Thursday, August 29, 2013

Props and skyhooks

One might think that when empirical science knocked the props out from under institutional religions the whole thing would come crashing down. The foundational myths have been shown to be far-fetched, the miracles unlikely, the prayers ineffectual -– at least by scientific standards of evidence -– and yet the structures stand. Religions survive in the scientific age with as much vigor as ever.

That's because institutional religions, contrary to what we generally suppose, do not depend on their historical foundations. A footing in fact is incidental. What hold them up are skyhooks, skyhooks that are part of human nature.

We want to live forever. We want to know that we are central. We want to know that someone cares. These things are as much a part of what we are as the newborn infant's instinctive thirst for its mother's milk.

We are Christians, or Muslims, or Hindus, or Jews almost universally because of accidents of birth. We inherit from our parents and teachers a body of foundational myths and miracles that we believe to be uniquely true, but that differ irreconcilably from faith to faith. What we share in common as human beings is a desire for immortality and centrality -- skyhooks reaching down out of the infinities of the cosmos. Science can chip away at the historical foundations of religions; no one pays attention. The traditional faiths float without footings, suspended from above, like castles in the air.

The Dawkinses, Hitchenses and Harrises can pull away the foundation stones and kick away the props all they want; religions aren't going away. They are supported by skyhooks contrived by biological and cultural evolution. And those of us who choose to live without institutional religion do so by accepting that we are ephemeral and alone in a universe vast beyond our knowing.