On January 16, I am going to talk with Sam Harris, on his podcast, Waking Up with Sam Harris. Dr. Harris is one of the so-called New Atheists, of which there are four. Like the other three Christopher Hitchens, Dan Dennett and Richard Dawkins – who, by the way, I have always wanted particularly to debate — Dr. Harris is a smart guy, and I’m certainly not complaining that I will encounter him, instead of Dawkins. So I am preparing my arguments, carefully (although I have been doing so for years. The specific ideas I am going to share with you today were obsessing me the moment I woke up, somewhat fitfully, this morning, so I dictated them to my son, and then edited them.
The central problem of human beings isn’t religion, as the New Atheists insist. It’s tribalism. We know this in part because chimps, our closest biological kin, go to war, and they are not religious, although they are tribal. Tribalism also has a central problem — and it’s not competition, despite the tendency of competition to produce, at least temporarily, winners and losers. it’s cooperation, because cooperation is what allows us to exist as bounded groups. A group, by definition is a collective cooperatively aiming at something. It can’t be aimed at nothing, because nothing cannot unite. It only divides. Thus, attacks on collective purpose, because of its tendency to produce tribalism, merely divides. The politics of identity, which emerge when the central purpose is criticized too destructively, inevitably produce the situation described in the story of the Tower of Babel: Everyone fragments into primitive tribes and speaks their own language.
One alternative to fragmentation is union under a banner – a collective ideal, cause, or purpose. The problem with uniting under a banner, as the postmodernists who push identity politics rightly point out, is that to value something means simultaneously to devalue other things. Thus to value is an exclusionary process. But the alternative is valuelessness, which is equivalent to nihilism – and nihilism does not produce freedom from exclusion. It just makes everyone excluded, and that is an intolerable state, directionless, uncertain, chaotic, and angst-ridden. When such uncertainty reaches a critical level, the counter-response appears: first the unconscious and then the collectively expressed demand for a leader, possessed by the spirit of totalitarian certainty, who promises above all, to restore Order. Thus, a society without a unifying principle, oscillates, unmoored, between nihilism and totalitarianism.
Human beings have been wrestling with this problem since the beginning of civilization, when our capacity to form large groups, for all its advantages, also started to pose a new threat: that of the hyper-domination of the state, collective or purpose. But without the state, there is just fragmentation into smaller groups. The group itself cannot be done away with because for better or worse, human beings are social animals, not loners, like sharks or tigers. We’re team players, but being on one team means not being on others. This means that any given team sidelines, marginalizes, and alienates those who cannot play their game, as well as conflicting with other teams.
In the west, starting in the Middle East, thousands of years ago, a new idea began to emerge (evolve is not too strong a word) in the collective imagination. You might, following Dawkins, consider it a meme, although this is far too weak a word. This idea, whose development can be traced back through Egypt to Mesopotamia, before disappearing into unwritten history, is that of the Divine Individual. This eons-old work of the imagination is a dramatic presentation of an emergent idea, which is the solution to how to organize social being without falling prey to nihilistic divisiveness or deceitful totalitarian certainty: The group must unite under the banner of the individual. The individual is the source of the new wisdom that updates the antiquated, nihilistic or totalitarian detritus and glory of the past.
For better for worse, that idea reaches its apogee in Christianity. The divine individual is masculine because the feminine is not individual: The divine feminine is, instead, mother and child. However, it a hallmark of Christian supposition that the redemption of both men and women comes through the masculine, and that is because the masculine is the individual. The central realization – expressed dramatically; symbolically – is that the subordination of the group to the ideal of the Divine Individual is the answer to the paradox of nihilism and totalitarianism.
The Divine Individual is the man that every man admires, and the man whom all women want their men to be. The Divine Individual is the ideal from which deviations are punished by the group with contempt and disgrace and fidelity to which is rewarded with attention and honor. The Divine Individual is not the winner of any individual game but the player who plays fair and is therefore continually invited to play. The Divine Individual is the builder, maintainer and expander of the state, he who boldly goes where no man has gone before, and someone who eternally watches over the widows and the children. His power of direct and honest communication is that which identifies, discusses and resolves the continually emergent problems of human existence. He is the Savior of the World.
The primary image for women is not the Divine Individual, because of the heavy burden they bear for reproduction. It is, instead, the Divine Mother and Child. This is not to say that man is the Divine Individual, and woman is not, although such confusion is understandable, given the complexity of the problem. Men, like women, have the Divine Mother and Child as an element of their personality. In men, however, it’s in the background, so to speak, as the Divine Individual is in the background of the psyche for women. Men, by necessity, play a less primary role in the care of children. This frees them to act as individuals in a manner that up to now has been nearly impossible for women. Identification with these images is belief in them. Belief is not the statement of agreement with a set of facts, but the willingness to act something out, to become something, to stake your life on something. For men and women alike, this means voluntary adoption of responsibility – responsibility for oneself, family and state. In that responsibility, and not in rights, resides Meaning itself – the meaning that makes life bearable.
Societies that refuse to recognize both of these elements therefore doom their inhabitants to purposelessness, unhappiness, sterility, and the aforementioned dangers of nihilistic divisiveness and deceitful, oppressive totalitarian certainty. The meaning in responsibility is the necessary meaning in life, which can serve as a counterbalance to its terrible fragility and tenuousness.
People must unite under the banner, not of their group, and not of nothingness, but of the individual. This is a brilliant and intrinsically paradoxical solution to the problems of nihilistic nothingness and too-rigid group identity alike. It is the consciousness of the individual which transforms the chaos of potential into habitable cosmos, as the greatest origin stories repeatedly insist. It is that same consciousness which stands up, rebellious and revelatory, to break down the pathological and too rigid order of that cosmos when it has become old, infirm, wilfully blind, and corrupt. It is that consciousness which is the image of God. It dwells within every embodied human form. The fact of its existence is the reason that the Law of the Land itself must be bound by ultimate respect for the individual, regardless of his or her sins and crimes.
It is that consciousness, not the objective material substrate of Being, which should be regarded as the ultimate reality. There is no self-evident reason why dead matter should be given ontological primacy over living spirit. Although doing so has produced a massive increase in human technological power, it has left that power in hands of an increasingly disenchanted populace, and that presents a mortal danger. Such power must be wielded by those who have truly and voluntarily accepted the responsibility of Being, lest it prove fatal.
The West has long been the civilised embodiment of the idea of the divine individual, who does exactly that. That’s what the voluntarily lifting of the cross of suffering symbolically represents. For all its faults, which are manifold, the West has therefore served as a shining beacon of hope to those destined to inhabit places too chaotic or too rigid for the human spirit to tolerate. But the West is in grave danger of losing its way. The negative consequences of this can hardly be overstated.
A close reading of 20th century history indicates, as nothing else can, the horrors that accompany loss of faith in the idea of the individual. It is only the individual, after all, who suffers. The group does not suffer – only those who compose it. Thus, the reality of the individual must be regarded as primary if suffering is to be regarded seriously. Without such regard, there can be no motivation to reduce suffering and, therefore, no respite. Instead, the production of individual suffering can and has and will be again rationalized and justified for its supposed benefits for the future and the group.
Effective birth control has emerged as one of the consequences of our powerful technological materialism. This has been accompanied by the rise of states sufficiently civilized so that women who inhabit them can walk the streets unaccompanied in safety. We do not yet know how to balance the opportunities thus provided for expanded female individuality with the eternal necessity for a woman to serve as the Mother of the Divine Individual. Dividing our civilization into polarized ideological camps of female group identity and male group identity is certainly not the answer. We have to be honest, male and female alike, about what we really want, as individuals, and talk it out. We know beyond dispute that societies who emancipate their women are much more productive and peaceful, and that the relationship is causal. Thus, it’s not a matter of if but how.
But such emancipation places a dual burden on the now more autonomous woman, who is required to balance manifesting the potential of her individual spirit with the necessity of desire to bear and rear the next generation of mankind. To live with free women, and gain the advantages of their freedom and sophistication, men must therefore bring their shadowed psychic identification with the Divine Mother and Child into the light, without losing their Divine Individuality in the process. They must consciously, voluntarily, deliberately and strategically accept their responsibility for the relationship between autonomous female companionship, support, love, and the responsibility of producing that next generation. This means rejecting, among other things, the misbegotten idea of casual sexual gratification. Sex is either the impulsive, short-term gratification of a domineering biological impulse, or the union of two conscious spirits taking responsibility for what they are doing. The former is not commensurate with the demands of an advanced civilization, which requires the adoption of responsibility above all for its preservation, maintenance and expansion. It is for this reason that the sexualized interactions between young men and women – in universities, for example — are increasingly and inevitably falling under the harsh and tyrannical regulation of the state.
In the west, we are, as well, shuttering our great cathedrals – those marvelous, monumental embodiments of the idea of the Divine Individual on which our civilisation is based. This is no mere practical, material, matter: it is a symbolic and ideational process whose importance cannot be overstated. Without that central idea, we will dissolve, and be lost. It is time for each of us to consciously realize what the great symbolic stories of the past insist upon: That we are all sons and daughters of the divine Logos, consciousness itself — Bearers of its Light – and that we must act in accordance with that great central fact, lest all hell break loose. This means, above all, to tell the truth and to care for one another, starting at the level of the individual and proceeding from that, out to the broader reaches of society itself. The alternative, as those same stories have also always insisted, is the more permanent instantiation of the horror that we already saw manifest itself in multiple forms, in the last bloody, terrible, century.
We need to wake up, individual man and woman alike, and we need to do it now. Each of us must take the world on our shoulders, insofar as we are capable of that, and adopt individual responsibility for the horrors and suffering its existence entails. In that we will find the Meaning without which Life is merely the suffering that breeds, first, resentment and then the desire for vengeance and destruction. We need to take responsibility, instead of incessantly insisting on our rights. We need to become adults, instead of aged children. We need to tell the truth. We need justice and compassion, conjoined; not judgment and pity, which crush and devour.
So, in the coming year, make yourself a better person. Fix what you can and would fix. Start now. There is something right in front of you, demanding repair, calling out to your conscience, if you would only attend to it, for your corrective efforts, however primitive they may yet be. Start small. As you master the process, you can safely and competently expand your reach. You will then become able to fix bigger things, instead of making them worse, in the arrogance of your ignorance. If you do this, there will be less pointless and unnecessary suffering, and the world, for all its shortcoming and faults, will be a better place.
Until we can imagine better than that, that is Meaning and Purpose enough.
Happy New Year, and best wishes to you all.