Our species today has a total headcount of some 7.6 billion, spread all over the unique and beautiful planet Earth. The species originated a few hundred thousand years ago in a region of the great continent of Africa. In this evolutionary ‘blink of an eye’, heroic individuals and groups of our species have migrated to the remotest parts of the planet − overcoming in the process innumerable and enormous challenges and adversities.
Over this period, all the branches of the human family have managed to adapt, survive, multiply, prosper and also – characteristically! – REFLECT. Each branch of the family has fared well, adapting its culture to its unique geographical and climactic conditions. Indeed, in its unmolested condition, each branch can rightfully say: ‘I am alright, mate!’
In the absence of conditions supporting individuation, it is reasonable to assume that human life prior to about ten millennia before our time would have been predominantly tribal. Any attempted ‘breakouts’ by energetic or talented individuals would have been handled either by the tribe it its own way – or by the harsh surroundings. The absence of written records limits us to informed conjecture, based on observed societal behaviour in the subsequent period.
Judging by mythology, a major transition in human life was recorded about five thousand years ago, a transition known in some traditions as ‘the fall’.
It would seem that greed and lust − symbolized by a temptress in ‘a garden of plenty’ − turned an individual aggressively and implacably against the tribe. Treachery, fratricide and worse ensued, followed by inter-tribal conflict, genocide, slavery et cetera. Quite possibly the angry and aggressive challenge ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ – primitive jaws jutting full out – was thrown at ‘tribal elders’ for the first time around then.
The cat was well and truly out of the bag!
That particular period of strife-torn tribal life coincided more or less with the development of writing. Writing has profoundly shaped subsequent human history – since it triggered abstract thinking and also the creation of myths.
Based on what we observe today, it is safe to say that: (a) myths and myth-makers would have been in strong demand in times of intense tribal conflict, for reasons of rationalization and justification, and (b) myths themselves had the potential to ignite conflicts – completing a cause-and-effect feedback cycle between myths and conflicts.
Clearly, violence and exploitation on industrial scale is possible only when humans become capable of conceiving and carrying out such deeds on that scale. That seems to have first occurred around five thousand years ago – and it has not stopped since.
With this kind of background behaviour in human societies, some natural questions facing any reflective individual would be:
(a) Can attempts be made to reduce the amount of hatred, treachery, bloody violence, slavery, ruthless exploitation et cetera in society?
(b) How can a person overcome the psychological trauma caused by ‘evil’ deeds such as those listed?
(c) If an energetic or talented individual seeks a life which is in some sense better than the narrowly-defined tribal life – that is, a life which is more in harmony with humanity as a whole − are there any options available to that individual?
Over the period of recorded history, exceptional individuals have provided valuable answers to such crucial questions. Great sages – Buddha, Christ, Rumi and many others – have shown mankind how to deal with ‘evil’, or self-centred passions gone mad.
The Greeks said: ‘Those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad’. A closely matching line in Sanskrit – with no reference to God – is: Vināsh kāle viparit buddhi; rough translation: ‘Impending ruin corrupts the intellect’.
There is possibly deep psychological truth behind these proverbs. Impending ruin without any hope of succour is bound to be extremely painful. A mind may then simply decide to hasten the end – even while proclaiming that victory is close at hand. Behind outward huffing and puffing, the intellect obeys the deepest instinct of the mind and acts to end the pain.
But the wheels of karma grind ever so slowly, and an immense amount of tragedy and misery is caused by power-mad men and women headed to inevitable destruction. Proverbs do not help people caught up in the inevitable but slow cycle of madness and ruin. The dilemma of the thoughtful individual caught up in such goings-on remains painfully in place.
Example: One version of Gautam Buddha’s life-story refers to prince Siddharth’s doubts about an imminent war over river water.
Today, 2600 years after Buddha, ‘nation’ may be a more appropriate word than ‘tribe’. When two nations have been incited to fury against each other, to the point of imminent war, it cannot be assumed that reflective individuals on either side can forestall tragedy. They can point to the terrible consequences of war, suggest peaceful alternatives, and also attempt to mobilize public opinion – assuming that counts for anything in the nations concerned.
Sadly – and most often – proponents of war on each side have their own hidden agendas, not directly related to the nation’s welfare. Unbridled rapacity is usually a major component of war-mongers’ public postures, as made clear by General (Retired) Smedley Butler in War is a Racket.
Unbridled rapacity is certainly a major component of the madness which the Greeks spoke about. The playing out of this madness in the present epoch cannot be any different from how it played out in earlier epochs – that is, slowly and painfully.
By all accounts, today’s so-called ‘global prosperity’ rests on the twin pillars of (i) brutal exploitation of nature’s wealth, and (ii) build-up of unmanageable debt through unrestricted creation of fiat money. These are in fact the outward manifestations of unbridled rapacity – and therefore also elements of the madness the Greeks spoke about. To see this madness as ‘enlightened self-interest’ is wrong – and in fact a parody of enlightenment.
For sure, the denouement is not going to be pretty. Too much ugly passion, grounded in rapacity, has gone into the making of the present epoch. If the word ‘evil’ has a psychological interpretation, surely it is this. It would be naive to think that the downside tsunami of these passions can be prevented from playing itself out in the coming decades.
Specific details cannot be predicted. Nuclear war may even be avoided – but not bloody conflicts, cruelty, famine, political turmoil, economic disruption and forced migration. It would be prudent to have at least a modest vision for ‘the hereafter’ – to be understood as life after the inevitable downside tsunami plays itself out.
As Lieve has written in a comment:
‘Many people will be in great distress due to the forced ‘cold turkey’ of having all of their beliefs about reality destroyed. We will need immense patience, compassion and understanding to help everyone transition into the new paradigm, the world of the Truth Consciousness.’
If the picture sketched above reflects reasonably well the grim present-day reality, the reflective individual today faces the same dilemma that such individuals have faced throughout history – but on the much larger, ‘global’ scale.
Surely the relevant questions to ask such an individual are: What rational response do you propose to this grim reality? What creative thoughts can you bring to the table?
It does not matter if the individual is at heart a theist or an atheist. Intelligent and reflective persons – both theist and atheist – are capable of understanding reality and seeking the right answers. Indeed, it would be tragic if a person’s being a theist or an atheist handicapped this immensely valuable and basic capability.
[Deng Xiaoping: ‘It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.’]
For example, the author believes that it is unnecessary to introduce the word ‘God’ to understand reality; and that the three basic characteristics of reality pointed out by Gautam Buddha – impermanence, non-self and suffering – are sufficient for the purpose.
Now suppose someone makes the case that in fact God has endowed reality with these three basic characteristics. A logical and polite answer would be:
‘That may be true – but I am not privy to any direct evidence of that endowment. I get by alright with the three basic characteristics as they are – which you say God has endowed to reality. I have neither the ability nor the interest to prove or disprove your statement. But we can still cooperate in dealing with the very real challenges that we both face.’
In dealing with challenges, the theist has his faith anchored in God. That anchored faith protects the person from madness of the kind described above – and also thereby from self-destruction. Different religious traditions provide the anchoring in different ways.
The reflective atheist must anchor his or her faith in the most fundamental aspects of reality – for example its three basic characteristics pointed out by Buddha.
In terms of a firmly anchored faith, the sincere theist and the sincere atheist are equal.
But unbridled greed and lust are not anchored in anything real. In the play of greed and lust, alleviation of human suffering remains a matter of arrogant and even sophisticated unconcern. The resulting madness is dangerous – far more dangerous today than what the ancient Greeks or Indians might have witnessed.
To those in the grip of unbridled greed and lust, faith and belief are – at best – useful pretences, while convoluted legalistic arguments are their tools of trade. To a greater or lesser degree, all such persons add to the madness around the world.
Clear-headed theists and atheists can both agree on the nature of this madness and the dangers it presents. There need not be any fundamental differences between them in how to face this grim reality – and differences of belief between them are inconsequential.
In a practical sense, therefore, the duality between theism and atheism is false. The true duality is between firmly anchored faith and rootless, faithless cynicism.
Fires of false dualities have been fanned throughout history. The aim is to ‘nip in the bud’ any tendency towards independent reflective thought, and to distract attention away from the real dilemmas facing societies. In any society, self-interests of the ‘ruling segments’ lie in ignoring or suppressing problems of the ‘ruled’. To this end, the idea of God can prove to be quite handy. A faux debate amongst faux scholars about the subtler aspects of God’s working, or God’s attributes, would be hugely captivating – and would also reflect well on the ‘rulers’.
On the other hand, a real debate about the real problems faced by people is risky. It may give people dangerous ideas such as: (a) their problems can indeed be addressed, (b) their problems are often deliberately allowed to fester, and (c) their best interests are never in the cunning plans ceaselessly hatched by their ‘rulers’.
Every debate on a pointless but safe topic is a distraction and an obfuscation – an opportunity lost for genuine debate about genuine issues. For that reason, in any society, clever and self-serving ‘talking heads’ – proficient only in perpetuating a false intellectual atmosphere – are much in demand amongst the powers-that-be.
Say X is ‘the ruler’ of a tribe or a nation. A clever PR or ‘think tank’ person makes an offer to X: For a suitable reward, an impressive mumbo-jumbo event would be arranged that would boost X’s stature amongst ‘the ruled’. Would X not be tempted?
After all, this is what shamans do in primitive societies, what priests have done in India for millennia, and what PR and spin doctors do in ‘modern societies’. The difference today is that, in a ‘modern society’, a show of ‘intelligent debate’ must also be maintained – that being an essential ingredient of the intoxicating myth of ‘modernity’.
‘Rulers’ cannot rule without at least some degree of obfuscation and distraction. But, due to that same obfuscation and distraction, sooner or later they seriously misjudge reality. Missteps follow – and then seismic change. Both theists and atheists must see this clearly.