During the last few centuries, the philosophy underlying Western culture has gradually been molded to increasingly resist and counter religious impulses, the effects of which have manifested themselves especially intensely in recent decades. For better or worse, less and less people seem to believe in any god or religious manifestations, care about its scriptures, or participate in meetings and rituals. This might be said to be “the end of faith”, as the popular atheist writer Sam Harris has described it.
Already over 140 years ago, Friedrich Nietzsche recognized this effect of the Enlightenment and declared that “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” What did he really mean by this ominous phrase? How could God have died, whether he did previously exist as an omnipotent being or just as a figment of our imagination? Although Nietzsche tended to be rather skeptical of religious ideas, especially metaphysical claims like the existence of a God, he did not appear to consider this event insignificant by any measure. He continues,
What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
The last sentence here is especially vital, for if God is somehow dead, are we humans to replace it, and in that case, how could we possibly do that? Nietzsche eventually devised the idea of the übermensch (lit: over-man/superman), who would be stronger and smarter than average humans: as high above current humans as we are above the apes. The modern atheists seem to have strongly internalized a version of this conviction, arguing that absent the “mental prison” of religion, people can develop to be much more reasonable and moral than they used to be. With this boundary broken, will humanity ultimately end up as angels or demons? Or perhaps just numb goblins wandering around in our Brave New World? Only time will tell.
Given the direct attacks that have increasingly been levied against religion as a general institution, a fundamental question of interest we must address is why religion developed in the first place. In a previous article, I’ve argued that tradition in itself isn’t good or bad; it depends on the contents thereof, and must be analyzed and assessed accordingly. Religion too is a tradition; arguably the longest tradition in human history. Regardless of how it has later been misused, no one man could on his own create a religion out of nothing and gather a flock around him to believe it without said flock already in one way or another being primed to do so, be it related to biological wiring, environmental effects, or a mixture thereof.
How, then, could religion have first come about? We may never know for sure what occurred inside the minds of the early believers, only archaeological discoveries of what kind of creatures and rituals appear to have been involved, but what I believe ultimately triggered this development is the emergence of consciousness at one point or another during our evolution as Homo sapiens. Whenever this may have occurred, I hold this conviction due to it being integrally connected to us achieving our free will.
No longer were we merely subjects controlled by our biological wiring and environment; we became able to reflect over own experiences, the consequences of our actions, and the notions of right and wrong. While ants build anthills, beavers build dams, and lions hunt prey due to those features being inherent in their very nature, the early human beings could begin sketching their own trajectories. Going from animal to man, in this regard, established the need for a framework of morality; how to act and how not to act in a personal and social context. As the Rabbi Daniel Lapin phrased it in Business Secrets From The Bible,
We must not act like animals, for animals have no moral compass. What distinguishes us from animals is our spirituality. And where is our spirituality? Our head is its reservoir, that container for our spiritual strength.
This did not, however, come without drawbacks, as it was arguably the first “red pill” moment in history. With freedom comes responsibilities, and emotions like anxiety, depression, and guilt joined along, which would only be an evolutionary burden to most, if not all, other animals. Lapin elaborates,
Animals act on instinct. You probably have never met a lazy wolf or an obese elephant, just as you have also never known an animal that overeats or underexercises. Only human beings have these faults and virtues. Only we humans have to hone our discipline and persistence through education and training.
It is this period I consider the Bible’s description of the garden of Eden to metaphorically describe: the time when all decisions and judgments were made for us, until we became conscious and both able and required to do that on our own, and on our arduous journey increasingly manage to distinguish between good and bad conduct. Needless to say, I interpret religious texts metaphorically, and consider both believers and non-believers, ironically enough, to miss out on a lot of its philosophical value by taking all its meaning literally. Religious scripture is not like academic science papers – believe it or not – and I consider a lot of its important points to be missed both by those who merely ventures to find any flaw in its empirical claims whatsoever and those who accept all of its claims without question.
About forty years prior to Nietzsche’s first declaration that “God is dead”, Max Stirner described the effort of trying to prove the existence of God as being in vain due to being mere personifications of mental phenomena:
This task man set to themselves for thousands of years; with the horrible impossibility […] of transforming the spook into a non-spook, the unreal into something real, the spirit into an entire and corporeal person – with this they torment themselves to death. Behind the existing world they sought the ‘thing in itself, the essence’; behind the thing, they sought the un-thing.
Although this quote contains similarities with modern atheists sneering at religious ideas as imaginary, I think it can also help us further understand religion, as well as its underlying purpose. Distinguishing the psychological dimension (what occurs inside the minds of the believers) of religion from the ontological one (what is objectively real or not), I consider many religious beliefs to be explained by psychological forces involved in the conflict for dominance in the psyche being extrapolated as real entities.
In Greek and Norse mythology, the gods represented various emotions like love; natural events and entities like lightning and oceans; and even abstract notions like justice, war, and wisdom. Meanwhile, in the Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – which hitherto has prevailed, the concepts represented as gods were merely “good” and “evil” as polar opposites. The Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote that “the line between good and evil crosses every human heart.” Humans have the capacity of doing both good and evil, and based on their actions can either bring a little more of heaven or hell on earth.
Through mythology and religion, such concepts were personified, and could be used as characters in tales whose experiences and choices would inspire people for thousands of years to reflect on their way of life and what principles they should live their lives by. Such stories still captivate even the most atheistic of us, as many great movies, TV-shows, and fiction books are even today heavily based on one religious/mythological story or another. It entertains us, for some reason, to see the potential of the absolute extremities that the human body and spirit can tolerate in this format; how they handle making difficult decisions under pressure; as well as how their experiences allow them to live determined and meaningful lives. Stirner further added that rather than replacing religion,
Liberalism simply brought other concepts on the carpet; human instead of divine, political instead of ecclesiastical, “scientific” instead of doctrinal, or, more generally, real concepts and eternal laws instead of “crude dogmas” and precepts.
The worship of the political – the State – is a matter I’ve already extensively discussed previously (especially here and here); as a contrast to (or arguably subcategory of) religious rituals, the State becomes a god, with all its rituals and jargon designed to maintain the religion of politics.
Religion can be used both as a tool for submission and empowerment, and politics embodies the former while disguising itself as the latter. The demands of flawed men are to be held as sacred and followed diligently even if they deeply disturb one’s conscience and dignity, and this political class have their lackeys defending their every move, no matter how tyrannical. Both religious and atheistic acolytes regularly fall prey to this most dishonorable form of subjugation; the propaganda doesn’t discriminate. “Thy shall have no other god before me” be damned.
The worst may at any point be unleashed when the ruler has no conscience or moral boundary to restrict his worst impulses. During the first century AD, even years of moral advising by philosophers like Lucius A. Seneca (the Younger) and Sextus Burrus in his early age couldn’t curb Nero’s worst impulses for long, who ended up as a dictator executing any potential threat to his power, including his own mother, and set Rome ablaze only to subsequently scapegoat Christian believers. This mantle was long passed throughout the following millennia, and had its heyday in the 20th century, with Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong on its forefront.
None of this is to say that nonreligious people cannot be moral. It’s rather that without reflection over the moral quality of our decisions, we are vulnerable to be fooled by our instincts and moral manipulation to act dishonorably. Ethical frameworks that have already been elaborated extensively by others throughout history can provide us some pointers in the right direction, whether that be in the form of religion or philosophy. It requires venturing on one’s own journey for truth to qualitatively distinguish what is good and bad advice from these sources, and reflection for how to apply it in our everyday decisions.
In my experience, Stoicism (see: How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci) and Existentialism (see: The Existentialist Survivor Guide by Gordon Marino) have been indispensable for the philosophical aspect of my quest, and the primary religious material I’ve focused on is the Bible and second-hand Christian literature, but though I believe these to provide great value for improving one’s moral foundations (i.e. soul), I must also say that an authentic search for truth cannot be selective, and a great variety of religious and philosophical content should therefore be investigated if one is serious about this quest.
Regardless of whether a god exist, or what form it may take and abilities it may possess if it does, and whether the religious scriptures are mostly myth or legitimate historical content, it’s how the stories we are told by religious scriptures and philosophers of human nature that ultimately matters for how we distinguish between right and wrong, and how we make our decisions based on that judgement. Oftentimes, there’s a lot more commonalities between different religions and philosophies than is perceived at first glance, for “whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes (1 John 2:11).” No matter what philosophy or religion your fellow man has, wish him the best (or pray for him), and that he’ll make the right decisions in times of difficulty.
Having such hope for humanity generally may seem naïvely optimistic to some, but remember that culture is borne from expectations, and motivating others, as well as oneself to be better, can at the very least become the basis for a gradually improving society. As J.W. Goethe once wrote, “Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean.” In other words, it all starts with you. So now, “waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one (Marcus Aurelius).”