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Where our drivenness comes from, and why it’s headed the wrong way

19 February 2013, 11:00

The motive behind this writing is to provide the believer (probably a Christian) with some insight into the atheist journey beyond Christianity.  Christians seem to think that although atheists have turned their backs on Christianity, they remain lost and in their despair, kick against the very thing they reject.  In other words, there is no more road forward to them.

This can at times be true, but not in the sense Christians would like to think.  That sense of being ‘Lost’, after all, is real life.  If one pretends to have figured life out, and how to live it, then one begins to slip. It is in our knowledge of our imperfections, in our questions, after all, that the promise of humanity lies, not in our certainties, and certainly not in the absurdly ridiculous certainties that fly in the face of common science.

 Looking life in the face, loving it for what it is, is both terrifying and liberating.  If we can balance this, we can live an authentic life – connecting our spirit to the cosmos.


 In this article I make a departure from the personal and more experiential articles, and look at why we think and believe as we do from the perspective of man as a creature.  Oddly enough, though this is initially alien ground for virtually everyone in modern society, one soon comes to recognise that our primitive ancestors knew far more than we appear to know.  This is where we come full circle, and where the atheist kick against the edifice of Christianity makes sense.  For we, as individuals, want to become communities once more, integrated, caring and real, operating in a real world with real results, and motivated by a larger dream.  Perhaps no more than a functional society, perhaps no less than a self-sustaining society, one that grows spiritually, one that is enriched, rather than one whose success is measured in money and stuff.

But let’s begin with a simple question. Where does man’s desire for a ‘surplus’ come from?  In other words, why didn’t we simply always make do with the minimum, why did we graduate from subsistence survival to accumulating massive surpluses that in some cases many of us cannot ven hope to spend – or consume – in the course of a lifetime.  Put more simply, why are human beings so driven? 

Where does our drivenness come from?

Man… is implacably driven to work beyond animal needs because he is not a secure animal. The origin of human drivenness is religious. The original sacrifice is always food because this is what one wants from the gods as the basis of life – Ernest Becker

If that doesn’t suffice, here is an explanation.  Because man is conscious of the terror of his own death, while he lives, he finds himself feeling afraid, and insecure.  So in the beginning, man offered the very sustenance he needed to live (food) in order to ‘buy’ more life.  He offered this food to a transmogrified version of himself, a mirror image, but in spiritual form.  In primitives this may have been a simple ‘mother’ deity, or an insect (humble, simple, but also frightening – like the praying mantis) or a God of thunder (reflecting a cultural shift towards masculinity and roaring physical power and the ability to dominate).  But in every iteration, the ‘God’ says more about the believer in it, and the mindset of the believer, and the cultural context than about the God.  The God tends to be a one-dimensional poster for the faithful to venerate and worship and attain some sense of reconciliation with himself in the world, but the underlying motive is to anaesthetise the fear of death (and to some extent, of life). 

Here’s where it gets interesting.  In primitive cultures, the more food you gave to the gods, the more life you could purchase for yourself.  On a cultural/civilisation scale, this meant creating infrastructure and bringing about cultural, social and economic co-operation beyond the individual. 

In this sense the religiosity of man provided our species with enormous gifts, for in the effort to create an ever greater surplus, we discovered a work ethic, which enabled us to better survive the curve-balls of primitive survival (droughts, rivers drying up, pestilence, fires, war etc).

Most importantly, our efforts to improve at making a surplus, meant we became more effective and efficient organisms, and at the same time, developed strategic thinking along with technologies that had applications besides the expression of that religiosity (think of the spread of the bible, and at th same time, the ability to read and write, and the unifying power of a single language and integrated cultural identity within a particular set of symbolic language…)

In effect, primitv religion enabled more and more sophisticated societies to be created.  So the entire economic process was not borne out of desire to enrich the individual per se (not materially), but to buy more life, and perhaps enrich the spirit.  The focus, beyond one’s immediate needs, on the construction of tombs, temples, texts, works of art, granaries, jewellery etc in service of the sacred all fed into this desire to ‘buy’ more life. But, once again, this was a spiritual directive.  You offered food, you built cathedrals, in order to pave the way for a better life both on earth and in the afterlife.

 Our drivenness is religious

 So, it is a strange thought, that the origin, the reason for our drivenness is religious.  And for a time that drivenness made sense, and had its place.  We captured and colonised the planet.

But today modern society remains driven, but the reason for that needs to change.  For starters, our mother, the earth, is hollowed out and exhausted, and modern man is in a new position where the terror of the wild and unknown has been tamed. Why do we continue the mad rat race to make a surplus?  Is it out of force of habit?  Because the directive has changed. Our technology has saved us from the ordinary predations of life (sickness, starvation,exposure and possibly war) but we now face the question of finding the energy to keep the human project running. We cannot keep the suburbs and cities running at the rate of consumption indefinitely. Fuel prices and stagnating global economic growth are evidence of this.

In short, surplus is under threat.Our motives for producing a surplus have gone from a spiritual or religious motive to a selfish one.  Now we want to get rich to enrich the self.  With stuff.  Not with meaning. Not with more life but with more things that actually cost our freedoms, health and happiness.

Thus, we need to define a new divine.  And pursue a new surplus.

 Our drivenness needs to focus on science, and a spiritual search for community, not on mitigating the fear of death, or the fear of evil.  Science because we have much to do to secure the project we have built; we must learn better ways of harnessing energy.  The spiritual search for community because we have become isolated materially obsessed individuals.

 A surplus of guilt

 One of the reasons we have become stuck, is due to a new surplus, perhaps a better word is ‘burden’ – a surplus of guilt.

It has been called a ‘fruitless’ emotion, and for good reason.  Guilt does nothing but stymie and depress life for the living.  It’s an obstacle, no question. But it’s there for a reason.  We’re doing something wrong, something that does not serve our interests well enough. And here’s* how it manifests:

[T]he basic conflicts of life …lead to the experience of guilt feelings. For example, the child in her boundless desires for gratification can’t help feeling love for those who respond to her; at the same time, when she is  inevitably frustrated by those same adults not meeting her needs (even for her own good), she can’t help feeling hate and destructive impulses towards them, which puts her in a considerable bind.

Another bind is referred to as the “bind of one’s own body,” or in other words, the feeling of being at the mercy of, or a slave to, one’s own body parts, urges, and so forth.

One can also be in a bind in relation to one’s own development, feeling that one has not achieved all that one could or should have. Guilt can also be experienced because we take up space and have unintended effects upon others—for example, when we hurt others without intending to, just by being what we are or by following our natural desires and appetites, not to mention when we hurt others by accident or thoughtlessness. To use the words of Otto Rank, this is the guilt we feel for being a “fate-creating” object: that we can, within a span of mere seconds, change the course of not only our own lives, but others’ lives as well.

We can also feel in a bind when we perceive we have developed too much; guilt is an age-old reaction to hubris, to making oneself too prominent, conspicuous, or arrogant. Becker concludes by saying that humankind has so many conflicts that put it into a bind that it simply cannot stand the guilt unless it is expiated in some way.

The major bind that society finds itself in (and thus, most of us, who undergird the very structures of our societies) is developmental.  We do not know how to live.  Are we consumers?  Are we conservers?  Are we connected to the world and the cosmos or do we break the world into fragments and believe and use what is useful to us, like shoppers in a mall.  We find that we are hurting our fellow man in ways that we cannot imagine.  We see this in car accidents and crime, pollution and poverty, beliefs and atheism, obesity and vanity.  On average, the state of the average individual and the world is below par, and is unravelling.

 How can we expatiate our guilt? 

 A direct response is to confront our fear of life, each other, ‘Otherness’, and most important, our fear of death.

We need to spend quiet time in research and study, learning about ourselves and the world.  The internet offers a free resource in this.  Instead of watching Justin Bieber or Gangnam Style, find out about history, human psychology, the nature of things.  Search for your own true nature, beyond the role of duties assigned to you by your culture or society.  We need to fashion a new society, and that must start at the level of the self, and spread back into society as a new society.

The best way to start that process is to rediscover who we were.   

Go and find out (iow read) about ancient man.  What he said, what he did, how he developed his technologies (agriculture, villages, writing etc) and why.

Find out how the world works.  How does the evolutionary process work.

At the end of that, the enriched individual must undertake a perilous journey, with little hope of success.  He must try to share his discoveries.  He must try to build a bridge, and embrace his community.

He is likely to face rejection and alienation.

But somehow, society needs to be removed from its distractions, its surplus of things and deficits of attention.

Our economic efforts must be scaled down and our efforts at personal enrichment (physical, spiritual and knowledge) scaled up. 

In these efforts Christianity (and other religions) create a bind.  They reinforce black and white thinking.  And narcissism.  And madness. 

 Our society suffers from deplorable levels of Cluster B disorders (which manifest in emotional, dramatic or erratic behaviours):

Antisocial personality disorder: a pervasive disregard for the rights of others, lack of empathy, and (generally) a pattern of regular criminal activity.
Borderline personality disorder: extreme "black and white" thinking, instability in relationships, self-image, identity and behavior often leading to self-harm and impulsivity.
Histrionic personality disorder: pervasive attention-seeking behavior including inappropriately seductive behaviour and shallow or exaggerated emotions.
Narcissistic personality disorder: a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. Characterized by self-importance, preoccupations with fantasies, belief that they are special, including a sense of entitlement and a need for excessive admiration, and extreme levels of jealousy and arrogance.

 Religion empowers ignorance and evil

Religion enables all of these behaviours.  Religion actually empowers us to commit crimes and then be forgiven by a higher power than is on earth. Religion assures us that once we are part of its monopoly, we are exclusively right.  We don't need evidence to support who we are or what we say, words are sufficient.  Bible verses are sufficient.  A conflict between reality and ourselves does not matter, because it's all about faith.

Hence murderers and rapists attend their trials carrying bibles and praying and thus placing themselves above the accountability of societies own rules, own policies and ordinary accountability.

Religion enables black and white thinking which essentially allows the believer to strongly believe whatever belief supports his or her particular view.  Even if the believer thinks they are espousing God’s views and ideas, it is in fact an interpretation of ideas that become expressed as their own, and justified by their beliefs.  A vicious circle.  And anything that does not reinforce these recycled reinforcing ideas is simply kept out of it (science being a good example).

Vanity, narcissism and the obsession with the self is enabled by our celebrity worship culture.  Our celebrities in turn claim to be Christian, and their success is thus ‘God smiling on them’, or God’s favour.  Of course this also provides an excuse and a license for incredibly selfish behaviour, and the accumulation of an obscene surplus. It is easier to love a beauty queen or a playboy who periodically evokes God into their circumstances.  We believe they are humble, we excuse their behaviour, but what we see is not the person but an image.  And God forms part of that image.  It’s a lie.

Extreme jealousy and arrogance and the inability to engage in ordinary social relationships is how this selfishness manifests.  The result is unhappiness, and often, an ensuing neglect or self- destructiveness.

 How did we lose our way?  How did we come to know so much about the world, only to forget how to live?  Those same beliefs that gave us the world, denied us the fruits of our labours (peace of mind, peace of spirit, a place in the world to call home, integrated, functional individuals contributing to happy, healthy, wealthy, secure societies).

 How did we lose our way?  By believing in ideas that deny our past.  By forgetting who we are and where we come from.  By forgetting our long evolution into the world.

 Christianity has cheated us out of the harvest of ancient culture Friedrich Nietzsche [ 1895 ]

 Ergo, the way back to living the authentic life, and to knowing how to live, is to begin by forgetting our beliefs, and remembering who we are.  Our history.  How we got here.  That is the only way to expatiate our guilt, and find our way back to real life.  Only then can we begin to meaningfully and effectively answer the question: how should we live our lives? And what should society be?  And what world do want for ourselves and our families?

 In order to make these changes we have to get Lost again.  Religions claim to ‘save’ the lost, and deliver them.  It is a fraudulent claim, which pretends that deliverance happens after death.  And thus, our very lives are sacrificed.  It is time to learn how to live again, to remember who we really are, why we are here, and so begin a new Civilisation Project with new ideas, new individuals and a new abundance. How do we do that?  By reading as much as we can, by learning as much as we can, and by thinking for the first time, thoughts we previously feared to face.

 Source*  U N I V E R S A L  G U I LT:

F ROM P S YCHOA N A LY S I S TO K I N G B E N J AMI N John M. Rector—Counseling Center

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