We humans really are so far beyond the cognitive powers of the next most intelligent animal (possibly orangutans, almost certainly some closely related ape) that it’s not surprising that certain intellectual endeavours are unique to us.
Besides that, seeking meaning in one’s life is something of a leisurely pursuit. It’s something you only tend to do when you’re not busy ensuring your own survival and that of your loved ones. There are very few animal species in the world whose environments or communities allow them a more or less comfortable and secure existence, and of those we’re the only animals with the scope to realise this fact. The rest of the secure animals are our pets, and they’re glad and relieved to see their masters every single day.
Ascribing the unexplained to gods is the common result of a very attractive form of over-generalisation. Within our own immediate surroundings, everything really has been done for a reason. Someone built your bed, someone farmed your apples, someone consciously decided to give birth to you. Intelligent action is responsible for everything, it seems to us.
We’re then tempted to extend that thinking beyond the sphere of human influence, to things humans couldn’t possibly have brought about. We get over that little hump by positing a super-human entity who can do what we can’t, i.e. a god. This idea solves any philosophical problem it’s applied to, as long as explaining the god itself isn’t regarded as part of the problem. Once the idea has taken hold, it actively works to sustain itself through organised religion. That’s why “almost every culture and civilization has some form of god or religion”: the idea occurs very easily, and it’s then difficult to dismiss.
Nowadays we have new ways of seeking meaning, principal among them the scientific method. The difference is that the questions it answers begin with “how” instead of “why”. This is a step forward, because “why” assumes intelligent agency right off the bat when there may be none. As science explains more and more, gods are needed to explain less and less.
Yes, human beings are hard-wired to seek meaning, and we’re all glad of that. There’s more than one way to go about this, and our global community now has an opportunity to see which way serves us best.
Posted: October 20th 2010
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