I find it hard to believe that someone who’s written so much on religion couldn’t easily write 600 words (one page, single-spaced) on what religions are mainly trying to achieve. For example, you say “we are godlike,” but what does that mean and entail?

But that’s okay. How about roughly 300 words then?

Copying and pasting wouldn’t work, since the answers would be scattered in various comments and wouldn’t hang together. I’m aiming for a readable platonic dialogue or friendly debate on an important topic, a discussion that hopefully would be fun and edifying.

It’s alright if you’d rather not, of course. But just in case you’re tempted, I’ll start us off. (I’d rather do this by email, because these comment sections are buggy and don’t allow for easy formatting anymore. But no big deal.)

So here’s the question I propose we try to answer, first with roughly 300-word opening statements that present our different answers and then with some responses to those statements, and with some responses to those responses and so on until we feel we’re done.

The question that divides us here is, “What is enlightenment? In other words, what is a person’s highest goal in life, in philosophical and religious terms?”

Here’s my answer (in 452 words):

Traditionally, in perennial philosophy and spiritual practices, enlightenment meant realizing that God, the ultimate source of reality has been with us all along. God’s been with us because God is everywhere, and we have backdoor access via self-consciousness. We ought to realize that we, too, are manifestations of God. When we take ourselves to be independent, free, rational, naturally self-sufficient persons, minds, or egos, we identify only with certain illusions that cause us needlessly to suffer.

Then another institution arose in Europe, which has been called (somewhat problematically) “modernity.” Its hallmarks are skepticism, science, liberty, and progress. What the spiritualist calls “illusions,” the modern naturalist calls “emergent properties,” and whereas the spiritualist takes the source of reality to be conscious, transcendent, or at least comforting to those who identify with it, the naturalist considers that source to be material, nonliving, inhuman, and absurd in the sense that reality plays us for fools.

There are two kinds of promethean, secular-humanistic enlightenment or progress, one for the masses and one for outsiders. While they may not have recognized what they’ve been doing, most people have been trying to enlighten themselves (to live well) for thousands of years. We’ve been seeing past the illusions of animism and theism, and learning how nature works; moreover, instead of wallowing in disgust with the universe’s absurdity, we’ve been creating an artificial world (civilization) to replace the horrors of the impersonal wilderness.

We’ve been celebrating the tragic emergence of the personal, suffering but godlike self, and creating a world that caters to that self. By contrast, the wilderness randomly creates and destroys life for no reason. At least the human-made worlds are full of meaning, purpose, and value, since they’re intelligently designed.

That form of progress has its severe drawbacks (such as consumerism, plutocracy, Kafkaesque bureaucracy, war, politics, and destruction of the biosphere). It’s based more on technoscientific than on psychological or moral advances. Thus, in each society there are marginalized outsiders, including the saints and founders of spiritual traditions who search for more honourable ways of living with the real world’s absurdity. As soon as their ideas are offered, they’re bastardized by the more conservative mob that compromises its integrity with conventional, largely dubious “wisdom.” Exoteric religions are fashioned out of their antisocial, antinatural, or otherwise subversive visions.

As far as I can tell, aesthetics presents us with the makings of a sustainable, honourable way of improving ourselves in light of reality’s absurdity and of the death of God. We can improve ourselves with art and by seeing natural and artificial developments in aesthetic rather than in more illusory or degrading social terms. The highest goal is to create well, knowing that everything is, at best, temporary art.

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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