What are gods, assuming they don’t exist? They have many social functions as well as aesthetic values. They're tools for subjugating gullible hordes of uncritical thinkers; mirrors reflecting our vanity or perhaps harbingers of what we expect to become; fictions that inure us to the inevitability of our bodily demise. One aspect of the gods, though, that should be better understood follows when we reflect on two unsettling facts.
The High Likelihood of our 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. Some parts of the universe are more star-dense than others, such as the areas closer to the center of a spiral galaxy, but our solar system happens not to be in such an area. The nearest stars to the sun are in the Alpha Centauri system and are about 4.3 light years away. Travel there by conventional rocket would take tens of thousands of years, and unconventional means such as warp drive are highly speculative. Moreover, by the time aliens could travel here or we could reach them, both their civilization and ours would likely have become extinct. That is, technologically-advanced civilizations likely don’t survive for the tens or hundreds of thousands of years needed to travel between stars, because power is naturally corrupting, corruption detaches the powerful from reality, but reality always has the last word and so the deluded are effectively punished by their downfall. Thus, 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 evolving at roughly the same time is extremely remote, because the natural duration of each species must be infinitesimal compared to the life of each star. That is, a star lasts hundreds of millions or billions of years, while a technologically-advanced species probably lasts no more than some thousands of years, so species from planets orbiting different stars will more likely evolve before or after each other rather than in the same era.
In summary, 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 societies needed to undertake the venture of 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. “Without social interaction, supermax prisoners have no way to test the appropriateness of their emotions or their fantastical thinking,” and so their interpretations become distorted. Lone adventurers attempt to transcend their situation by treating the natural environment itself as a surrogate for a companion, wondering at its grandeur instead of dwelling on their preference for social interaction. “A similar psychological mechanism could explain why shipwrecked mariners marooned on islands have been known to anthropomorphise inanimate objects, in some cases creating a cabal of imaginary companions with whom to share the solitude.”
Putting these two facts together, I’m led to wonder whether theistic religion is a form of mass derangement that allows us to cope with our collective isolation in the cold, dark universe. While it would be fallacious to assume that what’s true of a group’s member must be true of the group as a whole, there is 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. So while the collective needn’t duplicate what occurs at the level of 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 whole species isn’t in genuine contact with any society that’s independent of the animal kingdom 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, as opposed to grasping their greater, existential situation. More specifically, they have no such situation because their intelligence isn’t powerful enough to liberate themselves from natural forces and cycles. Most wild animals, then, are more like machines than self-aware, enlightened beings. As such, we’ve dealt with most wild animals the same way we’ve dealt with the rest of hostile nature, by extinguishing them and replacing them with tamed versions to suit our social needs. Thus, we’ve demolished many wild places and replaced them with artificial worlds (with cities, machines, cultures), and we’ve hunted most wild species to extinction and repopulated the earth with livestock and with pets. The relationship between humans and domesticated animals, though, 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 subordination 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 exchange. We have no such equals or superiors and so we’ve had to invent them in 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 forever in an uncaring cosmic wilderness.
Is the Religious Coping Mechanism an Embarrassment?
Let’s turn to the question of whether, in so far as it has that role, theistic religion is respectable. 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, 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, they condescend to nonbelievers and so-called atheists (the latter being existential realists or gauche speakers of the obvious). The reason for this is that the alternative of universal atheism should be as detrimental as 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 instrumentally-rational 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 any 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. The individual’s resort to the imagination to flee from unforgiving reality is spared from being a mark of insanity because that flight is temporary and escape for her isn’t hopeless. Talk 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 scything of humankind. Should that survivor 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 the individual 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 of 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 an irredeemable defeat. Whether she goes on to loath or respect herself would be a function of her fantasy, and so 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 nausea. 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 so 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. But whether the fantasy is respectable as a way of dealing with reality is another matter. In our better moments, we may or may not be prone to feeling shame for surrendering to lunacy, rather than inviting the cosmicist awe and giving up on the ideal of happiness.
You may be thinking of the European Enlightenment as a period in which millions did emerge from a fog of unknowing and acknowledged the nature’s inhumanity. Indeed, there was such a reckoning, but secular cultures came to appeal to substitute fantasies such as the American Dream that personal freedom is noble and worth fighting for. Instead, that freedom might as well be part of a devil’s bargain. In the limit case, personal freedom is autonomy, the powers to resist external forces and to control your future. Such a liberated and thus necessarily solitary mind would immediately be crushed by the existential weight of its responsibility for deciding its course with no cultural guidance. Only individuals who have been excluded from society would be alienated or “liberated” in that respect, and the price, of course, would be that the objectivity and lack of guidance would prevent them from being happy in the sense of being socially fulfilled. Certainly, such a free person could have no family, for instance, since a love bond would be coercive. Likewise, such an autonomous agent could be no patriot, since love of country would likewise impinge on her sovereignty. In any case, the dream of this freedom turns into the familiar nightmare of the capitalistic struggle for social dominance, which leads to mass infantilization due to overconsumption, and millions of foreigners must be impoverished and enslaved to preserve the golden lands of opportunity, just as the ecosystem must be polluted beyond repair for that purpose.
In secular, rationalist, “modern” terms, progress was nevertheless made in the eighteenth century CE, when scientists and skeptics overturned theistic dogmas and revealed the horrific extent of our material nature. Instead of positing invisible friends in the heavens, early modern atheists dealt with the fear of the chaos that should unfold after God’s death, with their rosy, utopian fantasies of the perfectibility of our societies using science-centered, technocratic means. It was as if we were that prisoner in solitary confinement and instead of creating a fictional world to occupy our attention, we would get to work mopping the floor and ironing the bed sheets. If our prison cell didn’t favour us with a mop or an iron, we would invent them. We could immerse ourselves in the work of discovering how nature operates, and use that knowledge to our advantage.
Nietzsche foresaw how these utopias clash with the reality of the grim wilderness, as they did throughout the horrors of the twentieth century, including the sinking of the Titanic and the downing of the Hindenburg, the Great Depression and the world wars, the holocaust and the genocides. Nietzsche and David Hume before him emphasized our animal irrationality, which ran contrary to the sort of optimistic rationalism you find in Kant or Mill. If only we had an algorithm to calculate how to avoid practical contradictions or how to balance pleasure and pain, we could carry out our moral duty or maximize happiness. Instead, because scientists showed we have no immaterial spirit, we seek power, being fundamentally animal things alongside the many other physical objects, and so we channel nature’s monstrous lack of empathy in our social dealings. As biologists and cognitive scientists confirmed the unpleasant truth, we found ourselves in the “postmodern” era in which the postindustrial masses no longer trust in either the traditional religions or in science-centered fantasies. Only briefly after the Second World War did the authentic reaction to the philosophical implications of the Scientific Revolution gain traction when the cries of the existential philosophers, from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to Sartre and Camus enjoyed trendy popularity. Currently, though, instead of dwelling on the existential problem and when we're not succumbing to a naturalistic version of theism such as the UFO subculture, we pretend to be above it, indulging in a hip form of cynicism such as is largely responsible for the anarchical and treasonous rise of the far right in Europe and the United States.
But let’s lay aside the substitute fantasies and return to the question whether the more childlike original fantasy of theism does us credit. Again, even if our religions dictate that we should be proud of our status as spirits destined to be united with God, we can at least contemplate the hypothetical scenario of how the religious crowd would look to the outsider who doesn’t share in the fantasy. While there is no superhuman tribunal, we can objectively examine our culture for signs of mass insanity or depravity, and infer what we ought to feel in response to our association with it. Most theists are proud or at least comfortable in their childlike reversions, and some are even sanctimonious. But those are the attitudes needed to live well in an old-fashioned culture, not those needed to be prepared to oppose that culture if necessary, after critically examining how most people get by. Those outsiders who do take radical criticism seriously should think of the goal of living well to be as bizarre as an adult’s resort to childish fantasies, since the latter is a precondition of the former. There is no happiness without delusion, because the real world is a horror, philosophically speaking, and perhaps the most surreal delusion of all is the oldest and most widespread, the practice of socializing with plainly nonexistent persons, to endure the lifelessness of outer space and of most events in astronomical timeframes.