No human has lived long enough to witness the life-cycle of a star, and yet we know how stars are created, how they persist, how they degrade, how they die. There are two main reasons for this: we know the basic rules that govern their lives (i.e., physics) and we have a tremendous sample size. We understand the principles of atomic fusion, the power of gravity, the inevitability of entropy. We can look up and see stars at every possible stage of development across a variety of compositions, from gaseous nebulae to black holes and supernovae.
Just like how we have a broad understanding of the fundamental forces that underlie the life-cycle of stars, we have a sense of how the human mind works. We know that humans are susceptible to suggestion, are easily misled, how ideas can be reinforced through repetition, and how we rarely question the status quo. The psychology of humans is one designed to defer to authority in youth, bad at breaking habits later in life, and often resolute in erroneous belief near the end. Children are predisposed to listen to their parents as part of the survival instinct, otherwise they might die. Habits formed in youth are extremely hard to break, and humans have a great habit of forming and maintaining habits; it’s basically a mental shortcut we’ve evolved to save time. And old people, after a lifetime of such reinforcements, are often implacable in their ideas no matter how illogical (think of the stereotypical racist grandfather or the grandmother who has boiled potatoes with pizza, because it isn’t dinner without potatoes).
Now, I agree, these are broad generalisations, but we do have a remarkably large sample size; there are, and have been, literally billions of humans, not unlike stars. Even if an alien took a single snapshot of humanity, there are so many of us from so many varied backgrounds that they could arrive at a reasonable hypothesis as to how we are conceived, born, live, and die; they could note the similarities and differences in our cultures; they could see some interesting disparities in wealth and status across gender and race. Basically, we do not have to witness the full lifespan of an object or concept to understand its underlying principles if we have sufficient evidence from various stages of development.
Now, because we have such a large sample size and a basic understanding of humans, in addition to the whole of human history and endeavours, we can draw some interesting conclusions concerning faith and religion.
If we look across the gamut of humanity, we can see a life-cycle of sorts for religion and faith. Taking a snapshot of the world as it stands today, we can see primitive cultures (I do not use this term in a pejorative sense, I simply mean societies which are not considered technologically or organisationally advanced, or what anthropologists refer to as Traditional Cultures) which have ‘rudimentary’ supernatural beliefs revolving around ill-understood natural forces, spirits, or totems, whereas more ‘advanced’ societies have complex religions with elaborate rituals and hierarchies of celestial beings. Through history, we can examine the development of, for example, Judaism from polytheism to monotheism, or how Christianity and Islam picked up ideas from paganism and Zoroastrianism. We can see how faith was born of ignorance and awe of the natural world, how, as cities and hierarchical societies emerged, more hierarchical religions developed alongside to minister to the nascent societies. We have religions born in the full light of history, like the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormonism) and the so-called ‘cargo cults’, which offer fascinating insights into how religions begin and develop. This is not new information. It seems patently obvious that faith and religions were born of human imagination, like love and hate, art, Doctor Who, and unicorns. Over time, these invented and inventive notions were clarified and codified, laying the foundations for religions. Elaborate stories were told to explain the nature of reality and humanity’s position in it, and came to be understood as ‘true’. Generations of reinforcement and the stifling of free thought led to the situation where to think that these ‘truths’ were just stories was anathema, ridiculous, a challenge to the status quo.
Then there arrived on the scene the modern disciplines of academic History, Archaeology, Science, Philosophy, Anthropology, and Literary Criticism (I say ‘modern’ here, as many disciplines had a strong religio-imperialist spin until very recently, a spin which disappointingly persists in some quarters) which started asking questions and some people got a bit annoyed and started saying that the ‘truths’ they hold can’t be academically analysed. But they can. And they have been. I’ve met Catholics who scoff at Mormons and their recasting of the great journey westward to Utah in the Mosaic tradition, but these same Catholics affirm the reality of the ‘true’ exodus of Moses (for which there is no evidence). The fact of the matter is that both stories clearly demonstrate how people mythologise their own religious past. Islam grafted in the daily prayer routine of Zoroastrianism and the veneration of the pagan Ka’aba. Christian notions of the essentiality and holiness of virginity are drawn from Roman legal demands for ensuring paternity and pagan custom. And, of course, there is the well-trod path of comparisons between the Christian myth and various Egyptian mystery cults, the cults of Mithras and Sol Invictus, and various Graeco-Roman mystery cults which I will not explore here. When you get to the heart of it, many core traditions (or ‘unique selling factors’ if we think of religions as competing marketing brands) of many religions are actually fairly common myths recycled into new narratives.
It is clear, then, that belief in the divine is a human construct. There is always the cry of the religious that Science can’t explain everything, which of course it can’t, and that the God of the Gaps still leaves a space for God. And there is the argument that Faith and Science occupy non-overlapping magisteria, which seems to placate some, bit it is still a platitude, and not a very helpful one at that. The gap that Science can’t fill, the Humanities do. Science drives forward with explaining material reality, investigating everything from strings to stars, and the Humanities give it meaning, and then interrogate that meaning, and then interrogate the validity of that interrogation and its meaning. The magisteria of religion is based on a false premise, and its area of inquiry is better left to Philosophy. Logic might drive the Sciences, but Reason leads the Humanities; Evidence is the foundation to both. Faith and religion are easily explicable frameworks within the context of human development; they arose from fear and awe and became enmeshed in value systems and societal structures. The religious have convinced us that faith is the foundation of a just society when it is, at best, an impediment and, at worst, a corruption. The sheer number of competing faiths and structures of belief, from animism to polytheism to monotheism and all the factions within, do not demonstrate the existence of a divine force, but rather serve as evidence of human inventiveness and susceptibility to belief.
Just as we no longer believe that the stars are the super-celestial fires burning through the celestial sphere, just as we no longer believe that the mind and body are governed by four humours, we must cast aside the unhelpful burden of faith in the divine. We ought to at least put it in its proper place, not prioritising it and its adherents’ beliefs over all other considerations. Once you have seen that it is only shadows that dance on the cave wall, you can never go back. The world outside the cave is full of beauty and wonder. There’s horror and sorrow too, but even that is better than the lie perpetuated by religion; false hope in an afterlife is little encouragement to make positive change in the real world, while sober and rational confrontation with the ills of humankind yield tangible results. It’s about time we stopped wasting energy on Iron Age cults gone viral and effect real change in the world.