Friday, 28 December 2012

Monsters in the shadows

I’m currently enjoying a two week break from work, and, accordingly finally getting a fair bit of reading done (I have an addiction to books, and have a bad habit of buying them on a whim, despite a growing list of books in my book case which I have yet to read). At the moment I’m ticking ‘The God Delusion’ by the one and only Richard Dawkins off my ‘To read’ list, and am rather enjoying it. I love the way that this man writes; often while reading I find myself replicating the self-assured, well-crafted accent with which he speaks. I happened upon a point in the book which I wanted to elaborate upon, that being the mind’s inherent ability to project consciousness onto that which we don't understand, and the implications which that has.

We’ve all experienced it. Lying in bed as a child, looking at the shadows which a tree blowing in the wind is casting upon the wall, and seeing a menacing monster within it, or even as adults, having watched a scary movie, and then being terrified by creaks in the floorboards throughout the night.
As said in a letter written by J. Anderson Thomson, an evolutionary psychologist working at the University of Virginia and far better equipped to word it than I:

 We are more inclined to mistake a shadow for a burglar, than a burglar for a shadow. A false positive might be a waste of time, while a false negative could be fatal. In our ancestral past the greatest challenge in our environment came from each other. The legacy of that is the default assumption; often fear, of human intention. We have a great deal of difficulty seeing anything other than an orchestrated, intentional, causation, and when that cannot be brought down to a human action, it has generally been moved into the basket of ‘divine intervention’.

Is this rather deeply ingrained sense of fear, and a need to project some entity upon it, the cause of, if not, a prime contributor for, the origin of religion? I won’t continue quoting intellectuals in this post; rather put forward my thoughts on the matter. I am convinced that the origin of religious belief is fear, in the way stated by Anderson Thomson. It is easy to imagine it; Homo sapiens, a recently evolved species, carrying a far superior brain to anything which natural selection has yet to produce, and with that brain, a need to understand. And so this poor fellow sees people around him dying of unknown causes, feels the ground quake beneath him, or flashes of lightning from the sky, and he fears it, because he cannot understand or explain it. Neither, can he understand or fathom what happens to those who die, and so, as does a child, he projects an entity onto these things which he fears, as an explanation for something where there is none.

Of course, science has filled the gaps on what the flash from the sky is, why the ground shakes, and what causes us to die. These are no longer unknown, unfathomable actions, and we have no need to think up some man in the sky to explain them. This desire to fill the unknowable with something is understandable, and explains the multitudes of religions which humans have come up with throughout our history. It is, to me at least, a shame that a handful of these religions still exist, when science has brought us so far, and has filled so many gaps.

To speak my mind: It is an ignorant person who thinks that there is a ‘god’ who created everything as we see it today, and who orchestrates our day to day lives, just as it is ignorant to say that it is Thor who throws down lightning. As things progress, the evidence sits, I feel, overwhelming against there being a supernatural hand in things, and this seems all but obvious to me, if only people were more interested in seeking the truth on the subject. We must move beyond this irrational fear and tendency to assume a supernatural cause, just as a child grows out of seeing monsters in the shadows. Religion has served its purpose as a gap filler when, in the infancy of our species we did not understand things, and should exist only in the annals of history, if we are to properly move on.

For the record, I take the rather sober stance that there is no ‘meaning’ of life, so to speak. I was born, thanks to a brilliant, though somewhat imperfectly evolved reproductive system. I have grown up, and continue to learn and understand the world around me. I will do my best to make a name for myself, and do something for which I can be remembered, will hopefully father some children, but then, I will die. My body will decompose, and the elements which were once me, will go on to become other things, and I will have no consciousness of this. And I do not fear it. This is a stance which, I think, makes a person appreciate the life which they have all the more. It is a beautiful cycle (in the scheme of things, I am made of star dust), and one which doesn’t require any prime mover to keep things going.

Let me know your thoughts. Do you think that religion has passed its use by date in the same way that I do? Or do you think it is useful? Or do you think that I should turn from my blaspheming ways, and accept the one true god? Finally, a question to which there are always some interesting answers; do you fear death, and what do you think will happen when you die?

Have a safe and happy new year, and let it be an abundant and successful one for you all.

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