Some societal pleas are more important than others, and considering the accelerating hardline Islamist incursion into Iraq and Syria by the radical jihadi group ISIS, which would establish a totalitarian theocracy in the Middle East, no argument would seem more significant than Philip Appleman’s eloquent and heartfelt call for an “equitable,” “humanistic” and “secular” world. He makes the case in a little gem called The Labyrinth: God, Darwin, and the Meaning of Life (The Quantuck Lane Press), a “very small book,” as he says, “with a very big subject.” The monograph, a republishing—at the urging of admirers—of an extended essay that appeared a couple of years ago in Free Inquiry (the periodical of the Council for Secular Humanism), presents a theme familiar to fans of this longtime East End resident. Appleman has spent years speaking and writing about the horrors and absurdities of holy book-based fundamentalism, and about the harm religious anti-science teachings continue to effect.
Nothing could be further from Appleman’s views than the vision espoused by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: the idea that improving living conditions “is less important” than improving “the conditions of religion,” namely by instituting and exporting Sharia law. The Labyrinth does not directly look that far east, but its moral and philosophical entreaty for enlightenment, though directed at the heirs of Western culture, takes on a darker urgency, given the juggernaut of Islamic extremism. In any case—and Appleman makes it universally—he says he knows the book will be controversial because it’s critical of all organized religion, whether reform or conservative, not to mention contemptuous of self-styled gurus (such as the Rev. Jim Jones) and those who espouse belief in the supernatural or invest heavily in the idea of a personal redeemer. Appleman believes these individuals hypocritically pursue earthy satisfactions, while manically advancing their delusions: “Religion stalks across the face of human history, knee-deep in the blood of innocents, clasping its red hands in hymns of praise to an approving God.”
Appleman, a much-published poet, fiction and nonfiction writer and distinguished professor emeritus at Indiana University, has received various visiting professorships and awards that testify to his wide and deep knowledge, and his early academic life as a professor of Victorian literature figures prominently in his passion for Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Though political conservatives aggressively invoke divine authority, he says, Darwin “revealed to us [that] we are indeed half-brothers to the gorilla, cousins to these other mammals, relatives of all the vertebrates,” by way of “random variation and the directive natural forces of selection and adaptation.” It is only we humans who, “trapped in the dank labyrinths of our [neurotic] psyches,” profess and act otherwise, fearing or not understanding death. Appleman claims that we try to avoid or deny death, and in the process would take the world down with us—“Believe in the immortality of the human soul, and it follows that destruction on earth won’t seem dreadful. Kill away.”
The quality of Appleman’s prose alone is worth the price of entry, as they say, though the book will especially delight those who recognize Appleman’s literary allusions seamlessly woven into the narrative. Of course, it’s his Darwinian theme—the “natural evolution of rising expectations” that only science can offer—that is the main, and most timely, attraction. As he writes, “The growth of scientific knowledge has tended to have socially progressive implications” over folklore or superstition, providing “a better basis for human understanding, human solidarity, and human sympathy.” Still, as surveys show, over half of Americans believe in astrology, doubt global warming and inextricably link morality and religion. Can “thoughtful people” prevail, if only to think about the issues Appleman raises? A cynic might say no, but the word “cynic” itself in the 16th century meant “dog,” and dates to a school of ancient Greek philosophers who were known to be quarrelsome and contentious or “doglike” in their inquiries, but whose principles held to the primacy of virtue and independent thought. As Freud chronicled in his last great treatise, civilization comes with attendant discontents. But, as The Labyrinth also shows, shorn of religious falsehoods and cruelties, civilization can also come with joys.