So the atheist is left to wonder at the strangeness of the world, at the creation of so many adults whose every act is suspect because of their glaring, albeit partial mental retardation. Just imagine if instead of talking seriously to people who aren’t there and who don’t talk back, theists wore diapers and sucked on pacifiers at work. Oh, they’d pretend to be full-fledged adults: they’d don their power suits, earn piles of cash, drive cars, go on vacation, and talk about adult matters, but all the while they wouldn’t be able to conceal those signs of their bewilderment. And the few adults who wouldn’t need diapers or pacifiers anymore, because they’d have outgrown the most blatant form of self-centeredness, would be legally prevented from saying that the emperor has no clothes; the atheists would be barred from taking command of the human family and treating the theistic majority of people as the children they evidently still are. Who should be pitied more, the theists for being unable to appreciate why they deserve to be ridiculed every day and night until the end of time or the atheists who must suffer such absurdity with no effective recourse? A question for the ages…
Prayer as Personification
Let’s take a step back and talk about prayer. Why do most people pray? The evolutionary reason is given in Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. We have an instinct, or mental module, for reading psychological patterns into processes, an instinct we need to interpret each other’s behaviour and make our way through social networks. Natural selection errs on the side of caution. For example, an animal would much rather make a hasty retreat after a false alarm than be stingy in its defenses and eaten by a predator. Thus, instead of holding back on our skill for positing minds, we err on the side of caution and personify everything under and over the sun, including the sun itself. We interpret everything as having a mind, because we’re most comfortable dealing with other minds. We like to keep track of each other’s social status, our character types and personal histories, and who owes what to whom. We like making up stories about fictional heroes and their exploits, to amuse ourselves as though remembering the mental attributes of our real friends and colleagues weren’t sufficiently taxing on our mental resources. We pity autistic people who lack that instinct and so can’t understand human minds. And so everyone is naturally inclined to project mental capacities onto things that are manifestly impersonal. Even atheists may yell at a rock that lands on their toe. Nevertheless, just as children need to be trained to become adults, atheists, skeptics, rationalists, and scientists train themselves not to overuse that instinct. An atheist may not pray even when her situation is dire and she could use a deus ex machina. She’d feel ridiculous getting down on her knees and speaking to no one just as she would were she to go to work wearing a diaper, sucking on a pacifier, and holding a security blanket.
That’s the evolutionary cause of prayer, but prayer also has many rationalizations which reduce to the idea that we need to harmonize somehow with the world, to be in rapport with ultimate reality. Assuming that reality is personal, our best means of relating to it is through communication, so that’s why people tell themselves they should pray. And were ultimate reality impersonal, prayer would of course be foolish, but the harm would be minimal since those who pray are in the majority and have established the legal right to embarrass themselves in that fashion, so that atheists aren’t entitled to shepherd the invalids.
As is common knowledge, atheism isn’t politically correct even in many modern societies, but it is taken for granted by the technoscientific institutions that have dominated the planet for the last several centuries. Scientists are methodologically naturalistic, meaning that they assume everything has a natural explanation, that there are no supernatural agents such as a disembodied mind that controls natural forces. Now, I said that rationalists have no effective recourse when dealing with so many childish adults, because the law and the numbers aren’t on their side. But rationalists have reacted to the overwhelming evidence that the universe is natural and impersonal, after all, and it’s interesting to compare this reaction with the theist’s attempt at rapport through prayer. The theist prays and divines an imagined response, as though the universe were answering back through the voice of her own intuition or through any chance event or natural process. Overusing our capacity to interpret psychological patterns is so easy for us that any apparently impersonal event can be given a theistic reading. The thesis that ultimate reality is personal is thus unfalsifiable, and so this is hardly a scientific proposition. Again, in evolutionary terms, anthropomorphism and prayer are natural processes (genetic strategies to keep social mammals like us alive). The choice isn’t to pray but to refuse to succumb to the temptation to overuse the mental module. The heroism isn’t to leap to faith in a personal source of nature, but to resist the mass delusion at the cost of being ostracized by the mentally weaker herd.
Semantics as Personification
Still, although rationalists have taken modern science to heart, they have curious substitutes for prayer and for other such gross theistic follies. Finding that the universe is mostly devoid of life and that we creatures are confined to our planet, alienated from matter and dreading our inevitable demise, rationalists improve their situation by humanizing their environments, replacing mind-independent facts with the value-laden artifices of culture and technology. Theists have the capacity for reason too, so this project of turning the wilderness into a mirror is ancient and global in scope, stretching back tens of thousands of years to the cave paintings at Lascaux. How is the humanization accomplished? In its modern form, by scientifically learning how the impersonal processes work and systematically exploiting that knowledge in capitalistic economies that reward innovation and industry. How, though, do scientists learn the facts? By experimenting, to be sure, but also by communicating their explanations to each other and to the world at large, often using artificial languages to make the most precise distinctions.
These explanations are thought to be true, to agree with the facts. But it’s just here that there’s room for comparison with prayer. Prayer is supposed to be a dialogue that puts creatures in rapport with the spirit world. “Rapport” comes from the French word “rapporter,” meaning to bring back. The harmonious connection between the praying person and her god, then, is supposed to end with the person’s being brought back to her ultimate source. Prayer is needed to rectify a disconnection, the fallenness of people who aren’t at one with their gods, and prayer is supposed to bring them together again, to atone for their sins or to appease the angry deities. Technoscience likewise rectifies a disharmony, namely the impersonality of nature and the aloneness of living things, by taming the indifferent elements and forces and blotting out wilderness wherever possible, since wilderness, the state of nature that’s untouched by any living thing, is the enemy’s stronghold, as it were, the portent that life is a horrible accident and thus the cause of our existential anxiety. But whereas theists merely presuppose that the world is fundamentally personal and thus that prayer harmonizes the living things that are out of alignment, rationalists actually make it so with a real transformation of the world. Instead of purifying ourselves so that we’re fit to be in God’s august presence for eternity, rationalists change the inhuman environment to make it a fit pedestal for our godlike selves.
Those rigorous, scientific expressions, though--those are what I find most curious here. After all, before the technological transformation happens, you need the scientific theories that somehow agree with the facts. What is that agreement? As most philosophers agree, it’s not similarity or some causal relation. Minimally, the theory must be internally coherent, meaning that it must meet certain epistemic standards to be rationally justified, but there’s also this suspicion that a factual statement corresponds or agrees with a fact. On one level, the statement consists of squiggles or sound forms, but these are assigned meaning, which means they’re thought to represent other things. Notice that the relation of meaning is as invisible as the spirit world. Take this statement, for example: “A dog usually has four legs.” Assuming the statement’s true, this set of symbols, which can be translated into other languages, is thought to be about a fact in the world, namely a fact of how dogs are put together. But the symbols themselves don’t do anything. There’s no visible connection between them and the fact at hand. Now, I’ve argued elsewhere that semantic meaning does involve this complex causal relation of getting us to modify our environment, to make it more palatable to us. This is at best a broad pattern, since there are many ways to use the information that dogs usually have four legs, for example. In any case, this usefulness of symbols, whether they be inside or outside our head, doesn’t exhaust their meaningfulness. Suppose all life were wiped out in the universe, but our artifacts were to remain intact, including our written texts. Would those texts still carry meaning even were there no more possibility of using the symbols? If you think so, you believe semantic meaning is somehow more than any kind of use.
But what else could this meaning be? Like I said, there’s no mechanism there, no physical relationship between the symbols and the facts, and yet we assume there’s a deep connection between them. I submit that this connection is as ghostly as the one theists assume to hold between people and gods. As I argue elsewhere, reason disenchants the world, teaching us that spirits don’t lurk around every corner, but reason also re-enchants nature, expressing our instinct to personify in surprising ways. Just as most people are comforted by the assumption that ultimate reality is personal, so too we’re relieved when technology humanizes the wilderness. Moreover, the spirits seem to live on in semantics, and so truth is a kind of rapport and all truth-oriented speech takes on the urgency of prayer. The agreement between a statement and a fact is peculiar to the point of being only metaphorical. “Agree” comes from the Latin “gratum,” meaning what is grateful or pleasing. So strictly speaking, agreement happens only between living things, not between people and impersonal facts. The number of legs on a dog doesn’t agree or disagree with any statement and the semantic assumption otherwise is itself an act of personification.
And so the mental module strikes again. From the very beginning of language, before any explicit theology or vision of spirits, our ancestors’ impulse to interpret each other as minds living in social networks drove them to treat their grunts and other signals as being better or worse, depending on whether the signals and the facts were (metaphorically) happy together. Indeed, that impulse drove them to humanize themselves, to interpret their own thoughts as agreeing or disagreeing with the outer world. When two people agree, they might smile at each other or hug or do each other favours. And when a statement agrees with a fact, some mystical connection is supposedly made, called Truth. The symbols mirror the world and the two are brought in harmony. But that harmony is as elusive as the mentality of natural events. Because personification of nature is only a stretch of imagination, the agreement between symbols and personified things is bound to be farfetched and aesthetically flawed; that is, the metaphor that rationalizes semantic interpretation of symbols isn’t as compelling as the mental module that causes this behaviour.
Still, even the scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and computer programmers--the wizards who speak the arcane “language of nature,” as the perennial myth puts it--usually assume that statements are true if the facts agree with them (or if the Lord smiles upon them). The chief alternative is to take an entirely pragmatic attitude towards symbols; accordingly, there’s no such thing as truth and statements or theories are merely more or less useful in helping us achieve our goals. In fairly short order, this may land us in postmodern relativism and nihilism. Still, those may be merely the costs of not engaging in dubious anthropomorphism and mythologization. The way out, in my view, would be to uphold aesthetic standards in place of semantic (or moral) ones. In any case, the comparison that strikes me is of the theists kneeling in prayer, calling out apparently to no one whatsoever, and the rationalists (and most other language users) who speak to other people but who prize some statements more than others, as though the world cared one way or the other what noises we make or what marks we inscribe. Prayer is an especially childish kind of speech, but speech in general is rife with delusion. The difference is one of degree rather than kind: theists elaborate on the motives that the ghosts and deities are supposed to have, to rationalize prayer as a means of seeking agreement between us and the minds at the bottom of reality, while language users generally don’t explore the metaphysics or semantic theory behind the assumption that statements can be meaningful and true.
The upshot, then, is that we’re all childish regardless of our age or religious status, but some of us become self-righteous in our delusions. Language use is as instinctive as the search for mental patterns, but instead of seeing only the undead natural processes occurring here, we tell stories to make ourselves feel better about what and where we are. To be sure, prayer is especially ridiculous, because theists go out of their way to embarrass themselves, to showcase their desperation to have everlasting parents and other loved ones to make everything alright. But whenever any of us thinks, speaks, or writes and assumes that some configuration of our symbols corresponds with the facts, we likewise take ourselves to be aiming at a rapport with something that gives a damn, whereas we’re just howling at the moon.