On The Need To Believe In Something Greater Than Us
Why does anybody believe in God? I mean, outside of habit, or having been brought up in faith, such that life outside of it is unimaginable? Reasons for religious belief are invariably personal, and none is more interesting me to me than the oft-repeated “I am a person of faith because I need to believe there is something greater than us.” It is a ridiculous justification, for sure — but it reveals something very curious about human nature.
I. A lack of humility masquerading as humility: only people who don’t actually think there is anything greater than us need to believe in God for this reason.
Of course, needing to believe something does not render that belief valid. For example, I really need to believe that eating a tub of Rocky Road ice cream every day would not lead to weight gain. But such a belief would be delusional, and reality would quickly prove me wrong. The need for reassurance (that we are immortal, and the world is just) and the validity of that reassurance (or lack thereof) are two completely different things.
More importantly, however, the idea that the absence of God means there is nothing bigger than us is fundamentally wrong. It’s true that in many situations when we argue about policy, or morality, “man is the measure of all things” — but one must not lose perspective. Humans are pretty insignificant on the grand scheme of things, and that’s without bringing God into it. If you need to believe there is something bigger than us, go read a book on astronomy. Or evolution. Or medicine. Humanity is a tiny fraction of the tiniest speck compared to the vastness of the universe — and that’s true whether you consider reality at the macroscopic or the microscopic level. We live lives so fleeting compared to the age of stars and planets, no analogy could ever convey the chasm; so brief are our lives, we might as well not exist at all. We survive in an infinitesimally thin film covering a rock, a tiny, tiny place set adrift in an environment that would kill us in an instant. We are stuck here and will be for a long, long time, perhaps forever, because this great, vast universe has distances that far outstrip our life expectancies and characteristics that make it completely inhospitable. And here on Earth, our survival as a species is always imperiled by disease, overpopulation and climate change. Science has already established that there are things bigger than us.
Truth is, when people say they want to believe in something that’s “bigger than us”, what they really mean is “I want to believe in something bigger than me, and I want that thing to have human characteristics. Because if this bigger thing is human-like, then maybe I can reason with it. Bargain with it. Plead with it. Make it emphasize with me. Maybe I could hope it has some capacity for benevolence. And maybe if this Bigger Thing created us in its image, then all the bad things that happen to humanity aren’t an indication that we could, one day, completely perish. If this bigger-than-us thing is like a person, then perhaps it has a vision, and there is a point to all this nonsense.”
2. Needing to believe in something greater than us: the evolution edition.
Perhaps I am giving creationists too much credit, but just as I characterize faith as a form of denial of mortality, so I suspect the biggest problem with the theory of evolution for these folks isn’t that we are descended from apes, but the implication that humans too may one day become extinct, just like the dinosaurs or the Neanderthals. That we can just vanish, and weeds and jungles could consume our cities, and life would go on without us. The danger that we are not eternal is what fuels religious belief.
In other words, “I need to believe there is something bigger than us” is basically saying “I can’t face the abyss.”
There is something else, of course. Evolution is all about the “survival of the fittest”, sure, but the true measure of fitness in an evolutionary sense isn’t size, physical strength or desire to bone — it’s adaptibility. Inflexibility in the face of a changing environment leads to decline and extinction; it is the lesson of both evolution and of human history. The entire experience of human existence and civilizations boils down to one simple maxim: CHANGE OR DIE. And that idea is, of course, anathema to those who are deeply invested in maintaining “traditions” set in stone, defending faith-based racial segregation or justifying narrowly defined gender roles. From the perspective of a rational person, the scientific evidence that supports the theory of evolution is irrelevant to the question of social progress, but I know from my interactions with otherwise educated people who angrily deny evolution, that the problem is that it feels icky, it seems to carry a moral that challenges their notions of how society should function.
This is also why deeply religious people who don’t deny evolution tend to anthropomorphise it; they claim that human beings evolved to completion in the Neolithic era, and may not evolve any further, lest we go against evolution’s intent and plan. They believe that evolution, in all its wisdom, has crafted very narrow channels of appropriate behavior for humans, and that any deviation is forbidden. Here we come full circle: for the deeply religious, if evolution cannot be denied, then evolution needs to be merged with God; it must be deemed to have a plan for us, a caring for our existence, and a way to punish us for disobeying.
3. A need to believe is the same as denial.
If you look your lover in the eye and say, “I need to believe that you love me,” it means that (1) you don’t believe that he loves you; and (2) he probably doesn’t.
We “need” to believe a lot of things. I need to believe the world is just — but it isn’t. I need to believe we all have control of our destinies — but we don’t. I need to believe that every dose of bad in life is followed up with something breaking in your favor for balance — but it doesn’t always work out that way. But above all, we need a just world where no one suffers needlessly. This need does not will God into existence, it merely leads people to delude themselves. For nothing is scarier than a cold, random, virtually unknown Universe, that offers not a single guarantee.
And in the minds of most people, we should all face our fears — except the very darkest.