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.