The important conceptual distinction between “meaning” and “belief”

At the heart of the strategy that I propose for replacing esoteric religion with non-esoteric religion lies a crucial conceptual distinction:  the distinction between “meaning” and “belief.”  A “belief” can be thought of as a certain type of “meaning”:  one that a person has accepted for him- or herself as “good” or “meritorious” or “worthy.”  Placing emphasis on this conceptual distinction helps us to imagine a society—unlike the society we now have—in which most of its members who spoke the same language could be expected to assign roughly the same meanings to any given assertive communication of a religious nature—without those people also being required to accept those particular meanings as “good” or “meritorious” or “worthy” for themselves.

In other words, I believe it is possible to imagine a society in which the meanings conveyed by assertive communications of a religious nature would be more or less shared in common by everyone, and in which the commonly and generally agreed-upon determination of meaning would always precede belief in, or agreement with, the meaning that was being asserted.  It would only be after the meaning had been determined with reasonable certainty by society as a whole that it would be considered permissible for the various members of the society to “go their separate ways” in deciding whether or not to accept that meaning as a personal belief.  So it would not be considered permissible for a person to say, “This writing means such-and-such to me, which is why I believe it,” even if the writing did not have roughly that same meaning in the view of most of the other members of the person’s society.  It would also not be considered permissible for a person to say, as esoteric religionists often do, that it is necessary to “believe in” or “have faith in” a religious scripture before it will be possible to determine its meaning with reasonable accuracy.

This would represent a definite departure from the way things currently work with the existing, traditional, esoteric religions.  According to the thinking of esoteric religionists, the particular esoteric writings that they happen to regard as “holy” or “sacred” should always be interpreted in a way that makes the writings “good” or “meritorious” or “worthy” in their own individual minds.  In other words, with an esoteric religion, the reader’s personal belief or wish precedes the determination of the author’s meaning—which is exactly the reverse of how a sane person ought to be thinking.

The mentality found among esoteric religionists is thus essentially the mentality of a spoiled child:  “I wish this writing to mean such-and-such; and so it should mean such-and-such; and so it does mean such-and-such.”  The upshot is that the reader’s own personal desire comes before the meaning that the author actually intended—that is, personally desired—to convey.  So the reader’s desires are always made paramount; and the meaning of an author’s communication is made to conform to the reader’s own idiosyncratic ways of thinking, instead of being allowed to confront the reader on the author’s terms.  The result is that genuine communication between persons is not able to occur.[1]

It is for this reason that I believe that traditional, esoteric religions tend to promote self-absorbed and self-involved habits of thinking in society generally, and train people not to listen to what others are actually trying to say to them.  The esoteric type of religion habituates people to focus their attention not on ascertaining other people’s actual intended meanings, but merely on what they wish other people had meant to say when they expressed themselves.[2]

In a society in which people were keenly focused on ascertaining each other’s intended meanings, disagreements would be brought out into the open, where they could be rationally dealt with.  The open articulation and clarification of disagreements would give rise to a society that was less conflict-ridden, not more so; and this would be the somewhat ironic result of its being a society that was not so desperately conflict-avoidant with respect to rational argumentation.

Such a society would also be a kinder and more compassionate society, because it would be a society in which people would become more accustomed to taking the existence of other people seriously, in their full personhood.  They would be more willing to be challenged by what other people had to say, instead of pretending that other people were agreeing with them when in fact they were not (such as by the use of trite and largely meaningless sayings such as “We all worship the same God,” or by merely invoking the magical name of “Jesus” or “Christian” as a way to try to smooth over any differences of opinion).  Persons would place more emphasis on the precise manner and extent to which they agreed or disagreed with another person, and so would learn to become more comfortable with the fact that there must always be some disagreement between individuals—just as there must also always be some agreement.

In addition, the kind of society that I am imagining—one based on honesty and “unity of meaning,” and in which the institution of the “non-esoteric religious community” (i.e., “practical philosophical community”) would play a central role—would be a more responsible society.  That’s because people would have an incentive to be quite clear and precise in their own minds about what exactly it was that they believed, since they would actually expect to live their lives in accordance with the beliefs that they explicitly and publicly professed.  In fact, the whole reason why people would join a “non-esoteric religious community” would be to receive support in living their lives in accordance with their professed beliefs; if they were not interested in receiving that support, there would be no reason for them to join such a community.  People would want to choose their professed beliefs with greater care than they now ordinarily do, because the beliefs that they both genuinely accepted for themselves and publicly professed would determine whether they met with relative success or failure in their personal lives (according to how each person chose to define “success” and “failure”), as well as whether their community as a whole met with relative success or failure.  There would be no place—or rational desire—for “plausible deniability” regarding whether or not a person did in fact hold certain beliefs, since a lack of clarity regarding what a person’s beliefs were would not be beneficial to him:  Even if a person had accepted a harmful or useless belief, he would want to be very clear in his own mind regarding the exact nature of the belief that he had accepted, so that if he eventually came to decide that the belief was indeed a harmful or useless one, he would be able to clearly and decisively reject it as one of his beliefs.

Furthermore, if the professed beliefs of the members of a particular non-esoteric religious community proved in practice to be harmful or useless ones, the beliefs would tend to lose credibility in the eyes of the public—and, so long as the religious community continued to promote those beliefs, the religion would also tend to lose credibility to the extent that those beliefs played an important role in the religion’s overall belief-system.  And that is exactly as it should be:  Unlike what we are often told we “ought” to think, I believe that no religious belief-system—or any belief-system—is entitled to receive the respect of outsiders, if the beliefs that it teaches and promotes result in objectively poor outcomes for its own members.

And so, under this sort of social scheme, both individuals and communities would be encouraged to take greater responsibility for being attentive to the practical effects of their professed beliefs—and would be willing to openly and explicitly make changes to their belief-systems in response to their continuously increasing knowledge of and experience with the practical effects of their professed beliefs.

Traditional religions, however, interfere with this kind of rational evolution grounded in people’s willingness to take responsibility for their mistakes as fallible human beings, and to learn from them.  If a traditional religion makes changes to its belief-system, it usually claims that the new beliefs were already somehow “implicit” in its sacred esoteric scriptures; not often will it acknowledge that the authoritative writings of the religion had, in its collective opinion, simply been mistaken on a particular point, making it possible for the authoritative writings of the religion to be revised.

A non-esoteric religion of the type I have in mind would not be reluctant to state openly and publicly that experience had taught it that it had simply been mistaken in the past with regard to its choice to teach (or not teach) some particular belief; nor would it be reluctant to make modifications to its authoritative writings whenever doing so was deemed to be necessary or advisable (while, at the same time, not losing sight of the value of stability and continuity)—since there would be nothing “sacred,” or “inerrant,” or “infallible” about any non-esoteric religion’s authoritative writings.

The authority that any member of a non-esoteric religious community would be willing to recognize in his own community’s authoritative writings would be a function of their perceived personal usefulness[3]—not their age, or their obscurity, or their poetic charm, or their familiarity, or their incomprehensibility to laymen, or their need to be translated out of ancient languages, or their “richness” in possible meanings.  If a religious community’s authoritative “statement of belief and practice” were perceived by one of its members as not rising to some minimum requisite level of personal usefulness, then the writing would lose all of its authority for that person—which is just another way of saying that he would want to seek out a different non-esoteric religious community that he thought did have a sufficiently useful authoritative statement of belief and practice.  (The word “sufficiently” should be stressed here, since I do not expect that sensible people would have any desire to hop endlessly from community to community in search of the ideal “statement of belief and practice.”)

A key error made by esoteric religions and persons who admire them is in thinking that if an authoritative religious writing is capable of simultaneously conveying a variety of different meanings to a variety of different people, this makes the writing “richer,” or “more profound,” or “better.”  I cannot emphasize enough how fundamentally misguided I consider this way of thinking to be.  At least with regard to an authoritative religious writing, the more meanings that the writing is plausibly capable of conveying, the worse it is, not better.  That’s because the abundance of possible (plausible) meanings makes it difficult for members of the religion to know what it is that their religion claims to believe, and to know how they ought to act or make decisions in a given type of situation; and that makes the religion less useful to the members than it would otherwise be.  It also makes it difficult for people—both members of the religion, and those outside it—to know how to correlate or associate the beliefs of the religion with its actual performance and the actual impact that the beliefs that it helps to promote (even if only implicitly and even inconsistently) are having on the lives of both members and non-members.

For example, on those occasions when Christianity is criticized because of ways in which certain Christians behaved in, say, the Crusades, or the Thirty Years’ War, or the Inquisition, or the colonization of the Americas, a standard response given by modern-day Christians is that these were not “true” or “good” Christians.  And the fact is, there’s really no way to refute this response, because when it is possible for the beliefs of the religion to be “in the eye of the beholder” to as great an extent as they are, so that the beliefs keep changing as the interpretation of the authoritative writing keeps changing—because of variations in how different individuals decide to interpret the writings—then each person gets to decide for himself how to define what a “true” or “good” Christian is; and there is no objective and unvarying means of determining whether or not a particular group of people were or are “true” or “good” Christians.  Or, if interpretation of the Bible is the responsibility of a hierarchical body, as with the Roman Catholic Church, then that body is always free to claim that it is constantly “growing” and “learning more” about all that had already been “implicit” in the “divine revelation” as it was originally given by God, as a way to justify the fact that its interpretations of the “sacred” and therefore unchangeable scriptures keep changing with the passage of time.  And so, in practice, whether the interpreting be done individually or ecclesiastically, the result is that it is impossible for Christianity in general, or other traditional religions, or the esoteric writings on which they are based, to ever lose credibility, or be shown to have been wrong, or be shown to encourage the development of harmful beliefs.[4]

We might instead envision a world in which the authoritative writings of religions, because of their being non-esoteric in nature, would state all of the religions’ beliefs and practices clearly, unambiguously, and relatively explicitly.  For example, a non-esoteric religion might have an explicitly stated belief that no member of the religion should ever ingest caffeine.  Then, it could easily be determined as an objective matter whether or not an individual was a “good” or “true” member of that religion—at least with regard to this belief—by determining whether or not the individual was regularly ingesting caffeine.  At that point, if it were found that the “good” or “true” members of that religion were happier and more successful than the “bad” or “false” members—with regard to this particular belief, as well as others—it would tell us something about the value of the beliefs of the religion; and other members of the general society would then be able to learn from the experiences of the membership of that particular religious community.

Some people might worry that an insistence on everyone sharing roughly the same meanings would give rise to a stultifying uniformity.  On the contrary:  In the specific context of authoritative religious writings, it is unity of meaning that would make it possible for diversity of belief and diversity of practice to sustainably exist in a society, because it is only when unity of meaning exists that it becomes possible for a religious community—as a religious community—to be held responsible for its beliefs and practices.  When the public can confidently expect that certain beliefs will publicly lose credibility if in practice they are shown to be bad ones—and if it is possible for them to be shown to be bad ones—and when the public can also confidently expect that the harm resulting from bad choices will be visited chiefly upon the persons who make the bad choices, then there will be a greater willingness among the public to allow persons to live their lives and educate their children in diverse ways.  In an honest society in which a relatively high degree of “unity of meaning” existed, any harm from social experimentation would be made evident first and foremost in the non-esoteric community doing the experimenting, so that it would be the members of the non-esoteric community who would bear the brunt of the negative consequences of any bad choices that they made—and so they would therefore have the greatest incentive to avoid making those bad choices.

But when it is difficult to associate beliefs with behavior and the consequences of that behavior, because of the fact that people’s actual beliefs have been left unclear or have been disguised, the public appetite for top-down social control is increased, with the result that everyone is free to profess to believe whatever they want about religious and other matters, but only because professed belief is deemed to be irrelevant:  The governing social institutions will just directly control how people behave, paying no heed to what they profess to believe—since it will generally be assumed that people often freely lie, whether to others or themselves, about what it is that they actually believe—or, at least, it will be assumed that most people are in the habit of deliberately remaining vague and unconscious about what it is that they actually believe.  And it is this state of affairs that is now generally accepted as the “normal” one.

Without honesty or “unity of meaning” in a society, it is not possible for members of society to reliably associate the basic realm of publicly professed belief with the basic realm of behavior, or action, or practice.  And it is vitally important that this association be made a reliable one, because it is only in the realm of action or practice that it can be determined whether a belief is a worthy one, because ultimately the only true test of a belief’s worth is its practical usefulness:  that is to say, how effective it is at bringing about success and happiness in the lives of the adherents of that belief.  If—by means of a widely shared societal insistence on the practice of honesty (regardless of any particular person’s belief or lack of belief in the importance of honesty)—we could associate or correlate these two basic realms of “belief” and “practice” or “action” in a reliable way, it then would become possible to view the entire realm of “belief” much more objectively and dispassionately than we now can—which would eliminate much of what fuels the religious and philosophical conflicts and disputes that we currently find.  And so for that reason (as well as others), a thoroughly honest society, in which a large measure of “unity of meaning” existed, would also be a more peaceful and tranquil and a less confusing society.

Esotericist religion essentially glosses over the important conceptual distinction between “meaning” and “belief” by making the tacit assumption that “space” can be created for a person’s individual beliefs if he can find “space” for his own individual, private meanings.  But “space” for one’s beliefs regarding the best ways to live, and think, and learn, and work, and relate to others, and raise one’s children, can only be created in an actual, social space, making it possible for a person to actually live out those beliefs to some extent.  The creation of “space” for a person’s individual, private meanings—what in terms of Bible symbolism might be thought of as his “heaven,” or “inner chamber,” or “holy of holies”—can never provide an adequate substitute for that social space.[5]  The result of a person’s trying to obtain his “freedom of belief” by carving out his own private meanings is only to separate that person from other people, and not to provide the sense of freedom of action that the person is actually hoping to achieve—whether he realizes it or not—as the result of obtaining his freedom of belief.  And it is only through participation in non-esoteric religious communities (or whatever one wishes to call an institution of that nature) that I believe people would realistically be able to find any significant measure of both freedom of belief and freedom of action in our modern society.



[1] Ironically, this failure of communication, and lack of genuine interest by the reader in what the authors of the authoritative esoteric writings were really trying to say (even if ineptly), is ultimately caused by the esoteric religions’ insistence that the writings of those very authors be viewed as “sacred”—thus making it impermissible to ever disagree with or think badly of any of the content of the writings.  That implies that, since the authors’ obvious goal in writing at all was to successfully convey their intended meanings to an audience, no one would have wanted the “sacred” or “inerrant” label to be removed from the authoritative writings of the traditional religions more than the authors of those writings themselves, in order that the authors’ true intended meanings could actually be received and understood by readers—even if that meant that some readers might end up disagreeing with some of those meanings.

This highly paradoxical situation may help to explain why authors writing in an esotericist milieu—such as the authors of the Bible—have been so consistently preoccupied with the notion that their true intended meanings were being “bound,” or that they had difficulty finding an “opening” for their true intended meanings:  Perhaps the real problem was that because the esotericist authors (i.e., “prophets”) were surrounded by other persons of the type attracted to esotericism, nobody was ever really listening to anyone else, or making a genuine attempt to truly understand other persons’ most vital concerns; perhaps everyone was to some extent just extracting whatever they personally found appealing or self-validating in each other’s esoteric communication (or “prophecy”) and ignoring the rest.  If so, that would indicate that, as I also argue in my Against the Lie essay, the esotericist authors (i.e., “prophets”) were somewhat unwittingly helping to perpetuate the very problems to which they were objecting.

I think this particular vicious circle might bear at least some relation to the “schizophrenogenic dynamic” as well—in which case, the failure of the others to really listen to each person in an esotericist-type community (and possibly also in families of a similar type) would, if not create, then at least contribute to the creating of schizophrenic tendencies in the community as a whole, which would be reflected in cryptically “esoteric” or “prophetic” ways of communicating.  And the ubiquity of these ways of communicating would in turn have the effect of habituating each of those persons to not fully listen or pay attention to the other members of the community, since it would often prove to be so difficult to determine what the others’ actual intended meanings were when they communicated.

[2] This may be caused partly by esoteric religionists’ unwillingness to overtly disagree with the beliefs of their ancestors, and to clearly state that they think their ancestors were mistaken to have held certain beliefs; so the discerning of “hidden meanings” or “implicit meanings” would allow them to pretend to be upholding the traditions of their ancestors even when failing to do so as a matter of fact.

[3] It would be more accurate to say that the authority of the writings would be a function of their perceived personal usefulness to a large extent:  In some cases, it would still be necessary that a certain measure of obedience be expected from the members of a community with regard to practice, even when a member did not happen to personally share one of the community’s stated beliefs on which a particular practice was based.

[4] Incidentally, this suggests that the antiquity and “durability” of the traditional religions and their authoritative esoteric writings may be explained at least as well by the fundamental disingenuousness and evasiveness of the esoteric religious arrangement itself, as by the great amount of “truth” supposedly contained in the esoteric writings—so that the longevity of these religions and the old age of the writings upon which they are based does not necessarily constitute the “bragging point” that their apologists would have people believe.

[5] Cf. Matthew 24:26-27 and Revelation 21:1-3.