Belief and meaning, (and it is by believing that we derive meaning and discovering meaning that further deepens our beliefs) play a significant role in the continuous development of the human at the psychological and spiritual level. We, ideally, focus our beliefs on honorable virtues and values without becoming too puritanical or too pessimistic. We, hopefully, align our beliefs with truth and goodness, remain balanced and open and avoid outright zealotry. It is wise, too, to avoid trashing belief patterns that work, simply because other belief patterns are problematic.
Regardless of your views surrounding religion, whether you are a staunch atheist or a dreamy-eyed believer, an honest individual can agree that wonderful stories (not to mention art) have come from religion, and that these stories contain themes and messages that speak not solely to religious followers or stalwart ideologues but to all people. You might say they contain universal truths or basic ideas of morality. Look into Greek and Egyptian myths, the Torah, the New Testament, and you will see humanity grappling with what it always has, in every tale. We continue seeing this in high definition with the unsurpassable Shakespeare and subsequent succession of great western writers and artists. The oldest stories explored family, good and evil, identity, love, jealousy, anger, war, revenge, oppression, freedom, death, rebirth. Such stories are often taken metaphorically, but not necessarily lightly. What is all this saying about people? What does this mean?
One can be an outright atheist and still derive meaning from tales of the ancient gods, from Moses and Jesus. We learn through narrative, “the world is made of stories,” and archetypes are deep within the psyche of all humans. Harold Bloom claims Shakespeare invented the human, and he might be right, but storytelling as a way to understand our world, each other, and ourselves, goes back to the very beginning of time, which suggests that such universal truths reflected in these stories are inherent, even biological. Such narratives have helped us mold our consciousness and our existence.
Most tales throughout history and up until today present varying degrees of good vs. evil and the external and internal conflict with which human beings grapple. Stories contain protagonists and antagonists, heroes and villains, gods and monsters, a bevy of triumph and tragedy. We get happy joyful stretches and primordial lairs of darkness. We get the hero’s journeys over and over, and it teaches us about ourselves. These narratives speak, if you pay attention, to the soul. They speak to what it means to be good and strong and whole, and why we strive to be such. These stories were not accidental or in vain. They were not beholden to just one group or one society. Across the ages, good and evil were concepts that people understood, that stuck.
People gravitate toward stories, because stories are a capturing of people. We love literature, cinema, gathering with friends to hear dramatic snippets of their lives. If we pay attention, we see morality, we see reflection and lessons learned, we see human connection and love and heartbreak. We see death and life. Can we really call it all meaningless? Can we really see no thread through all of this that defies society, culture, identity? That is not to say that people from various backgrounds don’t have differences or unique experiences, but there is there not a common link, as old as time?
Moral Relativism, Postmodernism, and the Hypocrisy of the “Tolerant”
The idea of morality, the seeking of decency and integration as a worthwhile path, seems to be unpopular these days, in the sense that it be sought in an authentic, wholehearted, intuitive way. Much of what people now believe to be moral is nothing more than tolerance-posturing that masks judgment, self-righteousness, and sometimes profound cruelty. This is not surprising, especially amongst young people and those emerging from today’s elite universities, where their minds have been indoctrinated to follow no code except that of cynicism, grievance and victimology. Postmodernism thought, most specifically the ultra-chic version that penetrated the universities beginning in the 1970’s, tore down morality and made it (and everything else) into some human created “structure” that can never be defined as any one thing and ultimately seeks to to exclude and oppress. All reverence for religion and mythology, history and classic literature, and even evolutionary biology has been thrown out the window in place of a limited, quasi-Marxist, identity-politic theory, chalk full of language control, thought control, and suppression of new ideas. The goal, if there even is one, is a blind pursuit of iconoclasm disguised as “justice and equality;” no one actually triumphs, and justice is never served.
Moral relativism predated postmodernism, but the two are highly interwoven and pretty much the same idea; that there are no universal truths or morals, that everything is subjective and depends solely on social and cultural circumstances. Postmodernism encourages us to not label anything as anything or derive any meaning from anything, because it all just is, and such labels are manmade structures anyhow. Agh! What mental masturbation. I have come to find postmodernism, though initially seductive, empty and banal and totally inapplicable to actual life. It is a theory that has yet to be as heartily proven as that of its opposite: that life, and all that goes along with it, does have meaning and connecting threads. Moral relativism may apply in the following manner: one can believe strongly in atonement and forgiveness (a universal truth, mind you) so that even those who commit unbelievably immoral, evil acts due to certain desperate social circumstances (murder, torture, rape, purposefully cruel abuse) can possibly find a way to redemption (i.e. Crime and Punishment.) But that does not make the immoral act some ambiguous deed that is only immoral because we have chosen to call it such with our silly western civilization language, or that it is acceptable to commit such acts because one comes from a limited social or cultural background.
I bought into the postmodern spiel for a while, just as I bought into “progressivism” for a while; such philosophies were edgy and cool and seemed to make sense in theory. In the midst of this though, surrounded by other ultra cool believers, I felt like a phony. I knew in my heart I simply did not identify with the tenets (which are inherently ambiguous) of either philosophy. I had absolutely zero interest in making sexy The Communist Manifesto. I knew I was not atheist. Did I sing out? No. Squeaks here and there. It’s hard leaving the cool club behind, and it’s doubly hard when you fear you might be called some terrible things for having a difference of opinion. Fascinating how, even though I knew it was the best decision I ever made, to create a life built on faith and personal liberation, and undeniably the way of strength, I was so influenced by my culture that I felt ashamed to have what might be considered traditional beliefs. No one derides God, tradition, and liberty (and science and history) like the postmodernists. No one derides period, like those who cling staunchly to such divisive, inhibiting doctrine. Even the great existentialists and scientists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had enough heart and wisdom to seek where faith and morality made sense, where something like The Bible held universal lessons, where truth did indeed dwell.
Now, instead of morality and decency we have this idea of unconditional tolerance, which sounds really nice and fluffy but is actually quite barren and cold, is boxed in and lends itself to utter intolerance through the perverse exploration of identity politics and grievance culture. Nothing is anchored in any kind of reality – everything just depends on people’s feelings and opinions (which are often, respectively, highly overblown or misinformed) and an absolute infantile approach to life. Feelings are important to a degree, and we need to feel them, but it is unhelpful when they drive our every belief and action, and they can become destructive when we have not integrated ourselves psychologically and learned how to live in reality. Reality can be unfair; get used to it! Find something inside to nourish you. The world cannot be contained.
This moral relativism has spawned over the top political correctness and the plight of the hateful, often violent “social justice warrior,” who claims that anyone who disagrees with their strident (delusional) ideology is somehow a racist, homophobic bigot. To live by a core belief system that defies identity politics is considered juvenile, “privileged” or naive, and of course, very “offensive.” A micro-aggression, if you will. (I won’t. A common claim would be that I have no right to hold this or any other view because I am a white woman, therefore coming from a place of privilege, therefore unable to understand suffering. You can’t win. Onward with truth!) To have any faith whatsoever, any moral compass, or any diversity of thought, is now considered gross and racist, (holler Ben Affleck) homophobic, bigoted, simple-minded, uneducated, a refutation of science – on it goes and goes. The great irony is that what you are often accused of being by the standard “SJW” are the very traits they embody. Another irony is that, inside this “tolerant” world one can now be considered highly immoral for peacefully practicing a religious faith and highly moral for attacking those who believe. Attack, violence, hatred, cruelty, condescension, and meanness are all considered moral and righteous in the SJW’s mind, because it is the name of the fighting the good fight. The cognitive dissonance is astounding. It is postmodernism parading as a reverential political and cultural transformation, and it is toxic.
It is not fighting the good fight. It is the thought police world, it is mind control, and it is hateful. Faith in anything decent and good has been replaced by ridiculous reverence and faith in the state (see twentieth century Russia and China for results), in identity politics, in radical gender ideologies, radical anti-West ideologies, and worst of all, faith in nothing at all, a complete collapse.
I believe strongly in individual rights and freedoms, and so by all means, please go study postmodernism until your eyes and ears start to bleed. But pay attention. Is such cynicism and nihilism the answer? Is a world without meaning actually possible? Can we really strip everything down to the idea that only language makes something something, that categories of anything were solely invented to keep people out? It’s a ludicrous, damaging, false set of theories, and yet the good news is that such investigation might turn you toward wanting to realize a bit more of a path of truth, that history, nature, science, and faith are onto something.
Faith and Knowledge
I find that having faith, especially explored and pondered faith (agnostic faith?), despite the cries that it is a naive and uneducated path, something that the most open-minded and intelligent possess. It is unbearably reductive to say that to believe in God, however one may define that belief, means the total abandoning of facts and logic. Faith is not the antithesis to knowledge, and in fact, the two often blend together quite nicely and satisfyingly, if one sees the cultivation of knowledge not as a sterile washing away of the unknown and the transcendent, but as a joyful pursuit of truth and understanding. One certainly can believe in God in a thoughtless and even evil way, and that of course is not holy benevolence but a rigid and controlled system (see authoritarianism) that seeks to denigrate and condemn. That is not the faith I subscribe to, nor one I see commonly practiced amongst peers.
People like to blame the world’s horrors on religion, and indeed many horrors have occurred when religion as an entity had far too much power over the people. Christianity certainly had to go through many a reformation to divorce itself from narrow-mindedness and condemnation of others, not to mention its inappropriate blending with government. This was religion corrupted and preying on people’s faith. Today’s radical Islam (still blended with the state in certain countries) is in desperate need of a reformation. What has actually caused more deaths throughout the past few centuries, besides disease, has been totalitarian statehood in countries like Russia, China, Germany, and Cambodia, not belief in God. The claim is often that such a totalitarian regime is eerily similar to that of a controlling religion, and that is true to a degree – when any set of beliefs turns into enforced ideology that then removes freedom from individuals, violence occurs. A major difference though, in say most religious principles and a Communist dictatorship is that the former is focuses on an individual’s path of growth and self-realization through a relationship with the transcendent, while the latter is about what an individual can give up to the state. (And if anything actually is meaningless and void of heart, it is the state.)
All sets of beliefs can be corrupted and turned authoritarian by man, but this does not mean the set of beliefs in and of themselves are corrupt. Some sets of beliefs, when applied well, are never corrupted. Some sets of beliefs, no matter how seemingly decent or perfectly applied, simply cannot remain free from depravity, and this usually means they clash too drastically with reality and human nature. The idea of Communism sounds so good. Unfortunately, it does not align with the natural world and instincts of man, with the complexities and dualities of life here on earth. It kills freedom, creativity, growth. Eventually, it kills millions of people. An institution cannot give you liberty and individuality. A spiritual path, however, does align with nature and with freedom, and it is the oldest story in the world. Wishing on stars is among the first acts of human, the belief in something larger, the turning our heads and hearts to the sky for guidance.
Faith should never be enforced, which is why it is a blessed thing that we have the separation of church and state in our country and freedom of religion. It is absolute power and the removal of individual freedom that corrupts, and faith is a highly individual and personal path anyway, so the separation is a boon.
Authoritarianism as the Problem
Any belief system (even atheism) becomes damaging when it grows rigid and dogmatic and is inflicted onto others. This can happen intrapersonally, interpersonally, or at any level of society and policy. The personal and the political, in this regard, often feed off of each other, as we have seen with the uprise of a culture that is highly intolerant to diversity of thought in the United States. Do as I say, not as I do, is a tried and true dictate. Moral relativism can sometimes be just a hop, skip, and a jump away from authoritarianism. Since nothing is rooted in any sort of fundamental truth or based in reality, well…then, I’m just going to oppose my morality du jour onto you, and don’t you dare get it wrong! Do as I say! Do as we say! This is the only way.
My natural evolution of belief systems could certainly be likened to transitioning from a rigid system to an open one, from a dark and empty one to a warm and joyful one. You might say, my perception and spirit changed from postmodern to Enlightened and Romantic, and hallelujah for that. Thank the heavens. This had nothing to do with religion, although I identify with certain symbols and archetypes of various religious figures that went through personal transformations in their perceptions of the world. I highly respect and revere religion. I continue to keep an open mind about it and find solace in its lasting impact on humanity.
A belief system works for me, and yet within the realm of this system I find a lot of space and air and light. I don’t think of my set of beliefs as rigid or highly controlled or authoritarian by any stretch. It is not a closed system. There is room for change. In fact, my beliefs have transformed quite a bit over the years, and I leave room to allow them to continue to change. Certain truths, however, have stayed the same, and I am proud of them. At the core, there is faith, faith in a benevolent force. There is the awareness that true light and soul lies within, that there is something fundamentally good in my chest and stomach that I can feel and that is real. There is a belief in revering truth over what “should” be, in respecting reality over fantasy but not renouncing mystery and magic. There is a belief in keeping an open mind but not abandoning myself simply for the sake of openness. There is an utter conviction that to trash god, faith, knowledge, reason, nature, literature, history, is deplorable, but there is also a belief in forgiveness. There is a distaste in my belief system for the postmodern love affair with the desolate, with emptiness, meaningless, nihilism. I am repelled by these concepts. I find at their root is really just resentment and rejection of humanity, in all of its complex, accidental, forgivable forms.
I certainly believe that one can be atheist and live a wholehearted and happy life. I have many friends who consider themselves atheists and are wonderful examples of kindness, service, and warmth. What I notice about them, however, is that they are very open and receptive and they are certainly not spending their hours trashing people who do consider themselves religious, spiritual, or people of faith. They are by no means authoritarian or fundamentalist in their atheism. In fact, I doubt they even give it much thought. And they have reverence for all that may stem from religion and mythology in terms of narrative, culture, and connection.
Heaven and Hell as Metaphor
One of the oldest and most universal symbolic references is that of heaven and hell. This is not something I ever really believed in any sort of a literal sense. Is there an afterlife? Maybe. I don’t know. I certainly cannot claim to know, but I also cannot claim to not. What I can relate to is the metaphor and that we can live in heaven or hell right now, here on earth, and that such a destination often resides in the daily choices we make and what constitutes our moral code, our belief system, our capacity for amendment and atonement, and our willingness to learn and grow.
For me, hell is lacking all belief, all meaning, living life as an iconoclast without any attempt to rebuild something good and decent. It is easy to be cynical – why not try something braver? Hell is living day in and day out with anxiety and self-hatred and the hatred of others. Hell is trying to force others to be like you, or worrying that not everyone understands you and making everyone an enemy. Hell is condemning others and ruining people’s lives for not catering one hundred percent to a rigid system. Hell is sometimes in the logistics; losing a job, a lover, a family member, or freezing or starving or being so very poor and believing there is no way out. Hell is being unfree, whether physically or within your own psyche and soul. Many who are physically free are slaves within their own minds and spirits. Hell is too much focus on others, hell is too much focus on yourself. Hell is the absence of feeling. The inability to feel joy. The wanting to die.
Human rights are indeed among the most moral of issues. I believe all, no matter their identity, deserves basic dignity and freedom. But this cannot be politically mandated, even though it seems like the wise choice. Let the benevolent government fix it, right? Sadly, the inherent dualities of nature at times makes this seemingly impossible. The struggle is, as they say, real. It is one thing for a government to take rights away (not good) but it is far worse for a government to force people to behave and think a certain way and to constantly intervene in the day to day lives of individuals. Of course we want the end of racism, of sexism, of bigotry, but this cannot be eradicated by force, by violence, by control. There is extreme backlash when the government behaves with such intrusion. Let people have their basic rights. Let them be. Let them work or not, let them pray or not, let them alone. Let them be free. Do not expect them all to be perfect or decent or cater to your expectations. But if they cause you no direct harm, deal with it. This is earth – not heaven.