One of the truly amusing things about reading widely is that you get to find out how easily humanity has fallen back into the same old trap in an entirely new way. Take, for example, the rise in the last ten years of militant atheism. In response to the violence and bloodshed of previous religions, people like Dawkins and Harris have led a jihad against jihad. If this sounds dumb, it is. However, more than that, it is out of line with the latest scientific evidence. And that, ladies and gentlemen, will be their undoing. Their power rests on scientific credibility. Dawkins and Harris are SCIENTISTS! And to much of the public, scientists are authorities. Except…science isn’t about human authority. In science, the authority is the evidence. And when you look at that evidence for yourself, fascinating patterns emerge.
In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, Jon Haidt describes emotions you have felt but may not have words to describe. Take this description:
“Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved. A sense of pervasive well-being is what I recall; more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to participation in collective ritual.”
That’s William McNeil writing about his experiences in the U.S. Army in World War II. However, this experience of being lifted out of oneself and part of something larger is a unifying feature of dance and religious traditions the world over. Check out some Sacred Harp singing which is one of my favorite musical traditions. Doesn’t that music stir something in you?
But what is it that it stirs? And why does that feeling make us so nervous? Because the feeling that it stirs is the feeling of being lifted out of ourselves and being something larger. And, in the process, we can lose our individuality and become part of a mindless mob. We love that epic feeling that we can get lost in some terrible causes. Some of these are in the name of an unseen God and some are in the name of human leader with a story so simple that it can capture a mass audience.
It’s tempting to lament these various aspects of human nature–the love of simple stories and the desire to be lifted out of ourselves and be part of something larger–but no matter how much we wish we were different we are who we are. Sometimes, I wish we didn’t age but we do. So, knowing that, what do I do with the time I have. Sometimes, I wish I could eat whatever I wanted without getting fat. But I do. So, I have to act within the constraints of my biology. And, likewise, humans thrive on clear, powerful simple stories and we desire some great and epic purpose that lifts them out of themselves. So, what do I do? Well, I spend my time breaking down the latest science so we can overcome petty tribalism and connect through our shared humanity. And one of the things I can help make clear is that we all get “high.” Some people get high on Jesus. Some people get high on marijuana. But pretending that we don’t isn’t honest. And is one really better or more dangerous than the other? I don’t know…but it’s something to think about…and if you’re coming from the side of science then Jon Haidt’s Happiness Hypothesis will give you a lot to think about.
The better you understand the neuroscience the more you realize the supposed “specialness” of the thinking of the New Atheists doesn’t make any sense. They love weed and get pissed off with people who give them shit for getting high on marijuana…even as they give people shit for getting high on Jesus. Oh, they have their reasons. People always do. They can always tell a story about what that other tribe did in the past that justifies their shitty actions in the present. Always. Same shit. Different day.
And, one final note. If you’re going to give “religious” people shit for explaining things they don’t understand with a magical sky fairy, then maybe don’t fill in your lack of knowledge of Egyptology with a magical sky fairy called Aliens.
The human mind fills in the blanks on things it doesn’t understand. That’s why little kids have imaginary friends.
And then, we become a little older and wiser. We develop a more realistic view of the world. Did Ancient Aliens build the pyramids…or have you just not studied Egyptology? Did God create the Earth in six days…or have you just not studied evolution? Are Atheists who get high on weed and believe in Ancient Aliens so different from Christians who get high on Jesus and believe in God so different?
Even as someone who doesn’t practice Christianity, I can appreciate the wisdom of 1 Corinthians 13:11:
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
In the end, no human can have mastered all the evidence. There are 60 million scientific papers. 2.5 billion Gigabytes of data and counting. 130 million books. We’re all going to have childish stories that don’t fit reality well. How do we deal with each other’s ignorance? Do we belittle each other? Or do we educate each other? I choose the latter. In the process though, I know I’ll have to run up against socially powerful human authorities who have intermediated themselves between the public and the writings of science.
So it goes. There really is nothing new under the sun.
You need transcendence. We all do. We want to be part of something greater than ourselves. And this is your chance. You can help move ideas out of academia and into the heads of the general public. You can help Smart Go Pop. If you’re interested in joining a community that does that come talk to us in the Mixed Mental Arts Facebook Dojo or on the Mixed Mental Arts Subreddit.
Humans can’t go beyond belief. Belief is what we do. We can help humans believe better. We can help Smart Go Pop.