Over the past month or so I’ve been reading Peter Watson’s The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God (2014). I’ve almost finished it. If you are a believer in any sense of the term and you pick up this book, expect to find it somewhat depressing, but Watson is mostly reliable in his account of how mainstream thinking has developed over the past couple of centuries in many areas from the sciences to the arts and the humanities, including professional philosophy. Not that I believe his is the final word on his subject matter. I’ve read two of his previous books: The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century (2000) and Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention from Fire to Freud (2005). The former gives a rousing account of the rise of energy technology, but without once mentioning Nikola Tesla (not even in an endnote). The latter treads close to the idea that Jesus Christ never really existed, much less died on a cross and was supernaturally resurrected. This will give you an idea of what to expect. While this is not a review of Watson’s books, even if you find these ideas repellent Watson’s books should be read if a reliable account of mainstream thought matters to you. If you reject mainstream thought, it is important to have an account of what you are rejecting, as well as why.
Two paragraphs early in the final chapter of The Age of Atheists leaped out at me when I read them. Watson writes: “We need to remind ourselves one last time that many people—and perhaps the quieter souls among us—see no problem in God being dead. For them his death is no source of anxiety or perplexity. Such individuals may call into question Robert Musil’s claim that even people who scoff at metaphysics feel a strange cosmic presence, or Thomas Nagel’s comment that we all have a sense of looking down on ourselves as if from a great height. But such individuals are not ‘metaphysical types’ and seek no ‘deep’ meaning in existence. They just get on with their lives, making ends meet, living from day to day and season to season, enjoying themselves where they can, untroubled by matters that so perplex their neighbors. They have no great expectations that ‘big’ questions will ever be settled, so devote no time to their elucidation. In some ways, they are the most secular people of all and perhaps the most content.
“Countless others live in circumstances so meager, so minimal, so fraught with everyday material difficulties that there is no time for reflection, circumstances where such an activity is beyond their means. By such people’s standards a concern with meaning, a preoccupation with the difference between how to live a good life and how to live well, is something of a luxury, itself the achievement of a certain kind of civilization. We must accept that the search for meaning is, by this account, a privilege” (pp. 532-33).
About this, Watson is entirely correct. There are people so busy struggling to make ends meet that they don’t have either the time or the energy to pursue philosophical problems or think about their relationship, if any, to a “higher power.” But even among those who have a bit more leisure, those of us fortunate enough to have been born into relatively advanced civilizations, it is clear that the majority, even though they have the time, do not have the interest or the inclination. They may be believers, and if so, they believe because their parents and peers believed, and it never occurred to them to believe otherwise. These are the people who will look out over the Pacific Ocean from hotel balconies at a beautiful sunset and see God, or wonder how such things could be if there were no God. It is not that they would react against a scientific explanation of the sight or the colors. Such an explanation would go in one ear and out the other. They have no interest in it. Or such folks may be unbelievers. Perhaps they were never exposed to church when they were children. Or they just don’t see the relevance of belief in a God to anything in their lives, or anything in this world. A few such people may have a sense of evil, via suffering they have experienced personally or seen others experience, or perhaps they’ve read about the Holocaust or Stalin’s purges, and respond with the idea that anyone who believes there’s a God in charge of this mess has rocks in his head. Then they don’t give the matter further thought.
I am reminded of a curious essay I encountered online a number of years ago: “Slavery and the Eight Veils” by someone named Don Harkins who edited a publication called The Idaho Observer before he passed away a number of years ago. I know nothing of Harkins or his credentials and little of his publication, nor whether the ideas in his essay are original with him or if he borrowed them from an earlier unreferenced source. But the essay stood out in my mind enough that I eventually penned a piece of my own, “Piercing the Veils” which looked at Harkins’s ideas and made some changes in them. The basic theme still seems sound to me, and would explain Watkins’s account of how so many people simply accept the “death of God” in secular civilization, if indeed they give the matter more than passing thought; or why other people believe, also without giving the matter much thought despite having the leisure to do so.
Consider this scenario for a civilization at any level of advancement: 90% of its people live out their lives with no serious or concerted interest in anything beyond what it takes to make ends meet and (as Harkins puts it) keep their lives together. In less advanced civilizations, of course, the percentage may be higher. In ours, it may be slightly lower. They live their lives behind the First Veil, and we may call them First Veilers.
The other 10% penetrate the First Veil. They take an interest in those matters affecting their community, or nation, that may not affect them directly and personally, such as politics. They have a position on the issues of their time, and may be able to defend it reasonably. They will trust and support their leaders, up to the point of going to war with a foreign nation if their leaders say war is justified. But 90% of this group never go further, because they live their lives behind the Second Veil, we will call it, and we may call them Second Veilers. Ten percent of this group penetrate the Second Veil and discover the cycles of history, the rise of civilizations, the influence of documents important in history such as the Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution, and others. They will use such documents as a means of evaluating their leaders rather than just following them. But Third Veilers remain trapped behind the Third Veil.
What happens to that 10% who penetrates the Third Veil? They may have suspected earlier that, e.g., the drift of the U.S. away from Constitutional government wasn’t a mere accident, and wasn’t simply a necessary adjustment to the supposed failures and excesses of laissez faire capitalism. This 10% postulates, in different ways, the following idea: behind a number of semi-secret organizations (semi-secret here means that they neither seek nor dwell in the limelight, doing work which manages to be massively influential without publicity of any kind) is a number of very wealthy and very powerful extended families who, via ownership or co-ownership of banks or other corporations able to influence politicians and trends with money, shape economies and world events, in effect taking history in specific directions. Fourth Veilers who perceive this, often through laborious studies conducted on their own or with like-minded others, are simply dismissed by Second and Third Veilers as “conspiracy theorists,” a phrase with a specific origin (I won’t get into that here). But Fourth Veilers will often note how those behind the Second and Third Veils see First Veilers as little better than cannon fodder, to be sent (along with their children) off to fight in the wars they have caused. Ninety percent of those who penetrate the Third Veil to find themselves in this “brave new world” will remain trapped behind the Fourth Veil. For the other 10%, things begin to get very interesting — and possibly relevant to our remarks on Watson’s paragraphs. The people he describes who are untroubled by unbelief, and those I described who believe without mental struggle or perplexity (and don’t much care whether you agree with them or not), are First Veilers. Many of the intellectuals, artists, and others Watson describes are Second or Third Veilers. Philosophers such as John Dewey, Jürgen Habermas, and Richard Rorty are unquestionably Third Veilers whose take on the human condition is circumscribed by language and its limitations instead of politics, as well as by contemporary academic culture.
Many Fourth Veilers look at the present scene and conclude that the situation is hopeless. They have the global elites — the wealthiest, most powerful, and influential extended families — on pedestals. What can we do?
For the 10% who penetrate the Fourth Veil, I hypothesize in my essay, the materialism subscribed to by Third Veilers and by many Fourth Veilers is shortsighted, for this world really is the scene of a titanic struggle between godly forces and satanic forces. For the 10% who penetrate the Fourth Veil, the supernatural is real! God is in charge! He has revealed to us what He wants us to know! How does this 10% know this? They would not say they are simply reading it out of the Bible. They would say God is speaking to them through His Word, and in a variety of ways.
Crazy religionists, right? One of the features of those who have penetrated higher veils is the difficulty they have explaining themselves to those behind lower veils, assuming they are inclined. First Veilers who have the time do not have the interest. To Second and Third Veilers, Fourth Veilers are simply nuts, and many won’t hesitate to say so. To many Fourth Veilers — which incidentally would include the global elites themselves — Fifth Veilers are either nuts or simply irrelevant. As Harkin explained it, those behind lower veils can no more see what is behind the higher veils than you or I can see what is behind an opaque curtain.
Assume just for the moment there is something to this “veils scenario,” and it places belief (in God, in the supernatural, etc.) on an entirely different footing. It makes knowledge of the Divine Order (if you will) esoteric in the original sense of that term.
But wait a minute!
Harkin said there were eight veils. This means that those who see things in terms of godly versus satanic forces are Fifth Veilers, still behind the Fifth Veil. It implies — extending our numbers again — that 10% of those whose level of consciousness reached Fifth Veiler status will penetrate the Fifth Veil and become Sixth Veilers, and that 10% of those will see what is behind the Sixth Veil, and so on. Seeing what?
I don’t know, and in a culture still quite influenced by Christianity, whether supportive of it or attempting to reject it specifically (as Nietzsche did when he first proclaimed the “death of God”), those who penetrate the Fifth Veil will have a much harder time explaining what it is they claim to see. Are God and Satan members of some extremely advanced alien race? Are they composite beings? Are they entities we have no means of describing, as we utterly lack the vocabulary and the concepts? Did God create the world as some kind of science project? Or art project? Do such questions even make sense?
Some will say that the entire “veils scenario” collapses into unintelligibility at this point — especially if we insist that there are Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Veils, and something specific behind them. Idle speculation, and nothing more.
I have no idea why Harkin postulated eight veils, and I don’t suppose I ever will. I do not claim to have the final word on any of this. I only note it as interesting, because it is clear that different people do have different levels of perception and cognition. Sometimes these are sufficiently extensive that the metaphor of their inhabiting different worlds is useful. This is self-evident, and explains why many people have no special interest in science, much less philosophical theology. They have no interest in understanding, e.g., the principles behind electricity just so long as their light switches work. It takes a certain level of consciousness to understand why a Søren Kierkegaard struggled with his faith, as opposed to just accepting his salvation based on Church authority. Perhaps, at a higher level of consciousness, faith both is and has to be a struggle. It takes an equivalent level of consciousness to understand why some people take for granted that they have free will and why many philosophers find the idea very perplexing at best and unintelligible at worst.
Might such ideas also explain why there are people who will find the materialist metanarrative lurking behind accounts of the “death of God” unsatisfying? Our culture, especially our academic culture, does not encourage this kind of speculation despite its pretenses to the contrary. For my part, even if we have decided in advance that our pontifications on being behind or penetrating “veils” is only another instance of somewhat clever wordplay, I have to wonder about the potential gains of refusing to be limited by a specific academic culture in a specific civilization at a specific point in its history. I am willing to put forth these and other speculations, in full light of the fact that beyond a certain point this is all that they are, since none of us has any way of knowing in advance whose speculations will eventually bear fruit, or what that fruit may look like.