comments_image Comments

Why We Don't Need Religion to Give Life Mystery

If you're worried that we're in danger of understanding everything about the universe, you can relax.

"What does Dr. Bloody Bronowski know about it?"

"He knows everything!"

"Oh, I wouldn't like that. It'd take all the mystery out of life."

It takes all the mystery out of life. This is an argument that sometimes gets made against the atheist/materialist/naturalist view of life. Naturalism is too reductionist, the argument goes. By seeking to explain the universe in terms of physical cause and effect, and in seeking to understand that physical cause and effect in increasingly greater breadth and detail, naturalism ultimately seeks to explain and understand everything. And that would be bad. We need some mystery. Mystery -- unanswered and unanswerable questions -- are a central part of what makes us human. Without it, our life would be bleak and empty, with a yearning that can never be satisfied... because there's nothing left out there to satisfy it.

Religion, supposedly, offers that mystery. The belief in that which cannot be perceived by the senses; the belief in immaterial entities or forces that somehow affect the world but that nobody perceives in the same way; the belief in a life after this one that nobody's ever returned from and nobody really knows anything about...all of this fills the human need for mystery, the need for questions we don't know the answer to.

Okay. Deep breath.

First, I feel compelled to point out: This not an argument for why the spiritual view of the world is correct. This is an argument for why the spiritual view would be nice. It's not offering any evidence or reason for why the spiritual world is real and has a real effect on the physical one. It's a classic case of the argument from wishful thinking: "It would suck if there were no God -- therefore, there is a God."

But let's take this argument on its own terms. Let's pretend, for a moment, that the argument from wishful thinking has some validity. Let's say that, if it could be shown that religion serves some social or psychological utility that can't be addressed by any secular means (religion in general and the mystery of religion in particular), it would therefore be right to perpetuate it...even if it's mistaken.

"We need religion because we need mystery" is still a terrible argument.

For starters: If you're worried that we're in danger of understanding everything about the universe, you can relax. We're in no danger of that happening anytime soon. There's an enormous number of unanswered questions remaining about the physical world -- some of which are huge and profound. The two great ones of our era, in my opinion, are "What is the nature of consciousness?" and "Where did the universe come from?" (It's one of the great frustrations of my life that I will most likely die before those questions are answered.) And there are thousands of other unanswered questions in every field of science: questions with answers that are closer to our grasp, yet still elude us.

What's more, it's in the nature of science that every answer we find seems to present more questions. For instance: We now understand the answer to a question that was unanswered for millennia: we now understand that the universe is not infinite, but is in fact finite in size (although pretty darned big). But the answer to that question inevitably leads to another question: Is there anything outside this universe? Are there more universes out there: are we just one universe in a multiverse, the way we're just one planet in a star system, one star in a galaxy, one galaxy in a universe? (And if so -- is that multiverse infinite, or is it limited in size as well?) Or when it comes to physical existence, is our universe the whole enchilada?

See more stories tagged with: