The goal of the reflections in The Mystery of Matter was to understand existence. The conclusion was that existence is matter’s energy. Using the imagery provided by modern physics, the energy into which “matter” is convertible, fundamental reality, is the energy to exist. It’s another way of saying that material energy is neither created nor destroyed. This energy of which we are made is responsible for an existential inertia in all things to continue existing and, as expressed in us and other conscious animals, a conscious drive to survive that necessarily involves the palpable love our own life. It is the dynamism behind evolution. I have argued that it is from there — what Spinoza called the conatus sese conservandi (the instinct or urge for self preservation)— that our sense of the sacred springs. We love our life, therefore it is precious to us — sacred. Everything that produces and supports our existence … going back to the very root source of the energies that generated organic evolution itself … is also sacred.
From this apparently simple identity comes an insightful paradox: there is nothing about us that springs from anywhere other than the organic base of our bodies. The “perception of absolute value,” once thought to reflect an altruism exclusive to immaterial spirit and impossible to animal selfishness, is in fact a function of our bodies. The sense of the sacredness of existence comes from what we are. It is an organically grounded instinct that radiates its appreciation outward to everything on which the survival of the organism depends. It is necessarily communitarian. Everything reaches out to survive. It is not a choice. Integration, coalescence — community — is the very nature of the material substrate of the universe. We deny it at our peril.
There is no need to have recourse to two different sources of explanation for the religious proclivities of the human species, because there are not two different “kinds” of reality out there, one spiritual and altruistic needing to be nourished, and the other material and selfish that must be starved. There is nothing besides matter’s existential energy and its spontaneous expectations of endless life. It is sufficient to explain everything we are, everything we want and everything we do. It also explains the anguish we feel when we learn that life is not endless and we will die. Religion deals with these two irreducible poles of the human condition — the sense of the sacred and the rejection of death. They are in fact nothing more than the echo of the conatus as it navigates its way through the real world.
Human beings are not blind. We know the universal matrix that extruded and sustains us and we know the extent of the community that we rely on to survive and postpone death. And we hold as sacred all those things on which our survival depends … past, present, future, terrestrial and universal, near and far.
Religion is our responsibility
Religion, which arises from this inevitable tension, will always be with us in some form or another. But not necessarily in the way our dualist (spirit vs matter) traditions have handed it on. What form religion might or should take is not the subject of this chapter. Here we are interested in understanding the persistence of the phenomenon, and the collective responsibility that derives from it.
Stated simply: given the humnan condition religion will always be with us therefore it behooves us to work for its sanity and humanity. The reform of religion is not a “religious” project, it is a ethical-political imperative. It belongs to the whole of humankind, because grappling with the meaning of the conatus-threatened-with-death — the apparent contradiction of the thrust of existence — is the universal condition of our species. We all face the same existential paradox, and for everyone it remains unresolved. It is of concern to all of us that we avoid false solutions that set us against one another and threaten our well being and survival. However tactfully we decide to deal with traditions made delicate by their antiquity, we should not let it blind us to our right and obligation to do so.
In searching for new ways to deal with the existental paradox, we should turn our attention to the “naturalization” of the traditional religions we have inherited. “Religion” — our inescapable confrontation with the void — is poorly served by “supernatural” dualism focused on the putative reality of another world and the consequent unreality of this one. For even when it avoids the escapist temptation to abandon this world altogether — an attitude that dominated the Christian mindset for millennia — it still insists that the only thing sacred resides somewhere else and that we have to go there to make our unholy world holy. Such an attitude denigrates the matter of which all things are made; it alienates humanity from its organic self. It eviscerates our love of life and allows us to shirk our responsibilities or even become bitter, despairing and vengeful. The sacred depths of nature itself, the mystery of matter’s existential energy, should rather be the focus of religion’s celebrations, its encouragement to trust existence and shoulder social and environmental responsibility. The burden of this message belongs to us all.
We should be disabused of any illusion that we can walk away from religion. The “secular” luxury of thinking we have the right to ignore the problem, or that we can leave it to “religionists” and their hierarchs to deal with, is a fantasy of its own. The reform of religion is a problem for the whole human race. As with our environmental myopia — a similar flight from an onerous responsibility — the survival of our species hangs in the balance. Religion can destroy us in whole or in part, and it’s not going away.
It is just as insane to think we can ignore it as to think we can destroy it. Religion is not going anywhere and it’s not going to change on its own. There is no option. We have to come up with sane alternatives to the insanities we have inherited.