Religions, Nations, and Other Useful Fictions

Religions, Nations, and Other Useful Fictions

Alexander Blum
Alexander Blum
6 min read

In the age of Neo-Darwinian synthesis between natural selection and Mendelian genetics, it appears increasingly impossible to give credence to any idea metaphysical, spiritual, or religious. The dualism of Rene Descartes—a world reduced to machinery and a separate soul, to “measure and number” combined with Christian theology—was the origin of our modern worldview. But it has been entirely exorcised, emptied of soul and Christianity, respecting only the machine underneath.

It has become common sense to consider the human subject as little more than a machine, or a computer. Subjectivity itself is a curse, expelled by theories in the philosophy of mind such as Daniel Dennett’s inclination to consider consciousness itself “an illusion.” Sam Harris has said that “consciousness is the only thing that cannot possibly be an illusion.” Harris is right, but Dennett understands more clearly the stakes for materialist philosophy.

As the world grows more mechanical, religious inclination is produced from the merciless rack of empiricism and positivism. New ways of contextualizing religious belief have emerged from the tradition of Christian existentialism, which dates back to Soren Kierkegaard, and found a home in the twentieth century writings of Lutheran-Protestant theologian Paul Tillich.

Tillich travelled the United States in the early twentieth century, delivering lectures to packed crowds. He was speaking not exclusively for the intellectual class, but appealing to American society writ large. Tillich was a populist preacher. His theology was unconventional—in his book The Courage To Be, he writes of “a God above God,” or a principle of the highest good that exists beyond traditional belief in Yahweh as the patriarch of the universe. For Tillich, the courage to exist was to behave “as if” that highest good exists, and to embody it in action. Tillich saw this as the synthesis of existentialism and Christianity—not faith in Gods and resurrections, but faith that the structure of being itself answers to the person with the courage to act as if the cosmos is coherent, and ultimately, good.

For the ancient Greeks, atheism and theism were defined by behavior, not belief. An atheist was a person who acted as if there is no highest good, as if the world is purely a machine to reap reward at the cost of others. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful were inherently domains of faith—they are by no means obvious in waking life. Rather, living as if they exist, if only as aspirations, is an act of faith in itself. Not faith in The Bible or Koran or any particular deity, but faith in the ultimate coherence of the cosmos and in the idea that what is good can be enacted by animals as low as we are.

We know that atheists behave as if the highest good exists. Yet, in a purely secular cosmology, human beings are only the result of adaptation. Our faculties, as Darwinian creatures, have not evolved to seek truth—they have evolved to seek survival. Why shouldn’t we simply align ourselves with the most powerful tribe and destroy our enemies? Why shouldn’t all our mental faculties simply be post hoc justifications for what we do? Many atheists, such as Sam Harris, have argued that free will does not exist. Economist Robin Hanson, in The Elephant in The Brain, has argued that most of our behaviors are driven by social signaling, not a desire for truth.

If human beings are just biological machines that have evolved to seek survival, then the highest good is already a kind of social fiction. It is the story we tell ourselves about our actions, which may or may not even be within our own control. Morality is a human construction. The highest good is just a story. But ethical human behavior is coordinated by such useful fictions. Nations are social constructions, but that does not mean they are ‘false’ exactly. We tell stories about nations to ground ourselves in a reality that is sufficiently accurate to ensure our continuing survival. We tell stories about great heroes and religious figures for the same reason—to coordinate human survival according to an imaginary ideal. Buddha, Christ, and Muhammad are fictions proposed to guide human behavior.

An archetype is simply an idea that recurs in human storytelling across cultures. This claim is nested in comparative mythology, or the study of ancient mythological stories to see exactly what common themes crop up across completely different civilizations. Rationalist critics of religion do not tend to engage with thinkers such as Carl Jung, who saw our mental fictions as more important to our lives than even the material facts of existence. For conscious creatures, the stories we tell ourselves about existence coordinate everything that we do, which makes them of primary importance to natural selection—which ideas are allowed to survive determine the type of creatures we become. If Adolf Hitler becomes the hero of a story that spreads across the globe, then we will become creatures utterly unlike the ones we are today.

Why do human beings tell stories at all? Even if we suppose that every other animal has conscious experience identical to our own, there is no history of written or documented storytelling amongst animal cultures. Chimpanzees may wield sticks, but they do not use them to carve images of bison in stone. Perhaps someday they will. But, for now, we must assume that storytelling is a unique feature of human consciousness. Human beings tell stories and construct fictions because it is part of our evolutionary heritage. Cultures, nations, and the Odyssey are all human inventions, yet they are also real features of our lives. Analyses of the world which reject religion wholesale are only interested in the material element of our world, not the stories that had an enormous hand in building it.

There is a major elephant in the room for atheistic materialist science: the evolution of storytelling creatures is unprecedented. A self-reflexive, conscious subject that tells useful fictions is introduced to a world once filled only with passive and inanimate things, and the magnitude of this development is not properly contextualized by materialist philosophy. Carl Sagan waxes poetically about how we are the universe’s way of understanding itself, but the truly bizarre nature of this development is smoothed over in the total materialist evolutionary picture. Why should any beings tell stories? Why should fiction become a major element in coordinating evolutionary behavior?

Theologians such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin have long made the argument that evolution is not entirely purposeless. Rather, the evolution of matter from organic chemistry, to biological instinct, into conscious storytelling represents a coherent chain of complexification, against the slings and arrows of galactic entropy. That chain of material evolution into the state of human consciousness, the first state of matter able to reflect upon and tell stories about itself, is the basis of a 21st century study of the transcendental. Contemporary theologian and philosopher John Haught has argued that God is the totality of an evolving, incomplete universe. The universe—through animals, and more recently through human beings—is becoming conscious of itself. At the end of that chain of increasing consciousness awaits the ideal of ‘God,’ whatever it truly is, beyond our limited comprehension as temporary creatures trapped in constantly evolving matter.

The problems of religious fundamentalism should also vanish once we understand that the universe is not a static, perfect thing, but a thing in evolution. Our notions of God are incomplete because the fundamental state of the universe is incomplete. It is still in becoming, and our human consciousness is at the very edge of that great becoming. Carl Jung once theorized that the Biblical Yahweh himself was ‘unconscious,’ more animal, more unrefined in his callous behavior, than the Christian Gospels which followed. The idea that religious symbols can evolve is radical and perhaps heretical, but clear thinking demands it.

Our religious symbols and ideals are inexhaustible and permanent—no matter how many ways you articulate what ‘God’ is, you have missed one. God, to our rational mind, is the ultimate useful fiction. It is the story capable of coordinating all human behaviors in the image of self-reproduction, or survival. The discovery of God is the discovery of behavior which is most perfectly suited to not only our own lives, but everyone’s lives. It is the behavior capable of ensuring that human beings will still live to realize higher and higher ideals thousands of years from now.

As we enter an age of absolute uncertainty, where climate change is altering the structure of the natural world, and our human stories have led to the development of nuclear missiles, permanent wars, and atmospheric change, the story capable of coordinating all this madness becomes more and more essential to find. As storytelling beasts, we now have the power to wipe out ourselves and countless other species. Our power has far outpaced our self-understanding. In the final hour of our evolution, a thousand reaching hands seek to uncover the heart of the mystery, and the ultimate behavior which threads the ideal of the good, the true, and with some luck, also the beautiful.


Alexander Blum’s writing focuses on politics, mysticism, and fiction. Visit his website here and follow him on Twitter @AlexanderBlum0