In the twentieth century, the response to fear-filled religiosity has been atheism and fear-filled alienation from all things spiritual. Alienation may be a sixties word, but it's by no means a sixties concept. It is, after all, just a name for that basic atavistic feeling of not being "at home" in the world, a kind of cosmic homesickness. It was not born in the twentieth century, but it was certainly fed by existential philosophy and the denial of the existence of God.
Jean-Paul Sartre celebrated this terrible emptiness: "Life has no meaning... It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing by the meaning that you choose." As the philosopher William Barrett puts it, "Sartre's atheism states candidly ... that man is an alien in the universe, unjustified and unjustifiable, absurd in the simple sense that there is no...reason sufficient to explain why he or his universe exists."
Wow, if I thought that was the whole truth about our universe, I'd be pretty alienated and afraid and bummed out, too. And no amount of Sartre and intellectual muscle-flexing would assuage my fears. Engaging in nonstop activity so I didn't have to think about it would at least push my fear to the background. But I wouldn't be getting rid of it - only masking it.
Sometimes the fear manifests as an anxiety that hangs over us, one that we cannot ascribe to any particular event. "Free-floating anxiety" is the term used by modern psychology, and by naming what we cannot explain by classifying the symptoms, we delude ourselves into thinking we somehow mastered the cause. Many years ago I read a column by a successful playwright recounting a day in his life that would be the envy of many, full of people and color and action and fun. I no longer remember his name, but his last line was burned into my brain: "I go to bed every night thinking that I have forgotten something." The nagging sensation of having forgotten something important, which disturbs our comfort and routine, both feeds our fear and is a product of it.
So for many the price of escaping from the prison of damnation-drenched religious conventions has been to lose touch with the spiritual truths from which they originally sprang. When that happens, our new reality is the fear-filled and barren terrain of sterile secular humanism. It's a false world in which the spiritual either gets taken over by fanatical fundamentalism or explained away by psychoanalysis as the residue of a damaged childhood. Indeed, one of Freud's most famous books about religion is entitled The Future of an Illusion.
Without faith in a higher order and the existence of something outside ourselves and our everyday lives, life can become emotionally unbearable and filled with fear. And this anxiety, even if we're not aware of it, will surface in other parts of our lives. Bernard Levin described it as "the gnawing feeling that ultimate reality lies elsewhere, glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, sensed just beyond the light cast by the campfire, heard in the slow movement of a Mozart quartet, seen in the eyes of Rembrandt's last self-portraits, felt in the sudden stab of discovery in reading or seeing a Shakespeare play thought familiar in every line."
But we spend a large part of our lives barricading ourselves against this ultimate reality. In the nineteenth century, Nietzsche called himself "a man who wishes nothing more than daily to lose some reassuring belief, who seeks and finds his happiness in this daily greater liberation of the mind." But the freedom he was seeking, which was essentially the freedom from fear and convention, cannot be found through the mind, only through the soul.
This excerpt was originally published in On Becoming Fearless In Love, Work, And Life by Arianna Huffington.