How militant atheists stole your sense of meaning to enhance theirs

(Update: a revised, extended and much improved version of this essay has been published in the academic journal SAGE Open and is freely available here.)

The Church Militant, by James Gillray. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This is the amazing story of how militant atheo-materialists—those who doggedly promote the twin narratives of atheism and materialism—have managed to rob many of us of meaning in life so to safeguard and nurture their own sense of meaning. Like greedy capitalists, they enrich themselves with life's most valuable currency at the expense of the majority. You are about to be amazed at how cleverly they've pulled this off, for the secret behind their exquisitely disguised maneuver has never—as far as I am aware—been laid bare before. The disclosure that follows has more than a few controversial twists, but it is also well-substantiated at both theoretical and empirical levels. To make this clear, I've put in the effort to document this essay with all the relevant references and footnotes. So take a deep breath and follow me down this never-talked-about but sobering rabbit hole.

Meaning—in the sense of significance and purpose—is probably the greatest asset any human being can possess. Psychotherapist Victor Frankl, who practiced and led groups while detained in a concentration camp during World War II, asserted that the will-to-meaning is the most dominant human drive, in contrast to Nietzsche’s will-to-power and Freud’s will-to-pleasure.1 Meaning is so powerful that, as Jung remarked, it ‘makes a great many things endurable—perhaps everything.’2 Philip K. Dick’s alter ego Horselover Fat, in the novel Valis, embodies the essence of this drive: ‘Fat had no concept of enjoyment; he understood only meaning,’ wrote Dick.3  Like Fat, many of us—myself included—see meaning as a higher value than power or pleasure. Our motivation to live rests in there being meaning in our lives. Indeed, today we need meaning more than ever. After all, as Paul Tillich lucidly observed, the greatest anxieties of contemporary culture are precisely those of doubt and meaninglessness.4

And here is where proponents of atheo-materialism claim the high-ground: as a worldview that seems to drain the meaning out of life and existence, it can only represent—or so the story goes—a courageous acknowledgement of reality by ‘tough people who face the bleak facts.’5  It must embody an objective assessment of reality, not an emotional, irrational wish-fulfillment maneuver akin to religion. Otherwise, it wouldn’t deny meaning, would it? Compelling as it may seem at first, this argument falls apart upon careful analysis, because its very premise is fallacious.

Indeed, according to the Meaning Maintenance Model (MMM) of social psychology,6 people can derive a sense of meaning from four different sources: self-esteem, closure, belonging and symbolic immortality.  In other words, we can find meaning in life through (a) developing a sense of self-worthiness; (b) resolving doubts and ambiguities; (c) being part of something bigger and longer-lasting than ourselves; and (d) leaving something of significance behind—such as professional achievements—in the form of which we can ‘live on’ after physical death. A society’s mainstream cultural narrative conditions how meaning can be derived from each of these four sources.

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The key idea behind the MMM is that of fluid compensation as a self-defense mechanism: if one of the four sources of meaning is threatened, an individual will tend to automatically compensate by seeking extra meaning from the other three sources. For instance, threats to self-esteem may cause the individual to reaffirm his or her model of reality, thereby bolstering closure. Whatever the case, the goal of fluid compensation is always to restore the sense of meaningfulness after a threat to one’s meaning system.

As Van Tongeren and Green have shown, a transcendent source of meaning, such as religiosity, plays the same role in fluid compensation as the other four sources.7  For instance, individuals tend to reaffirm their religious beliefs following disruption of their meaning system, in an effort to protect the latter. Van Tongeren’s and Green’s experiments have also shown that even subliminal threats to meaning trigger fluid compensation.

With this as background, my hypothesis is that atheo-materialism is a reflection of fluid compensation. In other words, instead of a threat to meaning,  atheo-materialism is actually an attempt to protect and restore meaning by bolstering closure, self-esteem and symbolic immortality.

I submit that an ontological trauma was the original threat that triggered the congealment and mainstream adoption of atheo-materialism. At some point in the nineteenth century, we lost our ability to spontaneously relate to religious myths without linear intellectual scrutiny. From that point on, the myths that had hitherto offered us meaning through the promise of actual immortality and metaphysical teleology became untenable.8  No one has captured this transition better than Friedrich Nietzsche in The Gay Science: ‘“Where has God gone?” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him—you and I. We are his murderers.”’ Left with the prospect of physical deterioration without the path to transcendence offered by an immortal soul, the intellectual elite of the time was forced to face the inexorability of their own mortality. And as we know today from Terror Management Theory (TMT), mortality is a formidable threat to meaning.9  On this basis, I hypothesize that the loss of our ability to relate spontaneously to religion caused an ontological trauma that, in turn, triggered fluid compensation and ultimately led to the adoption of the atheo-materialist narrative.

Indeed, many studies have shown that a confrontation with one’s own approaching death—‘mortality salience,’ as it is called in psychology—leads to a heightened need for closure.10  This is fluid compensation in action. Notice also that atheo-materialism is humanity’s most committed attempt yet to increase the certainty of our worldview. It embodies an unprecedented effort to produce a complete, causally closed, unambiguous model of reality that stresses consensual agreement. Nothing else in millennia of preceding history came anywhere near it. Is this just coincidence? I dare to suggest it isn’t: atheo-materialism reflects our attempt to regain, through heightened closure, the meaning we lost along with religion. Moreover, other modes of fluid compensation are likely at play here as well: by distinguishing themselves as a specialized elite, uniquely capable to understand facts beyond the cognitive capacity of other mortals, the scientists and academics who militantly promote atheo-materialism stand to gain much in self-esteem. The esoteric scientific work they produce and leave behind upon their deaths can also be seen as a significant boost to symbolic immortality. Finally, recall Tillich’s observation: doubt and meaning anxiety dominate the contemporary mindset. Is it humanly plausible that our mainstream cultural narrative would have evolved to tackle only doubt and leave meaning anxiety unaddressed?

All in all, atheo-materialism doesn’t represent a net loss of meaning for the intellectual elite that produced and continues to promote it. The transcendent meaning lost along with religion is compensated for by a significant increase in closure, self-esteem and symbolic immortality. Unfortunately, this compensatory strategy doesn’t work for most ordinary people: the men and women on the streets don’t have enough grasp of contemporary scientific theories to experience an increase in their sense of closure. Neither do they gain in self-esteem, since they aren’t part of the distinguished elite. Finally, insofar as they are not producing groundbreaking scientific work of their own, no particular gain in symbolic immortality is to be expected either. In conclusion, atheo-materialism serves the meaning needs of the intellectual elite that develops and militantly promotes it, but constitutes an enormous threat to the sense of meaning of the average person on the streets. This is the world we live in today.

It must be changed. The religious impulse is a deeply-rooted intuition intrinsic to the human condition. It far precedes thought and theory, being symbolically closer to the truths of nature. As Jung put it, 'The religious myth is one of man’s greatest and most significant achievements, giving him the security and inner strength not to be crushed by the monstrousness of the universe.'11 But in order to restore our relationship with religious transcendence, thereby rescuing our sense of meaning from the clutches of the thieves, we must rationally understand why and how religious myths can carry truth. Even more importantly, we must understand why religious myths are the only honest way to frame the transcendent truths upon which the meaning of our lives is conditioned. This is what I've tried to achieve with my new book More Than Allegory. See an overview of the book here.

More Than Allegory is my attempt to restore balance to the cultural debate by denying atheo-materialism its illegitimate claim to rational high-ground. Religion doesn't contradict linear logic, it simply transcends it. Religion doesn't contradict empirical evidence, it just looks at dimensions of experience that atheo-materialism arbitrarily ignores. Religion isn't composed through linear steps of reasoning, but intuitively sensed in the obfuscated trans-personal depths of the human psyche, which are anchored in primordial truths. Religion isn't wish-fulfillment, but intuitive realization. And it is atheo-materialism that constitutes an engineered attempt to safeguard one's sense of meaning, not religion. Religion had already sprung spontaneously from the depths of the human psyche since much before the perceived threats to meaning that motivated our first wish-fulfillment maneuvers.

Let us restore the legitimacy of the human religious impulse. It deserves no less. And so do we.

Over the years I have felt that the limitations of mainstream religion increasingly outweigh its potential benefits, but More Than Allegory sees into its heart, enabling us to consider religion with fresh perspective and redeeming it for our generation.
Rupert Spira

  1. Frankl, V. E. (1991). The Will to Meaning, Expanded Edition. New York, NY: Meridian.
  2. Jung, C. G. (1995). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. London, UK: FontanaPress, p. 373.
  3. Dick, P. K. (2001). Valis. London, UK: Gollancz, p. 92.
  4. Tillich, P. (1952). The Courage To Be. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  5. Watts, A. (1989). The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. New York, NY: Vintage Books, p. 65.
  6. Heine, S. J., Proulx, T. and Vohs, K. D. (2006). The Meaning Maintenance Model: On the Coherence of Social Motivations. In: Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10(2), pp. 88-110.
  7. Van Tongeren, D. R. and Green, J. D. (2010). Combating Meaninglessness: On the Automatic Defense of Meaning. In: Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(10), pp. 1372-1384.
  8. Kastrup, B. (2016). More Than Allegory. Winchester, UK: Iff Books, pp. 14-60.
  9. Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J. and Solomon, S. (1997). Why do we need what we need? A terror management perspective on the roots of human social motivation. In: Psychological Inquiry, 8(1), pp. 1-20.
  10. See, for instance: Landau, M. J. et al. (2004). A function of form: Terror management and structuring the social world. In: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(2), pp. 190-210.
  11. Jung, C. G. (1956). Symbols of Transformation. London, UK: Routledge, p. 231.

Religion, reason, time and space: introducing More Than Allegory

Photo by Bernardo Kastrup, hereby released into the public domain.

The video below introduces and discusses my new book More Than Allegory: On religious myth, truth and belief. It argues that religious mythology is an extraordinary psychosocial phenomenon that cannot be simply dismissed under the label of delusion. Its appeal throughout the ages arises from the fact that religious myths do convey truth, but truth that is neither literal nor merely allegorical. Religious myths embody, instead, a transcendent form of truth that cannot be captured in conceptual schemas or language narratives. The video also discusses the three key roles religious myths can, and must, play in contemporary society. Finally, it touches on the delicate challenge -- addressed head-on in the book -- of hinting at a worldview according to which time and space are constructs generated by the intellect, having no autonomous reality of their own. This is a challenge I have carefully avoided in my earlier five books, but whose time has now come.

More Than Allegory can be purchased here:

Amazon US
Amazon UK
Publisher website

Fasnacht, Carl Jung, the Trickster Archetype and Altered States of Consciousness

Photo by Bernardo Kastrup, hereby released into the public domain.

I have just spent four wonderful days and nights in the Swiss town of Basel (anglicized as 'Basle,' but I prefer to stick to the original, as do the locals), taking part in the traditional Fasnacht festival. For a general impression, have a look at the first video below. You might then ask: What does a carnival have to do with philosophy? Well, actually much more than you'd think!

As many of you know, my philosophical ideas have been largely influenced by the thought of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, who developed the theory of the Collective Unconscious and the Archetypes. According to Jung, our thoughts, emotions and behaviors are subliminally influenced—even determined—by shared psychic templates he called Archetypes. There is an Archetype that is particularly repressed and dismissed in contemporary culture: that of the Trickster, an anti-intellect figure, entertaining and mischievous at the same time, who reminds us of our connection to a psychic reality more primordial and fundamental than our linear, logical thinking. As I wrote in my little book Meaning in Absurdity, the absence of the Trickster in contemporary culture is at the root of much of our inability to relate harmoniously to the world and ourselves.

And this is where Fasnacht comes in. The festival brings out some of our deepest, most repressed psychological realities, including the Trickster Archetype. Indeed, the Fasnacht figure of the Waggis is a textbook incarnation of the Trickster. See the video below. As such, the festival is of great psychological and philosophical significance. I've come to Fasnacht this year to experience the expression of these subliminal but powerful psychological realities myself. No festival does it better, perhaps because the Swiss are, for 362 days of the year, the epitome of intellectual order and correctness. Therefore, during the three days of Fasnacht, following a natural compensatory instinct, they let out their repressed Archetypes with a purity and intensity unseen anywhere else. Jung himself has lived and studied in Basel, having experienced Fasnacht firsthand. The festival has more than likely influenced his thinking and inspired his later elaboration of the theory of Archetypes.

More generally speaking, Fasnacht beautifully evokes the mythical world of the obfuscated psyche. The festival starts at 4:00am—the most surreal of hours—when Basel's utility company switches off all the lights in the city. A parade of lanterns, accompanied by the medieval sound of piccolos and almost arrhythmic drums, then starts: the famous Morgestraich. The town immediately gains a mysterious, enchanted, ancient atmosphere. The glow of the lanterns and the uncanny costumes and masks of the musicians reinforce this effect. One feels as though one were back to a primordial time when people passed the dark hours of the night with the telling of stories around the fire, nurturing an introspective relationship with the magical, mythical imagery emerging from the obfuscated psyche. See the video below for an impression.

There is an old documentary that talks extensively about this relationship between Fasnacht, Jungian psychology and the obfuscated psyche:

Perhaps even more significantly, during ‪Fasnacht‬ the people of Basel give a whole new meaning to the words 'chaos' and 'cacophony.' There are perhaps hundreds of bands—such as Cliques and Gugge—and smaller musical groups going around town at the same time, each following their own unplanned, impromptu route, crossing each other, blocking each other, squeezing past each other, jamming, tying and untying traffic knots. Somehow, it all resolves itself spontaneously. Each band plays its own songs. Often they converge at some intersection, side by side, each sticking to its own rhythm with renewed determination. The resulting chaos and cacophony are impossible to describe.

People spend all evening following different bands. If a band passes by playing a song one likes, one follows behind it... until another band comes along that one likes better, so one switches to it instead. So you get myriad processions of bands and people marching behind them, intermingling, morphing and splitting spontaneously, with no central organization whatsoever. All properties of the system are emergent.

The psychological effect of this dynamic is fascinating: the cacophony of sounds, the slightly dissonant music the bands play, the spontaneity of the composition and route of each procession, the complete lack of structure, plus the repetitive physical exercise of marching aimlessly are all ego-dystonic, putting you in a subtle kind of trance. You have to be there to really know what I mean. After about a half hour taking part in this, thoughts subside and a more primordial, spontaneous mode of being kicks in. I doubt the people behind Fasnacht are self-reflectively aware of what they are doing; I think the whole thing is rather instinctive. But they do it wonderfully and effectively nonetheless. And the result is significant both psychologically and philosophically, as those familiar with my work will recognize.

I am grateful to the Waggis, the Gugge, the Cliques and the people of Basel for the truly wonderful time I've had there. The profoundly mythical ethos of the festival has filled me with inspiration for promoting my upcoming book More Than Allegory, in which I elaborate on the truth-value of myths such as the Archetypal templates underlying Fasnacht.


Predictions that aren't baloney

'Connected to Source,' by Selene's Art.
Copyright by Selene's Art, used with permission.

In Chapter 2 of my book Why Materialism Is Baloney—my best-seller thus far—I elaborate on the notion that the brain is the extrinsic image of a process of localization of universal consciousness. As such, individual people are like whirlpools in a universal stream of transpersonal experiences. If this is the case, one would expect that disruption of the right types of brain activity should induce a de-localization—an expansion—of consciousness. In the book, I substantiate this prediction with a number of studies and known examples of cases in which reductions of brain activity do, indeed, correlate with an expansion or de-localization of experience, which physicalism cannot explain.

There is a tricky balance involved in showing this empirically, in a controlled and statistically significant way: not all brain activity should relate to the mechanism of localization itself; much of it should consist instead of already localized contents of experience. Returning to our analogy, both a large and a small whirlpool can be perfectly localized: one simply has more contents than the other. A de-localized whirlpool is not necessarily a small one, but one losing its coherence and beginning to release some of its contents into the broader stream. Indeed, much of the activity in our brains relates to already localized cognitive and executive functions, such as motor control, language centers and self-reflective cognition. Damaging the associated brain areas or otherwise inhibiting their activity won't necessarily de-localize our awareness, but simply impair motor and cognitive function. Not all reductions of brain activity will open the doors to transcendence; only the right ones.

Therefore, to test the prediction in the book robustly, one has to have a sufficient number of study subjects in which the right types of brain activity have been inhibited—e.g. by prior physical damage to the brain—but without damage to the motor and cognitive functions required to allow the subjects to report their experiences. For instance, it is conceivable that people who suffer widespread brain damage due to accidents may very well have nonlocal, transcendent experiences all the time, but be unable to report any of it because they are in a vegetative state. A very fine balance is thus required; one that may only very seldom occur. Most of the times, chances are that the subject either doesn't have sufficient damage/inhibition in the right brain locations, or has so much other damage that they lose self-reflection, language skills, the ability to speak or move their bodies, etc. In other words, they become unable to report their experiences.

This is why a recently published study is so interesting: 100 subjects were studied; a significant and unprecedented number. Here is how the Daily Mail described the study and its results:
The group looked at more than 100 patients who were veterans of the Vietnam War, and who had undergone a battery of cognitive tests before the war and once they returned. From CT scans showing the extent of damage to certain parts of their brains, the researchers were able to predict how likely they were to have a mystical experience. ... The researchers found that those with damage to the 'God spot' region of the brain, in the frontal and temporal lobes, were more likely to report mystical experiences compared with those without damage to these regions.
And here is the Daily Mail's summary:
[The] study has found that 'dialing down' the brain's inhibition boosts mysticism. ... Damage to the frontal and parietal lobes increased mystical experiences. These regions are linked to inhibitory functions, suppression of which appears to open up a 'door of perception', exposing us to the mystical.
I chose to quote the Daily Mail, instead of the scientific article itself, because it so well captures the essence of the study's conclusion, which directly corroborates what I wrote in the book. There is also a LiveScience article that is worth reading.

It is not every day that one makes a prediction widely in contradiction to prevailing wisdom, and then sees it rather spectacularly confirmed, less than two years later, by a large study. Such short-term vindication is an unexpected bonus, especially because the conclusion of the study is exactly what I had predicted.

Emboldened by this, I will make a new prediction here: further research will pin down more precisely what the specific regions of the brain are that, when damaged or otherwise inhibited, lead to de-localized consciousness and transcendent experiences. I also anticipate that we will eventually invent technology—based, for instance, on transcranial magnetic stimulation—that, by inhibiting those regions, will induce mystical states routinely.

Indeed, in Part 3 of my upcoming book More Than Allegory, I tell a story that describes exactly what this technology may look like, and how it may work... a story that is a mixture of fact and fiction. After all, who knows what kinds of secret technologies aren't already out there? ;-)

Acknowledgment: I am grateful to Ian Wardell for directing me to this study!