Thursday, July 06, 2006

Wombs and Tombs.

In this world we are plucked rudely from a warm dark hole and subsequently lowered gently into a cold one; the terse interregnum between we call life. It is a stumbling, shambling, generally accidental state of affairs that, like a roller coaster ride or disappointing sexual tryst, is over ere we even figure out what it’s about. As biological life is best intuitively discerned as a wayward insurrection of material physics, it isn’t actually about anything at all, of course, but that’s a rather disappointing way for sentient beings to look at things, so humans conclude that it must be about something, because designating purpose and order is among the most curious compulsions of our pattern-recognition-obsessed brains—we’re here for a reason, damn it all, end of story, and those who so vehemently contend that we simply consume, eliminate, copulate, rest, and expire need to be ostracized for ruining the party and bumming everyone else out.

Hence theism exists, and worse still, persists. It transcends, utterly, primitive superstitions about the natural world, although those are its root and sometimes flower—sky god make thunder, etc. It transcends even projection of our own material beings—the idea that since we are conceived, loved, and parented, the earth and universe must be as well—onto the cosmos. No, religion at its worst is more insidious than all that, in that it is a rejection of that most central principle of mathematics that everything happens in generally precise accordance with the probability of its happening: if you roll a four-sided die for long enough, the numbers one, two, three, and four will come up with astonishingly dull similar frequency. Religion, as commonly practiced, is the idea that the casino is a friendly one, that the odds makers are on our side. (Incidentally, this fact is the most compelling evidence to date that the existence of religions significantly predates that of casinos; no actual gambler, besides an insane or inebriated one, feels that the deck is actually stacked in his favor.) Religion is the concept that we get a metaphysical assist, that there is a substructure underlying and supporting observable reality, and that it is, for whatever peculiar reason, favorably disposed toward humanity and its lot. We like to ascribe totally comprehensible, if not yet comprehended, events, ranging from plane-crash survivals to recoveries from debilitating and generally fatal illnesses, to beneficent miraculous interventions, yet puzzlingly do not typically apply the converse: if a loved one dies in a bizarre accident or particularly grisly homicide, we seldom hear folk explaining matters in terms of an angry Yahweh smiting them. And even when we do, the next assumption among the bereaved and the lucky alike is that good and ill fortune correspond to some mysterious and unrecognized, but unquestionably extant, celestial blueprint, rather than just being a roll of the dice.

Now, not being omniscient, and all, I can’t dismiss with total certainty the possibility of a divine intelligence (an intellectual courtesy, by the by, that agnostics extend to theists without any reciprocity at all). However, were such an entity to exist, it would extend so far beyond the reach of mammalian intelligence as to render our assumptions about it criminally idiotic; it would be akin to your pet hissing cockroach passing the day coming up with theories about your ideological intentions. A thing that could engineer a universe would be so many orders of magnitude more bright than all of humanity collectively that crafting assumptions that it loves us and is on our side, let alone its requests and demands of its creation, makes considerably less sense than animists worshipping trees; the trees provide shade and firewood, after all.

So for me, the question of a higher power is not a question about the entity itself, which either doesn’t exist or exists wholly beyond human comprehension, but rather about the perverse emotional greed of those demanding that such a thing not only be manifest, but exists to advocate for themselves, their families, their nations, their political causes, etc., and moreover is a widely published author of spiritual texts for the moral edification of the masses. I’m curious about what biological and cultural drives motivate beliefs that, given any standard of objective logic, are so utterly counterintuitive as spiritual reincarnation, virgin births, physical resurrections, and, perhaps most academically repulsive, all forms of creationism. The idea that things come from nothing, or as bad, in (among others) the Christian creation myth, that they come from things wholly unrelated to them (e.g. humans from mud, which, as an aside, is to me entirely less flattering than the proposition that we come from hairier apes) is spectacularly daft; it isn’t really even a thing worth debating, as we can witness birds hatching and marsupial young crawling into pouches and human infants being birthed, but no one has ever witnessed fish being born of water or birds of air or flies of garbage or people of mud—nihilo ex nihilo.

This entirely simple premise—that things come from like things, and not from nothing or from unlike things—gets cleverly appropriated by creationists, who in turn argue that things stay the same forever. It goes something like this: since a human cannot be born of a chimpanzee, or vice versa, we must, as different species, be unrelated, and hence have always existed as we exist now. But this idea is infantile; one only need witness children playing the telephone game in school to know that a single message, passed across many ears and mouths, becomes a different one gradually. Claiming common human descent with chimpanzees is about as bold an assertion as suggesting that American baseball and English cricket, common products of popular stick-and-ball games played in eighteenth century England, might end up even more radically different sports given six million additional years of being played separately. Singular sources differentiate given enough time and space; Latin is dead as a vernacular language, but its DNA is perfectly alive and kicking in French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian. At the end of the day, evolution is easy to understand and breathtakingly obvious.

So back to the question: why all the willful obtuseness? What is it about conclusions derived from inquiry and evidence that makes them popularly subordinate to ones drawn from wild speculation and ancient myth? If we get back to Genesis, we find one of the world’s oldest recorded assertions that ignorance is, in fact, bliss: if we’d just stayed naked, stupid, happy and supine in that garden, rather than aspiring to knowledge, we wouldn’t have any of these here darned inconveniences like old age and death. A pox on that snake, I say. But it seems that the propagation of ignorance is one of religion’s core tenets; fundamentalist Christianity has been fighting material science tooth and nail for three centuries now, and fundamentalist Islam is, amazingly, much worse, frequently limiting the education of its societies’ young to that repellent little field guide for world military conquest. It is no accident, then, that societies steeped in Western secular material inquiry produce nanotechnology while cultures steeped exclusive in the Koran produce suicide bombers.

So then, religion, as it has been widely practiced throughout history, has been, and continues to be, a minus on the human scorecard. Sure, it has accounted for acts of charity, but on the balance, religions atrocity-to-charity ratio is about up there with armies and major corporations, which is to say not so good. And even when religious people do act charitably, the price exacted is usually the indoctrination of the aid recipients in that religion’s particular flavor of ignorance and dogmatism. It’s a mixed blessing, at best. Really, Marx had it about right when he concluded that, wholly apart from the question of God’s existence, religion was most often a way of selling people on the virtue of their miserably poor lives.

Any system of thought based on the philosophy of an individual that had been used as justification for sexism, racism, military conquest, and environmental exploitation would be denounced as folly and madness, much as we now rate the worldview of a Hitler or Pol Pot; yet the moment religious folk of all stripes invoke the will of the almighty, all bets are off: the Bhagavad-Gita justifies war and poverty through reincarnation, Leviticus excuses slavery, and the Koran offers a happy hereafter of kiddy porn for taking the infidels to hell with both lapels a-blazin’. Essentially, belief in divine justification leads us, as a species, to do profoundly stupid things, and to perpetuate archaic and imbecilic ideas. Belief in human knowledge and investigation leads us to do remarkably clever things, and to advance fresh angles and innovative solutions. One of these systems has the potential to save humanity, rather than the ability to comfort it in the face of its own failure and gradual destruction. It’s a terrible, terrible shame that that one is still badly losing the ratings war.