Dateline February 28, 2018
By Ted L. Cox, Ph.D.
In the first part of this essay, the basic problem of increasing Narcissism in the U.S. was addressed and found to originate from a lack of courage to grow up, i.e., a reluctance to accept life as inherently difficult. We have unrealistic hopes. Lusting after the security of prestige by a leader was found to be an incentive to vote for him. We will even vote for someone who demonstrates that infantile temper tantrums are acceptable. So the reason we have Trump in the White House is that we ourselves need to grow-upwards; or mature; be more realistic. The second and final part of this essay will investigate the pros and cons of religion in this conundrum as well as what to do next, and drugs and alcohol as a possible solution.
Inevitably, under the topic of realistic hopes, we must come to religion.
How can we possibly classify something so integral to our cultural history as unrealistic? We can classify it as unrealistic because, while it served a vital function in the evolution of our culture, it has now outlived its usefulness and has become an impediment to solving our world-wide crises. It was necessary as an agent to bond societies together since the dawn of civilization; it gave people hope and an explanation for their lives and deaths during unbelievably difficult tragedies (such as the Black Plague and 4000 wars). It provided hope in the form of prayer; an always available recourse to the confusing jumble of tragedies, conflicts and ambiguities of reality. It rescued, and still rescues us, from the “brink of nothingness.”[i] But religion is basically the cultural attempt to restore the securities of our infantile past. We can do better than that. We have to do better than that.
For those who can bear growing-upwards it should be obvious, in these current times of waning prospects for the human species, that religion is a hindrance to finding the best ways to prolong our civilization. If you are one of “God’s special people,” or better yet, if you’re going to heaven when you die to make “beautiful music and sex,” then you have little reason to work on improving the earth’s chances for survival or cooperating with others toward that end (ISIS).
Religion is basically the primary strategy humans pursue to reclaim their infantile super-significance. For instance, the Yazidi in northern Iraq proclaim they are not descended from Adam and Eve but rather from Adam alone. How’s that for special status for men? The Virgin Mary did it; why not Adam too? And perhaps we don’t really need women at all? This group is a small (c. 600,000) ethnoreligious Kurdish speaking community which has survived 72 massacres.
Max Weber has given us the clue to understanding religious/ethnic persecutions: Every functioning religion is an insult and a threat to all the others.[ii] This is especially true if the group in question seems to be thriving, because it then raises the question of why would God favor a false religion? Excuses of, “well, he is punishing us for not giving enough money to the church” will go only so far. Fear builds up that maybe we are not as special as we thought and then a scapegoat must be found to focus our anger on so we can diminish our fear.
What better way to prove your religion is superior than to kill or persecute members of the offending religion: “Where is your all-powerful god now and why doesn’t he come and save you?” Religions have done much to bond together human communities but they have also done much to promote anger, violence, exploitation and war. They do this by encouraging our infantile exaggerated sense of self-importance and available rescue which, when threatened by reality, engenders fear. Then the fear must be defended against by anger and violence against self (flagellation) and/or scapegoats often in the form of persecutions and/or warfare.
The Yazidi also practice a three caste system that requires members to marry within their own caste. This has the effect of limiting ambiguity and conflict, that double headed demon of reality (add tragedy for the triple-headed monster). If your choices for matrimony are limited, you needn’t be concerned so much with increasing family status by “marrying-up,” for instance, thus reducing conflict and ambiguity. All religions function in this regard as well, even if it’s just, “Pray or Ask the priest,” when problems threaten to overwhelm.
The next inevitable question is, can people and societies survive as civilized organizations and function better than they have in the past without some kind of limiting but supportive institution of a religious nature? The answer is yes. This is not to suggest that people can come together without fear and anger over social status and the distribution of social resources. There will always be competition for limited resources and a lack of social recognition is akin to death; social death. The “lust for prestige” should diminish, however, without the support of religious institutions. In any case, we have no choice at this period of our social evolution but to bite the bullet and plunge into the future free of religious blinders; blinders that limit and are interfering with the most appropriate course of action to save the planet we inhabit.
Unfortunately, institutionalized religion is not our only obstacle. Culture itself is mostly a collection of false beliefs intended to make society, or at least parts of society, more comfortable with life. In the immortal words of William Deresiewicz “Society is a conspiracy to keep itself from the truth” (2014:80). Progress will be slow; hopefully fast enough though, to prevent the extermination of our species.
Then there are the various “little Hitlers” waiting in the wings of the social stage to claim sovereignty over the masses ꟷ masses that are trembling in fear because of diminishing prospects for reclaiming their infantile sense of importance, power and rescue. And the demagogues rely heavily on that fear and even cultivate it in order to exploit the expectation of rescue so that they can then win the support and votes of the masses. The quantity of the masses that are trembling will increase without religious support but they will lose the religious justification for violence of the past. These demagogues constitute as much or an even greater problem than institutionalized religions which at least, by their very nature, must be more socially visible. Hitler seemed to be praying in some of his speeches, thus taking the place of religious leadership. Demagogues all over the world, often socially invisible before “springing full-grown from the head of Zeus” threaten the very existence of democracy.
WHAT TO DO NEXT?
Demagogues represent the Achilles Heel of democracy. Perhaps we need to create a trustworthy body of individuals that could pass judgement on the qualifications of candidates for political office? Perhaps we will need to set up a special “growing-upwards” school where selected individuals, student judges, will be specially trained in the importance of having mature candidates for political office. They would be charged with reviewing candidates to carefully eliminate the rabble-rousers and others set on manipulation of people’s fears and unrealistic hopes. The survival of our species depends on having more reasoned judgements by politicians; more grown-upwards leaders. Such a body could also be charged with responsibility to evaluate those already in office that seemed to be deteriorating (growing downwards).
Such “student judges” might become the new secular priests of society required to live separate and apart from the rest of society in order to limit influence by political schemers that might bias them in their function as judges of political candidates. For sure, many and sundry would be the potential sources for attempted bribery, threats and influence-peddling of such a critical group. They would evaluate all levels of political candidates all year; full-time job. But if we can accept our own personal insignificance; the lust for prestige will decrease making it more difficult to bribe leaders.
Thus we can work on the problem of growing upwards from two directions: the quality of candidates for office and the maturity of the voting population.
DRUGS AND ALCOHOL – AN ANSWER?
Drugs (prescription and illegal) and alcohol have been around as long as civilization. Many seem convinced that these mind-altering substances can provide the answer to life’s problems. This is partly true. However, like religion, they can solve, or rather serve as balm, to our problems only temporarily. They can provide only a brief respite and then we have to climb back in the reality-saddle and deal with the chaos we are immersed in. For some, the brief respite makes it harder to face reality as they have had a taste of the “’good old days” and resent the pain of having to go back to reality. Which is quite a reasonable attitude. Alcohol in particular seems to make us feel our infantile desires are on the verge of complete satisfaction.
Life is not fair. As referenced above, our universal escape from the anxieties of reality is to retreat to the memories of infancy when we felt, important, safe and powerful. But this was “yesterday” and we must live in “today.” Brief returns to infancy can serve as a vacation for the ego; but our problem now is too many have opted for infancy and/or alcohol and/or drugs as reality or “castle in the sky”. (The opioid crisis being our most prominent example of this last tendency) We all build castles in the sky but today, too many people are trying to actually live in them. One explanation for this is that pretending to be happy (on drugs or otherwise) has become a sign of success so everyone is jumping into that boat. So those who “swallow that bait” and are in touch with their normal level of human discontent, feel frustrated and left out of this supposed “good life” others are pretending to live.
We cannot grow upwards alone. We are social animals. Without socialization we are not human. Most parents know the feeling of trying to coax children into being human. One of the best tools we have to accomplish this with is music. “Hush little baby, don’t you cry….” expresses concern and connection in a way that the child feels recognized and a part of something powerful and ongoing. This is culture; especially musical culture. Later, he or she sings with the family and/or friends and/or a choral group; perhaps becomes interested in a musical instrument or opera. Music pervades our society. Unfortunately, most of it today panders to the same unrealistic hopes that have brought us to the brink of annihilation. Opera, with its emphasis on tragedy, conflict and ambiguity is one of the exceptions but not a popular form of musical entertainment. But the benefits of music for a society defy rational explanation. Listening to music, we become part of something enduring and more important than ourselves. We experience our own smallness yet ability to participate in, and perhaps even make a contribution to, something beautiful. This is our consolation for the tragedies and ambiguities of life; the “intractable conflicts” which we must all endure.
Unfortunately, most will not be satisfied with this experience, in any of its myriad forms. Some are even tone deaf. Music is soothing and unites us but does not recapture infantile omnipotence and rescue. We have been taught by all the happy people (cheerful robots, mostly), families and the media, by the values of our culture, to expect more, that we should always be happy and secure in our lusting after prestige and power and so we become frustrated and angry. And, again, there is the economic argument; that the wheels of industry would turn more slowly if we didn’t strive so furiously to achieve these impossible goals. This is right; but we have put the “cart before the horse” for many generations. It is time to consider what our values are, what exactly are we striving for and is it realistic? All social classes need to carefully predict where our species is headed on its’ present course. And if, as I suspect, we are headed toward annihilation of the species, then we must agree to change our values. At this time, we do not value growing upwards. We need to change that or perish from the universe.
It has been a long time aborning, but it’s time now to accept our status as Humpty Dumpties:
Humpty Dumpy sat on a wall, (a lofty but precarious place to be sitting)
Humpty Dumpy had a great fall. (reality knocking sense into our heads)
All the king’s horses, (even the most meticulously assembled religions)
And all the king’s men, (and even the best delusions and/or drugs)
Could not put Humpty (our infantile past lives)
But, opportunity is knocking! We can put ourselves back together in such a way that life opens up all around us and joy and sorrow cease to be feared and instead become an opportunity for sharing intimate feelings with others.
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Ted L. Cox is an 87-year-old sociologist and psychoanalyst (retired) who until 2018 divided his time between Park Slope, Brooklyn, N.Y. and Sainte Agathe des Monts, Quebec, Canada. In 2018 he married his Quebecois partner and applied for a residency in Canada. He was born in an upper middle class family in Albany, Georgia, grew up (partly) in New Orleans but, a chronic misfit, has moved sporadically northward ever since; often changing careers and partners. His odyssey might be called a search for truth. In Quebec he lives near ski slopes, cross-country trails, hiking/snow-shoeing trails and a 200 kilometer bike path. When winter ice melts, numerous lakes and streams beckon for canoeing. He and his wife spend some time in nature almost every day. He is the author most recently of The Real Enemy Is Reality: A Challenge for us All.
[i] Adam Phillips, “In Writing” (2016:13).
[ii] This comes from somewhere in his “Sociology of Religion.”