Saturday, December 6, 2008

Different Interpretations - A Religious Musing.

...or, why are we still stuck with religion?

It's no secret that I feel that religions really don't make any sense (at least when looking at them with a modern perspective). Sure, they made a lot of sense back in the day, when our humble, bronze-age progenitors were still seeking answers to their own physical and philosophical questions. I mean, really, it made complete sense, given their historical position, to look at things like storms or earthquakes and attribute them to a supernatural source. Even the purely philosophical questions like, "Why am I here" were usually given meaning through appeal to deities. And you know what? That's forgiven. In fact, what I'm going to argue here, is that the earliest theologians, the ones thinking about the complex issues of their time, were doing a very early version of the scientific method. But somewhere along the way, they got hung up on the theology and left science behind.

Allow me to illustrate with an example. All of this is a gross oversimplification, by the way, but it's a musing, so I'm allowed some creative license. Throw a comment my way if you've got some ideas.

Put yourself in the place of an ancient thinker. You walk out of your hut/cave/townhouse early one morning and notice something strange. There's a mountain in the distance, spewing fire and ash, causing the earth to shake, burning villages, and generally causing destruction on a magnitude you've never heard of.

Holy crap! Right?

You, at the time, have no idea about things like, plate tectonics, or convection currents in the mantle, or that the orange-glowing-death-liquid is actually just molten rock, spewed from deep within the earth. You don't know any of this, precisely because these things won't be understood for another couple thousand years. But your mind starts thinking. What in the world could be causing this? Quickly and subconsciously you begin to scour your mind for past experiences which might account for this phenomenon, and you're left with nothing. To you, this is something completely new--something completely supernatural.

And we all know that supernatural problems need supernatural causes. Boom. Angry mountain god. It must be.

And before you accuse me of making fun of early religions, let me state for the record that scientists use this kind of reasoning all the time. If you've ever heard of this stuff called "dark matter" or "dark energy," you've already seen the angry-mountain-god reasoning at work. In this case we looked at cosmological problems like, "Hey, there's not as much mass here as there should be," and "Hey, why is the expansion of the universe accelerating?" and we've taken our first, fairly meaningless baby steps into understanding the causes. But just because we've given the supposed causes snappy names like dark matter and dark energy doesn't mean that the problem is solved. Not by a long shot. We're no closer to understanding these problems as the ancient thinker was to understanding vulcanism. But the point is this:

We've taken the first step.

Just as the ancients would often answer their questions with help from the divine or the supernatural, scientists today usually answer the questions by proposing new physical laws. It's the same process. But, it's the second step where the tree of new knowledge split, into the scientific and religious. Where the scientist would attempt to solve the volcano problem by going to the mountain, taking soil samples, or waiting for another eruption, the religious branch would study the mountain god, and why he's so angry. They would spend countless hours, creating theories about the mountain god, laying offerings at the foot of the mountain, hoping to stay its wrath. The early theologian would eventually forget all about the mountain which initially spurred the thinking and spend all his/her time on the invented solution.

So much of theology today is so intent on studying the properties of God (and usually only the one of the big-three gods in which you believe, because, come on, those other two gods are ridiculous), that the theologian forgets to include the real world in his/her philosophy. Too much of it is related to squabbling over petty issues and semantics. They fight over whether or not people like me are going to hell, they fight over whether or not an omnipotent god is still bounded by the laws of logic, or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and so on. I say, leave all of that behind, and look at the world in which you live. When you look back, and see the origin of the supernatural, you'll see that it's all unnecessary. It was all constructed to explain the world our ancestors found themselves in, and somewhere along the way, they became more interested in their own constructions than the world itself, building upon layers and layers of abstraction, until the gods we're left with today are studied down to the tiniest bit of banal minutiae possible.

I hear you cry, "but without religion, life would be meaningless, and cold, and horrifying." No, it isn't. These are things you've trained yourself to feel, as a defense mechanism.

We need to step back, and look at the world as it really is.

So what if there isn't an afterlife? That just means you should enjoy the life you have now.
So what if there isn't a higher purpose to all of this? Just realizing that the world is beautiful, even given all of its flaws, is purpose enough.

Stop worrying which god might be the correct one, stop worrying if there is any god whatsoever.

This is what a worldview based on science means to me. It doesn't look for any kind of higher purpose (no matter how mystically theorists talk about their unified theory), but rather realizes that this is the universe we've got. We'd better try and understand what we're dealing with.

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