Religion and Horror

A short commentary on John Vervaeke’s Awakening from The Meaning Crisis (Episodes 34, 35, and 36)

Quite a number of atheists today are acknowledging that religion does something right: that there is a God-sized hole in the secular world. It appears that without religious mythos and practice, ‘pseudo religious ideologies’ come rushing in. There is overwhelming evidence, that secular atheists and materialistic ideologies have done far more damage than traditional religion, as the legacies of Hitler, Stalin, Moa, the atomic bomb, the capital theory of human value, and the ecological crisis attest to. Still, many people feel that they cannot return to traditional religions, with their ‘iron age hierarchies’ and ‘two-world mythologies’.

This is a central conundrum that John Vervaeke addresses in ‘Awakening to the Meaning Crisis’. How do we renew and valorize—if not the axial age religions—religo, or communal practices which orient us toward the numinous and give us a sense of transcendence? The trouble is we are animated by religious meta-structures, consciously or unconsciously, formally or informally—whether we we like it or not. Emile Durkheim once told us that ‘everything is religion’.

Religion once provided community, ethics, and maps of meaning; it offered rites of passages and spiritual learning through all stages of life—unlike the current school system, for example. Without a spiritual congregation of some sort (even one that is not explicitly religious), humans beings seem to fall back on consumeristic nihilism or violence. Like it or not, religion, at its best, gives us a meaningful narrative, deep ethics, and community. Furthermore, studies have continually shown that religious practitioners are happier than post religious secularists.

But happiness isn’t everything, and there are good and bad religions obviously. Bad religions create what Vervaeke calls ‘the shadow of the flow state’ and ‘zombie possession’: or a cult-like loss of agency, empathy, and critical intelligence. Religious people might be happy crusaders, terrorists, and enjoy fear mongering and abjectification. But bad religion is also present in reductive scientism, politics, and popular entertainment—not just fundamentalist Christianity and Islam. Good religion, on the other hand, is deep and complex. Perhaps we should study the 5,200 years of recorded religious history before announcing the coming of a post-religious utopia!

Vervaeke prefers to speak about religo to religion, to avoid equivocation and the false idea that religion is merely a set of beliefs. He shows that without practicing some form of communal religio—what Vervaeke calls ‘participatory knowing’ — we are easily vulnerable to the horror of alienation of spiritual homelessness. Vervaeke has an interesting analysis of horror: real horror is when we ‘lose touch’ with life—when we are homeless in our own skin and the world becomes alien to us. Horror is the encroaching feeling that life has no meaning; that we are riding on a slow train towards madness and death.

Religio also involves the contemplation of horror, which has always been a homeopathic remedy in perennial traditions. Horror ‘humiliates’ you—in the original etymological sense: it make you humble, as Vervaeke points out. The terrifying gargoyles around a medieval church might have the same function as a scary movie does today: to give us an appropriate sense of the dangers which lurk on the periphery of our sanity. To acknowledge these monsters prevents us from self-inflation, and allows us to enter the space of the numinous, knowing we are protected from monsters within and without.

Religio helps us deal with both our smallness and egomania, with self loathing and self inflation; it helps us navigate primordial terror and the numinous. And the skillful means of religo may be more effective than psychoanalysis, providing something more than consumerism, nihilism, and endless violent revolutions. Religio shows us the ‘numberless hells’ as well as the ‘city on the hill’ and the ‘promised land’; it gives us ways to redeem the past, to attend to the now, and have a vision of the future.

Symbols and Sacredness

Religion also gives us symbols, and Vervaeke has an interesting discussion of symbolic function, which he calls ‘accommodation’ and ‘assimilation’. A living symbol accommodates complexity while simplifying it simultaneously; it provides both clarity and opaqueness, vision and mystery; it expands the frame of our knowledge but also narrows it down to what can be assimilated. The cross, for instance, is symbol of both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of life—as well as the center. It’s meaning is vast, but its presentation could not be more simple. (In that sense the cross is a ‘symbol of a symbol’: it gives you the intersection between the known and the unknown, the finite and the infinite, the up, the down, and the center).

A living symbol demands our participation, unlike a sign we simply follow. The symbol is paradoxical in that sense: it is simultaneously a reduction and an expansion of time and space. Music, for instance, represents and participates in the world simultaneously—it reminds us of the numinous and sacred. Music orders the world into formal structures through harmony and then disassembles those same structures with tension and dissonance. Because reality is ‘combinatorial explosive’—or too vast and deep to understand—music helps us navigate our felt experience of the world.

Furthermore, symbols, as Vervaeke describes them, are not absolutes or platonic forms, but dynamic processes that are always shifting and changing; their function is to ‘break frame’ as much as to provide new frames of understanding. The essence of religious (or artistic) symbols is what Vervaeke calls ‘serious play’, like playing the piano. Symbols are a ‘tranjective’ or ‘trans-framing’ and playful skillful means, which give us a deeper and wider understanding of existence.

A quick look at the history of art will show us how compelling, mysterious, and complex religious symbols actually are. We can’t escape them, because they are what our culture is made of. Therefore we need to become symbolically literate to understand ourselves. A Catholic or Jew may not be able to leave his own metaphysical symbolic system—and even if he loses his faith, he will continue to see the world through inherited symbols and stories. If one loses that meta-structure of symbolic meaning, one risks the domicide and horrors that Vervaeke often speaks of.

On the other hand, Vervaeke argues that symbols are dynamic and don’t have an essence—and that they may be appropriate to some but are not indispensable. That is why a person can operate within both a Hindu or a Christian symbolic ecology, or any number of overlapping symbolic ecologies. The symbolic frame can never capture the whole picture; the Tao that can be spoken of is not the true Toa. Symbols are inexhaustible and dynamic, because life is ‘combinatorial explosive’. There is no end to their mutation. The purpose of symbols is not to reify reality into some fixed form, but to provide a glimpse of deeper reality. In Vervaekese, this means symbols are doorways to relevance realization.

Sacredness and non-theistic religion

Non-theistic religion isn’t religion in the sense of ‘belief in the supernatural’ and has no need to personify the divine. Non-theistic religion is ‘religio’. In other words, it is profoundly engaged in ‘participatory knowing’ and ‘relevance realization’, and has less emphasis on belief in God. And sacredness, in non-theistic terms, is about the realization of the numinous in everyday life. Relgio doesn’t require a lot of mystical mumbo-jumbo. Even consciousness, the holy grail of cognitive science, could one day be understood naturalistically, according to Vervaeke. (I’m not however convinced by this claim).

Vervaeke tells us that it is a mistake to essentialize sacred symbols. He quotes Zen Buddhism and its founder Bodhidharma here: ‘Nothing holy, vast emptiness’. This vast emptiness represents an inexhaustible potential which cannot be reified by anything at all. A buddhist may find appropriate use of Buddha as a symbol, just as a Christian may cherish his icon, but this does not make the symbol true in an absolute sense. It is more like the proverbial finger pointing to the moon.

If we release the symbol from essentialism, we come to the freedom of religio. This means to liberate ourselves from the dualism of two world mythologies—and from metaphysical essentialism. Importantly, Vervaeke would like religo to embrace science again, and to show that science is not fundamentally at odds with religion. Religio, mythos, and logos can operate together seamlessly as they did before the Cartesian worldview came into the picture. The way forward is the way back.


Vervaeke tells us that there are two kinds of meaning crises: the contemporary and the perennial. The remedy for the perennial meaning crisis has traditionally been found in religio (but perhaps not always in religion). People today have the same existential horrors, fear of alienation and domicide, struggle with love and death, need for the numinous, as they always did; they could not in the past live without some kind of functioning religion to deal with the meaning crisis. Ultimately religions have told us that the remedy for the meaning crisis is ‘enlightenment’.

However, there are unique contemporary qualities to the meaning crisis as well, which are characterized by nihilism and a loss of religo. Even the concept of spiritual enlightenment is taboo in contemporary culture, and enlightenment means only political freedom, scientific mastery, or freedom from superstition. However, enlightenment once meant something else which included ‘spiritual illumination’.

Vervaeke asks: how do we reverse engineer this fabled enlightenment, find out how it works. This is a difficult task to say the least. Today we have too much information at our disposal and cannot act; we are lost in our own reflections and doubts just like the proto-modern Hamlet. Hamlet was overwhelmed by horror and dazzled sacredness, just as we are. His tragedy was to get lost in combinatorial explosion and paralysis. The remedy is still the psycho-technologies that religio provides us.

But can we do this outside of religion? As a formal practitioner of tantric buddhism and a recipient of the richness of that tradition, I don’t see why we need to. But let us leave this as an open question.

John Vervaek’s Awakening From The Meaning Crisis playlist

Others essay in this series:

The Man, The Lion, and The Monster
Higher States of Consciousness
Noble Provocations
Christ and Gnosis
Science and the Death of the Universe
Metanoia — A change of heart
Understanding the Meta-Crisis
Relevance Realization
Religion and Horror
The Religion of No Religion

Podcasts and other writing:
Sweeny vs Bard
Sweeny Verses
Rebel Wisdom Articles by Andrew Sweeny

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Compressed scraps of angel melody, stories, essays, rants against reductionism, commands from the deep.