Of all the books I read for literature classes in high school and as an undergraduate, the one that has had the longest lasting impact on me is The Sheltering Sky. I read it as a sophomore in high school before I had ever heard of Sartre or Kierkegaard or de Beauvoir or Camus. I don’t think I knew what “existentialism” meant back then, and yet the theme of fleeing from freedom has haunted me ever since.
It sounds strange to talk of fleeing from freedom. It’s much less bizarre if we rephrase this as avoiding responsibility, but the new wording can be misleading. It’s true that freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin, but generally when people talk about avoiding responsibility they mean dodging blame. That is to say, they want to avoid the negative consequences of having screwed something up. But there’s a deeper sense in which we’re all fundamentally responsible for our own decisions regardless of whether they are good or bad or whether we are caught or not. That’s a form of responsibility that you can’t possibly avoid without sacrificing your free-will. As long as you have the ability to decide, you are the one who is responsible for that decision.
The progressive rock band Rush put it simply when they said “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” Sartre was getting at the same thing when he more famously said, “Men are condemned to be free.” Political liberty, in the sense of being able to freely act on your own decisions, is something we all want to have. But moral liberty, in the sense of being the one who has to confront decisions every moment of every day, is something that we can’t really get away from, and this inescapable burden can truly feel like a millstone or a dead albatross hanging from our necks.
There are two reasons why moral freedom can feel like a burden. The first is an awareness of our own moral failings. We all like to think of ourselves as the good guy in our own private narrative. We’re each the hero of our own respective life stories, and yet we all fall short of our own self-image from time to time with no one to blame for it but ourselves. The second is the fact that we often don’t know what to do. Life is full of ambiguity and uncertainty. We constantly have to make decisions without having all the facts, and yet one of the decisions we must repeatedly make is how much time and energy to spend looking for more facts. The apparently stark difference between moral shortcomings—when we know what is right and fail to do it—and ignorance—when we’re not sure what is right and what isn’t—is actually blurry and indistinct.
When I first read The Sheltering Sky this was all new to me, and I revolted at the second half of the novel, in which Kit sabotages her own free-will and spends her diminishing reservoir of self-direction attempting to abdicate what little remains. In the years since, however, I’ve grown to think that Kit was hardly the exception, but rather the norm for human behavior.
Isn’t that exactly the function that organized religion has played throughout much of society? I’m not saying that organized religion is intrinsically or always bad, but simply that it has historically been used to fill a specific social need, which is to try and mitigate the pressures of human moral responsibility.
Victor Frankl—who was both a Holocaust survivor and an existentialist—once wrote:
Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.
In short: life is a test, and some people want to use organized religion as a cheat-sheet. Responding to the question of what really matters in life by being responsible entails a lifetime of commitment and a full embrace of our own moral freedom in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty. It means making no excuses and doing the best you can despite the fact that this will never be enough or knowing of yourself that you chose not to do so and living with that knowledge. It means accepting that the test of life leaves us between a rock and a hard place.
But if religion can step in and provide certainty then this burden is lifted. If you are willing to abdicate your responsibility to a priest, or a holy book, or some set of rituals then you can win the illusion of a free lunch: liberty without the awful costs associate with responsibility. No longer do you have to live a life dedicated to answering the quest for meaning, you can simply point to your religion and say “I’m not really sure what the answer is, but they’ve got it over there and I’m with them.”
This criticism has been made of religion before by atheists, but it’s my contention that atheism doesn’t mean an escape from this dilemma at all. Many of the great existentialist philosophers were atheist, but any class in existentialism is likely to start with a person who came before Sartre, Camus, or Bowles. It will likely begin with Kierkegaard, who was both devoutly Christian and fully aware of the fact that one cannot duck the great questions of life by pretending that religion can answer them on your behalf.
Living an existential life—living according to Frankl’s challenge—is just as exhausting for an atheist as for a theist, but clearly organized religion can’t serve as a source of false comfort anymore. That doesn’t mean that there are no surrogates to be found, however, and the replacement religion for most of the seemingly enlightened atheists of the West is the scientific establishment or—more broadly—academia.
Obviously science and academia are no more intrinsically evil than organized religion, but the parallels between the two are striking. Not only can they provide the same function of offering an illusion of certainty and answers to the Big Questions in exchange for our allegiance, but if you trace the ancestry of modern colleges and universities you will find they spring from the scholastics of the Middle Ages. It surprises me to no end that more people don’t question the strange garb we all dress up in for graduation ceremonies. The robes, tassels, and funny hats found in the Ivory Tower—that bastion of modern secularism—are knock-offs from the ceremonial garb of ancient Christian priesthood.
At a superficial level, American society is riven by cultural strife between traditionalist theists and progressive atheists, but if you look closer the Westboro Baptists and Richard Dawkins have a lot in common. The claim that God must certainly exist is equally untenable as the claim that He must certainly not, and both sides cling to their irrational dogma with equal ferocity while demonizing their opposition and lavishing their followers with self-righteous moralizing.
The real struggle, the one that matters, is not between atheists and theists but between the rational-minded and those who think to sacrifice their freedom for an illusory sense of certainty. This point is especially poignant to me when I read articles like “The Truth Wears Off” (The New Yorker) or “Placebos work—even without deception” (Medical Daily).
The first relates the ominous failings of the scientific method:
But now all sorts of well-established, multiply confirmed findings have started to look increasingly uncertain. It’s as if our facts were losing their truth: claims that have been enshrined in textbooks are suddenly unprovable. This phenomenon doesn’t yet have an official name, but it’s occurring across a wide range of fields, from psychology to ecology. In the field of medicine, the phenomenon seems extremely widespread, affecting not only antipsychotics but also therapies ranging from cardiac stents to Vitamin E and antidepressants: Davis has a forthcoming analysis demonstrating that the efficacy of antidepressants has gone down as much as threefold in recent decades.
For many scientists, the effect is especially troubling because of what it exposes about the scientific process. If replication is what separates the rigor of science from the squishiness of pseudoscience, where do we put all these rigorously validated findings that can no longer be proved? Which results should we believe? Francis Bacon, the early-modern philosopher and pioneer of the scientific method, once declared that experiments were essential, because they allowed us to “put nature to the question.” But it appears that nature often gives us different answers.
Even as proof that popular drugs are truly effective slips through our fingers, the second article details the extent to which sugar pills—which aren’t supposed to do anything at all—can actually outperform prescription drugs even when people know they are only taking a sugar pill.
Religion does not have to be the opiate of the masses, but for millennia it has been not because a political elite sought to keep the working class docile, but because human beings were more than willing to voluntarily exchange freedom for a worthless mirage of certainty in order to escape the burden of moral responsibility. Given this precedent, we should hardly be surprised that so many today are willing to exchange political liberty for safety, whether it be safety from terrorist attack or from lack of medical insurance.
It’s crucial for any libertarian to understand the extent to which people seek to get rid of their own free-will by abdicating it to religious leaders or scientific experts. The rhetoric of liberty and freedom is so widespread, that we too frequently take it for granted that the real discussion is only about how to achieve these ends, but in reality many people need to be convinced that liberty—either political or moral—is something worth keeping at all.