I’m really slumming it with a critique of — yeugh — an internet secularist intellectual. I really ought to be doing better things with my brain. (I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attacked ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost to the blogosphere, like tears in rain. Time to “comment”.)
A reader sent me this clip — I’m travelling and watched it a few hours ago in my hotel room, after waking up from a jet lagged and troubled sleep.
The speaker makes a few interesting points and the analysis isn’t bad — for an internet intellectual. Back when I was a philosophy teacher, I’d have given it a C+/B-.
He’s incorrect to define all religion as based around a “death denial” fantasy. Despite the fact that there is usually a component of “the afterlife” in all religions, the fantasy of transcending death is not what primarily drives the religious subject, and certainly not what compels one religion to attack another in some game for ideological supremacy. The video is based upon the common atheist fallacy that people are drawn to religion because they fear death, that religion offers the “soul” and “the afterlife” as its central regulating currency of comfort.
Quite the opposite: religions embrace death, religious people do not fear death, they desire it. Because religion is death. Strictly speaking, religions do not offer comfort from death, but the opportunity to decorate the body with the signs of a number of micro-deaths.
What’s a religious system of belief? It’s a sign regime, a system of totems, to be worshipped, totems to regulate and constrain the body. Wear these forms of clothing, because God tells you to. Believe in Angels, because God tells you to. Go to Church on Sunday, because God tells you to. Assert that prophet X is the son of God, because God tells you to. Worship God as a singularity, or God as a Trinity, because God tells you to. Beliefs are embodied, some very obviously, some more subtly: but a belief is worn upon the body like blue wode on the face of a Celt, like a Maori’s tatoo, to demcarate one tribe from another. (Even a complex belief, like the Christian Trinity like the Sufi conception of “fana” or Kabbalic “gilgul”, these are also totems that mark the body of the religious subject.) The body is decmarcated into territories, then potentially into systems, totems are signs that say “The Land of X”.
The “afterlife” is not a generic concept, it varies from religion to religion in quite marked ways. Each vision of an afterlife is another totem, another way of regulating the body of the religious subject.
And what’s a totem then? It’s a micro-death, a small death. A moment at which the subject’s life ceases momentarily. A totem designates a micro black hole in the fabric of life’s continuum. The thing we always want, but can never get. It’s never “held”: it’s always two steps ahead of us. That desired thing, that eternally silent absence: it is death, by definition. Consciousness is life, speaking, continuum — but it is coordinated by the desire for pause, for full stops, for commas, for signs that life be directed through. Life is coordinated by the crystallization of desire for death, by the moments at which life can form itself into a cohesive, regulated, tribal subject: so consciousness can become known as human consciousness.
In my experience of religion, I observe that people give a kind of “lip service” to the afterlife. They will continually assert its existence, and the supremacy of their Prophet/teacher’s model of the soul and its journey after death. But they don’t find comfort in that vision, not in the way an atheist imagines they might. Instead, that particular vision of the afterlife gains its capital the same way other aspects of their religion do. A religious subject will become agitated when someone attacks their vision of the afterlife. But this isn’t because the comfort of that vision is under attack. It’s simply because the totem that demarcates their territory is threatened. Their agitation will take exactly the same form as the agitation they might feel if other totems are attacked (such as dress code, forms of forbidden mimetic art or dietary rules) — arguably they might become more upset over these other totems than the totem of the afterlife, because they have greater value within their particular sign regime.
Because the threat is not to their comfort level, not a threat of the reality of death — the threat is to their particular, religious encapsulation of the desire for that impossible reality. The threat is to the religious desire for death.