Any important or powerful idea is potentially dangerous to the very degree to which it is important or powerful. It is as foolish, therefore, to blame mechanized industry for Hitler and Stalin — or to blame advanced physics for Hiroshima and Nagasaki — as it is to blame the message of Jesus Christ and the sacraments established for our spiritualization for the Crusades and the Inquisition. Why, then, is this such a common foundational argument for atheists and materialists?
The faulty assumption of materialist reductionism notwithstanding, religion is treated as a separate entity, a thing apart from “the rest of life.” There is contradiction, here, on the part of materialists, but also on the part of “religionists.”
Materialists, for their part, want to have their cake and eat it. On one hand, we have atheists like Sam Harris who propose to study religion as any other “natural” phenomenon. That is, Harris wants religion to be a strictly sociological, anthropological, and neurological event, codifiable and quantifiable, but without the qualia of real experience. The religious person would balk at such an approach, not entirely without reason. To study the physical attributes of red light, or the biochemistry of a raspberry, is yet quite distant from the experience of redness or the feel and taste of a fresh raspberry. In answer to the faithful, however, there is surely something to be learned from, say, studies of the neural correlates of religious experience. The materialist will be forever barred by the nature of things from his true goal: religious experience cannot be explained away by mere brain states. Though not the place to go fully into the topic, it is relevant at least to point out the relationship between drugs like mescaline and DMT and religious experience. Drugs like these may provide a “sneak peek” into the world of mysticism, but do not produce — outside of traditional, sacramental contexts, at any rate — the lasting constructive shift in perspective and behavior which arise quite naturally from meditation and deep prayer. Even the so-called “God helmet”, touted by unsophisticated atheists as proof that God is all in the brain, seems to produce nothing but a hazy sense of “presence” with literally none of the hallmarks of authentic contemplative experience, and certainly no lasting change in the participant. If anything is proven thereby, it is only that there are indeed brain-states correlative with religious experience, but that tells us precious little about the nature of that experience. Seeing how the brain responds to the color blue would give a colorblind scientist no notion of the feeling of “blueness”.
Even with this desire to study religion from the outside, as it were, and to treat it as a fully “natural” event (leaving aside the purely Western need to distinguish with absolute sharpness between nature and supernature), the materialist still wishes to hold religion at arm’s length from human culture-at-large. This distinction is artificial and quite unnecessary, but the secularist will call it justice.
It is from this violent analysis of human nature that arises the attack of atheists like Richard Dawkins that the religious person is mentally deranged and that religion is a psychological anomaly requiring eradication or cure. (For mercy’s sake, we will not here delve into the proposition of Sam Harris and others that Muslims ought to be conquered or killed for the crime of being Muslims; this would take us far afield. It is enough to mention it as a possible extravagance of atheism, and that it is not representative of the majority atheist belief). It is obvious, and not enough as arguments go, to say that this is quite the reverse of the historical pattern, so far as “mental health” is defined by social functionality and statistical normalcy.
The back-alley stabbing attempted here against reality is quite easy to thwart. Study after study by “dispassionate” science shows the very real usefulness of religious faith — or even mere belief — in maintaining healthy attitudes during convalescence, old age, and life’s many trials are too clear to ignore: religion appears to aid, rather than hinder, psychological health. Taken to extremes, religion is as liable as anything to produce imbalance and extravagance, but when properly incorporated, it seems to be factually beneficial. This is, as a materialist will be quick to point out, little or no help in proving the truth-claims of religion, but it does kick a leg from under the claim of the inherent destructiveness of religion to the human mind.
Medically beneficial or not, there is something inherent to the place of religion in the human psyche; rare indeed is the person with no religious impulse at all, and even atheists tend to see something pitiable in a void of any sense of mystery and awe when staring into a starry sky, walking along the ocean’s edge and gazing at its vastness, or listening to the majestic peals of thunder approaching with black clouds in train. Like it or not, this very sense of grandeur and beauty is as “religious” as anything. Those students of religion-as-phenomenon often say that religion is an attempt on the part of the “primitive” mind to understand and participate in this majesty. The religionist might well respond: by the very suchness of things, we will participate in this suchness in any case at all, but only religion permits us to do so consciously, deliberately, and fully. This is the difference between the non-action of the Sage, on one hand, and the blind action of the passion-filled and the inaction of the lazy, on the other.
The mistake of the religionist referred to previously is also based in the false separation of religion from “the rest of life.” This separation is absurd. Religion is for humanity, for life, and not the reverse. If it could only meaningfully apply to quiet evenings alone, religion would be no different than watching television (except, perhaps, for the fact that we are socially encouraged to publicly discuss television, but not religion). A saying has it that faith is personal, but not private. Forgiving the inadequacy of a merely personal faith, the saying is useful in that it points to the need to fully live one’s religion without needing to violate the freedom of conscience of those around. In order to fully live one’s faith, one must first have faith to begin with. Faith is an investment of trust in a process, not mere ascent to a set of precepts and abstractions. Insofar as doctrines are necessary, they serve as foundational pointers to the process in which one might place faith, but they do not themselves make up that process. The religious process may begin in one specific arena — say, politics (Confucianism), collective worship (Judaism), or private contemplation (Buddhism) — but it must inevitably bear fruits which spread further seeds upon the soil of every other arena of life. In essence, all religions lead to the unicity of individual life, of collective society, and, eventually, of all existence. “He to whom all things are One, and who draweth all things to One, and seeth all things in One, can be steadfast in heart, and remain peaceable in God.” (The Imitation of Christ, I.3) The error of separation, of division, of dualism is one shared by many among the religious and secular alike, but it is still an error.
To draw the circle closed, the power inherent in any authentically religious perspective is, then, also its danger. But nuclear technology can provide cheap electricity as easily as it can vaporize millions of lives; it is entirely a matter of motivation. We may draw the analogy out a bit further: the amount of raw power made available by nuclear technology comes with the corresponding risk of that power going out of bounds and causing destruction purely accidentally. So, then, with ideas. Religion has been a powerhouse for enslavement of individuals and nations, but also a dynamo of freedom in the hearts and hands of the wise and charitable. It is the nature of Revelation to point the way to Liberation for those with eyes to see and ears to hear (and, despite New Age and other post-modern claims to the contrary, there is little enough evidence that real, lasting, organic, and responsible freedom is possible without dogma). This very capacity to break chains, though, may be redirected by the unwise, shortsighted, egotistical, or downright malicious among us to the cracking of bones. The same key will lock and unlock. When you lift an axe, shall you split logs, or skulls?
For whatever reason, the two dystopian novels always chosen out to be compared and contrasted with one another are George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It is true that they project fairly dissimilar visions onto the future (for them) of human civilization. Orwell’s take was one of a Western Plutocratic Fascism and an Eastern Communism joining political forces behind the scenes in order to produce an indefinite Cold War scenario, all the better for both sides to maintain iron-fisted social, cultural, and economic control over their populations. As Orwell himself puts it, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” Orwell’s is a future of tight social control and inhumane oppression upon what it means to be a thinking, feeling being.
Orwell’s dystopia has one major factor in common with Huxley’s: the suppression of rational thought and promotion of irrational emotionalism is used as the means of undercutting any possibility of escape or revolution. In Orwell, the overriding emotional factor is, of course, terror. In Huxley’s, it is quite different: it is pleasure.
In point of fact, neither one has come to pass in full, but both have come upon us in different ways. Whether or not it is entirely intentional, it is quite clear that we are being manipulated by our fear-responses. This seems to be the basis, however, only of foreign policy and international economic policy. Within countries, at least in the West, Huxley appears to have largely won the day. Again intentionally or not, people largely keep themselves in place by way of unquestioned consumption, unconscious absorption of endless streams of advertising, and psychological infantilization in the guise of “self-actualization” and by way of “self-esteem”. (An important documentary on this topic by Adam Curtis of the BBC may be found, for free, here. If you cannot download from this link for any reason, just do a search for “Century of the Self” by Adam Curtis.) In point of fact, though, and as strange as it may now sound, this particular post is not a political one.
As I have stated before, my approach to political question is essential moral rather than political in the usual sense. As such, I have no interest at all in merely dissecting various political ideas and then arguing over my own preferred version of them. I would rather discuss Huxley’s ideas within their own context: the Perennial Philosophy. Huxley was himself of a Perennialist persuasion; he even wrote a book about it, and a very good book at that.
You see hints all the time in Brave New World (BNW) that Huxley was not just lamenting the decay of liberalism (though he was indeed so lamenting); he was simultaneously lamenting the loss of Traditional values. Let’s be clear: Huxley’s values, though Traditional, were not at all narrow. No, the Perennial Philosophy permits of no bigotry, certainly no sexism nor racism. Homophobia is a dangerous byproduct of “family values” tribalism which passes under the name of “tradition”, but really has no place in Tradition. Where any of the Revelations mention it, it is generally for a very specific purpose that they do so, one which unfortunately has become obscured by time and the unfortunate human tendency to utilitarianism. I do not know what Huxley’s personal feelings were on homosexuality, but given his own friendships and acquaintances in life I would very much doubt if he took other than a neutral, disinterested view of the topic. But that is, really, neither here nor there; it is merely an important aside to make, given the present day’s social climate.
Huxley laments, in BNW, the loss of Christianity. This he does not because of the prejudices of exoteric Christian theology, but because of Christianity’s perennial sense of morality (karma-yoga), its salvific sacramentalism, and its rich and inspiring hagiography. What Huxley misses from Christianity in his dystopian vision is not “churchianity” but rather the living, operative core of the religion, the very fact that it, like all of the revelations, has something to it which hasdescended to us that we might become liberated from the shallow, the fragile, the meaningless. BNW illustrates this in narrative fashion by pointing to a sort of sacramental parody practiced by the citizens of the “one-world” society in the book.
The Twelve Apostles are replaced by the twelve participants around the table during the pseudo-religious service known as the Solidarity Service. Christ is Himself replaced by Henry Ford, whose prominence is assured as the one who perfected the concept of the factory assembly line and, thus, of efficiency over humanity; it is also dryly remarked that in his inscrutability, “Our Ford” referred to himself as “Freud” when discussing matters of psychology. (Again, see the documentary linked above.) All of the crosses of the world have had their heads cut off to make them capital Ts, after the Ford Model T. The hymns to God Almighty, the pre-existent Reality, are revamped into songs invoking the mere “Greater Being/Social Friend”, an egregore of the society itself rather than anything higher or deeper than itself. The Holy Sacrament is nothing but a narcotic/hallucinogenic/aphrodisiac drug cocktail called (in another nod to Traditional religion) soma after the Hindu mythology’s equivalent of manna or ambrosia. The whole affair is wrapped up with, well, an affair called “Orgy-Porgy” in which the twelve participants, alternating male and female, give in to mere lust and conduct a soporific orgy around the periphery of the circular chamber. Even this last detail is symbolic; given his knowledge of the esoteric dimension of the world’s religions, Huxley was fully aware that the Altar of the Divine Mass, no matter where it is actually situated in the church building, represents the Center where, if the metaphor will be permitted, Heaven and earth conjoin and Heaven makes Herself manifest in a way that permits of participation by unregenerate human individuals. Orgy-Porgy, on the other hand, takes as its position the periphery of the “worship” space, representing a moving-outward from Essence to form rather than the other way round.
It is often said that Huxley spent much of his intellectual life trying to reconcile “passion” with “rationality”; this seems to me to be a rather shallow interpretation of Huxley’s actual aims. Brave New World, along with many of Huxley’s other fictional works, certainly presents passionate feeling as a counterpoint to a stifling sort of rationalism. Those qualifications, however, count. It was not rational thought itself to which Huxley made himself an enemy; how could he have? No, it was the mechanizing rationalism of the modern movements he saw around him which troubled him, and whose fruits we are now eating today in blissful ignorance of the diseased tree from which they have fallen. Just as Aldous predicted. (And, now, another documentary from Adam Curtis: All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.)
As all of the Revelations attest, passion-as-such is not necessarily a good thing. More often than not, it is intensely destructive and tends to act as one of the primary imprisoning forces in our lives. After all, when we are passionate about something, we are unduly attached to it and will tend to go to absurd lengths to obtain our ends, or at least make certain that nobody else will be able to get it away from us. In the face of oppression, however—especially the sort of oppression which dissipates even healthy emotion—it may well be passion which allows us our first real contact with something other than the controls put in place to maintainstatus quo. Emotion is a lot like plumbing for a shower; if the pipes are kept too wide, we will likely not even get a trickle, as gravity will not permit the water to rise beyond a certain base level. If, however, the pipes are made more and more narrow, capillary action draws the water up the pipe by way of its own surface tension and, fwoosh!, you get a nice, hot shower with plenty of water pressure. Likewise with emotions; if the channels for their expression are wide, the emotions remain shallow and soft, while if the channels are tight, the emotions will naturally tend to burst forth by the power of their own tension. If we are permitted to determine our own emotional channels and our own mental focus (the tightness of the pipes), we might be able to use the resulting force to burst out of our selfish prisons. In order to ensure liberation, rather than reincarceration in a higher security prison, this process requires intense discipline; hence the difficulty of authentic Yoga, Tantra, Alchemy, theurgy, contemplative prayer, and other forms ofsadhana. Still, if passion is not permitted at the outset, any and all of these methods are immediately closed off from all but the born contemplative, a rare enough breed in any case. So the tension, here, is not between rational thought and emotion, but rather between the misapplication of rational thought over against a deeper mental discipline which uses the passions as its fuel without being overwhelmed by them.
Huxley’s Brave New World still seems somewhat far off to many people. To those with eyes to see, however, we are living in the thick of it, albeit in a modified form. Rarely is a prophet correct on specifics, even where he is deadly accurate on the overall trend. But it is this bird’s-eye-view that is most dangerous to the powers and principalities of this world. As Huxley wrote barely into the first chapter of Brave New World: “For particulars, as every one knows, make for virtue and happiness; generalities are intellectually necessary evils. Not philosophers but fretsawyers and stamp collectors compose the backbone of society.”