Madonna, the pop singer, not Madonna her namesake, famously sang that she is a material girl living in a material world. Which neatly sums up the difference between the two women and what lies at the root of our seemingly intractable political divide.
Whatever institution tells us what is real, is the institution that gets to tell us our creation story and set the agenda for what is and what is not important for the society.
Formerly our creation story came from the Bible and the Judeo-Christian moral and ethical understanding of the world and our place in it. That legacy still informs much of our legal and ethical traditions.
With Newton came a more mechanistic understanding of the world and with Darwin came a new creation story. Darwin provided a seemingly plausible mechanistic theory that promised to give to biology what Newton had given to physics. Combined they could overthrow the hold that Christianity had upon Western culture.
What however unfolded was a change in the priesthood. And with a change in the priesthood comes a change in the law. The worldview of the West changed from a supranatural understanding of the cosmos and its governance to a natural or materialistic understanding of the world and raised a most important question.
Are we, in our most essential nature, material beings – highly evolved animals at best or very clever machines at worst – or are we spiritual beings encapsulated in flesh having a material experience?
Our answer to that most fundamental of questions strongly suggests our answer to a host of other questions that define our political and social worlds.
In America and the West the scientific establishment wielding the scientific method is considered our arbiter of what is real and what is not. Much of the point of Carl Sagan’s series Cosmos (and its most recent incarnation with Neil deGrasse Tyson) was to demythologize religion and to exalt science. Scientific materialism is reality. When science has spoken all debate is supposed to end.
If we carry this commitment to materialism to its logical conclusion then all immaterial entities must disappear. This solves the problem of religious pluralism and all of the issues that arise from competing religious beliefs. Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Jews need no longer concern themselves with the afterlife as there is no afterlife, only a smoldering in the grave.
However we also lose a host of other immaterial entities that we seem to like but must also take their place in the dustbin of history. Faith, hope and charity; truth, beauty and goodness are quite simply fictions that informed people need no longer believe in. Even our concepts of consciousness, mind and freewill fade like shadows in the light of our new materialistic understanding of reality.
We must also call into question other cherished notions we make about ourselves. We assume a number of things that are fraught with religious baggage that we should, as fully actualized materialists, abandon. These include: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.‘ I would daresay that most people for most of history have not held these self-evident truths.
Self-evident truths smack of Natural Law and other religious notions that we must disabuse ourselves of. The trouble with self-evident truths is that it is notoriously difficult to come to any consensus as to what they are. That very difficulty implies that they aren’t self-evident whatever else they may be.
We can pretend to hold onto our intangibles if we wish. Fairy tales comfort children at night and prayers that no one is listening to comfort soldiers and nations in times of great national crisis.
FDR’s D-Day Prayer comes to mind:
And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer:
Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.
Evocative words. Rallying the nation by calling upon a God who is not there. I wonder what religion he was referring to.
Friedrich Nietzsche saw things clearer than he believed. In 1882 he wrote The Parable of the Madman.
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us?
“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us?”