turning point humanism
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A Turning Point in Time: The move into the ego

A turning point is emerging for the meaning of religions and humanism.

Islamic Times – For generations, man derived his position and the meaning of his existence from divine revelation or a cosmic plan. Deep down, the natural experience of reality revolved around metaphysical certainties. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, in the 19th century, summed up the modern move towards a new spiritual order in one short sentence: God is dead.

The thinker was aware of the consequences of the human assumption of power: in future, truths would be created that were subject solely to the laws of the will to power. He thus anticipated the possibility of establishing new ideologies and doctrines of salvation. In the 21st century, Nietzsche is still considered topical, perhaps also because the process of secularisation has not really been completed to this day.

Foto von Erik Shafiev

A turning point in time for organised religion

Evidence of this can be seen in the state of organised Christianity. In 2022, a total of around 520,000 people left the Catholic Church – more than ever before in the history of the Federal Republic. A comparison with the previous year shows an increase of almost 45 percent within just one year. “We are in a process of secularisation,” commented a church representative on the trend.

The fact is, the institution of the church, which claims to determine sovereignty in the interpretation of religion, has massively lost influence in recent decades. It is not faith per se that is declining, rather the binding power of denominations. But make no mistake, Christian metaphysics, and moral concepts, up to and including the idea of world domination, continue to shape the lives of millions of people.

The psychotherapist Malte Nelles establishes a connection with the history of Christianity in his analysis of the mass spread of mental illnesses, such as depression: “The logic in the collective mind that I perceive lies in continuing Nietzsche’s diagnosis of some 150 years’ standing: God is not dead, but has moved into the human ego.”

The challenge of proposing the resolution of numerous crises demands something almost superhuman of the believer. “Since the once divine creative power now lies within me,” Nelles writes, “I am logically responsible for what happens.”

The therapist detects psychological abnormalities not only from episodes in childhood, traumas, or the human sexual predisposition, but also from the inherited culture that shapes us all, consciously and unconsciously. The new individual is permanently under pressure to constantly recreate himself and to meet his absolute demands: the longing for fulfilment, happiness, or prosperity.

The philosopher Byung Chul-Han explains the connection with typical, mental illnesses of our time: “The depressive person is (…) the one who is exhausted by his sovereignty, who therefore no longer has the strength to be the master of himself. He is tired of the constant demand for initiative (…).”

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The move into the ego was a deception

In his psychotherapeutic practice, Nelles advises his patients not to try to solve or get over everything that has gone wrong in their own lives and in the world. That would be a task for gods, not for humans. He advises people to realize that the move into the ego was a deception and the entry of numerous neuroses into one’s own existence the price.

At its core, the therapy attempts a logical expulsion of the old gods and reminds us that fate is unattainable and beyond human control. “Cognition is the sinking of the ego into its new truth,” Nelles quotes his mentor Wolfgang Griegerich.

In this context, it is worth reflecting on whether an unhealthy self-centredness has also long since entered Muslim practice. The maxim of spiritual self-optimisation and the turning away from a path of being based on community cannot be overlooked.

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Pseudo-religious identity politics

One’s own identity is increasingly determined by the feeling of being discriminated against, observed, or even persecuted. There is certainly evidence of this, if one thinks of everyday racism, for example. However, according to this logic, one’s own spiritual life is influenced by others and less by the actual addressee of one’s supplications: the Creator.

Authors like Philip Rieff interpreted the new emphasis on identity politics that characterises our debates as being part of a pseudo-religiousness in an irreligious age. Michel Foucault, in a 1982 interview, reminds us of the danger of giving too much weight to one’s own self-definition: “Our self-relations must not be those of identity, but of differentiation, recreation and innovation. To be always the same is really boring.”

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Depression and nihilism

In the collective, community sense, the cultural counterpart to the nothingness of depression is nihilism. The historian Yuval Noah Harari answers the old question of “where do we come from and where are we going to” on a meta-level in his book Homo Deus. In doing so, he initially argues similarly to Malte Nelles. Already in ancient Greece, the philosopher and epic poet declared that the worship of gods was a waste of time, that there was no life beyond death and that the only purpose of existence was happiness.

Harari starts here and prophesies that humanism in the 21st century will primarily strive for immortality, spirituality and omnipotence and that people will try to mutate into gods themselves. The real revolution of modernity was not to doubt the existence of the Creator, but to place hope in humanity.

It is not politics or economics that decides the future of civilisation, but technology. In the historian’s view, the upgrade of humans to gods is emerging in three ways: through biotechnology, through cyborg technology and through the creation of non-organic living beings.

The old ideas about power that have shaped us up to now are becoming quite shaky in the process. What is to be done when algorithms influence, anticipate or even replace human will? The consequences of these new possibilities of a technological world are dramatic. One of them, in Harari’s view, is that the pact between science and humanism is dissolving and being replaced by another arrangement, the interplay of research and a post-humanist doctrine of faith.

The new techno-religions are radically changing life. Dataism worships neither gods nor humans – it pays homage to data. With the help of genetic engineering, nanotechnology and interfaces between brain and computers, the vision of the superman that fascinated Nietzsche is undergoing a different interpretation.

Technology displaces humanism

Humanism, which has displaced God from the centre of the world, is ironically itself being challenged by the new techno-disciples. Their argument, Harari sums up as follows: “Yes, God is a product of human imagination, but human imagination is itself the product of biochemical algorithms.” The idea that humans are masters in their own house and make sovereign decisions is challenged by recent brain research findings.

In contrast, the data collectors’ fantasies of omnipotence are coming to light. One thing is certain: The technological revolution cannot be stopped. It will be difficult to keep up with these rapid developments and a look at the labour market of the future, where robots and artificial intelligence are all-pervasive, indicates drastic changes.

The fact is, in the modern world, the masses of the lonely and depressed are being augmented with persons who are useless for the economic system. In the 21st century, we can witness the emergence of a non-working class. The impact of this new challenge on political and social systems cannot be foreseen.

Photo: Zaytuna College

What can Muslims contribute?

Harari does not trust monotheistic worldviews to play an important role in solving major questions about the future: “Islamic fundamentalists can repeat mantra-like that Islam is the answer, but religions that lose touch with technological realities of the present lose their ability to even understand the questions that are being asked.”

It is true that religious voices are rarely heard on the issues raised here – which revolve around technology and society. What is certain is that for the absolute majority of Muslims, the idea of pushing back the wheel of time is not an option.

Likewise, our belief in a humane future will not depend solely on the logic of complicated mathematical models. It will show whether Islamic practice offers something of benefit for thinking contemporaries who see themselves threatened by an overpowering technology.

One’s own destiny, one’s obligations to community and Creator are addressed in Islam in terms of balance.

On the socio-economic level, institutions such as the guilds, the marketplaces or economic law which affirms property but limits the power of capital, seem quite sustainable; and those who are concerned with the meaning and significance of existence will find decisive answers in the Book of Revelation.

At the centre of Muslim existence is not the worship of one’s own personality or the idolisation of technology, but the praise of the Creator and His creations.

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