• Christopher Tanner

The Truth Shall Set You Free. But First It, Shall Piss You Off.

Bad Faith is the condition we’re in whenever we “lie to ourselves.” It involves a schizoid partitioning of our consciousness. In the process, we become both subject and object: the liar and the lied-to. What makes this state a dangerous one is that while we’re in it, it’s possible to dismiss evidence that (for instance) our behavior is self-destructive: not because we have better evidence to the contrary, but because such evidence is “inconvenient.” Those who grow up in religious households are taught to lie to themselves from a very young age.

I couched the preceding paragraph in the first-person plural because it applies to all of us individually and also collectively, as societies. For the individual crack addict, the evidence for his self-destruction is inconvenient and he therefore finds ways to ignore it. Should it rise unbidden into his conscious awareness and begin to nag him and make him uncomfortable, he will beat it down by every means available – including another visit to the crack pipe. If a whole society is addicted to cheap oil, the evidence for that society’s self-destruction is no less inconvenient, and denial becomes a growth industry. Industry shills masquerading as “scientists” assure us that we have nothing to worry about. Politics becomes an exercise in ad hominem and the messenger sometimes takes a volley in the career.

Can there be any doubt that we’re in collective denial about things like Peak Oil, aquifer depletion, topsoil loss, habitat destruction, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, overpopulation and anthropogenic climate change? The truth – whose consequences will shortly involve societal upheaval and starvation on a scale we’ve never before witnessed – is almost too horrendous to contemplate, so most of us can be counted on to look the other way while catastrophe closes in. (After all, there’s plenty of corporate-funded “science” to assure us that anthropogenic global warming is a hoax and that Peak Oil won’t happen for another two centuries. Maybe California will get a wet El Nino and Sao Paulo… well…. And anyway, why not just go on believing whatever makes us feel a little better since there’s not a damn thing we can do about either of those inconvenient truths?)

I broached the subject of religion at the end of my second paragraph and will have quite a lot to say about it here. There’s no doubt in my mind that religion is the ultimate evil in human affairs, having spread like gangrene throughout a world that it first infected about the time of the earliest cities. Agriculture had made those cities possible, and cities made possible the concentration of wealth – a condition unknown to hunter-gatherers and early agriculturalists. Along with that concentration of wealth comes a class system: these two things are, in fact, two names for the same thing.

The people who live in cities fall into two complementary categories: those who run the agricultural show because they’ve managed to seize all the power, and those who serve those powerful people. (The larger and wealthier the society, the more complex the social stratification; such a class system would have been unthinkable during humankind’s Paleolithic condition.) The people in that first category don’t actually do agriculture – they rule. What does a ruler rule? Not territory; not inanimate objects or herds of goats: one rules people – the people who actually plow the fields. Rulers are therefore by definition more important than other people. Other people exist as means to the ruling class’s desired ends – or as liabilities to be gotten rid of. This arrangement has always been a defining characteristic of civilization, and shows no signs of abatement in our time.

In most cases, the peons have served the ruling class well, the many working themselves into an early grave for the benefit of the privileged few. From time to time, however, they have become restive. The ruling class has always understood the danger of this, and knows that the best way to secure its prerogatives and forestall a populist uprising is to justify the status quo by means of religion. Monarchy and theocracy have thus always gone hand-in-hand. Seneca understood this full well: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.”

On the theocratic view, the king rules by divine right. Governments are established among the people in order that the will of God might be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. (This sentiment may be found throughout the Bible. Romans 13 furnishes a good example: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” NRSV) The stratification of society forecasts an eternal condition either high – where bliss reigns – or low – a place of brutal punishments. Be compliant and submissive, and your reward will be great in Heaven. A few tough decades can’t begin to compare with an eternity of bliss. Get the people to believe lies like this, and every ambition becomes achievable. Those who can be made to believe that God has ordained the world as it is, can be counted on to serve the ruling class and never question the (in)justice of it. Religion is and always has been a means of social control.

How did such a miserable, perverse system ever take hold among the people, a system that forged their chains and keeps their shackles in good repair? The answer lies in the fact that our Neolithic condition has Paleolithic roots.


During the Paleolithic, the kind of stratification that we begin to see in Bronze-Age societies would not have been possible or even thinkable. Humans so deeply embedded in the fabric of nature – a fabric from which they began to extricate themselves with the dawn of agriculture – would not have been able to divide up the world as we do: they could not have seen themselves as fundamentally different or separate from it. The “Garden of Eden” story in Genesis would have made absolutely no sense to them. (Please note that I am not trying to present Paleolithic societies as particularly virtuous; I mean only that as hunter-gatherers, they can only see the world as hunter-gatherers do.)

There is, nevertheless, a religious dimension to the Paleolithic. If you had been living forty thousand years ago and were about to go on a hunt, you would no doubt have spent some time preparing yourself mentally for what lay ahead. If you had had words for such useful qualities as fortitude, cunning, skill, courage, luck, and so forth, you would probably have been trying to summon them. There’s an unbroken continuum between summoning a quality, invoking it, and praying to it. You might even have personified those qualities – perhaps investing them in the very animal you intended to track, as a totem (therein is seen the natural linkage between meditation and worship). Needless to say, these kinds of preparations would all have been undertaken collectively by, for instance, singing, drumming and dancing throughout the night before the hunt as the Ba’Aka do to this day. This all makes perfect sense, and it’s very different from the religion of agriculturalists. Unlike the latter, this seems to me to be a natural feature of the human condition. There is something deeply true, no doubt useful and probably healthy about it. I think proto-religion might be the right name for it. There’s no place for Deus Pater Omnipotens in it.

The transition from proto-religion to agricultural religion would have been a gradual and seamless thing, hardly noticeable over the course of a single lifetime. Fundamental changes – changes in kind – would have occurred over a good many generations as agriculture became more extensive, the social arrangements of our Paleolithic ancestors gradually faded from the collective memory, wealth and power began to be concentrated in cities, and social stratification became increasingly pervasive and defined. Like the frog in the adage, our ancestors were boiled alive without ever realizing it.

Religion since the dawn of civilization is a thoroughly hierarchical thing, featuring an omnipotent deity at the apex of the pyramid, with his subordinates arrayed beneath him in a divinely-ordained pecking order – a “great chain of being” in which one’s own position (“Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels” – Psalm 8:5, KJV) has been carefully defined by a priesthood who are experts in the supernatural. That priesthood always takes care to secure its prerogatives with the monarchy, whose interests it serves in turn by placing the imprimatur of legitimacy on said monarchy. (Thus very few Christians are communists. They have a divinely-appointed station to maintain, and that station is after all pretty comfortable. The conditioning runs deep: the hatchery in Brave New World comes to mind.)

The Paleolithic proto-religion that I sketched loosely three paragraphs earlier does not involve any perfidious partitioning of the ego. In one’s meditation – or one’s worship, if that’s the word – one seeks oneself. This is what “religion” means etymologically: “reconnecting.” (A related word is “Yoga” – to be yoked together.)

But Bronze-Age agriculturalist/pastoralist religions like Judaism and its ugly daughters aim at “connecting” us – if that’s the word – to an entirely different “reality.” In order to embrace that kind of religion, you have to suspend your talent for disbelief (a talent which must have conferred a tremendous adaptive advantage on our Paleolithic ancestors – which is why we have it in the first place). This is because those latter-day (we might as well call them modern) religions require one to believe fantastic, undemonstrable things. Many of those bizarre articles of faith are counterintuitive, and the only thing that keeps people from scrapping such patent nonsense outright is that over time, evidence to the contrary has become inconvenient. Enter Bad Faith, whose parents are fear and inertia.

It’s true of virtually all of our recent ancestors that they believed in a god whose heavenly kingdom was somehow familiar, reflected as it was in civil society. If it ever occurred to any of them to question the provenance of that parallel, most of them quickly dismissed such dangerous notions – the acting upon which would in some places and times have drawn down the death penalty: the members of the ruling class have never appreciated it when the peonage dared question their prerogatives. Our world is an extension of theirs, and such religions continue to play the role for which they were intelligently designed.

Whenever, through an accident of history, some such religion manages to draw a significant percentage of the world’s population into its fold, that fact alone seems to grant that religion a claim to legitimacy. People will take the pronouncements of such obviously successful religions as gospel and will believe them to the furthest extent that they’re able, hoping thereby to win for themselves posthumous rewards far finer than anything to be found in the mundane realm. But note that I said they’ll believe those pronouncements to the extent that they’re able. This is a key point: some people are more successful than others at partitioning their ego. Some are so good at it that their faith remains unshaken throughout their lives, despite a daily barrage of evidence to the contrary. They might be deemed virtuosi of Bad Faith.

I’ve known a few of the latter, and find them deeply unsettling. The list includes two of my former colleagues – professors of physics and chemistry respectively – at a small Midwestern liberal arts college where I used to teach. Both are evangelical Christians. The physicist speaks in tongues at least a few times a week, whenever prompted by the Holy Spirit. He and I once hunted fossils together in a nearby roadcut where Lower-Mississippian-Period limestone has been exposed, and we talked. He seems to know a lot about the formation of Earth’s moon, but he also believes the opening chapters of Genesis – and I do mean believes them.

The chemist does not speak in tongues however, and in fact thinks that his physicist colleague may be suffering a mild case of demon possession, since (on his view) speaking in tongues and other spiritual gifts ceased upon completion of the canon of the Holy Scriptures. He’s a Young Earth Creationist: unlike his colleague in physics, who seems to harbor some doubts that he refuses to entertain seriously, the chemist believes the entire universe is about 6,000 years old. He thinks those fossils that the physicist and I were gathering were laid down during Noah’s flood. He carries a New Testament in his shirt pocket at all times.

I asked both of my colleagues how they managed to reconcile the blatant contradictions between their religious beliefs and the facts that have been discovered and verified by their respective sciences. They both told me that when they’re “doing” physics or chemistry, they’re dealing with the material world as it is today without reference to how God might have made it work in the past. And when they’re worshipping God – which is pretty much all of the rest of the time – their minds and souls are in his hands.

I once asked the chemist why we shouldn’t give just as much credence to the many other creation myths that have been taught and believed in other places and at other times. And he said, “But that’s it – they’re just myths. Christians, on the other hand, have the truth. We have the Word of God.” (Yes, he said that with a straight face.)

Both of my colleagues thus essentially confessed to having partitioned their minds. I didn’t see any good reason to stir up rancor in my small academic community, so I didn’t ask them if they’d ever read Sartre on “Bad Faith.” (In truth, I can’t imagine either of them ever reading Sartre. But that’s what Sartre called the condition they admitted to.)

I sometimes find myself wondering: what might my two former colleagues have achieved, what wonderful new insights might they have contributed to their disciplines, had they not squandered so much of their mental energy on an elaborate self-deceptive ruse? The lifelong expenditure of psychic energy must have been tremendous. I’m astonished that either of them chose a career in the sciences.

You might want to strap yourself in before you read further. We live in the Age of Consequences. Here’s what the human talent for Bad Faith has done for us: we’ve grossly overshot the carrying capacity of the Earth, we’ve managed to squander virtually all of the planet’s resources in a mere two hundred years, and we’re about to hit certain walls that have never before been encountered by human beings. Those collisions are going to precipitate a sudden and significant reduction in the size of the human population. They’re going to guarantee radical changes in the way the survivors (if any) will live – changes so extreme that most of us cannot begin to imagine them. The survivors will live in a world without habitable cities, a world with no more than Bronze-Age-level technologies.

It will be a world considerably diminished, however, from the one our Bronze-Age ancestors knew: a world thoroughly degraded by the effluents of our industries and ravaged by a runaway greenhouse effect that we ourselves have set in motion, a world in which the planet’s depleted and poisoned topsoil will no longer grow much of anything. It may not be a world that will support our kind: it could very well be the end of the human experiment. (I’m not a “doomer” – I’m a realist.)

It’s clear to me what has landed us in this predicament: without religion, I doubt that we’d ever have discovered let alone developed our talent for Bad Faith. Before the incredible claims of religion entered the picture, what need would we have had to lie to ourselves? (Other animals lie to each other: that’s not a uniquely human characteristic. Even protective or deceptive camouflage is a kind of lie – but the mantis is not lying to itself. To lie to oneself is an altogether different proposition: a uniquely human, modern and dangerous illness. It must have taken a special kind of imperative to persuade our ancestors to begin lying to themselves, and I cannot imagine any other source than religion for such an imperative. That’s why I earlier characterized religion as the greatest of all evils.)

During the next few decades, we’re going to need our full measure of human imagination, wit and empathy, plus a great deal of dumb luck, if there’s to be any continuing human presence whatsoever on this planet, especially in any form that we might recognize as civilized. At this late stage of the game we don’t need our intelligence and our capacity for teamwork shackled by the false hopes, undemonstrable claims and unreasonable, exclusionary demands of religion. If our species is to survive, a critical mass of us must somehow awaken to two important facts: 1) the prerogatives of the ruling class are illegitimate, and 2) religion has never been anything but a means of legitimizing, and thus securing, those prerogatives. Until and unless we come to this understanding, we will continue to circle the drain until that final, sickening plunge that writes finis to our troubled story.

Have a nice day.

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