Is this all?

10 October 2013 | Extracts, Non-fiction

Earth. Andrew Z. Colvin/Wikimedia

Earth. Andrew Z. Colvin/Wikimedia

In today’s world, many people find that it is not the lack of something that is problematic, but excess: the same goes for knowledge. According to professor of space astronomy, Esko Valtaoja, knowledge should contribute to the creation of a better world. His latest book is a contribution to the sum of all knowledge; over the course of two hundred pages Valtaoja delves deep into the inner space of man by taking his reader on a brief tour of the universe. Extracts from Kaiken käsikirja. Mitä jokaisen tulisi tietää (‘A handbook to everything. What everybody should know’, Ursa, 2012)

Whatever god you bow down to, you’re probably worshipping the wrong god.

The above is almost the only completely certain thing that can be said about religion, and even it does not encompass any deep truth; it’s just a simple mathematical statement. The world’s biggest religion is Roman Catholicism, which is confessed, at least nominally, by 1.1 billion people. If the Roman Catholic god were the true god, the majority of people in the world are therefore worshipping a false god. (According to the official stance of the Catholic church, the other Christian denominations are heresies, and their believers will be condemned to perdition: extra ecclesiam nulla salus. This inconvenient truth is, understandably, politely bypassed in ecumenical debate. But even if all those who call themselves Christians were counted as worshipping the same god, two thirds of the world’s population are still knocking at the wrong door.)

If you’re a religious person, don’t worry; I’m not blaspheming. And if you’re a campaigning atheist, hang on a minute: all I want to do is to find a clear and undisputed starting point to consider what it is we’re talking about when we speak of religion.

I should be a real expert in the border territory between religion and science; after all, I’ve received the Christian Book of the Year prize twice and the Freethinkers’ Prize once, for propagating a world view that is not based on religion. In honour of these awards, then, I will now try my best to argue that religion is true – and then, that religion is not true.

There is one thing, however, that I cannot do, even as an intellectual exercise. I cannot see any way of defending the dogmas of Christianity – or any other religion. [ – –] I cannot imagine, even as a thought experiment, that any given religion, with its stories and dogmas, could be true, any more than I can imagine a triangular square. (The Holy Trinity, in fact, seems to correspond pretty well to such a geometric impossibility.) Blame my genes, if you like, but that’s just how it is.

Instead of Christianity, I am able to vindicate the transcendental – the possibility that there is something on the far side of our knowledge and our senses. This is how it goes.

We are newborn children on the scale of the universe, perhaps billions of years behind the developmental standard of the other intelligent beings of the cosmos. It is a smaller leap between the consciousness of a dog, or an apple psyllid, and ours than it may be between our consciousness and a more evolved consciousness or intellect. Can anyone seriously believe that we understand very much about reality and truth – without belittling all the astonishing achievements of our science? Is it not more likely that our perceptions and experiences of the world are as narrow and limited as those of an apple psyllid?

And is it not also possible that, just as a dog sometimes seems to sense something beyond its own capacity to understand, for example the grief of its master, we also sometimes hear whispers of something much greater than ourselves? We feel the merging with nature, the broadening of a cosmic sensibility, the inexplicable presence of holiness, the feeling of being loved, which surpasses understanding, experiences which the religious scholar Rudolf Otto terms numinous. We are momentarily in touch with something quite other. Without being able to understand the other, we use our diminutive skills to develop various systems, religions, in order to obtain some kind of explanation for what has happened.

We are unable to demonstrate the existence of the transcendental because, like all other living creatures, we are limited by our own brains, our own cognition. A drake cannot distinguish between a decoy and the female of the species; a dog cannot be taught relativity theory or a human being reality. We cannot even ask the right questions, let alone understand the answers. But our brains are developing. A billion years to the end of the world: does anyone dare believe that we will spend it doing nothing but measure the next decimal places in the parameters of the Big Bang, that we already so close to the ultimate nature of truth?

It is impossible to invoke ignorance to prove anything, but does the whole story of the universe, in the form in which it is beginning to be revealed to us, not raise the suspicion that something essential is missing from our picture? The birth of the universe, extraordinarily finely tuned to support life, all the slightly too incredible coincidences and twists of the plot from the birth of the stars to the development of the human race – not ‘intelligent design’, but something completely different behind our rational explanations: the thing that the famous theologian Paul Tillich called the ground of being?

And finally, can we really ignore the feelings and experiences of countless people, in all times and in all cultures, that this is not all?

Pretty good, don’t you think? Maybe I should changed sides, after all? But here comes the Atheist Imperium’s counterpunch.

The countless number and history of religions are enough in themselves to demonstrate that they are all just human inventions. They satisfy the needs built into us by evolution. We have a need to find explanations for everything that happens, because nothing – especially surprising events – cannot happen without a specific cause. Psychology and brain research have demonstrated this with increasing clarity, and the same can also be seen in the religions and beliefs of natural peoples. Primitive man, and small children, think that everything, each object, trees, animals and people, have their own spirits, which explains their ‘behaviour’. In the next phase of religious development, the individual spirits are combined into tree gods or bear gods. The end result is monotheism, in which one single deity is responsible for everything and explains everything that happens, both birth and death. Religious science, the neurological sciences and evolutionary psychology explain why religions are so universal and continue to exist despite all conflicting knowledge.

We do not yet know everything, but ignorance of something is no proof. Time after time, we have found a natural explanation for things that we imaged demanded otherworldly forces: thunder and lightning, fire, life, the birth and development of the world. From quarks to galaxies: nowhere do we find the slightest sign that this-wordly explanations, together with the laws of nature, do not suffice. The otherworldly has fled from the world that surrounds us to the space between our ears – and brain research has already begun to reveal what happens there when we experience ‘religious’ feelings. The stimulation of the brain with electrical or magnetic impulses or the taking of suitable drugs produces exactly the same states and feelings as religious experiences; what more is needed to demonstrate that religious feelings and experiences are just one method, developed through evolution, of helping us survive in the world?

Not a single religion, despite their claimed transcendental origin and wisdom, has been able to tell us anything new about the world. The general morality of religion is the morality of Homo sapiens, while specific religious rules are mostly amusing. Who can seriously believe that the omnipotent lord of creation really cares whether we eat onions, or who we have sex with? And how easy it would be to convince every human being that precisely this statement is a communication from some higher level and therefore worth listening to! All the children of Israel would have had to do was engrave on the side of their Ark of the Covenant the incomprehensible message brought by Moses from the mountain: the distance to the Sun is three hundred thousand million cubits. Or how about a single miracle, one indisputable event, visible to all, breaking all the laws of nature – let’s say next Thursday?

Only one of the world’s mutually contradictory and sometimes completely opposing religions can be true; how much more likely is it that that one true religion, like all the others, is merely a human invention, wishful thinking, which is sustained by its usefulness to certain individuals and societies. Why, then, should we even bother to speculate about the otherworldly?

OK, telephone voting is over and in a moment we will know the winner.

Which number would I myself text? Neither. I have always stressed that I am an agnostic: I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone else knows either. Like every natural scientist with any aspirations to professionalism, I have learned to mistrust my own arguments, and to understand that it is as least as important to try to prove them wrong as to try to prove them right. I didn’t write the foregoing with my tongue in my cheek, for amusement in an oh-yes-it-is, oh-no-it-isn’t vein, but with all the seriousness I could muster: these are two points of view, two opposing theories. Trained in and accustomed to the methods and stringent – some would say harsh – demands of the hard sciences, and doubtless also constrained by my own nature and my entire world-view, I am quite convinced that the latter alternative is closer to the truth. But the little mystic concealed within me, and my consciousness of our smallness compared to the universe, leads me to lend consideration to the first alternative too.

Religiousness is, generally speaking, declining in the world. It is impossible to give exact statistics, because people’s answers depend upon the way the question is framed. Polls also show the importance of faith in the world and in world politics; faith is an inalienable part of local culture, so much do even neighbouring countries differ from one another. Of Czechs, one third do not believe in a divine being; in Poland, the corresponding number is one per cent. Another striking fact is the link between declining faith and development – whether the development of a country is measured by gross national product, the human development index, level of education or other indicators.

Few people call themselves atheists, but increasingly few believe, fully and without reservations, in any religion’s god. Even in the United States, which is an odd exception among the developed countries, faith is decreasing, even if this isn’t easily recognised amid all the God Bless America pizzazz. In Finland, according to the Church Research Institute, only 27 per cent of us believe in the ‘Christian God’; 21 per cent do not believe, with the rest swinging somewhere in between. A great many believe in something, even if they do not take the creed seriously.

This is not all. The organised religions are only one expression of the human wish to find some deeper meaning in their existence; some belief, hope, explanation, possibility of change and development, a comforting and encouraging promise that this is not all.

I leaf through a magazine, which includes, among other things, a little telephone interview with me. Spirituality in a changing world – a sense of community – understanding of life – traditions and respect for the environment – small everyday acts, is how the subscriber advertisement condenses the magazine’s editorial line and contents. I look at the articles: light-food, astrology, astral bodies, the cabala, earth radiation, ley lines, mediums, energetic healing, Chinese horoscopes, a beginner’s course in miracles…. The one and only issue of Minä Olen (‘I am’) magazine offers a comprehensive and dizzying view into the so-called world of spirituality and the occult. In the advertisements, the last vestiges of modesty are cast aside. ‘During this journey we have a unique opportunity to harness powerful Lemurian energy with the aid of selenite wands.’ ‘The spiritual energy of the earth is preparing itself for a return to the fifth dimension and it soul’s axis has already shifted to the left.’

Complete stuff and nonsense? Of course. I find it impossible to understand how anyone could believe in, for example, light-food, living only on sunlight. Anyone can easily experiment and see for themselves that it is not possible. And there is much more in question than just a mode of ‘spiritual growth’; if the method worked, the laws of physics would be called into question, along with the understanding on whose basis we have built our picture of the world and whose functioning we see each moment around us. Who are the organisers of the light retreat, Helena and Michael, who have ‘lived for years on light’? They must either be swindlers, or else they are swindling themselves – they are perhaps schizophrenic or psychotic – that must be clear to every reasonable person?

However, reasonable people do believe, so many of them, that there are more occult titles than scientific ones to be found in bookshops and corner kiosks. I know reasonable people who believe, for example, in astrology, telepathy, prophecy, feng shui or homeopathy. I do not understand how it is possible for them to switch off their intelligence and their logical thought processes, which, in other areas, they put to excellent use. From time to time I have tried to hold conversations with them, but it is impossible: there’s a brick wall, our common language disappears.

Many people may find it hurtful that I speak of Christianity in the same breath as the occult. Belief in the resurrection, after all, is something completely different from belief in horoscopes! It is, indeed it is; although astrology is an older belief system than Christianity, older even than Judaism, it does not offer the same kind of universal view of reality. Even professional astrologers speak of horoscopes as only one aid to self-knowledge, and the brandishers of selenite wands will next year probably be tickling their chakras with new tools. Beliefs are a hobby, belief a way of life and death.

But examining different beliefs also helps to gain understanding of religions. We have an extraordinarily strong, inborn need to believe things of which we have no proof, or which have even been demonstrated to be untrue. We are always able to look elsewhere, close our eyes and our ears, our brains too, or use all our intelligence and our emotions to explain why things are, after all, as we believe them to be. Not a single astrologer has been able, on test, to read a person’s nature from the stars; not a single saint or Tibetan enlightened one has been able to levitate, breaking the basic law of the universe, gravity; virgin birth is biologically impossible for Homo sapiens, let alone rising from the dead, and then ten lost tribes of Israel will never be found from America’s past. Yes, but – but –

In the end, science always wins, not at one stroke but little by little. Science has, so far, never been forced to change its concepts because of religion, although there has been no shortage of attempts. Even the most strongly-held beliefs gradually find themselves giving way to our growing knowledge and understanding of the world. Sunday sermons no longer contain K-18 descriptions of the eternal suffering of the damned in the fires of hell, and the basic foundation of Lutheranism, salvation through faith, not acts, has also been faded to the background because it sits badly with our modern ideas of morality. Traditional witchcraft, with its evil eyes and magic potions, has disappeared, at least among educated people, which is also true of trolls. The pages of Minä Olen magazine overflow with vibrations, energies, radiations and dimensions, all of them concepts taken from the physics of the last century and put to bizarre new uses. But

                                      ... I have
              Immortal longings in me,

as Cleopatra sighed.

Science and knowledge are not the whole of humanity. Even if we had all the knowledge in the world, down to the past and future dance steps of every quark, we would still need a frame story, an explanation; without it, we would not have any understanding, and therefore no real knowledge, just an endless catalogue of facts. Let us consider, for example, the Mitä Missä Milloin [‘What Where When’] books’ listing of Finnish events, year by year, day by day: if we really did not know anything else about our history, how negligible, how senseless would be the picture they give of what has really happened in Finland since the Second World War.

The longing for immortality is within us; we wish there to be sense in our lives and in the story of the world as a whole, we want for this not to be all; for our spirit to be able transcend the boundaries of our matter and our bodies. Through all our beliefs and our religions we are seeking the next phase of evolution.

Cosmic evolution, which created the universe; physical evolution, which created the stars and the planets; chemical evolution, which created life; Darwinist evolution which created Man; and now, the next phase, the evolution of the spirit, which creates – well, what? We do not know, we are unable to imagine, but through beliefs and religions, however groping, ridiculous or impossible, we fortify, time and again, our hope and trust that we have not yet come to the end of our road.

Spiritual growth is possible; the history of humankind shows it. We have grown, become wiser, more spiritual: we love our neighbours in a measure quite different from before, and include as our neighbours an increasing proportion of the planet’s population. Something which was, to ancient philosophers and the founders of the religions, only an abstract thought or an impossible ideal, is now part of our everyday lives, our thinking and our legislation. No stage of evolution has proceeded in a straight line; instead, something new and miraculous has always been born. The evolution of the human spirit has also not proceeded evenly; nevertheless, we rise higher and higher.

If God created us, he is undoubtedly proud of our development. If, on the other hand, we created God, we may be satisfied that he develops with us, always greater and more adult – always more human.

Extracts from Chapter 9, ‘Usko ja tieto’ (‘Faith and knowledge’)

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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