At times it feels as if I could be a small, human-sized probe hurling silently through the universe, looking back toward my earthly home and noting, from time to time, how differently it looks from an ever-increasing remove (something like that remarkable American Museum of Natural History animation that offers a mind-altering perspective on our place in the vastness of the known universe). And as I race further from the point where my journey began, I find that my feelings about life on this planet continue to evolve as my increasing knowledge continues to feed my changing perceptions.
I can trace my launch off into existential space to the week I disconnected from the bonds of my religious belief some 25 years ago. At that moment it felt as if some cosmic rubber bands that were stretched to their limit — and that had been keeping me attached to my beliefs up to that point — were suddenly severed, and all the stored-up energy of years of suppressed questions expelled me into the great, black, existential void of space. Though it took many more years of floating around within the gravitational pull of belief before I finally slipped out of that particular system into the vastness beyond, my course was set.
This all sounds a bit hyperbolic, but as a metaphor it is apt and useful. The truth is that the majority of humans appear to show little or no interest in moving beyond belief, and the constricted perspective that it offers in return for its comforts. I understand that, because I can tell you from experience that the view from outside that familiar, small world is, indeed, disconcerting.
On the surface, then, that would seem to be an argument in favor of not stepping outside of that believing, comfortable world, except for one tiny problem: reality.
For many of us, the dawning of a spiritual awareness can feel like (and is often promised to be) the one great leap of faith that will ever be required of us. After all, who ever heard of needing a “second conversion” once you’ve found THE TRUTH? Well, you’re hearing it here. It could be argued that human history is a record of the struggle with that second conversion: a conversion from the revealed “truth” of superstition and religious belief to reality.
In part because of the discipline of this blog, the speed of my own flight from belief has only increased, and with that increased speed has come a higher frequency of perspective shifts. To the end that I have arrived at a sufficient distance from belief to feel like I can now see it both for what it is, and for what it is not.
And what I see in belief is a phenomenon of consciousness, spread across the spectrum of animals that exhibit in in accordance with the sophistication of their evolved brains. We humans are the big-brained, verbal language-endowed believers, so our beliefs are naturally the more complex (though by no means qualitatively singular in all ways to our species). But our religious beliefs are completely our own, and have no supporting source anywhere outside of our busy brains. They are an artifact of our minds, pure and simple. But of course, our experience of existence is not simple at all, and — artifact or not — belief is a part of that experience.
I don’t think it is my “job” to rid humanity of irrational belief. I would have to have the egotism of a fundamentalist evangelist to think that a) eliminating belief were a feasible goal, or; b) that I was the one human of such power to accomplish that goal. I’m afraid I am finding myself more and more in line with the feelings of our late comedian George Carlin when he sees little chance of humankind making any significant alterations in their own path. This is not necessarily a comfortable existential place to be, but I feel like I am seeing things ever more clearly as I continue to spin out into the space that (it turns out) exists beyond belief.
I often compare my thinking of today to the way I saw the world as a Christian, remembering that Christianity made sense to me then (as it does to many now), and offered some sort of worldview that was workable. At this more distant remove, however, I can’t see how it could work at all, and most certainly not with the knowledge of science I now have. I think fundamentalist religion (in particular) functions best, like all irrational belief, in a certain mental environment where curiosity is dampened, and solace valued more than fact.
But to the hyper religious, my views may appear as merely a competing creed, based upon hope, fear and desire (to the same degree that their own faith is). That is a tough nut to crack, because one always hopes to get it right, and fears getting it wrong and being found out to be a fool. (Check out this clip of Bill Maher making the point that “Atheism is a religion like abstinence is a sex position”).
But I think it’s pretty clear that science (even with all of its faults and false-starts and revision in the face of new evidence) is the best tool we’ve got going to ascertain the nature of reality. As the comedian Eddie Izzard so funnily put it, science has “Bunsen burners” and all of its other trappings of actual experiment, whereas believers in God have…a book.
The religious (be they old-time or new-age) don’t trust science, in part because it constantly shatters illusion. They therefore most often accuse it of being too narrow or blind to the kinds of “evidence” that science routinely ignores as unmeasurable (and therefore not evidence at all, but belief). In short such believers think science has (for it’s own imagined, selfish reasons) set the bar for “evidence” too high, when what science has actually done is reveal to us just how low that “bar” has been for most of our history.
And so we find ourselves in a modern society in which a majority of our fellow citizens openly distrust science because they continue to value religion. What can be done in the face of such a dynamic, when there are dozens of “conservative” legislators that would happily de-fund any and all governmental scientific research given the chance?
This is our social reality that fights against the revelation of our true physical reality, be it global climate change, the genetic basis of sexual preference, or the meaninglessness of “race” as a scientific term.
We are an odd bunch of animals, but once we accept that we are, indeed, animals, we are then free to see ourselves as we truly are. Contrary to the protestations of the religiously devout, such knowledge does not debase us in the least. It only feels like we are brought down because we have for so long imagined ourselves as creatures that we are not: divinely made, every hair of our head valued by a vast and incomprehensible sky god (that nevertheless inclines his cosmic ear to our every utterance and our every thought).
It takes only a step back to see how absurd such a belief is. But another step away can bring us into an understanding of why we are so naturally inclined to believe such things in the first place. One more step away and we can see that such a state will likely continue, and that there will always be this struggle between the humans that have braved their fear to see what really lies behind the mysteries that frighten us, and those that would just rather not know.
Such is our “fate”, I believe. Like George Carlin I will always carry a glowing coal of hope for humanity within me, and will enjoy the humane, intelligent humor of the likes of Eddie Izzard. I will be awed by the kind of beautiful AMNH animation that gives form to the knowledge of the cosmos that scientists have fought so hard to accumulate, and look for the ways that I can be a decent human being that does what he can to make the world he can affect as good as it can be. But I will not suffer under a delusion of my specialness in the vastness of this universe (nor even on this tiny planet).
One’s response to reality will inevitably vary depending on one’s temperament. Many just plain don’t like it. That’s their right. I got into this Quixotic quest in order to figure out my own place in the world, and the rest, as they say, just sort of happened. I am as self-centered as every other animal that has ever lived. But thanks to science I can understand, like Cyrano, that in life I “was everything yet was nothing” (everything to me, yet nothing to the universe). And that’s just the way it is.