So we are in the most religious of all worlds, at the sacred heart of a technical universe. How could it be otherwise? Consider man, or rather, his situation. Here we are, torn between three experiences, in a situation which is conflicting and penultimate.
Our first and obvious experience is that of the most remarkable, glorifying adventure ever known to man-known-for the primitive undertaking to utilize fire, to domesticate animals, or to set out over the waters was perhaps not a conscious one. It perhaps was not something which man reflected on, and so he may not have been able to think about himself and admire himself. Now we are entering the sphere of the superhuman, are reflecting on the fact that we are about to do so, and we cannot help being filled with Pride.
Our mastery over things, over the universe, and over others is almost limitless. We are breaking open the cosmos and plumbing the ultimate of matter. We are reducing the unknowable to a formula. We are expanding our brain possibilities ad infinitum. We are daily increasing our consumption of energy. We are reaching into the sources of life, and are pushing back the frontiers of death. What could be more glorious, more admirable, more astonishing! -and I a.m using those adjectives in their strong, etymological sense. Frightened at what we are doing, fascinated by the greatness which is seen and recognized, elevated above ourselves-that is the feeling which overwhelms us with joy and hope, and sends us onward eager to know the brimming future.
Yet, at the same time and in the same place, we, the same we, are having another experience, that of atrocity carried to its limit. What upsets us, fills us with anxiety, and sends us into deep trauma is not merely “future shock.” It is the unending vision of the most bloody of all worlds. Massacres are a daily occurrence, after we thought we had put an end to that horror in 1945, that we would never again see Hitlerian concentration camps and the holocaust of Hiroshima, that perhaps we were putting an end to war. We have discovered the Soviet concentration camps. We have witnessed massacres in India, then those of the Congo, of Biafra, of the Kurds and of the Bengalis. We are living in a world of widespread warfare, sitting on a powder keg, and knowing that one mistake can blow everything up. We are also surrounded by a world of Famine.
We know and are seeing all that, in contrast to our ancestors, whose surroundings were probably no brighter or reassuring, but who were not aware of it, or at least who learned of it after the horror had passed.
The third factor in our overall experience is the growing conviction that we are faced with seemingly insoluble problems and insurmountable difficulties, and the good apostles of progress fail to console us. There are enormous problems which concern us all, and we are well aware that we cannot put the solutions off onto others: from the problem of famine, to that of overpopulation, to that of pollution.
The situation is made the more difficult by the fact that everything is changing with incredible rapidity. We are swamped by a flood of news which leaves us no time to breathe, nor any chance to reflect and to put things in perspective. It is also made more difficult by the fact that we are being uprooted from our traditional soil, are turned aside from our known paths, and are going, without any signposts, into an unknown country, which literally is being remade every day before our eyes. We cannot send scouts ahead to explore the road or hire native guides, because the place where we are going does not yet exist.
Under such conditions, how can modern man not fall back on the sacred, on myth, and on the religious? It is not “the religious nature” of man which drives him to that. It is the situation itself in which he finds himself today. What recourse is available to man in an unknown country, except to transform into myths and religions whatever is admirable in his experience? The moon of history and the sun of science are our only points of reference. The enigma of the state and the mystery of money endow us with superhuman power. With the coming together of these three dominant factors, how could man not be religious once again?
But why religious? Why that reaction, and not some other? I suppose that is a consequence of man’s former habits, of a custom which has come down from the beginning of time, of an ancient reaction of defense and flight, a refusal to know and to will, a search for a refuge and an explanation. At least, in re-creating the religious and the sacred, man is recapturing an ancient experience. He is in gear, once again, with a known movement.
All is new, but it is still possible, even so, to pick up one end of Ariadne’s thread. One can still hope to resolve the unsolvable by the worship of a supreme power according to the original formulas, and to alleviate the horror by sacrificing to a divinity which stands ready to help.
The initial mistake of those who believed in a world grown up and reasonable, inhabited by people who controlled their own destiny, was essentially to have a purely intellectual view of man, or indeed of a man who is purely intellectual. Just as Homo oeconomicus was thought to be a mechanism perfectly obedient to his own interests, so adult man is an organism perfectly obedient to his conscience and his reason.
However, being nonreligious involves more than intelligence, knowledge, practicality, and method. It calls for virtue, heroism, and greatness of soul. It takes an exceptional personal asceticism to be nonreligious. All of us have known great atheists, genuinely strict ones, who didn’t deceive themselves about a god. For them, atheism was an honor, the highest form of human courage. They maintained those heights only by a constantly renewed act of the will, stretched to the limit against every suffering, and finally death. This is no easier today.
So where do we get the idea that modern man, the average man, he whom we adjudge to be atheistic, indifferent, and irreligious, has achieved those heights? In the routines of a society of comfort, of moral flabbiness, of an absence of willpower, of debasement, what is there to prepare a person for lifting himself to the heights of atheism’s rigorous virtue? What readies him for that merciless clarity about himself and about the world, which irreligion always involves? Where do we see the spiritual greatness, the morale, the quality of exactitude, the rigor on which criticism of myth and the rejection of the sacred are always based? The scientific method and a smug materialism are not enough! It takes men who are hard headed with their feet on the ground.
I do not see them. Everything points to the opposite. We see people on a bed of ease, and wishing no other happiness for others. They whimper at the slightest danger, the slightest suffering (look at the leftists!). Flabby skepticism and exuberant disdain are not enough to produce an adult man and an irreligious society. We can rest assured, to the contrary, that in the current psychological tendencies, in the absence of any character-preparation for facing up to great progress and great tests, in the transfer of human energies to the exclusively cerebral, in the collapse of the will in favor of the imagination, in the rejection of all self-discipline, the only way of escape is into the social and the religious. Everybody since Bergson has proclaimed the need for a soul-supplement. All right, we have it in the new religions.
But in taking that course, in making his world bearable and in giving himself the impression that he is able to live in it, man closes the trap on himself. He provides the most complete confirmation ever of the Marxist analysis of the religious phenomenon, without, of course, meaning to. What Marx so admirably described is not historical but prophetic. He was not really assessing the first religions, but the last, not the religion of Islam, of Judaism, or of Christianity, but modern religion in the developed capitalist countries, in the socialist countries, and in the underdeveloped World.
Now, more than ever before, man is enslaving himself to things and to other men through the religious process. It is not technology itself which enslaves us, but the transfer of the sacred into technology. That is what keeps us from exercising the critical faculty, and from making technology serve human development. It is not the state which enslaves us, not even a centralized police state. It is its sacral transfiguration (as inevitable as that of technology), which makes us direct our worship to this conglomerate of offices. It is not sex which is wicked and which perverts us. It is the ideology of repression, and at the same time equally the ideology of the liberation of man through sex. That is when man enters a mystique still just as infertile.
So the religious, which man in our situation is bound to produce, is the surest agent of his alienation, of his acceptance of the powers which enslave him, of his adulation of that which deprives him of himself by promising, like all religions everywhere, that this self-deprivation will allow him finally to be more than himself. That is how it works with drugs. As always, this process of alienation combines with dreams and the imaginary, with a transference into the world of imagery.
It would be helpful to have a detailed analysis of the similarities and contrasts between the “primitive” world of myth and the world of news and productions broadcast by the mass media, between the society of spectacle and the world of illusory pictures such as ours. The world of pictures from the technological apparatus overruns man. It engrosses him and satisfies him, while preventing him from acting effectively. The world of myth, perhaps, was created from within, and as a transposition having coherence as its aim, together with an explanation of the natural environment. However, those two elements are not foreign to the myths of our day either. We indeed have to act, but in the place where it is possible, and in the delusion that we are changing the world and life. Everything denied us must indeed be projected onto the utopian sky, everything which, perhaps, we shall never lay hold of alienation and illusion-that is the modern religious. Should it be destroyed then?
Ah! How simple that would be if it did not involve man! How can we forget that that is the very thing which keeps him alive, which enables him to accept his difficult situation in this society. We must indeed be prudent! It was not through perversion that man fabricated anew this mythical matrix and this sacred topography. It was not at all through stupidity, but because of the impossibility of living in this tension and with these conflicts. It is easy to accuse man of cowardice. That solves nothing, for it all happens outside the limits of the intentional and the conscious. As in the primitive religions, man is feeling this threat to himself, this sense of being cornered, this need to have to change everything. He feels his lack of means at the same time, so he looks for a way around the problem, for a protection, for a solution, and all unknowingly.
To destroy those shelters, to close those escape routes, would be precisely to drive the great majority of people to insanity or suicide. Only the most energetic, the most intelligent, and the most clear headed would be able to survive, only those who, when they are cornered, have the temperament to fight back, to break impasses and settle questions. They are few in number. Could one, by desacralization, cause almost the totality of the people to go under?
Desacralizing could be done only if, along with it, one supplied a reason for living adequate really to sustain life, and an answer really satisfying and clear. The answer and the reason for living must go together. May the person who cannot supply this enlightenment allow the rest of civilized, modern, and scientific humanity, be it Chinese or western, to sleep peacefully in its religious dream.