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.
- Frankl, V. E. (1991). The Will to Meaning, Expanded Edition. New York, NY: Meridian.
- Jung, C. G. (1995). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. London, UK: FontanaPress, p. 373.
- Dick, P. K. (2001). Valis. London, UK: Gollancz, p. 92.
- Tillich, P. (1952). The Courage To Be. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Watts, A. (1989). The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. New York, NY: Vintage Books, p. 65.
- 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.
- 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.
- Kastrup, B. (2016). More Than Allegory. Winchester, UK: Iff Books, pp. 14-60.
- 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.
- 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.
- Jung, C. G. (1956). Symbols of Transformation. London, UK: Routledge, p. 231.