While the religions of the world squabble over the finer points of gods, morality, and the meaning of life (and by "squabble" I mean "blow each other up"), secularism has continued its slow methodical march from the codes and whispers of antiquity to being the foundation for many governments today. Secularism, though not immune human evils, has been responsible for the advancement of science and technology, and a more globally-conscious and tolerant modern society. But the struggle is just beginning; even in these enlightened times humanity continues to suffer at the hands of religious extremism.
The question I wish to explore in this post is: how do we, in the absence of faith, encourage those around us to value the positive aspects of secular beliefs?
I realize that any secular thinker is looking at the title of this post and declaring it a non-poetic oxymoron, but think of this more as a thought exercise than a call for a savior that will lead the religious sheep to the promised land of science and technology. The fact is that, although we win occasional converts to the side of reason, these always seem to be the people that were already thirsting for rational thought. The religious thinkers far outnumber the secular minded in every society, and we must make some attempt to understand and communicate with the vast majority of people if we are ever to reap the fruits of our own scientific inquiry and innovations. I firmly believe that everyone has the capacity for rational thought, but the religious willfully (though maybe not knowingly) suppress their rational minds. The purpose of exploring the concept of a "secular messiah" is not to await some prophet of reason, but that every secular-minded person learn the tools that will enable them to become a Prometheus for those around them; sharing the light of knowledge and having it gratefully received rather than feared and shunned.
I was listening to an interview on NPR with Martin Palmer, an Anglican lay preacher who founded the interfaith organization, Alliance of Religions and Conservation, with the intent to educate religious leaders, who can then educate the general public about the issue of man-made global warming. His basic premise seemed true enough: that religious leaders are able to reach and motivate the masses in ways that scientists cannot. The logic behind his premise, however, troubled me deeply.
Palmer feels that pastors and rabbis and imams are able to explain complex concepts to people in a way that makes sense, while scientists talk over every one's head so that no one without a higher education bothers to listen. The thing that troubled me about what Palmer was saying was that during my own desperate attempts to make sense of my religious teachings, I never once had a priest satisfy my need to truly understand the complex ideas he was teaching. I never remember a priest explaining something in a way that made it clearer than it was before. As a matter of fact, my persistent questions were quite often met with offense and hostility, though at the time I had no intention nor desire to offend God or the priests, whom I honestly believed understood some magical mystery that I was failing to grasp. I indeed felt like they were talking over my head, but my desire to understand my theology was consistently thwarted by the need for me to simply have faith. The explanations I sought were never forthcoming.
The idea that religious leaders are better able to explain complex issues to simple people is surely false, but the fact that priests reach and motivate the public in a way that scientists do not cannot be denied. So if it's not a priest's gift for clarifying and simplifying complex issues, then what exactly does a priest do that gets through to people? How does a priest earn such trust and inspire such motivation to action?
I believe that the power of religion over people is not illogical, but beyond logic. In his book, “The Sacred and the Profane,” Mircea Eliade maintains that the supernatural world evolved in the human mind as a reference point in a chaotic universe, not because it made sense of the incomprehensible, but because it gave the incomprehensible less power over people's lives. There was a time when we were truly not capable of understanding why lightning struck our village and set our hut on fire and we felt powerless against such forces of nature. It was empowering to believe that there was a being in charge of the lightning who might be persuaded to spare our hut if we made the right offerings and said the right prayers. That power, however, comes with a terrible price; trying to understand forces like lightning in a scientific sense, once such understanding is possible, directly threatens the supernatural power people believe they have.
This need to believe in our ability to have supernatural control over the natural world must not be trivialized. Think about how difficult it was for early man to carry on with his daily life and plan for tomorrow knowing that death could come at any time from any direction (other animals are at least ignorant of their own mortality). As if planning for your own family wouldn't be difficult enough, how do you come together with others to work as a group, which often involves sacrificing your own and your family's immediate self-interests? You have to believe in some kind of long-term order in the world, even though your actual experience may be to the contrary. You have to have faith that the time and energy you invest in group efforts will pay off in the long run. In the absence of any observable evidence that the world around you is structured and predictable, who better to convince people to pool their resources and work together for a greater good than a priest, who has mastered the mystifying complexities of communicating with the supernatural world?
The supernatural world is our trump card over the natural world and this is where the priest gets his power. Who in your tribe could possibly be more important than the person who can talk to the earth, the spirits, the gods, and the ancestors? Who is more fit to control new technologies like fire and writing? Everyone knows that your spear, no matter how expertly crafted, has little chance of hitting its target without the special blessing that can only be performed by the priest.
We must look into the mind of a person trying to survive in a world where chaotic forces beyond their control dictate their very survival; they are looking beyond this world into a plane of order and justice through which human beings can have some sway on this plane of existance. If we look at the world through the eyes of people who existed before science it's easier to see how religion was probably necessary for their survival and their willingness to risk their survival for the sake of their community. Religion gives believers the keys to unlock a magical world that makes sense when the real world doesn't.
The supernatural world is ordered and eternal, so it's not difficult to understand why the supernatural world is believed to be the "real" world and that we are but temporal shadows passing through this physical plane. And because the supernatural world can be swayed to favor humanity while the earthly realm continues to seem indifferent to our existence, it's also easy to understand why more recent Western theologies have come to view the supernatural world as "good" and the natural world as "evil".
People who choose to recognize only the physical world, only what they can see and touch and measure, are choosing to be set adrift in chaos with no life-line, no reference point to the world beyond. And it seems that no matter how much we understand, no matter how much our technology improves lives in ways that ceremonies and offerings never could, it is still almost impossible to get otherwise intelligent people to let go of the fantasy world of religion to join our efforts to improve and prolong our lives here on earth (why hold on to this existence if the next one is better?).
The problem is that people who live their lives grounded in the supernatural world make up the vast majority of the population. It's simply not possible to move society forward without mobilizing a significant number of these people to passionately and wholeheartedly embrace science.
The scientific ideals that need to be embraced by the majority include relentless inquiry into the nature and inner workings of life and the universe, a willingness to expect and endure change and uncertainty, and an acceptance that humanity itself is responsible for its own survival and prosperity.
If we are going to persuade the religious to embrace scientific thinking, we are going to have to find a mode of communicating with them besides logic. I fully understand the gravity of what I am saying, but I truly believe that there is just no other way.
We must understand that for the religious mind, the supernatural world is the "real" world, and the connections they make with the "real" world through prayer and rituals are the reference points with which they navigate through this frightening and chaotic existence. Whether we are exiled in this realm for our transgressions or this existence is some kind of crucible to decide who is fit to exist on the next plane; the fact remains that the "real" world is the only one that truly matters, and I can't think of a single religious organization that believes the road to the world beyond is paved with logic. You simply cannot reason with a religious mind and we must stop trying (of course, we can win the occasional convert).
A secular messiah would be a true savior of mankind. A person who could appeal to the religious on their level. A person who could package the hopes and promises of science and technology in a way that would make them irresistible to the religious people of the world. It seems to me, however, that if we are ever going to inspire the religious-minded with secular ideologies, we must understand how religious leaders inspire fellowship and apply some of their basic principles to secularism.
Contrary to the position of Palmer, that religious leaders have some inherent capacity to inspire and motivate people, I believe that the key to their motivational abilities lies in the people being motivated, not in the leaders themselves. It is the parishioner's willingness and desire to believe in the priest, and her unwillingness to question the priest, that gives a religious leader his power of persuasion.
So if the key to this motivational phenomenon lies in the listener and not the messenger, how can this knowledge be applied to one who preaches the promise of science and secular ideas, particularly because it would involve some sort of faith on the part of the listener.
We must appeal to the faith of the religious mind rather than its logic. If I may revisit my lightning analogy; how can a leader persuade the religious to freely and willingly embrace the terrifying possibility that there is no higher being that can control this force of nature? How can a leader convince people to pursue experimentation and understanding in order to gain some measure of control over such a powerful phenomenon? Is it not a leap of faith that the leader would be proposing; that everyone should leave off praying and trust that with science we will eventually discover the lightning rod?
A secular messiah would be a person who could show the religious how science can deliver on the hope that religion can only promise. Perhaps not a supreme being who is directly concerned with our welfare, but certainly that there is order and predictability in the world, as well as a way for human beings to have some real control over the natural forces that can so profoundly impact our survival. Our desire to view ourselves as special in the universe and ordained to rule over and care for our planet is not at all undermined by science. After all, the mere consideration of the true improbability and brevity of our existence can strike as much awe in the human heart as the creation of a supernatural creator. The challenge for a secular messiah would be to inspire the religious mind with the actual beauty and profoundness of science and to persuade them to release their more familiar and comforting ideas about God and religion.