If a superintelligent alien studied human behaviour the way we study animals, dividing them according to their status in a dominance hierarchy as they struggle to fulfill their stages in their evolutionary life cycle, I imagine the alien might land on something like the following framework to encompass our range of expression.
We’re capable of perceiving the world as it really is, but because we’re vain and the objective situation is always more or less inhuman, the fundamental truths are taboo for us. To be aware of how things really are is to threaten the social order, since society depends on myths to keep the peace. From the vantage point of intelligent but fallible mortals like us, the prospect of living purely in the real world, with no fantasies, delusions or other distractions is horrific.
We’re familiar with the religious myths that provide escapes from reality by positing gods, benevolent superhuman powers, and spiritual utopias. Religions are low-tech options for coping with nature’s mindless creativity, since they rely on the imagination to project a layer of fantasy onto our experience, rather like how smartphone cameras can filter their inputs with an ornamental overlay to “augment” reality.
We imagine that nature isn’t indifferent to whether we’re happy or miserable, and that sentience isn’t an accidental abomination, because we learn to perceive the world through a comforting theological lens. We trust that unsettling events are somehow redeemed by a divine plan. Instead of abandoned, hapless, perpetually deluded and glorified primates, we’re God’s children working through spiritual boot camp (as the philosopher of religion John Hick suggests).
Religions are very similar to children’s fanciful impressions of the world, since the creeds feature invisible friends and playful distortions of otherwise-unbearable truths. The difference is that children augment their experience with a layer of fiction not from psychological weakness or a prudent desire to conserve the social order, but mainly to exercise their cognitive faculties, to learn by playing.
That’s only one end of our spectrum of options for escaping reality. At the other end is what we call secularism rather than religion. Instead of only imagining a “spiritual” alternative to the amoral wilderness and to the cosmic wasteland, we hold our nose, learn how nature works, and build an actual alternative, artificial environment.
Whereas nature doesn’t care about us one way or the other, artifacts (machines, cities, artworks) are intelligently designed to do our bidding; their function is to serve us. Our artificial worlds mean to replace nature’s monstrous evolutions with human-centered refuges.
Religions seem to provide the historic blueprints while science and industry build the world that was foreshadowed by the ancient daydreams. In our fevered collective imagination, natural disasters were divine punishments, and angels and devils lurked around every corner. Now the godlike power to destroy a world is in our hands, thanks to nuclear and biological weapons, and computer programs will adorn everything from clothes to buildings, in the form of smart materials. The intentions of angels and demons derived from the prophets who authored the religious myths, just as artifacts perform according to their designer’s plan.
If theistic religion is comparable to children’s play, the business of building an artificial refuge from nature corresponds to adulthood. Children have the freedom to ignore reality, but adults are responsible for doing something about it, to cope with harsh facts by constructively solving problems. Adults have to care for children and compete for their survival against clever and deadly rivals. Adult animals do so by exploiting their adapted body-type, while adult humans prefer to overturn the entire evolutionary game board and devise alternative worlds and games, ones not so threatening to our fragile egos and puny bodies.
Alienation in No Man’s Land
Between children and adults there’s the angst-ridden teen that’s too old for children’s games but too young to ignore her impassioned doubts out of conservative prudence. The teen stands for the rebellious, radical outsider who’s condemned to witness horrific reality with no religious or secular defenses.
The teen is alienated from both the irresponsible, obsolete religions and from the adult ventures that only pretend to be more mature but are so many elevated forms of escape. Alas, the teen dwells in that no man’s land, alone with the real world’s cold physicality that outlasts all our self-centered fictions and makes a mockery of our escape hatches, since death comes for every individual and society.
This model of our experience takes as central the existential confrontation with how things really are and explains religion and secularism as stages in what may be a self-destructive process of avoiding that confrontation. Religion glues mass society together and its myths inspire us to become the gods we dream of. Once we acquire real godlike power over our corner of the universe, we preoccupy ourselves with the task of managing Earth’s makeover, ignoring the fact that our creativity could only be an anomalous blip that’s dwarfed and mocked by nature’s infernal, ever-transforming variety.