Cavemen first decided to believe in gods and spirits because they had no other means to explain their world, and witch doctors and shamans quickly seized the chance go gain power by exploiting their fear of the world and offering a comforting but false view of the world. Throughout the ages, these witch doctors have held power and proclaimed that serving Re, Zeus, Gaea, Vishnu, Buddha, Jesus, and most recently Gaia (i.e. environmentalism) is the key to relieving worldly suffering and attaining eternal bliss. To the extent that religion provided the Opium to keep men sedate and make them serve whatever whims the current tyrant had, it served its purpose very well. Religious societies built great and wasteful structures such as pyramids and cathedrals, and killed people by the thousands for to satisfy whatever religious purge their witch doctor deemed appropriate, from the crusades to the inquisition, the Islamic conquests, to the pogroms of this century.
However, in every society, these witch doctors always worked hand in hand with the Thugs (to borrow a term) who never had much faith but sought power and wealth for the sake of wealth and power alone. There were the nihilists, and they existed in every age by the names of Gilgamesh, Khan, Caesar, Stalin, or Clinton. Sometimes they used Religion as an excuse for their quests, sometimes they were the witch doctors themselves, but in they have been as permanent and as destructive as the witch doctors in human history. Their power lay in their skills to control men’s minds — not in the ability to create but to use men to subvert others to their will. In modern day, most of these witch doctors rejected God and proclaimed the State or Society to be god that men were to serve. Kant was the first to define this idea, and Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao followed as his loyal students, not surprisingly assuming the all the classic characteristic of both the witch doctor and the thug by using millions of men for their personal goals and in the process killing untold mullions (over 150 million men killed by their own state in the 20th century alone) On the fundamental level, God and Society have served the same purpose — to take away the personal goals of the individual and to replace them with a “greater” purpose, as defined by whichever whim the tyrant held, whether it was Kubla Khan or the Pope. The more influence and power these “mystics of the mind and muscle” (to borrow a term from Ayn Rand) have had, the more miserable the lives of peasants in their societies have been, from Egypt, to late Roman empire and the dark ages, to the two world wars of the 20th century.
In contrast to the two types on men described above, there have always been the Creators, the thinkers of society whose power lay solely in their ability to invent, to take raw materials and raw human muscle and create machines and organize men to do productive work and in the process increase the quality of human life, answer the secrets of the universe, and otherwise to give a productive purpose to life. They have been known as Aristotle, Archimedes, Aquinas, Benjamin Franklin, and Henry Ford. The more freedom these men have had to innovate, the richer and happier their societies have become — from ancient Greece, to early Rome to the Renaissance periods, to late 18th century Britain and late 19th century America.
The stakes of the conflict between the shamans and the creators are clear to any rational observer of history, but it was not until recently that the boundaries were drawn. For Kant, society defined good and evil, for Nietzche, religion was rejected for whatever personal motives the a person might stumble upon.
The problem with Kant’s ideas is that no one can feed a collective stomach or provide any other sort of collective benefit — only individuals can benefit from man’s labor, and a few men with the power of “pull” always became the elite that stole the product of all the other men in society and brutally suppressed anyone’s right to the product of their own effort. Nietzsche’s morality (if one were to call it that) fails as any kind of useful guide to life because saying “any values go” without any rational basis to choose between them is the ultimate nihilism — if men do not have a basis to choose values from, they will pick them up half hazard and end up seeking sex, power, violence or a combination of the above. Today’s society is a perfect example. School children are taught that self-esteem does not come from achievement but from collective group identity, such as race or ethnic group, that all achievement that does happen is a result of society, and that all values, morals, and cultures are equivalent. What is left to them? Nothing but nihilism, and the only means they have to gain self-esteem in this system is by popularity, whether by random sex, public exhibitionism or displays of aggression and violence in order to impress their peers. Furthermore, the Creators in society are brutally suppressed and denounced as “exploiters” — the factories and wages they provide are denounced as coercive, and the goods they invent as unsafe and forced upon brainwashed society. One wonders if these critics would be happier if the inventors and entrepreneurs sat around and let the factory workers to find other forms of income and consumers lived without the commercial goods they have come to rely on.
As you might have expected from me, I think that the alternative to this form of nihilism and state-worship was best presented by Ayn Rand — who defended the thinkers, inventors and creators of society as the engine that drove the world and improved the lives of men throughout the ages. Their work has sometimes been defended as pragmatically necessary, but Ayn Rand was the first to defend them as *moral* — not just a necessary evil, but the Good, as opposed to the witch doctors and tyrants who used the guise of God or the State to bend men to their will. Rand stated that the goal and purpose of man’s life is productive work — not for some dictator, priest or even neighbor — but for oneself, and the product of ones labor is to be exchanged with others only in return for another equal or greater value. Values are not chosen randomly nor dictated by any god or man — they are the values that sustained and enhance one’s life. A man can choose to live his life by any standard, but only one standard — rational selfishness will lead him to act to prolong his own life whereas standards of altruism will (by definition) lead him to act against his own life.