The difficulties of human life constitute, as the philosopher Mark Johnston puts it, "structural deficiencies," that include death, pain, and frustration. These cannot be waved away by politics or technological advance, and intellectually they demand a response; some way that we can live comfortably despite them.
Religion has offered various responses to these structural deficiencies. An atheist such as myself may dismiss religion, too easily, as merely providing reassuring fantasies, or social cohesion. But religion has offered its responses by means of fundamental changes in human thinking. As the late sociologist Robert Bellah has described, intellectual history, for most of human existence, has been religious history (with religion defined broadly to include, for instance, Greek philosophy as one branch).
Some deficiencies of human life are universal, but in every society some weigh more heavily than others; new ones are created by that society; and old ones are seen through a unique lens. Therefore, each society needs a different kind of religion -- a different response and way of thinking that can allow it to survive its problems. But in fact, this goes far beyond survival, because a society's unique suite of problems is self-inflicted, in part by its current way of thinking. Eventually, its internal contradictions become unbearable -- injustice that was supposed to be solved is not, and this can no longer be papered over.
In such situations, a revolution in thought is the logical next step. As Bellah describes in his research, a series of such revolutions -- common in outline around the world -- has propelled us through several ages of intellectual, social, and religious existence. The last major revolution ended the Axial age of divine emperors, by means of the world-religions (or their direct antecedents) that we know today: Judaism, Greek philosophy, Buddhism, and Vedic thought. All of these arose in reaction to empires and social oppression. They were able to reorder life in many ways, and end some of the worst depredations of those empires. They did not replace all previous thought or social custom, but integrated what was old with radically new ways of thinking -- with the full repercussions and elaborations of those forms evolving only slowly, over time.
Just as each intellectual revolution has solved problems, it has eventually created new ones, through its own contradictions and limitations. I think that today we are seeing the fully-developed contradictions of axial-age thought, manifested throughout our society, in the ways we organize, invent, politic, work, and play. And some of these problems are becoming impossible to ignore: very briefly, (a) a reshaping of our environment that is truly destructive, and (b) a governance by abstract system -- finance, bureaucrats, user agreements -- that drain life of purpose. We must also add that some axial age problems were ameliorated but never eliminated, such as hierarchical political power; and some universal structural defects were addressed, but perhaps in ways that are no longer coherent.
I believe we are ready for a new intellectual revolution. This is not a modest call. What we need is the beginnings of a new way of thought, which will allow us to conceive of all existence differently, and thereby change the way we live. At present, it seems impossible to imagine any realistic solution to the environmental crisis: we wish we could live less destructively, but cannot conceive of how we could. The key is that we lack the appropriate kind of imagination -- because what we currently take for granted is not, in fact necessary. How those details get worked out, I have no idea; but neither did the people who began a written culture, or a culture based on abstractions. All I sense is that we need something drastic.
Even an insanely ambitious project must start somewhere; must be outlined or attempted at some point, however prone to going nowhere. I see no choice but to start. My guides will be the history of how past revolutions have proceded; the nature of the crises we face today; old ways of thinking, in particular the philosophical position known as panpsychism; and my own intuitions -- about what should matter, and what a more satisfying direction would be. I make no bones about the hubris involved, but I can already see others starting to push out in fruitful directions, and with many people so working, we may be able to accomplish something.
This piece should serve as an introduction to my writings about this project. It will go on to cover many topics; coming quite soon will be mind-matter dualism, writing and visuality, imagination, and abstraction.
I began thinking in this direction in 2012, after reading Robert Bellah's "Religion in Human Evolution" and the phenomenologist David Abram. I read widely in many connected areas, and began the notes for a book, but my thoughts were still evolving too much. Therefore, for the time being, I will make do with shorter essays or "fragments" (as James C. Scott calls his anarchist essays).
These pieces will hover around the central purpose layed out here, of sketching a new philosophy or religion. They will intersect and reference one another. Perhaps in the future they will even coalesce into something more linear and set. But I also hope each essay will be interesting and provocative on its own.