determinism is true. Ill address each in turn.

Scientism and Knowledge

Coyne says that hes always maintained that there are no other reliable ways of knowing beyond science if one construes science broadly--as meaning a combination of reason and empirical observation. Again, The real question is whether theres any way beyond empirical observation and reason to establish what is true about the world. I dont think so In another article, he speaks of his challenge to Keith Ward, which was to give me just one reasonably well established fact about the world that comes from general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and

183 judgment without any verifiable empirical input. Coyne summarizes this by saying that he questioned Wards contention that faith or other non-empirical disciplines could establish facts about the world or universe. And in an article on whether the humanities are scientific, he says There is only one way of finding out what is true, and that doesnt involve revelation or making up stories. Again, his point is that science broadly construed is that only way. Finally, in an article on whether fiction is a way of knowing, he says, its clear that disciplines like history, archaeology, and even sociology have the capacity to tell us true things about the world, but I have my doubts about the arts. Either they can present some facts (like the facts peppering historical fiction like War and Peace) that we can independently verify, or they can give us an idea of what someone felt like in a particular situation (as with Gabriel at the end of Joyces The Dead). The latter, though, is not a truth in the normal sense, but a rendition of emotions: a way of seeing but not knowing. According to Coyne, then, the question of scientism is whether there are ways of knowing besides reason and empirical observation, where knowing means the discovery of facts or truths. Where Coyne goes wrong here was shown long ago by Plato: knowledge isnt just the possession of true (veridical) belief, since someone can come by such a belief by chance or by being misled and we wouldnt say this person knows what shes talking about. Thus, Plato famously added that knowledge requires that the true belief be justified, or supported by reasons. This is to say that the belief must also be acquired in the right way for it to count as knowledge. If knowledge were just the possession of a true belief, where truth is correspondence between the belief and a fact, and a belief is a symbolic representation of that fact, not just lucky people but inanimate objects like books or billboards could be said to know what they represent, which would be absurd. Knowledge is something possessed by a mind, because knowledge must be acquired in a way that only a mind can manage.

184 Once this is understood, we can see that what motivates the talk of scientism and of nonscientific ways of knowing is an emphasis on the justification side of knowledge as opposed to the truth side. The assumption is that the humanities and the arts count as legitimate nonscientific ways of justifying true statements. Now, the scientific method of proving a hypothesis is well-known: the hypothesis is confirmed or disconfirmed by clever public tests that isolate the relevant variables, eliminating chance and subjective factors, and letting the facts speak for themselves. Is that basic scientific method the only way of justifying true statements? Note that were there others, these other methods would count as forms of knowledge because they would amount to nonscientific but still legitimate means of acquiring veridical mental representations. To answer the question, we have to look at whats meant by epistemic justification. A belief is relevantly justified when the belief is acquired not just by chance but by some sort of respectable mental labour. This labour is what philosophers call the search for rational equilibrium, which means the search for the coherence of our beliefs with each other. The goal is to avoid cognitive dissonance, the fragmentation and incommensurability of our beliefs and thus a split between the sides of ourselves that those beliefs express, and to achieve intellectual integrity which requires deep selfawareness, the classic philosophical virtue. Whats meant by coherence here is harder to explain, but one relevant factor is ethical: in attempting to render our beliefs epistemically coherent, we should demonstrate certain virtues such as respect for truth and for those who may be impacted by our beliefs; courage to face harsh truth; skill at handling the complex issues that can arise in learning whats true; and artistic creativity in expressing or otherwise applying a true belief. The point of epistemic justification is to ensure that the true belief is reliable rather than accidental, and the cognitive virtues are the sources of that reliability. With this in mind, contrast New Age ideology with modern, naturalistic philosophy. Even were some New Age beliefs to turn out true, wed have reason to doubt that New Agers know what theyre talking about when they hold those beliefs, because their beliefs wouldnt be well-justified in the above sense. New Age speculations arent currently the

185 fruit of a virtuous search for reflective equilibrium, since those speculations tend to be anthropocentric, whereas modern science decentralizes us. Either New Age myths or modern science must go, as they stand, and by accepting the former, the New Ager shows little willingness to reconcile her worldview with the latter. Moreover, New Age speculations, such as the ones found in the Oprah-approved book, The Secret, cynically spiritualize capitalistic, social Darwinian ideology, holding the consumption of material goods as the ultimate value. According to this sort of spiritual worldview, were magnets that attract what we most think about, and this notion breeds contempt for sufferers since supposedly they get what they deserve. This worldview is insanely optimistic in concluding that all natural events on this planet are perfectly just, and so the New Ager here doesnt evince much courage in confronting the abundance of disheartening truths discovered by modern scientists, about the moral indifference of natural forces to our welfare and about our animal rather than angelic nature. By contrast, naturalistic philosophers arrive at general naturalistic truths through a more ethically respectable process of reaching reflective equilibrium. Modern philosophers think logically, but they also speculate and explore and defend intuitions. But arguably, these latter, nonscientific mental labours are epistemically justificatory, because they attempt to satisfy ethical standards of conduct. For example, when rationalist, empiricist, existentialist, or mysterian philosophers speculate or intuit metaphysical or other philosophical propositions that might turn out true, they do so in a conscious effort to unify modern science with intuitive self-knowledge. They courageously confront the fact that modern science seems to undermine most of our intuitions about our place in the world, and they creatively reflect on how some of those intuitions might be preserved in a rationally respectable manner.

Self-Refuting Positivism
Some naturalistic philosophers, such as the positivists, argued that intuitions or presumptions are cognitively worthless and that only scientific methods yield knowledge. Their recommendation was to dispense with any belief that isnt supported

186 by scientific methods. This scientism led to a dead end, however, since scientific methods dont support the positivists contention that all worthwhile, meaningful cognitive endeavours are exclusively scientific. Positivism presupposes a nonscientific evaluation of science, a pragmatic attitude, or a Philistine prejudice, and these are philosophical rather than scientific issues. In short, a superficially antiphilosophical bit of philosophy is naturally self-refuting. The important point here, however, is that positivist philosophers themselves came to this conclusion, because even they were committed to the Western philosophical tradition which values intellectual integrity. For example, Rudolph Carnap distinguished between external and internal questions, where external ones are about the choice of a language and internal ones are framed in a way that presupposes the languages rules. The external questions are answered in what Carnap called a pragmatic, sociological, and nonphilosophical fashion. Thomas Kuhn argued that in the history of science, Carnaps distinction amounts to that between paradigm shifts and normal, puzzle-solving work. What emerged from these distinctions is greater attention to the values that are presupposed by paradigmatic work and that come to the fore in clashes between theories during a paradigm shift. Suppose a theorys reign comes to an end, because sufficient amounts of data are rendered anomalous by that theory, and suppose that a new theory gains favour not because of its intellectual qualities, but because its champion holds a gun to everyones head and so scares his colleagues into submission. Even were that new theory to turn out true, none of the terrorized scientists could be said to know the facts as told by the theory, for the above reasons having to do with epistemic justification. Again, the more respectable search for reflective equilibrium--even in a power vacuum when theres great uncertainty about how to explain certain anomalies--is guided by ethical and aesthetic values, including simplicity, beauty, fruitfulness, and so on. You can stipulate with the positivist that this value-laden mental labour isnt relevant to the search for knowledge, but then youll have to show how science alone warrants that stipulation. Instead, what most analytic philosophers learned from that period of the philosophy of science is that knowledge isnt as simplistic as theorized by empiricists.

187 Cognitive science, too, supports a broader conception of cognitive processes, by reminding us that reason plays an evolutionary role and by showing, in any case, that were not so rational after all, that our most natural modes of thinking are technically fallacious and biased. Modern science checks these cognitive defects, but the point is that assuming that nonscientists possess some knowledge, knowledge had better not be the result just of rigorous logic or hypothesis-testing. And indeed, as long as a nonscientist, or indeed anyone in her daily life, strives to be virtuous and artistically creative in her thought processes, and the result is that those thoughts put her in touch with the corresponding facts, weve got the makings of knowledge on our hands.

Other Ways of Knowing

What about pure art, such as painting or fiction? Is any of these a way of knowing, on this picture? Suppose you conclude that life is tragic after you gaze at a sad painting or read King Lear. But suppose you conclude as much only because youre forced first to consult Coles Notes, since alas the meaning of the artwork otherwise escapes you. Assuming that life does have its tragic side, youd nevertheless not possess nonscientific knowledge of this fact, since theres little ethically or aesthetically impressive about repeating the slogans found in a popular commentary on some artwork. But suppose instead that you have a profound emotional experience in an organic response to the art, that your way of perceiving the world is thereby drastically altered. As long as you exhibit some relevant virtues in your struggle to harmonize this new experience with what you thought you knew beforehand, your belief about lifes tragic side is nonscientifically justified, and so youve employed a nonscientific way of knowing the facts. Instead of justifying your belief with an argument or an experiment, you've virtuously modified your worldview through an experience of an emotionallypowerful artwork. Finally, I want to point out that Coyne misconstrues whats at issue when he challenges folks to present knowledge that has no empirical input or any other overlap with scientific methods. This challenge is quite unhelpful since it can be turned on its head.

188 Why not challenge the scientist, instead, to present scientific knowledge that isnt arrived at in part by petty squabbles, turf defenses, or other power dynamics? Were all scientific knowledge produced in part by such natural processes, we could then say that theres no such thing as a distinctly scientific way of knowing, that all knowing is fundamentally an appeal to power. Instead, the interesting question is whether knowledge is justified only by a scientific brake on our subjectivity or also by the most respectable ways of being subjective in our thinking. The former proposition is self-refuting scientism, and so were forced to accept the latter, in which case the alternative ways of knowing remain so despite their overlap with broad notions of rationality. This is because these other cognitive modes are alternatives to the scientistic contention that science (rationality) alone is the only such mode. On the contrary, the humanities and arts provide alternatives if only by subordinating rational standards to ethical and aesthetic ones in an effort to create a coherent worldview, that is, a set of beliefs that includes scientific knowledge as a subset. For example, modern philosophers try to deal virtuously and creatively with the conflict between folk intuitions, which call for some awe as outputs of millions of years of evolution, and with modern science which threatens to bring liberal civilization crashing down around us, mocking the traditional self-images that keep us sane and happy. One such intuition is that were free in the sense of being self-controlling and thus responsible for our actions. Do we know that were free even if science implies determinism, that is, the view that every event has a cause? We feel that were free, because we feel we have overriding power over our actions. As Coyne says about fiction, though, feeling that somethings true is a way of seeing but not of knowing since, I take it, feeling something doesnt make it true. This is irrelevant, since neither is the world round because scientists confirmed this by looking through a satellites telescope. The facts are what they are regardless of what cognitive methods we bring to the table (except perhaps in quantum mechanics). The question is whether some subjective labour, such as the everyday experience of being metaphysically free, epistemically justifies a statement that might turn out to be true, such as the statement that were free

189 in that respect. Again, this would depend on how much effort is put into harmonizing the one belief with our other beliefs, including those that derive from science which posits natural laws and myriad mindless processes in which we seem to be caught up.

Freewill and Levels of Explanation

Now, Coyne says were not in fact free, since physics says theres nothing thats both self-causing and responsible for itself. Particles may pop into existence from a quantum vacuum, but were we self-creating by way of our actions in that respect, we wouldnt be responsible for them and freewill would be useless for moral purposes. As the philosopher of science, Massimo Pigliucci, points out on his blog Rationally Speaking, this mechanistic construal of current physics, according to which causes and effects are metaphysically real, may be outdated. Instead, whats real may be mathematical structure, or patterns that can be explained at different levels. In this case, the determinists principle that everything has a cause, including our choice to act in a way we consider free, would be neither here nor there. But whatever the case with regard to the metaphysical interpretation of physics, Coynes determinism is undone by the fact that there are nonreducible levels of explanation. Even were every physical event to have a prior cause, forming a causal chain, this wouldnt mean that every psychological event is a link in such a chain extending past the person, since a person as such isnt a physical object. When you think of a person, as such, that is, in either the laypersons way as a conscious entity with beliefs, desires, rights, and so forth, or in the technical, psychologists way as a naturally selected program for processing information, youre not thinking in terms set just by physics. You can, if you like, perform a gestalt switch and leap from psychology to physics in your conception of a person, in which case you assume a person is identical to the stuff from which the body is made and with the processes animating that body, and you assume also that the body is identical with a set of physical particles and their

190 interactions. But those pseudoreductions call upon miracles in just the way that a Christian declares that somehow God raised Jesus from the dead. You can wave your hands and say that psychological, biological, and physical events are all surely natural, but that notion of natural is philosophical rather than scientific. Otherwise, wed have an overarching scientific theory that reduces each level of scientific explanation to a more general one. Theres no such theory. For example, no one knows scientifically how to think about psychological categories in purely quantum mechanical terms. No one can translate the one language into the other. No one can capture the full meaning of psychological statements about human behavior using language that refers only to mass, quantum fluctuations, and so forth. Is this nonreducibility of certain levels of explanation a metaphysical or a mere epistemic matter? That is, are we just currently ignorant of how to understand everything in physical terms or is the notion of such understanding misconceived, considering how the universe is put together? Are there emergent properties, such as consciousness, that cant be predicted or explained in lower-level terms? Are natural processes genuinely creative in that respect, as the biologist Stuart Kauffman says? Im going to pass over these important questions here, except to say that there are compelling mysterian arguments that the subjective aspect of consciousness, of what its like to be aware of the world, cant in principle be understood in its entirety from any objective, scientific perspective. Instead, Im going to outline how freewill is possible on the assumption that there are nonreducible levels of explanation. The point is just that the concept of freewill might be useful in explaining special, rare phenomena like human behavior. As for the question of how that concept would fit into the physicists picture of nature, there would be no contradiction were physics and psychology incommensurable. Assuming there are emergent properties, a theory that addresses them is just irrelevant to a broader theory that explains the relations between other properties.

191 But does talk of freewill violate basic naturalistic assumptions? In other words, must morally useful freewill be supernatural? I dont see why this should be so. Like natural consciousness, natural freewill would surely emerge from the brain, and the trillions of interconnections between neurons and synapses make the brain not just the most complex, but the most self-contained, known thing in the universe. Something thats highly complex, with highly interdependent parts can be relatively self-contained and thus self-controlling, and the capacity for moral responsibility follows. The brain isnt perfectly self-contained, since it has senses which connect it with the outside world, but theres no need for morally useful freewill to be absolute. Were animals not gods, so our self-control and our moral capacities are limited. We can be freer than other animals, and much freer than rocks and tables, but still be free only some of the time and perhaps often deluded about exactly when were free. We can sometimes feel as though were free whereas instead our behavior is effectively programmed by advertisements which frame issues for us and exploit our neural networks' inclination towards associative thinking. All of this makes freewill limited and thus natural and quite real. As long as sometimes or to some significant degree our brain controls itself without being significantly influenced by anything else, we can understand how our mind might be naturally free in the sense of being self-controlling and thus how we can be responsible for our actions.

The Naturalistic Fallacy: a Case Study

In a blog entry reviewing a Guardian debate between Julian Baggini and Lawrence Krauss on science, philosophy, and morality, Jerry Coyne hides behind an easilydiscerned rhetorical device to conceal his scientistic prejudice against philosophy. In their Guardian debate, Baggini uses moral questions as prime examples of legitimate, meaningful questions that are irreducibly philosophical. Coyne then says that hes coming around to Sam Harris view that we can already see how science will and should replace the philosophy of ethics. And then Coyne deploys his rhetorical device for the first of three times in his review, saying Peoples view of what is moral

192 ultimately must rest on one or more of three things: an appeal to the consequences, an appeal to some authority (like Scripture), or some innate feeling instilled by our genes in combination with our environment (in other words, morality lies in our neurons) (emphasis added). Coyne is saying here that if there are moral truths, these must be matters of fact which science can naturally discover, in which case philosophical ethics isnt autonomous or irreducible to psychology or biology. But notice the ambiguity of the construction rest on. Y must rest on X could mean either that X causes Y or that X logically implies Y. No one who thinks ethics is irreducibly philosophical thinks science cant discover the causes of moral judgments, including their evolutionary history and the neural processes involved in our thinking philosophically about moral matters. So of course ethics may rest on such scientifically-discoverable facts, but this does nothing to show that there isnt a big, honking naturalistic fallacy in the way of Coynes scientism. The naturalistic fallacy isnt about whether some natural facts can cause us to answer moral questions in one way rather than another, so that our answers rest on those facts in that sense. No, as has been clear since David Hume, the fallacy operates at the epistemic level of whether Y can be inferred from X. The question is whether a moral prescription, for example, follows logically just from factual premises so that, if you like, the prescription rests on those premises in this quite different, noncausal sense. The point, then, is that Coynes use of the ambiguous construction Y rests on X allows him to pretend that hes overcome the point about the naturalistic fallacy, that hes addressed the second, inferential issue whereas science surely deals only with the first, causal one. Scientists can explain what causes what, but this has no bearing on whether a prescription follows logically from a description. Coyne relies on this trusty device a second time, when he asks, But on what grounds, then, do we determine whether homosexuality is right or wrong? It must rest on an appeal to the consequences (which is an empirical and scientific question), on the way most people feel about homosexuality

193 (something that is a combination of our genes and our environment, and coded in our neurons), on sacred books and dogma, or on a combination of these. Ruling out the third, the first two are, in effect, scientific questions. [my emphasis] He concludes that in principle science must be is the ultimate arbiter of moral questions (sic). For the above reasons this is nonsense. Coyne tries to hide this fact with his needlessly ambiguous phrasing, which apparently prevents him from appreciating the difference between causal and epistemological questions about morality. After blundering about in this fashion, Coyne arrives explicitly at the question of the naturalistic fallacy: And for those of you who say that is doesnt produce ought, Id like to ask you this: well, how do we determine oughts? They dont come from thin air, and they dont come from free will. They come from human judgment, which is a result of our genes and our environments. Why is that not, at least in principle, susceptible to scientific investigation? Notice that his confusion persists even in his asking of the Humean question. The question isnt whether facts produce, that is, cause moral obligations, but whether statements about the former imply statements about the latter. Then he switches to a third instance of the same type of rhetorical device. Now he relies on the ambiguous construction X determines Y. As youll know from the freewill-determinism debate, determine can mean cause, which is a scientific matter, but it can also mean ascertain from reasoning, which is an epistemological one. Still, the ambiguity of this phrase allows Coyne to attack his strawman when he reminds his reader that surely moral statements dont come from thin air, but from our judgment, which in turn is a result of our genes and environments. Coyne is once again talking about causes, whereas the naturalistic fallacy is about inferential relations between statements (or thoughts).

194 All Coyne is entitled to say here is that scientists can explain the psychological or biological patterns in our moral behaviour. So if, as Hume thought, we have a separate sense of morality which he calls sentiment, a mental faculty of intuitions about what goals we should pursue, a faculty we might call the conscience, this faculty will rest on the brain, meaning that how we use that source of moral reasoning will be caused by our genes and environments. After all, were naturally selected to be social, and children are trained to think in moral terms. All of that is fair for scientists to explain. But this leaves entirely untouched the philosophical, epistemological distinction between two different logics, between that which licenses inferences to statements of fact and that which licenses inferences to normative statements. Just because moral statements are caused by brain states, which in turn are caused by the genes and so on, doesnt mean those statements follow logically from scientific explanations of the causes of morality. Hence the naturalistic fallacy, which indicates that the philosophy of ethics, in which we think carefully about prescriptions without attempting to replace them with descriptions, isnt reducible to a science of facts.


Can Evil Derive from Atheism? ____________________________________________________

Ive argued that for propaganda purposes, many New Atheists whitewash the social consequences of atheism, ignoring more pessimistic forms like Nietzsches existentialism and Lovecrafts cosmicism. Moreover, scientific atheists lack respect for philosophy and thus have low standards of argument in nonscientific debates, including the inevitably philosophical debate between atheists and theists. These two deficits combine to produce the howler that is the New Atheists frequent response to the theists tedious rejoinder to the Problem of Evil, the rejoinder being that in the last century atheists are responsible for their own horrifying measure of evil (Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, etc). This response to the classic theistic problem of evil, that a benevolent God wouldnt allow so much natural and human suffering and therefore doesnt exist as defined, takes the form of the Tu quoque fallacy, amounting to the childish outburst, Yeah? Well so are you! The problem of evil for theists isnt just the pragmatic one, that religion has caused much violence and is thus especially dangerous given advances in weapons of mass destruction. The heart of the problem is that exoteric definitions of God, which rely on weak metaphors, are bound to be absurd. The facts that not all evil derives from religion and that atheists too can be evil have no bearing on that problem. But one New Atheistic response to this counter-charge is highly revealing and annoying. The response seems to originate from Dawkins book, The God Delusion, in which he

196 says that even were Stalin and Hitler both atheists, their atheism would have been as causally relevant to their evil as the fact that they both had moustaches. What matters, he says, is not whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists, but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. There is not the smallest evidence that it does (309). And at the end of that section, Dawkins, the brilliant writer that he is, might have birthed the meme so often repeated in these discussions, that Individual atheists may do evil things, but they dont do evil things in the name of atheism (315, my emphasis). Note the difference in Sam Harris handling of the issue in his book, The End of Faith, in which he blames evil on faith in irrational dogmas. Either secular or religious ideologies, he says, can turn people into depraved killing machines, but this just testifies to the dangers of not thinking critically enough about either sort of ideology (231). Indeed, Harris avers, Genocidal projects tend not to reflect the rationality of their perpetrators simply because there are no good reasons to kill peaceful people indiscriminately (79). In its own way, this response is just as wrongheaded as Dawkins.

The Path from Atheism to Evil

Return, though, to Dawkins declaration that theres no evidence that atheism influences people to do bad things. The fallacy here is the assumption that the theists comparison of atheism and religion as full-fledged causes of evil points only to the axioms of either way of thinking. Take the Crusades, the Inquisition, or al Qaeda terrorism. Those evils dont follow just from the most elementary religious beliefs of either faith. Just because Jesus rose from the dead, doesnt mean Muslims should be exterminated, and just because God is Great and Muhammad was his prophet, doesnt mean Jews and Americans should be slaughtered. Youve got to add many implications and natural consequences of basic beliefs about God or his absence to find causes of specific acts of religious or nonreligious violence. With regard to Christianity, you have the Catholic destruction of pagan society and thus of the local rationalist tradition, as well as the literalists victory over the Christian Gnostics and the exploitation of the religion by the

197 Roman Empire, and thus the elevation of the pope as an absolute power. These developments laid the groundwork for a Christian form of totalitarianism, and thus ushered in the corresponding horrors. In cases of recent Muslims terrorism, riots, and oppression of women, you have the rise of secular and Christian nations coupled with the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th C., and the subjugation of Muslims by dictators allied with the non-Muslim powers. Recent Islamist violence and retreat to fundamentalist certainties are obviously flailing retaliations against the humiliation of proud Muslims. As for atheism, the connection between violence and atheisms mere basic assumptions is particularly irrelevant, since atheism is defined negatively as the denial of theism. This hardly means that theres no natural path, though, from atheism to ways of thinking that cause atheists to perform evil acts. The fact that atheists have diverse ways of culturally applying their rejection of theism is also of no consequence, since theism, too, manifests in a diversity of religions. What, then, is the path from atheism to evil? Its just the Nietzschean and cosmicist path Ive been discussing at length in my philosophical rants. From atheism follows the rejection of our more nave wishes and delusions about perfect justice, a happy afterlife, an ultimately meaningful life, and a home for humanity in the arms of a personal cause of the physical universe. Once those delusions are done away with, the atheist faces the threats of existential angst and horror in the face of our evident predicament. Were merely clever mammals. Therefore, some of us are lucky to live well, others are not and they suffer horribly; some of us are selfless, others are predatory. Both nature at large and human societies in particular are only partly hospitable to what most of us would call the good life, because life evolved mindlessly from non-life and thus is guaranteed no security, and that very mindless process now involves the mutation of genes which creates a variety of body-types to survive in various environmental conditions. So nature is unfair and far from ideal, from a nave human perspective. Theres no deus ex machina, given atheism, and we can hardly anticipate salvation from our own virtues since those are as natural as the universe that contains black

198 holes which swallow whole galaxies and that hurled a meteor into the Earth and annihilated billions of creatures. If were made of stardust and not of some transcendent spirit that belongs in another realm, our history is bound to exhibit the same mysterious pattern of creativity and destruction that bespeaks the horror of our source. To be sure, most atheists optimistically set about creating a secular society as a refuge of laws for those interested in peace and happiness. Few atheists dwell on thoughts of the Nietzschean implication of atheism, that morality is foolish without God, or of the cosmicist one that if the universe isnt fundamentally friendly to us, were all horribly alienated whether we know it or not. But other implications of atheism are that the universe is likely natural and thus that the brain is crucial to our identity. If we look at a persons brain, we find much activity of which shes not remotely conscious, and this activity can still affect her behaviour. Thus, the path from atheism to evil neednt follow along mere conscious lines of thought, let alone ending with the atheists most fundamental assumptions. An atheist doesnt have to be thinking explicitly of atheism when she acts evilly, for atheism to be the root cause. Take, for example, the role of individualism in modern societies. As the political philosopher John Gray argues, the idea that each individual has inherent worth may derive from the theistic principle that we each have an immaterial essence made in Gods image. (See his book, Black Mass.) At any rate, modernists put a rationalist spin on individualism, inspired by the Scientific Revolution. But the point I want to stress is that individualistic societies can develop in opposite ways, depending on whether the individuals are theists or atheists. In medieval Christian societies, an individuals worth was attributed to the everlasting spirits relationship to God. Any concession to freedom of thought or action in the present life would have paled in significance to the need to ensure the spirits safe passage to heaven after physical death, which latter task in Europe was thought to require the regulation of earthly life by the Catholic Church. Even were there more freethinking traditions in medieval Europe (beyond heresies like Catharism), the rational calculation for theists would have been to suffer in the present

199 life for great reward in the hereafter--and suffer most medieval Christians did, in great abundance. Now turn to modern individualism in its purest expression, which is the New World culture of the United States. Here we find not asceticism but hedonism, libertinism, pragmatism, and what Morris Berman calls the hucksterism of the American identity, the infantile and self-destructive expectation of infinite progress in the form of material wealth, delivered by technoscience. (See Bermans book, Why America Failed.) Americans hold their individual freedoms to be sacred, but they interpret their right to live as they personally choose without any recourse to theistic principles. That is, they calculate that its best to live for happiness in the here and now rather than living in anything like a Christ-like fashion, and this must be because, regardless of their politically correct lies to pollsters, they dont actually have theistic beliefs. There are some exceptions, such as the Mennonites, but theyre vastly outnumbered by thisworldly individualists who merely pretend to be Christian theists.) What this means is that all the business-oriented evils done by Americans, such as the genocide of Native Americans, the slave trade of Africans, the mass imprisonment of African-Americans, the torture and exploitation of nonhuman animals, the export of weapons around the world, the patronage of foreign oppressive regimes, and the overuse of the worlds nonrenewable resources are attributable not just to the faith in personal liberty, but to a nontheistic version of that faith. Or consider Hitlers pseudo-Nietzschean spin on Darwinism. Whether Hitler was privately a Christian or an atheist is relatively unimportant. Nazism as a whole may have inherited its anti-Judaism from Christianity, but the Nazi quest for earthly power, to celebrate the strongs triumph over the weak, is perfectly legitimate as an expression of atheism. Atheism, of course, is just the belief that there are no gods, but the reasons atheists give against theistic religions are scientific and philosophical, the greatest fruit of which is the naturalistic worldview. There are no gods because gods are supernatural, and modern knowledge is based on sense experience and reason, not on revelation, wish fulfillment, or the authority of ancient tradition. According to the positive

200 definition of atheism, as a scientific, rationalistic, naturalistic worldview, all known living things are animals, as explained by biologists and chemists. Darwin added the evolutionary theory of biological design, which emphasized the role of death in the environments selection of viable species. Rather than in an Edenic paradise or a best of all possible worlds, life occurs under harsh conditions in which animals must struggle for survival to pass on their genes. Nietzsche and Herbert Spencer extrapolated from Darwins biological theory to the social sphere, with Spencer in particular praising the virtues of unregulated economic competition as those of the most natural way of organizing society. To be sure, his inference committed whats now called the naturalistic fallacy, but this is neither here nor there since theres no need for the path from atheism to evil to be a logically rigorous one. Remember, according to the atheists naturalism, were just animals; therefore, reason for us isnt necessarily sovereign. An atheist is free to be irrationally inspired by Darwinism to justify a pitiless view of the best society as one that lets nature take its course, just as the whole irrational rigmarole of exoteric theism is needed to get religious violence off the ground. After all, if natural selection has the power to design the panoply of biological wonders, why not let that same power rule in the formation of societies? Why not dispense with Christian, slave morality and submit to nature, like the ancient pagans? Nazi rhetoric, about the glory of war and of the obligation to eliminate the weak, derived its emotional power from atheistic wonder at the magnificent inhumanity of natural evolutions creativity. Once again, then, atheism is the ultimate source of Nazism. I hasten to clarify that my point isnt that atheism and Nazism are equivalent or that all atheists should be Nazis. No, my point is just that, like hedonistic individualism, Nazism is one potent way of avoiding the angst and the horror that haunt any atheist who confronts the fact of our existential predicament which atheism does entail.


Evil in the Name of Atheism?

What of Dawkins assurance that secular dictators dont commit their evil acts in the name of atheism? This is just sophistry, benefiting from the evasively negative formulation of atheism. The reason why a Christian crusader thanked Jesus as he plunged his sword into a Muslim childs belly or why a Muslim terrorist chants his mantra that God is great as he flies a plane into a building full of civilians, is that the theistic cause of violence works by encouraging egoism in light of anthropocentric projections. Theistic evildoers are proud because they believe theyre mighty children of God, destined to spend eternity in paradise. By contrast, the atheistic cause of violence works by necessitating schemes to retain the atheists sanity in light of the ever-present threat of confronting atheisms existential implications. While theists childishly bang away at their pots and pans, overjoyed that they should be so lucky to have a divinely written life manual, atheists need to conceal from themselves and from others atheisms destructive potential. Thats one reason Nietzsche is such a controversial figure even in atheist circles: defying the convention that secular humanists can freely borrow Christian values while trashing their theological basis, he proclaimed that atheism has socially revolutionary consequences--and as if to prove his point, he even lost his sanity shortly before he died. So of course atheistic evildoers dont shout that they murder or plunder the environment for selfish profit in the glorious name of Atheism; atheists are at least unconsciously horrified if not consciously terrified by our existential plight, given that there are no supernatural gods, and their evil is accomplished in the name of fleeing from the truth of atheism. Postmodern, secular individualists distract themselves with material goods, to avoid contemplating the unfairness of life and our greater alienation. The Nazis devised a pantheistic religion, worshipping the champions of natural forces, the mightiest beasts who conquer the weak to achieve a sort of Taoist unity with cosmic creativity. (Similarly, current libertarians deify the free market and worship oligarchs as the freest individuals.) By deifying and celebrating the evolutionary forces that make life a heroic struggle, Nazi pagans likewise distracted themselves from the grimmer implication of atheism, that

202 organisms are absurd byproducts of mindless forces and nothing more. In Nietzschean terms, Nazis sought to overcome that harsh fact by inventing an original system of values that affirms the brutal reality of natural life. But like Nietzsche himself, who outlined a substitute religion of the bermensch, the Nazis didnt affirm so much as flee from atheistic naturalism. (Contrast their arrogant and deluded secular religions, for example, with the more tragic one I sketch in Postmodern Religion.)

Does Rationalism Prevent Atheistic Evil?

What of Sam Harris diagnosis of evil as caused by irrationality? In the first place, reason can be bent to the service of evil. For example, social Darwinian economics, which encourages the despoliation of the environment and thus potentially causes the extinction of all life, consists of mathematical models, often concocted literally by rocket engineers. The greedy Wall Street bankers, who in 2008 nearly sank the globallyintegrated economy, are among the smartest, most highly educated Americans. The Nazis, too, boasted plenty of scientific justifications for their eugenic exploits. Just as psychiatrists today are biased by the pharmaceutical companies, and economists by the Wall Street institutions that fund think tanks and academic programs, and many engineers by weapons manufacturers, all selling their coveted intelligence to the highest bidder, scientists in the 1930s were biased by Nazi propaganda, tilting their research for powerful positions in their social hierarchy. This raises a second point, which is that an atheist, and thus most likely a naturalist, has no business preaching pure rationality except as a sort of fairytale for childrens bedtime stories. Harris is surely well aware of the findings in the cognitive sciences, that our powers of reason are flawed by their evolutionary roles. David Hume was closer to the truth when he intuited that reason is the slave of emotions. So even were rational evil impossible, which isnt the case, the ideal of peace through rationality would be irrelevant to the question of whether theres a path from atheism to evil. Given atheism, humans are largely irrational animals. As I said, then, an atheist is free to devalue reason and to celebrate instinct, as did Hume and Nietzsche. That naturalistic

203 psychology can lead logically to the evils of laissez-faire economics, of Nazi social Darwinism, or indeed of any secular dictatorship. Of course, scientific atheists are rationalists, but they exaggerate the extent of human rationality by way of outfitting their scientistic religion with myths and propaganda. The Enlightenment idea is that Reason conquers Superstition and leads to Progress through Science and Technology. But that modern metanarrative is an exoteric article of faith for secular humanists thats especially useful in the secular whitewash of atheism. Nietzschean atheists have the esoteric insight to see through secular substitutes for religion and to appreciate that atheism poses the great danger not just of causing evil but of explaining why evil is inevitable for creatures in our existential predicament. An atheist dispenses with gross fantasies about the human identity and understands that were thoroughly natural creatures. Thus, the atheist appreciates that, as Harris says, people will commit evil acts because were desperate, selfish, irrational, and otherwise often vicious beasts. But an atheist must go further than just understanding the harsh natural facts, and create a fitting set of values. Again, scientific atheists laud Reason as our salvation, but theres no necessary connection between atheism and rationalism. All that atheism guarantees is the more likely awareness of our actual existential plight, and as I said, the atheist must then choose how to respond to that likelihood. Many New Atheists flee to a relatively peaceful, science-centered religion (Scientism), which values democracy and capitalism and thus can be complicit in the sins of materialistic individualism. Many other atheists turn to pagan authoritarianism and revel in the drama of life as a heroic struggle for power, and their irrationalism is complicit in the horrors of corrupt secular dictatorships. As I say above, I personally opt for a different set of atheistic values. But my point is that a scientific atheist merely begs the question when she says that atheism doesnt cause violence because atheists value reason and reason is the antidote to evil. Reason is no such antidote, but even if it were, an atheist neednt be a rationalist. Rationalistic atheists arent necessarily superior to Humean or to Nietzschean ones. Indeed, all atheistic values are rather desperate schemes to avoid

204 the existential angst and horror that flow from the full appreciation that there are no supernatural gods.

The Folly of Theism

Recently, Ive been highly critical of certain forms of atheism. I want to close, though, with an assurance that in my view, however disappointing scientific atheism may be, little appalls me more than exoteric theism. The cowardice, gullibility, selfrighteousness, and narcissism of theists are palpable and repellent. Many centuries ago, when rationalist traditions were scarcer and less spectacularly confirmed, nave theism could be forgiven as much less grotesque and ridiculous. Today, in wealthy, educated countries, theres no such excuse. Indeed, within the last several decades, traditional monotheistic religions have had to retreat from those places, with Christianity especially spreading to the global South, where people are poorer and less informed about scientific naturalism. Without the oppressive dictatorships in the Muslim world, which thrive on the ignorance of their populations, Islam might already have reformed, which is to say secularized, itself. With technologically-driven globalization, the Arab Spring and the great concentrations of youths in contemporary Muslim populations might still indicate an imminent emasculation of that religion. Youd think that the shame of being so transparently retrograde would dissuade Christians and Muslims from clinging to their outdated creeds and worthless religious practices. But the Churches have responded to their growing irrelevance in Europe, East Asian democracies, and North America by spreading their outrageous bastardization of Jesus gospel to Sub-Saharan Africa (Jesus good news being actually the terrible news of Gnosticism). Dishonouring yourself with the personal weaknesses required for the more inane theistic expressions is one thing, but actually taking to the streets to protest anything on such religious grounds, publicly professing your faith by means of archaic jibber jabber, or killing in the name of your fictional god is an abominable crime against good taste, if nothing else.

205 As Ive said elsewhere, Eastern religions are more mystical, philosophical, and naturalistic, and therefore less objectionable. Whats praiseworthy about mysticism? Well, mystics are humbler than the theists who lean on anthropocentric images of the divine. Mystics are what Western philosophers call mysterians, which means theyre dubious of the potential for rationally understanding everything there is to know. Mystics stay true to the religious dread of our perilous and lowly position in the universe, an attitude that fosters the highly praiseworthy virtue of humility. Mystics have a lofty perspective on life, often detaching themselves from worldly concerns and living ascetically, demonstrating their freedom from egoistic delusions. These aspects of mysticism arent wholly laudatory, but at least mystics have a modicum of intellectual integrity, whereas exoteric, literalistic theists carve their minds into a thousand walledoff fragments for fear of the reckoning were they to strive harder to prove the consistency of their implicit naturalistic postmodernism and their premodern monotheism.


Nietzsche and Secular Liberalism ____________________________________________________

Secular liberals face a dilemma. Liberal values, such as individual liberty and compassion, derive from monotheistic religious institutions, but these institutions are dysfunctional and their theological rationales are no longer credible. Meanwhile, secularism promotes oligarchy and regressive consumerism, much as Nietzsche predicted. So warns Chris Hedges in his online article, After Religion Fizzles, Were Stuck with Nietzsche. More specifically, the problem is that western secular assumptions--informed by science and the capitalistic drive towards plutocracy--are that were all just clever beasts with no intrinsic worth, who struggle for power with no divine oversight, but who are able to create our own values. As Nietzsche contended, the most appropriate standard by which to rank these values is the aesthetic, not the moral one. Universal western morality is the creation of the early Christians, of conquered Jews who, in their resentment towards the more powerful Romans, articulated a myth to trap their oppressors. According to this myth, whatever helps the weak is right and whatever hurts them is wrong. What helps them chiefly is the Golden Rule that everyone should be treated as if they were the same, that people have rights just by being people, regardless of their personal weakness or social status, since rights flow from something other than natural ability. Instead of having the willpower and the strength of character

207 to confront their world in an ennobling way, Christians delude themselves by trusting that animals arent driven mainly by their will to power. As a product of the creative will, Christian morality is ugly and ignoble, according to Nietzsche. The amoral secularist affirms, instead, the sad truth of our belonging in the gloriously violent physical universe in which stars and whole galaxies are created and destroyed by the exercise of power, not by intelligence or benevolence. Hedges writes that the results of this secular affirmation are the cultures of the bermensch and of the Last Man, which in our case are those of the power-intoxicated, financial and military oligarchs and of the passive, apathetic mob of debt slaves, respectively. The Wall Street titans, castigated by politicians and mocked by comedians for their amorality, are actually the Nietzschean heroes who understand and personally accept that with Gods death falls the whole monotheistic edifice, including morality. From a Nietzschean viewpoint, says Hedges, the ruthless and hedonistic oligarchs stand tall as impressive beasts, not just because of their vast wealth, but because of their creativity and their courage in living as though the world were so horrible that sociopaths such as them could come to dominate in it. From a scientific point of view, the world is indeed so horrible, and theres no escaping that horror except by succumbing to some delusion or other, such as a stale monotheistic myth. But a delusion is just an aesthetically displeasing product of the imagination. By comparison, in its affirmation of natural life, Nietzsches myth of the glory of conquering heroes is an ennobling work of art. Hedges rejects the foundational teachings of the Christian worldview, of the Bibles inerrancy, of Jesus miracles and even of Jesus historical existence, as indeed must everyone who sees scientific methods as more worthy than tradition or institutional authority. And Hedges thinks that secularism has nightmarish consequences. Clearly, a doctrinaire Christian or Muslim would have some basis for condemning a Darwinian culture; after all, assuming that the Bible effectively condemns Nietzschean philosophy, that the Bible is inspired by God, and that God is perfect, no further argument would be needed. But Hedges lament for the secular alternative to the declining religions isnt theological. He seems to accept what he calls the liberal values of monotheistic

208 religions, such as individual liberty and compassion, while also rejecting the theological rationales for those values. Thus, he stands wistfully between the two sides, unable to explain how each individual could have rights and how compassion could be a virtue, because he shares the basic scientific assumptions of the secular worldview even while he rejects the harsh, Nietzschean values that are more authentic expressions of that viewpoint. All of this raises the question of whether theres anything to be said in favour of secular liberalism. Can the best of liberalism and secularism be combined, producing a third option? Is the only ultimate choice of cultures between theistic religion and social Darwinism?

The Bankruptcy of Postmodern Liberalism

North American and European liberalism presents few if any hopeful signs for a way out of the dilemma. In the U.S., Obama promised to change Washington and he was elected on a wave of nave optimism about the chances of victory for progressive ideals in a broken, money-driven political system. But Obama has proven himself to be what the media euphemistically call a pragmatic centrist rather than a progressive. In a socalled bipartisan fashion, he wanted to initiate an alliance between the two, bitterly opposed parties and to reach consensus to solve problems for the majority of the American population. Pragmatism, however, is just flexibility in choosing the most efficient way of achieving some goal. A mere pragmatist, as opposed to a liberal or a conservative one, is a nihilist who has nothing to say about which goal to achieve, but who adopts some preselected plan, as a functionary, for example, of a financial oligarchy. Centrism entails ideological moderation, which is the lack of passion for any political idea, and a focus on negotiating power imbalances. Centrist politicians can be expected, then, to appreciate the weakness of their position compared to that of a financial oligarch on which their funding and thus their political survival depend. So as a functional nihilist (pragmatist or centrist) and servant of American oligarchy, Obama has continued Bushs foreign policies, gifted the private health insurance companies with his signature domestic bill, and bailed out Wall Street at the behest of

209 the duplicitous Wall Street insiders whom he appointed as his advisors. As a result, American progressives are demoralized if not cynical and apathetic about American politics, although Obama has already begun giving progressive, politically correct speeches to win back his base for the coming presidential election. One explanation of why this has come to pass is apparent from Hedges dilemma. American liberals are either theistic or secular. Theistic assumptions cant be taken seriously in a society filled with the technological fruits of science and governed by pragmatic (hedonistic, nihilistic, or sociopathic) businesspeople. And secularists have no satisfying rationale for their own for liberal values. Hence, the liberalism of the secular Democratic Party is mere pretense. When Democrats get into power, they behave as centrists or as weak Republicans, because they have no liberal inspiration. The noose of secularism around their necks has drained the life of liberal values from them, values that are taken from the prescientific, theistic mythos. Moreover, as the historian Oswald Spengler might have suspected, secular liberalism enters into a decadent phase when it loses its mythical underpinnings. Thus, liberalism can devolve into feel-good relativism; compassion for everyone comes to require respect for the presumed equal worth of all cultures. This, too, emasculates Democrats, making them prey for Republicans who retain an energizing, religious worldview. The same pragmatism is found in Canadian liberalism. Canada is more liberal than the U.S., on the whole, but many Canadians long for a leader with a liberal vision that can regain a prestigious place for Canada in world affairs. None seems forthcoming, and Canada becomes more and more internationally irrelevant, even as Canadian banks proved highly responsible in the bursting of the recent real estate bubble. Europeans have the most effective progressives in their midst, activists who force their governments to implement liberal foreign and domestic policies. But these policies have only fattened countries like Iceland, Greece, Italy, and the U.K., as lambs to the slaughter, while parasitic oligarchs use mystifying financial instruments to plunder those countries, having already laid waste to numerous poorer ones.

210 The pattern is that secular liberals offer no viable opposition to the Nietzschean heroes. These heroes are secularists and in some ways theyre more conservative than liberal, but again they assess their activities in realistic, amoral terms: theyre just artists in the struggle for power. The greatest, perhaps most sociopathic of these human predators rule transnationally as oligarchs, even in corrupted democracies where they operate outside of the media spotlight. Liberal values might regulate or even put an end to their destructive games if liberals could bring themselves to believe strongly enough in inalienable human rights to fight for them. But its unclear, at best, that there are these rights, from a secular standpoint. There are feelings of sympathy in compassionate individuals, theres a certain rational strategy for creating a peaceful society, and there are revered documents asserting that there are human rights, but none of these magically turns a talking, tool-using primate into an intrinsically valuable end in-itself. Even if language and human intelligence turn its user from an animal into a more selfcontrolling person, this makes the animal very rare in nature, not normatively special.

A Straussian Solution?
Perhaps liberals can learn to live with their albatross of secularism, by applying the Straussian political theory (as interpreted by the philosopher, Shadia Drury). According to Drury, Straussians, such as many of the neoconservatives in the last Bush administration, would agree that liberals face Hedges dilemma. Monotheism is a flawed vehicle for the classic liberal values that sustain a society in which the greatest activity of all, philosophizing, is possible, and scientists have confirmed the brutal truths of what Ive called our dire existential situation. The grim truths are that we have, at best, an ever-shrinking supernatural dimension, as scientists explain more and more; were not as conscious, free, or as rational as we like to believe and we arent intrinsically significant; morality is ultimately the expression of feelings and our destiny is to war with each other for earthly goods. The ancient Greek solution, however, is for the elite among us, the bermenschen with the willpower to digest the shocking truths, to tell noble lies to the weak-willed mob, to pretend that monotheism isnt flawed, for the greater good of social cohesion. In short, the Straussian solution is for the elite to stand

211 with Nietzsche and Plato, and for everyone else to worship Yahweh, Jesus Christ, or Allah; the elite are those philosophers who are fit to receive esoteric wisdom, while the nonphilosophical majority are fed pablum. The problem with this Straussian solution is that academic philosophers make for unimpressive Nietzschean conquerors. If Drurys interpretation of Straussian philosophy is correct, the neoconservatives may have had the backbone to accept the mournfully dark truths of secularism, but they lacked the wherewithal and the competence to carry out their bold schemes. Even if Iraq becomes a functioning secular democracy, that is, a covert oligarchy as opposed to a naked dictatorship, thanks to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the neoconservatives vision for the post-911 world far exceeded their reach. With Ivory Tower optimism, Wolfowitz, Rice, and the young academics sent in as bureaucrats to run Iraq, tried to remake the Middle East by military force and by the presumed self-evidence of American ideals. Had they succeeded, the Straussian form of secular liberalism might have been vindicated. But the fiasco of Bushs administration covered no neoconservative in Nietzschean glory.

The Need for Great Secular Myths

I can think of no easy remedy for the secular liberal, but maybe the options arent as stark as Hedges suggests. The danger of absolute power is well-known: the prospect of enjoying that power attracts someone who is already corrupt or else the use of that power corrupts an innocent person. So oligarchies have tended not even to be great works of art. Pharaohs, Caesars, emperors, kings, tsars, Kaisers, dictators, and the Fhrer are guilty not just of the worst acts ever committed, from a liberal perspective, such as genocide, but often failed to live up to amoral aesthetic standards. The Nazis dabbled in pseudoscience and scapegoated the Jews, which demonstrated that the Nazis feared certain truths, and so Hitler was no Nietzschean hero. Perhaps there never has been any bermensch, no one who overcomes all internal and external obstacles in an artistically glorious way. Perhaps no higher primate deserves the godlike position of an oligarch. But there is at least this psychological, existential side of the Nietzschean

212 ideal. And this side holds out some hope that even if liberal values are impossible today for the honest secularist, other values will be created to replace them, values that are awe-inspiring even to someone who believes there are no miracles. These other values may even inspire oligarchs to behave as heroes rather than as spoiled children. Inchoate myths that secularists can cherish can be glimpsed in science fiction. In Greg Egans Diaspora, for example, when humans discover that the universe is really a multiverse, and that travel is possible between the infinite universes, they discover also that an alien species has defied those vertigo-inducing facts by creating a multiversespanning sculpture of their biological form, with parts placed in different universes. And in Arthur C. Clarkes Rama series, theres an alien species that uses biological weapons as a last resort to utterly destroy its enemies, but thats so disgusted by the tainted process and so loath to profit from it, that the leaders responsible for the slaughter always voluntarily kill themselves once the sorrowful task is done. This latter ideal of honour in the battlefield is far from the horrible reality of war that Hedges describes as a journalist. Far from committing suicide, those responsible for high tech American wars are wealthy civilians who read reports in their offices instead of confronting what their decisions unleash or who send instructions to remote controllers of robotic weapons systems, while sitting safe in an underground bunker. But honour is more highly prized in certain eastern traditions. The growing popularity of mixed martial arts in North America may look like the result of a regressive mobs lust for violence, but the sports growth could also indicate an emerging secular mythos, one that acknowledges the grim fact that natural life is a power struggle, but that makes the best of this fact by upholding the suitable ideal of honour for the combatants. Honour is respect, fame, glory, integrity. The mixed martial artist who sucker-punches his opponent long after the bell rings has no honour, whereas the one who stops hitting his opponent even before the referee intervenes, because the opponent obviously can no longer offer an intelligent defense, wins respect. Christian charity has no place in mixed martial arts, but this doesnt mean the strong fighters can only prey on the weaker ones.

213 Secular values must be rooted in an acceptance of the tragedy of lifes evolution within an indifferent cosmos. There are no God-given rights and no secularist with any integrity can feel Bible-inspired compassion for all hapless persons. On the contrary, pity for the weak or for the unfortunate brings shame to the latter. But the secularist can feel honour-bound to respect everyone as fellow combatants in the battle to retain our sanity despite the available knowledge of our existential predicament. From a naturalistic viewpoint, oligarchs need offer no apology for exercising their power to their own advantage, even if doing so makes life harder for the weaker majority. But an oligarch should feel embarrassed by any failure of his to make a masterpiece also of the inner world of his mind. Only when his inner success matches his outward one can an oligarch be expected to act heroically rather than as a mere tyrant, parasite, predator, or sociopath. The Pharaohs of ancient Egypt employed thousands of slaves to build the huge pyramids, providing work but also symbols in an elaborate myth that made life and death meaningful to the Egyptians. Many slaves died in the effort to give concrete reality to the Pharaohs vision, and from a monotheistic perspective the whole enterprise of ancient Egypt was absurd. But if, instead, its monotheism and its value system thats absurd, which it is, todays secular oligarchs can learn from the Pharaohs. Some progressive critics of our oligarchs speculate that their master plan is to recreate a feudal society but on a global scale, with a central banking system that controls the debts of nations. Suppose this is so and the plutocrats succeed. What then? Once all human power is centralized, what awe-inspiring mission will the elite pursue with their godlike control? The Dubai playground for the wealthy isnt particularly stirring. A global government should be only a means, not an end, and would be so for an oligarch whose mind is as impressive as his or her mansion. A secular hero needs visionary myths and inspiring symbols, and these are products of artistic genius which is found in a certain noble character, not in a mere hedonist or an insane tyrant. A powerful secular artist may not acknowledge human rights, as such, or feel Christian love for all Gods children. But with the ever-expanding reach of technology, this artist might lift up weaker

214 persons in a way that can now only barely be imagined and that makes for an aesthetically pleasing response to the horror of the inhumane cosmos.


From Theism to Cosmicism: Toy Gods and the Horror of the Supernatural ____________________________________________________

Most debate about God is a tempest in a teapot. For example, currently there are riots in the Muslim world because some Christians insulted the prophet Muhammad in a crude video. Likely, the violent protestors dont represent the majority of Muslims, and the majority is cowed into silence by the threat of retaliation from the militant minority which goes unchecked by weak or complicit governments in that region. The ensuing debate in the mainstream media has been about the conflict between freedom of speech and religious fundamentalism, but this media discussion blithely ignores the fact that an outright farce plays out whenever someone acts on the assumption that a perfect person has anything to do with the worlds origin. Indeed, theres a secret history in major religions thats driven by another conflict, between religious outsiders and insiders. The outsiders take religious metaphors or literalistic creeds seriously and so engage in all manner of nakedly childish behavior. The spectacle of even a single Muslim rioting because someone denigrates something the Muslim holds sacred is most ridiculous when viewed from the esoteric religious perspective. A religious insider, you see, such as a mystic, would realize that what the rioter thinks is sacred, namely the prophet, is effectively an idol. Ironically, the ban on depicting Muhammad is meant to prevent ignorant people from worshipping the image.

216 The bans natural side effect, though, is to turn the prophet himself into a sort of forbidden fruit, giving the untouchable Muhammad a mystique that might as well be a mark of holiness. In any case, rampaging through the streets because of a slight against your favourite long-dead person is as ludicrous as an insane persons tantrum thrown over some injury done to his favourite chair in his mental institution. Why, though, is there an exoteric religious discourse in the first place, that is, a discourse which is necessarily the most popular and the least respectable compared to a different, more self-consistent way of talking about god? Why is the truth about monotheistic religions kept so secret by the religious insiders? Answers to these should emerge from what follows.

Why God Cant Exist

The old debate of whether God exists is everlasting because it rests on a confusion that sends its participants on wild goose chases. By definition, you see, god doesnt exist, so to say that god exists is to make a category mistake. The word exist is synonymous with such words as be, real, factual, and actual. You can learn how to use these words by inter-defining them in terms of each other, as the dictionary does, but you wont understand any of their meanings without analogies and examples drawn from your daily experience, and that in turn requires that you effectively naturalize anything you think of as existing. For example, to exist is, in part, to take up space, to pass through time, and to have causal power, and this is to imply that everything that exists is part of the natural universe. But the idea of god is of the source of everything natural, which means that god cant be bound by space or time or have causal power; neither can god have a mind if a mind requires a brain, nor need god follow the laws of logic if logic too applies merely to everything that could exist, where anything we could know of as potentially existing must be limited by our ways of understanding. Adapting some terminology from the philosopher Immanuel Kant, things that exist can be called phenomenal, which means that they necessarily dont transcend the

217 categories and mental faculties we use to understand things. By contrast--and by definition--god is noumenal, which means that the rather paradoxical notion of the monotheistic god is of something that cant be comprehended by us. God couldnt be anything in nature, since hes supposed to be the precondition of nature. Phenomena appear to us only because they register with our cognitive equipment, whereas something that falls outside our net of understanding, as it were, wouldnt be experienced by us in the first place. So if being, existence, reality, actuality, and factuality are understood explicitly or implicitly as aspects of natural things, which is to say things that are understood by a strong connection to our everyday sense experience and modes of conception, god lacks any of those aspects. Thus, if we use those concepts to distinguish something from nothing, god has more in common with nothing than he does with something: both god and nothing dont exist, and again this is merely a definitional, conceptual matter. Once you define god a certain way, you should follow through without self-contradictions. This is why when the theist says that God caused the universe to exist, the natural response is to ask what caused God. We ask that question because we assume that whatever exists must exist in the natural sense, since there is no other meaningful sense of that word, and all natural, relatively familiar things have effects and causes. Likewise, when the theist says that God thinks, speaks, or acts, we naturally understand those words by analogy with our common experience, and so we add absurd attributes to God; for example, we assume God must have a body of some sort, even though hes supposed to be the source of all bodies, or that God must have a gender and either a deep or a high voice, even though to say that is to naturalize the supernatural and thus to speak in self-contradictions. You might be wondering about the metaphysical status of abstract objects: if everything that exists is natural, and numbers and other mathematical structures are natural, do those abstract structures exist? It sounds funny to suppose that they do, but even if numbers and so forth do exist and are abstract rather concrete in the sense that theyre repeatable, an abstract object is still like a spatiotemporally-bound thing in nature in that

218 either is limited by its specificity. The number 2 has its arithmetical properties, which differ from those of other numbers, and those distinguishing properties set limits on that number. Likewise, physical laws and dimensions set limits on everything in nature. But, once again, god is supposed to be the unconditioned setter of all limits and conditions. As soon as you try to specify what god is like, say by distinguishing his character from that of an evil person, you take away with one hand what you give with the other; that is, you misunderstand the point of talking about the monotheistic god, because although you successfully apply your commonsense, comparing god to moral people in this case, you thereby contradict the basic definition of god, since you set a limit on that which is supposed to be unlimited--all-powerful, all-present, infinite, and so forth. As the Jewish theologian Maimonides maintained, we have at best a negative understanding of God: we can say only what god is not, not what god is. Or take the ninth C. theologian John Scot Erigenas statement, We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being." This is to say, with Kant, that we have a mere placeholder idea of god, an idea of that X which reason leads us to believe is the ultimate source of everything we experience without being any such experienced thing. Eastern mystics have long made this point, that to understand just the meaning of god, you have to entertain the possibility, at least, that our cognitive powers are limited, that theres more in heaven and earth than fits inside even our best, most complete theory of everything. Mystics often contend that god can be directly experienced, but they appreciate that as soon as anyone tries to explain that experience or use logic to prove that god exists or has such and such qualities, she inevitably resorts to commonsense metaphors and so begins talking nonsense, holding god out to be both the cause of all causes, the mind that creates all brains (even though every mind needs a brain), and so on. God is ineffable, because language has an evolutionary purpose of enabling us to cope with nature, whereas god is, simply by definition, not natural. Note, though, that although this is a semantic point about the meaning of exist, this doesnt mean the

219 point is about an arbitrary choice of linguistic labels, as the pejorative use of the phrase just semantics would have it. Rather, the point is that our imagination, our categories, our perceptual pathways, our modes of interacting with the world may all be too limited to reconcile us with certain deep truths, such as the truth of what lies behind the natural order.

Why God is the Most Awful Horror

In line with the mystics insistence on humility with respect to our cognitive powers, a philosophical mysterian would compare god to consciousness, taking each to be necessarily beyond our comprehension. Although we can answer some indirect questions about either, were met with a stumbling block when we try to fit consciousness or god into the naturalistic worldview, since consciousness is quintessentially not objective and thus not quantifiable or measurable, while god is supposed to be natures precondition. Once you see how this mysterian idea applies to the question of theism, the idea being that what there is neednt be and likely isnt limited by our capacity to understand things, you should also be led to appreciate that the thought of god is the most horrible thought we can formulate. After all, once we see that literalistic, exoteric, metaphorical theism leads only to confusion, the proper thought of god is no longer even theistic in the usual, highly objectionable way, since god isnt usefully conceived of as a person who acts within nature. Nothing specific can be said about god, because the fundamental idea behind the word god is that everything we can understand, the natural universe, comes mysteriously from something else. Thus, the myths, fables, and fairy tales of religions become so many distractions from contemplating the possibility, implied by the monotheistic religions, that not only must we lack satisfying answers to our ultimate questions, but those questions are bound to be wrongheaded, because theyre produced by minds that are unprepared to fathom the ultimate source. This further indicates that our best theories and treasured values are at best limited, if not made ridiculous by their insular scope. This is the horror that threatens our happiness, and

220 religionists dutifully pretend that god is on our level, after all--just a better person than any of us or the best thing in the universe. But no such thing could then be meaningfully called the almighty precondition of the cosmos. What, then, is the supernatural? Does the supernatural manifest in the miraculous event or in the scary phenomenon, in a ghost or goblin that stands at the border between our world and something beyond? A mere partial mystery thats half-way caught in our net of understanding, something we glimpse but cant explain? No, anything that appears before us, registering at all with our senses or our conceptual capacities, is natural. At best, some natural phenomena are subjectively magical in Arthur C. Clarks sense, in that we might happen not to understand the mechanisms that make what we observe work. By contrast, the negative concept of god is the concept of a permanent objective mystery, of the possibility that if nature has an ultimate explanation, this explanation will forever be beyond our reach, because nature comes from something else--call it supernatural, preternatural, noumenal, or god (with a lowercase g since god isnt a proper name of a person, from the esoteric perspective). The complement of this idea of the hugeness of god is the idea of our vanishing smallness. If god is so far beyond us, we must be miniscule to god and this applies not literally to our contrasting sizes, since god would have no measurable body, but to our quality of life. The closest analogy is the relation between a human and a bacterium or some other microscopic organism that has little if any conception of where it stands. Of course, biologically speaking, organisms need to know only enough to perform their evolutionary functions; an ant, for example, doesnt need to understand the chemical composition of the earth in which it lives, to know that the stuff can be molded just so to form what we call a colony. An ant has no conception of much outside that colony, including our planet, the galaxy, the multiverse, and so forth. Still, the ant lives on, performing its limited tasks, which is all the ant can do. In short, the ant doesnt know what its missing, and so this insect is spared any embarrassment by the shallowness of its life cycle.

221 Our curse is that we can see beyond our limitations; we can conceive of the possibility that our concepts are limited, that theres more to know than we can possibly understand and that nature likely originates from something entirely alien. Thus removed from the state of Edenic ignorance, we cant live in peace but must constantly suffer from anxiety or flee to the false Edens of our fantasy worlds, of our hallucinatory delusions that confuse us with false hope and cheap comfort. For example, we assume God is our loving parent who prepares heaven for us when we die, or that God writes life manuals for our benefit. Our delusions can be religious, political, or otherwise cultural, but the point is that most people seem to prefer them to the radical, mystical alternative, which is that the ultimate truth is a cosmic horror. Those who even ponder this latter possibility tend to suffer the anxiety of displacement, of being detached from everything that makes for a fulfilling life, because once you suspect that were all incapable of understanding everything, you wonder about the status of the civilizations our species has erected in its saga. Like a witness whose character is impeached when shes caught in just a single lie, and whose whole testimony thus becomes suspect, our cognitive limits, which distinguish us as specific, natural beings, may infect all our accomplishments and joys with existential absurdity and tragedy. Instead of occupying herself with practical tasks, living as a healthy, functional member of a community, like a busy ant helping to build its colony, the mystic, cosmicist, or omega person cant fully engage with a mainstream culture for fear that this culture is, in the end, perfectly ridiculous.

Cosmic Horror and Science

Reason seems the messenger that brings this anxiety and detachment, and by reason I mean objectivity, the ability to stand outside your ego or your culture, to dehumanize yourself with a frame of mind that might just be dispassionate enough to mirror the worlds alien neutrality towards us, thus enabling us to see things as they more nearly are. But is this cosmic mysticism, which identifies god as that which mocks our every pretension, which, when juxtaposed with us, haunts us with fear of the necessarily narrow and thus absurd ambit of our lives--is this point of view really the more rational

222 one? The psychiatrist speaks of anxiety, which seems to plague especially modern and postmodern societies, as a type of disorder. Here, presumably, the psychiatrist seems merely to follow the social preference for happiness over philosophy, for peace of mind at the price of delusion. But perhaps the notion of cosmic horror is the greater delusion, and the wisest course is to adopt cultural conventions as your touchstones. Is there any reason to believe that god in the mystical, cosmicist sense applies to anything? Perhaps theres nothing beyond the natural and nature takes full care of itself. At first glance, the success of science indicates that theres no such god, that the mysterian, cosmicist, and mystic posit a god-of-the-gaps, foolishly betting against the power of science to develop a complete and self-contained theory of everything. According to the Yahoo News article, Will Science Someday Rule Out the Possibility of God?, for example, the cosmologist Sean Carroll points out that as scientists have explained more and more of nature, theres less reason to call upon God to explain anything. This, however, assumes only the confused, exoteric notion of God. Given the rational, scientific model of explanations, a valid explanation that adds to our understanding must explain something natural by reference to something else in nature; indeed, the methods of rational explanation (logical inference, gathering of data, and so on) effectively naturalize the explanans, that X which explains the explanandum Y. Since by definition god isnt natural, you cant rationally explain anything by referring to god; that is, you cant increase your understanding of nature by saying that god causes this or that, since the notion of god is of something thats supposed to transcend our rational comprehension. To the extent that scientists have overturned traditional theistic theories of diseases, witches, and the origin of life, the latter theories must have been associated only with the exoteric anthropomorphisms that obscure the implications of self-consistent theism, to enable religious people to feel a modicum of existential security. The only way the advance of science could count against esoteric cosmicism is if theres reason to think that scientists will one day answer all valid questions, leaving no excuse for even a negative or indirect appeal to anything supernatural. As the above

223 article suggests, a theory of quantum gravity might be both complete and selfcontained, presupposing nothing. But is this how science or indeed any form of rational explanation works? Certainly, the Lawrence Krauss affair suggests otherwise. Krauss, the theoretical physicist, touted his book, A Universe from Nothing, as offering an explanation of how something can come from nothing without God. David Alpert pointed out in his NY Times review that Krauss theory does no such thing, since his theory presupposes certain fundamental physical laws as well as the reality of some elementary stuff, such as relativistic quantum fields. The fact that that stuff is nothing in the sense that such fields dont occupy space doesnt address the underlying, philosophical question of how something specific, individuated, and thus natural and rationally understood could derive, or be understood as deriving, from something else. Lets take a moment to remind ourselves how reason basically works. When you think logically, you infer some statements from others, and inference is a sort of affirmation warranted by certain rules, such as the laws of some logical system or the values of scientific inquiry. Take away the rules and you lose the reason to affirm a statement. Thus, rational explanation would seem to presuppose those rules. Suppose, though, the rules presupposed by a scientific theory of everything were somehow self-evident laws of nature. This would mean only that such laws are fundamental to the human way of thinking, and this would lead to a dilemma: either theres only one theory of everything, which theory miraculously happens to be within the reach of primates evolved on our planet, or else there are multiple such theories, which means each would be somehow incomplete, reflecting in part the interests of a particular culture or species. Now, one reason to think that a complete theory of everything is within our reach is that natural forces and materials are mindless, which implies that the natural elements can put up no intelligent resistance to the scientific enterprise. If nature is neutral towards us and were sufficiently industrious, the universe cant literally hide its secrets from us. In this respect, then, our arrival at a finished theory of everything might be expected rather than miraculous. However, theres also a scientific reason to believe the opposite, which has to do with our decentralization in the scientific picture. From Ptolemy to Copernicus,

224 Galileo and Einstein, our planet is understood as being less and less central until finally the notion of absolute centrality loses its meaning in relativity theory. Of course, the notion of our centrality in the cosmos has historically had a qualitative rather than just a quantitative sense, the idea being that humans are the most important things in the universe, that our existence fulfills the purpose of all Creation. Dispensing with that anthropocentrism naturally humiliates us, in that we become painfully aware of our fallibility and of the limitations that distinguish us even as objects occupying particular times and places. This shift in perspective should bewilder rather than merely humble naturalists, since the result is an all-consuming pragmatic attitude that justifies only our means, not our goals and thus produces a sense of vertigo typically experienced as postmodern cynicism and apathy. Pragmatism replaces modern idealism about our greatness even in the absence of any god to vouch for our pedigree. The upshot of sciences decentering of us is that we can no longer trust in our magnificence in even the secular humanistic manner--at least, not without feeling that were perpetrating a fraud. Of course scientists should pragmatically assume that they can explain everything, since we cant know for sure in advance what we might be unable to understand. But this pragmatism, this methodological naturalism is far from a full-throated defense of the promise that a complete and self-contained theory of everything wouldnt be a miraculous, which is to say a stupendously improbable achievement for us. If its only useful for the business of technoscience to assume that humans can, in principle, understand everything, theres no metaphysical or epistemological guarantee that this business will pay off in the end; after all, most businesses fail. (Indeed, theres now talk within physics that string theory, which has dominated physics for several decades, is a dead end. See Lee Smolins The Trouble with Physics.) In light of the loss of anthropocentrism, which is to say Reasons killing of our nave selfconfidence along with the anthropomorphized God, theres at least as much reason to be pessimistic as there is to be optimistic about the ultimate fruits of science. Again, if were merely an accidental byproduct of natural processes, why on earth expect that our

225 cognitive faculties, which themselves evolved to carry out local and quite humdrum tasks, can encompass absolutely everything? Instead, we might expect that just as advanced civilizations mock the conceits of isolated cultures, such as those of geologically-confined peoples, our best modern efforts might in the end be wildly deficient and indeed laughable. Granted, nature would lack any diabolical genius to prevent us from understanding as much as we can--although super-intelligent alien species might serve that role, as science fiction authors speculate. But natures mindlessness makes its elements alien to our way of thinking, since we evolved to function in a social context, which is why we naturally anthropomorphize whatever we try to understand. Thus, what looks like a reason to be confident in our intellectual capacity may instead be a reason to believe the opposite, that precisely because theres no personal God to account for why the universe is as it is, social creatures like us are particularly ill-equipped to come to terms with the world in which we find ourselves. Granted also, some people are less social than others, and we all have the capacity for objectivity, which strips away our personal and cultural biases. But even the most objective human, who can speak the languages of exotic mathematics, must translate the findings of those alien perspectives into subjective, traditionally-human terms to assimilate physics to the broader worldview that includes intuitions and phenomenological knowledge of how things appear from a lay perspective. If were contemplating scientific progress that involves a replacement of all our subjective viewpoints with the depersonalized, objective one, were effectively conceding that the perfect theory of everything is in range only of transhumans. Abstract cosmological theories, drawing on rarified math, are already disconnected from folk wisdom, and that gap provides us with a rough analogy of the break between the natural and the supernatural, foreshadowing the unattainability of some knowledge by us. Cutting-edge physics lies at the furthest reaches of human cognitive powers, but again, even bizarre mathematical structures are natural in so far as they can be positively specified and categorized by the human mind. Anything that couldnt be would

226 be supernatural and would be nothing to us--not necessarily nothing at all, mind you, but no thing to creatures like us. Whether or not theres somehow a god, the negative concept of a transcendent source of everything around us is the mysterian, cosmicist, mystical concept of such a monstrous, strangely active nothing.

You might think the notion of such a nothing is neither here nor there, since that notion is more deistic than theistic, meaning that such an alien god would have no practical, knowable effect on nature. This leaves out, however, an indirect, psychological effect, which is that creatures cursed with excessive reasoning powers can reason their way to the end of their reason, leading to self-doubt and to postmodern malaise. Moreover, to compensate for these deleterious effects of the mere thought of the-god-thats-nothingto-us, mainstream religions design a panoply of friendly anthropomorphic masks that can be placed across that gods alien face, and the childishness of these religions has plenty of social consequences. This answers the questions I ask in the introduction. Why is there an exoteric religious tradition and why is the esoteric one kept hidden? The reason is that the religious thesis, that the supernatural is somehow prior to the natural, is--far from being more politically correct than, say, atheism--subversive, endangering both society and an individuals peace of mind. Only the most courageous or foolhardy theist is willing to confront the stark implications of the concept of a deity, while the majority prefers the comfort of toy conceptions of the supernatural. Whats needed, then, is a cosmicist religion that makes the best of the potential for anyone to wake up and arrive at the Baneful Thought that everything familiar to us may be nothing to something wholly other. The more you objectively ponder our limitations, the more you find yourself alienated from the politically correct conventions that govern popular cultures, since in that case you come to regard most of our preoccupations (happiness, sex, stealth oligarchy, anthropomorphic theism, cryptoreligious Scientism)

227 as absurd and tragic. Thus, the lost, omega individual could use an uplifting way of digesting and sublimating the Baneful Thought. Buddhism and other mystical traditions may well suffice, but I dont know of any major religion that captures the cosmicist insight that cosmic horror seems a prerequisite for existential authenticity, which is to say, for an ethically and aesthetically justified mindset. Finally: a note about pantheism. How does the mysterian, cosmicist god relate to what Ive called the undead god, which is natures mindless power of astonishing creativity? The undead god is just a poetic name for how nature appears from a position of relative clear-headedness. This undead god is fully explainable by science, although autonomous levels of explanation may be needed to address emergent levels of complexity. By contrast, the supernatural god Ive considered above isnt at all rationally explainable. There may well be nothing supernatural, but general objectivity, science, and religion tend to drive us to this point of ultimate humility and postmodern angst, where we regard the universe as fundamentally absurd, which is to say unintelligible to us and so as silly as a childs babbling. The undead god, which is the monstrous body of the cosmos, represents the extent of whats intelligible to us. If theres no complete, self-contained explanation of nature, however, and reason and curiosity compel us always to ask deeper questions, we may worry that the sum total of what we can know is like an icebergs tip that peaks above the bulk concealed by the sea of our incomprehension. At any rate, the esoteric, mystical traditions of theistic religions are mysterian in this respect, since they posit an utterly transcendent entity as the source of everything thats more familiar.


Lovecraftian Horror and Pragmatism ____________________________________________________

Ive referred to Lovecraftian horror a number of times in my rants and this calls for some explanation. To see the relevance of Lovecraft to the philosophical issues Ive been ranting about, you need to be aware that there are roughly two kinds of secularists, the Nietzscheans and the non-Nietzscheans. The Nietzscheans, including American horror author H. P. Lovecraft, British writer John Gray, and existentialist philosophers, warn that what Nietzsche called the death of God, which is to say the ascent of modern science and of secular powers, was a revolution that demands a reassessment of our values. Nietzscheans stress the illegitimacy of those traditions and institutions that presuppose theism. By Contrast, the non-Nietzscheans, including most New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Jerry Coyne, believe that the rise of secularism doesnt have such radical consequences. For example, these secularists often assume that the liberal value of a persons sacredness is sustainable on an atheistic basis, even though that value derives from theistic myths. The non-Nietzschean secularist usually responds to the Nietzschean by saying that theists acquire their values in turn from the use of their own reason as they cherry-pick from scriptures, and from our prehistoric ancestors evolved social instinct.


Lovecraft's Cosmicism
Unlike the more optimistic secularists, Lovecraft worried about the philosophical implications of modern scientific findings. He dramatized his worries in weird short stories featuring super-powerful gods or aliens, whose motives are as unfathomable to us as are ours to ants. These extraterrestrials symbolized for Lovecraft the cosmic forces of nature which are just as alien to us, given that theyre not creations of a familiar, humane parent figure like God. The point is that modern science discovered not just the universes inhuman scope, but its impersonality and thus its inhumanity. Lovecraft used the existential abyss between his scientific characters and the inhuman universe to produce in his reader a sense of the truly strange. By existential abyss I mean our alienation from the rest of nature, given sciences disenchantment of it and our own need to enchant what we perceive by projecting anthropocentric categories wherever we go. Science is the eating of the apple and the source of our expulsion from Eden, and once were on the other side of the barrier, lost now in postmodern selfconsciousness and skepticism, were no longer at home anywhere. To paraphrase what Milton says about Satan in Paradise Lost, hell travels always with us, since its a state of mind (see Book IV, line 20). Lovecraft called his philosophical outlook cosmicism, using the inhuman aspects of the natural order to drive home the insignificance of our own ideals and pet projects. Our ambitions are pathetic vanities next to those of intelligent creatures who may well have prospered for billions of years and even now direct the course of galactic development. Even were there no such elder, squid-faced gods, the natural forces themselves have proved to be inhuman and thus alien to us, operating as they do on vast time scales, from subatomic particles to galaxies and perhaps even across multiple universes. The upshot, for Lovecraft, is that the world discovered by modern scientists is awesome, above all, in its capacity to horrify us. Were happiest when we delude ourselves that were at the center of a manageably-large universe and that underlying everything is a supreme person who not only comforts us but is actually related to us as our ultimate parent. The universe becomes a home for our extended family, and so

230 ultimately we have nothing to fear. Nothing is strange in that universe, since God has sovereign control over everything--he knows even how many hairs there are on each of our heads--and were made to be similar to God. When we intellectually mature and can no longer view the universe with such innocence, everything becomes alien and strange, even ourselves as we learn of the effects of the now-impersonal natural forces on everything above and beneath the sun. Were afraid of whats different from ourselves, of the strange and the alien. We assumed that natural forces are controlled by people, because we control many processes in our little corner of the cosmos. But if people are just accidental byproducts rather than the architects of Creation, were adrift on a sea with no safe harbour.

Pragmatism as a Secular Whitewash

There are many consequences of this cosmicism, but one that should be more appreciated is that the New Atheists rosy secular outlook, according to which we should simply get on with our lives, creating our own meanings, following societys laws, raising our families and working hard at our jobs, looks for all the world like a whitewash. Partly, this whitewash is due to the prevalence of scientists in the New Atheist movement, who dont have much sympathy for philosophy, and partly its a tactic in the culture war against the religious fundamentalist in the US, for example, who accuses biologists of presupposing godlessness, to disastrous social effect. Instead of teaching merely the scientific facts of evolution, says the fundamentalist, biologists inevitably instill atheism in their students, since atheism follows from the rigorous use of reason at the expense of faith and atheism leads, in effect, to Lovecrafts cosmicism or to Nietzsches revaluation of all values. In response, the New Atheist insists that neither the modern scientific worldview, nor philosophical naturalism, nor atheism has any such dire implication. As the Atheist Bus message says in Britain and Canada, Theres probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life. This pragmatic message is most telling. Just as Pascal says in his infamous Wager that even if you dont yet believe theres a god, you

231 should go through the motions until you fall into the habit of being a religious person, so too the non-Nietzschean secularist says that even if you dont see meaning or value in anything after Gods death at our hands, you should go through the motions until, no doubt, the secular myths from political, corporate, and Hollywood propaganda enthrall you. The hyper-rational secularist encourages the use of reason to wipe out theistic beliefs, but stops short of recommending skepticism about liberal secular values. No, that extended skepticism must be just postmodern gibberish. Best to trust the liberal technocrats, the cheerful scientists, and the shining images on the silver and little screens. After all, look at how rich and powerful those secularists are. No one could be so successful without possessing great wisdom, and so when they say that even though life is accidental in an immensely cold, grim, and impersonal universe, secularists should just get on with their lives, they might as well be selling coffee, nicotine, or some other capitalistic stimulant. To be sure, non-Nietzschean secularists have their philosophical defenses of liberal values and of morality, democracy, and capitalism, that is, of the secular way of life. In fact, analytic philosophers, political scientists, and economists are for the most part devoted to producing just those defenses. And their arguments may be more or less compelling. But they fail to persuade the less intellectual person in the street whos more liable to follow his or her feelings. So too must those pretty speeches and technical articles flying out the doors of secular institutions, of governments, colleges, and think tanks, fail to persuade the secular academics and professionals when now and again they dont get their way and their animal instincts get the better of them. When their logic and science avail them not and theyre forced to go with their gut, theyll tend to worry like the Nietzscheans. Unlike Pascals calculative wager, the point of cosmicism is that the secular worldview has an overall negative emotional impact. This worldview deflates our self-centered preconceptions, while the rigorous application of scientific objectivity trains us to be hyper-skeptical, to distrust all authority figures and traditions, and thus deprives us of any substitute myths. We have idols aplenty, but none of them is sustainable in the chaotic postmodern climate.

232 In other words, while the philosophical and soft scientific defenses of liberal secular values may be rationally compelling--and Im conceding that for the moment only for the sake of argument--those defenses lack the power of Nietzschean cosmicism because the natural cosmos is above all a scary place. Richard Dawkins sometimes wishes that religious authorities hadnt have dictated the content of European art in previous centuries, since secular poets, for example, armed with scientific data, would have been inspired by natures grandeur to produce their own artworks of epic beauty. But this is nave philistinism. Whatever beauty there is in nature is utterly tragic; in fact, the beauty dies with the inevitable extinction of the beholder. Unless the secularist is a closet Platonist and thus a cryptotheist, the secularist should know that value judgments are subjective and that our talk of a flowers beauty is a byproduct of our parochial mating ritual in which we size up a member of the other sex, searching for telltale signs of health, like facial symmetry and certain body proportions. Fear too is an evolutionary mechanism, which causes us to fight or to flee when faced with an unknown. But at least theres no misapplication when we fear the inhuman cosmos, as there is when we deem fractals and other natural forms beautiful. The Lovecraftian, existential emotion of angst is true to the revolutionary spirit of modern science, lacking the anthropocentrism of the cheap metaphor in which the harmony of cosmic processes--assuming there is such a thing--is compared to the harmony of the human form. The rosy secularist who calls nature "majestic" and "elegant" merely vents his or her prejudice when faced with whats perfectly nonhuman. In this respect, modern secularism is neo-pagan, a high brow version of prehistoric animism, according to which nature is sacred because nature is flush with humanity, or with spirits that are similar to ours, and humans are sacred because, well, we children are narcissistic. The angstridden secularist, however, grapples with the scientific lesson that anthropocentrism is childish folly and so--instead of cheerfully seeing our reflection in the cosmic pool-resorts to the only suitable emotions we have left: fear, horror, awe, a recognition of the Other as such and thus of the limit of our standards and the necessary shortsightedness of our goals.

233 Whatever intellectual merits pragmatic secular optimism may have--and again, I grant them here only for the sake of this particular rant--this optimism cant compete with the fact that fear is the most suitable emotional response to nature. That was Lovecrafts point, which is why his protagonists were mainly men of learning who are driven insane when theyre forced to feel the strangeness of a world without a humane God. For non-Nietzschean secularism to work, wed need a means of neutering or short-circuiting our natural terror in response to our tragic existential situation. Perhaps this is the ultimate purpose of political and Hollywood fear-mongering, to distract us with fictional or propped-up monsters (communism, al Qaeda, middle eastern dictators), to avoid western social collapse from the death of God.


Inkling of an Unembarassing Postmodern Religion ____________________________________________________

In a few rants here Ive hinted at the Nietzschean view that one of the major problems with secular society, after the death of God, is the lack of an obvious replacement that we can feel in our bones to be sacred. When scientists discovered the universes true inhuman scale and the full animalistic nature of our bodies and of our evolutionary history, the result was a disenchantment of the world that threatens to burst the delusions that sustain our sanity. Postmodern cynics contend that no such nontheistic religion is needed, that we can live with infinite layers of irony, turning our culture into a giant Stephen Colbert skit in which every public statement is at best a white lie and we applaud each others savvy pragmatism, our disdain for philosophical questioning, and our nihilistic poses. These cynics may fool themselves but they dont fool me. Hold a gun to the head of a postmodern poseurs family member and see whether that erstwhile cynic retains her quasi-Buddhist detachment and truly holds nothing on Earth sacred. Naturally, as the animal she is, the postmodernist would sacrifice herself for her loved ones. Her religion is thus biochemically determined. Shes used as a puppet not by a transcendent Creator of all, but by mindlessly replicating genes which cause each of us to care a lot about those who most share our genetic material. The question to ask the postmodernist is whether some feelings can be judged superior to others according to ideals that arent

235 lost with the premodern, theistic worldviews. Nietzsche believed that although traditional morality is rendered dubious by the death of theism, aesthetic standards are still compelling. The problem with the emotional defense of our immediate family members, then, or of our instinctive replacement of traditional deities with naturally selected idols, is that aesthetically speaking, such a primitive religious impulse has surely by now, after millions of generations, become a god-awful clich. Can we postmodern nontheists do better? Given that religions are inevitable in human societies, because were emotionally driven to identify something as sacred, as a radiant good that uplifts us despite our profane lives filled with disappointment, angst, or delusion, can we create a more beautiful religion thats viable even after modern secular humanism has given way to postmodern hyper-skepticism? Had I such a religion fully worked out, perhaps Id be on television hawking T-shirts adorned with the creeds associated slogans. Needless to say, I know of no such religion. However, Id like to speak of some themes that do inspire me and that sketch, at least, the sort of religion Id like to see. Some of these themes are found in the closing speech of Olaf Stapledons 1930 science fictional novel Last and First Men. This novel is found in its entirety online, hosted in Australia, so Id like to quote the whole speech after I summarize the context, and then I propose to analyze the speech. However, if you havent read the novel and dont want its ending spoiled, you should skip the next section and perhaps even put aside this philosophical rant of mine for another day. Fair warning then...

Stapledons Speech
Stapledons novel is about our entire future history, stretching across two billion years until our extinction. After many cognitive and physiological evolutions, plus near extinctions, humankind eventually faces its inevitable and imminent death at the hands of solar radiation. Stapledon perhaps naively imagines that that last generation of humans will have achieved a psychologically mature and peaceful culture in which altruism is the norm and selfishness is anathema and even physically repulsive. Although enervated by the deadly solar winds that rapidly make our descendants final

236 home planet uninhabitable, those last humans struggle to complete their final project: creating interstellar seeds to carry a record of human achievement so that at least the memory of our species might not vanish. The narrator speaks of the Degeneration of the higher neural centers, due to the suns disintegration, which has also brought about in us a far more serious and deep-seated trouble, namely a general spiritual degradation which would formerly have seemed impossible, so confident were we of our integrity...We look back now at our former selves, with wonder, but also with incomprehension and misgiving. We try to recall the glory that seemed to be revealed to each of us in the racial mind, but we remember almost nothing of it. We cannot rise even to that more homely beatitude which was once within the reach of the unaided individual, that serenity which, it seemed, should be the spirit's answer to every tragic event. It is gone from us. It is not only impossible but inconceivable. We now see our private distresses and the public calamity as merely hideous. That after so long a struggle into maturity man should be roasted alive like a trapped mouse, for the entertainment of a lunatic! How can any beauty lie in that? A group called the Brotherhood of the Condemned, to which the narrator belongs, now and again meets in little groups or great companies to hearten ourselves with one another's presence. Sometimes on these occasions we can but sit in silence, groping for consolation and for strength. Sometimes the spoken word flickers hither and thither amongst us, shedding a brief light but little warmth to the soul that lies freezing in a torrid world. But there is among us one, moving from place to place and company to company, whose voice all long to hear. He is young, the last born of the Last Men; for he was the latest to be conceived before we learned man's doom, and put an end to all conceiving. Being the latest, he is also the noblest. Not him alone, but all his generation, we salute, and look to for strength; but he, the youngest, is different from the rest. In him the spirit, which is but the flesh awakened into spirituality, has power to withstand the tempest of solar energy longer than the rest of us. It is as though the sun itself were eclipsed by

237 this spirit's brightness. It is as though in him at last, and for a day only, man's promise were fulfilled. For though, like others, he suffers in the flesh, he is above his suffering. And though more than the rest of us he feels the suffering of others, he is above his pity. In his comforting there is a strange sweet raillery which can persuade the sufferer to smile at his own pain. When this youngest brother of ours contemplates with us our dying world and the frustration of all man's striving, he is not, like us, dismayed, but quiet. In the presence of such quietness despair wakens into peace. By his reasonable speech, almost by the mere sound of his voice, our eyes are opened, and our hearts mysteriously filled with exultation. Yet often his words are grave. And then the narrator ends the novel with the words of this last born of the Last Men: Great are the stars, and man is of no account to them. But man is a fair spirit, whom a star conceived and a star kills. He is greater than those bright blind companies. For though in them there is incalculable potentiality, in him there is achievement, small, but actual. Too soon, seemingly, he comes to his end. But when he is done he will not be nothing, not as though he had never been; for he is eternally a beauty in the eternal form of things. Man was winged hopefully. He had in him to go further than this short flight, now ending. He proposed even that he should become the Flower of All Things, and that he should learn to be the All-Knowing, the All-Admiring. Instead, he is to be destroyed. He is only a fledgling caught in a bush-fire. He is very small, very simple, very little capable of insight. His knowledge of the great orb of things is but a fledgling's knowledge. His admiration is a nestling's admiration for the things kindly to his own small nature. He delights only in food and the food-announcing call. The music of the spheres passes over him, through him, and is not heard. Yet it has used him. And now it uses his destruction. Great, and terrible, and very beautiful is the Whole; and for man the best is that the Whole should use him.

238 But does it really use him? Is the beauty of the Whole really enhanced by our agony? And is the Whole really beautiful? And what is beauty? Throughout all his existence man has been striving to hear the music of the spheres, and has seemed to himself once and again to catch some phrase of it, or even a hint of the whole form of it. Yet he can never be sure that he has truly heard it, nor even that there is any such perfect music at all to be heard. Inevitably so, for if it exists, it is not for him in his littleness. But one thing is certain. Man himself, at the very least, is music, a brave theme that makes music also of its vast accompaniment, its matrix of storms and stars. Man himself in his degree is eternally a beauty in the eternal form of things. It is very good to have been man. And so we may go forward together with laughter in our hearts, and peace, thankful for the past, and for our own courage. For we shall make after all a fair conclusion to this brief music that is man.

Lifes Absurdities and Tragedies

The themes I want to discuss are the recognition of our grim existential situation, mystical pantheism, the aesthetic vision of life, and gallows humour. To begin, then, the speech-giver, who Ill identify with Stapledon for simplicitys sake, clearly appreciates the apparent absurdity of human life, including the gulf between our vain pretensions to greatness and our actual standing in the cosmos as fledglings (young birds), and the objective worthlessness and futility of all our endeavours. A noble religion must begin with this existential premise. The further a religion strays from it and compromises with some variety of happy-talk, the less the religion uplifts and the more it provides a framework merely for baby-sitting the clueless multitudes. In Stapledons novel, the absurdity takes the form of the tragic demise of our species. Even today, though, due to our many advances in scientific knowledge, the gulf between the facts and our fledgling preferences seems so wide as to be almost a case of intentional overkill. Now we know not just that the universe is so large that we can never cross it, expanding our home and thus feeling less alienated, but that our universe may be merely one of an infinite number of universes in a multiverse.


In Volume One of Myth of the Machine, Lewis Mumford addresses this question of alienation due to the dwarfing of us and our ideals, given natures unimaginable scale. He points out that on some level there would be no universe without the perceivers consciousness, so that the direction of normative diminishment should point in the other direction. In line with the view of philosopher Immanuel Kant, the way the universe appears to us depends on the cognitive equipment we bring to bear, on our forms of perception. According to quantum theory, this importance of the perceiver is true even at the most fundamental level of nature. Indeed, says Mumford, the mathematical notions of size and scale, the very application of numbers, are human-centered, so any alienation we might feel when we employ our own forms of measurement or even our notion of measurement itself is wrongheaded. Its the universe thats insignificant compared to conscious beings who bring that universe to fruition by perceiving and understanding it. Yet, contrary to this Kantian response to Stapledon, our alienation neednt be due just to the immense difference in size; the size-gap only brings to mind the more fundamental abyss between our familiarity with our home and the Otherness of all that lies beyond our homes borders. When galaxy is piled on top of galaxy and then universe on top of universe, were struck not just by how literally puny we are, but by how much inhumanity there is compared to the human. Even were mathematical concepts of measurement anthropocentric, in which case natures immensity would honour rather than alienate us, since there would be no size as such without our creation of that form of measurement, the fact is that were there no human beings or concept of size, nature would still be doing much thats perfectly nonhuman. A cosmic party would still be in progress to which we were never invited. In Kantian terms, the world of phenomena, or appearances that depend on our modes of understanding, would vanish, but the noumena or things in themselves as they are regardless of whether theyre perceived or explained by anyone, would still be as they inconceivably are, and their Otherness is the ultimate source of our alienation.

240 Thus, even accepting the Kantian view, Stapledons point that a humans admiration is a nestling's admiration for the things kindly to his own small nature would still apply. As Nietzsche put it in On Truth and Lies in a Non-moral Sense, When someone hides something behind a bush and looks for it again in the same place and finds it there as well, there is not much to praise in such seeking and finding. Yet this is how matters stand regarding seeking and finding truth within the realm of reason. This is, he says, a thoroughly anthropomorphic truth. Were alienated by the fact that we can never understand the inhuman heart of nature without dehumanizing ourselves.

Mystical Pantheism
Next, Stapledon alludes to the philosopher Spinozas pantheism when he says repeatedly that were eternal beauties in the eternal form of things. Spinoza shares the mystics intuition that despite the apparent independence of things or substances, everything is interconnected, or to use Spinozas metaphor, everything is supported by a single underlying substance called God or matter, the two being mere ways of looking at the same thing. In Hinduism, the names for this apparent duality of mind and matter are Atman and Brahman. The pantheists point is that God cant extend beyond matter if, as the mystics vision of unity suggests, everything is one, in which case the whole material universe and everything in it is divine. Divinity here is tantamount to impersonal creativity, which is to say that nature may be considered divine in so far as it creates through an evolutionary process. Einstein, Hawking, and other great scientists share Spinozas reverence for nature, so this pantheism isnt foreign to scientific naturalism. But the point I want to emphasize is that mystical pantheism mitigates alienation, by affirming that all things in nature are metaphysically united and thus precluding at that level a gap between self and world. In Spinozas terms, theres a divine viewpoint from which the causal and logical connections between everything in nature are registered and the order in the universes development is made apparent. Every cause and effect and every level of nature from the subatomic to the intergalactic, every speck of dust or hair on our head has its place in that natural order, in that monstrous body of God which

241 is the pantheistic universe, which unifies everything according to natural laws, whether these laws be probabilistic or necessary. This pattern in which everything that exists has its place as part of some natural process which connects it ultimately to everything else, is what Stapledon calls the eternal form of things. From Gods perspective, which is just that of completed natural science, time stops in the sense that the godlike scientist can predict anything in the future by looking at some other part of the pattern; nature is comparable to a spiders web in which everything exists as an interconnected node, and when the web is understood in its entirety, when all the interconnections are recognized, temporal connections become just more nodes in the web. All parts of this pattern, then, have a kind of immortality, because although events come and go from one moment to the next, time too has its limited position in the whole natural course. The universe unfolds according to natural laws which determine the causal processes and the emergence of complex properties, and even though many things lie in the past, from our limited perspective in the present moment, those past stages of natures unfolding arent lost within the godlike vision of the omniscient scientist. On the contrary, their role is guaranteed in the ultimate scientific theory, their position in the pattern subject to reaffirmation. So even were all life to die out and the stars to fade as the universe ends its creative cycle, the oneness of everything that happened in the universe would remain, even if only as a potential for someone to understand. Note that this pantheism is meant to be metaphysical, not epistemic. In practice, of course, actual scientists will never be able to measure everything in the universe, since many events will lie outside their light cone or in impenetrable black holes or singularities. Still, in so far as those events are natural and thus understandable in terms of natural laws, theyre part of the whole natural fabric. When we imagine an omniscient scientist recording every node of the natural web of events in the scientists divine book in which nature is perfectly modeled, were engaging merely in a thought experiment. The experiments purpose is to comfort us with the idea that even were

242 such a perfect scientist never to exist, everything in nature would nonetheless be metaphysically and thus atemporally united by the bonds of causality and logic.

Aesthetic Ideals
Why, though, does Stapledon speak of natural beauty and of the music of the spheres? Well, this is the third theme I want to pull from Stapledons speech. All values we might bring to bear on our judgment of the unified web of nature are more or less parochial, since they all have humble origins in the natural selection of organisms that have the limited purpose of surviving and propagating the species by sexually reproducing. Moral standards are relevant to social beings with relatively high degrees of freedom, and thus the notion of natures goodness is painfully anthropocentric, Platos teleology notwithstanding. Aesthetic standards too evolved as means of estimating the health and genetic fitness of potential sex partners. Still, the aesthetic vision of cosmic development is less anthropocentric than a moral one, for example, because mystical pantheism is consistent with talk of natures beauty. After all, the oneness of nature turns the universe into a single diffuse entity, and the causal and logical links that hold everything together are potentials for scientific understanding. Again, even if no scientist will ever actually understand all of these links or possess data on every instantiation of natural categories, the metaphysical/religious model of mystical pantheism lays out the underlying unity of nature by means of a thought experiment in which the unity provides the potential for a godlike view. This metaphysical potential isnt obviated by the natural impossibility of this omniscience. And so Spinozas mystical pantheism entails both a single cosmic entity and the supposition of a godlike scientist who gazes on the whole, inspecting all of its parts and grasping their interrelations. Clearly, this is comparable to the aesthetic situation in which a person admires an art object. All that must be added to the mystical pantheists thought experiment is the assumption that the scientist has an aesthetic sense.

243 The early modern notion of the music of the spheres had a theistic or at least deistic, teleological connotation. After all, strictly speaking, the analogy between cosmic development and the stages of a musical piece implies a composer. In this way, Stapledons aesthetic theme would contradict his mystical pantheist one, since the composer would have to stand apart from the orchestra and the music, that is, from the cosmos. The two themes can be reconciled, however, by following up on the above construal of pantheism, according to which the oneness of nature could be fully mapped by a hypothetically omniscient scientist. Just as the design of naturally selected organisms isnt intended but can be appreciated by biologists, after the fact, so too aesthetic properties may emerge from the natural order which could be imperfectly appreciated by intelligent beings that occupy limited positions within that order. That is, the natural order might be beautiful or perhaps hideous to behold in its mystical unity.

Gallows Humour
Lastly, Stapledon refers to the great mans strange sweet raillery which can persuade the sufferer to smile at his own pain. This I take to be a kind of gallows humour, which in this case is light, good-natured ridicule that builds camaraderie. What could make raillery a kind of gallows comedy is a tragic context, which in Stapledons novel is the imminent doom of humankind. More broadly, the tragedy is the one given by the first theme, which is the apparent existential absurdity of human life. The gallows humour I have in mind can be instructively compared with the comedy of Jon Stewart or Bill Maher. The subtext of their comedy programs seems to be the liberal audience members desperate cry for official recognition of the sociopolitical absurdities that attend the apparent decline of western powers, in the face of the mainstream medias obliviousness. This was especially so when George W. Bush took his country to war against Iraq, cheered on by the mainstream American media, while most of the rest of the world took to the streets to oppose the war. American liberals especially were desperate for some confirmation that they werent crazy, that Bushs regime was as farcical as it appeared. Jon Stewart provided that confirmation night after night as he

244 fulfilled the fantasy of someone--anyone--with a megaphone loud enough to be heard by millions, condemning political absurdities as such and duly ridiculing the perfectly ridiculous. But although American political comedians joke about whats actually a woeful and perilous state of affairs, their humour isnt exactly of the gallows variety. This is apparent from the audience reaction to their jokes. Stapledon describes the response to gallows humour, which is that the listener smiles at his pain, perhaps also nodding in grave silence, appreciating the jokes wittiness but also the horror and sorrow that motivate the need for that comedy. Stewarts audience members, however, betray their own sense of their political situations absurdity, by idolizing Stewart and liberalism. They vent their rage at their political opponents by bursting into wild applause whenever Stewart blasts those outsiders, even to the point of creating awkwardness when one of the opponents sits right in from of them during the interview with Stewart. The LA audience of Bill Mahers show, Real Time, is even more tribal, robotic, and utterly without humility. Gallows humour is the last resort of a broken person who has no illusions, whos brought low by confronting the thought of his or her imminent or inevitable death, or of the tragedies and absurdities that fill the postmodern world. The occasions for such humour are solemn ones, calling for humility and the courage to dispense with idols of the tribe and with the security blanket of premodern religion. The context of American liberal humour is one of tribal ritual and self-aggrandizement, and thus doesnt quite exemplify the nobler comedy of the gallows that presupposes no delusions.

Sketching the Religion

You might have noticed that the first theme seems to conflict with the next two. How can human life be absurd or tragic if everything in the universe is metaphysically one and if this oneness may be aesthetically appreciated? There are two reasons why theres not necessarily a conflict here. First, the absurdity of life has metaphysical and phenomenological aspects. Metaphysically, life is absurd in the sense that theres no

245 objective purpose of life, that is, no purpose that transcends our interpretations. Briefly put, theism is false. Phenomenologically, theres the feeling of alienation, of tragedy, of the heartlessness of natural forces, of our pitiful stature, and of the ultimate futility of our endeavours. Pantheism is consistent with nontheism, since the natural orders divinity, which is its creative power, is impersonal. Also, existential angst might be appropriate for actual creatures that only barely approximate the omniscient scientist in the thought experiment. Although that scientist might have no cause for angst, that hardly benefits us. However, even that ultimate scientist might feel despair and horror, since there are positive and negative aesthetic properties. Were the natural order beautiful, wonder and reverence could be expected to replace angst, but were the entirety of the divine body of nature horrible to look upon, or were the music of the spheres irritating like a song with a missing note, the scientist might well be disappointed by the anticlimax, to say the least. Still, these themes are materials for a postmodern religion, because the apparent, felt absurdity of life is mitigated by the mystical scientists vision of natures unity, by the possibility of an uplifting normative interpretation of that unity, and by the call for humour to replace despair, given our cosmic situation. What would make this a postmodern religion is that theres no appeal here to anything supernatural, no retreat to delusion or fantasy. On the contrary, those weaknesses of premodern religions are ruled out by the stipulation that life is objectively meaninglessness. At best, we can imagine that a hypothetical scientist who comprehends the whole natural order has an aesthetic reaction to the pattern of interconnected events. This is only a thought experiment; theres no positing of such a scientist, and indeed we should assume that even were nature a monistic system, metaphysically speaking, the comprehension of the whole would be practically impossible. Finally, postmodernists love ironic comedy, and a religion based on the other three considerations should reserve an honoured place for this comedic remedy for angst. After all, regardless of whether natural laws and logical principles of reasoning divulge a unified pattern throughout nature, which immortalizes each node of the web, were stuck

246 without any confirmation of that unity. Even were there music in the orbits of stellar bodies or in a speck of dusts swirling in a breeze, as Stapledon says, this music wouldnt be fit for us in our littleness. Nevertheless, were confronted with two wellestablished facts: the apparent lack of a deep purpose of our being here, alive and on Earth, and scientific advancement in understanding material processes. Add to these the mystics universal claim of having felt natures oneness in a state of altered consciousness. Next, assume that natures unity takes not simply the dry form of having quantifiable interrelations between its parts, but that those interrelations would provoke a visceral aesthetic reaction if only the pattern could be fully comprehended. In this case, outrage is piled upon outrage, since at almost every turn, aside from the present possibility of mystical experience, were merely tantalized by remedies for the brute horror of our existential predicament. The abstract unity of nature provides only cold comfort with the thought that we belong to the universe instead of being alienated from it, given that our position could hypothetically be appreciated by the ultimate scientist. There would still be no personal immortality and no known reason why angst is inappropriate. The possibility of an uplifting, ennobling aesthetic value of the universe and thus of our position in it begins to excite us, but then were left hanging, as in Stapledons speech, with the fact that we cant ourselves hear the music of the spheres. We cant know that there is any justifiable aesthetic interpretation of the whole natural order or, as Id add, whether that order might seem more ugly than beautiful. This, then, is where gallows humour has its pride of place, as a means of our oscillating between angst and hope, alienation and comfort, despair and awe. Humour generally is a way of indirectly calling attention to an irony, to a disparity between a fact and our interpretation of it. In our case, there are even opposite ironies to consider. First, the death of God conflicts with our tendency to anthropomorphize, to vainly project images of ourselves onto the Other. Second, though, our suffering from our apparent existential situation conflicts with the possibility, at least, of a beautiful unity of all things, and thus of a bond between each of us and the world that afflicts us. Thus, the natural facts may be less comforting than our premodern theistic yearnings, but more uplifting than our postmodern hyper-skepticism.


A religious way of life requires a myth as its centerpiece, a narrative that makes sense of the totality of human experience. Again, Im not aware of any myth actually taking hold in postmodern society that dramatizes the four themes of Stapledons speech. Even were these themes widely inspiring and well-established, the problem would remain that myths are works of artistic genius, whereas postmodern art is more often than not utterly fraudulent. Trapped between the Scylla of politically correct liberal spinelessness (manifesting in pragmatism and moral relativism) and the Charybdis of an insiders self-righteousness, the postmodern artist needs to deny that theres any ultimate value of anything, but also to pretend to have the cognitive upper hand. The results are highly conceptual art that tends to mean less than nothing, and an art world that throws millions of dollars at artists whose works are obviously worthless. There seem, then, two possibilities. Postmodern artists may go down with the ship of western civilization, without even a tune from the legendary obstinate violinists to assuage them. Alternatively, these artists may shake off their disappointment from the souring of modern culture, draw fresh inspiration from the wealth of scientific knowledge and from their historically well-informed skepticism, and tell us all a good story.


The Worlds Creation as Gods Self-Destruction ____________________________________________________

What does it mean to declare that God created the world? There are two religious answers, the esoteric and the exoteric. Insiders who best understand theistic ideas take the notion of divine creation to be almost entirely empty. The suspicion is that the world consists of everything we can understand, but that since our powers of understanding are limited, the world likely emerged from something we cant understand, something unnatural. Religious people call that unnatural something and that emergence, respectively, God and the highest creative act. But because the secret roots of these religious ideas are mysterianism, cosmicism, and mysticism, the religious ideas have negative rather than positive content. We can know indirectly that whatever god is, god is alien and thus terrifying to vain and social creatures such as us, who instinctively personalize everything we encounter to feel at home in the wilderness of nature. (Ill speak of God with a capital G only when speaking of the exoteric projection of our personal qualities onto the unknowable.) For reasons given by Leo Strauss, Plato, and others, philosophical truth tends to be socially subversive and thus needs to be hidden from society at large. Plato spoke of the need for noble lies told by the elite to the masses, to maintain social order. Thus, the nontheistic basis of major religions, which is to say the fear of an inexplicable X as the source of everything thats rationally explainable, takes on a theistic, exoteric form for

249 popular consumption. While the mystic says silence is best when thinking of whether to speak of what gods like, the theist indulges in anthropomorphic metaphors. As Dennett argues in Breaking the Spell, theism is to this extent biologically determined. The theist overuses the mental faculty, or neural module, that facilitates cooperation between members of our species, by enabling us to predict our behaviour by way of positing and interpreting peoples mental states. In short, the theist speaks as though god were a member of our species, with capacities for reason, emotion, choice, and so forth. These anthropocentric metaphors are all obviously absurd when applied to the unnatural and taken literally, and when acknowledged as merely metaphorical they become irrelevant, as the mystic appreciates. With this distinction in mind, between the esoteric and the exoteric, lets return to the meaning of the statement that God created the world. Esoterically, the answer is the negative, indirect one that something unnatural and thus beyond our comprehension is somehow both prior to everything in nature, including everything physicists and cosmologists theorize about, and also the cause of nature. Again, as soon as you try to speak positively of the relationship between god and the world, you resort to metaphors that make no sense under analysis. And exoterically, the most prevalent monotheistic answer, for example, is that a white male designer engineered the universe, by brooding over the face of the waters, speaking forms into existence, and so forth, for the main purpose of producing life with which he could interact. The implications of monotheistic creation myths, though, are that God wanted to create a place where his children, who are necessarily more limited beings, could exist, and that he did this not out of grace but out of loneliness. When Catholics or others interpret Creation as a free, unearned and thus miraculous outpouring of divine love they engage in doublespeak, playing the game of going back and forth between the esoteric and exoteric conceptions of God. The notion of unconditional, which is to say, inexplicable love is as self-contradictory as any other theistic metaphor: love is actually well understood, and even when its altruistic the motive is to achieve some higher good, one that requires sacrifice. If you look more

250 closely at the monotheistic conceit, you find the image of God as a mighty individual who stands necessarily alone. Recall that only in polytheism does the creator God have equals; in this case, the anthropomorphism extends to a projection not just of personal attributes onto the unknowable, but of social ones as well. In monotheism, however, theres a single, highest deity who stands at the top of the hierarchy of all beings; that deity is the all-knowing First Cause of everything. Now, when youre forced to supply that solitary, almighty God with a gender, because you cant understand mysterianism or cosmicism or else prefer not to haunt yourself with their implications and so you clothe God in human-made garments which call for literary consistency, youre forced to conclude also that Creation was meant to alleviate Gods loneliness. As feminists have pointed out, the prejudice that the ultimate creative act is a masculine one, with no feminine principle at work, is preposterous. At least a goddess would have some sort of womb from which the universe could be imagined to emerge. Instead, the male creator God must tinker with instruments and build the universe from simpler materials. Human architects and engineers build structures for the social good, for personal profit, and so forth, whereas God would have no such motives. No, the most plausible interpretation, again according to literary standards, is that Gods life prior to Creation was perfectly unbearable for him. First, hes male with no female equals to be his mates. Second, hes benevolent with no one to share in his greatness; to paraphrase the saccharine clich, he has a lot of love to give which goes to waste. Theres no one else to give him advice on what to do. He must find the answer in himself, since if he doesnt know how best to make use of his talents, no one does. And so God decides to have children. Given monotheism, God cant create an equal to himself, and so his children cant live with him. Thus, God must create a place defined by lower dimensions, which is the cosmos of atoms, stars, and planets. God is necessarily removed from Creation and from his children, because he occupies a higher plane of being, but at least hes no longer perfectly isolated. Now, at least, he can spy on men and women, like a voyeur with a transdimensional telescope, slipping

251 messages to us here and there, like a shy admirer.

The Literal Death of God

Does this metaphor of divine creation satisfy you as a piece of fiction? Does the metaphor make for a good story? I hardly think so, at least not in jaded postmodern societies. For one thing, weve learned from history, as Lord Acton put it, that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. The monotheistic God is a person cursed with absolute power which must have corrupted him. To assume otherwise is to misuse language and to backtrack from the misbegotten venture of attempting to humanize something that ought to humiliate us instead, because of its dreadful inhumanity, thus making us hesitate before inflicting anything else with human qualities. (What do I mean by that last statement? Well, when you study foreign cultures, which naturally seem ridiculous to you, being an outsider who doesnt care about the rules that govern their practices, which rules thus must seem arbitrary to you, youre very close to putting the shoe on the other foot, as it were, turning this logic around to appreciate that your own social conventions must seem just as silly to the foreigner.) The point, then, is that when you foolishly indulge in an anthropocentric metaphor, you have to run with it, like an improv actor who must react appropriately to any move made by her fellow actors; indeed, a theistic metaphor is as silly and as empty as improvised acting which both depend on the suspension of disbelief. At any rate, once you equate the primary reality with a single almighty person, youre forced to apply your self-understanding to God. If humans tend to be corrupted by power, so too must be God; otherwise, hes no person, the metaphor falls to pieces, and the theist is confronted with the dire prospect of settling into a life of angst at the hands of esoteric, cosmicist philosophy. So God certainly didnt create out of love. Oh, perhaps the character God has benevolent impulses, but theyre bound to be corrupted by the vast power inequality that separates him from any being he could imagine potentially creating.

252 In fact, our two best models for understanding the relationship between the theistic God and nature are the dictator and the infant. Like God, a political dictator who is unchallenged in his prime occupies the pinnacle of a power hierarchy, and like God the dictator need merely speak for his words to be turned into action as his underlings spring to obey their orders. This power inequality isolates and spoils the dictator, so that he either devolves into a monster or the antisocial qualities that bring him to power are given freer reign. Either way, the dictator is infantilized as his every whim is carried out, so that his palace functions as an artificial womb that insulates him from harsh reality, including the misery he usually wreaks on his subjects. This brings me to the second model. Like the God of monotheism, an infant necessarily feels isolated, since the infant cant distinguish itself from anything else. And how does the infant react to that perceived solitariness? Typically, an infant passes most of its waking hours screeching into the void, crying for comfort. Unlike God, an infant has a mother who soothes it by feeding it or rocking it to sleep. God would have no such distractions. With this fuller picture of God in mind, I ask yet again: Why would God, the character of the monotheistic fiction, create a universe populated in part by people? Love wouldnt be Gods primary motivation; instead, we must imagine a pitiful soul wracked alternately by anguish, boredom, fear, and twisted perversions--anguish from the horror of his position of being necessarily alone and beyond anyones comprehension or sympathy; boredom from knowing everything and thus from an eternity with no surprises; fear that God has no escape from his existential predicament; and perversions as his character is warped into that of a decadent predator. If theists would only stop to think about the religious metaphors they pass around as empty memes, theyd appreciate that the hell described by prophets must actually be identical with heaven for God, which is to say that it must be hell to be the monotheistic God. A much superior reading of divine creation was given by the 19th C. German philosopher, Philipp Mainlander, who conceived of whats likely the most depressing thought ever to enter anyones head, who wrote whats been called the most radical system of philosophical pessimism based on that thought, the two-volume Philosophy of

253 Redemption, and who then killed himself. (To morbid English speakers, The Philosophy of Redemption stands as a sort of real-life eldritch Necronomicon, since it hasnt been translated from German.) Mainlanders thought was that God killed himself and that Gods decaying corpse is the natural universe; that is, to carry off his suicide, God had to transform into something that could degrade and eventually be eliminated, namely into an array of quarks, protons, galaxies, and other physical forms. What we think of as a magnificent act of creation was instead Gods escape from the hell of being God, and natural evolution is the pattern of decay occurring in a body so alien we cant see it for what it is; in this respect, were like the blind men who touch different parts of an elephant to identify the beast and reach wildly different conclusions. Mainlanders anthropocentric and profoundly pessimistic speculation has numerous advantages over mainstream theism. First, as I said, his creation myth accords with our self-knowledge, and is thus based on a more coherent metaphor, albeit one which is still just a stained metaphor and so must be counted as a piece of fiction, subject at best to aesthetic standards of evaluation. Second, Mainlanders theism easily accounts both for the natural evil in the world and for Gods absence. Third, and perhaps most importantly, this pessimistic myth rings true for religious insiders, for the mystics and Gnostics who feel alienated from the world and who, like God, seek to be liberated from the torture of being alive (and from being reborn in the cosmic prison). Anxiety is our most authentic source of inspiration, the most fitting reaction to our existential situation that induces noble action. Happiness is for the unenlightened sheep; suffering, for those who fall for the bait of Reason and discover that our ideals are social constructions, our societies oligarchic disaster zones, out fate as a species one of ignominious oblivion. The point, then, is that if we ought to feel like God would had to have felt, detached and isolated by our sentience and objectivity, and if a myth, like any work of fiction, should speak mainly to the phenomenological truth of what its like to be alive, Mainlanders myth of Gods creative suicide is far more moving and relevant than the obsolete and hackneyed yarn about our heavenly Father who just wuvs us so much.


Living Within God's Undying Body

I want to return now to a question I addressed at the end of "From Theism to Cosmicism," of the relationship between the mystics supernatural god and what I call the undead god, the pantheistically-conceived cosmos which blindly develops more and more complex forms. The esoteric explanation of that relationship is just the cautious, negative one that titillates us with the promise of something which can never be fulfilled: we can know that there are likely things we can never know, such as how everything thats rationally explainable could have come from something else, something unnatural which counts more nearly as nothing to us. But the best exoteric, metaphorical explanation may well take the form of something like Mainlanders bleak myth. God created not out of love or generosity or artistic experimentation, but out of desperation to escape the torments which afflict the best of us too. I said that the fictional character of the monotheistic God would have reason to fear that he lacks any means of escaping his plight of being God, that is, of being like the infantilized and corrupted dictator, grown insane by his solitude and peerlessness. But perhaps the more precise interpretation is that such a character would lack any constructive way out. The most that God could create in addition to himself is a world of inferior beings. Granted, some of these beings, such as angels, might understand God better than others, but given monotheism and mysterianism, there would still be a gulf between everything in the world thats rationally understandable and the likely source of that world. As long as angels are created beings that have bodies and mental faculties, the Kantian distinction between phenomena and noumena applies: angels could understand only what would fall into the net of their limited ways of thinking. So God would still stand aloof from his Creation; he would still suffer the fires of hell, both as expressions of his inner turmoil and as self-inflicted punishments for his inevitable sins as a corrupted monster. Perhaps God used his genius to devise a weapon of God destruction that would free him from the outrageous embarrassment of being God in the first place. We Westerners

255 laughed from a safe distance at the spectacles of Muammar Gaddafi or Michael Jackson, and we still ridicule anyone else so obviously warped by the curse of being a hyperpower. But how much more clownish must Gods character be--not wise or loving like the half-baked theistic fantasies would have it, but downright grotesque in its absolute freedom of self-expression. Perhaps, then, the colossal monstrosity which is the multiverse affords us with superabundant empirical evidence of the pitiful last act of the worst megalomaniac who ever lived. Perhaps nature is such a fearsome place, so amoral and inhuman in its scope, because the universe is what the mind of a deranged tyrant would look like were that mind by some miracle to metamorphose into a lifeless shell. Ah, but not entirely lifeless! Even in Gods death throes, he must have the last laugh in the faces of his scapegoats: we drops of Gods lifeblood must suffer from similar existential angst; our cries are thus echoes of Gods infantile shrieks into the void. In the undead god, which creatively destroys itself by ever more complex forms of corruption until these fade from entropy, we isolated and accursed creatures must live as godlike, prancing in our bubble worlds of politically correct fantasies or ranting at the horror of reality. What we should be working on, though, isnt how to play with the toy gods of exoteric theism, but where to go creatively from Mainlanders more fitting theistic myth. The mystics challenge is to avoid Gods fate, to sublimate angst so that personal or collective suicide isnt the only viable option. The transhumanists dream of downloading our minds into a computer for eternal life sounds suspiciously like a sugarcoated way of speaking of a bizarre act of self-destruction, much as God might have rationalized his metamorphosis. And the postmodern monoculture seems a stage of social decadence and decline, in the senses given by Oswald Spengler. In Mainlanders myth we have the starting point of a fitting, unembarrassing religion, of a grand narrative that honours the suffering at the core of existential authenticity. But, to reverse the Christian narrative, which seems a garbled version of Mainlanders insight, we need to meditate on how even the lives of such pitiful creatures as us can redeem the death of our God.


Varieties of Mysticism ____________________________________________________

Mysticism is the doctrine that the hidden wisdom of monistic theology, according to which all souls are united with God, can be proved by direct experience of that unity, through meditation or an altered state of consciousness. If we define God loosely, to cover the pantheism that identifies God with natures impersonal creativity, we see that atheistic mysticism is possible; indeed, Buddhism is another kind of atheistic mysticism. But besides the difference between theistic and atheistic mystics, theres that between what Ill call optimistic and pessimistic ones. The former promises a happy ending for all, while the latter laments the fact that our time on the stage of life is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, and that our grand finale is ignominious extinction along with the clueless animal species. Ill explore here the ramifications of this latter distinction.

Optimistic Mystics
Mystics claim to have secret knowledge of the worlds unity. Buddhists, for example, say that everything is interdependent and thus united, from an enlightened perspective, whereas without that perspective, everything appears independent and that illusory disunity is the overall cause of suffering. When we recognize that what seems a highly heterogeneous world is actually united by causal and logical relations, for example, we no longer draw absolute distinctions between the self and the rest of the world, or

257 between selves. Those apparent differences are mere illusions, and when the mystic replaces that naive perception with an experience of realitys oneness, she feels bliss instead of disappointment, alienation, or the many other forms of suffering. In practice, though, optimistic mysticism takes two forms, depending on whether the oneness of reality is identified with the individual ego or with the underlying state of the unconscious. In the former case, mystical monism becomes a kind of obnoxious solipsism, such as we find in feel-good, materialistic New Age ideologies. Oprah Winfreys cult, for example, based as it is on the alleged spiritual law of attraction, according to which we get what we most want (because our desires are like magnets that attract what complements them), is individualistic in the Western, American sense. In this comedic mysticism, reality consists of the infantile ego and its toys, all else being illusory nuisances. So the chief virtue is Ayn Randian selfishness and this pseudospirituality becomes propaganda in the service of the beastly economic competition that naturally produces oligarchy. An Eastern (Hindu or Buddhist) mystic would contend that materialistic mysticism is an oxymoron, that individualistic, solipsistic gurus are charlatans who pander to peoples spiritual inclinations, to hawk their books and other paraphernalia, and that true mysticism, based on an actual experience of the worlds unity, leads to the opposite lifestyle of asceticism. According to this more traditional variety, the ego is an illusion, meaning not that our mind or personhood doesnt exist but that its not what it seems; in particular, no person is a self-sufficient, Randian superhero. Thus, to feed the appetite for self-enrichment or self-aggrandizement is to betray a lack of mystical wisdom, and materialistic mysticism is doubly comedic since the last laugh is on the spiritual capitalist for being a fraud. Far from rationalizing infantile selfishness, the mystic should be detached from her instincts and desires for her private welfare, since those (geneticallydetermined and often culturally-conditioned) mental states trap the unwary into an unenlightened state of awareness. Moreover, a true mystic is altruistic, helping others escape the suffering produced by their ignorance. The reason for this selflessness is that the mystic regards all people as metaphysically one, so that just as we wouldnt

258 normally wish to harm ourselves or any part of our body, we shouldnt wish to see other people suffer. I want to emphasize the main mystical argument against existential angst and the tragic perspective on life. Again, the argument assumes radical monism, the oneness of everything through the interdependence of all forms. According to this argument, angst is a form of suffering produced by ignorance of that unity; that is, the sufferer is misled by the apparent difference between the self and the rest of the world, which can cause loneliness, alienation, and fear. Far from ending with our biological death or even with the likely extinction of our species, were all one with the underlying flow of natural forces which evolves more and more illusory stages, levels, and other patterns within itself.

Pessimistic Mystics
What, then, is pessimistic mysticism? Whereas a spiritual optimist says the values that best correspond to metaphysical reality are love, peace, and so forth, the pessimist says that the hidden wisdom calls for melancholy. Instead of cheerfully loving your neighbor as yourself or prophesying the ultimate vindication of human values, We should be careful not to overstate the difference between the two types. Spiritual optimists must concede two points: first, all can be one only metaphysically, which allows for the many rational distinctions between illusory appearances; second, as an empirical fact, enlightenment is rare, so that most people are trapped by ignorance and suffering. The optimist replies that reason isnt as trustworthy as direct experience, and the pessimist agrees, affirming that reason is a curse that brings us sorrowful knowledge of what the mystic calls the merely apparent world. But the pessimist reminds the optimist that, according to the second concession, even mystics are seldom fully enlightened, which means that hardly anyone is liberated from our instincts and culture which drive us into the world of rationally-distinguishable illusions. For example, even the mystic has a sexual instinct which causes him or her to distinguish between

259 men and women. An enlightened person overcomes the force of that instinct, which in turn requires detachment from sex-obsessed cultures. The point, though, is that if full, permanent enlightenment is very rare, so that even spiritual optimists have only fleeting experiences of our metaphysical unity before those optimists are plunged once again into the profane mode in which everything seems to be a tragic multiplicity, even the optimist must concede that a mystic should grieve for the majority whose delusions lead them to fail, to debase themselves, and to suffer. The optimist can reply that what happens at the nave level of consciousness, at which the world seems a multiplicity, is insignificant compared to what happens at the deeper level, which is that those differences dissolve. This fatalism is tantamount to saying, though, that suffering doesnt matter because its unreal in the first place, which raises the question of why anyone should be motivated to seek to escape that suffering through enlightenment. No, mysticism in general assumes that enlightenment is better than the naivety which causes suffering, and that bliss is better than the disappointments caused by foolishly selfish grasping after hallucinations in the matrix. But again, this means that even the optimist must concede that most waking hours lived by intelligent creatures are tragic and absurd, meaning that theyre full of pointless suffering and that they dont lead to enlightenment (since most people die unenlightened, meaning that their consciousness is never fully attuned to metaphysical reality). The optimists final rejoinder, as I see it, is that reincarnation ensures that everyone will eventually be so enlightened, so we have a happy ending after all. This, though, is a retreat from the mystics empiricist criterion, which is that direct experience is more reliable than abstract reasoning; reincarnation is a dubious theological doctrine that must compete with scientific theories. Should we be optimistic at least about those few who are fully enlightened or who enjoy moments of freedom from ignorance and suffering? Not in a way that brings any comfort to the majority with their profane delusions. Enlightenment means complete detachment from the personality, character, and intellect with which we instinctively and emotionally

260 identify. A liberated mystic doesnt identify with anything that the majority cares about, including the individuals fate, cultural distractions, social networks, or political or workrelated obligations. As I say in Buddhism, this is a paradoxical sort of happy ending for the mystic that looks a lot like epic failure. In Hinduism, preparation for moksha is supposed to be the priority for the forest dweller who shuns society only after that dweller has run a household, contributed to society, and thus succeeded in profane terms. This is like the rock star who parties nightly with scores of women, pickling his liver with alcohol until finally in his old age, when he can no longer afford such decadence, he sees the light, becomes a born-again Christian and preaches asceticism as the ultimate ideal. The logic, I take it, is that you wont appreciate asceticism until youve exhausted your wrongheaded cravings for worldly things. But theres still the appearance here of hypocrisy: this all seems too convenient for the mystic, since she gets to enjoy the benefits of foolishness, only to cheaply repent on her death bed. Moreover, her spiritual rebirth cant be perfectly tested, since she cant take back her previous life of relative luxury. Of course, this hypocrisy is irrelevant from the enlightened perspective, since it applies only to the individuals merit which is of no consequence in the greater scheme. In any case, I raise this case of the elderly ascetics double standard to illustrate that while profane success is trivialized from the enlightened perspective, the feeling is surely mutual: a life of poverty and renunciation of worldly pleasures is a paradigmatic failure, from the unenlightened viewpoint. So enlightenment isnt exactly a cause for celebration. Enlightenment is what Schopenhauer calls the denial of the will to life, meaning the devaluation of everything were naturally selected and culturally pressured to prize; this enlightenment isnt the freedom to do what you want or to enjoy an eternity of pleasure in heaven, but is instead the end of the personal self and the replacing of it with nothing at all, that is, with a state of nirvana. Here, freedom means escape from the worlds seductions, as opposed to the libertarians egoistic, infantile freedom to pursue your cravings with no impediments. The upshot is that theres something tragic even about enlightenment itself, the latter being the mystics ultimate good. Not only must the mystics success look like failure to society at large, but the mystics so-called bliss or

261 spiritual pleasure is entirely negative: the liberated mystic feels the peace that comes from having no concerns or responsibilities at all, no ties to the apparent world which cause stress. Spiritual bliss or peace of mind, which depends on an enlightened view of our metaphysical situation, is what it feels like to lose everything that can be categorized.

The Horror of Mysticism

Lets return, finally, to the main objection to pessimistic mysticism, that there can be no such thing since pessimism requires the limited, egoistic perspective and thus ignorance about everythings oneness. I think its true that standard existential angst, horror, and rebelliousness require the distinction between the personal self and the world thats indifferent to that self. Thus, if mysticism has no room for that distinction, existential mysticism makes no sense. As I said, however, the optimists monism does include that distinction and merely reframes it so that instead of having to be preoccupied by the gulf between what wed prefer and how things really are, the optimist can reassure herself that that distinction is only illusory and ultimately overcome by the substantial oneness of all illusions. And as Ive also said, that ultimate overcoming would happen only for someone who is completely enlightened and thus divorced from all naturally selected and most culturally sanctioned forms of life. The rest of us are forced to identify at least partly with our mind and our personality, and are thus doomed to follow reason to the existential dead end, retreat to some ignoble delusion, or transcend angst by some means other than enlightenment, such as by adhering to some cosmicist religion. Now, as Ive discussed in Buddhism and in Postmodern Religion, I doubt that the only path to angst is through that Cartesian distinction between the thinking self and the unthinking world. In particular, I question the basis for the enlightened mystics bliss. Assuming the mystics experience of everythings oneness is possible, why should this experience necessarily comfort rather than horrify the mystic? Our reaction to that experience should depend on the nature of that underlying oneness. While Lovecrafts

262 cosmicism neednt be monistic, his view does illustrate how transcendent wisdom can unsettle the recipient and even render her insane. For one thing, what the mystic should learn is that all the goals we think are justified by our genetic instinct and mainstream cultural indoctrination are woefully narrow-minded and diametrically opposed to what we ought to want. For example, instead of perpetuating natures hold on us, by sexually reproducing and thus replenishing the victims of natural forces, we ought to be denying the will to live in all its manifestations. Far from comforting the mystic, her condemnation of the ignorance that generates the entire world of so-called illusions should terrify her, since shes effectively abandoned most of her humanity, trusting that her altered state of consciousness will elucidate how she ought to act while still in the belly of the beast, that is, while still imprisoned in a body thats configured to present her with the false world of the matrix. In any case, there remains the contradiction between wanting to be enlightened, to escape suffering, and learning when enlightened that the instincts to prefer pleasure to pain and to empathize with those who suffer are parts of the world that ought to be abandoned. Presumably, from the enlightened viewpoint, there is no natural empathy, pity, or utilitarian weighing of pleasures against pains; instead, theres a vision of the world that transcends all of our natural and politically correct expectations. Again, I ask why that vision should reassure rather than horrify. Why, when we discover that our meager personhood counts for nothing, that natural and cultural forces have probably led us astray though weve relied on them from our infancy onward; when the mystics metaphysical reality must be impersonal and inhumane, to have evolved the disastrous world of illusions (samsara) in the first place--I ask, why be tranquilized by such facts? Why turn then to New Age happy-talk instead of ranting from the rooftops, proclaiming your disgust with that vision? If there is music of the spheres, why should that music sound pleasant to human ears, no matter how enlightened the listening mind? Of course, the mystic can always say that youll never know until you directly experience the unity for yourself. But because any mystical experience must be processed by the human body, and because that body evolved to service the genes as opposed to being

263 intelligently designed in the furtherance of a benevolent agenda, Im disinclined to give the spiritual optimist the last word on this point. There is, after all, a skeptical interpretation not just of the charlatans variety of optimistic spirituality, but of the genuine, mainly Eastern kinds. How do we know the mystic is accurately or even honestly reporting her transcendent experience, when she assures us that that experience is entirely encouraging? Perhaps her optimism is one more delusion to which she resorts to deny the deeper wisdom of cosmic horror. And perhaps ascetic detachment is a sign of existential numbness and shell-shock, after a union with otherness that undermines all human modes of judgment, and thus that must obliterate her feeling of self-worth as an embodied, natural creature. Perhaps the ascetic detaches from natural and social cares not just because they cause her suffering, but because she learns that human nature is disgusting from the mystical viewpoint of eternity. And instead of dealing honestly and creatively with that revelation, she endures a more ambiguous form of suffering, avoiding her natural angst only by practically lobotomizing herself, by means of excessive mental detachment. In this case, pantheistic existential cosmicism, such as the sort I explore in my rants, would be the more authentic metaphysical vision of mysticism, calling at least initially for a melancholic appreciation of the tragedy and absurdity of our natural predicament.

Appendix: The Definition of Mistake

Mistake: what business graduates who lack a refined vocabulary call an act of vice. When you pull your underwear on backwards, add a quarter rather than the needed half of a teaspoon of sugar to your sauce, or make a left turn instead of the needed one on the right, you make a mistake. That is, you absentmindedly fail, usually in some minor way for which theres little or no culpability. But when youre a politician, a businessperson, or a lawyer, for example, and you naturally lie, cheat, and steal your way to the top, you dont err at all but knowingly play the social games that require perverse excellence in vice, that is, great demonstrations of selfishness, deceitfulness, cold-heartedness, brazenness, short-sightedness, and so forth.


When a Machiavellian power-player gets caught practicing those dark arts, he invariably seeks to avoid responsibility for his choices by labeling them mere mistakes. For example, western CEOs are notorious for pretending to be dunces or ignorant figureheads when theyre caught trying to pull off billion dollar frauds and their companies blow up in their faces. They then act like they never even deserved the hundreds of millions they were raking in thanks to their hand-picked board members who rubberstamp their pay packages, like they had no knowledge that their company was engaging in the very frauds that have become standard operating procedure in socalled post-industrial, financialized societies. Instead, they humbly concede, before senators who are equipped only to grill and never to roast, boil, or skin--so says the mass medias meme--that theyre guilty of a mistake or two, albeit a mistake with disastrous consequences, but nevertheless an innocent moment of absentmindedness. To be sure, a power player never publicly owns up to her year after year of accrued experience at honing the vices thats a prerequisite for advancing any politician or free market businessperson within her hierarchy. Moreover, because few people want to admit that most sectors of their society consist of just such practically amoral hierarchies, a nihilistic or sociopathic Machiavellian is quickly forgiven for his or her mistake. After all, as the saying goes, anyone can make a mistake (i.e. everyone sins in a declining, corrupt society). The first such mistake was committed by Satan, the Prince of Evil, and I happen to have the transcript. Verily, Lord, said Satan to God, Ive jealously watched you waste your divine powers on this petty Creation, on these beasts you call humans. Ive burned with ambition at the thought of what I would do instead were I seated on your throne, and I relished the prospects of waging an angelic war on your hosts and then either of unseating you and becoming master of all or of losing my station in a blaze of glory and then of marshaling all the demonic forces of Hell to sabotage every one of your foolish endeavours. Nevertheless, I say to you now with respect to all of that, on this Judgment Day at the end of all things, with the blood of trillions of your humans dripping from my claws and fangs, that I merely made a mistake.


God is then reported to have grilled Satan for hours in front of TV cameras, before punishing him with a fine of 0.003% of Satans total net worth.


Darwinism and Natures Undeadness ____________________________________________________

Following the principle called Occams Razor, scientists seek simple explanations of phenomena, meaning explanations that refer to as few theoretical entities as possible. So instead of thinking of the Earth as somehow special and separate from the rest of the universe, Newton unified the two by positing the universal force of gravity, a force that works the same everywhere. Maxwell unified magnetism, electricity, and light, showing that theyre manifestations of a single force, the electromagnetic field. And Einstein unified space, time, and gravity with his theory of spacetime. In each of these unifications, a complex way of speaking is reduced to a simpler way, and depending on the complex theorys mix of strengths and weaknesses, the reduction may entail the elimination of that theorys frame of reference so that the simpler theory alone is thought to correspond to reality. I think Darwins theory of natural selection is another case of unification, but some of this theory's philosophical implications arent as well appreciated. What Darwin showed is that nature can do the work of an intelligent designer, in creating species of living things. Prior to Darwin, the difference between life and death was usually explained in dualistic terms: natural life derives from God who is separate from all of nature and who implants a spirit or transcendent, immaterial essence, within certain material bodies, while nonliving matter lacks any supernatural spirit. Here we had an absolute distinction

267 between life and death, much like Newtons sharp distinction between space and time. But after Darwin, scientists no longer regard the source of an organisms distinguishing features--its consciousness, agency, pleasures and pains--as supernatural, which is to say that Darwinian biology is monistic with respect to the difference between the living and the nonliving. Darwins theory of how members of a species come to possess their traits is simpler than the theistic, dualistic explanation. Instead of having to refer to two types of things, a Creator God and the created material form, we need refer only to material forms, such as the environment, genes, and simple physical bodies which reproduce themselves from one generation to the next so that their distant ancestors migrate and occupy other niches, becoming more complex and specialized in the process.

Darwinian Life
Those repercussions of Darwinism are familiar to most educated people. But when we ask again, What is the difference between the living and the nonliving, given the naturalistic, nontheistic theory of natural selection? we might be surprised to learn that were no longer scientifically entitled to the commonsense dualism between spirit and matter. When we understand life scientifically, after Darwin, we can no longer rationally justify any talk of immaterial spiritual essences that derive from a supernatural realm inhabited by a perfect person who somehow precedes the natural universe. But if there are no immaterial spirits, what makes life metaphysically different from non-life? Moreover, take what are intuitively thought to be nonliving things, like the environment, DNA, proteins, and chemical reactions, and take also relatively nonliving things like bacteria and viruses, which are the precursors to higher organisms. If these elements-and not some supreme living thing, like God--are responsible for the origin and the evolution of life, again whats the metaphysical difference between the living and the nonliving? To be sure, there are scientific answers to these questions. For example, biologically speaking, life must have genes and the capacity to reproduce, and thus must evolve by

268 natural selection. Also, the physicist, Erwin Schrodinger, offered a deeper definition of life, according to which an organism resists entropy and thermodynamic equilibrium (death), by taking order (such as food) from the environment to maintain the internal order of its metabolic processes. But these scientific answers are consistent with the naturalistic elimination of the theists pre-Darwinian, dualistic notions of spirit and spiritless matter. The naive way of understanding life, by thinking of a transcendent spiritual essence within every organism, clashes with the modern scientific perspective in which life can be explained by referring solely to material things in nature. To summarize the problem, then, we have a commonsense, dualistic and theistic assumption about the difference between a living and a dead body, and after Darwin we have a scientific, monistic theory of that difference. According to the latter theory, what we think of as living things are made entirely from what wed intuitively call nonliving things; moreover, not even the so-called highest organisms, such as primates, are living in the nave sense of having a spirit with a supernatural source. Thus, the nave way of speaking of life has been replaced by a more rational way. Instead of associating life with the supernatural, biologists explain both life and non-life in naturalistic terms. Instead of being created by means of an intelligent designers plan, living things develop from simple, nonliving natural processes. Nature, which was once thought to be nonliving, assumes the role of God in creating the diversity of life in the biosphere; and instead of an all-knowing and all-powerful mind as the ultimate cause of life, theres a series of accidents that occurs over time that happens to set the conditions for the transformation of nonliving matter into breathing, eating, fighting, and dying entities such as you and me. In so far as the everyday concepts of life and death are tainted by the pre-Darwinian, theistic connotations, these concepts are no longer rationally respectable. But my question is about the metaphysical concept that replaces them; specifically, if the theistic intuition is longer tenable, in light of modern science, what viable intuition about the nature of life and nonlife can be made to cohere with that scientific understanding? Again, we have the scientific definitions which assume

269 philosophical monism (naturalism). That is, according to biologists, both animals and rocks, for example, are material objects subject to natural law and also to chance, as opposed to divinely intended, interactions. If life comes from non-life, and both are natural, meaning that neither is invested with anything supernatural like an immortal spirit, whats the metaphysical difference between, say, a person and the nonliving evolutionary processes in her ancestors environment that brought that descendant into being?

All are Undead

The answer, which isnt widely appreciated, seems to be the following. Nothing in nature is living in the old, supernatural sense. But neither is anything natural dead in that sense, since the theistic intuition is that nonliving, dumb and blind matter cant do the work of God, which is why God is needed to create everything--especially life on Earth. Natural forces are neither alive nor dead, in the senses given by the old intuition. Nevertheless, those forces do the work of God but without being God and indeed without being alive even in the modern scientific sense. These forces, then, are undead, as are their products such as you and me, which is to say that the zombie stands as the best symbol for our intuitions to latch onto as we come to grips with the philosophical implications of Darwinism. What is it to be undead? The word undead means technically dead but somehow reanimated so that the corpse doesnt stay dead. Undeadness is like spacetime, in that an undead thing has some attributes of the living and of the nonliving, but isnt the same as either in the old, naive sense. Just as the concept of spacetime undermines the Newtonian theory of the absolute (observer-independent) dimensions of space and time, the concept of undeadness undermines the theistic myth of the gulf between living spirit and dead matter. In recent cinema, a zombie is a monster thats both alive and dead, and thus neither; more precisely, a zombie has some features of the living (a zombie moves, eats, senses) but also some features of the dead (a zombie is brain dead, and it has a decaying body and no metabolic functions). In short, a zombie is like

270 a macroscopic virus, possessing life functions so rudimentary that the zombie occupies a grey area in the biological continuum between the living and the nonliving. Historically, this movie monster descends from the African and Haitian folk practice of using a magic potion to induce a state of death-like suspended animation in a victim. In any case, theres little rational content in the idea of the zombie monster, since this monster is, of course, both fictional and paradoxical. Still, the zombie is the most useful symbol in making philosophical sense of Darwinism, since the relatively harmless horror aroused by the fictional zombie sublimates the horror wed otherwise feel more frequently whenever wed contemplate the fact that Darwin effectively zombified the universe and all of its inhabitants. Part of the horror of zombies is that their state of living death is typically left as an unanswerable mystery: theyre manifestly as dangerous as living predators, since they hunt and feed off of animals, but theyre also obviously dead since theyre reborn, as it were, only after a persons brain death. The root of the horror is that their similarities to both living and dead things confound us. How is it that a dead body could get up and walk on its own? And how humiliated and alienated must we feel when we wonder whether we might be left so far in the dark regarding the nature of reality? What sort of twisted world could allow for such an abomination, for such counterfeit life in a corpse? These are some of the questions we might ask about the movie monster. But Darwinism compels us to ask such questions about our actual selves and about all natural life forms and indeed about the whole cosmos! Just as the fictional state of living death is typically left in the horror movies as a brute, inexplicable fact, so too scientists and philosophical naturalists are content to stipulate that ultimately theres no intuitively satisfying explanation of how a godless, nonliving universe can pop into existence and create life. As the naturalist says, the facts are what they are, regardless of how we feel about them or whether they make intuitive sense to us. (Bertrand Russell took this stand in his famous 1948 debate on Gods existence, with Frederick Copleston, when Russell said that the universe doesnt need a cause because the universe is just there, and that's all.) This kind of metaphysical realism, as its called, amounts to saying that

271 nature and all of its inhabitants are potentially as horrifying as zombie monsters that get up and walk in the first place for no reason at all. Just as the universe begins with a Big Bang, from a singularity whose internal properties are miraculous in so far as theyre not subject to natural law, a zombie begins with a corpses magical reanimation, and both are accepted as brute facts of life in nature and in the movies, respectively. In light of Darwinism, however, all of nature takes on other zombie qualities as well, and so the ultimate inexplicability of the natural universe makes for a more profound horror. Moreover, biologists and philosophers of science frequently speak in shorthand when discussing adaptations or biological functions, using scare quotes when attributing intention to biological processes. The long way of explaining a trait like a bats wings is to tell the story of how certain genes and proteins fitted into an ancestral environment, in that the host bodies produced by those chemicals happened to thrive and reproduce, and so on. The short, intuitive but nave interpretation of the trait is that a bat has wings because the bat is supposed to fly, as though the bat were designed with that end in someones mind. The biologist wants to avoid that theistic intuition, since Darwin showed that such teleology is wrongheaded, but the biologist is forced to give some credit to the nave view--and not just because the long way of speaking becomes cumbersome. As the philosopher Daniel Dennett explains in numerous writings, the evolutionary pattern is subject to the intentional stance, meaning that the bats success in flying with its wings does look, for all the world, as though there were a designers mind responsible for that success. Thus, Dennett personifies natural selection as Mother Nature. The biologist is compelled by the life-like qualities of the evolutionary process to resort to such anthropomorphism, but isnt committed to identifying that process as an intelligent designer. Thus, the biologist compromises by anthropomorphizing the process, but by putting scare quotes around the offending, nave language. For example, a biologist might explain the adaptability of the bats wings by saying that the wings are for the purpose of flying, or that flying is their function, and the biologist will use scare quotes to signal both her displeasure with the compromise and the fact that shes speaking in an ironic fashion.

272 Likewise, a zombie monster isnt really alive even though its life-like qualities are uncanny, so were forced to treat the monster merely as if it were alive. The zombie passes the Turing Test for life, except that unlike in the case of a computer, we happen to know in advance that a zombie is, scientifically speaking, dead. In other words, just like naturally selected traits, a zombie triggers our intentional stance, our social instinct for positing and interpreting mental processes, and so we think of the zombie as in some way alive even though we know better. The zombies a monstrous abomination because of that paradox: the idea of this monster mocks our cherished social instinct, by simultaneously triggering and nullifying that instinct. And once again, Darwinism turns all of the actual cosmos into the same sort of monstrous abomination. Natural forces, which are devoid of life, scientifically and theistically speaking, nevertheless behave as though they were alive by creating the cosmological conditions for life and then by fine-tuning life through natural selection. Moreover, organisms themselves are as dead as the natural forces that produce them, given the nave, theistic conceptions of life and death which flow so readily from our social instinct, but organisms behave as though they were animated by immaterial spirits (even though we now know theyre not). All of nature should be thought to have mere pseudo-life, just like the fictional zombie, and this is some of the metaphysical fallout of the Darwinian picture. Thus, the underappreciated philosophical implication of modern biology is that, like a zombie movie, the evolutionary saga is a horror show. When we behold signs of life, whether by communing with nature, walking through a zoo, studying a biology textbook, or just looking in the mirror, we ought to be fleeing in terror as though from a zombie horde. But of course we dont do so because were not equipped with the superhuman stamina to sustain the degree of terror thats warranted by our existential circumstances. Instead, we confine our dread of the metaphysical facts of life, or rather of the facts of the great living death, to our reaction to the silly Hollywood beasty, in the safety and comfort of a movie theater. Metaphysically speaking, though, the zombie is no silly fiction; given Darwinism, we are all walking dead things. We are neither living nor dead (in the old senses), but undead (to use a newer, more fitting term), and when we

273 die in the scientific sense, our decaying body will add to the natural process by which the larger zombie which is our planet evolves the next round of its zombie progeny.

Ironic Postmodern Pantheism

Indeed, this philosophical implication of Darwinism, that the ordinary notions of life and nonlife no longer make sense and that they need to be replaced by something like the idea of a baffling state of living death, amounts to an ironic, postmodern kind of pantheism. Darwinism not only zombifies but deifies all of nature, since the evolutionary process encompasses the cosmic preconditions of the emergence of life so that the whole universe is required to create life in a mindless, natural fashion. There is no personal God, but the universe as a whole in all of its interconnectedness does yield organisms as byproducts, as though the universe were a creator god. Nature as a whole isnt personal, but social creatures like us will inevitably interpret evolutionary patterns as anthropomorphic. The divinity of nature is no majestic thing, since the cosmos is best understood as an undead monstrosity. Whereas prior to Darwin, educated people could attribute intentional properties to the universe, with no hint of irony since they could assume that a personal god created the universe as a machine, bestowing it with artificial functions, in our postmodern time we can only look on in disgust as the universe abuses our social reflex, compelling us to be overly friendly with what we know scientifically to be inanimate matter. We know that we ourselves are spiritless entities; to be sure, we have a brain that has marvelous effects, but metaphysically were one with the natural cosmos, meaning that were thoroughly material and physical. But physically interacting material things arent inert or dead; theyre peerlessly creative and thus as divine as anything we can know. That divinity, however, is repulsive, blasphemous, and just as abominable as a zombie monsters mockery of life. Our ideal of life derives from the nave intuition implanted in us by our social instinct, by what Dennett calls the intentional stance. We wish we had an inner essence that accounts for our suspicion that were not at home in nature; we feel we dont belong

274 because our human qualities are so unique. Thus, we assume we have an invisible spirit, a precious fragment of a transcendent reality that marks us as akin to a greater realm than the dark and primitive physical one. Evolution forces us to think socially about each other, and so we interpret our behavior by positing minds that freely choose and thus that possess moral value. We assume our spiritual core is immortal, because its supernatural. But Darwinism reveals all of this as delusory. We are not alive in any such respect. Were forced to think we are, because thats how our brain operates, by installing mental programs that model both our external and internal worlds, simplifying them to keep us on the straight and narrow path of fulfilling our evolutionary functions (note the scare quotes). But neither are we dead in the nave sense in which spiritless matter was presumed to lack any divine creativity. No, were something worse, something bewildering, and were children of an equally monstrous parent. Were no more personal than our god; all of us are undead monsters, conglomerations of natural mechanisms that simulate life while lacking any metaphysical distinction that sets us apart from whatever seems to us plainly lifeless. We personify each other and our ultimate creator alike, but those projections are genetically- and culturallyprogrammed vanities. The word pantheism means that God is the universe, that everything is equally divine. Although many theists insist on praying to the corpse, the personal god of mainstream religions is dead, the ancient spells having little if any effect on those inspired by modern scientists to think critically about big philosophical questions. But modern scientists themselves re-enchant nature, divinizing it by being forced by their methodological naturalism to preclude any supernatural creativity. If all creativity must be natural, and the cosmic seed develops into a wondrous tree indeed, complexifying and emerging levels of self-contained patterns like flowers growing from a stem, eventually evolving biological life on at least one planet and probably on many more, the universe isnt just creative but supremely, awesomely so. That makes the universe our god, our creator, albeit a mindless one that only seems personally alive to social creatures like us, but which is actually in a nightmarish state of living death. Like each of us, the cosmos is a spiritless leviathan, but one whose twists and turns create and

275 destroy whole worlds and galaxies instead of just families, communities, or businesses. Thus, the universe has at best a simulated mind, its processes triggering our social reflex so that were forced to anthropomorphize nature even as we now know better. But even were there no biological life to look on the universe in horror, nature would be metaphysically undead since natural forces would still be diabolically creative, like musical instruments playing a tune all on their own, with no one to breathe life into them. Personal divinity is subjective, a mere projection by self-centered primates onto the alien vistas to make us feel more comfortable in a humanized world. But natures undead divinity is an objective fact. Natural forces alone create everything around us and they do so inexplicably and monstrously, with no personal handler, spewing out an infinite diversity of forms on a mind-boggling scale; creating prodigiously, thanklessly, never tiring or second-guessing themselves, creating and destroying to make room for more novel products, for new galaxies and untold wonders. We are such blind, childish know-nothing blunders that we can be surrounded by such infinite creativity and then stoop to attributing the whole universe to a guy like us who lurks somewhere offstage. Only such clumsy braggarts like us could witness nature patently creating itself as it goes along, and then ignore all of that and posit invisible, personal spirits (fairies, angels, gods, etc) as the true culprits. Anyway, Darwinism seems to me to have these dismal implications. There is no life or nonlife in the old dualistic sense. Darwinism unifies life and death, showing that nature simulates God, and simulated life that paradoxically occurs purely in spiritless and thus dead matter is best symbolized by a zombies undeadness. The zombie apocalypse has long come and gone and the zombies won. We cant escape them, because we never were the few remaining, uninfected heroes, remnants of a wholesome time before the coming of the wasteland at the worlds end. There never was a titanic clash between human and monster, between supernatural spirit and passive matter. From the beginning, atoms, molecules, stars, galaxies and the whole panoply of cosmic forces have been infected by the zombie plague, creating and evolving themselves just like the God of yore was supposed to have created and shaped the universe. In our dreadful

276 postmodern condition, we can worship our god only with severe irony, because we have the same social impulses as our prescientific ancestors, but we also have the findings of modern science, including Darwinism. Thus, our prayers should be rants within the undead god.

Appendix: The Definition of God

Gods, undead and personal: gods exist but hide in plain sight, so that ironically atheists surpass theists in their respective knowledge of the divine. If gods are ultimate creative powers, there are two kinds of gods which are obviously real: natural evolution and higher animal consciousness. The former is just the evident power of matter and energy to combine in various forms which interact and develop new forms in time, from molecules to galaxies and perhaps infinite universes. Natures creativity gives rise to complex patterns throughout the cosmos, but this prodigious power is impersonal; to be sure, like nave children we anthropomorphize the sun, the wind, and the rain, but thats just projection, the over-extension of our personhood onto the inhuman, so that we might mitigate our alienation from nature. Nevertheless, natural forces are divinely creative. Nature is thus neither living nor dead. The natural creator gods, named now by those modern wizards, the physicists, astronomers, biologists, and other scientists, are undead: creative but monstrous, inhuman, terrifyingly other than what were most familiar with and best capable of understanding, which is ourselves. Consciousness is the living, personal god which creates what the philosopher Kant called the phenomenal world by interpreting experience, beholding everything within a worldview, applying concepts and values, identifying the natural form and thus acquiring power over it. Theres no good reason to think that consciousness is naturally or metaphysically prior to nature; no mind created the universe out of nothing. However, the subjective aspect of everything in nature depends on conscious creatures. The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics calls this aspect the "collapse of the wave function." The point is that were life never to have evolved anywhere, there would

277 still have been stars, planets, atoms, and all the other products of undead gods, but these products would differ from the ways we experience the world, given how our brains happen to process information we receive from our senses. We help create the world we experience, and to that extent were all divinely creative. However, most conscious beings are doubly oppressed rather than reigning in glory. Were entombed within the decaying body of the undead god, that is, within the natural totality that evolves as a result of the interplay of mindlessly creative forces. Also, most of us are forced to occupy lowly positions in power hierarchies dominated by conscious beings that, unlike so-called Christians, are genuinely twice born and doubly divine. The oligarchs who tend to rule societies conquer nature by understanding their experience within a worldview, but they also conquer their fellow conscious beings, identifying with the undead gods as the oligarchs compete according to social versions of the principles of natural selection. Oligarchs are thus avatars of monstrous nature, their sociopathic depths of vice symbolizing the menacing inhumanity of natural forces which afflict us despite our more modest divinity and limited power over nature.


Science and the Matrix Metaphor ____________________________________________________

When the Matrix movies were at the height of their popularity some years ago, philosophers were ecstatic because those movies popularized some canonical Western philosophical ideas, reaching back to Descartes handling of the evil genius form of skepticism, and to Platos Cave metaphor. Those films also have Gnostic and other religious themes. Less well-known, I think, is that The Matrix is useful as a way of popularizing what are now becoming scientific conventions, especially in biology and cognitive science. In fact, the core idea of The Matrix, as opposed to the movies plot, is shown to be almost literally true by those sciences. Ive alluded a few times in my philosophical rants to The Matrix, and so Ill explore here the relevance of especially the first of the three movies to Rants Within the Undead God. First, I need to summarize the movies premise. The movie supposes that what most people perceive of the world is actually a mass hallucination, a virtual reality constructed by anti-human, artificially intelligent machines and employed to keep most people docile so that the machines can use their dormant organic bodies for fuel. The hero, Neo, wakes up from the dream world, into the harsher reality and fights the machines, eventually sacrificing himself and rescuing his fellow liberated, enlightened allies.


Genes and Mental Models

Now, there are two scientific theories that The Matrix seems to popularize, one from biology, the other from psychology. The former is Richard Dawkins genes-eye perspective on natural selection, and the latter is the theory of the self as the brains model of its inner processes. To begin with Dawkins, he went as far as to resort to science fiction tropes in pushing his point that natural selection can benefit the replicators at the expense of their vehicles or hosts. On this view, that which is primarily selected by the environment is a genetic lineage, and the phenotype--with all of its physical and mental adaptations--piggybacks on the fitness of the genes, much as Ayn Rand and plutocrats maintain that relatively poor people survive and enjoy many privileges only because of the greatness of their financial superiors who create civilization in the first place. The second theory, found in books such as The Self Illusion by Bruce Wood, and The Ego Tunnel, by Thomas Metzinger, is that just as the brain simplifies the external data it receives from the senses, processing the information and producing a model of the outer world, so too the brain simplifies and simulates its neural activity, producing what we think of the self or the ego. The point isnt that the external world or the self doesnt exist, but that neither is as we naively assume it to be. For example, even though our eyes dart back and forth when we look at something, we assume that all of what were looking at is visually clear, knowing that we could focus on any part of it at will. The focal point of our field of vision is actually tiny compared to everything else we see at a glance. That which falls outside the focal point is comparatively blurry, but the brain remembers what we saw when we focused, say, on the left side of an apple, so that when we focus on the right side, we can think of the whole apple as a crisply-delineated object. In this way, our memories create a simplified impression, or model, of the apple, which edits out the visual information pertaining to the apples blurriness. Likewise, we have an idea of the self as a conscious, free, rational agent, but this self is an illusion generated by the brain and serving an evolutionary function. Anyone who

280 couldnt simplify her inner or outer sense experience in these ways would be stupefied as a result of sensory overload, and thus couldnt actively safeguard the genes or transmit them to the next generation. The kind of model at issue here is common in science. For example, the physical model of DNA or of atoms is a highly simplified representation that ignores many details, but the model might be useful for certain purposes. A so-called ceteris paribus law is another kind of simplification, which generalizes about what would happen in a system were everything outside the system left out of the picture. In reality, systems interact and so a ceteris paribus law can have exceptions. But the point is that our folk psychological myth about our nature as human beings, which theists take to the extreme by positing the immaterial and immortal spirit, is like these scientific models. At best, such a model is useful as a means to a certain end, but at worst the end served by the model is detrimental to us or the model oversimplifies the facts and becomes counterproductive (as is likely the case with respect to the theists dualistic notion of the self).

Our Biomechanical Overlords

Back to The Matrix. The relevance of the genetic interpretation of evolution is that the genes, the proteins, and the whole cellular assembly system that builds our bodies from the moment of conception are literally machines. You might think we can say that that assembly system, in which the genetic code is read by messenger RNA to build amino acids, proteins, and cells, is only metaphorically a sprawling machine, since theres no God who designed those chemicals to perform any intended function, Creationism notwithstanding. But this begs the question, since according to the psychological theory at issue, neither is there any self who builds our cell phones, planes, computers, and other devices. Our nave conception of ourselves is undermined by science, and thus so too is the standard notion that a literal machine depends on a designers intention. The commonsensical notion of an intention, of a belief or a desire, is only a highly simplified way of talking about part of the brain. Granted, complex patterns can emerge, but some patterns are subjective illusions that depend more on the eye of the beholder; in other words, a pattern can be a delusion rather than an illusion. We want to see ourselves as

281 rational commanders, and so we define our technology as a slave carrying out our command. But that may be a story we tell only within the matrix, as will become clearer in a moment. At any rate, as I say in Darwinism and Natures Undeadness, the updated intuition we need to make sense of natural creativity of all kinds, including our designing of technology and our genes role in building us, is the intuition of natures undeadness. Anything which passes the anthropomorphists generous test of life is at best undead, given naturalistic metaphysics. There are no supernatural essences of personality or spiritual fragments of a transcendent plane. But given our preoccupation with social relations, well model as intelligent anything that looks to us as though its following a plan. Thus, we model each other as having rational homunculi that control our bodies, and most people, being theists, interpret all of nature as following Gods plan; even atheists instinctively blame unseen gremlins, for example, when we meet with ill fortune. Again, the nave way of looking at this generous way of interpreting natural order is the dualistic way, which is no longer tenable after the Darwinian revolution. Instead, we should interpret all living and nonliving things as neither alive nor dead in the nave senses, but as blasphemously undead, as mere simulations of ideal, spiritual life; after all, even nonliving things, like DNA, stars, and galaxies perform a great deal of work, evolving, complexifying, and creating everything in nature. So according to the Darwinian intuition, life and death are unified in the concept of the undead, and that undeadness will seem enchanted to zombies like us who instinctively personify everything around us. In this way, everything in the cosmos, both that which is naively thought to be living by way of being infused with a supernatural spirit, and that which is so thought to be spiritless and lifeless, can look alive by merely following its routine, like a zombie stumbling along as though anyone were at home in its brain. In particular, our machines will look like they follow our orders, and DNA and protein synthesis will look like theyre designed mechanisms that perform the function of building organisms. But there are no such orders or designs--at least, not in the way we naively assume. Instead, the source

282 of natural order at both the micro and the meso levels is the monstrous and mysterious simulation of what we think of as planned work. Work is done everywhere, but theres no spirit in charge. True, some work in the universe is done by brains, and here we do find emergent patterns of personal autonomy. But underlying the difference between the brains self-control and DNAs lack of personhood is the monistic, naturalistic metaphysics which has become compulsory as a result of modern science, and according to this metaphysics, theres no substantial difference between a brain and DNA with respect to their apparent vitality. Both work as undead automatons, although brains can tell themselves self-serving (or rather, self-creating) stories to keep their spirits up (or rather to pretend that they have spirits). The upshot of this is that while a human brain looks more alive than the proteins that build our bodies by receiving genetic messages, this is a matter merely of degree, not of metaphysical kind. Metaphysically, everything that participates in the natural order is undead, to some extent. With respect to The Matrix, this means that the genes have the same sort of life as our machines, the difference being that brains build our machines whereas no brain designs the genes. Still, if the genes and our machines are both undead, in that they pass the test of seeming to be fine-tuned and to work according to intentions, the movies narrative applies rather directly to our actual situation. Substitute the genes and the cellular assembly process for AI machines built by humans in the future, and youve still got the movies core idea: were programmed and misled by machines to serve their undead pseudo-interests. Specifically, the Dawkinsian biologist says that our fundamental role is to serve as vessels for our genes. So in the Matrix, the machines use human bodies as batteries, while in biological reality our bodies are used as vehicles to store, defend, and propagate the microscopic machinery that sustains us. Moreover, in the movie the dormant humans are abused by the machines and forced into the dehumanizing, humiliating position of lying in a jelly-filled pod with tubes down their throats. In biological reality, the genes implant in us the instinct to procreate, which is to say, to

283 assume various dehumanizing and humiliating postures involving organic jellies and tubes. The parallel, I trust, is clear. Finally, theres the matrix itself, the virtual reality of delusions that transfixes human slaves. In psychological reality, the brain produces a highly simplified model of its neural interactions, and we inhabit the space of that model; that is, we spontaneously apply naive concepts, anthropomorphizing each other and virtually anything else, projecting that model and reflexively retreating to it even after enlightening ourselves with respect to our true nature, by studying biology or psychology, for example. Were trapped in that misleading view of ourselves, because our bodies are built--by our biomechanical overlords, no less--to adopt that nave viewpoint. We wear blinders that focus us on completing tasks that arent even tasks in the ordinary sense, but are the end results of our genes undead wanderings. Our anthropomorphic models force us to think of each other as gods, as conscious, free, and rational spirits, but the lie of those models is given by the fact that instead of treating each other as such, were preoccupied with primitive urges, sexualizing and otherwise objectifying each other, calculating breast sizes, hip-to-waste ratios, and other signs of fertility or else the wealth and status of a reliable provider of resources for the woman to raise a child. In the matrix of our nave self-conception, we ignore our animal nature and pretend that were godlike, whereas our predominant behaviors, such as our secretive sex practices and our short-sighted, irrational, and violent servitude to tribal conventions, unveil the grim truth for all to see. Despite the obviousness of that truth, we seldom ever appreciate it or dwell on it for long, because we are in fact trapped in a false view of the world, and were put in that trap by machines that are roughly as undead as the machines we design and engineer. Thus, the premise of The Matrix is a highly useful myth, which is to say a powerful story that makes sense of where we are and what we should do.


Escape from the Matrix

This brings me to the prospect of a higher selfs escape from the matrix. In the movie, theres a real self who underlies the illusory one in the matrix and who frees himself by recognizing that the matrix isnt real. Here I think science and the movie diverge. There is no real, hidden self that either coexists with or exists prior to the brains mental model, which can then overwrite that model in an act of enlightenment. However, I do think theres an important distinction between the enlightened and the unenlightened, between esoteric and exoteric knowledge, between authentic people who understand their existential situation and who heroically overcome it, and those who thrive on delusions. The enlightened person cant escape from being just a brains model of its inner activity, but some models are aesthetically and ethically better than others. At our best, we create an enlightened self from the rude materials of our more genefriendly pseudo-self, and just as some paintings are more inspiring, original, and beautiful than others, so too some minds come closer to achieving certain ideals. Some ideals transparently serve the routines of our undead, biochemical overlords, whereas others are only byproducts of naturally selected traits, or what Stephen Jay Gould calls spandrels. One such spandrel is surely the existential cosmicists ideal of appreciating the full horror of our existential situation, summarized in the above section, for example, and of taking at least a symbolic stand against that situation. Unlike in the biblical Jobs case, theres no one to hear our protests since our overlords are undead, as are we, their victims. The price of liberation, then, is angst, alienation, dread, and perhaps social detachment or even insanity. The brain didnt evolve to sustain a rebel against its makers. To become such a rebel, we have to overcome genetic and social conditioning, and we need the courage and the creativity to invent new and worthwhile ways of being undead, even while recognizing the tragic futility of this spiritual, transhuman endeavor. To paraphrase Plato, those who are confined to the matrix (or to the Cave of reflections) demonstrate their creativity mainly in the sexual realm, dutifully producing a fresh generation of slaves, whereas the enlightened

285 philosopher creates brainchildren. Ultimately, neither sort of creativity will likely matter. Natural forces create biological patterns, but eventually such forces will replace those patterns with something else; the universes evolution is monstrous--inexorable and inhumane. But enlightenment is the best we can do; confronting the philosophical implications of modern science, and living with dignity in light of that accursed knowledge is, to use Nietzsches word, nobler than the alternative of sleepwalking with a biochemical leash/noose wrapped around our neck. A liberal secular humanist will protest that philosophy is irrelevant, that all that matters is pragmatically applying science and technology to raise our standard of living. You wouldnt know it from the scientistic technocracy implied by this protest, but the humanist has a burden of justifying the values that set the standard of living. How then shall the humanist proceed, by polling a population, asking what its members want to do with their life, and taking their answer as gospel? Will even the humanist be satisfied by that grossly fallacious plan of action? Or how about deferring to the oligarchs that run the system managed by the technocratic liberal? Should the most vicious among us who rise to the pinnacle of a dominance hierarchy be trusted to dictate our ethical and aesthetic standards? Surely not! No, this is where enlightenment is a prerequisite even of the anti-philosophical liberals busywork. Those who feign pragmatism still need to justify their goals, even as they preoccupy themselves with devising more and more efficient means of achieving them. And enlightened people will have ethically and aesthetically superior goals to those of the deluded folks who are mesmerized by the matrix.


God and Science: The Ironic Theophany ____________________________________________________

What has science done to God? Atheists would like to think that science has made not just theism but all myths obsolete. But neither atheists nor scientists need be such philistines. What scientific discoveries have done is to turn the page on theistic fictions, leaving us with just blank pages. Postmodernists could use a good story, one that gives meaning to the world science has shown us and that leads us in a worthwhile direction. I think this postmodern myth can be found in a certain unsettling vision of the death of God. Before I come to that, however, Id like to go over some highlights of the Western history of sciences relationship to God.

Medieval Animism
Lets begin with the medieval picture of God. The fall of the Roman Empire brought to medieval Europe chaos, ignorance, disease, and thus infantilized the desperate masses. The socialism of feudal society, in the lower classes dependence on the largesse of the decadent aristocrats, was pragmatic as opposed to arising out of adherence to the New Testament. Oligarchies were needed to maintain a fragile social order, and the desperation to avoid the complete removal of the social barriers against the wilderness, that is, against the natural forces that are opposed to life, led also to an ironic self-indulgence. The masses that lived in squalor, eating gruel and owning

287 practically nothing nevertheless compensated for their poverty by settling on a navely anthropocentric worldview. The Church comforted medieval Christians with childrens tales, springing from Aquinass synthesis of Aristotelianism and paganized Judaism (Catholic Christianity). Aquinas replaced Aristotles impersonal Prime Mover with the Christian God, and thus simplified Aristotles teleological metaphors. According to Aristotle, every event has a purpose, a so-called final cause, and thus nature can be explained as though it were intelligently designed even though its not; instead, everything in nature has a destiny given its way of being attracted to the Prime Mover, to a sort of cosmic magnet that starts and ends all natural processes. Aristotles naturalism thus anticipated Darwins zombification of nature. Aquinas literalized and personified Aristotles undead teleology, since the Christian God is not just a person but literally a particular human being named Jesus. Aquinas thus enchanted the undead leviathan, infusing the undying corpse-which displays signs of monstrous pseudolife--with actual life. In the medieval view, instead of the mere appearance of mind throughout natures evolution of patterns, there are good and evil spirits animating all changes so that the cosmos becomes a superorganism, a colossal living body made up of a host of other living things. And thus the fear of the wilderness was neutralized by rampant animism, by literalistic Christianitys bastardization of Aristotelian naturalism. Medieval Europe lacked the economic prosperity that generates the arrogance needed to study nature objectively, because naturalism opens the floodgates to horror and angst, which are the authentic emotional responses to our real position in nature. The peasants were like homeless children who needed reassurance that even though the pax romana was no more, God was still with them--through Jesus and the Church, to be sure, but also throughout the whole world: even when a peasant is forced daily to trudge through mud, a sorry spectacle depicted so vividly in the movie, Monty Python and The Holy Grail, God is present in the purpose of that filth. In medieval Christianity, God is omnipresent, not directing from afar but animating everything from within by means of spiritual extensions of himself. Its hard to see how this animism could have comforted anyone during the

288 Black Death, but the alternative was surely worse: at least if there are demonic forces that cause the evil in the world, those forces can be overcome in familiar ways, by social alliances and negotiations through prayer. Evil creatures can be reasoned with and thus rehabilitated or else punished.

The Modern Machine

Still, the Plague wiped out around a third of the Christian population and discredited the Church, since the clergy couldnt cure the victims or explain the causes. Eventually, the remaining population prospered because of the decline in competition. At the same time, there was an influx of classical and eastern ideas, thanks to the rediscovery and proliferation of ancient texts. The revelation that such advanced art was possible in the ancient past shamed medieval Christians and led to the humanist movement, which is to say to greater pride in our secular capacity to lead rich and fulfilling lives. The merchants wanted to show off their new wealth with both outward and inward signs of their status. Thanks to their patronage, niches were thus opened up for advances in art, philosophy and science. In effect, the easing of competition in the present, due to the Black Death, created a new competition between the present and the past, as those who for centuries had suckled at the Churchs teat like terrified babies, jealously vied with ghosts of the ancient Greeks for cultural supremacy. And so the Italian Renaissance led to the Reformation of the Church and to the Scientific Revolution. Comparing medieval and modern rationalism is instructive. The medieval rationalists were the scholastics, who were pragmatic centrists much like postmodern American liberals. The scholastics wanted to maintain the status quo, arguing implicitly that without the Church, Western civilization would have ended after the collapse of ancient Rome. And so the scholastics bent reason in the service of that goal, to defend the Church at all costs. (Likewise, postmodern liberals can no longer seriously formulate their policies in terms of normative progress, because a postmodernist has no faithbased myths and thus no inspired ideals. Thus, these liberals are technocratic systemsmanagers, like President Obama, and the system they manage tends to be oligarchic,

289 that is, profoundly anti-liberal--for the majority, at least.) Of course, the scholastics pragmatic argument was shown to rest on a false dichotomy, since social and intellectual progress did occur in the modern period. By contrast, modern rationalists were devoted to their methods, to their algorithms, not to any institution. These rationalists were both highly conservative and liberal: they trusted only what their senses directly showed them or what could be logically or mathematically inferred, but they were more willing than their afflicted predecessors, than the scholastics and their peasant charges, to follow their inquiries wherever their senses and their reasoning took them, even if this meant peaking behind the mask we place on natures monstrous visage, thus threatening social stability and sanity. Because of the naturalistic fallacy, no prescriptions are licensed by empiricist rationality, especially if youre assuming the modern, Cartesian dualism between facts and values. The senses reveal only factual things and events, not goodness or badness, and theres no alchemy that transmutes factual premises into moral laws. Thus, modern rationalists drained the life from the medieval super-organism and reduced the Thomistic final cause, the natural events purpose, to the meaningless mechanistic cause. At least, this is what they did in their exoteric work; on the surface, then, nature looked every bit as cold and calculating as the scientists' functional sociopathy in their objective pursuit of the truth. Alas, the vaunted modern rationalists were hindered in their progressive labours by their human brains, which instinctively use metaphors to understand the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar. And so the universal metaphor of the super-organism was replaced with that of the clockwork mechanism, and deistic speculations on the intentions of the intelligent designer were confined to whisperings within modern esoteric cults, like Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism. After all, if rational methods are so successful in discovering how natural processes work, then nature must indeed work, and a machine is just the sort of thing thats intelligently designed; moreover, the more intelligible nature is, the more we wanton anthropomorphizers are tempted to share the misery of being human with the impersonal cosmos, projecting our idiosyncrasies onto its undead

290 evolutions. Modern scientists thus cogitated to follow the clues left behind in the cosmic machine, hoping to deduce the plan of its maker, like Sherlock Holmes tracking a demented killer. The upshot is that modernists banished God from nature without killing him, and although they exorcised the spirits from the cosmos, they didnt recognize nature as an undead monstrosity, as neither a living thing nor the designed product of one, but as a blasphemous simulation of creativity and rational order that mocks the values of secular humanism. There was a transition from theism to deism; God went underground so that we could have our turn in the limelight.

Postmodern Pantheism
Modernists bathed in that light until the postmodern period, which to my reckoning began in the early twentieth century with Einsteins overturning of the Newtonian theory of space. In classical physics, space and time are absolutely unchanging, which leaves room for Gods omniscience and omnipotence: the dimensions of space and time are like windows through which God could see and sustain absolutely everything in nature. Einstein showed that space and time must instead be relative to the speed of light, meaning that these dimensions change depending on how fast the observer is travelling. So much for taking in the universe at a single, divine glance! And for Newton, an objects motion is deterministic, meaning that its causes and effects are local: theres always an intervening mechanism between cause and effect, as opposed to any spooky action at a distance. This was the point of the clockwork metaphor and the reason why God had to be banished from nature. But in quantum mechanics (Bells Theorem), reality is nonlocal: because of quantum entanglement, a particles properties in one galaxy can affect those of a particle in a distant galaxy with no mechanism whatsoever connecting the particles. Again, in the Newtonian picture, we can calculate motion with certainty, because nature is a machine that doesnt depend on our observation of it, but in quantum mechanics we can calculate only the likelihood of fundamental events, because observation is bound up with those events. There is no

291 preset reality, with objective attributes that obtain even when no ones taking a measurement, or if there is an underlying reality, it seems to be an undivided whole as in Eastern mysticism. Just as theism had to be replaced by deism, because modern scientists substituted faith in the Church for faith in the rational method, and that method depicts the world as a lifeless but self-determining machine, so now the sociopathic deity who builds the machine and then stalks it like a voyeur must be exchanged for the undead god. The upshot of postmodern physics is that the world is so alien to our ordinary conceptions that anthropocentric metaphysics has become plainly self-indulgent. The universe is not a machine, so it has no intelligent designer. Nevertheless, the world is hardly inert: everything a personal God could do to the universe, the universe does to itself; thus, the universe is god enough. But this postmodern pantheism is ironic and bittersweet, because although we become surrounded by the divine just by being in the midst of natural happenings, the god thats actually omnipresent is a terrifyingly undead abomination that mindlessly creates, thus working towards no preplanned end, evolving for no reason at all and mocking the stories we tell about our supernatural essence of personhood. When the universe requires no mind to evolve galaxies, why does a human speck need a spirit to move from here to there? To speak of the weirdness of quantum mechanics is to say that our intuitions are quaint. We evolved to succeed in a social setting that requires that we outwit our competitors, by divining their mental state and predicting their behaviour on that basis. We try to get the most mileage we can out of that mental trick, since our life-preserving traits consist only of mental tricks and our opposable thumbs. Thus, we turn our predictive powers not just on each other but onto the rest of the world, positing mechanisms and hidden dimensions in addition to a menagerie of gods and paranormal creatures. Postmodern physics seems, though, to portend the end of all of that. According to the Copenhagen Interpretation, which I take to be the dominant one among physicists, there is no deep reality of the constituents of matter beyond the one

292 that pops into place when measured. This metaphysically idealistic interpretation of quantum mechanics follows naturally from modern positivism. When you foreswear speculation and focus on what your senses directly show you, youre bound to deny the existence of anything nonmental, since you can no longer justify talk of an independent cause of your sensations. This was the thrust of the early 18th C. philosopher George Berkeleys objection to empiricism. The positivist is interested in exact knowledge, because thats whats needed to increase our technological power (over nothing, once matter loses its independence). Thus, the Copenhagen Interpretation is philosophically anti-philosophical, privileging operational knowledge, which defines the elements of matter in terms of the procedure needed to measure them, and whatever can be done with that knowledge, while deprecating speculation and its potential benefits. Of course, the positivists scientific values cant themselves be scientifically justified. Still, however expected a minimalistic, mind-centered metaphysics might be on the basis of empiricist epistemology, the fact is that even those who might want to speculate on the causes of quantum weirdness are unable to do so in the ordinary way, by using metaphors to compare the unfamiliar with the familiar. Thus, even were there a deep, mind-independent reality, we wouldnt be well-positioned to understand what it might be, because its quantum clues would be so different from our everyday world that our metaphors would be laughable. This is why physicists say you need to understand the mathematics to really grasp the quantum world; our natural languages are too intuitive. (And to be upfront, I do not understand that math.) In any case, the macroscopic world that emerges from quantum leaps is neither a living thing nor the product of one; instead, that world is sufficiently lifelike that even its undead phenomena can provoke the vanity of hapless creatures such as us, so that we in the West have had to pass through millennia of theistic and deistic misunderstandings before weve finally reached the point at which we can prove not just natures undead divinity but our embarrassing ineptness at appreciating where we stand. Quantum mechanics proves, among other things, that were alienated by the

293 limits of what weve evolved to do best: biologically speaking, we malfunction when we pretend that were more than animals, that we can apply our evolved skills to the unnatural task of fathoming quantum reality, and that well necessarily continue to succeed biologically as a consequence. Far from flourishing thanks to modern science, we may in the longer run fulfill the curse of reason and lose our sanity after staring too long at the quantum abyss. We may be too curious for our good.

A Myth for Our Time

One way to endure the postmodern clash between natures alien reality and our vaunted mastery of the Earth, is to face the worst-case scenario, to imagine the most dishonourable situation and then to test our ability to pick up the pieces of our selfrespect and creatively reconcile ourselves with the imagined possibility. This is in fact the Nietzschean attitude towards myths. When Nietzsche said that time might be cyclical and that every moment might be replayed infinitely many times, he wasnt offering a rationally justified theory that was meant to compel belief. Instead, he was trying to test your mettle, to ensure youre not deluding yourself by attending only to self-serving ideas. I think Philipp Mainlanders idea of the worlds creation as Gods literal suicide is a most suitable candidate for such a myth. Mainlanders vision of God is psychologically plausible, merely following through on the theistic metaphor, whereas mainstream monotheistic portrayals of God are stilted, incoherent, or incomplete as works of fiction. Everything we know about the personal concentration of power implies that God would not be benevolent or fatherly, but would become corrupted and insane as a result of his isolation. By itself, this strength of Mainlanders myth warrants that the myth should be taken seriously--again, not as a scientific theory, nor even as a rational proposal for how the world might be, but as a work of stimulating fiction. At their best, fiction and art generally expand our awareness, enrich our mental associations, and fortify us in rough times. Postmodernity doesnt bode well for advanced civilizations. I suggest that some philosophical work is needed to give us a fighting chance to emerge from this period

294 intact. We must put aside childish things since they should comfort us no more, and make friends with the monster that lurks under the bed. We must bid farewell to our toy gods and if we still feel the urge to worship, we should pray to the god that strides naked all around us, that creates and destroys all things, that is no mere mental projection or respecter of our pitiful conceits. Nature is god. That god isnt alive, so our prayers will go unheard, but nature is undead and so we should match that uncanny fact with an outrage of our own: we should worship not by groveling before a magnified image of the most corrupt among us, which is the oligarch, but by ranting songs of mockery at the void, proclaiming that we know where we stand in the grand scheme and are unafraid. But thats just a poetic gloss on Darwinian science. Natures undead divinity is real. You can strip away my figures of speech and the horrifying facts will remain. But as for the needed work of fiction, we should appreciate that Mainlanders idea is physically as well as psychologically plausible. Take, for example, the Big Bang Theory, which explains natures origin from a gravitational singularity. This singularity is a point of infinite density and temperature which cant be described by general relativity or quantum mechanics. The singularity is thus miraculous as opposed to natural. The Big Bang is thus consistent with saying that a transcendent being, subsisting beyond spacetime and which were forced to understand by employing flawed metaphors, somehow caused the singularity to expand and become what we think of as natural. For instance, the singularity could be that transcendent being itself or else it could stand for the miraculous technique used by that being. More relevantly, the singularity could be the point at which God transformed himself into nature, into his undying corpse, thus guaranteeing his eventual extinction through natural devolution. Of course, none of these statements is scientific or even particularly rational; rather, what Im saying here is obviously speculative, the point being to tell a good story, to elevate the discourse to the level of salutary fiction/myth. And my point is about the storys plausibility and consistency, not about providing evidence that the myth is empirically true.

295 Or take dark energy and the possibility of the Big Rip. According to modern cosmology, theres a force called dark energy that counteracts gravity, pushing the universe apart. If that force accelerates over time, becoming whats called phantom energy, it could cause the Big Rip, which is the absolute destruction of everything in the universe, from stars to atoms. Again, this is consistent with the metaphysical speculation that nature is Gods corpse, that God intended to annihilate himself by turning himself into something that could be completely destroyed. It turns out, then, that theres an actual force that may be fulfilling that purpose. Finally, take the quantum mechanical principle of nonlocality. If quantum reality is a unified whole, as in Parmenides monism, this could reflect the unity of its transcendent source in God. According to the monotheistic myth, theres a single, somehow personal being who is excruciatingly supreme in terms of his knowledge and power. That uniqueness of God motivates Creation, not because of Gods generosity or grace, but because divinity is intolerable: the reason God creates something other than himself even though God is already supposed to be perfect, is that perfect knowledge and power are perfectly corrupting and self-destructive. And God wouldnt be creating something else so much as transforming himself into something that could be utterly destroyed, which is to say a material plane made up of patterns that can dissipate and parts that can be separated until theres nothing left. Gods death would proceed by transmuting his infinite being into every possible natural combination of elements, running through and extinguishing each of the configurations until theres nothing left. In the multiverse interpretation of quantum mechanics, every quantum possibility is actualized in some universe, although presumably not every universe is driven by phantom energy leading to a Big Rip. Perhaps, then, subatomic matter is unified because everything in nature, in the undying corpse that evolves new ways to destroy itself and so completes Gods tragic demise, derives from that single transcendent being whose uniqueness caused the Big Bang. Still, natural complexification and evolution are mindless, serving no purpose, because even though they may work towards the Big Rip, thus in fact fulfilling an insane God's intention, that God would be dead and so the meaning of his corpse would have died with him. For example, living things within the

296 undead god would be free to modify nature to suit our own purposes, perhaps even reversing the process of decay or at any rate interpreting nature according to our ideals. Now, theology can always be shown to be trivially consistent with science, because theological statements are unfalsifiable and can be arbitrarily altered to suit the facts; theyre not meant to be scientific and theyre limited mainly by the imagination. But there are also ethical and aesthetic standards of myth-making. Myths can be more or less emotionally powerful, depending on whether the story they tell resonates with a certain audience. And my point is that Id like to hear a good story, one that makes sense of the postmodern world and that tells us what we ought to do now. From medieval Europe to the postmodern global civilization, science, the cutting edge of accursed reason, has ironically pushed only the false God further and further out of existence while also putting the spotlight on the real divinity. From childish Christian theism, which has been out of fashion for several hundred years, to modern deism which turns God the loving father into God the coy voyeur, science hasnt been a force for pure atheism. No, science has cast out only pretenders to the throne, disposing of our vain and incoherent anthropomorphisms. There is no personal divinity anywhere in the natural universe. No personal God acts within nature, nor is nature an artifact produced by such a being. Instead, what science has steadily revealed is that nature is itself impersonally divine. Nature creates its infinite patterns by complexification and evolution; the undead god decays. Technoscientific progress takes us inexorably to a theophany of the true god: as we think more and more about whats real and as we investigate how nature works, we learn to see the world for what it is. But reason is accursed, because what we learn is that natures mindless creativity is an abomination to our dualistic and anthropocentric mindset. So much for sciences contribution; science has shown us the true, eerie and creepy god, the physical world that simulates life in its scramble to etch more and more novel patterns into itself. How can art complement science in that respect? By telling a good story, I submit, by deriving inspiration from science, to shape culture with a viable,

297 unembarassing postmodern myth. I believe Mainlanders melancholy speculation makes for just such an edifying tale. We deserve no New Age happy-talk, nor need we settle for stale theistic propaganda for oligarchy, nor should we pretend that secular humanistic philistinism is emotionally fulfilling or uplifting. We need a master metaphor that alerts us to whats really going on and that instructs us on how to respond. We should be like the God whos a mainstay of our imagination, by effecting our drawn-out suicide, living more or less ascetically, renouncing the delusions and corruptions that would fell even the greatest being, and by facing our existential predicament with grim humour.


New Atheist and Spiritual Atheist in Dialogue ____________________________________________________

New Atheist: Whats this I hear about you calling yourself a spiritual atheist? Are you a recent convert from some religion and cant bring yourself all the way to a rational standpoint? Or maybe youre a philosophical fellow who has to muddy all waters to leave work for academics of your ilk. Spiritual Atheist: Neither. I grew up in a secular household and although I do read philosophy, Im no partisan defender of its current academic form. On the contrary, for all the social good professional philosophers presently do, they might as well close up shop. NA: Ah, then you must be a closet mystic, an accommodationist who thinks religion and science can live happily together, because there are some mysteries that science or reason more generally will never solve. In other words, youre addicted to woo.

Spirituality as Woo
SA: Well, thats a lot of loaded rhetoric. What do you mean by woo, for example?

299 NA: Just what I said: you want to preserve mysteries by using obscure notions that are supposed to build bridges between religion and science. SA: More loaded rhetoric and ad hominem. Even if I were addicted to Mystery, shouldnt you feel embarrassed as a so-called rationalist to stoop to such a postmodern fallacy, confusing the psychological origin of an idea with its epistemic merit? NA: Fine, then, ditch the rhetoric! Sheesh! Who says the debate about atheism cant be entertaining? SA: Is that the purpose of New Atheism, to entertain theists so theyll stop demonizing atheists? Is New Atheism just a media-driven shouting match that sells books for a handful of popular atheists, following the same rules of infotainment as postmodern American politics? NA: Hardly, weve got logic and science on our side, as you should know. SA: Then why not try defining woo again and this time without the personal attack? Youll find that Im entertained more by a thorough investigation of ideas than by a trumped-up partisan conflict. NA: Fine, woo is the false mystical notion that human reason and sense experience are limited, but that we have other modes of empirical knowledge, such as intuition, selfconsciousness (as in meditation), or--heaven help me!--divine revelation. SA: Thats more constructive. First off, a quick semantic matter to avoid unnecessary confusion: youre begging the question when you speak of empirical knowledge, since that sorts defined as being scientific, relying on observation or experiment. So I assume the question is whether the woo practitioner has independent access to knowledge of some facts in general, not specifically to scientific knowledge such as knowledge of how things work.


NA: Fair enough, but woo is supposed to be a matter of ultimate Truth, not just mundane knowledge. SA: Understood. So lets take your definitions first part. Do you really think human reason and observation, that is, logic and science, are unlimited? Are we potentially omniscient thanks to those cognitive powers? NA: I suppose its possible the universe contains things we could never understand. SA: Just possible and not probable? Sure, modern science has progressed tremendously, but science itself tells us how limited we are: our cognitive faculties serve humble evolutionary functions and so it would be miraculous were everything in the universe to be understandable by our mammalian brainpower. NA: OK, so reason and observation are limited ways of understanding things. But that doesnt mean we have some third kind of knowledge, whether limited or unlimited. Woo enters the picture when someone pretends to have genuine knowledge, whereas theyre merely employing fancy rhetoric that exploits peoples gullibility. SA: I suspect that your point here reduces to a semantic one having to do with your definitions of observation and reason. Mystics claim to discover metaphysical truth through intense self-awareness. Does a mystics meditation count as observation? And does philosophical speculation count as a rational exercise? If so, many of those youd call guilty of the egregious sin of woo--apart from some paranormal pseudoscientists and other charlatans--are actually fellow rationalists, given the extended definitions. NA: Neither mystical experience nor philosophical speculation provides us with knowledge thats anywhere near as reliable as scientific methods.

301 SA: Ah, but now youve moved the goalposts to your epistemic standard of reliability. Do you mean to say that all of our beliefs that can be true or false should be reliable, that if were not certain about something, because we lack a strict scientific theory or the ability to measure the phenomenon with great accuracy, we should remain agnostic about it? NA: That would seem the most rational course of action. SA: Maybe, but unfortunately were not so rational--again, as biology and the cognitive sciences themselves have shown. Have you forgotten that youre only a mammal after all? That your brain has evolved to make snap decisions for the practical purpose of keeping you alive in tight spots? That our species has survived largely because of our boundless curiosity, which causes us to indulge in speculation, to comfort ourselves with guesses as to hidden meanings, to creatively posit values, to project our biases onto the nonhuman aspects of nature? NA: Yes, were largely irrational animals, but rationality is my highest ideal. SA: Really? Pray tell me whether youre fully rational when youre making love to your wife. NA: Excuse me? SA: You heard me, and lets not fall back now on politically correct conventions of allowable discourse. Your resort to modesty at this point would already indicate that you fall well short of being perfectly rational. NA: I already conceded Im not perfectly rational! And no, a rational frame of mind would utterly defeat the point of lovemaking. Happy now?

302 SA: So you dont hound the bulk of sexually active humanity for engaging in woo with respect to its romantic endeavors, reserving that criticism for mystics and other spiritual folk. Sounds like cherry-picking, doesnt it? The sort of double standard enjoyed by the Christian literalist who chooses which parts of the Bible to accept, confusing her personal preference with a God-given hermeneutic principle. NA: I dont cherry-pick anything. Sexuality is highly useful. Mystical gibberish isnt. SA: Nonsense! First of all, you rationalize sexuality when you pretend that people have sex because of its utility. Sex is often practiced because its fun, it comforts us, and so on. Second, its undeniable that for millennia the mystical core of religions has had comparable psychological benefits. Thus, I say again that youre working with a double standard, cherry-picking like a fundamentalist; as an atheist, youll want to quit doing that. NA: Even if theres a double standard here, its hardly an arbitrary one. Sex is more conventional than mysticism, at least in modern societies. SA: Again, errant nonsense! First, even in modern societies sex is usually acceptable only in the abstract and on the surface. Youll note that most people, yourself included, are embarrassed to publicly deal with our sexuality. Sex itself is kept private. Deep down, then, we modernists are as ashamed of sex as are puritanical religious fundamentalists. Second, if so-called mystical woo were socially unacceptable, there would hardly be any sin here which the New Atheist feels the need to condemn. No, its surely because the New Age section of bookstores, for example, is often as large as the science section that the New Atheist is so ready to pounce on woo. But this means that what you call mystical gibberish is socially accepted even in sophisticated and wealthy modern societies. For pitys sake, just look at Oprahs popularity! NA: Alright, then, youve made your point. Rationality may not be my ultimate, exclusive ideal.


SA: And perhaps you shouldnt be so judgmental of how people achieve their peace of mind, as long as they dont harm anyone in the process. Sex is fine despite its irrationality, and perhaps so is woo, that is, the deriving of some kind of psychological benefit from appreciating presumed grand mysteries. Again, as long as mystics dont retard scientific progress, you might refrain from arbitrarily condemning one form of irrationality while indulging in your own form. NA: I suppose that would be reasonable--although New Age mystics have indeed dulled peoples appreciation of science in places like the United States. SA: Yes, Im sure youre right. Luckily, my form of spirituality--what you called woo--is a much more private and science-friendly affair. NA: Well, now that were clear on the possibility of valuable forms of irrationality, what exactly is your brand of woo? SA: Actually, before we discuss it Im afraid Ill have to insist that you refrain from using that word, woo, now that Ive shown you the problem with your underlying double standard. You understand, I insist this for your benefit, not mine: Im just trying to prevent someone from mistaking you for a type of religious zealot. NA: Very gracious and condescending of you. Call it what you like then, but what on Earth is your spiritual atheism?

Secular Humanism vs Existential Cosmicism

SA: My spirituality begins with an appreciation of the likelihood that well remain ignorant of important matters due to our mammalian nature. For me, this mysterianism, as philosophers call it, goes hand in hand with a sobering appraisal of our position in the natural universe. And so, in effect, I combine something like H.P. Lovecrafts cosmicism

304 with melancholy existentialism, which gives me a value system for dealing with philosophical questions, but also for coping psychologically with lifes travails. NA: Why call any of that spiritual? SA: We neednt get hung up on words. Perhaps youre right and my use of that word could be misleading in this context; indeed, spirituality has sloppy sentimental connotations that Id disown. However, the definition I have in mind is actually just a standard one, according to which spirituality has to do with religion or with the sacred, that is, with ultimate values. I suspect that everyone holds something to be sacred rather than profane in that sense. For me, whats sacred is the darkly comedic vision of our lifes absurdity, the horror of our tragedy. In a Nietzschean manner, I seek to transmute that horror into rapture, finding meaning even in our very worst-case scenario. NA: Well, then, if I understand what you mean by your spiritual atheism, your spirituality conflicts with what youd call mine, namely with my secular humanistic philosophy. For me, we find value in life through the liberal institutions of democracy and capitalism which raise the standard of living, thanks to the engine of modern science. Freedom of thought and action and the secular pursuit of happiness dignify human life. And wallowing in existential misery can only be counterproductive, not to mention immature, that is, juvenile and romantic. Frankly, you should grow up, work hard, and find ultimate value in your friends, family, work, and material rewards. Atheists should be humanists in that sense. Indeed, existential or cosmicist atheism would be politically disastrous in our war with the worst of religions. Were atheism such a bummer, our ranks would dwindle. SA: Lots to chew on there. Youre saying, I think, that our highest purpose is to be happy, and that happiness is achieved by participating productively in society, by maintaining social connections, and by enjoying the material benefits of scientific progress.


NA: Roughly, yes. SA: In that case, while I agree that most atheists likely think that way, and also that for strategic purposes, the dark, existential and cosmicist implications of philosophical naturalism should be kept hidden from some people, I deny that secular humanism is as respectable as the spiritual atheism I espouse. Indeed, Id distinguish between what are typically the exoteric and esoteric forms of value systems that separate the sacred from the profane. Your secular humanism is for exoteric consumption, while existential cosmicism is atheisms higher, esoteric form. NA: What do you mean by higher, esoteric form? SA: I mean that even secular humanists should understand, if only subliminally, that wrestling with the revolutionary consequences of what Nietzsche called the death of God, instead of falling for a substitute, secular religion thats just as delusive as any ancient theistic tradition, is nobler, more heroic. NA: Oh dear, youre going to equate secular humanism with religion? And I suppose youll declare that scientific rationality is just a form of religious faith. Postmodern drivel! SA: No, like I said, I appreciate the strength of scientific methods, since its those very methods that burst so many of our bubbles, and whats sacred for me is the prospect of coping in an aesthetically pleasing way with our humiliation at the hands of scientists. Again, we neednt get hung up on the use of words. But if we use Durkheims broad theory of religion, as a social structure for implementing a distinction between the sacred and the profane, or for upholding the groups ultimate values, then yes, secular humanism surely counts as a (nontheistic) religion.

306 NA: Fine, call it what you like. And so youre saying that secular humanism is a cheap substitute for Christianity or Islam, a delusion thats more compatible with modern science than are those anachronistic ideologies? SA: Theres nothing cheap about it. The modern values that emerged from the Scientific Revolution--the Renaissance values of genius and originality and the Enlightenment celebration of reason and individual liberty--were themselves products of genius: the greatest European minds rose to the challenge of replacing God-centered culture with an explicitly anthropocentric one. They could hardly have done otherwise once the Church lost the political power to control what Europeans believed. As wealth shifted from the Church to merchants, and as the elites came to admire artistic creativity and reason more than tradition and faith, a value system was needed to accommodate the fact that the sacred could no longer be considered supernatural. Modernists developed just such a convenient worldview with myths of our great freedom and rationality. NA: You can call them myths, but the superiority of capitalism and democracy to other social systems is obvious. By harnessing scientific methods in the research and development phases of satisfying our desires with material products, businesses tangibly elevate our standard of living by building on well-established facts of how the world actually works. Just compare the average economic power of the stifling dictatorships in the Middle East or North Korea with that of the more modern G8 countries. Do you really think that for all our social ills, modern secular nations are as deluded as theocracies? SA: Theres no denying the greater wealth and power of modern societies compared to premodern ones, but youre assuming that economic success precludes delusion. Thats dubious. Marx was likely closer to the truth when he said that all societies embrace ideologies that serve the interests of the members who have the most economic power, whether those members be dictators or free-thinking capitalists. Hapless theocrats revere their Leader for his divine wisdom or his inheritance of power from God, while modernists celebrate individual liberty and material wealth because

307 those are the values of the vicious, willful competitors who rise to the top of the modern, social Darwinian free-for-all. NA: But youre missing the point: everyone would embrace the values of personal liberty and material wealth if given the chance, because those values generate more stable, secure and peaceful societies. People immigrate from dictatorships to democracies, not the other way around. SA: You might be right that everyone wants to be happy in the primordial sense of living in peace and security with those in their personal social network. This raises two questions. First, does modernism most effectively achieve that end? Second, should happiness be our highest goal? Lets start with the first question. You say that capitalism and democracy, the organs of modernism, raise the standard of living. However, this assumes a materialistic measure of success. Even if we adopt that measure, theres the possibility of severe blowback, whether from terrorist uprisings from the have-not parts of the world or from the destruction of the ecosystem, which may threaten everyones chance for prosperity. But put that aside. Its possible to enjoy everything that money can buy and still be miserable, suffering ennui and spiritual emptiness, holding nothing sacred because modern society surrounds you with transparently false idols that are rendered such by modern freedom of thought itself. Modernists may be prosperous, but theyre cursed with uniquely modern afflictions, including even mental disorders like anxiety and depression. NA: Alright, for the sake of argument Ill grant that modernism generates a form of suffering thats left out of the economists measurement of success. Is your criticism of secular humanists, then, that theyre less happy than they think? SA: That would be slightly paradoxical. No, my criticism is that the modern ideology of secular humanism makes for an admirable substitute religion that relocates the sacred from heaven to somewhere on Earth or at least in nature, but that this religion is

308 psychologically unsustainable for those who resort to shaky myths instead of grappling with the existential consequences of worshipping nature. NA: I hardly worship nature. SA: Oh no? You refrain from killing even those people you despise, because you hold human nature--our intelligence, freedom, consciousness--to be precious and indeed sacred. You no doubt regard the cosmos thats investigated by scientists as beautiful. Secular humanists may not take up the trappings and ceremonies of religious worship-although some of them do--but they do revere things in nature. Indeed, assuming we all hold something to be sacred, naturalists could hardly do otherwise than satisfy their desire to meet something worthy of intense love, respect, and awe, by turning to the only domain they think exists. NA: Fine, have it your way, but wheres the delusion in secular humanism? Surely the belief that murder is wrong isnt as wildly mistaken as the belief that a person created the universe in six days. SA: Tell me again why murder is wrong. NA: Humans have rights that other animals dont have, because we have special abilities. Not only do we feel pain, but were sentient and self-guiding; were aware of ourselves and can intelligently act to further our interests. So interfering with someones attempt to work out her own life, especially by killing her and thus irrevocably eliminating that capacity for self-direction, is wrong. SA: Unfortunately, cognitive science is showing that were not as self-determining as was preached in the screeds of Enlightenment individualists. Theres no room for the commonsense kind of freewill in a natural, ultimately physical universe. But even if we were able to govern ourselves, albeit to some limited and likely illusory extent, why

309 should that process be allowed to continue? Why respect every individuals ability to direct her life? NA: Why respect it? Well, for one thing, its highly rare and thus special and valuable. SA: But surely no sooner than you finished uttering that statement, you saw its fallacy. Why should somethings rarity make it valuable? The rarity of diamonds makes them economically valuable, but that means only that there arent enough diamonds to satisfy everyones actual demand for them, which discrepancy raises their price. But the deeper questions would be why everyone wants a diamond in the first place and whether that desire is justifiable. Economic value is neutral regarding the merit of our desires. Diamonds are rare, but that rarity alone doesnt justify everyones interest in owning them. Likewise, everyone wants to decide for themselves what they should do with their lives, as opposed to having someone else decide for them, and that autonomy is rare in nature. But that rarity doesnt justify our respect and indeed our reverence for autonomy. As it happens, diamonds have other qualities that make them desirable, such as their physical hardness. Do we have some intrinsic qualities that justify our respect for each others existence? NA: Obviously, yes. For example, heterosexual men and women find each other sexually attractive, so naturally wed prefer to have each other around if only to look at and use once in awhile for our pleasure. SA: Stumbled right into my trap, didnt you? Once you tie the right to life to some objective feature or other, you make that right doubly conditional. First, if people have a variety of features, which we clearly do, then only people with the desirable ones would have the right to live. Thus, following up on your example, wed have a license to shoot ugly men and women in the streets. Second, you make the right to life an instrumental one that depends on our goals. An asexual person, for example, who isnt interested in physical beauty, would have the right to kill beautiful and ugly people alike, just as someone who isnt interested in cutting anything would be justified in doing away with

310 diamonds. Likewise, you might say that respecting each others life is an efficient way to get what we want in society, since people are more successful in such a peaceful arrangement than in the wild. But again, that makes the right to life an instrumental rather than an unconditional one and dependent on the usefulness of society. Do rich people with their own security force, food supply, and so on, have the right to kill the poor, because the rich can take care of themselves and so dont have to respect others as a means of ensuring their welfare? NA: No, I suppose not. Fine, then, we deserve to live not because our freedom is rare or because were useful in certain ways, but because...well, I cant think of the reason offhand. SA: Do you see the problem now? What youre looking for is a secular justification for the monotheistic presumption that human life is unconditionally, inalienably, absolutely good. Theres no such justification, and thats evidence of the startling historical transition that troubled Nietzsche. So wheres the delusion, you ask? The delusion is in presuming that business can continue as usual in secular societies despite the fact that something as fundamental as the human right to life is at the very least no longer obvious once we bury God. The delusion is in paying lip service to politically correct myths and memes about our preciousness despite the fact that scientists have shown were just less-hairy mammals with peculiar linguistic tools. Where is the call for sanctimonious praise of ourselves, given the scientific point of view? Sure, were the smartest, most powerful known animals. But in our recent cultured form, weve been around for only fifty thousand years. Dinosaur and insect species have thrived for millions, and yet wed hunt dinosaurs for food or sport if they were still around, just as we actually hunt or domesticate their reptilian and avian relatives, and we swat insects without thinking twice. Even if we reigned for billions of years--and not just over the Earth but the whole galaxy--would that great power show that human life is good? Would might make right?

311 NA: Youre really starting to pontificate now, arent you? Im trying to understand what bothers you so much about secular humanism. Alright, so philosophy gets more complicated once we dispense with theology, and naturally most people are too busy to dwell on these disturbing questions, relying on pat answers to get by. Is your point, then, that carefree rather than melancholy or anxious atheists tend to be secular humanists rather than existential cosmicists and that the former are somehow inferior to the latter? SA: Ethically and aesthetically inferior, yes. Once again, we can define these terms in different ways, but in so far as a secular humanist or a New Atheist opposes spirituality as superstition or as otherwise misplaced in a functional modern society, in which democratic and capitalistic business hums along, theres something very wrongheaded about that kind of atheism, I think. Its not just that certain vices are involved in resting content with delusions and conventional happy-talk, including cowardice, gullibility, and incuriosity, nor is it just the feeling that the hypocrisy of condemning theism while unconsciously assimilating a host of pragmatic modern myths, which perpetuate stealth oligarchies, is aesthetically off-putting. Theres also a non-normative problem with modern, allegedly nonreligious atheism, which is, as I said, that this kind seems unsustainable. As we speak--and for decades now--the modern has seemed to give way to the postmodern. This is complicated, to be sure, but what seems to have happened is that weve become too rational for our own good. Weve become hyper-skeptical, like The Simpsons cartoon or The Daily Show, which satirize everything under the sun. Weve been burned so many times, we think, but we wont get fooled again. Certainly, we wont be so foolish as to fool ourselves, by pretending that someones opinions are true for anyone else. Were suspicious of all metanarratives, holding all truth and value to be highly subjective and relative. We reduce theories to biases of gender, class, or of some clique. Everyones partisan, no one should be trusted to speak for another, and each ego reigns supreme in its own fragmentary world. Even the messianic Obama triumphed over McCain by pretending to empower everyone but himself, encouraging his supporters to shout Yes, we can! like

312 the 2006 Time Magazine cover which featured a mirror, proclaiming that everyone was Person of the Year. How long can this so-called postmodern state of affairs endure? Will the strain of being hyper-skeptical finally fatigue us so that we Westerners will fall prey to demagogues and impose secular dictatorships on ourselves? The radicalization of the right-wing in the United States isnt encouraging on that front. My point, though, is that if allegedly nonreligious atheism is unstable, because those atheists replace comforting theistic myths with flimsy secular ones about the glories of democracy, capitalism, and human nature, we should have something at the ready in case the whole secular edifice crumbles. Again, my spirituality is an attempt to salvage meaning from the very worstcase scenario. Thus, I push scientific and naturalistic conclusions to their philosophical extremes, as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Lovecraft, and Thomas Ligotti do, and I search for an honourable way to live under those dire circumstances. This makes for spiritual and not just philosophical atheism, because this search is sacred to me; its what matters most. NA: I dont have time now to ask you about the details of your existentialism and cosmicism. Instead, I wonder whether you should simply get real. The threat of extreme theism far outweighs the danger that modern societies might implode. Mainstream religion is bad for women and fundamentalism is more dangerous than ever before since the invention of weapons of mass destruction. So while your spiritual atheism may not be as harmful as antiscientific New Age obscurantism, your doom and gloom message could only hinder the New Atheists efforts against the worst foe. Strategically, indeed, your so-called spirituality plays into the worst stereotypes about atheism, that atheism implies that life is meaningless, that everythings permitted, that our situations hopeless, and so on. SA: And you prefer to whitewash naturalistic atheism, pretending that now that Gods dead, we can cheerfully get on with enjoying our lives, like the atheistic billboards say. I dont know how many potential converts to atheism would retreat to their churches and

313 mosques were they to suspect that atheism has a dark side. Anyway, both exoteric and esoteric levels of a value system tend to be needed to suit peoples differences. The atheism of anyone who would retreat to theism were they to hear of existential cosmicism surely wouldnt have been worthy in the first place. But this is all idle chatter, because deluded folks lack the interest or the intelligence to discover the unsettling truth. Even were existential cosmicism shouted from the rooftops, most people either wouldnt care enough to be shaken or would lack the philosophical discipline to understand the implications. The separation between the exoteric and esoteric levels of a value system happens organically in that respect. And to return to the question of whether atheists ought to be happy, I suppose the answer depends on whether theyre ready to confront our tragic existential predicament, as entailed by naturalistic atheism (that theres no afterlife, no guarantee of justice or fairness from the cosmos, no absolute morality, no reason not to feel alienated from nature). Those who are ready tend to view happiness, in the sense of being content and well-adjusted to life as an absurdly smart and doomed primate, as ludicrously extravagant. Sure, theists like William Lane Craig portray atheism in the worst light to keep their fellow sheep in line. Those theistic fear-mongers go wrong not in pointing out that naturalistic atheism has troubling implications, but in assuming that we have no constructive options for dealing with them. Centuries before Christianity even began, Buddhists gave the lie to that pessimism, inventing naturalistic psychotherapy and pursuing atheistic enlightenment. As for your earlier charge that existential cosmicism is juvenile, its hard to take that seriously. Even were teenagers to tend to go through a melancholy, angst-ridden phase, to say that all forms of such worry in adults are therefore naive would be a straightforward case of the genetic fallacy. After all, there remains the possibility that teenagers are in a unique position to appreciate some dark truths, as they occupy a

314 twilight period in which they acquire greater cognitive skills while yet lacking adult responsibilities and thus the pressure to accept uplifting conventional wisdom. NA: Well, Im still not sure that secular humanism is a religion except in a uselessly stretched sense, but Im glad to hear that there seems a kind of spirituality thats friendly to science, atheism, and naturalism--besides Buddhism, I mean. By the way, what reason would you give for the wrongness of murder? Or is existential cosmicism compatible with Nazism or with some other hideous slaughter of millions in the name of a utopian ideal? SA: Thats a good question. The New Atheists dismissal of the connection between Nazism and atheism is often pitifully weak, as though Hitlers alleged Christianity would speak to the whole of Nazism. Even had Hitler been the Pope of Rome, the fact is that Nazism was an original, eclectic cult of personality that upheld the modern ideal of the creative genius, not to mention a thoroughly Darwinian and instrumentalistic perspective according to which people arent intrinsically valuable, a perspective shared by most powerful people throughout history, who tend to be educated and thus skeptical of commonplace religion. As weve gone through, it remains difficult for naturalistic atheists to justify the UNs platitudes about the universality of human rights--not that the theist is in any superior position, of course, but an atheist ought to have higher standards. Anyway, as for how I deal with this question, I affirm with the Buddhist that all human life is valuable and ought to be protected, and I ground this value in boundless pity for those who suffer just by living in our accursed condition. This pity, in turn, develops just from confronting the harsh truths that make for existential cosmicism. Once you look in horror at nature, abandoning all comforting myths--including the secular humanistic ones--as mere moves in an inhumane cosmic process, its hard to retain the ego to dominate fellow forlorn creatures. On the contrary, the more natural response to that quasimystical enlightenment is a feeling of alienation--literally of being thrown in an alien prison, surrounded by fellow prisoners most of whom live in a fantasy world like the hallucinating victims in the Matrix or like the shackled captives of Platos Cave.

315 Aesthetically, the notion of exploiting anyone as pitiful and doomed as yourself, of murdering them and so on, is just grotesque. Of course, this raises the question of suicide. Again, were there nothing constructive to be done about our plight, as some theists like to misrepresent the dark side of atheism, perhaps murder or suicide would be appropriate. But that is a misrepresentation which egregiously understates our heroic power to creatively cope with natural affronts to our modest dignity.


Buddhism and Existential Angst ____________________________________________________

In the Introduction, I ranted against the popular belief that our ultimate goal should be happiness. Our tragedy, I said, is that were equipped with high degrees of consciousness, reason, and freedom, which enable us to appreciate what I called Our Existential Situation (OES). This situation is roughly equivalent to our worst nightmare, implying that life for most of us is effectively hell on earth. Our situation as intelligent animals, thrown into the world, as the existentialist philosopher Heidegger said, is defined by ironies, by the worlds being different from how wed prefer it to be. For example, theistic and New Age fantasies are all wildly off the mark, logically and empirically speaking. Those differences between our nave, anthropocentric picture of the world and the modern scientific picture of it, are results not of any demonic design, but of the inhumanity of the natural forces that put us here in the midst of cosmic evolution. In short, this is the worst possible world, from a humane standpoint. A Satanic dominion over the universe would be preferable to dominion by mindless natural forces, because Satan would at least be a person, albeit an evil one, and were personhood at the root of reality, we could at least take comfort that the universe and thus life and our position have meaning. Our purpose would be to serve as Satans playthings. Were this the case, we might even succumb to Stockholm Syndrome and come to approve of that

317 demonic plan. As it stands in the Lovecraftian, scientific picture, though, theres no such meaning and no such comfort. Were alienated from reality and thus from ourselves, because we view the world through the filter of our ideals, which project onto the world what isnt there, such as the ultimate propriety of our pursuit of those ideals. Our values are either means by which natural forces drive us to perpetuate some stage in a natural process or are free-standing creations of our imagination. Either way, our confidence in their propriety is usually grotesque. Our most popular goal is to be happy, to be successful and contented with the pleasures we earn. This goal is certainly attainable to some extent or other, but were aesthetically, if not also ethically, obligated not to seek happiness as our ultimate good. Instead, we ought to be anxious and pained as a result of our knowledge of OES. The existentialists remedy, of hopeless rebellion in the alien face of inhumane nature, is nobler and more aesthetically compelling than the Aristotelian reduction of our ethical purpose to our narrow biological function. Our narrow function is to stop investigating whats really going on, and to merely survive and sexually perpetuate our genetic code. If we do that, as most people in fact do, raising a family and committing ourselves to various delusions that serve that biological end, we become more or less happy, whether were rich or poor or whether were born beautiful or physically disabled. We then live at peace with ourselves and with the world, despite the fact that that peace is as obscene as the peace of slaves in the Matrix, or in the philosopher Robert Nozicks Happiness Machine (a thought experiment about a virtual reality simulator that caters to our fantasies, enabling a person to live successfully in a dream world that may differ tremendously from the real one).

The Buddhist Critique

So I averred in that rant on happiness. There is, however, an interesting Buddhist critique of this grim existentialism, which runs as follows. My talk of OES, of a gulf between the conscious, free, intelligent person and the rest of the nature assumes that that person is an independent, self-contained essence, detached from the world.

318 Instead, according to the Buddhist principles of Interdependent Arising (IA) and of emptiness, there are no such essences anywhere in the universe: everything is in flux, ever-changing and interdependent. Instead of things, there are phases of processes. A persons mind consists entirely of such flowing transitions, from one mental state to the next, with no unified self tying them together. There is no immaterial spirit or essence that is the bearer of particular thoughts and feelings. Therefore, there can be no gap between a person and the rest of the world; on the contrary, a person is interconnected with the world, since both are bound up in natural processes that unite them. For example, we breathe oxygen from the outer environment and exhale carbon dioxide which plants in turn absorb. According to Buddhism, when nature is understood in terms of cycles and processes that are empty of essences or of thinghood, we can appreciate the source of our anxieties: our delusion of an independent self causes us to crave an unsuitable permanence or stability, an impossible control over those processes for our benefit. We build walls to protect us from the natural flux, including literal walls and conceptual frameworks that amount to fantasies. That defense against free-flowing natural reality and the self-righteous, egoistic justifications of that defense are wrongheaded, for the Buddhist. There is no such thing as an ego, or as a single, autonomous self that can possibly bear the brunt of cosmic indifference or win for itself pleasure rather than suffering. There are only interdependent stages of cycles that unite all that there is in nature. My existential rant, then, according to Buddhism, is based on a self-righteous delusion-as if there could be anything wrong with natures inhumane treatment of sentient beings, given that there are no such beings, because there are no beings at all. Assuming this Buddhist anti-essentialism, the enlightened attitude is bemused detachment as opposed to unrealistic craving. We should carefully observe changes in the processes we encounter, instead of crying like babies when were disappointed that we dont get what we want. If theres no such thing as a self, theres no realistic basis for thinking theres a gap between natures inhumanity and our anthropocentric values. Natural forces arent

319 alien to us; instead, were shot through with those forces, and since theres no self to protect from careless nature, we ought to observe the flux from an objective, aesthetic distance, watching each thought pop into our minds like so many frames in a reel of animated images. Instead of suffering from resentment, like the boy who holds his breath when his mother refuses to buy him his coveted toy, we can relish all changes, including painful ones, as ever more data to scrutinize with a connoisseurs eye for artistic detail. The enlightened Buddhas nirvana is like an art critics peace from being able to freely judge an artwork from a distance, with no reality-based pressure to cling to one judgment or another. Unlike, say, the artist who worries about not receiving the praise she craves, who complains when her art doesnt suit the critics taste and thus when she loses the job offer she desperately wants to be able to afford a larger apartment, and so on and so forth, the art critic--we can assume with some simplification--enjoys the freedom that comes from aesthetic detachment. And its this detachment that the bitter, angst-ridden existentialist seems to lack. Theres no need for any suffering at all, including so-called dutiful or heroic suffering in defiance of whats actually a non-existent abyss between what there really is and what we ultimately want. In short, from a Buddhist perspective, my account of OES is based on egoistic conceptions, and thus my prescription thats supposed to replace the politically correct one of happiness, is itself deluded.

Buddhism and Existentialism

The obvious response to Buddhism is to insist that there are beings, including selves, after all, and that therefore existential angst can be justified. Indeed, there may be a mere semantic dispute here. What non-Buddhists call the self, the Buddhist may call a phase of a process. Moreover, while nothing in nature may be absolutely independent, some things or processes may be more or less independent; hence, the usefulness of concepts that posit similarities between things (or processes) that hold despite their differences. What are commonly called selves have more in common with each other-their cognitive faculties, their genotypes and phenotypes, and so on--than they do, say,

320 with asteroids or with peanut butter. To explain those distinguishing features, we categorize their bearers as instances of a type, and we theorize about them, generalizing for the sake of understanding. For example, we say that humans are persons and thus different from other animal species in certain respects. Were we to stop with the Buddhist principle that everything is interdependent and united, we wouldnt understand any of the patterns in nature; that is, we wouldnt yet be generalizing about the differences and similarities we observe. In short, scientists and ordinary people alike generalize, making use of concepts to explain patterns, and in the case of our patterns, this requires talk of the self. Finally, even if the Buddhist is correct that everything is interrelated at some level of explanation, relative independencies can emerge at higher levels. At the quantum level, particles may be mostly entangled with each other in superpositions, but regularities emerge as subatomic interactions develop complex forms, like the chemical elements, the stars and planets, and all the myriad species on Earth, including people. But I dont want to rest with those head-on answers. Instead, I want to grant the Buddhists anti-essentialist assumptions for the sake of argument, and question whether those assumptions really divide the Buddhist much from the angst-ridden existentialist. I begin by asking why the Buddhist is interested in ending human suffering. After all, as is apparent from the Four Noble Truths, the whole point of Buddhism is to end our suffering, or dukkha, meaning all varieties of disappointment. But on the assumption that everything is interdependent and part of a cosmic process, why the Buddhists compassion for the deluded stages of that process--naively called persons--which suffer from futile cravings? Shouldnt the Buddhist fatalistically infer that that suffering is a necessary part of the cosmic process, which the Buddhist should objectively observe along with all of the other parts? At first glance, it looks as though the Buddhist presupposes that some interdependent processes--naively called persons--have special value due to their capacity for disappointment and their autonomy which allows them to change their course for the better, to become enlightened and end their miseries. In fact, Buddhists also take on

321 board, along with Hindus, the theodicy of samsara and moksha, which is to say the ideas that the cosmos of which were a part is a bad place to inhabit, obligating us to liberate ourselves from the cycle of rebirth. Enlightenment, or nirvana, is freedom from nature by way of emptying ourselves of the flotsam and jetsam that wash up on the shores of our minds, borne by the waves of natural forces. When we detach from our desires, we no longer feel disappointed when we fail to get what we want, because we no longer want anything; our suffering ends and we enjoy the art critics bliss of academic freedom. Now, that theodicy has much in common with what I call Our Existential Situation. In both cases, theres a condemnation of the cosmos. Buddhisms focus on ending dukkha might even presuppose that condemnation: suffering ought to be ended, because suffering inherits the badness of the rest of nature, being a stage of interdependent natural cycles, spun by inhumane forces. But these normative judgments of the prison of samsara and of the obligation to liberate ourselves dont sit well with the Buddhists metaphysical principle of IA. If everything is interlocked as stages of a cosmic process of evolution, theres no metaphysical basis for speaking of liberation from that process. Most people may be deluded, entranced by fantasies that bind them to degrading, punishing natural forces, while a minority manage to free their minds and enjoy the peace of carelessness and the pleasure of objective, aesthetic study of natural reality. However, both groups would surely be different stages in the same cosmic process. Enlightened Buddhists dont transcend nature in the sense of reaching a supernatural vantage point overlooking the whole universe, but merely discover an alternative natural way of life. If we stress the principle of IA, were left with an amoral perspective on what is empirically just a series of interrelated processes. Once again, then, I ask why the Buddhist is preoccupied with ending disappointment and short-circuiting its causes, delusion and craving. An authentically Buddhist answer would seem to appeal to aesthetics rather than to morality, which is why I compared the Buddha to an art critic. Above all, Buddhists are empiricists: they observe that everything is mixed together in a

322 great flux of transitions. Enlightenment gives them the freedom simply of extreme objectivity, of detachment from biases and personal inclinations. A Buddha perceives natural reality as a process rather than as a host of independent things. And in that objective frame of mind, the enlightened Buddhist creates a taste, an aesthetic style of appreciating natural art, as it were, a new bias that befits a Buddhas radical shift in perspective, rather than a passively received bias that flows in and out of the deluded mind. In Nietzschean terms, the Buddha is, to this extent, an bermensch, a hero who overcomes harsh natural obstacles and creates original values. On my existential view, this enlightened creativity is a rebellion that gives our lives meaning and holds off the insanity with which esoteric knowledge of OES threatens us. The Buddhist may interpret the need for compassion differently, but he or she seems forced to admit that compassion is gratuitous, given the metaphysics of IA. The enlightened Buddhist merely chooses to become a Bodhisattva, a liberator of others from their delusions and thus from their sufferings. That is, an enlightened person faces a choice: to enter nirvana and renounce not only her desires but those of everyone else, to live alone somewhere on a mountain top, or to teach others how to achieve the same inner peace. That choice, Im suggesting, is caused by an enlightened taste for one path or the other. Nothing forces the enlightened person to care about other peoples suffering--least of all individualistic morality that holds one process (the self) to be metaphysically (as opposed to aesthetically) more valuable than another (say, dirt or an asteroid), contradicting the monistic assumption of IA. Some enlightened people prefer the natural process of life on this planet that includes less craving and disappointment, owing to the Bodhisattvas work. Likewise, some art critics prefer one style of art to another. Given this aesthetic interpretation of Buddhist compassion, theres another commonality between Buddhism and my existentialism: the choice to confront the horrors of nature by a renunciation of whats naturally expected of us. My problem with happiness is that emotional contentment is aesthetically and ethically unsuited to creatures with dark esoteric knowledge. These creatures should be anxious and melancholic, not at ease

323 with themselves or their position. The cause of happiness, I said, is ignorance of Our Existential Situation or some delusion that stands in for knowledge. Likewise, the Buddhist renounces the so-called pleasures that derive from egoistic delusions, as so many forms of what is ultimately disappointment. The difference is that the Buddhist opposes dukkha whereas I oppose the popular notion of happiness. But this difference may not be as significant as it seems. In the first place, my condemnation of happiness as a degrading abomination isnt the same as a rejection of pleasure following the achievement of any goal whatsoever. The problem isnt pleasure or success of any kind, but just that which depends on ignorance of OES. There may well be a kind of pleasure or contentment in renouncing a conventional way of life, a sort of rebels or Gnostics glee of being an insider rather than a hapless member of the herd. This wouldnt be happiness, but gallows humour, a way of coping with the melancholy that accompanies a commitment to existential philosophy. Just as the Buddhists notion of dukkha is broad enough to interpret vulgar pleasures as forms of suffering, I interpret vulgar happiness as an obscenity and an abomination, owing to its dependence on pitiful fantasy. Moreover, enlightened Buddhists certainly arent happy in a materialistic sense; theyre contented with the peace that follows from their mystical vision of cosmic connectedness. But while they dont suffer, neither do they feel joy or any other satisfaction caused by the achievement of whats personally desired. In fact, their personality disappears with the attachment to their desires. They become empty, which is to say alienated from the world in so far as that world is egoistically conceived. To this extent, a Buddha isnt a Nietzschean bermensch, since while a Buddha may accept the natural flux as it is, without weak-minded illusions, a Buddha still withdraws from the world, disengaging from her own desires. In any case, a Bodhisattva seems even less happy than a Buddha. After all, compassion for other peoples plight is a form of suffering. Empathy is the feeling of someone elses pain as your own. If empathy informs a Bodhisattvas taste for compassion, this sort of enlightened Buddhist is similar to the existentialist who responds to the duty to renounce opportunities for personal

324 contentment, out of awe at the magnitude of our tragedy. Both suffer for their knowledge, the Bodhisattva who understands the absurd needlessness of suffering caused by egoism, and the existentialist who appreciates the grotesqueness of pleasures that require ignorance or intellectual cowardice. Both affirm that the vulgar form of happiness is the flowering of delusion and is thus aesthetically if not also ethically degrading.

Nirvana and Angst

In short, Buddhism has much in common with my Lovecraftian existentialism. But what of the main point of the Buddhists critique, that existential angst is egoistic and therefore foolish? Is angst compatible with an acceptance of Buddhist antiessentialism? Certainly, if everything were really one and all concepts that differentiate were misrepresentations, angst would rest on confusion, since angst presupposes a gap between the self and the world from which the self is alienated. But Buddhist monism isnt so extreme. The principle of IA implies not that everything is one, but that everything is interconnected as transitions in a flux. One transition must still differ from another for their interdependence to be possible. So the more relevant question is whether one part of a process can be alienated from another. And the answer is obviously that there can be such alienation. After all, on the Buddhists own assumptions, the cosmic flux includes a phase consisting of deluded people whose consequent disappointments amount to ways of being alienated from reality. To preserve our fragile egos and our pride and vainglorious ambition, we pretend that each individual is absolutely independent, and even that each is imbued by an immaterial spirit and thus deserving of his or her successes (and failures). If no one is so independent, the egoistic lifestyle becomes absurd. The Buddhist seems led to say, then, that egoism is the unenlightened persons means of avoiding a confrontation with the reality of everythings interconnectedness in the cosmic process. This confrontation produces either angst or, if the person is properly prepared, enlightenment and nirvana.


I would go further, though, and suggest that angst and nirvana are fundamentally the same. Nirvana is said to be transcendent peace and freedom from suffering, due to hyper-objectivity and attentiveness to everythings interrelatedness, and to an antipathy to egoism. But the Bodhisattvas compassion makes for a kind of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, this mostly-enlightened Buddhist is free from ego-based suffering; on the other, this person feels compassion for the unenlightened herd, which can mean only that the Bodhisattva feels their egoistic pain. This is quite comparable to the twosidedness of an existentialists life experience. On the one hand, the existentialist is naturally compelled to satisfy her animalistic appetites, to achieve certain goals for the sake of her survival; on the other, this person is barred from happiness by her appreciation of OES and is forced to endure angst. This cognitive dissonance is in each case the curse of dangerous esoteric knowledge, whether of IA or of OES. While the enlightened Buddhist finds that knowledge uplifting, she must admit that were everyone to affirm Buddhist principles, modern civilization would be undone. Buddhist mysticism is destructive to the ego, just as Lovecraftian existentialism destroys optimistic delusions. In addition, nirvana and angst are both forms of alienation. The Buddhist may feel mystically at one with the cosmos, but by refusing to take ownership of anything, including her thoughts and feelings, she casts herself adrift. Shes an outcast, surrounded by egoistic animals that chase after their mirages of power and pleasure. As I said, the Buddhist is alienated from the egoistically-conceived world. Most people think of the world in anthropocentric terms, and so the Buddhist is alienated from all of these people and from the social games that vain persons play. The existentialist is just as alienated, refusing to pragmatically submit to optimistic delusions and horrified by the tragic ironies that dominate our absurd lives. Furthermore, as I suggested, nirvana and angst force the mystic to make aesthetic rather than moral choices. The Buddhist and the existentialist are each like an art critic: theyre alienated observers, objectively scrutinizing all of nature as a sort of

326 meaningless, postmodern artwork. From what the philosopher Thomas Nagel called the view from nowhere, or what Spinoza and other philosophers call the Gods eye view or the perspective from eternity, which is just merciless objectivity, we learn the grim truths that mock all of our dreams and illusions. Nirvana and angst are both uncompromising, mystical perspectives that compel the Buddhist or the Lovecraftian existentialist to renounce the fruits of false hope. The difference between nirvana and angst lies only in the interpretation of whats perceived from the viewpoint of alienating objectivity. The Buddhist is trained to think in terms of liberation from a world of suffering, whereas the existentialist regards certain suffering as ennobling. The Buddhist meditates to escape from the debris blown through her mind on cosmic winds, while the existentialist uses angst as the song inspired by her muse, by the Lovecraftian cosmic god, for example, which is just a symbol for the inhumane cosmos. Again, though, the Buddhist escapes suffering only by severing herself completely from human life. As long as she remains at best a Bodhisattva, she suffers from compassion and must regard her altruism as an absurd, purely aest