What are gods, assuming they don’t exist? They have many social functions. They’re tools for subjugating gullible hordes of uncritical thinkers; they’re mirrors reflecting our vanity or perhaps they’re harbingers of what we expect to evolve into as a result of technological progress; and they’re fictions that inure us to the inevitability of our bodily demise. One aspect of the gods, though, that should be better understood becomes apparent when we reflect on two unsettling facts.
Invisible Friends and Cosmic Aloneness
The first is that the probability is extremely low that any human will encounter intelligent extraterrestrial life, and that’s so even if the universe is teeming with life beyond the solar system. This is because the universe is so mind-bogglingly vast that the time needed to travel between galaxies or stars would make even a light-speed journey unfeasible.
Moreover, by the time aliens could travel here or we could reach them, both their civilization and ours would likely have become extinct. Just as creatures throughout the universe would be separated in space, they would also be divided by time: the chance that two species originating from different stars would be near enough that they could reach each other, while also having evolved and survived at roughly the same time is extremely remote, because the natural duration of each species — especially a volatile, intelligent one that looks for faraway life — must be infinitesimal compared to the life of each star.
Thus, we may be the only intelligent creatures to have evolved in any part of the universe that we could realistically reach throughout the lifespan of our species. But even if there are others, we will likely never communicate with them, both because of the vast distances between stars and the barrier of light speed, and because of the self-destructiveness of the technologically-advanced civilizations needed to undertake interstellar travel in the first place, which makes for the relative narrowness of the window of opportunity for communicating with alien life.
The second curious fact is that the average human brain prefers social contact to total isolation, and copes with solitary confinement by undergoing forms of mental derangement rather than suffering outright anxiety and despair. Mountaineers, solo explorers, marooned sailors, and prisoners who are isolated for most of the day in a maximum security facility cope by hallucinating, anthropomorphizing their indifferent environment, or by devising obscure problems to occupy the rational side of their mind; otherwise, they can succumb to psychosis.
Putting these two facts together, we should wonder whether theistic religion is a form of mass derangement that allows us to cope with our collective isolation in the cold, dark universe. It would be fallacious to assume that what’s true of a group’s member must be true of the group as a whole. Still, there’s clearly an analogy between the lone individual’s tendencies to talk to imaginary friends or to projections of herself and to analyze fictions at great lengths to hone her reason when deprived of real stimuli, on the one hand, and the universal phenomenon of theistic religion, which involves the positing of extraterrestrial beings with whom we can socialize, and the theological elaboration of supernatural social hierarchies, on the other.
So while the society needn’t duplicate what occurs at the level of its individual members, such duplication appears to have actually happened for the obvious reason that just as some individuals find themselves permanently isolated from the group, our species isn’t in genuine contact with any society that’s independent of the animal kingdoms that we dominate on this planet.
Theoretically, we might turn to animal species instead of imagining aliens and gods, angels and demons, or ghosts and goblins to pretend our species isn’t perfectly friendless. Most wild species, however, aren’t fit companions, since their intelligence is limited to conceiving of means of directly preserving their genes. Instead of attempting to befriend them, we typically exterminate wild species, replacing them with domesticated ones (pets or livestock) just as we replace the wilderness with tamer, artificial environments.
As for domesticated animals, our relationship with them is as limited as that between master and slave. Just as the dictator who is surrounded by sycophants lacks the social challenge to keep himself from going mad, whole human societies couldn’t be satisfied with their enslavement of the likes of horses, cows, camels, dogs, or cats. We would prefer for our society to relate to equals or even to superiors so that we might learn and grow from the social exchange. We have no such equals or superiors and so we’ve had to invent them with our religious myths.
The point is that while theistic religions also ward off our fear of death, as Freud explained, we shouldn’t overlook their role in helping us cope with our collective loneliness. We need gods to grant us the miracle of eternal life and happiness, but we also need them to give us an excuse not to feel as though we’ve been abandoned by an uncaring cosmic wilderness.
Is the Religious Coping Mechanism an Embarrassment?
Let’s turn to whether the collective act of imagining invisible friends is respectable under our existential circumstances. By hypothesis, there’s no relevant nonhuman life, so the question is only whether we can or should respect ourselves for living as though there were extraterrestrial intelligent life that presently socializes with us (by hearing our prayers, by rewarding and punishing us in an afterlife, and so on). This is to say that it’s not worth asking whether anyone looking down on our species should respect what we’re doing. There’s no one in that overseer position.
Evidently, though, most theists not only do respect themselves, but they go as far as to condescend to nonbelievers. The reason for this is that the alternative of universal atheism is as detrimental as an attitude of harsh realism would be for the marooned sailor or for the prisoner in solitary confinement. If the choices are to be immersed in a fantasy world or to wallow in dread and angst, the prudent option is the former, assuming the fantasy can be sustained and the overriding goal is to be happy.
If the sailor is rescued or the prisoner is released after having carried on conversations for many months with invisible persons, she may become ashamed of the childlike state to which she’d been reduced to survive. But by hypothesis, there is no salvation from our collective predicament; our species will never be turned over to an everlasting community of angelic beings. Again, we will likely kill ourselves off or be wiped out by a natural catastrophe before we could communicate with any alien intelligence, assuming there is such intelligence in the first place.
So we will have no period of hindsight during which to feel ashamed of our former mental coping mechanisms. By contrast, the individual’s resort to the imagination to flee from unforgiving reality — as in the case of the marooned sailor — doesn’t necessarily condemn her to insanity, because that flight may be temporary and escape for her may not be hopeless. Talking with imaginary friends may be a necessary evil in certain individual cases.
But suppose there’s no chance of the individual’s redemption, as in the scenario of the last survivor on earth after an apocalyptic dying-off of humankind. Were that survivor to resort to anthropomorphizing trees and stones, with no hope of a return to genuine social interaction, because everyone else is dead, the fantasy wouldn’t be rational or sane as a means of preserving hope in the interim, because there would be no return to normality and thus no interim.
Still, although that survivor couldn’t rationally hope for a recreation of society, she could speak to imaginary friends to avoid the unpleasant feelings that accompany a realistic reckoning with her dire situation. Nevertheless, although her strategy might be rational and thus understandable, it wouldn’t be heroic or admirable, because she would have broken from reality into madness. Her madness would be useful to her but it would also be a defeat, a final wound left by humanity’s destruction. Whether she goes on to loath or respect herself would be a function of her fantasy, and its justification would be arbitrary since it would follow only from the gratuitous rules of her fiction.
As a species our position is similar to that of the last person left alive on earth. The madness of theistic religion can be mitigated only by the fiction’s utility in preventing an outbreak of mass terror or despair. The fiction isn’t temporary, which is to say there likely won’t be a universal recognition that almost all of reality is impersonal; we won’t awaken from our fanciful dream and even if we respect ourselves as children of some deity, that self-estimation is grounded in the fantasy and thus it begs the question. Of course the fantasy respects itself, as it were, since the delusion’s purpose is to provide comfort.
But whether the fantasy is respectable as a way of dealing with reality is another matter. In our better, more lucid moments, we may or may not be prone to feeling shame for surrendering to theistic lunacy rather than welcoming existential awe and giving up on the ideal of happiness.