Is it belief in a god or gods? Belief in the super-natural? It seems to be something more than these things.
Aside from the usual suspects, examples of "religions" having a more secular flavor are legion. It isn't just the Christians who are screaming "The end is Nigh!" Witness those who believe in an impending technological singularity. Or those who think future technologies will be able to give us the naturalist's equivalent of an afterlife. Or those who think we're about to run out of oil. Or that our carbon emissions are causing global warming (for why I think that's bullshit, go here). Or that our very existence is causing mass extinctions (okay, maybe that one is supported by the evidence - just maybe).
And those are just the millennialists and chicken littles (and only a sample, at that)! Other "secular" beliefs that I think fall under the "religious" umbrella include SETI, Communism, Objectivism, natural rights theory...
There must be something deep in the human psyche that compels us to believe that we - meaning "we" as a species, or "we" as people living here, now - are somehow special, somehow chosen; that we have meaning; that we have import or intrinsic value, for those would appear to be some of the characteristics of the beliefs I mentioned. Another - perhaps more important - characteristic is that these beliefs are (generally) couched in terms that are not falsifiable, and hence rest ultimately on the basis of faith.
Given this apparently fundamental need to believe (i.e., "have faith") in something, it's not surprising that Max Stirner, born Johann Caspar Schmidt on October 25th, 1806, in Bayreuth, Germany, is all but forgotten.
A worthy introduction to Stirner and his thought is well beyond the scope of what I can present here. Wikipedia has a decent introductory essay about him, along with an excellent set of links to further reading (this one in particular I like!), and Svein Olav Nyberg's pages are comprehensive and indispensable.
For even more depth, I recommend as a starting point that you read the book Individuality and the Social Organism. Follow that link and you'll no doubt see my review of it, as well as my Listmania List of other Stirner-related books.
I will save a longer discussion of Stirner's ideas and influence for a later date (After all, I will need something new to say on his bicentennial) and confine myself in this post to touching on just one reason I think he is worth retrieving from the dustbin of history: his attack on "religious" thinking of all stripes.
Man, your head is haunted; you have wheels in your head! You imagine great things, and depict to yourself a whole world of gods that has an existence for you, a spirit-realm to which you suppose yourself to be called, an ideal that beckons you. You have a fixed idea!With this thought, Stirner begins his attack upon an idea proposed by his friend and contemporary, Feuerbach, in his book The Essence of Christianity. Feuerbach's thesis was that all of the Christian notions of the "divine" rightfully belonged in the concept of Man. Stirner's counter (and, as it turned out, death-blow) was that this was simply a change of masters, and he would have none of it.
History seeks for man: but he is I, you, we. Sought as a mysterious essence, as the divine, first as God, then as man (humanity, humaneness, and mankind), he is found as the individual, the finite, the unique one [einzige].Stirner cautioned that such an abstraction of "essences" was identical to religion, in spite of Feuerbach's attempt to eliminate God from the equation.
With the strength of despair Feuerbach clutches at the total substance of Christianity, not to throw it away, no, to drag it to himself, to draw it, the long-yearned-for, ever-distant, out of its heaven with a last effort, and keep it by him forever. Is not that a clutch of the uttermost dispair, a clutch for life or death, and is it not at the same time the Christian yearning and hungering for the other world?
So, Stirner was interested in freeing himself from all instances of dogmatic (i.e., religious) belief, and his book Der Einzige und sein Eigentum can be seen as an exploration and casting off of these "fixed ideas," or "spooks," as he called them, one by one.
Whether a poor fool of the insane asylum is possessed by the fancy that he is God the Father, Emperor of Japan, the Holy Spirit, or whatnot, or whether a citizen in comfortable circumstances conceives that it is his mission to be a good Christian, a faithful Protestant, a loyal citizen, a virtuous man - both these are one and the same "fixed idea".
When I have degraded [the fixed idea] to a spook and its control over me to a cranky notion, then it is to be looked upon as having lost its sacredness, its holiness, its divinity, and then I use it, as one uses nature at pleasure without scruple.
Here would be the place to pass the haunting spirits in review... Sacred above all is the "Holy Spirit", sacred the truth, sacred are right, law, a good cause, majesty, marriage, the common good, order, the fatherland, and so on.
Stirner's message is ultimately one of profound empowerment and self-liberation, in spite of the charge of some that it is the pinnacle of "estrangement," "desolation," and "nihilism." Admittedly, it is few indeed who are willing to follow Stirner all the way along his path. What Stirner does, though, like all skeptics worth their mettle do, is make you fight hard for the spooks you want to keep. For some, I guess, the belief in the Easter bunny is too precious a thing to give up.