The Godless Joys of Iconoclasm

Much of what we believe is profoundly superficial. I’m not being ironic. Humankind’s ability to swallow what’s convenient and avoid the sublime is a dark door to its most illuminating insights. It’s not mere laziness that holds us back. It’s the fear of annihilation — so easy to understand, so hard to face. We cling to comfortable complacency, eyes tight shut, hoping the inevitable won’t happen.

Today I care less about what we believe, more about why. It’s a reflective question that yields great insights into our condition. But be warned: it also reveals the futility of most attempts to improve it. For example, the more successfully we prolong our lifespan with nutrition, hygiene and medicine, the more uneasy we are about death.

Iconoclasm is the attacking or overthrow of venerated institutions and cherished beliefs. It sounds almost like an –ism, but it’s the opposite, more of an attitude than a movement.

Traditionally, it attacks organized religion, but there’s no reason to stop there. Look: atheism used to be the mere denial of God, but recent references to the ‘atheist community’ and conversations about how members should behave have created yet another institution ripe for overthrow.

Iconoclasts don’t huddle. Finding common ground is all well and good, but there’s a line that people cross when trying too hard to agree, as if it somehow strengthens their case. Nothing expresses insecurity more than clinging to certainty.

The beauty of iconoclasm is that it’s personal. You don’t need to overthrow every iconolater. Just lose faith and the deed is done. It’s easy. What’s hard is to live without any icons at all. With each belief system I abandoned, I subconsciously found or set up a new secure zone. It took me a while to see that each was a stepping stone. Even then I had no idea what waters they spanned, or that I might swim. I wasn’t ready to take the risk.

Despite our science and technology we still lean heavily on faith. Einstein believed that God didn’t play dice. Without any evidence whatsoever, he never lost faith in the Grand Unified Theory. You’d think that scientists would necessarily be iconoclasts, but they’re just human. They sometimes fixate defensively on findings, forgetting that science is a means to knowledge, not the knowledge itself; that its real strength lies in doubt and creativity. Einstein had it, and lost it. Never take your iconoclasm for granted. We all waver.

Clichés become clichéd because they harbor a
germ of truth, otherwise, they’d just fade away

The label of science is no guarantee of objectivity; that quality is found in individuals, not systems. Similarly, religion and spirituality are not inherently fantastic. That too is a human attitude.

Today, many venerate the New Age. Oprah Winfrey has people dragging skeletons out of closets all over affluent America. That’s not a bad thing. On the other hand, our language is riddled with clichés like, ‘What goes around comes around’ and ‘Everything happens for a reason.’ Icons are less majestic nowadays, often just sound-bites.

Clichés become clichéd because they harbor a germ of truth. Otherwise, they’d fade away. Imagine our most ancient ancestors grappling with the emerging tool that today we call knowledge. They pieced it together haphazardly. Shamanism led to the occult arts, which eventually gave way to science. And so we believe in cause and effect. Nothing does happen without a reason, does it? Otherwise, things would stop working.

But that’s not what new-agers mean. Their’s is a plea for the universe to not be cold and indifferent. They’re suggesting that it intentionally does things to help us out.

Which brings us to God — another fiction with a germ of truth. The first hominids pieced their perceptions into a coherent whole, glimpsed causality and were presumably awed. Explicability itself might demand a name, and God might be it. Then — for psychological, social and political reasons we can easily imagine — they fleshed out this great abstraction, first with the faculty of intention, then a grandfatherly personality, and finally a long white beard.

Iconoclasts are sometimes attacked by iconolaters, sometimes just co-opted. Jesus taunted the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. Socrates stung his fellow-citizens with inconvenient truths. Both were executed. The Buddha mocked religious leaders for explaining the inexplicable. He lived long and his teaching flourished, but after he died his insights were reduced to a doctrine and his life to an iconic myth.

There is no permanent self, he said; the mind is not fixed. In our enlightened New Age people speak audaciously of no-self (Sanskrit: anātman) and no-mind (Japanese: mushin). Some Buddhists think that they don’t exist because there’s no self, that they shouldn’t think because there is no mind. It’s breathtaking how easily human beings divorce thinking from reality. We do it most effortlessly when we feel most insecure.

My favorite co-opted expression is ‘end of views.’ Meditators tormented by the monkey-mind fantasize about stopping all thought. Even if you could get yourself into such a trance, you have to wonder what for. Sooner or later life calls. What’s wrong with that?

However, there’s meat in the phrase. The ‘end of views’ is that leap of faith from the stepping stones into the torrent. Underlying it is an existential trust that although we rightfully believe in some things sometimes, nothing’s permanent. Truths change too.

Humankind’s ability to swallow what’s convenient and avoid
the sublime is a dark door to its most illuminating insights

The end of views is the iconoclastic attitude. It raises your hackles against dead ideas, intransigent beliefs, chauvinism, bigotry and dogma. It deconstructs opinions and acknowledges what we all suspect and fear — that life is ultimately inexplicable. It recognizes that the search for a worldview to explain everything is vain, and yet it never closes its eyes; it never needs to embrace bitterness. The bogeyman turns out to be approachable.

Science is fine. It makes the natural world predictable, enables technology and dazzles us with creation myths to rival the Book of Genesis. However, it doesn’t ask why we’re here or what we should do. Those questions incite either creativity or fear but never, it seems, indifference.

The notion that all life is coherent, explicable and solvable is responsible for great confusion and suffering. We can break our timid addiction to the notion that there must be one sensible approach to all we know, but it takes daring.


Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

14 thoughts on “The Godless Joys of Iconoclasm”

  1. The trouble is, we’ve all become addicted to the notion that there must be a narrative (just like in the books and movies we invent) — but of course there isn’t, there’s only the moment.

  2. Thanks for this Nick: I wouldn’t say there is no narrative. It may drive us nuts, and at times it barely reflects reality, but we do live by it. We have to acknowledge that before change is possible.

    1. Sorry Stephen, sloppy thinking and expression on my part. By ‘narrative’ I meant the story constructs we all indulge in as an attempt to impose meaning in human terms on a reality that, we imagine, operates without due regard to the ‘importance’ of our place in it. In other words, we create illusions which, because they are illusions, rarely live up to our expectations of them. There is, of course, a narrative, best expressed, perhaps by: ‘Sitting quietly doing nothing, spring comes, and the grass grows by itself’. So change, far from being impossible, is inevitable – it just often isn’t the change we seek to impose. No bad thing, don’t you think?

      1. Hi Nick: I love that you draw attention to the word ‘importance.’ There clearly isn’t any; we’re significant only in our own eyes. It’s painfully obvious but too much to swallow, so we invent God and imagine ourselves chosen. I wonder, can we not create illusions? Our fears seem bottomless and yes, we inhabit the space between the change that happens and the change we seek.

  3. Wow Stephen… Where did you come up with this Gem, or should I call you Neo (the Matrix)?

    Very, very, very dumbfounding observation. You have definitely stepped OUTSIDE the box.

    This is sooo spot on it made my existential angst emerge from my subconscious to the fore front of my awareness. Don’t know whether to thank you or cuss you; yet my nihilism cannot but appreciate the thought.

    At every stage of my life, same as you, I latched on to completely dissimilar belief systems that sustained me for a phase (Elan vital) to immediately switch to another extreme on the continuum.

    I firmly believe, as I insinuated previously, that its not the WHY we need to believe (no matter in what), or why we need to understand (the truth – who’s by the way), or why our brains/minds only understand narrations; My primal question is why “WHY”?

    I like the pretentious philosophical answer of the Universe reflecting on itself through human consciousness, PLEEEASE. We seem to be the only life form that has existed with such a quandary.

    Our conscious mind needs to be occupied by ANYTHING and that is sufficient enough to give us purpose and value for our existence. Yet, its a good thing our conscious mind is a living proof of how little IT matters for our “survival”, as amoebas with their simplistic nervous systems have been around even longer. Awareness can only do ONE thing at a time, yet our unconscious mind is running a plethora of processes unbeknownst to us in the background. thank goodness I did not need my conscious mind to run my biological system, imagine that disaster. BODY DOES KNOW BEST.
    The funny part is that our organism needs Homeostasis internally to function, something our conscious mind would call BORING.

    I thank you for this insight and for making me go even deeper in my introspection (more sustenance for my conscious mind).


    1. Hi Ralph: This has been gestating within me for some months now and I was glad to finally get it off my chest. My working hypothesis is that we need beliefs, but not belief systems. The Dalai Lama’s surprisingly refreshing statement the other day on his Facebook page makes me think there’s a general movement in this direction. Here’s what he said:

      “All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.”

  4. Stephen —

    Just so. But where does this leave community? Is it possible to have a community without a sense of shared identity (however encompassing), shared language, shared activity, all waiting to ossify into iconography at the drop of a hat? Iconoclasm itself can become a pose, a justification for refusing to commit to our inescapable responsibilities to one another. Can we embrace iconoclasm and community simultaneously and how does one go about negotiating the conflicts that would arise from that project?

    1. Hi Mark: I see no reason why iconoclasm should be at odds with community. What sort of conflicts did you have in mind?

      Today I have relationships of varying intimacy and intensity with people from every walk of life. When in the tight community life of a monastery my contact with others was more circumscribed — even contrived, though not altogether artificial. Conversation was more uniform, I was confronted with less variety of lifestyles, beliefs and attitudes — and there was of course the ever-present issue of political-social-religious correctness. My thinking is more challenged in my present, non-aligned life and I’m greatly more aware of beliefs as a necessary but shifting landscape. The less I seek communion within the labeled contexts of ‘Buddhism,’ ‘Christianity,’ ‘Atheism’ and so forth, the more I feel at ease in my own skin and, I believe, the more I have to offer others.

      Nevertheless, my life as an independent hasn’t been easy. I have fewer social reference points and I’m hard pressed to define my relationship with various systems and institutions, even those I respect. As I said above, iconoclasm isn’t a movement — more of an attitude, and a very personal one at that.

  5. Mark: I reread your question and realize that I haven’t yet given it the full consideration it deserves.

    Of course it’s not possible to have community without a sense of shared identify, but surely humanity itself is such an identity. This is much less of a personal choice in this global world. In so many ways it’s forced upon us. We need to belong somewhere, but having found our local family, as it were, it’s incumbent upon us to extend that to the global family. Perhaps our next challenge is to go beyond humanity to the environmental village as a whole.

    1. Stephen —

      Thanks for your response. I was on retreat last weekend, and even though I came away with a powerful sense of recognizing my own humanity and that of others, it did come within a communal context. I was aware of my retreat group as my retreat group, and we used the language of mindfulness to communicate with each other about what was happening (a language that often requires translation for newcomers). When I read a sentence like “[R]ecent references to the ‘atheist community’ and conversations about how members should behave have created yet another institution ripe for overthrow,” I think that if you replace the word “atheist” with “secular Buddhist” or “mindfulness,” you could be talking about us, and we have been criticized as already being too prone to group-think. One wishes to avoid recreating a thicket of views and the creation of new in-groups and out-groups, but it seems like one has to balance that with the need for cohesion and coherence. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about how to find that balance.

  6. Mark: Shared experiences promote shared language and thinking. That’s natural cohesion. When the group disperses, that cohesion weakens. That’s also natural. Problems arise when we idealize or codify that community experience and end up with a contrivance.

    I practice in order to let go of preconceptions and expectations; to not get stuck. That’s what mindfulness is for. The easiest way to stay balanced is to keep moving. Sometimes that takes you into a group; sometimes out.

  7. Stephen
    First I’d like to thank you for posting this article also in Spanish. Thank you.
    Second I have a comment, pondering about this, even though I like some of the statements you make in the article, in an overall view it seems to me that the iconoclastic attitude demolishes out of some kind of anger, or spite, not necesarily to the outer world, but to the inner world. one may want to rationalize it and consider it with a cold state of mind and this may not seem true, but more in touch with the inner world, it seems more like an attitude of pushing away, that to being equanimous.
    what is the feeling tone of an iconoclast? what do you think?

  8. What a great question Nayeli. The feeling tone of an iconoclast could indeed be angry or spiteful. She or he is only human. However, like any other critical approach iconoclasm should be pursued with equanimity and discipline, and not just from an emotional reflex. That’s the challenge. It’s the flip side to pursuing a belief system with a feeling of security. The believer has to detach from the consolation of being ‘right,’ or ‘saved’ just as the iconoclast must detach from anger and spite.


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