The Religion of No Religion

Bringing on the plague

Religion was once universal and unquestioned. It was the way human beings gathered around the perennial fire, voicing their sufferings and ecstasies, orienting themselves toward virtue, meaning, and transcendence. However, in the postmodern West, and since the Enlightenment and the Cartesian revolution, it is no longer at the centre of most people’s lives.

This has had both creative and disastrous consequences. We have killed God, Nietzsche told us—or destroyed the principle foundations of Western metaphysics—and we will never wash the blood from our hands. And yet at the same time, we are now free of the ‘iron age hierarchies’, and seemingly arbitrary religious law. But what will replace the axial age and the ‘two world mythologies’ that have dominated the past 2500 years? And how to fill this void between secularism and religion? These are the essential questions of John Vervaeke’s Awakening from The Meaning Crisis.

Nietzsche’s answer to the meaning crisis was the the ‘overman’, a kind of anti-Christ sage who creates his own values and turns his back on the mob. For Karl Marx, on the other hand, the salvation of humankind lay in the emancipation of the worker from the machine of capitalist exploitation. And finally—to complete our trinity of modern thinkers—Sigmund Freud believed that the unearthing of sexual taboos in the unconsciousness through dreams analysis would liberate us from ‘’’the black tide of mud of occultism’.

After the twentieth century, however, it appears that all of these visions have all failed spectacularly—even if their influence permeates every aspect of our thinking. Nietzsche’s aristocratic overman has no answer for society as a whole, Marx’s classless utopia seems like a hopeless project as the gap between the rich and the poor grows, and Freud’s psychoanalysis has never successfully replaced religion. Still, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud have given the world dangerous dynamite. As Freud himself said to Carl Jung on their first voyage to America: ‘They do not realise that we are bringing them the plague.’ Truer words were never spoken.

The bastardisation of Freud’s psychoanalysis into modern psychobabble, Nietzsche’s philosophy perverted into fascism, and bloodthirsty Marxists—Leninists, eager to accelerate history, created relentless ‘pseudo religious ideologies’ that almost ‘drowned the world in blood’. The failure of religion, capitalism, psychoanalysis, socialism, romanticism, empiricism and all the rest of the isms brought us to the post-modern view which eschews all grand narratives. We now live in the postmodern ‘no man’s land’ where we continue to deconstruct ad nauseam the illusions of religion, capitalism, and sex. And while deconstruction has its importance, it ultimately fails, for the obvious reason that at some point a new constructive vision must emerge.

Vervaeke’s answer to the zombie-like nihilism and despair that postmodernism has engendered, is religious community and insight without religious doctrine and dogma—the religion of no religion. We cannot go back to supernatural or mythic religion, Vervaeke tells us, nor can we go back to a religion that is dominated by mere belief and dogma. And even if we do need creative myth and credo, these should never be absolute, and should be in the service of religio—or the communal and transcendental (transjective in Vervaekese) mode of religion—rather than doctrine and dogma.

Killing The Buddha

So what is this religion that is no religion anyway? The obvious problem with Vervaeke’s term is that it contains a performative contradiction: the ‘religion that is no religion’ would still be a religion, by definition.

The question is: why not work within religious systems that are already in place, which have thousands of years of success and failure to learn from? Should we not ‘separate the wheat from the chaff’ rather than just trying to reinvent the wheat? Personally, I’ve been a formal Buddhist practitioner since my early twenties, and I don’t see the need to re-invent Buddhism—however, it is certainly necessary to reform and renew it.

On the other hand, the problems Vervaeke outlines with respect to religious creed and dogma are real. Supernatural events, belief in an afterlife or re-incarnation, the threat of eternal damnation—these things have little sway over educated people today who are not so easy to terrify or cow into faith. Furthermore, religion needs to work with actual ‘psycho-technologies’ of transformation, rather than just rules of behavior and/or inspiring or threatening mythologies.

Perhaps we could say that the best religions are non-dogmatic by nature. Zen Buddhism, for instance, might already be a ‘religion that is not a religion’. The Zen phrase: ‘if you meet the buddha, kill the buddha’ tells us to kill religiosity, dogma, false platitudes, and mystical nonsense. Zen masters don’t proselytise and actually discourage belief. What matters in Zen is work, meditation, and achieving Satori, or spiritual illumination. Furthermore, iconoclastic or even dirty humour is permitted in Zen — unlike in dogmatic Islam and Christianity, where it isn’t so easy to joke about Jesus or the Prophet Mohammed—let alone talk about killing them.

There are different kinds of religion, some more dogmatic and humourless than others. On the other hand, even in the non-dogmatic religions, there are commandments, rules, stories. For example, life in a Zen temple (which I have experienced) has tons of practical rules, customs, even mythologies. These however are considered skillful means (upaya) and not ends in themselves. And even in Judaism, the many rules of Torah are inferior to the far more profound ‘inner Torah’, which cannot be codified.

The ‘religio’ Vervaeke proposes, as opposed to conventional religion, is a living path, not just a philosophy or a dogma. And the living path is an ‘ecology of practices’, geared toward flow, insight, and illumination—engaged in embodied more than propositional knowing. Furthermore, a good religion has individual, communal, and dialogical practices aimed at ‘remembering the being mode’.

Perhaps we still have a medieval a vision of religion: with our litany of saints, sinners, heretics, commandments, along with colourful rewards and punishments. Is this why Hollywood movie stars are so often eager to adopt ‘iron age hierarchies’—and become ‘Tibetan Buddhists’? They commit what Ken Wilber called ‘the pre-trans fallacy’: to mistake primitive hierarchy and colourful ritual for good religion. But does religion have to be primitive, exotic, moralistic, or old fashioned?

Alexander Bard made a radical point in our recent podcast: what if the lack of proper religion is the problem, not religion itself? Perhaps ‘the religion that is no religion’ is what most so-called religion looks like today. If that is the case, the point would not be to continue to deconstruct religion again with postmodern glee, but rather study the primordial and ancient meaning of religion—which predates Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. Perhaps, as TS Eliot put it, the way forward is the way back.

The not-religion that is a religion

Of course we are all steeped in the scientific world view, which needs to be integrated with a sophisticated modern view of religion. Vervaeke would like to ‘reverse engineer enlightenment’ for the modern age—that is, describe and understand religio in naturalistic terms, which is a noble endeavour. After all, the average modern atheist only thinks of enlightenment in a very limited way, exclusively related to technological, political, and scientific progress. We still don’t have much of a clue about spiritual realisation, or real enlightenment—from a scientific point of view.

Science tends to deconstruct and reduce something however, and is not the whole story. We need a constructive narrative as well, to imagine what Chogyam Trungpa called ‘An enlightened society’. What would an enlightened society look like? What would its laws, government, military, courts, theaters, temples of worship and rituals look like? And what would be the relationship between man and technology in such a society? And what would the wise, enlightened leader look like: what kind of person would he be? What does self, political power, and sexual look like in an Enlightened society. Can we return to some of the insights of Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, while not making totalising ideologies of them? Alexander Bard criticises Vervaeke for shying away from these titanic figures and concerns of class, power, and sex.

Vervaeke, along with Jung, Heidegger, and the other wise prophets of the twentieth century, have described the meaning crisis accurately. Vervaeke is right to turn to such people for wisdom. The more difficult job now is how to embody our wisdom. Vervaeke focuses on the meta-practice and practice ecologies necessary for a new culture of awakening to emerge: for instance, meditation, circling, dia-logos, authentic discourse, psychedelics, participatory efforts to create coherence and symbiotic intelligence. As he says: ‘we have to create the conditions which make caring possible’. That is certainly true.

Vervaeke uses the work of pioneering cognitive scientist Francis Varela as a possible way forward. Varela focused on embodiment, emergence, and excellence; he compared buddhist principles of ‘inter-being’ with new discoveries in biology; he showed that the body/mind, in the age of quantum mechanics, is not a vessel we ‘drag around like Cartiesial clay’, but is rather deeply embedded and in relationship with the world. Good religion, for Varela, is a ‘caring and coping mechanism’ for embodied existence rather than a system of external morality. The idea of transcendence here is not so much ‘going beyond’ or escaping the painful world but rather transcending into rather than out of a deeper and more embodied relationship with the world.

Furthermore, the religion without religion would be ‘post narrative’, according to Vervaeke. Not that we don’t need sustaining symbols, myths, and stories, only that they don’t have fixed, platonic, or absolute significance. Awakening, instead of adhering to ‘the correct narrative’, is what rescues us, in Vervaeke’s view. However, this is where Alexander Bard and I have a slight disagreement with Vervaeke. We do have to keep telling, but also refining, the grand narrative—to truly go beyond post-modernism. This means to preserve both the story and the illumination, to guard the holy temple and kill the buddha at the same time.

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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