Monday, December 24, 2012

Cosmos for Christmas

“Here is a chimera, a new and very odd species come shambling into our universe, a mix of Stone Age emotion, medieval self-image, and godlike technology. The combination makes the species unresponsive to the forces that count for its own long-term survival.”
—E. O. Wilson, The Creation

“We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.”
—Carl Sagan, Cosmos

     Christmas is a time of exquisite music and beautiful sentiments, regardless of one’s religion. For those of us among the freethinking quintile of the population, whether atheist, agnostic, or deist, the holiday has a different bouquet. Like Christians, some of us savor the nostalgia of Christmases past. In some cases, because of the tradition of families coming together, we recall times when people we loved were still alive. Perhaps there is also the memory of a favorite carol, or a small tradition, or even a lost recipe. Still, the freethinker is always something of an outsider. The birth of a savior who will redeem all Man’s inhumanity to Man, through his own self-sacrifice, is at best attractive mythology. At worst, it calls to mind the moral ambiguity of a deity that requires sacrifices in the first place. Nonetheless, it has been said that the spirit of goodwill is more potent during the Christmas season than any other. To the extent this is true, the holiday remains an example of the good religion can do. There is, however, more in the ledger to complete the accounting.

     First, it is worth noting that religion has both palliative and normative effects. As solace for mortal beings who must face injustice and death, it can be extremely useful. Indeed, too useful, if we can cite the promise of an afterlife reward as a historical means of keeping the lowly low. When religion is only palliative, it may thus serve to blind great segments of a population to the real inequities they suffer. On the other hand, purely palliative religion makes feeble contributions to the public order that a free society requires. For all the guilty feelings it may involve, normative religion can be of some utility. It is axiomatic that the more the citizens of a polity govern their own behavior, the less civic interference is required to keep them from disturbing their neighbors. The normative force of a religion can be useful here, at least until it is abused. For all that society benefits from a low rate of illegitimacy, it does not benefit from burning heretics like Giordano Bruno. History tells us that when religion and ignorance unite, they are capable of crimes as individually dreadful as those of National Socialism or the Chinese Communist Party--though the technological prowess of the latter two provided them wider scope for atrocity. Fair enough, most Christians today would count the Inquisition as a discreditable episode, a mistake of the Church that violated the central teaching of both the Old and New Testaments: Love thy neighbor. I have some sympathy with Christians of good will, who may feel nearly exhausted from defending the atrocities in the Bible countenanced by God. In that spirit of sympathy, and of fair play, it is well at this time of year to remember the good parts of scripture.

     Soon, however, we must return to a sober assessment of Christianity. The quote above from E. O. Wilson highlights its significance: By obscuring our true nature, Christianity also obscures our true peril. Moreover, by living for an afterlife, we may easily squander our time on Earth. As beings apparently evolved with a need for religion, we may not be capable of flourishing without some feeling of connection to a higher reality. Some like Wilson have been able to transmute their awe at the natural world into an attitude of reverence for evolved life itself. The Right typically accuses environmentalists of worshiping Nature instead of God, and this critique has a basis in fact. Moreover, the reverential regard for evolved life sometimes imports, along with reverence, the emotional dangers of true religion. We see, in those who have succumbed, a moral rigidity that subsumes all other values to those of the faith. In devout environmentalists, this works out as a visceral misanthropy that is all the more poignant for being the grandchild of humanistic reason. Wilson himself is free of this trouble, and we may as well be as charitable with individual environmentalists as we are prepared to be with individual Christians.

     For the rest, desiring a connection to something higher than Man and looking for a reason for optimism, there is hardly anything better than Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. In video or in print, Sagan had a way of confronting superstition with equal parts candor and compassion. He appears to have genuinely liked people, even ignorant people, as opposed to respecting only men and women of genius or Mankind as an abstraction. In a time when we may feel imperiled by the religious impulses all around us, whether on the Right or the Left, Sagan conjures in his irreligious way the magic of the season: “on Earth peace, good will toward men.”

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