Totality Becomes Totalitarian

Our dreams of totality emerge from inner and outer needs, moving between the two and with the currents of life. Drawing on the pharmacy of the creative imagination, this is a living process in constant adjustment, and it’s only if the process becomes static or co-opted, a one-size-fits-all drug that protects and indoctrinates an entire population – will our dreams of totality fail to respond and adjust to the needs of the moment with nuance and flexibility. The rub comes because the dreams we cook up are usually very enchanting; we fall in love and want to hold on to our creations. Most important, the sense of salvation and closure that we feel when a dream of totality comes into focus often prompts a messianic impulse, an urge to make it real and permanent, and this is especially true when it comes to the fantasies of wholeness that power religions.

Some time after he broke with Freud, C. G. Jung made the point that what he called the religious instinct, an instinct as powerful as sexuality or aggression is, “a wind that bloweth where it listeth. There is no Archimedean point from which to judge, since the psyche is indistinguishable from its manifestations… There is no getting away from this fact.”1 Although many stories and symbols housed in religions beautifully narrate the sensibility of entire cultures, unfortunately most of the world’s great religions do judge, and often very unkindly. The great cultural remedy of religion illustrates perhaps as nothing else can the ambivalent nature of a dream of totality. The fantasies of wholeness that power religions can be containing, inclusive, and sometimes even revolutionary. But when codified into systems, dogma, and unforgiving ritual, these world visions often become coercive and, as Freud rightly noted in The Future of an Illusion, the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity.

On the other hand, the critiques of religion begun by Freud and continued in contemporary style by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens in The God Delusion and God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, often fail to find their footing in the reality of psychological experience. If the converse of rationality is merely irrationality, then religious belief will appear to be a delusion, no doubt about it—a blindness, a destructive distortion of instinct, at best an illusion. If one views the mythopoetic mind as a mere repository of repressed longings and childish wishes, fears and needs, or as a generator of prescientific explanations of nature, then religion can be handily reduced to a recapitulation of the longings of humanity or the necessary—if dour and unfortunate—means by which social organization trumps instinct, the “Big Daddy” motif. This view was put forth most succinctly by Freud, in his description of religion as society’s great superego, the defensive arm of civilization which functions to coerce and compel the renunciation of instinct so as to quell the antisocial trends always threatening to destroy what little civilization there exists. As he famously opined, “The ‘fiction’ of religion is important for the maintenance of human society.”2

As we’ve seen, though, it’s precisely this fictionalizing and narration, all the moves that the psyche makes as it creates its own containing images and structures, that do provide an Archimedean point, not from which to judge, but from which to understand a psychological process. Without this perspective, without finding our footing in the mythopoetic imagination, we can’t approach the question of why religious imagery and beliefs continue to appear in an enlightened world, other than by scorning it as a vestigial organ or patronizing it as primitive—a consequence of poor education and the like.

This belittling attitude and ultimate condemnation is the tack taken—perhaps disingenuously—by both Dawkins and Hitchens, representatives of what has been dubbed the New Atheism. Regrettably, what the New Atheism seems to have in common with its archenemy fundamentalism is its one-eyed claim on truth. Both the New Atheism and fundamentalisms adopt the position that god is something anthropomorphic and literal. Neither group pays much attention to other traditions about god like mysticism or Quakerism for example, which move toward the experiential and psychological dimensions of the god image, or to the philosophical conceptions of Buddhism—all of which tilt the religious rhetoric toward a less literalized perspective. Had Dawkins and Hitchens taken traditions like these into account they might have quickly bumped up against—heaven forbid—the problem of psychological experience as it pertains to religion. This is something that William James put squarely on the table over a century ago in The Varieties of Religious Experience, his comprehensive study of religious experience as a psychological phenomenon. Many others have followed suit in a long line of inquiry about the psychological underpinnings of the religious impulse and experience, something the New Atheists are doubtless aware of but seem to have chosen to ignore.

Instead, New Atheists try to invalidate religious belief using evolutionary theory, brandishing that sword with an almost biblical fervor. Both Dawkins and Hitchens have come up with odd concoctions of scientific ideas that claim to explain the ubiquity and tenacity of religious belief. Dawkins, for example, posited “simulation software” in the brain, software that makes us invent visionary experiences and religious beliefs, even going so far as to suggest that different religions might be alternative memeplexes, bundles of hard-wired genes that somehow align themselves with other cultural memes for primo survival odds. Dawkins likens Islam, for example, to a carnivorous gene complex and Buddhism to an herbivorous one (!).

While Dawkins concedes that neuroscience may eventually find a “god centre” in the brain and that the brain is very good indeed at making models—even likening this model making to dreaming and imagination—he consistently skirts the implications of this. Rather than acknowledging that the imagination is terrific at organizing information and emotions, he downgrades both model making and imagination to hallucination, children’s imaginary friends, ghosts, or “especially if we happen to be young, female and Catholic—the Virgin Mary.”3 “What,” Dawkins asks, “is the primitively advantageous trait that sometimes misfires to generate religion?”4 He reverts to a vestigial-organ hypothesis: the misfiring of a “module” that had the evolutionary advantage of “trusting your elders without question.”5 We might as well be back in imperialist Victorian Europe with Freud, who claimed, “Comparative research has been struck by the fatal resemblance between the religious ideas which we revere and the mental products of primitive people and times.”6 In this analysis, the fatality and primitivity of the resemblance is not a compliment to anyone, and its implications fail to be drawn out. It is partly an artifact of projecting backward onto history. Dawkins does acknowledge that “it is possible that a form of natural selection, coupled with the fundamental uniformity of human psychology, sees to it that the diverse religions share significant features in common” and that “religions probably are, at least in part, intelligently designed, as are schools and fashions in art”7—although, again, this may not be meant as a compliment to schools and fashions in art.

The focus of the New Atheists’ unilateral gaze stays fixed on the past, on the notion that religious imagery is irrational—by definition delusional and misguided, hence prejudiced as primitive—while the adaptive function of mythopoetic and symbolic thinking is ignored or scorned as dualism, a mind/body split, or, finally, attributed to the notion that children and primitives are native teleologists and creationists, just going around benightedly attributing purpose to everything.

It’s a view from above and outside the psyche that resembles— perversely—the fundamentalist’s signature symbol of totality, the Eye of God. The image below is the Helix Nebula (in the constellation Aquarius), known colloquially as the Eye of God. It is actually a dying star in one of the planetary nebulae nearest to the Earth, but in the imagination it resonates with the eye of God, a cross-cultural motif of total illumination, in this case projected onto a contemporary cosmic representation.

[Helix Nebula, photographed by the Hubble Helix Nebula Team, NASA.]

The eye of God is all seeing and all knowing as it searches our hearts for truth, and in its absolute omnipresence it is utterly containing in its vision, a panacea expressing the unity of being. By virtue of these same qualities, the eye of God is also unbearably scorching, unable to see nuances of meaning, shadows or shades of grey, and deadly if one is caught and exposed under the high noon of its implacable gaze. Many have burned or been indelibly altered in the face of this lone eye—both disfigured and transformed in the furnace of intense emotion or riveting revelation.

The singularity of the eye of God also captures the feelings of paranoia and persecution that arise when totality is projected so completely ‘out there’ that it is felt to be looking back at us with overwhelming and inescapable fixation. This persecutory dynamic is disturbingly evident in the relationship between fundamentalist believers and the New Atheists, both of whose totalizing visions obscure what is being looked at and how it is being seen—and always requiring annihilation of the blind enemy. Now, neat and terrorizing maneuvers on the part of both fundamentalists (idolatry) and New Atheists (iconoclastic idol smashing) are familiar ritual behaviors that have gone hand in hand throughout the history of religious movements usually with devastating consequences, and this co-opting and masked attack against the mythopoetic imagination by contemporary New Atheists and fundamentalists alike is no exception. What’s actually new though in contemporary life is that contributions from psychology, neuroscience, comparative anthropology, and cognitive science have situated essential questions about dreams of totality such as God, within the larger formulations of symbol formation and cultural narrative, which are unbiased with regard to primitivity. While not panaceas in themselves, these contributions should render certain forms of the religion question moot.

For example, the assertion that Jesus was born of a virgin is something vehemently avowed by believers and merrily dissected by Christopher Hitchens in God Is Not Great. From a literal perspective it’s about as likely as Athena springing full-blown from the head of Zeus. From a symbolic perspective though, the ubiquitous motif of virgin birth conveys something essential about humanity’s psychological and emotional experience. One of the signal characteristics of a savior or cultural hero in most mythologies is having divine ancestry of some sort, one or the other parent being immortal or divine. Being the child of such mixed parentage symbolizes the advent of something special and different—the entrance of something vital from outside the status quo onto the scene. Following in this tradition of saviors and heroes, what is created from the virgin birth (the child)— whether it is Christ embodying the willingness to suffer and be sacrificed or Athena embodying the wise warrior ethos of classical Greece—is envisioned as an unusual quality of consciousness that blends the eternals of the big picture with the new demands of life in the present moment. A contemporary inversion of the virgin birth story that may illustrate the point is the ‘birther’ movement in the United States that took hold during Barak Obama’s campaign and first term in office. The birthers filed numerous lawsuits questioning the legitimacy of Obama’s U.S. citizenship and hence his eligibility to be president, claiming either that he was born somewhere ‘offshore’ (with a foreign father to boot) or that his birth certificate (from Hawaii) was actually a forgery. In other words, he came from somewhere beyond here.

If one of the constructive contributions of postmodernism has been to deconstruct totality, then the New Atheists have surely provided a mighty broom and dustpan to clean out the totality called God, at least the god image that is a “Big Daddy” or misfiring module. They have done a service by exposing the poisonous and coercive nature of many religious organizations and beliefs. And on a lighter note, it is also patently true that, as Emerson quipped, “the religion of one age is the literary entertainment of the next,”8 and as Jung remarked more seriously, “the gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus, but the solar plexus, and produces curious specimens for the doctor’s consulting room, or disorders of the brains of politicians and journalists who unwittingly let loose psychic epidemics on the world.”9
Where the New Atheists go wrong is in failing to keep the space they opened, open. Instead, they fill it with quasi-scientific explanations, the rhetoric of which resembles, even if unintentionally, that most seminal religious dream of totality—Judgment Day. Instead of crediting the symbolization process that drives it, the sometimes righteous glee evinced by the New Atheists as the religious enemy falls often seem like a contemptuous identification with destruction. Moreover, taking recourse in conjuring scenarios that reduce religion to an artifact of evolution – and in the scapegoating that seems to always accompany such conjuring – rises to the level of a serious intellectual and ethical issue in our multicultural world. Many might ask whether the creation story and dream of totality that was projected onto the Human Genome Project, for example, serves us better than God or more poorly? The answer can be yes and no. Both the New Atheists and religious fundamentalists miss the significance of the mythopoetic mind that creates symbols expressing our experience of living – a function of the psyche, not an entity, not a mindless illusion, and not a secondary artifact of evolution.

The power of dreams of totality don’t have to be explained with conjuring tricks of evolutionary magic or reductive fantasies projected backward onto our primitive ancestry. While these maneuvers hypnotize us with their emotional and rhetorical vehemence, the living symbol is sucked out while we’re not looking. What I urge instead is a shift toward an appreciation of dreams of totality—religious and otherwise—as symbolic creations. This could find a parallel in a shift from the warrants of blood sacrifice like scapegoating that almost always characterize religions, into a more gentle abandonment of literalism. This sacrifice is also painful, but it draws a different kind of blood and does not require belief in the God of fundamentalists or New Atheists, nor in an abstract philosophical or theological entity. Arguments for and against religion that don’t value symbolization won’t help us move toward anything new. Worse, they make us forget who we are: symbol-making creatures. As the 1960s song proclaimed, “One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small.”

One is tempted to agree with Jesus when he said that unless we are born again in spirit, the doors to the kingdom of heaven on earth are shut.

Excerpted from ps. 78-86 Chapter 2