The God Myth and the “Humanity Can’t Handle The Truth” Gambit

Hardly a day goes by without some pundit bemoaning the decline in religious faith.  We are told that great evils will inevitably befall mankind unless we all believe in imaginary super-beings.  Of course, these pundits always assume a priori that the particular flavor of religion they happen to favor is true.  Absent that assumption, their hand wringing boils down to the argument that we must all somehow force ourselves to believe in God whether that belief seems rational to us or not.  Otherwise, we won’t be happy, and humanity won’t flourish.

An example penned by Dennis Prager entitled Secular Conservatives Think America Can Survive the Death of God that appeared recently at National Review Online is typical of the genre.  Noting that even conservative intellectuals are becoming increasingly secular, he writes that,

They don’t seem to understand that the only solution to many, perhaps most, of the social problems ailing America and the West is some expression of Judeo-Christian religion.

In another article entitled If God is Dead…, Pat Buchanan echoes Prager, noting, in a rather selective interpretation of history, that,

When, after the fall of the Roman Empire, the West embraced Christianity as a faith superior to all others, as its founder was the Son of God, the West went on to create modern civilization, and then went out and conquered most of the known world.

The truths America has taught the world, of an inherent human dignity and worth, and inviolable human rights, are traceable to a Christianity that teaches that every person is a child of God.

Today, however, with Christianity virtually dead in Europe and slowly dying in America, Western culture grows debased and decadent, and Western civilization is in visible decline.

Both pundits draw attention to a consequence of the decline of traditional religions that is less a figment of their imaginations; the rise of secular religions to fill the ensuing vacuum.  The examples typically cited include Nazism and Communism.  There does seem to be some innate feature of human behavior that predisposes us to adopt such myths, whether of the spiritual or secular type.  It is most unlikely that it comes in the form of a “belief in God” or “religion” gene.  It would be very difficult to explain how anything of the sort could pop into existence via natural selection.  It seems reasonable, however, that less specialized and more plausible behavioral traits could account for the same phenomenon.  Which begs the question, “So what?”

Pundits like Prager and Buchanan are putting the cart before the horse.  Before one touts the advantages of one brand of religion or another, isn’t it first expedient to consider the question of whether it is true?  If not, then what is being suggested is that mankind can’t handle the truth.  We must be encouraged to believe in a pack of lies for our own good.  And whatever version of “Judeo-Christian religion” one happens to be peddling, it is, in fact, a pack of lies.  The fact that it is a pack of lies, and obviously a pack of lies, explains, among other things, the increasingly secular tone of conservative pundits so deplored by Buchanan and Prager.

It is hard to understand how anyone who uses his brain as something other than a convenient stuffing for his skull can still take traditional religions seriously.  The response of the remaining true believers to the so-called New Atheists is telling in itself.  Generally, they don’t even attempt to refute their arguments.  Instead, they resort to ad hominem attacks.  The New Atheists are too aggressive, they have bad manners, they’re just fanatics themselves, etc.  They are not arguing against the “real God,” who, we are told, is not an object, a subject, or a thing ever imagined by sane human beings, but some kind of an entity perched so high up on a shelf that profane atheists can never reach Him.  All this spares the faithful from making fools of themselves with ludicrous mental flip flops to explain the numerous contradictions in their holy books, tortured explanations of why it’s reasonable to assume the “intelligent design” of something less complicated by simply assuming the existence of something vastly more complicated, and implausible yarns about how an infinitely powerful super-being can be both terribly offended by the paltry sins committed by creatures far more inferior to Him than microbes are to us, and at the same time incapable of just stepping out of the clouds for once and giving us all a straightforward explanation of what, exactly, he wants from us.

In short, Prager and Buchanan would have us somehow force ourselves, perhaps with the aid of brainwashing and judicious use of mind-altering drugs, to believe implausible nonsense, in order to avoid “bad” consequences.  One can’t dismiss this suggestion out of hand.  Our species is a great deal less intelligent than many of us seem to think.  We use our vaunted reason to satisfy whims we take for noble causes, without ever bothering to consider why those whims exist, or what “function” they serve.  Some of them apparently predispose us to embrace ideological constructs that correspond to spiritual or secular religions.  If we use human life as a metric, P&B would be right to claim that traditional spiritual religions have been less “bad” than modern secular ones, costing only tens of millions of lives via religious wars, massacres of infidels, etc., whereas the modern secular religion of Communism cost, in round numbers, 100 million lives, and in a relatively short time, all by itself.  Communism was also “bad” to the extent that we value human intelligence, tending to selectively annihilate the brightest portions of the population in those countries where it prevailed.  There can be little doubt that this “bad” tendency substantially reduced the average IQ in nations like Cambodia and the Soviet Union, resulting in what one might call their self-decapitation.  Based on such metrics, Prager and Buchanan may have a point when they suggest that traditional religions are “better,” to the extent that one realizes that one is merely comparing one disaster to another.

Can we completely avoid the bad consequences of believing the bogus “truths” of religions, whether spiritual or secular?  There seems to be little reason for optimism on that score.  The demise of traditional religions has not led to much in the way of rational self-understanding.  Instead, as noted above, secular religions have arisen to fill the void.  Their ideological myths have often trumped reason in cases where there has been a serious confrontation between the two, occasionally resulting in the bowdlerization of whole branches of the sciences.  The Blank Slate debacle was the most spectacular example, but there have been others.  As belief in traditional religions has faded, we have gained little in the way of self-knowledge in their wake.  On the contrary, our species seems bitterly determined to avoid that knowledge.  Perhaps our best course really would be to start looking for a path back inside the “Matrix,” as Prager and Buchanan suggest.

All I can say is that, speaking as an individual, I don’t plan to take that path myself.  I has always seemed self-evident to me that, whatever our goals and aspirations happen to be, we are more likely to reach them if we base our actions on an accurate understanding of reality rather than myths, on truth rather than falsehood.  A rather fundamental class of truths are those that concern, among other things, where those goals and aspirations came from to begin with.  These are the truths about human behavior; why we want what we want, why we act the way we do, why we are moral beings, why we pursue what we imagine to be noble causes.  I believe that the source of all these truths, the “root cause” of all these behaviors, is to be found in our evolutionary history.  The “root cause” we seek is natural selection.  That fact may seem inglorious or demeaning to those who lack imagination, but it remains a fact for all that.  Perhaps, after we sacrifice a few more tens of millions in the process of chasing paradise, we will finally start to appreciate its implications.  I think we will all be better off if we do.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

5 thoughts on “The God Myth and the “Humanity Can’t Handle The Truth” Gambit”

  1. But what does “better off” mean here? That we become “fitter” in an evolutionary sense? There is no more reason to believe that humans are evolving into seekers of objective truth than to believe that giant squid are so evolving.

  2. @Jim

    Here “better off” is merely an expression of my personal opinion, as the sentence implies. In other words, I would prefer living in a society in which tens of millions aren’t slaughtered in pursuit of ideological fantasies. I think most people would agree with me. Obviously, in the context of my blog, it doesn’t mean objectively better.

    I agree that there is no reason to believe that humans are evolving into seekers of objective truth, and nowhere in my post do I imply that they are. I merely claim that, whatever our personal whims happen to be, we are more likely to be successful in pursuing them if we base our actions on truths rather than untruths.

  3. “Perhaps, after we sacrifice a few more tens of millions in the process of chasing paradise, we will finally start to appreciate its implications.”

    What an optimist.

    A few billion is more likely – and soon, but that will only tweak our trajectory a bit.

    The truth is that religion is a whip for keeping the mass of people in line – and though not a very effective one, the best that has been found yet. It just will not work on a world wide scale. What we lack is a single culture – religion being just one aspect of culture.

    I don’t think the mass of people are capable of appreciating the implications of nature as it is. I also don’t think the presence or absence of religion will affect our larger trajectory.

    If we saw any species go through the rapid growth that man has seen in the last couple of centuries we would expect a population collapse to be imminent. It seems to me that an understanding of natural selection would include that bit of information.

  4. Hi Helian.

    I have to admit that I am a bit puzzled as to what you are trying to achieve. I get that you want people to understand that there is no objective morality but you also seem to be saying that it’s perfectly okay to follow your own moral code as long as you realize it’s subjective. So what are you hoping will happen?

    What do you mean by imminent?
    Low diversity (single culture) means easier to effect change but also easier to extinguish. I think the best solution would be being tribal/individual where possible, being collective where neccessary. I think that this can only be achieved through technology, if at all. For us humans, anyway.

  5. @Christian

    Two of the main themes of my blog have always been that there is no such thing as objective morality and that morality exists as a consequence of evolved behavioral traits. I believe, in the sense of thinking it very probable, that these themes reflect fundamental truths. They imply no “oughts” or “shoulds” whatsoever. I have always tried to make it clear that when I speak in terms of “ought” or “should,” I am merely describing outcomes that I would personally prefer; my own whims, if you will.

    As long as we understand that I’m speaking of my personal whims, I’ve tried to make it clear that I do not prefer an outcome in which “everyone follows their own moral code, as long as they realize it’s subjective.” For one thing, such an outcome would defy the manner in which morality actually functions in most human beings. We all tend to perceive our own opinions about good and evil as absolutes. An outcome I would like to see is the general understanding and acceptance of the two fundamental truths noted above, combined with a rational discussion about what those truths imply.

    I would personally prefer an outcome in which there is an absolute moral code, severely limited in scope to those interactions between human beings that our limited intelligence precludes dealing with other than via moral behavior. It follows that I would personally prefer punishing anyone who ignores that absolute moral code, and seeks to “follow their own moral code.” That absolute code would be derived from an intelligent discussion based on the facts about morality, leading to a general consensus about how we “should” act, and what moral rules should apply to our dealings with others.

    Clearly, these are not outcomes that “ought” to happen, or “should” happen in any objective sense. They only represent my personal musings about preferred outcomes. Obviously, I am not infallible. I am open to a conversation about what the outcomes “should” be, as long as the basic truth about morality is understood.

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