Reports of the death of religion have been exaggerated. Should we be surprised? “Man is, by his constitution, a religious animal,” said Edmund Burke, the Dublin-born statesman and sage, posthumously beloved by liberals and conservatives alike.11xEdmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993), 89. Original work published 1790. But constitutions, political and religious, may change. Burke wrote during the French Revolution, which was anticlerical enough to despoil churches and priests, but religious enough to instantiate Robespierre’s state-sponsored Cult of the Supreme Being. The new dogma was inscribed above the lintel of the cathedral of Clermont-Ferrand: “The French people recognize the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul.” Plus ça change ...
... plus c’est la même chose. The same, that is, in the sense of Tancredi, the cynic in Giovanni di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (1958): “If we want everything to remain the same, everything must change.”22xGiovanni di Lampedusa, The Leopard, trans. Archibald Colquhoun (New York, NY: Pantheon, 1960). Originally published as Il Gattapardo (Milan, Italy: Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore, 1958, 2002). We remain constitutionally metaphysical, and constitutionally social, and constitutionally optimistic that, despite all prior experience, we can resolve our spiritual and social dilemmas at a stroke. “Man is the Religious Animal,” wrote Mark Twain in 1896, in a scathing rejoinder to Burke. “He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has True Religion, several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself, and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight.”33xMark Twain, “The Lowest Animal” (1896); repr. in Letters From the Earth (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1962; HarperCollins, 2004), ed. Bernard DeVoto, 175–84. The knives are always out. The substitutions, displacements, and deferrals of the sacrificial system defend old meanings and build new ones, like a historical insurance policy covering past, present, and posterity against acts of a possibly vengeful God.
We know that we are in a turbulent age because our sense of the past is changing. The French Revolution announced the West’s twinned grand narratives, secularism and socialism. The Iranian Revolution of 1979, and the unraveling of the Soviet Union after 1989, marked the contraction of those narratives from state policy to petty cults. The European ideas that shaped two centuries are diminished by their failure, and historicized by their loss of magic. Atheism, a child of the opportunistic union of philosophical materialism and political anticlericalism, is now an orphan without posterity. Marxism, its implausible economic base wholly obscured by an implausible aesthetic superstructure, has returned to its birthplace, the departments of the humanities and social science, to grumble in tenured senility. And socialism in general now shows the aspect that Marx expended so much ink on effacing: an attempt to replace Christianity, by answering metaphysical needs with political methods, whether by Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being or Jacques Hébert’s Cult of Reason.
The exhaustion of secularism and socialism has not reduced the ambitions of the last best hope of the Enlightenment: science. The Great Instauration, Francis Bacon’s grand scheme for the restoration of Paradise through the knowledge and methods of the new sciences, is, like the rapture of the evangelicals, always just over the temporal horizon, and the straitened path to its fulfillment ever visible to the believer. But the unmaking of deterministic certainties in politics seems to have reduced the horizon of certainty. Scientists, for so long allies in the philosophical argument for pure materialism and the political argument for the rationalization of social life, are increasingly agnostic about the meanings of knowledge. The universe really is, as J. B. S. Haldane said, “not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”44xJ. B. S. Haldane, Possible Worlds and Other Papers (London, England: Chatto and Windus, 1927), 286. Science’s belated humility toward its subject is accompanied by a false modesty toward its object. Chronic specialization, the premise by which scientific knowledge expands, has caused a contraction in the kinds of syncretic and unified thinking by which scientific ideas are applied to society. Scientists continue to repeat the old gospel of pure materialism with total confidence, but when they do so, they seem quaintly intemperate. These days, Richard Dawkins resembles less Thomas Henry Huxley, defender of Darwinian evolution, than Huxley’s antagonist in the famous “Apes and Angels” debate of 1860, “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce, the bishop of Oxford.
Spicing Up the Orthodox
So we can be sure that, religiosity being constitutional in human and social terms, religion has survived. The reformulation of its American constitution, and the not-unrelated failure of atheism to achieve critical mass, is visible in recent Pew Research Center surveys of the “religious landscape,” most recently “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” (2015), as Figure 1 shows.
The big loser here is Christianity, down from a 78.4 percent share of the US population in 2006 to 70.6 percent in 2014. The biggest winner is the church of the “Unaffiliated,” up from 16.1 percent in 2006 to 22.8 percent. Yet this does not represent a sudden swing vote from belief to unbelief and an impending landslide victory for atheism. The atheist vote rose from 1.6 percent in 2006 to 3.1 percent in 2014: a trivial slice of the electorate, and a purely symbolic success. Richard Dawkins is the Ralph Nader of militant atheism, and the Party of the Godless is about as likely to win the popular vote.55x“America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center, Forum on Religious Life, May 12, 2015; http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape.
The Unaffiliated, like members of all religions, are a sectarian lot (Figure 2). An earlier exercise in Pew’s spiritual psephology, “Religion and the Unaffiliated” (2012), established that the Unaffiliated remain believers.
The Pew survey found that only 12 percent of the Unaffiliated are atheist, and 17 percent agnostic. The great majority, 71 percent, describe themselves as “Nothing in particular.” A ruling coalition (62 percent) of these Nothings retains religious ideas and practices: 23 percent see themselves as “religious” and 39 percent as “spiritual, not religious” (Figure 3). A total of 68 percent of the Unaffiliated and 81 percent of the Nothings believe in “God or a Universal Spirit” (Figure 4). Clearly, the Nothingness they contemplate is not empty.66x“2012 Religious Landscape Survey: ‘Nones on the Rise,’” Pew Research Center, Forum on Religious Life; http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise-religion/.
Friedrich Nietzsche suspected that as Christians navigated the “path of nihilism” from the death of their communal god to the birth of a multiplicity of personal gods, a “European Buddhism would perhaps be indispensable.”77xFriedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, 132 (1885) trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York, NY: Vintage, 1968), 80. The accuracy of Nietzsche’s forecast is confirmed in a Pew survey conducted in 2009 that was published under the headline “Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths.”88x“Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths,” Pew Research Center, December 9, 2009; http://www.pewforum.org/2009/12/09/many-americans-mix-multiple-faiths/.
Believers always spice up orthodox admonitions with heterodox admixtures. What is significant here is the flavor of the spice, and that the appetite for it runs across the three major subdivisions of Pew’s American soul: Unaffiliated, Affiliated, and Christian. Just as modern church architecture dispensed with the classical language of the arch and pediment, thus cutting a figurative link with its Mediterranean origins, so belief in the evil eye has fallen; the Unaffiliated, being in large part lapsed Protestants, score lower here, because the churches that they no longer attend frowned on the evil eye as a superstition for Catholic peasants. Meanwhile, the New Age superstitions are thriving: belief in astrology, reincarnation, yoga as a “spiritual practice,” and the “spiritual energy” of physical objects. And the Unaffiliated are only slightly more credulous than affiliated Christians (Figure 5).
The most significant belief of all here is that “people will be reborn again and again.” The extent of belief in reincarnation is fairly consistent across the spectrum: 25 percent among the Unaffiliated and 24 percent among the Affiliated. Affiliated Christians score slightly lower (22 percent).99x“2012 Religious Landscape Survey,” Pew Research Center.
To believe in reincarnation is to deny not just the Christian understanding of time but also the entire eschatology that rests upon it. Christian time proceeds in a long and straight line, from Creation to Apocalypse. Life is a brief chance to obtain credit, and avoid debits, for the afterlife. The dead must wait until time’s terminus before they can enjoy any kind of rebirth. Tertullian’s On the Testimony of the Soul, written in the early third century CE, is quite clear on this: “We affirm that thou existest after the extinction of the bodily life, and awaitest a day of judgement, and art destined, according to thy deservings, either to torture or to refreshment, in either case eternally.”1010xTertullian, On the Testimony of the Soul, Chapter 4, trans. T. H. Bindley; http://www.tertullian.org/articles/bindley_test/bindley_test_05test.htm. Accessed August 6, 2015. Theologies of reincarnation posit time as circular. The soul hibernates between uses, like clothes packed in suitcases, orbiting on a baggage carousel in a celestial airport. The credits and debits of each life are reflected in the karmic passport issued at each reincarnation. The soul that evolves to the highest level of enlightenment is freed forever from the curse of consciousness. These ideas may be appealing, especially to a nation that was founded as Europe’s second coming, and whose bankruptcy laws are more forgiving than most. But they are a clear challenge to Christian theology—and, for that matter, to Jewish and Muslim accounts of the soul and its passage through time and history.
We are witnessing a massive heresy within American Christianity: a popular movement to change the religious constitution.
Reformulating the Sacred
We are accustomed to the Enlightenment assertion that disaffiliation and skepticism are stations on the road to atheism. It is not clear if this ever was the case for most people, especially if we consider revolutionary political doctrines to be substitute religions. But it is clear that, in modern America, disaffiliation is not a sure path to atheism, and skepticism is not always carried along for the ride. In fact, Pew’s 2012 survey shows that disaffiliation leads to a greater incidence of belief in supernatural experiences involving contact with, or apprehension of, an immaterial living personality (Figure 6).
The Unaffiliated are slightly more likely than Affiliated Christians to believe that they have “been in touch with someone who has already died” (31 percent of the Unaffiliated, versus 28 percent of Affiliated Christians). The Unaffiliated are more likely to believe that they have seen or “been in the presence of a ghost” (19 percent of the Unaffiliated, versus 17 percent of Affiliated Christians). It is unfortunate that Pew did not publish a breakdown of how Unaffiliated atheists, agnostics, and “Nothings in particular” responded to these questions. Judging from how these three Unaffiliated sectors responded to other questions, we must assume that agnostics and, especially, those Nietzschean “Nothings in particular” showed even higher rates of positive response.
The middle ground between old traditions of belief and the newer tradition of unbelief is expanding rapidly. That territory was staked out in the 1850s and 1860s under the working titles “secularism” and “agnosticism.” Today, this no man’s land is not being annexed to unbelief, either traditional or innovative. It is being settled by innovative believers. They are exploratory parties from the territory of traditional Christianity. As has been the case since Martin Luther’s time, most of these emigrants are Protestants, distrustful of institutions and confident in their intuitions. The group most active in the formulation of this emergent theology is the “Nothings in Particular.” They might more usefully be called the “Everythings in General.” Their intuitions include confident knowledge of ghosts, the spiritual content of matter, and the survival of personality after physical death. It goes without saying that people who can believe in the survival of someone else’s soul can believe in the existence and immortality of their own soul.
The successful planting of these ideas in the disputed territory of Not-Knowing is a Lockean assertion of rights. The philosopher Charles Taylor has shown how the realm of the “secular” does not wholly expel the sacred or the spiritual, but reformulates it. The ongoing spiritualization of the agnostic realm is a similar process. The whirring sound that accompanies it is Thomas Henry Huxley spinning in his grave.
Thriving in Agnostica
When, on the morning after the geese and prayers of Christmas 1859, the Times carried Huxley’s review of On the Origin of Species, the breakfast tables of Britain witnessed a more than seasonal indigestion. Yet the dyspeptic reaction, soon to be compounded by Huxley’s predilection for public combat with the clergy, obscured the subtlety of his position. Huxley combined his praise of Charles Darwin’s “noble” work with the admission that Darwin had inferred the mechanism of natural selection from the “artificial selection” practiced by human farmers. The workings of the mechanism remained to be proven. Huxley also admitted his “indifference” as to whether Darwin’s “doctrine of Evolution” would “prove to be final or not.”1111xThomas Henry Huxley, Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, two vols., ed. Leonard Huxley (New York, NY: Macmillan & Co., 1903) I, 183.
These were not just rhetorical tactics, but were integral to Huxley’s theory of knowledge. A relentless defender of what he knew to be true, he was scrupulously candid about the limits of his certainty. Huxley had no time for Christianity, but he accepted Blaise Pascal’s argument about the rational flaws of atheism. Nor could he accept the secularist’s philosophical finality: Scientific knowledge was a process, not an end state. If, like Boethius and Donald Rumsfeld, Huxley dwelt in a Cloud of Unknowing, it was in the expectation that the mists would clear. An empirical scientist worked from what he knew to what he did not know, like a man assembling an infinite jigsaw puzzle. To advance a hypothesis, he had to identify some aspect of the missing piece. There was nothing wrong with not knowing. It was the premise of discovery. The experts would inherit the earth, because the scientist, unlike the pope, the emperor, or the poet, understood the laws of nature. Further, George Holyoake, who had coined the word secularism in 1851, was a socialist. Huxley might have shared Holyoake’s faith that “science is the only Providence which can be depended upon,” but he wished to minimize the political risks inherent in the remaking of social ethics.1212xGeorge Jacob Holyoake, Limits of Atheism: Or Why Should Sceptics Be Outlaws?, (London, England: J. A. Brook and Co., 1874), II, 291–92.
From the territory of the known, Huxley advanced into the old mysterium of faith. Beyond the frontier lay the soon-to-be known, the zone of inference and analogy, of absurd facts whose sense escaped like night before the early rays of the sun. Metaphysical questions, lately expelled from the mysterium of science, dwelt in this realm. Huxley believed that scientific truth was the higher knowledge, and that the mysterium of religion was not an independent and equal sphere, but a realm soon to be settled by science. For now, though, science could not be certain whether God existed or not. Metaphysical questions, lately expelled from the mysterium of science, dwelt in this realm. Huxley believed that scientific truth was the higher knowledge, and that, like parts of the United States, the mysterium of religion was not an independent and equal sphere, but a realm soon to be settled in the modern style. For now, though, science could not be certain whether God existed or not. “I neither deny nor affirm the immortality of Man,” he told Charles Kingsley in 1860. “I see no reason for believing in it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it.”1313xHuxley, Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, two vols., ed. Leonard Huxley (New York, NY: Macmillan & Co., 1903), I, 314.
In 1869, Huxley called his not-knowing “agnosticism.” He intended agnosticism to be a method, not a faith. It was part of his campaign to spread the scientific mentality. It portrayed religious intuitions as forms of partial knowledge, awaiting their development into scientific facts. As the evolution of knowledge enfolded religious ideas and institutions, the old interpreters would retire, grumbling like appendices, and the new language would develop. The generals of science would rename the monuments and citadels without sacking the city, for they came from within it. Like an unproductive tract of Africa or Asia, the unworked terrain of Agnostica would be conquered by the Western system, and put to some rational employment.
Huxley promulgated the doctrine of agnosticism at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society. The location suggests what happened next. The agnostic method had come to license the faith it was supposed to superannuate. Huxley annexed the badlands of Agnostica for science. Yet, as Americans knew, the frontier was unpredictable, a magnet for undesirable elements and elementary desires. A settler staked his claim to the land by working it, well or badly. Until science regulated these borderlands, any agnostic could settle there and erect a shrine to a new cult. Its principles need only clear the lowest fences of scientific possibility: If its dogma could not be proven, neither could it be disproven under current conditions of knowledge. And as the frontier of knowledge, unlike the American frontier, was capable of perpetual advance, the territory of the unknown was equally capable of perpetual recession.
Paying its tithe to reason, the religious impulse entered the liberty of faith and desire like a nineteenth-century Mormon among his wives. The old ideas of divinity, the soul, and Providence all thrive in Agnostica, our land of Not-Knowing, where we know Nothing in Particular, but tend to feel good about it.
“There will soon be no more priests,” Walt Whitman prophesied in 1855. “Their work is done. They may wait awhile … perhaps a generation or two … dropping off by degrees. A superior breed shall take their place … the gangs of kosmos and prophets en masse shall take their place. A new order shall arise and they shall be the priests of man, and every man shall be his own priest.”1414xWalt Whitman, 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass, ix, The Walt Whitman Archive online; http://www.whitmanarchive.org/published/LG/figures/ppp.00271.018.jpg. Accessed August 7, 2015.
The Consolations of Monism
We have, as the reincarnated say, been here before. The idea of the soul is part of the hypothesis of immortality. That hypothesis has remained consistently unproven—despite the testimonies of the nearly one-third of Americans who believe that they have contacted the dead—but it has varied in time and place. Conceptions of the soul, and its duties and expectations, have varied accordingly.
The essence has not always been essential: The early iterations of Israelite religion offered immortality without adumbrating a complex theology of the soul and the afterlife. Two subsequent encounters shaped Judaic thinking on the soul, creating important legacies for Christian theology. During the Babylonian Exile, suffered by the Jews in the sixth century BCE, the Judean priests encountered the Manichaean theology of dual creation—a theology that cannot function without conceiving of the soul as the fulcrum between distinct worlds of good and evil. Two centuries later, as the Hellenistic civilization overran Judea, the Judeans were obliged to confront the Platonic system. Christian thinking about the soul emerged from the controversies of that extended confrontation.
Three further phases can be seen in the Christian passage of the soul. The first was the development of an elaborate theology of the afterlife in the early Latin church, as described by Peter Brown in The Ransom of the Soul. If this first phase was predicated on one dualism, the separation of body and soul, the second phase was predicated legally on the separation of public and private, and philosophically on Descartes’s separation of the generic physical body from the particular individual mind. That second phase was the Great Privatization of property, capital, and identity in the early modern period. The third phase, whose early rumblings include the prosecution of Galileo and the dual excommunications of Spinoza, erupted as a matter of public interest in the 1840s with the controversy over Robert Chambers’s Vestiges of Creation (1844), and again in 1859 with the publication of On the Origin of Species.
This third phase is ongoing. Along the way, the soul in question has been renamed, from “Christian” to “modern” or “Western.” The shift in nomenclature is appropriate, for it reflects the life of the thinker who might be its prophet or patron saint: Baruch Spinoza, the martyred non-god of the emergent beliefs that Aldous Huxley’s renegade accomplice Alan Watts called “the religion of no-religion.”1515xAlan Watts, Buddhism: The Religion of No-Religion (Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing, 1999), passim.
Evolutionary theory shook the pillars of Cartesian dualism, but they had already been undermined by Spinoza’s monism, his insistence on the singular unity of all life. Nietzsche’s Samson-like assault on the temple of knowledge followed and responded to Darwin’s dissolution of the division between mind and body. Yet dualism emerged unscathed from the rubble, though changed by the experience. Hans Jonas, a pupil of Martin Heidegger who sought to create an “ethics of responsibility” for what he recognized as a new era of environmental awareness, identified how this happened. The experiential “rupture” between “man and total reality,” an assumption of historic religion, endures in the post-Darwinian age, but now it is reformulated in “monistic naturalism,” the new language of evolution. In the typology of religion, this is panentheism: The divine and infinite cannot be separate from matter, but infuse every particle of it. Yet because the natural world remains a theater for the commission of good or evil acts, the dualisms of man and nature, good and evil, survive.
Spinoza anticipated this reconciliation in rational terms; by intuitions of the unity of living forms, so had the mystics of every religious tradition. The problem that then arises, Jonas wrote, is how the ontology of monism, the doctrine of singularity, accommodates and expresses the perception of dualism. Jonas called the results of this collaboration between historic inheritances and modern science “a dualism without metaphysics.”1616xHans Jonas, “Gnosticism, Existentialism, and Nihilism,” The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1996), 234. Hence Heidegger’s sly observation that Nietzsche, by becoming the first explicator of this confusing paradox, was really “the last metaphysician.”
Nietzsche was not the first modern Western metaphysician to arrive at this position; that was Spinoza. Nor was Nietzsche the last metaphysician. He was part of a cohort of “last metaphysicians.” In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, the challenge of evolutionary theory elicited a lurid flurry of spiritually inclined monisms. Nietzsche, who took the high road of German philosophy, was slightly ahead of the pack, but he ended up at the same low pass as the Russian mystic and mountebank Helena Blavatsky, and slightly behind her. In 1888, as Nietzsche entered his final descent into madness, Blavatsky issued The Secret Doctrine, her definitive version of Theosophy, the Eastern-tinged system of mystical beliefs she had assembled after 1878. In this monist reconciliation of “science, religion, and philosophy,” she predicted an imminent “death blow” to “materialistic science,” and the survival of a soul reinvigorated through an ordeal by science, and reincarnated from the flux of matter: Buddhism for Europeans.
As Blavatsky and Nietzsche predicted, the 1890s saw the triumph of the monists. For those who preferred the earlier, Hindu-inflected version of Theosophy, and a modish dash of anti-imperial politics, the Neo-Vedanta of Swami Vivekananda placed the dualist metaphysics of the Yoga Sutras within the framework of Advaita (“not two” or “non-dual”) monism. Even the father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, whose heart was in the eastern Mediterranean, believed that his hazy conception of God was “after all, Spinozistic,” and approaching “the natural philosophy of the monists.”1717xTheodor Herzl, The Diaries of Theodor Herzl, ed. and trans. Marvin Lowenthal (London, England: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1956), 231.
This perception was nothing if not timely. In the last years of the nineteenth century, a series of scientific discoveries revealed a new physics. As Blavatsky had promised, the rending of the Veil of Nature granted a new perception of the world inside matter, notably by electromagnetic “wireless waves,” remote control, x-ray photography, radioactivity, and the electron. Émile Durkheim, who noted these changes, observed in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) that religion binds a society by defining the sacred in space and time. For decades, science and technology had eroded and compressed those concepts; the Darwinian controversy stood for a wider crisis. The new physics weakened the structures of Euclid’s geometry and Newton’s universe. The deep history of geological time dwarfed the sacred history of Christianity. The new cities disrupted established social hierarchies. The new communications permitted the kind of near-simultaneous experiences that had previously belonged to the mad and the visionary.
Monism contradicted none of this. If anything, it complemented it all. No other philosophical doctrine seemed capable of containing the wisdom of both the yogi and the physicist. In an age of religious doubt, monism saved the soul: Spirit existed within matter, as the essence of the atom. In an age of culture wars, monism brokered peace: The racial scientist, like the priests he displaced from authority, also saw a spiritual essence at the heart of human biology. In an age of political passions, monism consoled and inspired: Amid radical subjectivity and secret doctrines, monism united all in a single objective truth, a revelation of shared identity, clear as a radio signal. As Vivekananda taught his pupils, “I am the universe.”1818xSwami Vivekananda, Vivekananda, World Teacher: His Teachings on the Spiritual Unity of Humankind, ed. Swami Adiswarananda (Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths, 2006), 83.
Abolishing the Idea of Man
“So it happened,” Hans Jonas reflected in 1958, just under a century after Huxley’s review of Darwin, “in that, in the hour of the final triumph of materialism, the very instrument of it, ‘evolution,’ implicitly transcended the terms of materialism and posed the ontological question anew—when it just seemed settled. And Darwinism, more than any other doctrine responsible for the now dominant evolutionary vision of all reality, turns out to have been a thoroughly dialectical event.”1919xHans Jonas, “Philosophical Aspects of Darwinism,” The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1996), 58.
What are the properties of this emergent, reformulating soul, forged in the hopeful smithies of monist Agnostica? Its clearest properties are inwardness in theory and practice, and a panentheist reverence for nature. Apart from its descent from Romantic Innerlichkeit (inwardness), it is defined by where science has driven it to dwell. The monist hides the metaphysic inside matter, then peers within for the reflection of the sacred mystery: another of those inversions for the production of rabbits from the hat of German Idealism. We should acknowledge this inward locus, and speak of Intraphysics, the metaphysic of interiority.
Jonas hoped that the post-Darwinian “dualism without metaphysics” would pick its way between “a stare at isolated selfhood” and a Nietzschean naturalism that, though it cured the loneliness, would also “abolish the idea of man.” That middle way, he hoped, must involve a social ethic, an environmentally informed “ethics of responsibility.” The American respondents to the Pew survey seem to have taken steps along that verdant path (Figure 7).
Welcome to the future of your environmentally aware, democratically sensitive soul. When it comes to Emersonian intimations of unity with nature, the Unaffiliated and Affiliated concur with each other, and with the sentiments of the public at large. Only 13 percent of Americans, Unaffiliated and Affiliated, confess to the sin of not feeling part of the physical environment; a majority of us (58 percent) are strongly attracted to the consolatory Intraphysics of its healing trees and crystals.
Yet this has yet to translate into a social ethic. As Tocqueville warned, the privatization of religion is dangerous, in that private satisfactions erode the public duty of virtue. Peter Sloterdijk’s most recent variation on Nietzsche’s theme, You Must Change Your Life, compensates for this now familiar deficit with an unconvincing philosophical prestidigitation. We do not need to decide what to do with religion, the cursed legacy that “binds” people into a society, because we never had religion in the first place. There are only “practices,” and life’s task is to improve our practice. Sloterdijk has little to say about society, other than that the weak will go under. “In order to endure the thought of recurrence,” Nietzsche wrote, “freedom from morality is necessary.” He might have added “freedom from society.”
The Nietzschean, like the communer with nature, practices most productively in solitude. If the rest of the species are present at all, they are unwilling observers to the spectacle of a superior in an act of self-gratification. This is not so much evolution, as involution. Take away the dubious Superman fetish for physical fitness, and Sloterdijk’s practitioner evokes Aldous Huxley’s description of Marcel Proust, “a hermaphrodite toad-like creature spooning his own tepid juice over his face and body.”
Redefining the World’s Inner Life
Secular posterity is as ironic as the posterity of purgatory was tragic. Voltaire the godless mocker becomes the deist stick-in-the-mud of a “conservative” Enlightenment. Spinoza the heretic becomes the father of secular Zionism. A spiffed-up Nietzsche passes for a sentimental Nazi. Thomas Henry Huxley’s strategy for dissolving the Cloud of Unknowing has become a program for life in the Cloud of Knowing, where the long view of knowledge is occluded by storms of information and squalls of self-publicity. The missing link between Thomas Huxley and Steve Jobs is Wilhelm Reich, the Cloudbuster who turned Freud’s positivistic science toward vitalism and biological mysticism, notoriously in the “verticality” of his energy-capturing contraption, the orgone box. And so all our solipsism and irrationality shall turn out to be entirely compatible with the age that they claimed to oppose—and may yet become its clearest expression.
In the decades after Darwin, the Anglophone Protestants who dominated the world’s economic life dominated the redefinition of the world’s inner life. But we are no longer in the 1890s. The nineteenth-century reversal of the world’s economic polarity is being reversed. The clever people, and even the American president, advise us to stop worrying about the weakening of democratic liberalism, learn to love the “multipolar” future that is already here, and turn a blind eye to the congeries of bigots and tyrants with whom we must deal. The dilemmas of sophisticated Euro-American Protestants no longer define those of the entire world, and the Euro-American present is not the only prologue to the rest of the world’s future.
It is therefore not clear that all religions, monotheistic or not, will undergo the torments endured by Christianity during the peculiar and unique age of Western privatization. But if they do, the monist theology of the Intraphysical soul is waiting for them. As the Psalmist said, “Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers.”2020xPsalm 124:7 (King James Version).