When I ponder such lodestones of faith as Jesus, the 4K background radiation, and the Seventh Orisha, their explanations of existence fall short of the satisfactory. They do not convince. No matter what they say, the truth is that we do not know where we are, where we came from, why we are here, what we should do, if anything, or where we are going, if anywhere. This is profoundly unsettling. Consequently we either invent comforting answers to these questions, or else assiduously ignore them. Through the ages peoples have usually taken the first approach. Moderns take the second.
The explanatory inventions have been many and varied. There were the childlike and promiscuous gods of the Greeks, the horrid and bloodthirsty Aztec deities, the endlessly disagreeable Yahweh, and the weirdly complex divinities of the Hindus. I think the Greeks had the best of it. Better to drink up and get laid with Bacchus and Pan than tear the hearts out of prisoners in Mexico. But maybe that’s just me.
Men created the gods in distant times and a different world. They do not fit today’s circumstances. The Bible in particular seems most easily believed when least read. The Old Testament is a ramshackle pastiche of tribal barbarity, immorality, treachery, and murder; the New, a syncretistic mishmash assembled after the facts. Though occasionally saved from tedious unreadability by the King James English, the Bible is far inferior both as literature and as philosophy to the Bhagaavad Gita.
The world has changed since the religions arose. In the times of the Greeks, man was small upon the earth, the land wild, unknown, forbidding, stars bright in a sky that seemed to hang near, the winds howling at all hours. Men were then no more fools than we are, but how must the moon have seemed, huge and bright over vast forests when it was not known to be a ball of rock, or a lightning storm before the terrifying flashes were explained away as electric sparks?
Death, like the Moon, was much closer. Children died in infancy perhaps as often as they lived. Life spans were short. People saw death at first hand, speculated about it and often believed their speculations. Spirits walked abroad then and mysterious forces ruled life.
All fanciful, perhaps, but permitting meaning and a sense of something larger than our sorry selves. Now we have only our sorry selves. We have been made cogs in an enormous and pointless wheel. This began about 1650 when Newton reduced the world to pure mechanism, no gods need apply. Darwin and his myrmidons did similarly with life, explaining it in terms reducible to chemistry. Marx did much the same with economic behavior, and Freud with the mind. Everything was the mechanistic result of what had come before. There was no room for gods, or free will, or magic, or the obvious question, “Is this all there is?”
Or for death, which became something one never mentioned. This does not seem to have made it go away. Yes, you could say that grandmother had died, but you could not wonder in polite company what that meant. She was gone—not gone anywhere, just gone.
This is quite strange. Since everyone dies, and life is a brief passage through—what?—one might expect death to be of interest. But no. Try talking of such things at a cocktail party and see whether you are invited again.
But when people refuse to believe in answers, however specious, they must at least have evasions. Thus the modern creation myth which has no gods and ignores death. We come from nowhere, have no reason for being here, and go nowhere. The Big Bang, if such there was, threw out vast numbers of subatomic particles which swirled about and, whoops, accidentally formed Manhattan. Life became what it is through biochemical inadvertence. We are just here, pointlessly.
Among non-scientists there is a vague notion that a beneficent evolution moves us ineluctably toward ever higher intelligence and understanding, though in fact evolutionary theory does not say this—evolution has no direction and science promises only an eventual dull entropic boredom—but the onward-and-upward popular belief appears to satisfy the need for an overarching explanation of everything.
The Big Bang of course is susceptible to the four-year-old’s inevitable question, “Mommy, where did God come from?” (“Well, the Big Bang…it’s, you know, like science or something, and the scientists know all about it.” Except they don’t.) And since the brain is an electrochemical mechanism, all of what we imagine to be thoughts are predetermined by the prior states of the mechanism. All creation myths fail if examined, so we don’t examine them.
And of course our rigorous materialism leaves no room for Good and Evil, or even kindness and decency. Why should I not torture old women to death? From an evolutionist’s point of view they are beyond reproduction and constitute an evolutionary burden on the rest. A materialist must concede that burning an aged woman at the stake is merely the substitution of certain chemical reactions for others. Of course no scientist not actually mad could react to such burnings except with horror. Neither could he give a scientific reason for his horror.
Civilized religions, perhaps most religions, have posited a moral order in the universe, usually as being more important than the physical order. That is, those who were kind, honest, and good would go to a heaven of some sort upon death, and the wicked would take it in the neck. Many Christians have managed to persuade themselves in spite of all evidence that the world is overseen by a loving god of justice, no sparrow shall fall, misfortune is deserved punishment for our sins, and suchlike.
An examination of our curious world shows no signs either of a loving god or of a moral order. The only faint flickerings of decency in the cosmos seem to come not from gods real or imagined but from people. Most of life, all life, is characterized by undeserved suffering—a deer being torn down by wolves and agonizingly eaten while not yet dead, millions of parasite-ridden children dying of starvation every year, babies born with hideous birth defects (presumably in punishment for sins committed in the womb). This is not heartening.
And still we know not who we are, or what, or why, or whence, or whither, or when. Better not to think about it. Prices on the iPhone 5 are falling and….
I have always thought (predeterminedly) the Cogito ergo sum of Descartes less profound that Bierce’s Cogito cogito, ergo cogito sum. Cogito. “I think I think, therefore I think I am. I think.” Just so.