The Myth of Religion

But for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, appearance to essence… truth is considered profane, and only illusion is sacred. Sacredness is in fact held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be seen as the highest degree of sacredness.

Ludwig Feuerbach

Religion is the belief that ideas and words are literally real · · · Socialism, capitalism, feminism, sexism, scientism, relativism, theism and atheism are all religions · · · All religions violently police the borders of belief (orthodoxy), all religions violently persecute non-belief (heterodoxy), and all religions aspire to state power.

 

The belief that ideas and words are real we call superstition. A group of people sharing superstitious beliefs we call a cult or, if the group is very large, a religion. Religions are comprised of people whose personality is built on the assumption that ideas and words are literally real and that criticism of these ideas and words is capable of causing real harm. Such criticism may come from non-believers, who reject the ideas and words completely (‘infidels’), or it may come from believers, who interpret the ideas and words, or some of them, non-literally (‘heretics’); in both cases the threat is existential; the existence of the egoic personality — via the cultic-religious groupthink it depends on — is under threat.

The paradigmatic examples of religion are the ‘Abrahamic big three,’ Judaism, Pauline Christianity and Islam, members of which tend to venerate the written word and take criticism or satire as literal attacks. They’re not alone though; fanatical Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, identity politicians, nationalists, socialists, fascists, doctors, journalists and other cult members react in the same way, for the same reasons. Point out, in a fanatical communist forum, how petty, spiteful and authoritarian Karl Marx was (or communism is); point out to a group of fanatical feminists that (in feminist author, Fay Weldon’s, words) rape is not the worse thing that can happen to a woman (thermonuclear war is, for example, a bit worse) or that some of the most underprivileged people in Western society are actually poor, white men; point out the farcical all-too-human concerns of the author of the Quran to a group of fanatical Muslims1; point out the crimes of Israel (or the disproportionate power of Jews), or the crimes of America (or its clients), or the crimes of Britain to a fanatical nationalist or market-worshipping Anglo-Saxon audience; and watch the physical response; the sweating, the anguish, the eyes turned to heaven, the hysteria, the quaking rage…

Religious adherents, the fanatical kind,2 have extremely fragile selves, comprised of nothing more than thoughts and emotions, which is why they tend to see people not as individuals, but as thoughts, or categories, backed by extreme emotionality. The fanatical world is a rigid taxonomy, comprised entirely of goodies and baddies. Goodies — Muslims, or women, or black people, or Americans or whoever is on ‘our side’ — are right simply by virtue of their emotional category. Baddies wrong, simply by virtue of theirs. If baddies silence, exclude3 or criticise, it must be heretical (racist / sexist / ableist / fascist / centrist / communist / atheist / superstitious / intolerant / immature / an over-generalisation or, the classic, cult-behaviour4), while if goodies do, the judgement cannot be wrong.

It is not just other people who are perceived as emotional categories. The religious attitude denies the embodied reality of all life on earth in favour of an ersatz projection and belief system. Initially, mythic idealisation and systematisation blended with and served natural life, but, around 10,000 years ago, it took on a superstitious life of its own, first overcoming reality and then, with the advent of monotheism, subjugating the world-mythos entire, until reality was seen as a poor reflection of an abstract spectacle (platonic ideas, Hebrew heaven, etc.). Although the monotheistic religion began to decline around three or four hundred years ago, the growth of this spectacle did not merely remain unchanged; it accelerated into every area of life.

The religionist today usually does not believe in a monotheistic god or a polytheistic mythos (although such beliefs are not incompatible with the religion of [post]modernity), indeed he can hardly be said to ‘believe’ at all now that his entire existence is immersed in an artificial pseudo-reality which has completely colonised art, culture, all knowledge, language, thought and even perception. There is nothing to believe in, for there is no position from which to believe; nothing left by which to grasp any kind of experience or expression that comes from without. Thus every passing phantasm, provided that the self can benefit from believing in it, becomes hyper-real, while reality, nature, direct experience and any genuine criticism based thereon appear dreamlike, unreal, laughable or, if they get too close to the pseudo-self, horrifying.

This sense of horror lies under the ordinary — ponderously literal, joyless and repressed — awareness of the religionist. It manifests as constant low-lying addiction, anxiety and restlessness which surface as irritation in moments of boredom (no access to the narco-spectacle), anger at the slightest frustration and a queasy sense of discontent. If the boredom or frustration continues, the horror rises as fury, depression, wild flights of emotional over-excitement, sadism, masochism, terror and finally, outright madness. All of this the cult member defends, tooth-and-nail, for the simple reason that he feels it. Any attempt to question his feelings (actually emotions), or the boundaries of his carefully organised and vigilantly policed categories, or the existential status of his god or his spectacle, is intolerable and met with instant rejection, insanely rationalised justification or immediate, fantastic, infantile and violent overreaction. Throw into doubt the existential status of modern gods (rights or capital or mental illness or just us); point out the role that sport plays in pacifying the restless mass or the chilling dystopia of the sporting spectacle; question the need for schools, hospitals and prisons; tell people you don’t work, don’t drink, don’t have a smartphone; talk seriously and simply of love or death; take responsibility for your unhappiness; refuse to engage in everyday feasts of emotional cannibalism; turn off the wi-fi or the background muzak or the news… and see how the good people around you react the same way as religious fanatics everywhere; automatically and aggressively defending their mental-emotional identity, and its reflection in the world.

This identity, the pseudo-reality of the cult-personality, exists in a realm of binary categories, and so depends completely upon the existence of enemies. The goody can no more exist without a baddy, than left can without right, and so antagonists must be manufactured at the same rate as justifications. While the cult is excluded from power, those who have power are obvious targets, but as soon as the cult gains power it must, instead, generate moral panics (these days; rape-culture and hate-crimes on the fanatical left, and terrorism and extremism on the fanatical right5), witch-hunts and a series of denunciation campaigns6.

The supreme power is the distributed state-corporate nexus, to which powerful cult-members tend to aspire. Fanatics are not interested in radically altering the hierarchical structure of the system, or of dropping out of it7, rather they desire to play the dominant role or occupy the top spot within it, at which point the state becomes Marxist, Buddhist, feminist, black or Jedi, the commissars jump ship and join Oceania, and the oppression roles along, as was, with different labels, but the categorical structure intact and all its contentions uninterrupted. The state of yesterday’s Maoist, today’s republican and tomorrow’s identity politician, are all ultimately the same, for ultimately there is no difference, psychologically, between religious extremists. They are all uptight, stiff with discontent, resentful, agitated, up and down like a roller-coaster, yet defiantly self-assertive; all attributes of ego, upon which every cult on earth is and has been, built.

Ultimately, there is no difference, politically, between the states that religious extremists end up creating; because they are all religious states. There is no contradiction, whatsoever, in the concepts of ‘gay state’, ‘feminist state’, ‘black state,’ ‘atheist state’, ‘socialist state’, ‘Islamic state’, ‘democratic state,’ ‘rajneesh state,’ ‘scientific state’, ‘totalitarian state’, ‘Jewish state,’ ‘capitalist state,’ ‘professional state,’ or ‘fully automated luxury communist state.’ They are all comprised of powerful people telling powerless people what to do, or in more advanced, distributed, states, tending a mechanism which completely dominates the lives of those who comprise it.

‘Anarchist state’ though — that doesn’t make sense.


This is an excerpt (myth 25) from 33 Myths of the System. If you would like to receive a digital copy of the whole book, which I’ll give away at the end of this year, please sign up to the mailing list above, or send me an email.

 

Notes

  1. Or ask extremist feminists ‘what would you rather have — women’s rights or Islam?’.
  2. Many non-fanatical people belong to religions for reasons other than bolstering a shaky sense of self. They may benefit from the psychological insights of its founder or its tradition, they may value the social elements of membership, they may be committed to the general, and non-literal (perhaps even miraculous) ‘way of life’ that the religion represents, they may gain some kind of psychological solace from religious ritual, they might enjoy the practical benefits that their religious tradition confers, they may love the master or they might have had self-rupturing experiences of mysterious otherness which they [wrongly] attribute to the specific divinities and realities of their mythos. I believe that while these instincts can be called ‘religious’ they are not well served by that term, which I therefore prefer to use negatively.
  3. Religious adherents have a positive mania for ostracism, casting out Satans at the drop of a hat.
  4. Loving a teacher, or loving his teaching or, more simply, his loveableness, is inconceivable to the cult member — ego interferes with love and translates it into either a fanatical emotional release into an adoring mass (such as, for example, members of sporting cults experience) or into a cool, rational, abstracted distance (such as members of professional cults experience).
  5. Not, of course, that women aren’t raped, racial minorities attacked, buildings bombed, or nutty ideas disseminated. ‘Moral panic’ means the creation of a denunciatory environment using real crimes as a pretext.
  6. Lupus Dragonowl, Against Identity Politics.
  7. Completely dropping out that is, not merely dropping out to form a new mini-state.