Resisting the Transcendental Temptation

Throughout history, suffering and death have always followed when people have succumbed to the transcendental temptation. Today, it may be luring us to the brink of disaster yet again.

The transcendental temptation is the temptation to address the fear of death, and questions of meaning in life, by uniting one’s sense of self with something supposedly greater, such as God, the Communist party or the nation.  By transcending one’s ordinary self through union with something higher, it is possible to gain a sense of continuing meaning and purpose in life, and to repress the fear and insecurity that come with being a mortal—since the higher thing will continue after the mortal’s physical death.  Someone succumbing to the transcendental temptation not only finds meaning in—for instance—being part of a nation, but may see it as a higher cause than the dignity of her fellow human beings, something worth killing and dying for. Killing for one’s nation is not just killing in defense of a concept (the nation)—it is killing in defense of the thing that provides a sense of continuing meaning and purpose in life.

This is the main danger in surrendering to the transcendental temptation. Once a person commits to a view that something is more important than the dignity of his fellow human beings, it is easy to justify the persecution and killing of those fellow human beings when their interests collide, or appear to collide, with those of the higher entity.

It is not that a transcendental belief in itself automatically leads people to persecute and kill others—it doesn’t. But the belief that the transcendent thing is somehow higher or more important than individual human beings makes it possible to see the interest of other human beings as inferior to that of the transcendent entity. This leads some to believe that advancing the transcendent entity’s perceived interests at the expense of those of other human beings is reasonable, and even necessary, for the benefit of all.

The Transcendental Temptation Extends Beyond Religion

The term transcendental temptation originates with philosopher Paul Kurtz. Kurtz was worried that new forms of supernaturalism, such as astrology and psychic communication, were arising to replace religion. However, there are other ferocious and deadly forms of transcendence that have come to attract people as religion’s power has declined. Concepts such as nationalism and Marxism offer people a sense of something greater and more lasting than their individual selves and this has created a series of deadly transcendental temptations, as religion has declined in the West. I am using the term transcendental temptation to refer to this broader range of transcendental temptations.

Although religion is usually seen as the most dangerous transcendental temptation, the last few centuries have seen nationalism surpass it, in its ability to justify killing and warfare. The twentieth century witnessed two horrific world wars, fought by armies organized mostly along national lines. Far more people killed, and died for, their nations, than for their gods (although for many the two were intertwined).

The role of Marxism in twentieth-century Russia—with its exaltation of the Party and the Revolution above the dignity of individual human beings—provides a chilling example.  The Russian Communist party put an end to the power of organized religion in Russian people’s lives, only to replace it with a new transcendent force, one even more ferocious in its claim to supersede the basic dignity of all human beings than that of the religion it replaced.

Whether a person is killed in the interests of a god, nation, political ideology or revolution—or for any other supposedly higher purpose—the resultant harm and unnecessary cruelty are the same.

Existential Fear Compounds the Dangers of the Transcendental Temptation

Why is the transcendental temptation so strong, and how can its consequences be so deadly? One important clue can be found in the work of Ernest Becker, pioneer of the terror management theory (TMT), school of psychology. In his books The Denial of Death and The Birth and Death of Meaning, Becker argues that all human beings suffer from an intense fear of death—not the fear that we may accidentally die at any moment, but a powerful awareness that our existence is finite. We are mortals who cannot escape the fact that we, and all who are close to us, must die and be forgotten.

This knowledge of our mortality (which I call existential fear) is deeply distressing and disturbing.  Most people, of course, push this fear back into their unconscious minds, but it is still there: a lurking source of angst and dread. Becker thought that nearly all human culture developed to address existential fear. Our ideas and cultural systems give us a sense of purpose in the face of our mortality—a belief that something we are connected to will continue after our deaths. This sense of continuity helps us repress or avoid being overwhelmed by the demoralizing nature of our existential fear. We will not continue after our deaths, but the cultural entity we have attached ourselves to will. We are not always consciously aware of this. But, Becker argues, this is the function culture performs for us. A religion such as Christianity provides a straightforward example: the Christian god offers immortality through union with him.

TMT has built on these insights of Becker’s. Its researchers have shown that people cleave more closely to their most fundamental worldviews when faced with reminders of their own mortality. In other words, those ideas function as a defense against our awareness of mortality.

One doesn’t have to completely agree with Becker to see how many concepts—especially transcendent ones—address this fear. In the case of nationalism, for instance, we have the claim that the patriotic martyrs (soldiers) have surrendered their lives for the nation, but will live on in our hearts. They are often commemorated by eternal flames and national days of remembrance. The nation thereby promises us protection against existential fears. The individual may die heroically, but the nation the individual is a part of continues, thus sanctifying his or her memory. The individual’s physical death can lead to a form of continuing existence through her ongoing transcendental connection with the nation.

When people use a transcendental concept to address existential fear—consciously or unconsciously—the concept performs a crucial psychological function for them. In the absence of another way to address this fear, they have little incentive to abandon the belief. A challenge to the transcendental belief system may be experienced not as an abstract intellectual proposition, but as a threat to the believer’s chances of continuing existence through connection with the transcendent entity (what Becker calls an immortality project). Such believers often try to remove threats to their belief systems—heretics and unbelievers, counter revolutionaries, threats to security, and so on. They are acting to protect their psychological defense mechanism against existential fear.

There is a surprising lack of supporting evidence behind such belief systems. Even nations only exist as deliberately created social entities, not as an expression of some inherent and eternal truth about groups of people. But, when arguing about such topics, it is important to bear in mind the role of existential fear in influencing people’s beliefs and behaviors.

Humanism Is a Better Way than Transcendence to Address Existential Fear

There are many ways to address existential fear but the two key methods are through seeking some form of transcendence, and what I call the humanist approach.

The humanist approach involves accepting our mortality and viewing life as an opportunity to be enjoyed, rather than an eternal right unfairly bought to an end by death.  Life can be enjoyed both through positive and fulfilling social actions, such as building loving and positive relationships with others, and through the exploration of individual interests and hobbies.  I call this a humanist response because it relies on our human potential to find fulfillment and meaning in life, making it worthwhile despite our mortality, rather than seeking something external to us, to overcome our mortality

A humanist approach correlates with policies that respect the dignity and freedom of all human beings, since the path to addressing existential fear lies in the capacity of each individual human being, not in something higher.

There is some overlap between the transcendental and humanist approaches. The humanist approach accepts the fact that people find meaning through association with things outside themselves, such as family and cultural groups. The humanist approach, however, considers these as groups of human beings. The risk of the transcendental temptation is that it endows such groups with a kind of extra-human essence, to which individual human lives may be subordinated.

In challenging transcendental beliefs, it is crucial to offer the transcendental believer some vision of how life can be enjoyed, and existential fear faced, through a humanist approach. Otherwise, the believer may simply abandon one set of transcendental beliefs for another. Works such as Carlton Hayes’ Nationalism a Religion and Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities provide historical accounts of how, while the power of religion to motivate people to kill declined, newly created nationalisms came to play an increasingly prominent role in people’s psyches. It achieves very little if one transcendent justification for war is removed, only to be replaced by another, which can just as easily inspire millions to go to their deaths, as nationalism did in the twentieth century.

We need to address the transcendental temptation itself, not just one form of transcendence.

The Danger Facing the World Today

People have been offering humanist visions of how to address existential fear at least since Epicurus in the West and Yang Zhu in the East. But the transcendental temptation is particularly strong in the current climate. Rising economic inequality in western countries has heightened people’s sense of insecurity. This can increase people’s sense of existential fear, and cause them to cling more strongly to their transcendental temptations. In the US, we see the rise of nationalism through projects such as making America great again and in the UK we have Brexit. In Russia, the chaos which followed the end of the Soviet period has led people to turn to nationalist strongman Vladimir Putin. In China, the government has responded to the collapse of belief in Marxism with an increased emphasis on nationalism as its legitimizing ideology. Under President Xi Jingpin, the China dream has superseded “socialism with Chinese characteristics” as a key propaganda tool. In other words, Russia, China and the US, with their powerful militaries, have all become more nationalistic in recent times, and the European integration project is faltering. All this is happening against a backdrop of climate change, which also increases people’s sense of existential fear and insecurity, and can trigger them to cling to the nation as a source of hope. We too often hear politicians saying that they will not sacrifice their nations’ economic interests to the cause of global cooperation, in order to address climate change. An episode such as the Chinese assertion of sovereignty in the Spratly Islands or Taiwan, or a climate-induced crisis, may prompt a free-for-all international conflict, in which each group seeks to protect its own transcendent sense of self, rather than working cooperatively to address global problems. There could also be a resurgence of religion or Marxism, or some new form of transcendental temptation, to assuage the latest round of existential fear.

In his recent book Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker argues that humanity has made significant progress over the last few centuries. He also notes that this does not mean that future progress is guaranteed. In the current climate of deepening existential fear it is important to make the case that there is no need to succumb to the transcendent temptation: there is a humanist alternative. We must offer it.

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  1. Guys like Steven Pinker seem quite funny and naive here, pointing all these graphs about life expectancy etc. Some time ago I listened a Buddhist monk on YouTube telling how meaningless these are. Modern world is turning people into mindless robots with carrots on sticks.

    Progress? There is no rational, universal definition thereof, so such claim is nonsense.

    Some people even claim that we’ve experienced significant degeneracy over the last century or even more. They may sound like religious freaks, but look around in Europe and America. People are increasingly angry and dissatisfied, society is atomized as never before.

    Humanism has one weak spot: it still requires people to believe in. Somewhere ahead there must even be some Star Trek like utopia to power the machine, so individuals pursue it instead of turning fully selfish and ruin the system from within. It starts sounding like that transcendental temptation sneaking in through the back door.

    The only system that kind of avoids the threat is Buddhism. At least the only one I know of.

  2. I find these types of arguments against religious conviction to be seriously, seriously weak. Frankly, it’s much more of a crutch to believe that everything ends at death and we’re just meat and all the standard existentialist fare baked into our culture and spoonfed to us by the Steven Pinkers of the world. It’s actually far more terrifying and destabilizing to conceive of our lives as brief manifestations of eternal rules with serious judgement at the end of them. It’s not “comforting” in any way, as anyone who has done something like DMT would certainly understand. “Fear of God” is far more dread-inducing than “I’ll make my own meaning” boredom.

  3. I used to call it the new religion, nationalism, socialism, feminism, anti-racism, anti-sexism, liberalism, conservatism, libertarianism, the political isms. Political alignments seem to be just to much to bear for the differences, and violent conflict seems imminent, and ongoing. There are those who have and others who believe that they deserve what others have just because those others have it. So I understand what you mean by transcendental temptation. Its a belief, and alignment and people are taking up arms to defend these new religions. When in reality, we are pretty much the same, the 99%, as the majority have been throughout the history of human civilizations. I like being humanist, I want to enjoy my life, do art, listen to music and it would wonderful if it could be shared. I have worked and contributed to society for many years too. I am retired. But, I don’t know how much I would want to share it with everybody. I really have no faith in the goodness of any political party, or movement, the masses of people just seem to be mobs these days and I try to stay away from them.

  4. You might consider becoming acquainted with Biblical Christianity (not Catholicism.) It calls for reverence of all human beings, since they are God’s creations, and removes the fear of death (though not the process of dying) because there is eternal life in Christ Jesus. Thus, it’s a “transcendental temptation” outside the bounds of those you envision.

    1. I’ve read the Old Testament, pal. There’s not much universal love for all human beings to be found in that. Lots of mass slaughter in the name of God though.

  5. “Becker argues that all human beings suffer from an intense fear of death—not the fear that we may accidentally die at any moment, but a powerful awareness that our existence is finite. We are mortals who cannot escape the fact that we, and all who are close to us, must die and be forgotten.”

    Sorry, can’t agree. People are not afraid of the, here postulated, finitude of their existences. Rather, they are afraid of two other prospects associated with death, specifically: the many, many agonizing and protracted ways of becoming dead – ie the process of dying,
    and the post death prospect described by Hamlet,

    “To die: to sleep;
    No more; and by a sleep to say we end
    The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
    That flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation
    Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
    To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
    For in that sleep of death : there’s the respect
    That makes calamity of so long life;
    For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
    The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
    The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
    The insolence of office and the spurns
    That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
    When he himself might his quietus make
    With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
    To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
    But that the dread of something after death,
    The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
    No traveller returns, puzzles the will
    And makes us rather bear those ills we have
    Than fly to others that we know not of?
    Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;”

    Its that “what dreams may come
    When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
    Must give us pause” which concern us. The existential dread is not of the cessation of existence as we have known it, but of what existence may turn out to be once existence as we have known it is ended.

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