Religion seems strange to the irreligious, since science has shown that the universe isn’t what we thought it was, a relatively small vestibule for our planet. The universe is inhuman in its dimensions, so the suggestion that a person like us could lie at the bottom of reality and be responsible for creating all the galaxies now seems anachronistic at best.
But neither is secularism as benign as the ads devised by many new atheists. If there’s no God, godless nature is counterintuitive and horrific.
Therefore we’re caught between Scylla and Charybdis.
Scripture is Bad Fiction
As far as nonbelievers are concerned, any religious talk of God amounts to bad fiction. If the old myths could still captivate informed and rational people on aesthetic grounds, without relying on indoctrination or mind-altering states of consciousness, we could overlook the dubiousness of theological statements just as we take seriously compelling fictions from Moby Dick to The Empire Strikes Back.
But who says stories are supposed to last forever? The stories we’re read as children are marvelous because at that age we’ve never been told anything before. But we swiftly outgrow those children’s stories as we become more fickle and subject to pop cultural fads. The more fictions we read, the harder we are to please as readers; we expect more from authors and eventually may lose the pleasure of reading altogether, just as an addict no longer enjoys her once-favourite drug.
Religious myths are stories we’re brought up with, but unlike the simple morality tales that are meant for children and that we can’t even remember once we grow up, we’re threatened with divine punishment if we stop taking religious narratives seriously. It’s like if The Little Prince ended with the warning, “And if you ever deny anything written in this story, you’ll be in big trouble,” and millions of people, from one generation to the next took that warning and thus the whole text as gospel, out of the crudest gullibility and fear.
Again, the absurdity is palpable from the outsider’s perspective. Everyone knows you tend to accept the religion you’re taught when you’re young, so your chances of being Hindu are highest if you’re born in India or if your parents are Hindu. If you’re from the Middle East, chances are you’re Muslim. The religious stories persist because they’re transmitted in that fashion, but that doesn’t make them less childish. The foreign perspective makes that childishness plain, as when a Buddhist reads the Koran, a Christian reads the Bhagavad Gita, or an atheist reads any religious scripture.
Foreign gods always come off as the strangest characters, and that’s for two reasons. First, if you weren’t brought up with that religion, you have little emotional connection to the mythical characters. Second, because of that lack of emotional weight, you’re free to take those myths as they really are, which is to say as fictions; only, they happen to be archaic fictions ill-suited to our time, which means other people’s adoration of those stories will seem bizarre to you.
It’s exactly like the perverse devotion of Star Trek fans, from the perspective of someone who’s not interested in science fiction and who’s never watched the show. Or it’s like the comical commitment of obsessive fans of soap operas, from the perspective of anyone who frowns on sappy romances.
Godless Nature is Monstrous
But what do most atheists replace those laughable gods with? What is at the root of reality, assuming theistic religions are all wrong?
Most atheists are philosophical naturalists and they’ll say that the ontological root of everything is just whatever natural stuff physicists or cosmologists will discover at the end of their rational investigations. Maybe it’s subatomic particles or strings or quantum foam or some force or energy or dimension — but it won’t be a god because it won’t be a living character that could have the starring role in a religious fiction.
For these atheists, then, the natural universe comes into being or has always been without the benefit of intelligent direction. No mentality or benevolent intention causes the world to be what it is, and no selfless mind or spirit keeps the universe going. Nevertheless, here we have the vast universe with all its cycles and transformations, including the evolution of galaxies, star systems, planets, and species like ours.
Atheists needn’t fear being bereft of powerful fiction after the obsolescence of religious myths has been made clear, because there’s one fitting character that survives the death of gods, one stock figure that symbolizes the mindlessness of ultimate reality from the naturalistic standpoint. That apt character is nothing less than the monster.
Think of the monsters from classic horror novels and movies. Some may be super-intelligent perhaps, but monsters are generally frightful or hideous, shocking or revolting, extraordinarily immense, and most importantly they deviate grotesquely from the norm.
Traditional monsters were things considered unnatural and portentous, such as freakish births or natural disasters. That kind of monstrousness required a level of comfort with natural norms, which comfort was based on the presumption of theism: natural norms were familiar because they were credited to the artistry of an intelligent designer with whom we could relate, since we too are such designers.
Once we eliminate the gods, we’re left with a different, more fundamental monstrosity. Now it’s the natural norm itself which is horrifying, because godless nature deviates from our social habits. As theists, we expected the roots of nature would conform to our intuitions, since we mentally projected our familiar ways onto the universe. Thus we assumed we could negotiate with whatever forces are responsible for everything that happens, because those forces were considered living spirits like us. We could pray for rain in a time of drought, for example.
Now the socialization, the intelligent design, the benevolent creativity are all anomalous rather than normal, since they’re confined to the human sphere. If intelligent species evolved independently on other planets, they too might be socializers. But for all we currently know, the most comforting norms are themselves abnormal in the larger scheme. Our familiar ways of life are bizarre digressions as far as the rest of the impersonal universe is “concerned.”
Therefore, it’s not as though normal weather such as rain, sunshine, or wind in reality is pleasant whereas unusual weather patterns such as hurricanes, floods, or tornadoes are monstrous. Nor does the destructiveness of those rarer weather events justify our demonization of them. If we’re to demonize by way of venting our understandable terror, we should be much more ambitious in laying the blame, as it were. That helpful rain, that warm sunshine, that cool breeze — all such natural regularities are monstrous when we reflect on their godlessness.
Like a grotesque alien creature that stumbles around on bizarre limbs, that has no brain or spirit and that acts for no reason, blindly hurting or helping as the case may be, all of godless nature is perfectly monstrous. Regardless of the rigor and power of scientific explanations of nature’s physicality, none of those explanations will comport with our intuitions and assuage our disgust with the fundamental fact that nature is utterly inhuman, that the universe comes and goes by itself and for no reason at all, that we sentient creatures are hapless voyeurs, doomed to witness a fraction of godless evolution before our living components merge with the lifelessness of the whole.
Again, we can use scientific models to predict what will transpire and we can apply that knowledge to exploit or control some natural processes with technology. But we’d be foolish to mistake that power and know-how for existential comfort with the world’s natural, godless identity. If anything, the fact that we apply scientific knowledge to build artificial environments shows that we’re appalled by the wilderness because of its monstrousness, its manifest inhumanity, and its zombielike lurching from one amoral state to the next.
Ending the Happy-Talk
Let’s have no more happy-talk, then, from the religious masses or from the hyper-rational naturalists or liberal humanists. As American Southerners like to say, bless your heart if you can still love the invisible friends from your favourite religious tales. Mind you, the peace from religious people’s happiness is as fragile as an eggshell, because the fictions that reassure them and provide them with a meaningful direction in life are preposterous and in poor taste.
But once you understand as much, you hardly have the advantage. Godless nature is a metaphysical monstrosity and you as an atheist must learn to live with your temporary alienation from that monstrosity and with your deeper oneness with it. You must learn to do so, knowing there’s no objective solution to the existential problem since the universe doesn’t care what we do.
The prospect of God’s existence is absurd and so is the universe in the absence of any god. Instead of trying to be happy little deluded humans, can we begin to imagine the transhuman mindset we’ll need to cope with this dearth of viable life options?