When the conditions in which people live are both more complex than they can understand and important for them to understand in order that they make reality-based decisions, three options tend to present themselves (the world is always more complex than we can understand, our confusions finally triggering the need for accurate action is what is different). First is the refusal to accept as real anything that is not understood in immediately available terms. Second is the putting off of all the complexity and the unknown onto a mythical ‘Understander’, as well as giving this made-up repository of all knowing (omniscience) the control of all actions (omnipotence) thereby absolving human agency of responsibility or possibility (impotence). Third is the taking on of the questions presented by the need for understanding, finding within the human capacity the means and methods for directly discovering bits of reality and the processes for adapting our systems to these bits and pieces even as we add them up into increasingly comprehensive images of that reality.
The first requires no grand scheme; it is only the rejection of designs beyond one’s experience, willingness to think or capacity. ‘Humans can’t swim,’ because the correspondent has never seen or heard of a human swimming. When told that they can, the thought is rejected as the ravings of a foolish person. ‘Evolution is untrue,’ because the correspondent can’t imagine how something so complex as an eye could be the result of thousands of tiny changes from ordinary tissue. That additional learning and effort at understanding might be required is not part of such mindsets.
The second is the structural principle of religions and feeds upon the first. Once a body of refusals or inabilities to understand becomes oppressively large, it can be put off onto a mythical place or entity whose implied capacities both comprehend and control the complexities outside of the sight of and responsibilities of mere humans.
This is an incredibly dangerous way to proceed for an animal with the powers of the human species, basically because it is utterly false in its conception. It began reasonably enough with the time scales of social and material human adaptations well matched by the inhibiting designs of the environmentally based mythical structures, but proceeded on a pattern that has led to the situation today: mythical systems seated in 5000 year old writings seeking relevance in a world that has produced 50 million scientific papers in the last 350 years on everything from the molting of birds, the movement of electrons in the membranes of bacteria to the primal energies of the universe.
Rather than religion maintaining its laudable role as governor of human change and adaptation in the environment, it has come to trying to find its relevance in the rejection of the adaptations and the processes of adaptation that long ago outstripped and overpowered it. Religions have devolved into the worst form of madness even as aspects of them still hold the keys to many of humanity's most important comprehensions; thus the power of religions to compel and to offend, to disorder and to fructify.
The third is the basis of science and epistemology. Humans are forced to science and the philosophy of knowing; it comes among us unbidden. From the first moment that rocks and sticks became tools, when fire became a device rather than a fear, a process of information accumulation and evaluation set to motion. We are now at the mercy of our knowing, and there is no mercy there. We dare not proceed except to greater and greater unity of action with biophysical Reality. To do otherwise, at this time in our ‘progress’, will crush us like a bug. We have outgrown our human childhood: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” The religious tradition that created this poetic truth is part of our childhood!
Of course, we could be crushed like a bug. It has happened before to other species and ecosystems, even whole biospheres. What would make this occasion different from the times before is the almost complete responsibility – the cause – being that of one species and its marvelous tricks run amuck. But contained in those marvelous tricks is the capacity, seen so easily in individuals, to understand and plan, to recognize Reality when it presses with sufficient force.
Think about it carefully. There are only these three ways to entertain and confront the Realities of the world. Somehow the pathological structure of present religion must strike the foundational knowledge basis of science and philosophy and, like a flint on iron, create the spark for our future. Neither the flint or iron can go on alone and the spark is more than the simple sum of both.