If there were no eternal consciousness in a man,
if at the foundation of all there lay only a wildly seething power
which writhing with obscure passions produced everything
that is great and everything that is insignificant,
if a bottomless void never satiated lay hidden beneath all—
what then would life be but despair?
— Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (1843)
The quotation above is from Kierkegaard's "Panegyric Upon Abraham," whom Kierkegaard sees as the father of faith and a "knight of faith." Others may see Abraham as a fanatic, willing to kill his son, his dearly-loved son, as a sacrifice to God. That's relevant to my topic here as is a fact far more certain than Abraham as the father of faith: the fact that Søren Kierkegaard's meditation upon Abraham is one of the roots of modern Existentialism.
Most of that modern Existentialism is atheistic, and it starts with despair: 'cause in the modern, scientific, mainly materialistic view of things, human life is, if not melodramatically despair, at least incredibly trivial.
In the modern, scientific, mainly materialistic view of things, our universe is billions of years old and, possibly, one of several or many or an infinite number of universes. Thinking rigorously, we see human beings as one species on a planet in which 90-99% of species go extinct, a planet circling an undistinguished star that Carl Sagan endearingly put among "billions and billions of stars," and expanding even that reminder of our triviality in the grand scheme of things by telling us that "There are in fact 100 billion galaxies, each of which contain something like a 100 billion stars." Well, etc. Thinking rigorously, seeing The Big Picture, reveals that your life is one among over seven billion human beings living currently, among even more billions in the past of our species, on a small planet doomed to be destroyed when the sun goes nova, in a universe doomed in most theories to end either in fire (Armageddon, "the Big Crunch") or ice (entropy, "the heat-death of the universe").
Almost all of us, almost all the time, fortunately, don't think rigorously in terms of the Big Picture and avoid concluding with Koheleth that all of human life is emptiness — "Vanity of vanities!" — and a "striving after wind" (Ecclesiastes). Definitely Carl Sagan and even Jean-Paul Sartre looked into the Abyss and then got on with their lives as if those lives might mean something.
"Which," you may say, "was easy for them to do," which I would like you to say since if you have the leisure and education and other resources to read an essay like this, you, too, may — as Sagan and Sartre did, and I do — find it relatively easy to get on.
You will also find it easy to "get on" if you have no time for reading or much philosophizing because you find it really really difficult to get on at all: as Eric Hoffer says in his 1951 True Believer — a work I really like and will get to in this essay — "The poor on the borderline of starvation lead purposeful lives. To be engaged in" what we call "a desperate struggle for food and shelter is to be wholly free from a sense of futility. […] Every meal is a fulfillment; to go to sleep on a full stomach is a triumph […]" (section 21).
So, on the one hand you have many humans for most of our history living meaningfully on the edge of starvation or other horrible death. On the other hand, there's that old sick joke about a kid thought mute or seriously autistic by his parents because he never talked. Then one day at breakfast the kid looks up and says, "This oatmeal sucks!" After many expressions of surprise and delight — fill them in as you like — one parent or the other says, "But, all these years, you've been silent! Why?" And the kid replies, "Up to now, everything's been okay."
If surviving another day is "a triumph," you've lived another day of a meaningful life. If, on the other hand, life is going smoothly, if you're firmly embedded in family, social, and cultural networks, you can slide through a lifetime in comfortable obliviousness to The Big Picture.
Most of us, most of the time have families and friends, jobs and social support, spouses, sports, the media, art and other connections and distractions — and, if we're lucky, creative work to do. Some of us though, and at times of great social change significant numbers of us, lose our connectedness and do not find creative work and/or some sort of communion with the world or others.
Using a buzzword of his times, Hoffer argues that in times of stress and transition significant numbers of people become frustrated: feeling "for one reason or another that their lives are spoiled or wasted" (Preface, note 1). Such people can become increasingly dissatisfied with their everyday lives and increasingly desperate to find something of transcendent value, something to which they can dedicate themselves. In a beautiful formulation by George Eliot, in Middlemarch, they seek "some illimitable satisfaction, some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self" ("Prelude").
Indeed, Hoffer says, some can become so dissatisfied with themselves and with the present world and they desire self-sacrifice and destruction: perhaps self-sacrifice in itself, literally but preferably sacrifice of self for some holy cause; they will sacrifice themselves and others — nowadays think of suicide bombers — to destroy the current order and build a better one, ideally the Ideal Order: self-sacrifice and rebirth in the perfect world of The Kingdom of God or The Thousand Year Reich or The Paradise of Peasants and Workers or a renewed Zion or … well, or all sorts of things. People can dedicate themselves fanatically to a variety of Movements to re-establishment old orders or, effectively the same thing, establish future eutopias. Some people can enthusiastically choose to die for a holy cause; and many more can enthusiastically choose to submerge themselves in that cause abstractly and imaginatively and very concretely find solidarity and social connection in a cult or cell or party unit or congregation. And perhaps nowadays — and only just perhaps — some people find validation and support and a form of Self-absorption into a virtual community on line.
In the last paragraph of The True Believer, Hoffer notes that "J. B. S. Haldane counts fanaticism among the only four really important inventions made between 3000 B.C. and 1400 A.D." and has it "a Judaic-Christian invention." That last part is a definite maybe since the Egyptians knew a thing or two about nasty religious conflict, and Egypt was ancient when Abraham was a lad. For sure, though, fanaticism has been around for a long time. What I'm asserting here is that we face forms, very dangerous forms, with a modern and post-modern twist.
In "An Anatomy of the World" in 1611, John Donne griped that in his time "[…] new philosophy calls all in doubt, " and with newfangled ideas in astronomy from Copernicus and Galileo — soon to be reinforced by a new science of chemistry — "The element of fire is quite put out" (no sphere of fire above the air) — and "The sun is lost, and th'earth, and no man's wit / Can well direct him where to look for it" ("First Anniversary," lines 205-08). The late 15th-16th centuries had been bad enough, in this regard, with renewed or new western European contacts with southern Africa and Russia and the Far East and a whole "New World" in what came to be called the Americas — and then the Protestant Reformation (or heresy): the late 15th and then the 16th century had been bad enough for expanding the worlds of educated people and bringing religious doubt even to peasants, some of whom were learning how to read! The 17th century then expanded and globalized and complicated the world for increasing ranks of educated people — and integrated into a global economy millions more.
And that expansion has continued to our time and to that universe of "billions and billions of stars" with our world far, far, far from the center of things. And here on Earth, economically far more than philosophically, from 1492 on, and with increasing acceleration, ways of life that had served people well or badly for time out of mind changed radically.
One reaction to the uncertain new world was embracing of all or parts of its individualism and capitalism and "new philosophy." Another reaction was falling back on the old certainties with even greater commitment.
The Protestant Reformation overturned Roman Catholic authority indeed, where the Reformation succeeded, but only to set up the authority of Scripture and, they said — if indirectly — of Faith and Grace and Christ alone, through the Reformed Church. And then (verily!) the first Reformers begot the Calvinists who branched off into the Puritans and Separatists, some of whom, famously travelled off to Amsterdam and then to that New World to set up a City on the Hill and religious freedom in the sense of their being able to run things. Eventually, in the 20th century, their spiritual descendants with less sense of nuance got down to the Fundamentals of the Faith and very great Christian certainty, indeed.
Arguably — and Karen Armstrong among others has made the argument — one mutually reinforcing effect of the Modern age and the Enlightenment was, well, the Enlightenment; another was the counter-Enlightenment of Fundamentalism.
And not just in Christianity, however much Christians got to the pure form first, in the early 20th century, and gave us the term. When the Enlightenment reached the Jews, there was a Reform movement in Germany and then the United States, but ultimately as strong or stronger counter-movements toward a renewed, if often modernized, Orthodoxy and the mystically-inflected, not-totally-Orthodox piety of what I'll call here the Hassidim (the terminology can get complicated).
Similarly, in turn, there were Fundamentalist backlashes in Islam with Wahhabism, or "salafiyya" and, although this sounds odd, a kind of fundamentalism even among Hindus and Buddhists.
In the world's major religions today we face large fundamentalist factions with some less "fundamental" but radical fellow-travelers, with many of these entwined in complex and dangerous ways with that other great source of "rapturous consciousness of life beyond self," nationalism.
What is to be feared most in our time is not so much "culture wars" or a "clash of civilizations," but a clash of fundamentalisms entwined with nationalist fervor in nation-states that are heavily armed and dangerous. What we have to fear is mass movements like those of the Fascists and Communists and Japanese Imperialists of the 20th century — the source of the greatest bloodbath in human history — but this time with nuclear weapons.
Large numbers of people are miserable if they feel no meaning or ultimate significance to their lives, and they are willing to die for that meaning, and take others with them. We have today increasing evidence that human beings really are insignificant and decreasing strength in the social and community forces that allow us to feel significance. As in the 20th century, we have competing forces offering certainty and unambiguous moral clarity about what is right and what is wrong, about who are the Chosen and who the Evildoers. If Hoffer is right, what these relatively amorphous groups need to become truly massive Mass Movements is an ideology that will move people to sacrifice the present — and their lives and their Selves and others — and a charismatic leader to get them to do it.
Among the potential mass movements, the most immediately plausible is in militant Islam, although it might begin with internal conflicts of Sunni vs. Shia. Like all the religious fundamentalisms, Islam has obvious appeals and clear advantages in recruitment over such big-time players of the last century as the Russian Bolsheviks and German Nazis.
The Bolsheviks had to engage in a kind of sacralizing of everyday activities and get people to serve the Party that served the Revolution that served History and the Future. Islam can cut through all that: Islam is a religion and serving the faith is serving God, which is by definition meaningful and good in itself and will be rewarded in Paradise. Mass movements practice the "Deprecation of the Present," getting believers to sacrifice the now in service to the future (always) and in connection with a glorious past, if possible (Hoffer, sections 48-50). The Nazis had to make up most of a glorious past for Germany, a newcomer on the world stage; Islam has a glorious past.
"Mass movements," Hoffer says, "can rise and spread without belief in a God" — Communism is officially atheistic — "but never without belief in a devil" (section 65). Islam has Shaytan, a literal devil, but they also have "The Great Satan" — us, America — and Jews and heretics (Shiites or Sunni, depending) and, for the Taliban, idolatrous Buddhists. There are also atheists, secularists, and probably homosexuals. For fundamentalist Islamist Pakistanis there would be idolatrous militant Hindus.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the beginning of the modern period, the Wars of Religion killed off some six to 11.5 million people in a Europe with far fewer people than today and when the great breakthroughs in the technology of death included the flintlock gun and canister shot for cannons. Now picture a war between Pakistan and India drawn out long enough for religious extremists in both countries to come to power. There are about 1.7 billion people on the Indian subcontinent, with about 1.2 billion of them in India, and about 180 million in Pakistan. Both Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons — and outnumbered and outgunned Pakistan might legitimately appeal for aid from its Muslim brothers against the pagan Indian bully.
Mass movements are always in competition with one another and in symbiotic relationship with one another (Hoffer, Part III). A Saul of Tarsus could become St. Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, and it was well known that Communists and Fascists fished for recruits in the same pool and that it was sometimes a toss-up whether a disaffected young man ca. 1930 became a Communist or Nazi or a committed Catholic — or if an oppressed Jew in the Pale of Settlement of the Russian Empire became a revolutionary or a Zionist. Nowadays, though, there is less competition and more symbiosis: Jihadist attacks on Israel reinforce the Israeli nationalist and religious Right — and the American religious Right. And militant atheists and overly assertive secularists probably reinforce all of them.
So let me make the following suggestions.
* American neocons should apologize for invading Iraq, and the US should quietly get our troops out of Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries as much as possible, as soon as possible. The "Great Satan" should keep a low military profile in the Muslim world — and a high peaceful presence where we can help and are wanted. Neocons should recall that Ann Coulter said of the Islamic world that "We [Americans] should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity," assert her right to free speech, and then politely invite her to shut up.
* American environmentalists should follow California's mainstream Democrats and cool it on fracking. We need water — God, do we need water in southern California! — but American needs to end our dependence on Mideast oil: the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia are not our friends, not the friends of American secularists, and not the friends of your fellow citizens who talk of the USA as "a Christian nation."
* "With all deliberate speed," in its meaning before the phrase became a sick joke with the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation order, we should proceed to decrease nuclear armaments so that initially there are too few warheads around to end human civilization, and then proceed to get to zero nuclear weapons in areas like the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent (and the Korean Peninsula as well — but that gets into whole new realms of fanaticism).
* We need to recognize that there has been a global economy for centuries now, and, short of some horrible disaster, this interdependence and interconnection will continue to increase. There is a global economic "house," and we need to get that house in order to minimize the economic and social dislocations that prepare the ground for fanaticism. "Modernization" is mostly a euphemism for dragging foreign countries into capitalism; such modernization needs to be done much more cautiously not only on ethical grounds but practical ones: large populations of educated but unemployed or underemployed young men (and increasingly young women) are a prime demographic for that pool of potential fanatics. Disrupting social networks and traditional societies and throwing people into a world of individuals invites those new individuals to move posthaste into a movement, evangelical action squad, conspiratorial cell, or cult.
* My enemy's enemy is not necessarily my friend, but we're likely to find ourselves co-belligerents. We Americans must recognize that if the great human threat to the world order is a Clash of Fundamentalisms, we are going to find ourselves cobelligerents with a wide range of folk. If the most immediate threat is Islamic holy warriors, we have natural allies in the Chinese and Russians. If warfare by and against Jihadists is the major threat to world peace, we need to lean on our moderate Indian friends to work out a non-aggression and nuclear build-down pact with the non-Jihadists among our Pakistani friends. Remembering the symbiotic relationship among opposed militants we must recognize that secular and moderately religious Israelis are our friends; modern-day Zealots are not.
* And we need to pray that if a truly charismatic leaders arises among the Muslim faithful that they get a relative Mensch like Saladin and not a serial mass murderer like Tamburlaine.
Faith is powerful and necessary for most people. If you get laid off your job and your neighborhood gets bulldozed or you lose your tribe and clan and social embededness — if you have to stand alone and confront "the human condition" and stare into the figurative Abyss — you need some sort of faith. And Eric Hoffer ends The True Believer by calling fanaticism both "a malady of the soul" and "a miraculous instrument for raising societies and nations from the dead — an instrument of resurrection," possibly the only means for humans to implement truly radical change. Okay, but keep in mind Hoffer's "malady of the soul" phrase and note that in the early twentieth century, even more than when Hoffer wrote in the mid-20th century, a clash of fanatical fundamentalisms could be an instrument of mass extinction.