THE UNACKNOWLEDGED REVOLUTION +quot;Why do we exist?+quot; Secular Answer: Religious Revol

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THE UNACKNOWLEDGED REVOLUTION "Why do we exist?" Secular Answer: Religious Revolution Humanity's most ancient intellectual constructs are its religions. As is well known, all religious beliefs have, over the ages, undergone a more-or-less continual process of evolution. The process has been unnoticed except in hindsight, as is the case with evolutions. It seems also to be unnoticed or unacknowledged, by most of its prac- titioners, that religion is today undergoing revolution. What, then, has led to this revolution? But first, why do we hold to religious beliefs at all? I see all religious beliefs as having been adopted to satisfy just five funda- mental human needs. These are, first, the need for explanation of natural phenomena; second, for supra-natural assistance during life; third, for assurance of an existence after death; fourth, for moral and ethical guidance; and fifth, for ritual and ceremony. All these needs may be satisfied by religious beliefs, but it is only the second and third needs that can only be so satisfied. Explanation of natural phenomena may be provided by science; moral and ethical guidance, ritual and ceremony may be provided by other ethical or social disci- plines not connected with the supra-natural. Divine involvement in our lives and in our deaths can, however, only be promised by religions. I suggest that just three fundamental classes of religious belief exist in any religion. They are the beliefs in 1) a supra-natural Creator, God, or Divine Being, or a plurality of same, existing now; 2) the power of direct appeal for assistance--with prayer or with sacrifice--to the One or to the Many; and 3) an existence after death, in a beneficent supra-natural community as reward for a good life or otherwise as punishment for a bad one. One might add a sixth need and that is the need for power. As specific religious beliefs came into existence in ancient times in response to the five other needs, religious belief systems were quickly brought into being in response to that sixth need--the need of some individuals for power over, or for power imposed by, others. I see the five needs previously identified as being relatively worthy ones and the need for power often unworthy, and I see belief #1--the belief in the supra-natural itself--to be the one independent (i.e., fundamental) belief, with beliefs two and three necessarily dependent upon it: It would clearly be nonsense to pray to or expect to join a God one did not believe existed. And finally, I see all religious- belief systems as necessarily utilitarian in nature: Each and every religious belief of mankind must possess utility--must have been adopted because of a specific human need; when and if such utility ceases to exist, any related belief is ultimately grossly changed or abandoned. -1- *Copyright 1992 by Kennan C. Herrick but may be freely copied wholly or in part only with this entire copyright notice included.* THEIST15.ASC Examples of such belief-evolution abound and are well known: The Sun as God himself; lightning as a manifestation of God's wrath; the Earth as the center of the Universe. In more recent times, an example of a belief undergoing radical evolution is the notion as to just where God exists: in earlier times, it was "up there" in the 3-layered universe of Heaven, Earth and Hell, changing later to "out there" as being somewhere all around us in Space and Time, and finally becoming for many today something like "in the depths of our being", i.e. present somehow within each individual's unconscious aspect or soul. I say religion is at present undergoing revolution because never before was the utility of belief in the supra-natural itself seriously in question. Such utility is threatened today, as it has been ever since the advent of the science of genetics and the theory of cumula- tive natural selection (Darwin's "Evolution"), within the past 150 years or so. During this very short time in terms of religious evolution, the supra-natural's utility has become increasingly dimin- ished by the general acceptance of those disciplines as practical fact. Most specifically, by the increasing general acceptance of those disciplines' secular answers to humanity's two most fundamental questions about humankind: "How have we come to be as we are?" and "Why do we exist?" Never before in all of history have there been answers available for these two questions other than religious ones. The first of these question, as to how we have come to be as we are, can be taken in two ways: As a general question, "How have living things come to be so different from those of ancient times?" and as a specific one, "How does an individual living thing grow and mature?" The secular answer to the general question, applicable to all living species so far as we know without exception, cites the process of Evolution--the process by which living organisms more fitted than others to survive tend more to do so, even to the slightest degree. Each generation's survivors will have passed on their survival-prone genetic qualities to subsequent generations more often than organisms less fitted--even to the slightest degree. Such infinitesimal im- provements have accumulated over eons of time. Influenced by random mutations and outright species extinctions, the evolutionary process has brought to existence today not only ourselves as human beings but also all the multitudes of other species of life on Earth, in their countless millions. The answer to the specific question relates to the action of our genes. Genes provide the "recipes" in accordance with which we are quite literally made. As is well known today, every cell of every living thing contains the entire recipe, or genome, for how that indi- vidual is to be constructed--how that individual's cells are to divide, specialize and interconnect in order to achieve fabrication of the end result, the living being. In short, each of us is made by and of our living cells and they do that job as directed by our genes. This function of our genome underlies the secular answer to that -2- THEIST15.ASC most fundamental intellectual question, "Why do we exist?" This answer has only begun to be widely appreciated, I suspect, over the past two decades or so. It goes as follows: Each living thing serves only one natural (that is to say, uncon- scious) purpose in life; that purpose is literally to be a propagation machine for its genetic information. This is, in fact, the funda- mental concept of life, a concept most humbling indeed for the human animal to contemplate. Each one of us is in a way but a living robot: each of us has been built by our genes for the sole purpose of acting as a repository for our genetic information; to comprise a cozy vessel, if you will, constructed in accordance with our genetic recipe specifically for the protection and cosseting of that recipe. Each of us is made to act in such a way that our recipe might survive our death. That is to say, each of us is programmed by our genetic code--with greater or lesser effectiveness, depending on the individual--to further that code's survival possibility by engaging in a life style leading to procreation. In brief, we exist to make babies so that our genes will live after us. That is why our genes made us, it is the only reason they did so, and it is quite literally why we exist. Clearly, human individuals all have their own conscious purposes for existence. Intelligent beings other than human ones may also possess conscious purposes but we are, of course, not privy to those. But there is only the one natural purpose; all others are learned. Plants, for instance, presumably have no intelligence and so their natural purpose for existence is their only purpose--to propagate their genetic information in the most efficient way their genes have been "able to learn" over the ages, in that great School of mutation and natural selection. And one comment regarding the word "purpose": When applying this word to the actions of non-conscious genes or cells, I use as its definition this one from the Oxford English Dictionary: "the object for which anything...exists". The world's recipes for making living beings, written into untold numbers of different genetic codes and being continually modified by selections and mutations over time, are wondrous indeed and are so complex as to be far beyond today's understanding. But all such recipes, ours included, are being continually tweaked, trimmed and sharpened by Evolution and its ally mutation, albeit ever so slowly, with only the one natural objective and purpose: survival. There are a few curious parallels to this secular argument in some of our religions' catch-phrases: There is a kind of god within us, surely existing in the literal "depths of our being"; it is our genome. That god made each of us in its 'image and likeness' in a very real sense. That god offers a promise of eternal life--of a sort and for itself only, to be sure--when we convey it to our progeny in acts of procreation. And finally, we act 'in his service' when we follow our -3- THEIST15.ASC genetic god's fundamental instruction, of which one human expression is, "be fruitful and multiply". Following, then, from the secular arguments, it is no longer necessary to invoke the influence of a Creator--either in the making and growth of, or even in the very justification for, any living thing; or in the development of humankind over the ages; or indeed in the evolution of humankind or of any other living thing from the very first such things existent on Earth. It may be considered possible or desirable for a God to have had a hand, but the utility of the notion of a Creator shaping our lives is fast disappearing. Since the independent belief--in the very existence of a Creator--is increasingly open to question by virtue of its loss of utility, the two dependent beliefs, in prayer and in an after-life, must necessarily also be to the same degree. All three being under attack, a revolution in religious thinking, rather than mere evo- lution, must be in progress today. That the beliefs I identify as dependent must be considered so, and not as themselves constituting justification for the independent belief's utility, is clear. Consider a fanciful analogy: An astro- naut in training for the very first flight to the moon possesses an obsession for green cheese. One day, there comes to him a revela- tion: "Glory be!--I shall from this moment onward adopt the unshake able belief that the moon is made of green cheese! And then, on that glorious day when I actually arrive there, I may just bend down and scoop up all the wonderful green cheese I will ever want!" Clearly, our astronaut would best look to other factors supporting his belief in a green-cheese moon, beyond the mere idea that it must be so. During the last hundred years, questioning of or even discussion about religious beliefs will likely have declined within the general community of practitioners, of at least the main religions. This would be due to the increasing perception, conscious or unconscious, of weakness in that fundamental one of the three beliefs I enumerate. We laugh today at the notion of earnest argument as to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but in earlier times with the three beliefs totally secure except for interpretations, few would likely have balked at such robust discussion about them. In those times faith in the immediate presence of the Creator was fully bolstered by perceived fact. That perception of fact has been expressed most notably in the celebrated "Argument from Design": The difference between the complexity of living things (their design) and that of non-living things is clearly so enormous that living things must have been, and must continually be, created and caused to mature by an unimaginably competent supra-natural Power; in short, by God. Today, religious beliefs are no longer so supported; the Argument from Design is seen to have been incorrect in its conclusion that by no other causative means could living things exist. Consequently, with fear that dis- cussion of beliefs may lead, as it would not likely have done in the -4- THEIST15.ASC past, to questioning of the faith itself, religious people will have backed away from the subject. By now it may be clear that I am not a theist. I may be perceived as having an axe to grind, and it could be argued that I should question religious faith per se no more than I should question taste, for instance. But one may surely question the factual circumstances upon which taste is based. So, by the same token, one may properly examine the connection or lack thereof of religious faith or belief to perceived fact, and the logical dependence of one kind of belief on another.* * And the axe? It is this: In the short view of individual human affairs and in countless instances of specific long-term benefit to human culture, religion--to the extent of engendering motivations to do good things and to be good and happy people--has been and surely is beneficial, albeit being based on a false premise. In the longer view of the overall welfare and progress of humankind, however, just because it is very likely not based on truth, religion must be very likely a net detriment, and the sooner we have progressed beyond it the better. Consider this trade-off, for instance, had there been no religion: Johann Sebastian Bach would never write a note (of the 300+ classical works of music inspired by his religious beliefs), but there would be no Childrens' Crusade (in which perhaps 50,000 children died or were sold into slavery as a result of their religious beliefs). Does that sound like a good deal? Countless others could be imagined. No doubt this argument has been met many times by the "God works in unfathomable ways" counter-argument. But that is not really a counter-argument at all; it is only a way of saying we assume there is a God, that he knows what he's doing, and that it's good for humankind. And I do not, by the way, accept the label "atheist": That pejorative term's implication is that I adhere to a specific belief system opposed to those of "theists". That is precisely not the case, since I merely do not adhere to any religious belief system; so, I am merely "not a theist". The distinction is important, I think, but universally unappreciated. It was most likely blurred, in ancient times, so as to give theists a "handle" in their opposition to non-theists. After all, it is easier to attack a specific opposing belief system ("atheism") than to fight a mere lack of one. I think we heathens are due some small crumb of admiration from religious folk: After all, we expect to face the universe "alone" in life's struggle, without any divine guidance or assis- tance, and we anticipate no reward at the end. Pretty grim and daunting, many would say. Although the point was made by David Hume, that if one was not concerned by a lack of existence before being born, then why fear the same situation's occurring after one dies? -5- THEIST15.ASC Ultimately, perhaps, humankind will put most of religion behind it. Along the path to that end, however, power in the religious community (my need #6) will, I fear, increasingly become held by charlatans, while honest leaders both within and outside of the religious community will continue to abandon their religious beliefs or never adopt them in the first place. The trend can be seen today. But I hold no firm expectation of such an ultimate abandonment: A substantial segment of humankind will, I suspect, find a way to rationalize the continuing belief in an existent Supreme Being with that belief's ever-increasing loss of real-world utility. To do otherwise would render meaningless the psychologically-important dependent beliefs in prayer and in an after-life. The choice of the many not to face life and death "alone" will likely continue, support ed by the propensity of the few to organize their power, honestly or cynically as the case may be, around that choice. Hence I say only that it is Revolution unacknowledged and not Extinction. Recommended Reading. 1. Dawkins, Richard; "The Blind Watchmaker". W.W. Norton, New York, 1987. 2. Dawkins, Richard; "The Selfish Gene". Oxford Univ. Press, New York, 1978. 3. Smith, Homer W.; "Man and His Gods". Little, Brown, Boston, 1955 (out of print). 4. Gould, Stephen J.; "Wonderful Life". W.W. Norton, New York, 1989. 5. Robinson, John A.T.; "Honest to God". Westminster Press, Phila- delphia, 1963. 6. Polkinghorne, John; "Science and Creation: The Search for Understanding". Shambhala Publications, 1989. 7. Morris, Desmond; "The Naked Ape". McGraw Hill, New York, 1967. -6- THEIST15.ASC


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