I’ve noticed, since having kids (they are three and five), that I’ve been unusually anxious about flu seasons (something that, when I was single and kidless, I barely thought about). And this season, with swine flu (H1N1) out there without a ready vaccine, I find myself even more anxious.
And I was thinking about my religious beliefs (I’m agnostic), and how they affect me as a parent, and it occurred to me that one of the reasons that God belief persists in the world is precisely because it is an adaptation for a future-looking species. We are the only animal that tries to survive and reproduce in the face of the foreknowledge of our own death. To make heart-vulnerable commitments to spouse and children, most of us need to feel that, should anyone in the family die, they go on somewhere else and we will be reunited someday. All other animals live as atheists, almost entirely in the present and for themselves. They do not worry themselves about God or transcendence. They do not fret for the morrow. But we do. We must. It is a unique component of our very nature to fret over our mortal vulnerabilities before choices of love, commitment, and children.
Which is why so many of us turn to transcendence as a psychological valve for decompressing this anxiety. It’s adaptive.
Let me be blunt. Atheists and agnostics (like myself) are products of advanced civilization. I don’t mean this as a compliment. I mean that we are poorly adapted to deal with death, and if contemporary methods of hygiene, surgery, and medicine were not available to us, drastically reducing mortality, I think we would find it extraordinarily difficult to cope with all the death around us, especially of children and spouses, without a belief in transcendence. I myself feel deeply that my life would be over at the death of one of my children. I might well commit suicide, or absent this, fiercely cling to a belief in transcendence for them (and me) just to hold it together through the years of emotional storm such a trauma would bring. Contemporary technological civilization, with its low child mortality and cultural deemphasis upon family, sublimates for those of us who are atheists and agnostics our vulnerability before the fierce Dionysian reality.
Which may be part of the reason I find myself moved by near death experiencer testimonies at YouTube and the theological reflections of Reinhold Niebuhr. Both reflect the optimism that, as an agnostic, I lack, but wish I didn’t.
Here’s a quote from Niebuhr:
Human vitality has two primary sources, animal impulse and confidence in the meaningfulness of human existence. The more human consciousness arises to full self-consciousness and to a complete recognition of the total forces of the universe in which it finds itself, the more it requires not only animal vitality but confidence in the meaningfulness of its world to maintain a healthy will-to-live. This confidence in the meaningfulness of life is not something which results from a sophisticated analysis of the forces and factors which surround the human enterprise. It is something which is assumed in every healthy life. It is primary religion. Men may be quite unable to define the meaning of life, and yet live by a simple trust that it has meaning. This primary religion is the basic optimism of all vital and wholesome human life.
And here’s a person recounting a near death experience at YouTube: