How to be Authentic in Meaninglessness

Stepping away from your lifelong religion is hard. The impetus of this peculiar journey is unique for each that take it. If I were to reverse time to the point when I was reading the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind just before I started down the path of leaving (story in first 4 blog posts) I am unsure I could have chosen any differently. I believe I was living my authentic self on that journey. I was forced to fall to my core beliefs and values. I had to wrestle with, “do I value reason over faith?” and “Is it possible that my worldview is a lie?” and “How can my interpretations of deep personal experiences be anything but how I interpreted them?” and “Could there possibly be no meaning to life?” and “What does integrity, honest, and authenticity have to do with making decisions about these things?”

Authenticity has been on my mind. What does it mean to be authentic? How can I be more authentic in the way that I act with myself and with others? What does the Oracle of Delphi mean by “know thyself.” Or what is meant by Shakespeare when he writes, “… to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” It appears being authentic involves the phrase knowing your own self, and to not be authentic is to be false or deceptive.

What is the self? From my perspective, the self is an identity of an individual that is unique from other selfs. Identity is a collection of one’s own choices, personality, character, or spirit, despite external pressures. The idea of “despite external pressures” had me going deep. How much of what is in my head my own? Of all the knowledge, thoughts, opinions, and ideas swirling around, how much of it is actually mine? I would argue that most of what is in our head are the thoughts and ideas of other people. Think about the conversations you have with friends and family. Are you talking about current events coupled with the opinions of the reporters that describe those events? What percentage of the conversation is an original authentic conversation, and what percentage comes from ideas planted in your head from some externality? For example, when I talk about sports, my ideas are usually supplemented by Bill Simmons, fivethirtyeight.com, and ESPN. When I hear opinion, am I bouncing it off my authenticity filter or am I just going off of gut reaction? Is gut reaction a type of authenticity filter?

Certainly it is healthy to have other people’s ideas as opinions. This is the main method on how we form our own opinions. As Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” We even read for the pleasure of reading the thoughts of other people. But in what ways am I giving up my authentic self to external opinion or pressure? My personality naturally lends itself (what does that even mean?) to making lists, compiling articles, reading it all, highlighting important points, underlining others, and condensing information into a concise representation of the topic. How much of that regurgitated topic is my own authentic self? Am I endlessly regurgitating the ideas I find interesting from other people onto other people? Maybe in some sense I am doing it because I think that a smart person would do these things, and I have a desire to be smart, or more precisely, I want to be viewed as a smart person. Should I feel bad about this? Am I deceiving myself or living in some falsehood? After reading the philosophy surrounding authenticity, I certainly have been contemplating the value of living a life of authenticity and the consequences of living inauthenticity.

Living inauthentically is inherently deception of your self. It is living a kind of false reality. Existentialists described this deception as living in bad faith. This phenomenon occurs when humans, under pressure from social forces, adopt false values and disown their innate freedom, hence acting inauthentically.5 Adopting these false values comes with its short term rewards (obviously there are rewards to living inauthentically, otherwise no-one would adopt them). I say short term, but it may actually be the entire life of some individuals, because they may never escape it. These rewards are things like comfort, acceptability, convenience, and happiness. A common response to ultimate freedom, Sartre taught, is to use this freedom to deny the existence of freedom.2 This is done by objectifying a lifestyle, or creed, or pursuit brought on by an external pressure and not by the principles of authenticity.

My interest in authenticity was born from my last blog post on The Absurd from Albert Camus. The Absurd is an extension of existential philosophy. It can be summed up with this quote by Camus, “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” Existentialism is not a philosophy on the purpose of existence, but more on the way that we think about being human in this existence. Being human can be understood “neither as substances with fixed properties, nor as subjects interacting with a world of objects.”1 To be human is not understood by the science of objective reality or even the science of psychology. Natural materialism attempts to describe the universe as it is. Psychology, neuroscience, and biology attempt to describe how our brain is structured at a behavioral, neural synapse firing, and chemical level. We could even begin to talk about morality and how descriptions of the good and bad attempt to provide meaning to existence, in a ‘how to live the good life’ kind of way. However, existentialism does not mix with these theories but instead “may be defined as the philosophical theory which holds that a further set of categories, governed by the norm of authenticity, is necessary to grasp human existence.1

I began to question. If purpose cannot be found in science, or in psychology, then where? Can meaning really be found in the norms of authenticity? Authenticity appears to be unique at the individual level. Can groups of individuals converge on an authentic path? How is religion a part of being authentic? The philosopher Kierkegaard had his take on authenticity within a religious context. In his view, authenticity involves individuals finding authentic faith and becoming true to oneself. He is careful to differ to the authentic self rather than the dogmatic religious tradition. He introduces a term called levelling that opposes authenticity, and promotes, as Nietzsche put it, a “herding animal morality.” External influences including media, politics, familial, religious teachings, spiritual leaders, and inerrant scripture act as levelers. Kierkegaard sees “both the media and the church as intervening agencies, blocking people’s way to true experiences, authenticity, and God.”3 These external influences level us, and in so doing, pulls the rug out from individuality, the individuality needed to be authentic.

Can someone be truly be authentic (using the existential framework of authenticity) within Mormonism? Yes, absolutely. But those that are are very few. To be an authentic Mormon one would need to understand the extent of the role that the church has in influencing basic thoughts, let alone life altering choices. There would also need to be a filter of epistemology adhered to that would be skeptical of the truth-claims, aka the dogma of the church. If you are born into it, can you honestly say you would be one otherwise? Can you say with a clear conscience that the dogma may be the ideas of mere humans, and that the stories that inform the narrative could have been and are manipulated, but nevertheless powerful and meaningful? If this can be reconciled and then a decision is made to continue, I think we are in the realm of acting as if, or applying metaphorical truth. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

What is interesting is existentialists aren’t particularly concerned with objective materialism truth. Truth is different for existentialists. As Jordan Peterson said, “the existentialists see the truth as a way of being, of existing. It is reflected in what you do and choose, and the consequences of those actions and choices.” This hypothetical authentic Mormon would view the church differently than the majority of its adherents. It would be true enough to provide substantial meaning. In so doing they would, as Kierkegaard suggests, “make an active choice to surrender to something that goes beyond comprehension, a leap of faith into the religious.” This way of believing and acting is quite different than the general Mormon population, and it especially flies in the face of all its spiritual leaders (the highest of which are considered apostles and prophets). In fact, this way of authentically following the Mormon religion would likely lead to excommunication. I’m skeptical that one could fully embrace Mormonism as an authentic (in the noun sense, like a skeptic).

Nietzsche gave a more atheistic interpretation of authenticity. Where Kierkegaard valued the leap of faith in finding one’s true self, Nietzsche believed in finding truth without the the need of religious virtues. Nietzsche rejected the idea of religious virtues due to the lack of questioning by the individual. One must avoid presupposing a layer of ancient value “on account of which we hold our grandfathers esteem” if one is to find authenticity.2 Just because our ancestors believed it and acted it out, does not grant it intrinsic virtue. To “stand alone” and avoid religiously constructed principles, it is essential to be “strong and original enough to initiate opposite estimates of value, to transvaluate and invert ‘eternal valuations.’”4 Authenticity means to stare into the abyss and overcome the constructs of society, the dogma of religion, and the norms of objective materialism. It means to go beyond good and evil. Insodoing, as Nietzsche and Kierkegaard stressed, you hold up as primal the individual as the agent of free action, stripped of the spheres of external influence, and standing in defiance of them.

Jordan Peterson brings in the morality within the framework of existentialism and in being authentic in this videoTo be authentic, he claims, means to live morally. He says, “out of the framework of existentialism comes a sort of moral necessity, which is that, you can’t just sit in isolation and be useless and resentful, that doesn’t work. If you sit and are useless and resentful, you can’t help but pathologize everything around you.” This way of thinking leads to nihilism. Instead, existentialist have a sort of “moral burden to shoulder or else they will “inevitably suffer for it, you cannot get out of it, you are stuck with it.” If you do not shoulder this burden, but instead act out in other ways, you will be inevitably acting out immoral procedures. Immorality to an existentialist are those things that bring suffering to you and those around you. Or put another way, immorality is doing those things that you know should change but decide not to. In this way immorality could be equated to inauthenticity.

Jordan has a perfect description of living inauthentically, or immorally from an existentialist perspective:

People will engage in the same kind of behavior over and over again. There is a classic definition of insanity which is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. There is a kind of self-deception in that. People will run out a procedure that ends in tragedy, and they’ll repeat that over and over again. You can lay out for them the causal connection between their actions and conceptions and the outcome. And they’ll “listen”. But there is no change whatsoever in their behavior, and so they run through the routine again and BANG! What they are doing is immoral, precisely because whenever they implement it it ends in the catastrophe they claim they want to avoid.

Here is a self-curated list of the norms of inauthenticity:

  • Deception
  • Lacking sincerity
  • Falsity
  • Lying
  • Immoral behavior

George Orwell had a few from his book 1984 that I thought fit well here

  • Orthodoxy is unconsciousness
  • Freedom is slavery
  • Ignorance is strength
  • War is peace

I’ll also take a stab at the norms of authenticity:

  • Choosing moral actions because I choose to, not because a moral person would choose to
  • Transparency
  • Integrity
  • Responsibility for self
  • Moral Intention
  • Fully committed to autonomy
  • Freedom of choice
  • Primacy of free speech

To wrap up I would say, from my personal experience, I believe there is no meaning to existence. But ironically, existentialism has become very meaningful to me. On this journey I have continually had the discomfort of attempting to find the axiom of why should I exist. The norms of authenticity coupled with the Absurd have brought a personal framework in which I can build a meaningful life. In this meaning, I will resist the dogma of religion and the orthodoxy of false paths that restrict freedom and lead to inauthenticity. I will in its place attempt to live authentically, by choosing, with my radical freedom, things that bring joy and and meaning to my self and to those around me. In this tension I will stand and say, as Camus says, “there is not love of life without despair about life.”


Sources

  1. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/existentialism/
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Authenticity_(philosophy)
  3. Kristoffer Holt, “Authentic Journalism? A Critical Discussion about Existential Authenticity in Journalism Ethics,” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 27 (2012)
  4. Nietzsche, F.W., & Zimmern, H. (1997). Beyond good and evil: Prelude to a philosophy of the future. Mineola, NY: Dover.
  5. J. Childers/G. Hentzi eds., The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism (1995) p. 103.

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