Now we are ready to return to the situation introduced in section four of the last chapter. We were imagining a person who has no religion, yet who wants to live a moral life. Consider what such a person faces—where might he or she find the valued purpose needed to guide moral decision making? The physical environment holds no purpose in the moral arena. The transitory social environment is nugatory. Religious sources are considered unreliable or even false. No external environment holds a purpose worthy of being used to make a moral decision, and the mind, when lacking any belief system, holds none.
Search as they may, individuals in this position cannot solve moral problems, for there is nowhere else to look.
Since the mind has to know and value the attainment of some purpose before it can make any decision rationally, minds lacking relevant purposes cannot make moral decisions rationally. For some, this mental state of affairs may churn for years. Such individuals may eventually give up the search, and simply choose to abide by social customs. Others in this condition may look at various religions and find a way out by adopting one, or bits and pieces of several. For a few, neither choice is feasible, and the dilemma escalates. Every decision to be made appears to be causally related to this missing purpose. The mind’s primary function of directing the body’s behaviour becomes incapacitated, and its owner may sink into depression, claiming, quite correctly, that they see no purpose to life, and that without purpose life has no meaning and they have no reason to live. A mental breakdown can easily result.
In all of this behaviour, we must remember, the mind is being entirely rational. If a moral environment of some kind is not available, then, although everyday language allows moral problems to be posed, no satisfactory solutions can be found, because without a desired purpose decisions can’t be made rationally.
Apart from insanity or death, there is only one way through this impasse. The mind has to accept a solution that it has been considering, possibly consciously, certainly subconsciously, but which has hitherto been rejected for one reason or another. Some formerly unacceptable metaphysical purpose must be reclassified as desirable. For this to happen such a purpose has to be accepted as representing the truth—it must be sanctioned by the mind itself. The mind’s decision-making expertise will then be freed from its confining tangle of unacceptable choices, its state of constant stress will vanish, and it will at last find peace. This acceptance of a purpose almost always happens in a split second, occurring unexpectedly (and often appearing fully formed) to the affected individuals. They experience it as a "revelation" and may undergo a "conversion". (Revelations And Conversions further discusses these phenomena.)
It does not matter what this purpose is. Absolutely any criteria can be used to judge behaviour as “good” or “bad.” (A “moral” person could even be considered an “evil monster” by another's standards.) What matters is that the mind’s previous quandary has vanished, and it can once again resume its function of thinking rationally as it directs the body’s functions.
But let us return, for a moment, to the instant of reclassification—the mind’s conversion from an absence, to an acceptance, of some mental environment containing both criteria and purpose. For the mind to take advantage of such a contrivance it must have already been stored in memory. Most of us have religious memories provided to us by our parents or teachers, and we all have some understanding of the beliefs in vogue in our society. This formerly discounted knowledge is often the environment grasped when the mind is under the kind of stress earlier discussed.
The newly converted typically accept unconditionally all that is contained within the religion (whether spiritual or secular) whose purpose they have suddenly adopted. Not infrequently, the intensity of emotion associated with this metamorphosis moves the converted to tell others what they have come to believe. That which, when they were non-believers, was simply “good” or “bad” behaviour, has suddenly become “right” or “wrong” behaviour to the new believer. This kind of distinction marks the transition—moral judgements have replaced value judgements for them.
Very occasionally, the straw grasped during conversion is not an existing religion but some abstraction, probably imaginatively pieced together by the mind’s owner in earlier, restless, years. A new metaphysical purpose may be recognized to be valid, important and desirable. This new purpose may or may not centre around a belief in a god—but there are not many choices when it comes to inventing a purpose deemed important enough to guide moral decision making. (This is why people normally convert to existing religions; they have no alternative in mind. This book will be suggesting one later.)
A few, undergoing such a transformative mental revision, become convinced that they are another messiah: they become a prophet, one who has “seen the light.” The conversion they experience is so real to them, so significant—the vision and clarity of the new truth so bright—that they cannot contain their emotions nor refrain from trying to convince others that they have found the most important manifestation in life (for, to them, it is the most important). They proselytize. And the vivacity and clarity of the words they speak attract the undecided. Cults and sects form, and eventually, if the number of followers continues to grow, additional leaders develop, (see Leaders). Eventually the originator may be revered and loved as the founder of a great religion. We will be exploring this phenomenon in Part Two.
- According to Postman, individuals lacking a sense of purpose can fall into a state of psychic disorientation and become preoccupied by a frantic search for meaning. See Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 10.
Postman subsequently postulates that we have no better choice than to search the past to find where to go in the future. I strongly disagree. We are where we are today because of our past thoughts and actions. While this has led to considerable human progress we have made mistakes. Surely we can do better—searching the past for ideas seems a prescription for repeating past mistakes. Moreover, all environments change over time, and historical environments no longer exist. To find where to go in the future, we must look in that direction. In fact, there may be a highly satisfactory beacon to be found in the future, one that does generate a sense of purpose and certainty. The outlook I have in mind will be discussed in Part Four; it is one that could only be determined using today’s knowledge.
- See a postscript to this chapter, Purpose And Meaning, for a discussion of the words “purpose” and “meaning.”
- The metaphysical purpose adopted by many Westerners to guide their moral decision making is to do their best to ensure that they will continue living beyond death. A “soul” or equivalent is usually postulated to exist, since it is clearly not possible to continue living in a body that decays when dead.
In contrast, the metaphysical purpose adopted by many Easterners is to stop living beyond death. A series of progressive reincarnations is the accepted way to achieve this. (Features of major religions are outlined in Present Day Religions.)
- The mind’s prime requirement to think rationally about important issues accounts for the extreme lengths to which people may go in order to behave in accordance with such beliefs. More about this in Revelations And Conversions.