Review of Appleman’s: The Labyrinth: God, Darwin, and the Meaning of Life (Part 1)

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 bookThe Labyrinth: God, Darwin, and the Meaning of Life.

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.

(I will continue with Part 2 tomorrow.)

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