The Random Thoughts of a Forty-Something. Films, Restaurants, Theatre, Concerts, World Events and (Mostly) Nice People.
Monday, January 04, 2010
Why Do Humans Need to Believe in the Supernatural?
The Wikipedia definition:
''The term supernatural pertains to being above or beyond what is natural; unexplainable by natural law or phenomena. Religious miracles are typically supernatural claims, as are spells and curses, divination, the belief that there is an afterlife for the dead, and innumerable others. Supernatural beliefs have existed in many cultures throughout human history.''
Most religions don't tend to class themselves as 'supernatural' organisations. The term is generally associated with sci-fi and ghosts, yet it is equally applicable to religious belief.
Despite centuries of scientific, societal and cultural progress, supernatural beliefs are densely interwoven in all human societies. Belief in an invisible, unknowable, unproveable supernatural being is still regarded as normal, while in most cultures, atheism is regarded as unusual or in extreme cases, heretical.
Indeed the term atheism only dates back to the 16th century, and whilst there were undoubtedly non-believers prior to that time, they obviously had little influence and tended to keep their thoughts to themselves, presumably through fear of ridicule, peer rejection or persecution.
So in a world where belief in the irrational remains the norm and stating the obvious remains an outsider position, what exactly are we to make of the human 'spiritual' condition?
First of all, I should briefly outline my position. I had a religious (though not oppressively so) upbringing in the Protestant (Presbyterian) church. At the age of approx 13, I formulated my own ideas which are largely unchanged today.
My view is that humanity is merely the dominant creature in a food chain. A skilled and destructive parasite, leeching off a small planet and it's largely unfortunate (non-human) animal neighbours. At present we have no way of knowing how the planet or indeed the universe came to be, and such questions, whilst interesting, are largely irrelevant. Infinitely more important is the question of how future generations are going to survive on a planet already massively overpopulated, polluted, ravaged and damaged in a most short-sighted manner.
The notion that humanity is in some way more important, relevant or deserving than the rest of the animal kingdom is by turns quaint and dangerously self-deluding. Dangerous in that it encourages and excuses habitat and species destruction, quaint in that it is a belief stretching back to the dimmest mists of human existence, propelled by zero evidence and egotism.
That's my take and to me it's as obvious as night and day. So why do so few others agree?
Skipping over the endless subject of organised religion and it's disastrous and frequently appalling track record, we need to turn to human nature.
The need to believe in SOMETHING beyond ourselves is largely universal. But why? There are several theories -- that humanity needed an explanation for existence, particularly an explanation for death. That there had to be some reason for us to be here and that inexplicable natural events such as storms, earthquakes and floods needed a 'rational' explanation. And that a society built on tribal and spiritual values, often masqueraded as morality, created a more cohesive and easily manipulated populace.
But whilst we can understand the above in the context of primitive and even medieval societies, surely such notions should largely have fallen by the wayside in today's global, enlightened and technological age? Few still believe in a flat earth, the sun revolving round our planet or in witches, goblins and fairies, so why do we still feel the need for a deity?
Well there are a few possibilities. First of all, religious belief, particularly in the notion of a MALE deity (surely common sense should indicate that any deity would be sexually neutral?) helps to reinforce societally convenient stereo-types. Thus Christianity and particularly Islam are used as excuses for the subjucation and abuse of women, the persecution of homosexuals and the supposed superiority of men.
Tribalism -- humanity has always been a tribal animal, clinging to the 'them and us' notions of the earliest days when being in the correct group meant life or death. Today's tribal societies are more subtle, relying on the basic insecurity of the individual. Being brought up in one 'tribe' due to job description or skin colour is a little too 'loose' -- being raised in a tribe which has the spiritual 'truth' is quite another. Thus Roman Catholics, Sunni Muslims, Mormons etc 'belong' to a particular group, complete with their own rituals, fanciful ideas and tribal laws. They may not appear sensible or ethical to outsiders, but 'belonging' to a group, even an abusive one, is for many preferable to being an 'outcast' forced to stand on your own two feet.
Vested interests -- God = money. Whether a humble priest or a multi-millionaire cult leader, there is money to be made from the exploitation of others gullibility. It works for anti-wrinkle creams, alternative medicines and fortune tellers, so why not for supernatural belief? Indeed it's only limits are the imagination. In addition to financial gain, other benefits of running a religious group include power, respect and control. As the RC church have so ably demonstrated, religious power brings with it such perks as unfettered paedophilia as well as huge amounts of money and influence. The world's religions have myriad reasons for wishing their particular brands to continue, and the best way to do so is by 'getting them young.'
Indoctrination -- this is perhaps the most insidious of all. Rather than allowing an individual to choose their faith in early adulthood, most supernaturalists insist on indoctrinating their children in their tribal faith (and their faith ONLY) literally from birth. What could say more about the tribal nature and uncertainty of religious faith than that parents and their religious masters are afraid to allow their offspring to choose -- they must be TOLD, despite the fact that their 'faith' is merely an accident of birth, that they have been born into the one 'true' faith.
So is supernatural belief merely about rigid organised religion and tribalism? Or is there something more?
Left to decide for themselves, having been brought up in a non-religious or religiously neutral environment, many people WILL choose religious belief of one sort or another. Sometimes through marriage, sometimes through persausion, sometimes through liking what they see in a particular faith. There's no doubt that most people still feel the need to believe and worship something. Even non-deity believers will still say thet are 'spiritual', that there is 'something greater than us.'
Why should this be? Is it merely the sense of scale? That individuals feel (rightly) dwarfed by the vastness of the universe and the seeming futility of existence? Is it a coping mechanism dating from our primeval past? And are we always likely to have these feelings?
I say always because always may not be that long. Whether or not global warming even exists, the planet's resources are being sucked dry at an alarming rate. Whether you're religious or not, the end (for humanity as we know it as opposed to the planet which will continue regardless) may well be nigh.
The question is should humanity be wasting it's time on oceans of mumbo jumbo and ancient manuscripts when the actual survival of the species is infinitely more important?