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Monday, 16 July 2012

The "Religious Nihilist" Thought Experiment

A warning – I don’t intend this to be offensive or belittling to anyone’s religious beliefs. I am not saying the below is how religious thought is; everyone has their own personal reasons and rationale for their beliefs, convictions, faith or world-view. This is simply me trying to conceive of how I, as a weary, non-believing, faintly nihilistic type, may authentically take up something that, at least on some level, resembles a kind of intense religiosity. I am aware what’s outlined below is perversion of what religion is supposed to be, but that is kind of the point. And that’s not to say it can’t provoke thought for both the faithful and faithless. Take from it what you will.

THERE are days when my nihilistic tendencies get to me.

Probably on the long commute home from work when I’ve forgotten to put on the radio to distract me; or stuck in a doctor’s waiting room with nothing to read but some whiffle about expensive country homes and posters warning me about terrible things that might happen to my body if I don’t live a healthy lifestyle (or even if I do live a healthy lifestyle).

It’s slightly shameful to admit – I am no sixth-former, sent into a depressive tailspin by an un-prepared-for first-encounter with Sartre. As a world-view, I have been fearlessly staring the existential void in the face for well over a decade. I am steeped in it. I am a veritable creature of the abyss – I live my life perched on the edge of that chasm, and lo! laugh heartily into the howling wind that issues forth, and all that jazz... but, sheesh, sometimes it comes sharp – and I feel a sore need for a cardigan, when there is no cardigan to be found.

I’ve said before (here) that it is actually impossible to be a nihilist. Everyone has to take a world-view, everyone has a value set (in that they value some things as important, some not; some true, some not), everyone buys into some ideas and pooh-poohs others – we have to in order to get on with our lives.

But, even so, my standard position that ultimately, taking the grand overview of existence, there is no final purpose or meaning to be had, is kind of nihilistic. This isn’t usually something that gets me down, it’s kind of liberating, and means I see the universe as an awe-inspiringly strange place that will never cease to surprise; and I will never settle on one certain, tired, dull interpretation.

That ultimate meaninglessness just seems a necessary conclusion. It’s simply to say that meaning and purpose can only be found at the small, local scale, where there is a connection and relevance to you and your life. Meaning is always personal and human-centred, we create it by the patterns and links we construct around ourselves.

The further you zoom out of this local sphere, the more of an overview you take, the more alien and unknowable everything gets: You can no longer take a single, definite perspective or interpretation on things, it’s no longer obvious what the significance of anything is. The web of meaning you have weaved for yourself as you pootle through life no longer looks as relevant, solid or certain. Ultimately there is no definite meaning to be had in the face of sheer, objective truth. There is only information – as soon as you try to “meaningfully” interpret it, you are limiting it, choosing what to highlight and what to ignore, squeezing it out of shape, drawing a finite, solid line through a vague, chaotic sea of possibles.

But (again), even so, these days come when I take a long, hard look at the modern, rational, human world and feel nothing but a cold, grey, empty sinking feeling. Maybe a touch of despair, maybe a touch of horror. It’s probably much more to do with my energy and stress levels, and my brain chemistry at the time, than any rational process, but there are valid reasons for it that can’t be ignored.

And then I wonder if life without a religious myth-narrative to fill it up is, perhaps, a mistake.


What? Let me elaborate: Without the certainty of a transcendent element to existence - without a God, or a heaven, or a higher realm that one is required to remember and pay attention to daily - it is all too easy to fall into the conviction that there is no reason to consider anything greater or beyond yourself and your everyday shit at all. Life becomes grey and functional, devoid of higher meaning – since, after all, there is no higher meaning, ultimately.

Maybe we’ll coo at some big sciencey stuff that Prof Brian Cox tells us is “ameeehzin,” now and again, but that’s about it. That’s just entertainment, really. Most of the time, for the secular sectors of society, life is a largely tunnel-visioned, largely blind affair. Everyone runs around like ants, completely immersed in their own little tasks and troubles and bubble-like mindsets. And nothing encourages us reach out or beyond, to be any different. And nothing happens at all unless there is money in it.

Neitzsche thought that nihilism was just the void left over when the old myths were cast off. After killing God we would be left with a vacuum, a directionless emptiness that we would not know how to fill. But he was determined this was only a phase, and it could be turned around into a positive, brave new chapter in history, a step towards mankind becoming something else – something new. He followed Epicurus, and preceded Sartre, in suggesting that actually, by casting off the old Gods, the old myths and values, the old narrative, we were free as individuals to forge our own meaning, take on full responsibility for our actions and choices; we had no-one to bow down to or take the responsibility away from us any more. Kill the father-figure - we can become our own gods.

But (you guessed it), even so - when I’ve still not turned that radio on to distract me - I’m not sure that, rather than nihilism giving way to a brave new world, it’s not vice versa. Once the adrenaline and novelty of that noble, high-minded God-jettisoning moment has worn off, the tendency is then to retreat into a rather nihilistic, selfish, self-absorbed existence, just living from day to day – because what else is there?

The tendency is to fall into instrumental rationality, where everything in the world, in life, is only valued by how useful it is for a specific, practical purpose, a specific set of goals. Those goals might be making money, solving a logistical problem, raising the family, advancing the business or pursuing the career; sure, other things go on in your life, but they are mere frivolities, luxuries, leisure activities – nothing is of any real worth or importance unless it advances the functional goals of that instrumental rationality. Very businesslike, very practical, very rational – and very grey, very joyless, very narrow, very dehumanising. And, of course, all utterly pointless, in the grand scheme of things.

The Examined Life Is Not Worth Living... no, hang on...

Socrates said “The unexamined life is not worth living,” but he was full of it. Yes it is, Socrates, it very much is, and often a lot happier and less complicated than the "examined" life. Because, when I’m on one of these downers (for chrissakes, turn on that radio, Simon Mayo will sort you out...) it seems all the years of rational analysis and truth-seeking have only served to add an extra layer of complicated angst to my mortal existence. All of it has only served to lead here – an awareness of being trapped in a futile, absurd situation, with all the accompanying emptiness, ennui, mild horror and slight despair that goes with that revelation. The price of knowledge is a fall from grace - Adam and Eve found that out. I wish, in moments like this, that I could just flick a switch and turn it off, Socrates old chum.

But I cannot flick that switch. So, if I cannot stand to be a contemplative sort in a nihilistic world any longer, maybe I should re-imagine my world: If I cannot stomach instrumental rationality, perhaps I belong with those who believe in something transcendental... even if I can’t believe in it myself. Hmmm. How could I resolve this?

Cosmic Horror

Maybe rational atheism was a mistake. Maybe secularism is a dead-end. Maybe the only way out of this interminable bleakness is to get a myth, escape into a dream of my own making.

Because, if you find it more evident and likely that there is no guiding intelligence behind the universe; that the idea of a single purpose to life just doesn’t make any sense; and even if there were an intelligence and a purpose to things they would not be benevolently centred on us and our wellbeing – if all of that, then there is no reason to believe that knowledge of the “true nature of reality” would be a pleasant thing to have.

From the perspective of rationality the “true nature of reality” is as likely to appear senseless, wasteful and cruel, as it is inspiring, purposeful and empowering. There is no reason why it wouldn’t appear crushing, maddening, soul destroying, like a form of Lovecraftian cosmic horror without the cool aliens. The universe is utterly blank and indifferent to our struggles and our fate, our concepts of good and evil, significance or insignificance. We are part of a blind process playing out. Maybe we are simply not built to have too much awareness of this, or to deal with this without a mythological buffer. Maybe fully comprehending the “true nature of reality” can only destroy us.

Or – maybe that is the logical conclusion of rationality: to realise rationality is a death-force - trying to hold the blank meaninglessness of everything in your head while you go about your business is actually anti-life and untenable; it gets in the way, it encourages you to give up, curl up and quietly wither away and die. Maybe the logical conclusion of rationality is to realise there are no answers, so you may as well make up your own.

The New Narrative

And here is the thought experiment – what if I did that? What if I decided this nihilistic thinking was simply all too much, and I should get myself religious? What if I enacted a kind of tactical retreat, an “ongoing suicide of reason” (as Nietzsche put it), and got a New Mythological Narrative, with my own God or Gods, heavenly realm and afterlife? Wouldn’t life become so much more meaningful, so much more purposeful and serene?

Here is the thought – a religion born of nihilism: maybe I can’t fully, really believe that there is an ultimate purpose to life, that there is a benevolent, anthropomorphic intelligence watching over us, that any concept of a heavenly afterlife I’ve ever come across makes any coherent sense... but I can believe in the necessity of believing in such things.

It wouldn’t be God, or a saviour, or a heaven that I would have faith in, it would be the necessity of the myth to living a good, happy, meaningful life. And that faith would be authentic.

How would such a faith manifest? Well, for a start I would consider myself saved. Genuinely, my life would have been transformed by this. The world would look different, I would have been given strength by the unshakable certainty that I have to believe in, and live by, the New Narrative. That would give me considerable armour against whatever the world could throw at me.

I would have purpose – I could devote my life to the New Narrative, and the more I did this, the better I would feel. Life without it is a mistake, I’d know, so there would be no doubt in my mind of its importance, no matter what anyone else said. The effect of day-to-day power-politics and the demands of instrumental rationality would be softened by my assurance that there was more to life, and as long as I stuck with the Narrative, I was doing the right thing, and all was ok with the world.

I would meet non-believers with a missionary zeal. I would want to save them too, and communicate the revelations I had had. I would shake my head sadly to watch them go about their meaning-poor lives. They had not got to the stage I had, I’d think, they were not far enough along the road. They have not seen the True Light. They do not understand how ultimately awful and hollow existence is without the New Narrative, because they have not thought about it enough.

I could still consider and contemplate, so long as it was refracted through the New Narrative, and the Narrative itself was ring-fenced as a no-go area. In fact I’m sure it would be a boost to have whole new areas of thinking to explore, and artistic inspiration to be had.

The thought I astonished myself with was that to all intents and purposes my behaviour, though coming from a different justification, would appear identical with someone of a deeply religious conviction. The truth of the New Narrative would not matter - a faith is a faith.

All the stresses and strains of life, all the complications and tragedies, would be swaddled by the comforts of having the Narrative. No more existential-abyss staring. I’ve done that, I'd think, that was a mere phase that led to this.

A life at peace, secure and confident in my beliefs, with a comforting transcendental dream of God or Gods, and a heavenly realm, to escape into at will, without any guilt or doubt that doing so wasn’t the logical, justified, good thing to do...

Simon Mayo's Drive Time

Of course, this is a fantasy. I almost wish I could do it. If I ever do become intensely religious over-night, this is very possibly what has happened.

But in truth, though I make a big noise about my nihilistic tendencies and existential angst, I don’t think in such a bleak way most of the time. Well, not all of the time, anyway. I don’t think it is really possible to know “the true nature of reality” at all, but any reaction we have to knowledge is all about what we bring to the table ourselves. We don't have to react with anguish. I do think any step towards knowing the nature of reality can, and should, be possible to experience as an enlightening, mind-blowing, awe-inspiring and – yes – empowering thing, if you just approach it right, with an open and clear mind, letting go of your day-to-day angst.

Anyway, life is full of beauty and wonder and laughter and meaning, actually, on that small-scale local-sphere level. You just have be in the right mood, receptive to it, know where to find it, and recognise it and appreciate it when you do. And learn to shrug off that instrumental rationality stuff when it gets too much – avert the gaze, go check something different out, enjoy the glorious so-called "irrelevancies" of life, they are as important as anything else, if you want or need them to be.

Ultimately meaningless or not, being in the world is utterly, berserkly, fascinating. There is so much out there to check. If you ever have a problem with existential ennui and encroaching nihilism, it’s usually no more then a sign that you’ve got stuck in a rut and need a change of mental scenery: go learn something new, get out more, speak to someone different, travel a bit maybe.

I mean, what was I thinking anyway? I love the ultimate, empty, meaninglessness of existence, that stuff fills me with a buzzy rapture, the sublime mystery of that is my religion – it’s just the humdrum, work-a-day, over-familiar human sphere that I often find restrictive, grey and mean – that is the problem.

Whatever, that’s enough. Probably the most telling thing of all is the fact that if I’d just turned Simon Mayo on, none of this would have happened. It’s drive time, folks. I'm off to laugh heartily into the howling abyss for a bit. Ha ha.


  1. I love reality. It’s fascinating.

    I currently think reality, like oxygen, is both life-giving and corrosive. I would say there is probably an ideal zone on the fantasy/reality scale which most suits the human mind (allowing it to both function and grow).

    I’m reading M Scott Peck's "The Road Less Travelled" at the mo. (So, I've accepted that life is pain - cheers Buddah- and am currently exploring actively working on being self-loving).

    Peck does a little piece where he says Evil = Laziness (pg277). He presents an interesting argument and a lot of useful info.

    I thought about it. I prefer “Evil = the active avoidance of reality”.

    I think this could be a useful simplification of the notion of evil.

    Suddenly, it is easy for me to own when I am being “evil”. It’s also obvious that ALL people are somewhat prone to evil. And it’s not so hard to understand how certain people become lost in the hinterlands of evil and go mass-murderingly, kiddy-fiddlingly mad with it (by extension, using this understanding, it might also then be easier to understand and forgive these people and get them people back to the zone).

    Based on this model, I would say we don’t actually want to eradicate evil (one less job for the human race there then), we’re probably better off trying to understand the purpose of evil so we can come to terms with it (and protect ourselves from getting seriously lost and going all Hitler). Fact is, the ability to shy away from reality is an important tool for protecting our minds when we are overwhelmed (out of the zone!) and in real danger of going splat!

    And what of good? If evil is the active avoidance of reality, good must be active seeking. I would add the caveat that it is active seeking which takes account of the vessel that is doing the seeking. I.e. people behaving in a good way do not seek to cripple or in any way martyr themselves in the search for reality. They probably seek a kind of moveable balance.

    Reality. Endlessly fun. And great to share :)

    Incidentally, I've found the I Ching to be an invaluable tool in my reality investigation kit these past 2 years [http://www.amazon.com/The-Elements-Ching-Series/dp/1852307013]. Mostly because I can ask it ANYTHING, and it always responds, and I always find the response lifting, relevant and incisive (and slightly bonkers). But also because I get to play with marbles and I've worked out a fun colour code.

    Simon Mayo may be great and all, but will he play marbles with you?

  2. Mmm. I have increasingly become convinced that the only useful basis for "morality" is personal empathy, which in turn is all based on awareness - it's difficult to do shitty things if you really THINK about how your actions, and their repercussions, might be affecting other people, and how that might feel for them. At least not without living in a constant state of anguish, beating yourself up about the effect you might be having on people, while still doing those shitty things that we all do to some extent (whether we're aware of it or not).

    On the other hand it's not hard to do shitty things if you just DON'T think about it - whether through naive "innocent" lack of awareness (I've come learn that there are plenty out there who think of themselves as nice, fluffy, positive, innocent, lovely human beings but are perfectly capable of acting like callous, destructive empathy-vacuums simply because they have no awareness of the effect their actions are actually having) or ignorant self-absorption, or deliberate repressing of awareness (Whether just avoiding the matter, or justifying your shitty actions with "Well, I did what had to be done", "I had no choice" or "Why should I care about them? They wouldn't cut ME any slack").

    What's shocking is that NONE of the better-known philosophical systems of morality recognise a central role for empathy, instead trying to make morality either a practical or logical thing, or a self-serving thing or an entirely exterior thing. Even Kant, who takes the fundamentally empathy-based Golden Rule (Treat others as you'd like to be treated yourself) as his starting point, then proceeds to try to turn it into something systematic, a dryly rational set of rules - and in the process squeezes any notion of personal empathy out of it. Which for my money is a fundamental failing (that and the point that while his system is certainly "rational" it is certainly not logically necessary, like he seems to think it is).

    Enough about Kant, don't want to get into a discussion about Kant. Please let's not do that.

    I dunno if Mayo'd be up for marbles. Maybe I'll ask him.

  3. I like "morality = personal empathy".

    I also like the notion that personal empathy is dependant upon awareness.

    I would specify that awareness is a measure of an individual's ability to perceive reality as it is without defensive embellishment, but that this ability is very much stunted from the get go because individuals are limited in time, space, perceptive organs and by the capacity of their "little grey cells".

    (I've had a bash at trying to see every angle in an effort to be a good person. I imagine it's something most overly intense individuals try. Fail! It's utterly exhausting and does indeed just make you anxious. Seems to me I can't usefully label something "good" if it's not also effective.

    Therefore crippling oneself in an effort to be good has to be a no-go).

    So, if perfect all-knowingness is not possible then compromise is necessary.

    I would speculate (not outrageously) that the best you can ever do is try to get a handle on which bits of reality are actually relevant to you at any given time, which actions are available to you, and what their likely effect will be. (This from Kant's lesser known philosophical work: "Life is basically like the ultimate Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, just keep playing, you'll figure it out eventually").

    I would further speculate that the better you are at communicating with the people around you, the better your handle will be.

    What of the folks who seem unaware of some of the more obvious consequences of their actions? People who's handle doesn't look anywhere near as good to you as it seems to look to them.

    Is ignorance a good excuse for ignorant behaviour?

    Pretty much.

    Can you help people out of their ignorance? I say yes, but only if you let them help you out of yours.

    Is this easy? Not usually.

    Is it fun and rewarding and stuff? Yeah. But it does require a person to continually come to terms with the excruciating fact that they themselves often behave like a naive shit-slinging chimp.

    A sure-fire indication that I'm about to get another yucky-tasting dose of self-insight into my own chimpishness is that I am nailed-on certain that someone else is being a prize chimp, and I feel a heated urge to get vocal about it.

    If I go with that urge and vent, the universe usually goes about handing my chimp-ass back to me on a plate. Generally, I find that just after I've loudly asked how someone could possibly be THAT stupid, I am blessed with a pertinent nugget of understanding and insight into the situation which I was previously lacking.

    And then the stupid is on me. It's a fabulous lesson to learn (and relearn ad-nauseam) every time my little chimp brain insists that this time the situation absolutely demands that I fling my faeces!

  4. Anyway, because I am in the process of gaining experience at owning my inner-chimp I am getting better at smelling my own kind. It seems clear to me that anyone who is openly rude and condescending about someone else's behaviour is themselves being a chimp.

    Anyone who had truly evolved beyond being a chimp would not feel emotionally threatened by chimp behaviour in others and would therefore not react by defecating in their own brain and then spray-painting their surroundings with the verbal turds of their own undigested understanding.

    Basically, Rant = Chimp.

    It's actually a comforting thought. Much easier to own to being a chimp when you realise there are so many of you, and that anyone who had really evolved out of it (and who was therefore in a good position to cast some kind of judgement) would probably find chimpish behaviour endearing in some way and would, if they felt the need to express their insight, probably do so with warmth and kindness.

    I think Robin Skynner expressed just what that evolved position might be like pretty well when he was talking about LSD:

    "During the first experience through LSD, a colleague who was not taking part in the experiment came into the room, and it was if I could see right through him in a psychological sense. I could see all his faults and limitations - and I can remember what I saw - but I didn't feel critical at all. In fact I felt affection for him, exactly as he was. At the same time, I seemed to lose all my own defences and need for self-deception, so that I could see myself clearly and accept myself despite them too."
    Life And How To Survive It (Robin Skynner, John Cleese)

    When I read about the "everything is exactly like it is, only more so!" experience which Skynner had on LSD, and also about his determination to get that perspective back without the drugs, I knew I wanted to be able to see the world like that.

    I've been reaching for that understanding of reality ever since (about 16 years). Sometimes I get a taste of it. Mostly I'm just a chimp with aspirations.

    I've had enough of a taste of it in action to know that it's not a pipe dream and is not dependent on taking drugs.

    So, to wrap this up, if I were having a nice informal chat with Kant [nb. other 18th Century German moral philosophers are equally unavailable] I guess I would say that if humans want to evolve into properly moral beings then they can't take the stuff that really winds them up as a cue for them to shit all over the agitant, that they would actually really benefit from the attempt to own their own shit, and that technically they should be thanking the agitant for showing them to themselves.

    Perhaps we could have a pithier version of this tacked up behind the head of the Speaker of the House of Commons? He could have a picture of a chimps head taped to a little rod, which he could hold up whenever the honourable members of the house strayed from the path of relevant debate and started instead to dig their opinions from out the back of their silky shorts... Wow. If that ever happened, not only would I listen to debates, I might even go into politics :D.

    I now have to own that in the above writing I've been a bit of a chimp both about my fellow chimps in general, and the chimps who generally go into politics in particular. I also have to own that it's a lot of fun to write about throwing poo. And finally, that I think I have been successful in avoiding any meaningful debate about Kant. x