Nature is much more playful than purposeful, and the probability that it has no special goals for the future need not strike one as a defect.
Thus far this all seems incredibly bleak. We are faced with a situation in which it appears that Western culture has been systematically constructing and strengthening an ideology that will ultimately bring about its own destruction, all the while becoming further convinced that we’re getting closer to living in a Utopia.
So what can be done?
It seems entirely unreasonable to suggest that people give up religion in every possible form. As animals that rely on the construction of a deeply complex symbolic network to help us make sense of the world and function on a day to day basis, it would be impossible to complete eliminate religion from our psychologies. The only feasible solution would be to find a suitable ideology to replace the Religion of Inevitable Progress.
This certainly won’t be an easy process. For many, the mourning period may seem almost unbearable. RIP provides material comforts in a more efficient manner than nearly any other ideological system possibly could. It is so successful that many people don’t even seem to be aware that there’s a problem at all. Daily life is usually bearable enough and the artificial amusements are generally distracting enough that things seem good enough. Bad things happen, and people deal with them with varying degrees of grace, but, well, “that’s life.” But that doesn’t need to be life. Many of the problems we face are not cruel twists of fate that the Universe has thrown at us to torture us, but are caused by our fellow man. So what ideology would serve to mitigate many of our intraspecies injuries?
Huxley proposes a widespread acceptance of the Perennial Philosophy and social policies guided by one simple creed: lead us not into temptation. Human beings are remarkably adaptive animals that are incredible responsive to the environment in which we live. I’ve previously struggled with the idea of whether man is innately good or evil, but I think that it’s the wrong question to be asking. Far too much of what man is and does is connected to his surroundings for the idea of innate nature to need to come up. While there may be an answer to what man may be like at the most basic level, it isn’t a particularly pragmatic question to ask because we do not exist in a vacuum in which man’s innate nature is the principle guiding factor in behavior. So much of man’s actions seems to be driven by what appears to lead to the best outcomes for oneself. On the surface, this might sound incredibly similar to the assumptions that modern capitalism makes about man and his desire to act in self-interest, but this new religion would provide man with a very different sense of self-interest than our current economic incentives do. As Alan Watts has discussed, that man always acts for some good or pleasure, whether immediate or in the future, that really is to say no more than that “we do what we do, for if we always do what pleases us-even in committing suicide-there is no means of showing what pleases us apart from what we do.” Thus any discussion of man and his acting in self-interest is a real muddling business that is much more complicated than our current view of Homo Economicus would lead us to believe and appearing not to even say anything (or at least anything rational) at all. In many ways, self-interest is a rather meaningless term and it begins to make more sense to consider the whole rather than oneself as an individual part.
Man must be lead away from the temptation to covetousness, pride, cruelty, power lust, and, most importantly, uncharity, all of which are behaviors that are seriously damaging to one’s fellow man. While many of these types of behavior might appear to act in favor of one’s self-interest in a society governed by a capitalist mentality, they really only serve one favorably in terms of economic and social status successes (and arguably evolutionary in the Neo-Darwinian sense that social and economic success lead to increased productive success.) They do nothing to help better one’s internal states in any meaningful or long-lasting way; they merely patch up the inner flaws that gape wider and wider, never truly providing in the way that one thinks they might.
Man must come to see that the Perennial Philosophy is really the highest common factor in all the world’s major religions, a fact that Huxley spends an entire book elaborating upon and is certainly beyond the scope of being adequately being covered in this post. This isn’t to say that all religions in the world are ultimately saying the same thing, as they most certainly are not, but that there are a number of common threads running through them, many of which have unfortunately been obscured by centuries of institutional and political constructions and alterations.
These are not inherently religious ideas, but ones that should come naturally to any and every human of somewhat reasonable sensibilities: love, compassion, interdependence, and charity. In recent years, the Dalai Lama has been adamant in promoting these ideas under the label “secular ethics.” People must become accustomed to seeing the innumerable number of ways in which we effect everyone else and everything living on this planet, often times in ways that are quite apparent to us, but far more frequently to degrees that we could never even conceive to imagine. And as with the Religion of Inevitable Progress, this is not a religion to be paid attention to only on Sundays or when in a house of worship; it is one that must be actively lived in daily life, unconsciously guiding mans every action. Life itself must be lived as a continuous ritual in which every object in the surrounding world is regarded as a remarkable symbol of existence. Not only would adopting some form of secular ethics or Perennialism help to reduce the amount of harm that man inflicts upon his fellow man, but such a philosophy also makes the slings and arrows of life itself far more bearable, giving one the appropriate mindset to take them on as opportunities for personal growth rather than impediments on the path to future progress.
As far as the actual social, political, and economic organizations that can turn this religion into a living reality, decentralization is absolutely crucial. There must be widespread private ownership of land and the means of production must be organized on a more local scale. These rearrangements will help to reduce the temptation for ambitious individuals to act tyrannously, while democratic and cooperative local organizations will prevent this decentralization from becoming too rugged and disorganized. As I covered more thoroughly in an earlier post about Perennialism and EcoBuddhism, we sit on the potential cusp of a 3rd industrial revolution in which sustainable energy sources combine with the remarkable level of globalization we have reached over the past decade. As Jeremy Rifkin discusses in his book The Empathetic Civilization, we are being presented with the opportunity to create an open source sharing of energy in which renewable energy is produced locally and is then distributed on regional, national, and continental grids according to needs. And because the potential for harnessing renewable energies doesn’t rest on the same geographic considerations as harvesting fossil fuels does, every region is more or less equally capable of achieving self-sufficiency and sustainability. Through such a system mankind would have no choice but to become intimately aware of our inherent interconnectedness and the sense of a force that exists beyond that of the individualized consciousness, the force of life itself. In a very real sense, the central nervous system of every individual would be expanded, connecting man to his fellow man and fostering empathy and understanding.
It seems that our species has gone through many of the growing pains of globalization over the past century as people have come into contact with folks that are different and, consequently, appear threatening. But if the new generation that drives this 3rd industrial revolution is educated at an early age about secular ethics and many of the ideals of Perennialism, man will be in a much better position to adequately handle new cultures and experiences, allowing empathy and compassion, rather than fear and hatred, to flourish. As the Dalai Lama often likes to say, the past century has been one of war and conflict, but this next one can be one of dialogue and openness. The minds that made these problems are unlikely to be the same ones to solve them, placing the burden of change on the backs of the upcoming generations. Will we bear this task with optimism and courage, or shy away from it as has been done far too frequently, potentially dooming both the planet and our selves?