Well-being in philosophy
Love is my religion — I could die for that — I could die for you. My Creed is Love and you are its only tenet.John Keats, Love Letter to Fanny Brawne
In an 1819 letter, a young poet John Keats, famously said to the “love of his life” Fanny Brawne that love is his religion. This was quite the diversion from the more religious sentimentalities of the earlier Romantics from which Keats took his inspiration. Much of their thinking had taken root in a place of religious faith combined with a deep appreciation of the natural world. That said, the Romantic religion, the Gods of poets if you will, deviated greatly from the perceived dogma of so called “organised” religion.
“You smile with pomp and rigor, you talk of benevolence and virtue; I act with benevolence and virtue and get murdered time after time.”William Blake
Blake, a man of considerable faith, was hugely critical of the religious organisations that surrounded him. He saw a network of rules and laws that benefited the organisations themselves, over any kind of true virtue. He saw a world of false idols that did little to benefit the truly faithful. He, in a perhaps more poetic manner, shared the feelings of so many today. Why do pricks get all the luck, when the actual good people get shat on again and again.
His thoughts comes from a similar place as those of the much quoted Friedrich Nietzsche.
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 1882
I can imagine many jumping to question this comparison, “Urgh… Shaun. Blake was like, well, deeply religious, and well, Nietzsche was a bit of an atheist prick you know.” Well yes, their thinking went in different directions, but the core complaint was much the same. You see, in saying “God is dead […] And we have killed him”, Nietzsche was not saying that we’d literally thought, “fuck it” and murdered his Lord all mighty. Nah bruv, like so much in philosophy, his thinking was far more nuanced.
We hadn’t killed God through any physical action, but through a combination of science and the church itself. Ironic ay, but the church killed God!
You see, for Nietzsche, faith become transfixed on ritual and ceremony above all else. Rather than fostering a connection with God, it became overly invested in the window dressings of worship itself. Enlightenment thinking and the growth of the scientific method had caused many to question the plausibility of God. This created a dilemma for the church. What was it to do? Faith had been stricken from God becoming faith for faith’s sake. It become a practice, a sequence of rituals and rules separate from any true connection to any God him or herself.
So how did we as a culture respond to this dying church? In Blake, we saw a man seeking a return to a true, simplistic religious faith. In Keats, we saw a different response. A substitution to a new religion. Fuck God. It’s all about them ladies. That’s my religion. Nietzsche also sought his own response to the death of God.
“Behold, I teach you the overman. The overman is the meaning of the earth.Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth! I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes!”Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra,1883
He created a new God. And that God was man above man. The man that overcomes him or herself. So yes, rather than doing away with a deity, he created a new one. We became the deities ourselves. It would seem, Gods are not something we can do without. There needs to be something there to replace them. The discourse was not if we actually need a God, but now they’re gone, whatever shall we do without them?
It seems so interesting to me, that once we had done away with one God, our society went about immediately building new ones. Be it love, Christianity or the Overman…
Humanity needs a religion.
So why is this?
In trying to come up with a reason behind this need for a religion, I find myself drawn to the writings of Sigmund Freud.
“Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks. In order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures… There are perhaps three such measures: powerful deflections, which cause us to make light of our misery; substitutive satisfactions, which diminish it; and intoxicating substances, which make us insensible to it.”Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Discontents, 1930
For Freud, life is unbearable for the the individual. As a result, we need measures to help diminish the pain it inflicts upon us. He poses three of these to his reader.
One is to find what he calls substitute satisfactions. We may nowadays think of this as consumer therapy. The idea that we can diminish our suffering with other things that satisfy us. That we can buy and consume more and more stuff in an attempt to tip the scales in our favour.
Another method is through “intoxicating substances”. What does he mean by that? Well…
Shant on! There is no doubt that alcohol and other forms of narcotics are used as a method to soften the pains of our oh so troubled existence. It is no surprise that so many descend into addictions when the weight of living becomes too much.
But, out of the three methods given by Freud, the one that interests me most is the use of “powerful deflections” that help us to “make light” of our misery.
These deflections often take the shape of religious, or holy figures that make light of our current suffering. It’s not such a big deal that your life’s shit if there’s a higher purpose! Religion acts as an illusion that fools us into thinking we have some aspect of control over the world and our suffering. In The Future of an Illusion he even refers to it as a form of childhood neurosis carried forth into later life. As such neurosis can be seen as a method for our psyches interacting with outside stimuli, we may begin to understand why religion is merely replaced, rather than gotten rid of entirely. The neurosis, or symptom will always remain, as long as the stimuli is present. With the stimuli being the world itself, it is not so easy a thing for us to do away with.
This thinking is echoed by Mark Manson who sees religion as a means of dealing with “the uncomfortable truth”.
“One day, you and everyone you love will die. And beyond a small group of people for an extremely brief period of time, little of what you say or do will ever matter. This is the Uncomfortable Truth of life. And everything you think or do is but an elaborate avoidance of it. We are inconsequential cosmic dust, bumping and milling about on a tiny blue speck. We imagine our own importance. We invent our purpose—we are nothing.”Mark Manson
He believes that we tell ourselves certain hope narratives that help us to make sense and survive within the world.
Perhaps then, when Keats replaced God with Fanny – pun entirely intentional – he was merely replacing one hope narrative with another.
As much as we want to be objective, scientific beings seeking a truth, we are not built to ever accept this truth. No. We are made to obscure it with whatever fantasies or opiates we can. As the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan would say, we will create whatever discourses we can to protect us from the trauma of the real.
But what next?
So yes, whilst this might be an interesting bit of analysis, how does this help us? How can we benefit from understanding this?
Well, I personally believe this can help us in living a smoother, less divisive existence. You see, because these hope narratives are helping to maintain our ever so fragile psyches, we don’t do so well when they are argued against. Just think, how many conflicts are a by-product of religion?
As an atheist, you might ask why are so many people able to die for these things? Well it’s simple, they’re actually fighting to protect their sense of being. Their religion failing would be as bad as death.
This isn’t to say only stereotypical “religions” are prone to this. We all are.
How much hatred has been spewed in the name of politics in recent years? In remainers vs brexiteers? We align so strongly with our positions because they are fulfilling the role of a religion. They unknowingly become our hope narratives.
Our sense of self is so contingent in maintaining these internalised religions, that we will do anything to protect them. Even to our own and those around us’ detriment.
In realising this, we can hope to better navigate our own existence and maintain healthier relationships. When we realise many of our Gods are narratives, we realise that we – like Keats or Nietzsche – are free to write our own. They don’t have to be unbending. They’re malleable.
We don’t have to fear the things that go against them.
As well as opening us up to change, it can also help us in dealing with others. We are able to become more aware of why others may cling so closely to their own beliefs. Of why they hold onto their dogmas. As such, we are better equipped to live side by side with the Gods that differ from our own.
There are a billion differing narratives, and we have to learn to accept that. After all, we’re all just coping with the chaos in our own way. No right. No wrong.
Just people coping…
That’s all it is.
Thanks for taking the time to read. Apologies if anybody is offended by the views expressed. No harm was meant by this, they’re just the thoughts of a man coping in his own way.
All the best,