The central theme of “The Secular Gospel of Sophia,” can be paraphrased as “have faith, but leave room for a little doubt.” The dark force in the novel is not religion or power, but certainty.
Perhaps the most defining trait of our species is our collective ability to believe in artificial realities. There is no other species that is able to develop and believe in elaborate stories that become the basis for behavior up to and including self-sacrifice. Our laws are not natural laws. They are concepts we agree upon in order to live in a complex society. They require human force and intervention at every step in the process, from the legislators to the judges to the police to the attorneys to the juries and jailors. They have power because we believe they have power and we believe they have power at least in part because it is too frightening to believe that they do not. If the collective belief in the existence and validity of laws ceases, the laws end with the loss of belief.
The same is not true of natural laws. Society does not have to believe in gravity for gravity to operate upon the physical world. Society does not have to believe there are evolutionary processes at work for evolutionary processes to continue apace. Society does not have to believe that mankind is causing the climate of the planet to change for the change to continue. But if society at once and en masse loses faith in a political structure, a legal system, or a set of religious beliefs, the subject government, laws, or religion will not last long. There is not enough force to sustain adherence to an artificial reality once belief in that reality is lost, particularly when the population from which the enforcers (police, priests, soldiers, etc.) are culled has lost faith in the validity of the reality they are called upon to enforce.
This uniquely human ability to believe in artificial realities is responsible for everything that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. We do not have the strength of a mammoth, the deadly natural attributes of a sabre toothed tiger or the brain size of a Neanderthal. Yet these other species could not survive their encounters with us. Why? Author Yuval Noah Harari posits that the reason has to do with homo sapiens’ ability to believe in imagined realities and thereby organize and cooperate in much larger numbers than any other species. This theory has power and logic.
Perhaps it is because so much of our existence depends upon continued belief in artificial realities that many of us crave certainty more than anything else. We tell ourselves that we desire love or peace or immortality. Yet the human need for certainty is so strong that it will lead some people to kill or die to prove that they have it.
As Earth’s most sentient creatures we grow into an awareness that is more expansive than is necessary for the survival of other species. Our need for society probably stems from the fact that we are more naturally prey than predators. Our ability to reason, mimic and learn allows us to build and improve upon the discoveries of our ancestors. Eventually humans discovered that diversity and specialization of talents among the individuals made the entire tribe stronger. The construction of imagined realities (common legends and myths) allowed cooperation on a scale greater than the clan or tribe models of our most immediate relatives. Slowly, villages, cities and civilizations were built.
From the moment we descended from the trees or crawled out of the caves the human race has been engaged in a continuous high wire act. The natural world was filled with wonder, mystery and danger. What caused storms, droughts, earthquakes? What provided for life-giving rain, bountiful harvests, and adequate supplies of game? What withheld these necessities? Catastrophe was always imagined and often realized. We explained these things to ourselves and attempted to affect them by discovering spirits and gods that had power over the workings of the natural world and acted upon the natural world with something approaching human capriciousness. Our ancestors imagined that offerings pleased or assuaged the anger of these spirits so we burned food that could have nourished the hungry or wantonly sacrificed beasts and even our own sons and daughters for the imagined delight of these imagined beings. It was our existential need to explain the unknown that led us to form these beliefs and do these acts and it was the development of these beliefs that allowed us to act cooperatively to conquer continents, extinguish some life forms and domesticate others, and build cities and armies and empires.
With the complexity of civilizations and the specialization required for their on-going functioning came the need for faith in human as well as natural forces. Everything we have built, every human construct on which our survival in this interdependent world depends requires an abiding faith that it will continue to work. We must keep this faith even though no one person or group of people fully understands why civilization does not collapse upon itself.
To take one example, no one fully understands how or why the world’s economy functions as it does. Many, if not most, experts predicted a few years ago that without serious deficit reduction, the U.S. dollar would experience serious inflation. Yet here we are, American debt has doubled and quantitative easing has pumped trillions of dollars into the money supply, but inflation remains below Federal Reserve target levels and Five and Ten year bonds are selling at interest rates that approach zero percent. Why? I believe it is because the world markets continue to have faith in the dollar as a valuable and necessary means of exchange. If that faith is ever lost, the dollar would become worthless. The same can be said about almost every aspect of our complex existence on Earth.
The interconnectedness of our lives and the complexity of supply chains mean that, for the most part, we are able to live with a modicum of sanguinity only if we have faith that all the systems and conditions on which we depend will continue to work as they have worked.
Faith in these earthly, man-made structures and institutions is similar to religious faith. Faith is a belief in something that one cannot perceive with the senses or understand with the mind. Faith is a good and necessary attribute of being human. Without faith it would be difficult to put one foot in front of the other to move forward with our lives.
But modern religious faith is also something very different than what I would call secular faith. A faith that promises salvation or eternal life in exchange for adherence to divinely ordered rules can lead to a loss of perspective and a belief among some followers that anyone who does not believe in or adhere to those rules is deserving of scorn or, in extreme cases, of elimination. In societies that do not place checks on the passion of such extreme adherents, nobody is safe. Tolerance itself becomes a vice; evidence of corruption or lack of faith.
The world has suffered through many calamities as a result of the unchecked passions of religious zealots. We are witnessing this phenomenon in real time played out among some Islamic groups such as ISIS, al Qaeda, and Boku Haram. Christianity has its own sorry history of such zealotry. The murder sprees that we in the West call the Crusades are examples. The pogroms directed at Jews for over a thousand years provide other examples. The Inquisition and heresy and witch trials of the Eleventh through the Eighteenth Centuries further taint Christian history. The time period covered in “The Secular Gospel of Sophia,” when the Roman Empire first adopted, then enforced a particular version of Christianity, resulted in the destruction not only of ancient pagan temples, but in the wholesale destruction of a good deal of Greek and Roman science, philosophy and literature and the murder of untold numbers of non-believers. When the zealot is given free reign, humanity suffers.
There is probably no sure societal solution to the problem of religious zealotry or secular manifestations of absolute certainty (communism, Naziism). You cannot tell a zealot to believe less fervently than he does or to be tolerant of beliefs that she sees as a mortal threat to her temporal and eternal existence. In the United States this issue was addressed, with varying degrees of effectiveness, by the Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine. Yet even in America, there are always those who would challenge the strength and height of the wall the Founders built and there is no wall to provide even nominal protection against secular zealotry. On an individual basis the answer is clearer. It is to have faith in what your heart and mind guides you to have faith in, but always, always, always, leave open the possibility that you might just be wrong.
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