The other day, I caught a little of Jim Goad on Luke Ford’s podcast. I did not stick around long, as Goad went into a childish rant about religion. It was a bit embarrassing to see a middle-aged man carry on like a toddler demanding his binky. Then again, the sum total of atheism is a childish rant, demanding someone else explain the mysteries of religion to the satisfaction of an atheist. “Tell me how a loving God would let bad things happen to good people” is the typical rant. It is a question that can never be answered to their satisfaction.
Atheism is a good example of a negative identity. If Christianity did not exists. atheists would have to invent it so they could rail against it. You’ll never hear an atheists talk about the majesty or beauty of atheism. In fact, they never talk about it at all. Instead, it is endless complaining about religion, especially Christianity. The atheist defines himself entirely by his opposition to religion. It’s why they almost always inform you they are an atheist within five minutes of meeting them. They are like vegans in that way.
Atheism is nutty on two fronts. One is the core irrationality of it. The existence of God, gods or some supernatural force that animates the universe is unknowable. The big religions get that, which is why it is at the core of those faiths. For that matter, what we understand to be the universe could just be a kid’s science experiment in another dimension. Our world exists in a terrarium on the desk of some kid in the lizard people dimension. These are things we cannot know. That is the nature of faith.
This is where a “bible believing Christian” tells me I’m wrong. They know God exists because of something they read somewhere in their bible. Well, you don’t know that and saying you do puts you outside Christianity. The Catholic Church had a word for people who went around saying they knew things about God. They called them heretics and burned them at the stake. You can believe in God, you can believe he plays a hand in man’s affairs. You can believe anything, but you can only know what is knowable.
Belief is one of modern man’s oldest traits. It is assumed it co-evolved with language, for the simple reason both involve abstract thinking. The future condition tense, for example is about something that might happen in the future. This is not something that is real, that you see and touch. it is something you imagine. To express that, to even think it, you need language that can contain the idea. That is what language is, after all. It is a container to hold ideas and concepts that you can transmit to other humans, across time and place.
Belief works the same way, even simple beliefs that existed with primitive early man. To imagine a spirit force that animates the wind or the tides requires the ability to imagine that which cannot be seen or touched. Conjuring a spirit force as the explanation for the tides requires the ability to infer things from observation. This belief becomes a container to hold this idea. The stories that came to surround the existence of the spirit force are also containers, to make it easy to transmit this abstract idea to others over time and place.
As humans settled, their observations about nature mixed with their own ability to alter nature. The first breeding of dogs, for example, surely changed how people thought of animals and their fundamental nature. Throw in the complexity of human relations that arises from settled life and it is no surprise that belief became more complex. Those containers had to hold more complex abstract ideas, so simple beliefs based in nature were replaced with complex religious systems that could encompass complex ideas.
Put another way, just as our complex communications systems are part of what defines us as modern humans, our complex belief structures define us as modern humans. Belief, especially in the form of mature religious systems like Catholicism and its offshoots, is an incredibly efficient way of preserving and transmitting human experience and inferred knowledge. The Christian Bible contains vast stores of knowledge about human relations, just about everything one would ever need to know about human society.
A good way to think of this is to consider the gas tank in your car. It is for holding gasoline, which is the most amazing energy containing system we possess. Vast amounts of energy are contained in small quantities. That energy is so easily released, it requires only a small spark, yet it is so stable and safe, we lug vast amounts of it around at high speed on our highways. To top it off, it is relatively cheap. A thousand generations of human technological advance resides in that gas tank, powering your car down the road.
That’s why it has proven impossible to replace. By now, the West has probably invested close to a trillion dollars trying to come up with a replacement for gasoline and the equally amazing internal combustion engine. International huckster Elon Musk has driven himself to madness trying to build electric cars. Yet, we are no more closer to replacing the internal combustion engine than fifty years ago. Like solar power and renewable energy, the world of the electric cars remains an avatar that is always over the next hill.
Religion, and for the West that means some iteration of Christianity, is the gasoline and internal combustion engine of our culture. The long war on religion is not much different than the war on oil. The one difference is that unlike with cars, we did not wait for a replacement before junking the old technology. Instead, the West abandoned what worked for the fantasy of something better. We keep trying to make civic religion the replacement, but like Elon Musk, we are being driven mad trying to make it work.