Tim Lott: What do we really believe?

Motive & Meaning
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I suspect that in destroying themselves and the innocents around them, each of the young men were not driven by any crazed bloodlust or need for revenge for transgressions in Iraq. They were driven by what in their terms would be a need for virtue, a need to send a fireball of meaning into the uncomprehending world. The meaning said this: my life is not futile and my death is not final. This carnage has a higher purpose than anything the barren ceremonies of the West can offer me with its expensive gewgaws, watered-down religions, trips to the leisure centre and celebrities.

This is a terrifying reality, that these bombers want nothing in return for their lives other than what they perceive to be the virtue of martyrdom. But as usual in incidents where it is suspected that al-Qa'ida is involved, no demands were made. The point was to kill non-believers and thus gain not only a place in heaven, but also a paradoxical assertion at the exact point of detonation of the absolute reality and significance of their own lives.

This is not specifically a criticism of Islam or even fundamentalist Islam. In fact there is something weirdly admirable in the fundamentalist Islamist, however maniacal, compared, say, with his wishy-washy, half-baked Anglican counterpart. Because the real difference between a fundamentalist Muslim and a moderate Christian (or a moderate Muslim for that matter) is surely that they really, really do believe. They don't use their religious custom as social glue, or conventional ritual, or a way of fitting in. They talk the deadly talk and they walk the deadly walk.

The difference between a fundamentalist and a moderate is that the fundamentalist is not playing games, at least not games that he is conscious of. In fact, "I'm not playing games" is one of the meanings that the bombings expressed. This is another way of saying, "I am the hero of my own life. I have the courage of my terrible convictions. I will not flinch in fulfilling my bloody destiny."

Again, this is not suggesting that Islam is "mad". It is no more mad than Christianity, where we have a whole raft of leaders and politicians who seem quite happy to believe that 2,000 years ago a man performed miracles and then died to rise again. The only difference being that, I suspect, most Christians in the UK do not really, really believe it. They just say they do, even to themselves, whistling in what they secretly recognise to be the dark. Christian faith is dying in the West, and in Britain it is nearly dead (deduct all the people who are trying to get their kids into the local school and it looks even more moribund).

In the meantime, man's desperate thirst for meaning and heroism continues. What can we offer? A few drinks down the pub, some nice glittering objects, sex, a bit of entertainment, a safe refuge for family and friends, a reasonably rich and stable society. Surely that is enough?

Sometimes, but not for anyone with a spiritual imagination (and that may be most of us). Many of us get by, happy enough to await our eventual extinction through old age or disease, distracting ourselves with toys and work, bringing up our kids till they push us aside and into the grave. Others find a gigantic and growing void in the place where meaning should be, a place they fill with endless millions of prescriptions of Prozac, binge-drinking, self-harm, crack cocaine and reality TV.

The bombers are lying to themselves, just as we are, but they are doing it in a more committed, one might even say, more honest way. This is their way of saying life is not a joke and death is not a rumour. This, the life we are living, is real, and deadly, beautiful and terrifying. We must burn away the illusion, they say. In their case, it is simply, tragically, to reveal another illusion.

But is there anything but illusion, any truth about the world that could give the atomised, lost century a meaning powerful enough to act as a buffer and a prophylactic against suicide bombers? Are there truths worth living for beyond family, finance and fun? Because if there aren't, make no mistake, more bombers will come, and will succeed.

I believe that meaning is there - in the sacredness of life itself, in the deep mysteries of science, in the magic of collective storytelling, in the cage of time and space we all have to share. But we lack the language to express it, at least collectively. We need to find one, and we will find one, but it will take not years, but generations.

The American academic Sam Harris concludes his brilliant book The End of Faith by saying that the way forward for the West lies in "religions of non-religion", world humanist philosophies such as Buddhism and Taoism. These schemes of thought have also been hijacked by the religious, but at their root they do not talk about God, but man. They are rational, have no dogmas, are beautiful and if not "true" then at least not demonstrably absurd to the modern, sceptical mind. Mysticism, Harris adds, is a rational enterprise. Religion is not.

He's right, and fundamentally, vitally, globally right. We need mysticism. We need "faith" (I could spend another article defining what I mean by that). But we have to outgrow the infantilism of our religions, both traditional (primarily Judaeo-Christian and Islamist) and modern (consumerism, individualism, desiccated rationalism).

There is a life of the mind. There is a scientific basis that combats, even destroys, the deadening modern myth of materialism. Quantum physics reveals us to be ghosts flicking in and out of existence, each locked in a private box of relative time and space. There is no "material", no stuff. We are patterns of energy, in a timeless now, forged in the stars, our ancestors fish and sea and gas and space, the void itself.

Our lives do have meaning. Our deaths do not negate it, but affirm it. Existence is mysterious, even magical. And you do not have to be religious to believe it. Only intelligent. Only imaginative. Only human.

But until the religion virus disappears for ever, we will never, never apprehend what the truth is about the illusion that the bombers were pursuing - so lost are we in our own myths, lies and evasions, in our pointless flight from and our relentless denial of the terrors and beauties of both life and death and existence itself.

Tim Lott's latest novel is 'The Seymour Tapes', published by Penguin