Summary of Phillip Appleman’s: The Labyrinth: God, Darwin, and the Meaning of Life

A Young Version                                                  Today, in his late 80s

Philip D. Appleman (1926 –  ) is an American poet, a Darwin scholar, and Professor Emeritus of English at Indiana University. He has recently published a new book: The Labyrinth: God, Darwin, and the Meaning of Life.

I begin with an outline of the book, and follow with a detailed summary and commentary.


Here is my reconstruction of the basic points from Appleman’s book. It does not really contain a philosophical argument in the traditional sense, but is more like a last lecture or statement of his creed. (For more about the idea of a last lecture, see Randy Pausch’s moving book, The Last Lecture.) 

Part 1 – We Invented Religion

  • As we move through the labyrinth of life we wonder, who are we?
  • We are not a god’s chosen people, we are primates with big brains.
  • These brains invent gods who we believe tell us to conquer the earth.
  • Believing in gods is easy, thinking for ourselves is hard.
  • The gods promise immortality, thereby breeding contempt for the world.

Part 2 – Religion is a Horrible Thing

  • Believers are often horrible people, fanatical and anti-social.
  • Religions don’t want to be judged by their deeds, but by their rhetoric.
  • Religions want to preserve themselves.
  • Religions have been, and still are, a terrible force in human history.
  • If taken seriously, religion leads to turning your back on the world.
  • But most don’t take it seriously, they want the things of this world.

Part 3  – We Create Meaning in Life in the Face of Death

  • By giving up religion and immortality we can find meaning in this world.
  • We create our own meaning, we don’t get it from absurd theology.
  • Instead we should realistically assess our situation.
  • If we do, we’ll find that we are products of evolution.
  • We will die, but we can die with dignity like Darwin did.
  • Darwin rejected the sadism and superstition of religion, as should we.
  • Religion consoles us with promises of the afterlife, but provides no evidence.
  • We have a right to rage against death because life is precious.

Part 4 – Morality is a Biological Phenomenon

  • We find the origins of morality in the desire for self-preservation.
  • In evolutionary history we find that to survive we must cooperate.
  • But religion co-opted morality, uniting it with dogma.
  • To get people to be moral religion promises heaven and hell.
  • But this doesn’t work. For morality we must look to science.

Part 5 – Science Can Play a Role in Morality

  • Science explains human nature and how we can flourish.
  • Science shows we are connected with the entire ecosystem.
  • Knowledge is an important ingredient of conscience.
  • Most won’t engage in rigorous thought, but a few of us can try.

Part 6 – The Law and the World Are Human Made

  • The law  progresses to the extent it distances itself from religion.
  • By abandoning religion we can live better lives and make a better world.
  • We can make a heaven on earth.


It is a short book, only about 60 pages, but it is carefully and conscientiously crafted, so I will quote extensively from its beautiful prose. Here are its first sentences:

The simpler the society, the cruder the problems: we can imagine Neanderthals crouching in fear—of the tiger, of the dark, of thunder—but we do not suppose they had the leisure for exquisite neuroses. We have changed all that. Replete with leisure time and creature comforts, but nervously dependent on a network of unfathomable technologies, impatient with our wayward social institutions, repeated betrayed by our spiritual” leaders, and often deceived by our own extravagant hopes, we wander the labyrinth asking ourselves: what went wrong? The answers must begin with our expectations. What is it we want? And why? What kind of people are we? (11)

We are, as Appleman knows, “A beast condemned to be more than a beast: that is the human condition.” We know our lineage, we are brothers of primates, sharing over ninety-eight percent of our DNA with chimpanzees. The legacy of more than one hundred and fifty years of scientific research confirms this central fact—we are modified monkeys who came to dominate other animals because of our large brains. But the brains that created tools also imagined they were the chosen people of the gods, that all other flora and fauna were expendable. This was our true loss of innocence. The notion that “God wills it” serves aggressor nations and species alike. The assault on nature came with the god’s permission but it was an arrogant assumption, dissociated from reality, unstable and self-destructive. “In our fantasies of godlike superiority are the seeds of neurosis, and when they bear their dragon fruit we run for the mind healers.”(14)

God is an invention of our imagination and for many people a seductive idea. (Appleman has in mind the Judeo-Christian God, but this idea would be applicable to other gods as well.) “People in general have never exhibited much passion for the disciplined pursuit of knowledge, but they are always tempted by easy answers. God is an easy answer.” (16) A brain capable of asking questions without answers satisfies itself that some god is the answer, even though this is no answer—the term god only hides our ignorance.

But belief in the gods survives because it is useful. Gods sanction war and, given that they are omnipotent and omniscient, a multitude of evils too. And they receive undeserved praise for saving our lives when, for example, thousands have just died in natural disasters. After all, there must be some reason why we were saved, we think, because our brains see patterns everywhere. In the stars they see Aquarius and Capricorn, in the heavens they see angels and archangels. No wonder religion hates knowledge—the gods depend upon our ignorance.

Learning is hard work; imagining is easy. Given our notorious capacity for indolence, is it any wonder that school is so unpopular, faith so attractive? So we fumble through the labyrinth of our lives, making believe we have heard answers to our questions, even to our prayers. And yet, deep down, we know that something is out of joint, has always been out of joint. (18)

Beginning as infants, selfish and full of desire, we soon realize that growing up means limiting our desires. By contrast theologies offer infinite delight—it’s all so tempting. Of course we can’t be sure we’ll win the eternal prize because that depends on God’s grace, given or withheld according to the capriciousness of the gods. Still most assume we are favored by the gods. Thus religion panders to childish wishes, leaving us unfit to deal with reality. In turns our attention away from this world toward the afterlife, and it often leads to horrific behavior.

Appleman says that the immoral people he has known were mostly believers, whereas his agnostic and atheist friends were quite virtuous. This is because religious people can afford to be immoral, all they need to do is ask forgiveness. “If God exists, as the old saying should go, then anything is permissible. Nonreligious people have no easy way out. Their moral accountability is not to some whimsical spirit in the sky, famous for easy absolutions … They must account to themselves and live with their own conduct…” (23)

Appleman also argues that unbelievers “are less perverted by the antisocial tendencies of religious thinking, including the seductions of fanaticism … To the fanatical mind, the act of pure religion has always been an act of pure violence …” (24-25) He provides numerous examples of religious wars and cruelty to buttress his argument, making his point in powerful prose: “Religion stalks across the face of human history, knee-deep in the blood of innocents, clasping its red hands in hymns of praise to an approving God.” (27) Yet we are all supposed to approach religion with deference, despite the fact that in the holy people “we encounter a veritable Chaucerian gallery of rogues and felons.” (27-28) Appleman provides a long list of such characters from just the last few years alone.

The religions of the world don’t wish to be judged by their deeds. They are not interested in their victims but in “the towering cathedral, and soaring rhetoric, and official parades of good intentions.” (29) Appelman attributes this public relations success to the organizational ability of religions. Beginning with visions, prophecies and other subjective experiences the priesthoods became organized. Subsequently, the original vision, whether it was for good or ill, is forgotten:

… and the organization itself becomes the object of self-preservation, aggrandizing itself in monumental buildings, pompous rituals, mazes of rules and regulations, and a relentless grinding toward autocracy. None of the other priesthoods managed all this as successfully as the early Christian clergy … Thus the “Roman” Church created for itself a kind of secular immortality sustained by a tight network of binding regulations, rigid hierarchies, and local fiefdoms, which people are born into, or are coerced or seduced into—and then find that confining maze almost impossible to escape from.” (30-31)

Large religious organizations create great problems—crusades, inquisitions, war, genocide and burning scientists at the stake. Today the Roman Catholic Church, to take one example, has used its power and influence to oppose birth control. Needless to say this policy leads hunger, poverty, disease, death, the degradation of the environment and more. Under the guise of doing good the religious wreck lives. “There is a word for this kind of activity, talking about love while blighting people’s lives: it is hypocrisy.” (32-33)

The result of this fascination with otherworldly concerns manifests itself in our distaste for the satisfactions of this world. If we truly believed in the gods, then we wouldn’t care about art, music, love, sex, money and power. But most people only give lip service to their religion, almost no one sacrifices the things of this world for the afterlife ” … few people are abjuring the world; we are taking the cash and letting the credit go …” (34) Still many can’t let go of worrying about the afterlife or rejecting their native religion. But Appleman counsels us to reject “the bribes of the afterlife” and our childish longing for gods, we can truly find meaning in this world precisely because what’s here is not eternal.

Doomed to extinction, our loves, our work, our friendships, our tastes are all painfully precious. We look about us, on the streets and in the subways, and discover that we are beautiful because we are mortal, priceless because we are so rare in the universe and so fleeting. Whatever we are, whatever we make of ourselves: that is all we will ever have—and that, in its profound simplicity, is the meaning of life. (35)

We are beasts that ponder the meaning of life. We were not designed by gods, there is no design outside of us, only the design we create. From our self-chosen actions we get our happiness, our truth, our freedom, our wisdom, and our meaning. But how can there be meaning if there is death? Our brains provide the reasons. Rejecting the “mumbo-jumbo of theologians,” we search for the truth.

Cosmic evolution gave birth to our sun and planet; chemical evolution brought forth atoms, molecules and cells; biological evolution led to us.  The process ran itself, there was no intelligent designer. But consciousness emerged, we are here, and within limits we are free. And yet we will die.

Charles Darwin died the night of April 18th, 1882. A biographer says that his last words were: “I am not in the least afraid to die.” How do we account for his courage? Appleman gives two reasons.

First, he was a mature man no longer frightened by superstitions. He once studied for the clergy, but he had “gradually come … to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rainbow at sign, etc., etc., and from it’s attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian.” (42) He also believed religion was sadistic. “I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.” (43)

Darwin knew that death is natural, we die like all the other animals. The non-religious don’t fear death, but they rage at being mortal. Religion responds differently.

Religion says: console yourself, there will be another chance, another life. Two things are wrong with this. First, there is not a shred of evidence for it and, second, it is a sop, consciously intended to blunt our rage and regret, thus dehumanizing us. Our anger at death is precious, testifying to the value of life; our sorrow for family and friends testifies to our devotion. (45-46)

Confronted with death we should see that meaning is found in what we have done, and what we have created—meaning can’t be imposed on us from the outside. Darwin was thus content, for “Darwin on his deathbed could look back on forty-three years of devotion to a loving wife, forty-five years of devotion to a grand idea … He had made his commitments and he had kept them.” (46-47)

If the meaning of life is simply the fabric of our whole existence, then no wonder our brief careers seem so illogically precious to us, so worth clinging to. Self-preservation … it’s always there, the fundamental imperative of life: survival. Preachers may sneer at this, but notice: they continue to pass the collection plate. (47)

To understand morality we begin with self-preservation. However, we soon find that in order to survive we must extend the sphere of our moral concerns beyond self to family, tribe, nation, and to the planet itself. Fortunately, cooperation is in our DNA. Darwin knew that “our social behavior might be to some extent inherited.” (49) He knew that our social instincts contain tendencies to be both selfish and altruistic.

“Once our species evolved to social consciousness and communal morality, people naturally began to express their social approval with praise, and to enforce their disapproval with contempt, anger, and ostracism.” (50) Long before religion codified morality, secular communities enforced it. Then we invented God, “thousands of years after evolution had developed our social instincts, religion co-opted our socially evolved good impulses and encumbered them with myriad disparate, controversial, and contradictory gods, priesthoods, scriptures, myths, and dogmas.” (51)

Still many are motivated by their more base instincts. Religion tries to deal with this problem with eternal reward or punishment.

But neither of these sanctions has ever worked very well, which is why (among other things) totally immersed Southern Baptists always performed the lynchings for the Ku Klux Klan; why nice Catholic boys have always run the Mafia; why a devout Jew murdered his peace-loving prime minister; and why, in a notorious American election, pious white churchgoing Christians voted two to one for a declared Nazi. (52)

The problem isn’t that people don’t know about right and wrong, but that they don’t care about it. How can people be taught to care? By social and political leaders? We know that survival depends ultimately on cooperation, but powerful politicians, financiers, and business people are among the most selfish people in society. Appleman’s sarcasm is caustic. The ruling class is strong, they “… all have enough strength to bear the misfortune of others.” (54-55)

For morals we might look instead to science:

… science strictly speaking has no ethics … But our ethics … can hardly emerge from a vacuum … Scientific knowledge has at the bare minimum a selective ethical function, identifying false issues that we can reasonably ignore: imagined astrological influence on our moral decisions, for instance. Science offers us the opportunity of basing our ethical choices on factual data … rather than on misconceptions or superstitions … (55)

Of course we can misuse scientific knowledge, but generally the growth of science corresponds to the social progress. Moreover the scientific mind discovered that we are one species on one planet, connected to other living things on whom our own survival depends. We should replace the arrogant claim that humans have dominion over the earth with a recognition that we can’t survive without the ecosystem.

The idea of the connection between all living things is particularly aroused by evolutionary biology. From this connection can spring a new ethics. As Darwin put it:

The moral faculties are generally and justly esteemed as of higher value than the intellectual powers. But we should bear in mind that the activity of the mind … is one of the fundamental though secondary bases of conscience. This affords the strongest argument for educating and stimulating in all possible ways the intellectual faculties of every human being. (60)

Appleman contrasts this intellectual outlook with the religious one. Religions often look at the evil in the world as acts of the gods or signs of the end of the world. (Think of those today who claim their god will take care of climate change.) Darwin understood such people: “To those who fully admit the immortality of the human soul, the destruction of our world will not appear so dreadful.” (61)

Today we live in a world where people are comforted by “sensational crime, sporting events, the sexual behavior of celebrities, and religious escapism. Nourished on such pap, many people find themselves lost in the labyrinth of neurosis and succumbing to easy answers and seductive promises: the priests need not soon fear for their jobs.” (61-62) Most people won’t be converted to rigorous thought, but Appleman believes there is value in speaking out.

Every small light in the pervading darkness, from Giordano Bruno and Galileo to Thomas Paine and Charles Darwin to Margaret Sanger and Elizabeth Cady Stanton is valuable and necessary. Like characters in a perpetual Chekhov drama, we can imagine a more enlightened future age looking back on our time with distaste and incredulity but nevertheless acknowledging those voices in our wilderness who kept the Enlightenment alive until humanity in general became worthy of it. (62)

Moreover the entire history of the law, Appleman says, records our transition from barbaric religious punishment and religious sanctioned slavery to a more humane secular law. The basis of morality is a social contract. However, if some don’t benefit from the contract, they will resent the current order. In the long run they will not be satisfied with the claim that all will be well in heaven. “What is required is a secular solution, which works the other way around: Improve the society and most people will behave better.” (Look at the Scandinavian countries.)

In the past slavery was defended by “conservatives, slave-owners, and most religions.” We look back with horror, as our future our descendents will at the way we treat blacks, women, and other minorities.

Humane and liberal societies gradually come to a more sensitized understanding of the plight of the less fortunate and devise sensible ways of assisting them; the underclass then feels less trapped, becomes less confrontational, and is less motivated to break the social contract. Good laws and good customs precede good behavior. (67)

In short, morality is in everyone’s self-interest. A more moral society would encourage people to reflect about their own lives, to learn about the world, to reject superstition and assess human problems with reason and compassion.

Free from the racking fear of deprivation and from the labyrinth of brutal religious animosities, free from holy nonsense and pious bigotry, living in a climate of openness, tolerance, and free inquiry, people would be able to create meaning and value in their lives: in the joy of learning, the joy of helping others, the joy of good health and physical activity and sensual pleasure, the joy of honest labor; in the richness of art and music and literature and the adventures of the free mind; and in the joys of nature and wildlife and landscape—in short, in the ephemeral but genuine joy of the human experience.

That joy does not depend upon mysticism or dogma or priestly admonition. It is the joy of human life, here and now, unblemished by the dark shadow of whimsical forces in the sky. Charles Darwin’s example, both in his work and in his life, help us to understand that that is the only “heaven” we will ever know. And it is the only one we need. (68-69)


That humans created religion is self-evident. I suppose that doesn’t falsify all of its claims, but it certainly sheds doubt on them. Generally religion is a horrible thing, the cause of an untold amount of suffering. Still, contra Appleman, I admit to having known some good religious persons, although on the whole I have found them morally and intellectually inferior to non-believers. That has been my experience, no doubt others have had theirs. But I’m amazed by how many truly horrific believers that I’ve known.

The question of creating meaning is one I’ve address at length in my recent book. Suffice it to say that I think subjective meaning is a part of, but not all of, the answer to the question of life’s meaning. If it were all of the answer, then one who enjoys torturing children could be said to have a meaningful life. The question of our attitude toward death is one of the most vexing I have ever faced. I don’t know if I should accept it, rage against it, or get a cryonics policy. But I do believe that death should be optional.

Morality is a biological phenomenon, and there is no morality without a knowledge of human nature. Biology is the science which tells us about human nature. Law too is a human invention, and we are better off distancing ourselves from religious moralities. (Having said that, the penal system in the United States is extraordinarily barbaric. It will stain the historical view of this country for generations.) Finally abandoning religion and other superstition is a first step to making a better world.

I thank Professor Appleman for his beautifully written and passionate prose.

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