Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team/NASA
Wrath or math? Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team/NASA
Humans are believing animals. Perhaps that's even a way of defining our species: we are the high-functioning primates from planet Earth who have achieved consciousness and, with it, the ability to believe.
Since belief is a wide-ranging term, I mean here belief in the existence of transcending powers, of something beyond the ordinary dimension of everyday life, beyond what we perceive with our senses. I wonder, in fact, if belief is a necessary consequence of self-awareness.
Will other cosmic intelligences also believe?
We seem to be incapable of living our lives without believing that there is something bigger than us, something beyond the "merely" human. Okay, not all of us, but clearly the vast majority of humans.
To the Babylonians and the Egyptians, the skies were magical, the realm of the gods. They were a portal, a bridge between man and deity. To interpret them was to decipher the divine language: they contained messages from the gods for their worshippers down below.
This relationship with nature, its divinization, is much older than civilization. Cave paintings display our ancestors' attraction for the unknown, their reverence for powers beyond their control. The paintings of wild animals are currently believed to be graphic incantations, magic spells created to help hunters get their prize, guaranteeing survival of the group. We can only imagine the power these paintings held for their ancient viewers, as flames made them dance on the cave walls, a first attempt to recreate reality and gain some control over it.
Religion was born out of necessity and reverence. And it remains this way, defining how most humans see the world. Powers beyond our control, "acts of God," as insurance companies call floods, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, can and do kill.
Even after developing the means to harness energy from the environment to improve our quality of life, we are still at the mercy of the elements. To attribute them to natural causes, as science does, is to abandon the belief that faith can control them, or at least help to save us.
This is a quandary for science, and a challenge for science educators: it can explain, sometimes predict and, to a lesser extent, it can protect. Still, it can't match the power of belief in the human imagination, even if there is no evidence whatsoever that faith can protect us against natural disaster.
The world has been full of gods since the beginning and, to a large number of people, it still is. The answer, it seems, is not to transform science into a new kind of god — which has perils of its own — but to show that lives can be lived without belief in transcending powers. The exception, of course, are those born out of our imagination.
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