Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Reason to Believe

As I mentioned the other day, I'd been following a thread on a science blog about the compatibility (or lack thereof) of science and religion. One of the interesting things about this kind of discussion, is that one finds oneself hitting up hard against the basic assumptions that people work off of, assumptions so basic that people have difficulty even realizing that they're making them.

One of the standard materialist assumptions appears to be that since there is (in the materialist's opinion) nothing more to the world than the physical world, then obviously the main purpose of religion must be to explain the material world. Thus, one commenter on the thread said this:

The late Douglas Adams told a story about a man who thought there were millions of tiny people inside television sets, shifting everything inside around. After an engineer friend sat him down and carefully walked him through the technical processes and mechanisms involved in forming tv images, the man eagerly embraced the new explanation. BUT he still figured that, for all that, there might be just a couple little men inside that tv set. You shouldn't rule them out.

I think the science vs. religion debate comes down to the theme behind this story. One method builds from the bottom up through dint of hard work and discipline: the other way follows intuitive top-down explanations. Cranes and skyhooks. Those who operate and understand cranes -- and who still look upward for skyhooks -- are not unlike the moderate gentleman who wants to reserve a couple little men inside that television set.

The conflict isn't that they couldn't be there. It's in understanding how they got there in the first place, and why there are now so few of them.
There's an annoyingly trite vibe to the story, which I think mostly stems from the clear implication that religious people are these ignorant rubes who, if they only understood how the world really worked, wouldn't have to believe that the world was run by the little men in their TV sets and the big man up in the sky. According to this meme (perhaps using a Dawkins term is appropriate...) these ignorant rubes become so attached to the emotional assurance of believing that they are surrounded by little magic men, that even when they're shown how the world really works they often insist there might be a few more somewhere, just for old times sake.

Certainly, this fits with a certain Enlightenment idea of why religion came about: All these poor benighted people were sitting around the camp fires thousands of years ago, wondering why the world was the way it was, and so they assumed that everything must be commanded by a god -- the sun god, the moon goddess, the fire god, the fertility god, the war god, the love goddess, etc.

Now, for the most ancient forms of paganism this way of looking at things is not wholly without merit, but I think it's still something of a simplification. Your average neolithic person doubtless knew the making of fire, the planting of crops, the phases of the moon and the cycle of the seasons far better than the average member of your local chapter of the Skeptics Society. To the extent that people deified fire, the celestial objects, the seasons, and so on -- I think one must find the source more in a "There must be more to it than the simple patterns I observe" line of thinking.

Another thing many people forget in assuming that the ancients invented gods to explain how the world got there is: A great many ancient religions assumed that the world was eternal. The idea of creation ex nihilo is fairly unique to the Judeo/Christian tradition. Some pagan mythologies assumed that the current world was formed from some sort of primordial neutral state. (There are echoes of this in the Genesis account, where the "waters" appear to have existed from the very beginning.) Other mythologies assumed some sort of great cosmic cycle in which the world was reformed at intervals, mirroring the cycle of the seasons.

One of the earliest materialist/atheist philosophies, Epicurianism, theorized that the universe consisted of atoms falling parallel to one another until (at certain random intervals) an atom swerved, causing collisions which created the material world, which would in turn degrade, and finally return to the primordial state of falling atoms, only for the cycle to repeat itself. (A cosmology with an oddly modern ring to it.)

Nor, when one reads about the period in which the Classic world became the Christian world, does one hear about the Christian explanation of the world's origins being a major (or even minor) factor. Was the Good News, "Lo, I say unto you that the world was created in six days and a union mandated work break"? No, the Gospel message which proved so powerful that it transformed the known world was that there was but one God, that He was infinite in goodness, love, mercy and justice, and that He had died to redeem us from our sins and lead us to life everlasting.

One of the beliefs found in nearly every culture the world over is that the human person is not a mere assemblage of water, carbon-based molecules and trace elements that for a while performs a complex series of chemical reactions that produce the experience we call "consciousness" but rather that there is something which truly is the person which departs the body at the moment of death. Some three thousand years ago, as the Iliad was being composed, the idea that some animating principle which contained the consciousness left the body at death was so obvious to the Greek bards that "his blood poured out upon the sand and his soul went howling into the underworld" (with numerous variations thereon) was the standard way of describing violent death.

I think the two greatest attractions of Christianity to the pagan world were firstly that there was but one Christian God, and that He was infinitely good, just and loving (compare that to the personality profile of most pagan deities) and secondly that there was hope for the just of a life everlasting significantly more compelling than either an endless repeat of one's life or a dreary, ghostworld existence. (See Odyssey XI and Aeneid VI for how dreary the classical conception of the afterlife was.)

It's not the little man in the TV questions that have, throughout history, caused people to turn to religion for answers. Rather, people seek from religion answers to the questions that no amount of knowledge about the physical world can hope to answer: Why are we here? Is there an afterlife? How do I lead a 'good' life?

Though an atheist himself, Douglas Adams provides a quote for every occasion. My own reaction to the materialist credo is drawn from the same author: The universe is a terribly big place. So big, indeed, the most people choose to live somewhere rather smaller of their own creation.

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