Books, Exegesis, Reviews

Syntheism – Creating God in the Internet Age :: Review

Introduction

One of the foundational texts of the Syntheist movement is Alexander Bard and Jan Söderqvist’s book Syntheism: Creating God in the Internet Age.  As the only book with the word Syntheism in the title, Bard and Söderqvist’s work is foundational for the modern syntheism movement as a trailblazing exploration of what it means to be a self-identified syntheist.  Historically the authors of this book are not the first syntheists per se, since syntheistic positions and arguments are not new (though they may not have been called syntheist).  Where this book distinguishes itself is by self-identifying as syntheist and trying to give a theological body to syntheistic beliefs.

Quotes

“The passion for activism is the very foundation of syntheistic ethics” (pg. 38).

“…syntheistic systems assume that all gods are necessary, human constructs; historically determined projections on existence that engender supra-objects that are shaped by and adapted to the social situation” (pg. 41).

“Syntheism’s entire driving force is its offer of a kind of sanctuary and protection against capitalist and consumptive stress, its utopic vision of a new and radically different way of thinking and continuing to exist” (pg. 59).

“The syntheistic mission recieves its eschatological fuel from the approaching ecological apocalypse, which is itself an unavoidable consequence of a world without faith in a relevant divinity” (pg. 60).

“Syntheism should absolutely not be understood as a compromise between theism and atheism – in Hegelian dialectics, a synthesis is something considerably more sophisticated than just a banal coalescence of thesis and antithesis – rather, it is a necessary continuation of theism’s and atheism’s combined dichotomy, the only possible way out of the paralysing deadlock that arises when theism and atheism are pitted against each other.  As the logical synthesis of this pair of opposites (theism versus atheism), syntheism offers a possibility for the atheist to go further and uncompromisingly deepen atheism” (pg. 91).  

“…atheism’s problem is that it inherits the tragic remains that are the leftovers from Abrahamic religion when it retires, but does not succeed in building any independant platform of its own” (pg. 92).

“The syntheist response to rationalism does not entail any flight back to the irrational.  It instead continues dialectically to transrationalism: the idea that reasoning first and foremost must embrace the insight of one’s own built-in limitations in relation to one’s environment” (pg. 128). 

“Atheos is the potentiality, Pantheos is the actuality, Entheos is the transcendence and Syntheos is the virtuality” (pg. 142).  

“Atheos, Pantheos, Entheos, and Syntheos do not recieve their enormous potency as some kind of long-lived giant beings from parallel universes…but as dramatically useful metaphors for the structure of existence” (pg. 145).

“Where classical atheism is merely reactive – always awaiting new theist innovations to attack and thus being dependent on the gods it so eagerly denies – syntheist atheism is active and thereby offers an existential substance which classical atheism lacks” (pg. 153).

“On the whole syntheist onto-epistemology is not well-served by any eternal truths in a Platonist sense; its utopia is imperfect rather than perfect” (pg. 173).  

“Because of Bohr, as early as 1935, it is a given that the physical world’s primary building blocks are not objects, but that the world is instead made up of entanglements: intra-acting, fundamentally plural phenomena, rather than isolated, discrete objects” (pg. 176).

“Thus, there is no need for sacrifice in syntheism, what is demanded is rather the direct opposite of sacrifice: the syntheist rituals about coalescence and entanglement; partly between people, partly between the human being and her environment” (pg. 192).

“The syntheist utopia is thus first and foremost a society where ideas are free and are not owned by anybody, where the memes form memeplexes that wander freely from human to human, from network to network, and are transformed during these movements without being met with any resistance whatsoever anywhere, apart from the lack of attention that sifts out all memetic losers” (pg. 280).  

“It is the network that gives the agent her value in a relationalist society and not the other way around” (pg. 349).

“According to syntheism, self-love is truth as an act above all others.  Love yourself, without involving any emotions whatsoever, because you have no choice.  Just act.  Out of this conscious and logically cogent self-love as truth as an act flows love to everything else that exists in an intensely pulsating, creative Universe” (pg. 385).  

“Therefore by necessity spirituality is a practice rather than a doctrine” (pg. 391).  

“All truths are a kind of myth, but all myths are not equally functional in the recurring confrontation with existence around us” (pg. 424).

“But this balanced state in nature is a myth.  Syntheist ecology therefore begins with the insight that everything in existence, including nature, is process and constant motion…” (pg. 425).  

Syntheism – Creating God in the Internet Age

Summary

The core ideas of the book are the implications of network thinking, and the impending social revolution the internet will spur.  The authors view syntheism as the new metaphysical paradigm that will frame the future.  As such, they have a very holistic definition of what syntheism is, spanning a metaphysical worldview to their personal religious doctrines.  To support their worldview they draw from modern physics, established philosophies, technology, and a take on history that emphasizes information mediums.  There is a prophetic element to the book, obtuse writing intended for academics, and a vaguely ecstatic tone. 

My take on what the authors wish the readers understand can be summed up as: the internet will change the world and syntheism will be the framework by which we make sense of that change.  The book is a theological work.  The authors announce that theology is more fundamental than philosophy in humanity’s hierarchy of truth (pg. 38).  They claim that their work outlines the fundamentals of a new metaphysical paradigm which in turn informs a new philosophical paradigm. 

An fascinating (and revealing) aspect of their theology is what they call the “syntheological pyramid.”  They name four gods which they assert are metaphors for the universe’s structure: Atheos, Pantheos, Entheos, and Syntheos.  Atheos is the void, Pantheos is the cosmos, Entheos is change, Syntheos is emergence.  These four gods compose the syntheological pyramid.

Criticism

An aspect of this book that I appreciate but have difficulty endorsing is the conflation of their philosophical stances and their theological stances.  The authors do this deliberately in the name of defining a new kind of metaphysics.  To this end, they make some engaging arguments about how metaphysical notions about the universe are more fundamental than the scientific study of physics itself and use this reasoning to justify their fluid boundary between their philosophy and theology.  While I enjoy their insights into the foundational nature of metaphysical narratives, I do not see this as a sufficient justification of their conflation of theology and philosophy.  As I outlined in my What is Syntheism? post, the distinction between a syntheistic philosophy and theology is as distinct as between theistic philosophy and Islamic or Christian theology.  This distinction is crucial for the reconciliation between different syntheological myths, and the ability for syntheists to engage compassionately with each other.  

The reason as to why is hinted at in the book itself: “Paganism uses survival as its metaphysical engine, while monotheism’s metaphysical engine is eternity and that of individualism is progress.  Syntheism’s metaphysical engine is the event” (pg. 74), “ [Monotheism’s] law’s external and eternal values are pitted against the internal and arbitrary values of chaos.  And the idea follows on from the principle, which says that the values of metaphysics must be external and eternal in order for the narrative to hang together, that mankind must be offered the possibility of becoming one with the law, that mankind should be able to become external and eternal in relation to the internal, mental limitation and physiological transience that she/he experiences existentially every day of the week.  The idea of eternal life as the reward for the law-abiding citizen for his/her demonstrated fidelity and reliability throughout life is born, and with this essential prerequisite in place, monotheistic metaphysics, which revolves around the idea of eternity, arrives with full force,” (pg. 77).  Syntheism is not in the business of making laws like the dominant monotheistic traditions of the past have been.  Syntheistic ideas tend to lean towards what Bard and Söderqvist call the event, an idea that works very differently from monotheism’s eternity.  In fact, the syntheism which Bard and Söderqvist espouse seems to shun the rigidity of eternity in principle.  But ironically, by defining a particular set of theological tenets in their syntheological pyramid they make the mistake of confining syntheism, the philosophy, within their pyramid, a theology.  Such oversight could encourage their followers to be absolute in their understanding of syntheism and approach other syntheistic traditions as heretical rather than an example of religious diversity.  People like myself, who appreciate Bard and Söderqvist’s pyramid of gods but find them too obtuse and impersonal, cannot fit within the syntheist framework as presented by Bard and Söderqvist.  I feel no desire to contribute my “truth as an act” (pg. 38, 379) (what most people call “faith”) to the author’s pyramid of gods because they have no power to speak to (with, through, and by) me; they were designed that way by the authors.  Does that make me less of a syntheist?  While I don’t believe Bard or Söderqvist would answer “yes”, their syntheology does not say “no” as far as I can tell.  If they had made a clear distinction between the particular tradition they were trying to establish and their philosophy of syntheism as a whole, their book might have inferred a compassionate “no”, but this is not the case.

A clear way to make this distinction is to be a bit more conservative in the use of the word “syntheism”.  Bard and Söderqvist use the word loosely to define the philosophical, social, technological, political, theological, etc. as it pertains to a movement, person, and themselves.  Again, this is intentional.  They clearly want to build a brand new matrix of interdependent ideas that can provide them the framework necessary to build a new metaphysical paradigm.  Their definition of syntheism cannot be summed up in a dictionary, it must be experienced by reading through their book and then allowing the various ideas to coalesce into a simulacrum of the worldview they hold.  There is nothing wrong with this approach.  However, I feel such an approach is better suited for a self-recognizing claim at creating a particular theology rather than defining a new metaphysical paradigm.  If the authors’ form of syntheists engage with me, a Terran, and assert that my theology is wrong because I do not use the syntheological pyramid, it is because they believe the syntheological pyramid is all of syntheism.  

What is fascinating is that the authors put so much effort into defining a body for syntheism as a metaphysical idea, but also put considerable effort into defining their own doctrine in the form of syntheistic gods.  They call syntheism a “metareligion…the religion about and of religion per se” (pg. 90), and yet go through so much trouble to pigeon-hole themselves into a particular doctrine.  The truth is that all religions are “metareligions”, they all claim to explain the others; this is nothing new.  Most religions have cute names for other religions that neatly explain how they fit into the universe, words like blasphemers, heretics, apostates, gentiles, infidels, godless, heathens, damned, devils, possessed, etc.  The authors severely limit themselves by linking their metaphysical ideas so closely with their theological doctrines.  If they wanted to make a “theory of everything” about religion, they should have just stuck with their syntheist metaphysics as an interpretation of history and the zeitgeist.  If they wanted to make a new religion, they should have hunkered down and developed their mythology around the syntheological pyramid, utopia, process rituals, etc.  Instead, they created an uncomfortable mass which can simultaneously be read as a metaphysical paradigm, or as a new religious doctrine; which makes them, fittingly, just like other prophets.

*    *    *    *    *

Something I truly struggled with is their treatment of utopia (which likely means I didn’t understand them). On page 93 they say, “…it is utopia and not the fall of Man in classical religion that needs to be won back.  And winning back the utopia and turning it into an immanent divinity is, with contemporary physics’ revolutionary advances, quite plausible.  Meillassoux’s God, as a synonym for the utopia, is of course syntheism’s Syntheos.”  The authors try to define utopia (God/syntheos) as non-platonic and “imperfect” (pg. 173), which seems paradoxical to me.  But it doesn’t seem to matter, because they then describe what their utopia would look like (pg. 280), defining a platonic ideal, just with extra steps.  They simultaneously use utopia as a necessary theological construct to give people hope and also present it as a theoretically attainable state (much like classical monotheism). This vision is a place where memeplexes (matrices of ideas) flow freely through the internet without hindrance. Sure, their model of utopia includes constant change, but such a model implies a stable metaphysical (their syntheism) and infrastructural (the internet) establishment that ensures such memeplexes are always free (pg. 280), regardless of their content.  It’s almost as if they think the memes they describe are inconsequential.  Imagine if these memeplexes contained a totalitarian ideology (or a hitherto undiscovered form of evil) which could destroy the very establishment that fostered its existence.  In order for this utopia to persist with such a threat, it would have to manipulate this “free” movement of memeplexes in the service of an eternally stable meme ecology that never threatened its own infrastructure.  Sure, it would be meta compared to similar infrastructures of the past, but eternal nonetheless.  It seems to me that if the authors are going to take their own ideas seriously, they need to reject utopia or change it even further.  Perhaps they should shift the idea of change and transience from within utopia to without, and assert that all utopias are achievable, but doomed to collapse.  Instead of saying utopia is ever-changing, perhaps utopias are best viewed as transient.  Or perhaps, we should just move on to a different word.  

I find myself suspicious of utopias since many of the most brutal regimes in history claim to be crafting a utopia.  In order to have a utopia that can support actionable goals, it needs to be defined in some way.  What’s unfortunate is such definitions exclude people.  The Garden of Eden is a classic utopia that excludes the LGBTQ+ community, diverse diets, diverse relationships with animals, and those who need metropolitan lifestyles.  Nazism defined a utopia which made exclusions based on race, disability, and sexual orientation.  Communism defined a utopia which made exclusions based on religion, disability, and whoever was too far to give potatoes to or too close to Stalin.  Every utopia is someone else’s dystopia.  Based on my limited understanding of history, utopias seem more trouble than they’re worth.  My hunch is that the authors were onto the solution to this problem when they talked about process theology.  Perhaps the solution lies in ritual, and engagement with the present.  Are utopias a necessary double-edged sword or can we move past them?  The book touched on this issue but never engaged with it satisfactorily for me since they think utopias are essential.  This has ignited my imagination and has given me a lot to think about.  I’m currently reading The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Tsing and I have a feeling it contains the solution or at least a blueprint for it.  Staying with the Trouble by Donna Haraway also seems promising in this problem and I should spend some time rereading it.

Personal Takeaways

I approached this book as a way to “check my work” so to speak.  I have been engaged with the ideas of syntheism for a few years on my own and figured it was time to see if I had gone off the deep end or remained on a path shared by others.  In that light, this book is encouraging.  I have found ideas that echo mine, while also noticing differences that engage rather than rattle me.  Concepts like “truth as an act”, emergence, “the event”, ecological eschatology, relief from consumerism, pushing back against alienation, and the value of myth are all ideas that have become privately important to me.  It was wonderful to see them articulated by the authors, sometimes with greater insights than I had gained on my own.

Since it appears that the authors were trying to articulate a new metaphysical paradigm I do not consider myself a “follower” of theirs.  In fact, Bard himself is a Zoroastrian, so it doesn’t seem the book was intending to establish a new religious tradition at all.  I remember being initially disappointed (long before I read the book) when I learned Bard’s religious affiliation.  I find his decision odd, considering there are already better syntheistic alternatives like The Satanic Temple in the US, and various neo-pagan and atheist Wiccan covens that are fairly easy to find on the internet.  I find it even more surprising after reading the book since he and Söderqvist defined a new pantheon of gods in their syntheological pyramid.  As I said earlier, by defining syntheism as a “metareligion” they merely set up the beginnings of a normal religion since all religions are meta.  So, from here on out, I’ll refer to the author’s version of syntheism as “Quad” syntheism in reference to their four gods. I realise its an ugly name, but I’ll choose something prettier when they start paying me for marketing.  From how it’s presented in the book, this particular version is a stillbirth since the authors are affiliated with an entirely different religious tradition and their seminal text is not public-friendly.

This book has given me a dense but reliable benchmark to measure Terranism by.  Through what I like and what I dislike, this book is an important step on the syntheological path.

Further Reading and Viewing:

Syntheism – Creating God in the Internet Age by Alexander Bard and Jan Söderqvist

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