The Delusion of Meaning

Freud characterized religion as being the imposition upon the real world of the wish-world of our fantasies. But may that not be true of any and all meaning systems? I suspect that it is. I used to wonder if perhaps all religions are delusions, hatched first by one troubled/gifted mind, whence it spreads to others. And if successful, the delusion is christened a “religion.” We are at liberty to talk about the belief unflatteringly while a single or a pathetic few embrace it, but when a great many do, we feel it is the better part of discretion to hold our tongue and show some (feigned) respect. But now I suspect the same is true for all worldviews.

I guess that we will continue to view a belief-system as “crazy” insofar as it brings its adherents into friction with their own welfare, making normal, daily life impossible or grossly inconvenient, unless the believers shape a microcosmic bubble of an environment where everyone operates by the same outré axioms (spouse-swapping in Utopian communes, etc.). But there are limits: a suicide cult is so obviously and completely maladaptive to the larger, shared world, that we call it crazy, no matter how carefully Heaven’s Gate or the Shi’ite bombers may have weighed their actions.

Some delusive (at least wholly insupportable) beliefs may define a community and make them seem eccentric to outsiders and yet not alienate believers unduly because they are kept under wraps, not evangelistically pressed upon the wider public. What is the difference between the belief of Unaria or the Aetherius Society that a Mother Ship is one day going to beam up its chosen contactees, and the similar doctrine of the Rapture so dear to Protestant Fundamentalists? The first sounds bizarre because it is unfamiliar to most people outside of science fiction. The second also sounds bizarre, but if believers can convince you that the Bible, so widely acknowledged an authority, teaches it, you may swallow your amazement and embrace the peculiar sounding tenet yourself. And besides, it forms a lesser known part of a wider doctrinal system that most Americans do embrace even if they never expected it to lead to something as weird as the Rapture.

But it still sounds weird, delusive, to many, many people. Interviewers might marvel that people like Pat Robertson believe such a thing, but then they marvel at Pat Robertson for a lot of reasons: there are plenty of nutty things about him, some of which make even the Rapture look pretty rational by comparison. By contrast, consider Roman Catholics, whom the media appear to take a bit more seriously, partly because of their long-time social engagements. A reporter interviewing a neighborhood priest about his parish’s social reform efforts is probably going to give him a pass on his strange beliefs. Imagine if they didn’t. Imagine if they held his feet to the fire: “Thanks for the astute social analysis, Father. By the way, is it really true you folks believe the Virgin Mary, on her deathbed, rose bodily into heaven without suffering death?” A sort of scaled-down, privatized version of the Rapture. What would the priest say? Would he turn red and sputter? No wonder he’d rather stick to sociology while the camera’s rolling.

You see, if, like the Catholic Church, you can establish a base in the mundane world, dealing shrewdly with it, you can minimize the scale on which your closeted beliefs set you apart from the world around you. Your faith is like Guantanamo Bay, smack dab in Cuba but owned by the United States. It is also like Superman’s secret identity, seemingly sane and normal, but actually bizarre.

Is a secular worldview as arbitrary as the creed of the Prophet Exidor, or of the Nicene Creed? In one important way, no. For one thing, a secular creed, devoted to scientific epistemology, will simply lop off all those beliefs not suggested or supported by empirical observation. This need not mean that the scientist is not open to the possibility that “there are things in heaven and on earth that are as yet undreamt of in his philosophy.” If someone can come up with some way of finding them, the scientist will be the first to listen. But until then, he will not treat them as if they were seen and known, as New Agers do, pretending to manipulate crystals and pyramids and to contact Space Brothers.

For another, the modest secular creed will stick as tightly with the facts as possible, e.g., trying to derive ethics from natural law, basing morals on human nature rather than deriving them from abstract dogmas and then imposing them onto frail human flesh no matter how poor the fit. A secularist would no sooner forbid divorce or homosexuality because of some alleged violation of a divine plan for creation than he would sign off on suicide bombing for Allah’s sake.

And I believe a scientific worldview is also an existential worldview. It recognizes the subjective, gratuitous nature of “meaning,” that it is always a valorization existing in the eye of the beholder(s). Think of musical tastes as perhaps the best example. And, in general, what makes something “significant” or “interesting”? Nothing inherent in it, that’s for sure, or everybody would share the interest.

Clinically depressed people say that the interest has drained away from the pursuits that used to attract them, that formerly made their lives seem worthwhile. I believe that in such cases people have attained a rare and terrible degree of objectivism. They have glimpsed the naked world, the world as it is, bare of the significance we usually project upon it. We cannot endure much more than a glimpse. Even that may prove too much for us.

And yet there is something missing from that scenario. We are at our worst when we are depressed, not at our best. We are missing something that we need. And that means our view of things is not after all sticking close to the facts. Or rather, it is sticking close to the facts, but too close. It needs to accommodate something else besides the facts. My suggestion (scarcely a new one) is that the human psyche is designed around non-rational as well as rational factors. We need beauty and meaning. Our oversized brains demand it. We have a sweet tooth as well as a need for nutrients. We feed the need with fantasy, most fundamentally the fantasy of meaning per se. The assignment of imagined predicates of “good” and “evil,” “beautiful” or “ugly,” “fascinating” or “fun,” etc., are fantasy, as they entail projection upon that which is “essentially” (as if they even had an “essence”) neutral and “without dharmas.” Value is fantasy. Fantasy when employed as a roadmap for living is delusion. But that is surely what we require.

I am not saying, as some do these days, that the brain is hard-wired to believe in God even though there isn’t a God. I don’t think any particular beliefs, fact-claims, are necessary to human fulfillment. Fantasy and fiction, recognized as such, will do the trick nicely. There is, after all, no fact-claim, no belief, entailed in the edification music brings us. Why should there be when it comes to religion or mythology?

So says Zarathustra.

Robert M. Price
June 2007



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