You, as an individual, do not exist. At least, not in the way you thought you did. You are not, in the first instance, an independent being who, from that point, enters into relationships with others. Before there was any “you” with which others could relate, there was always first you-in-relationship, and it was out of those relationships that “you” emerged. Whether you like it or not, you are inseparable from others. You cannot, nor indeed can any human being, be known outside of the relationships that continuously give shape to you.
You are what Arthur Koestler calls a “holon”. That is, a being complete by yourself, but who is simultaneously a constituent part of a larger systemic whole. Like a cog or a spring in a watch: any attempt to understand “you” as apart from that whole is – at best – incomplete. The problem we have in the post-modern Western world is that we have inherited a belief that we are individuals, independent of humanity, and as a result our language is inadequate for wrestling with our interdividuality. The word “person” conveys an understanding of selfhood that is entirely too fixed, too separate, too self-contained. The consequences of this inadequate lexicon for framing selfhood spill over into our experiential reality: what we believe about the world and our place in it informs how we act in the world.
Of course, we try to deny the alterity of the self – the fact that we are wholly dependent on others for our becoming. In fact, this denial of the foundational influence of others on who we are – which Freud touches on with his famous (and misunderstood) theory of the Oedipal complex – is integral to our development of a sense of self. It is precisely in the act of expelling the model that we “find” our selves. But however much we deny it, the fact remains that there is no independent psychological “you”; there is only a complex and unique composite of the relationships that have formed you.
This one truth – that psychological facts do not pertain in the first instance to what happens within holons, but rather to what happens between holons, which then influences what happens within them – is a refutation of pretty much all religious activity. Now when I use the term “religious activity”, I am not only referring to devotion to a god. I include our justice systems, all forms of patriotism and all world cultures. I will guarantee that whether or not you believe in a deity, you are involved in a religious system. And that is simply because it is religious activity that structures human social organisation. Religious activity allows us to live in large groups.
Thus religious activity serves a functional, not a spiritual purpose. Its primary aim is to preserve social cohesion, to hold at bay the destructive cycle of reciprocal violence that stems from the rivalry which is the inevitable by-product of the mimetic desires by which the self is formed, and which threatens to unravel the fragile social contracts that allow us to live together.
It achieves this through the generation of prohibitions and taboos that manage our interactions with anything that might generate mimetic rivalry. Then it controls the violence that stems from that mimetic rivalry (the prohibitions cannot prevent it altogether, only limit it) by providing the scapegoat, the expulsion of which has a pacific effect on the group. The engine that drives religious systems is sacrifice. But the scapegoating only works if the collective fails to recognise that it is participating in scapegoating, and so we have evolved rituals and mythologies that hide us from the true nature of our sacrifices. In short, we are persuaded that our victims are in some way unique, different from us, worthy sacrifices. Whether demonised or deified, the sacrifice derives its validity from the distinctiveness of the victim: the victim cannot be just like us. And we have become tremendously skilled in constructing elaborate myths about why they are not.
And so whether we discriminate on the basis of race or gender or economic status or culture or accent or political affiliation or even which football team is preferred, we scapegoat. We construct reasons to justify the expulsion of our scapegoats, based on the ways they deviate from the acceptable “us”, and in so doing we maintain social cohesion. But it is a fragile peace, because it only works as long as we can convince ourselves either that there are no victims or that the victim’s plight is justified.
But we cannot hide our victims anymore. All over the world, in the last century or so, this has become apparent. We have seen the suffragette movement, the #Metoo campaign, Black lives matter, Pride Festivals, decolonisation discussions, Marxism and socialism, the questioning of corporal punishment and initiation in schools, I could go on. It is abundantly clear that our systems are unjust, birthed in blood and suffering. We see that now. And we have had enough.
But seeing the victims is not enough. To escape the tyranny of our religious systems we need also to see through the lie upon which the whole terrible edifice is built: that of the distinctiveness of the victim. And until we can recognise that we are interdividual and not individual; until we comprehend that we cannot understand our victims apart from understanding ourselves; until we accept that because we are shaped by the desires of those around us, even as we shape their desires, we cannot judge another without judging ourselves –we will always revert to our default setting, which is to generate peace by sacrificing a scapegoat. Only now, the former victims will perform the sacrifice.
And that is why, as we venture down what may be – for many of you – quite alien theological territory in the coming months, it is important that we start by acknowledging a simple truth: you, as an individual, do not exist. At least, not in the way you thought you did. You are not, in the first instance, an independent being who, from that point, enters into relationships with others. Before there was any “you” with which others could relate, there was always first you-in-relationship, and it was out of those relationships that “you” emerged. Whether you like it or not, you are inseparable from others. You cannot, nor indeed can any human being, be known outside of the relationships that continuously give shape to you.