That may sound odd, but if we begin the other way, the only thing it can lead to are arguments over who has imagined God more correctly. Such disputes end up like this:
“The pieces of the bodies of infidels were flying like dust particles. If you would have seen it with your own eyes, you would have been very pleased, and your heart would have been filled with joy.”
—Osama bin Laden
“I’m driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, ‘George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.’ And I did, and then God would tell me, ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.”
—George W. Bush
The agnostic position appears to be very nice and reasonable. But it wanders around in a swamp of incoherence because it can’t ask the fundamental questions. Which are these:
If God does not exist, why do we believe?
Why is belief so powerful that we kill and die over our particular beliefs?
If God does not exist, why do all cultures have spiritual and religious practices?
If God is a delusion, why isn’t that delusion dysfunctional? In its extreme cases—as with Osama bin Laden and George Bush—it is. At least for the rest of the world. But in normal cases, it is not. Indeed, with normal use, religion is usually quite helpful to people and to societies.
Here’s a theory.
Our number one need is to understand the world in relationship to ourselves.
If we do not, we’ll stroll off of cliffs, eat pebbles, and attempt to procreate with thorn bushes. Without understanding, we are unable to satisfy any other need. Therefore, it comes before them.
The way we developed (since we’re starting with an atheist assumption, we can say through evolution) we have handy biochemical prompts to arouse us to take care of our needs. If they are not immediately met, the prompting gets stronger and becomes discomfort, even pain. When they are met, the discomfort ends, plus we get an additional biochemical shot of something that makes us feel good.
As babies, we start with ourselves and then move further and further out into the world and deeper into ourselves. But we get to certain points where there are no answers. The need does not disappear, anymore than hunger goes away if there is no food, thirst if there is no drink, or the desire for love when everyone hates you.
The pain—biochemically prompted—remains. Then someone comes along and says, “Here’s the answer! Big Guy in the sky, just like the king, but bigger. Knows it all, does it all, has a plan and a place for you.”
If we believe it, the need is answered. The pain chemicals recede, and the pleasurable satisfaction chemicals rise up. We now know enough about human biochemistry and mood-altering drugs to understand that Karl Marx’s statement “Religion is the opium of the people” is not a metaphor. It is a literal truth.
Like all good psychotropic medication, it affects different people in many different ways. Even the same person in different ways on different occasions, just like alcohol. A Marxian update would be, “Religion is the Prozac of the people, ’shrooms for visionaries, the blessing of a beer with dinner, the wine of wonderment.”
We tend to regard both prescription psychotropics and self-medication as “false” answers. But if there is no “real” answer, then an adjustment through anti-depressants, marijuana, vigorous exercise, spiritual practices, prayer, and faith in mythological entities may be significantly better than living in a perpetual state of unease and anxiety. It is healthier and engenders a more functional life.
Nor is it all codswallop.
We have a spiritual sense. In the same way that we have rationality, emotions, social intelligence, morality, and an aesthetic sense. Each of them is a different method for figuring out our relationship to things and events, and we choose reactions to them.
Anything that universal, and that takes up so much time and energy, must have some evolutionary utility. Indeed, most of the universe is invisible to us, beyond our senses, and it operates in terms that we can only dimly comprehend, and only then through metaphors. This is true of our internal selves as well. We know that, we can “sense” it.
Spirituality is a way to get in touch with all that—very real—unseen existence.
Spiritual practices are methods for manipulating our relationship to those forces and things.
Religion is a formalization, and an explanation, of those practices.
Most of our thinking, however, is self-referential, and we really understand new things through metaphors to what we already know. That’s why most gods come out as blow-ups of people and divine cosmologies are blowups of society, fantastical übermetaphors of human order, which are further shaped by competition in the emotional market place.
We don’t actually understand things through logic, strict rationality, or science. We use those methods to check our metaphoric concepts. Then, if we see that these gut-level, intuitive, habitual, button-pushed, spiritual responses don’t measure up to a reality check, we adjust. Around the 1600s we began to do that, big-time, with science. Science not only produced knowledge where ignorance used to be, it showed that God and the angels, the heavenly apparatus, Satan and hell, were not waiting there where they’d been said to be. We entered an increasingly secular era.
Then, in the 20th century, science went even further, and revealed a universe that was so vast and alien, it became obvious that such a place could not give a good goddamn about such as we. It began using words like “relativity” and “uncertainty.” Such things are the exact opposite of our real need, understanding in terms of ourselves, so that we can experience order.
Which is why religion has made a big comeback.
It is both addictive (in a literally chemical sense)and it is attached (through concept, to emotion, to biochemistry) to our most basic need. Therefore, many people are fiercely attached to their own brands (to use Mitt Romney’s expression). When their brand, or the idea of faith itself, is challenged by logic, reason, science, or the traditional liberal ideal of tolerance, they react with fear, which is expressed as anger—righteous anger.
So here we are, at the start of the 21st century, surprised to see that it’s like an acid flashback to the 12th century. We need to understand ourselves and get a handle on ourselves by understanding what religion, faith, and spirituality really are, before the Osama bin Ladens and George Bushes lead us on our merry way to Armageddon.
I’m very interested in anyone’s response. If you like, my e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.