philosophy • 08.02.09
After a few decades of life you eventually recognise that reality is particular. It falls into very identifiable forms of experience. These categories of experience are common to all. Each of us breathes the air and finally dies. Although within these categories there are infinite variables, the categories themselves are outlined by definite parameters: humans don’t grow as tall as trees; trees don’t play piano or tell jokes; women don’t get pregnant without insemination; snakes don’t talk and death is a certainty. Yet virgin births, the survival of death, and even talking snakes are all the stuff of religion. It proffers the impossible. In order to cultivate its brand of sophistry it asks us to accept things that are inconsistent with reality. Religion is all about the extraordinary.
From this I don’t say that there cannot be a god. Just that this is something unknowable. God would be transcendent and what is transcendent is by definition unknowable. I would be perfectly pleased for there to be a god (or gods) who looked after things, who was the source of meaning and value and all reality. It is possible such a being might exist. It is just as possible for that not to be the case. Whatever transcendent realities may exist they are outside of human apprehension. It is impossible to concoct a picture of what form they might take.
The morality around religion is impressive. As with the existence of god being a desirable thing, it would also be desirable if the finer aspects of religious morality were able to be lived by. But in my experience they seldom, if ever, are. I have never met anyone who imbues that kind of ethical standard. To me humans are essentially selfish creatures. Their main concerns are about their own survival and as much betterment as they can manage. This is the essence of family life, of exclusive relationships. It is the essence of ownership and the legal and social structures which support it. And when you think about it, how could it be anything else? Humans are modular and individual. They are vulnerable with a consciousness highly sensitive to surroundings and easily damaged. Self-ness and selfish-ness are the inescapable consequence.
The American academic and writer, the late David Foster Wallace, told the story of the fishes. Two young fishes were swimming along and passed an older fish. The older one said, “The water’s nice today.” Swimming on, one younger said to the other, “What’s water?” Wallace used this as an illustration on selfishness. The young fishes didn't recognise water because it was so pervasive. It was as invisible to them as the air is to us. The moral equivalent for Wallace was in not recognising our basic selfishness. Our selfishness is like water to the young fishes. It is nothing to be ashamed or despondent about any more than having to breathe the air is except when expectations of reality are distorted by doctrines that imply otherwise. Religious morality provides exactly that kind of distortion.
Religious doctrines and their associated vocabulary don’t assist the elevating process very well. They are unreal and inappropriate. Not only do they not do the job appointed them, they actually inhibit the possibilities for morality. They do this by being delusional, by referring to talking snakes and virgin births as if they are anything other than metaphors. As I get older I am increasingly put off by all this. It seems an affront to human intelligence and the knowledge we are party to.
transcendent realities are by definition unknowable