Rationalist spirituality is poison — to most people. Unfortunately.
So stop recommending it to the religious.
‘I think most people NEED religion.’
— Devan, my Lyft ride home last night.
And he’s right.
Religion, along with its myriad moral prescriptions and identity politics, imparts some much-needed self-importance to believers. The delusion of self-importance is crucial for maintaining our own functionality as human beings.
This notion frightens people.
Not for nothing did Douglas Adams choose to use it as a tool of punishment in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He called it the Total Perspective Vortex: an unassuming steel box only large enough for a victim to stoop in. On the walls inside, for an eye’s mere blink, flashes the enormity of the universe. Billions of unique worlds orbiting trillions of stars across trillions of light-years of abject fucking emptiness splatter across the retinas. And then a tiny dot appears, so small you could miss it: our utterly average little sun, at the edge of our utterly average little galaxy, labeled ‘You are here.’ Gibbering madness, or — more often — brain annihilation follows.
And so we wrestle this idea to our deaths.
No one wants to feel pointless. I am worth more than a tiny ‘You are here’ sign! I must be, dammit! One cannot dismiss this sentiment out of hand, given how harshly many of us are raised.
Current Western ideals prescribe healthy doses of unconditional love from our parents in childhood, which psychologists now deem necessary for a feeling of security in the world: Someone loves you in spite of all your faults. You are forgiven over and again, despite your crimes, whatever they be. Harsh, strict childrearing was and still is the norm across much of the planet, however, and so the sorts of love most human beings experience do not satisfy this need.
And it is a need: we endeavor to fill it, to varying degrees of success, with pets, plants, or partners.
Does this seem a reach to you?
We are but animals too, and countless other animals treat their young with coldness: simply letting them die if they prove too weak or not proactive enough to prevail against their siblings for a limited supply of teats and milk; eating the weaker ones alive upon parturition; eating their previous babies if they mate with a new partner, and the like. The scriptures of all three Abrahamic faiths endorse beating or killing disobedient children, and human beings have invented reasons for infanticide since time immemorial. We have not always viewed human life as valuable or special; cruelty to each other may be in our nature. Some respite from it is necessary.
Enter the Personal Creator God, unique to the Christian tradition. The Islamic God, on one hand, is an implacable, immanent force of nature, a ball of jealous rage whose authority must be honored without question. The Jewish God shares much of this fury, but he is now distant and uninvolved: his chosen people must make their own way in the world, keeping alive his traditions until his messenger — the Messiah — comes bearing the standard of eschatological retribution. But the Christian God is personal and immediate and overwhelmingly now. His eye is on the sparrow, sings the Christian in supplication. And he watches over me.
Depending on your choice of denomination, the Personal Creator God is still the ruthless enigma of the Tanakh and the Old Testament, who hunts down the uncircumcised among his ranks and breathes hot death upon them until they comply; who floods and carpet-bombs the Earth for the transgressions of single cities; who slaughters whole tribes — including his own people — in supposedly holy warfare, but these days he is kinder. He chooses two human beings instead as scapegoats for the world’s ‘sin’, allowing one to suffer torture beyond belief and the other to bear the blame forever. This act is meant as a gift of mercy: human sacrifice is still apparently necessary to effect peace. And then he returns to his perch and…watches our beings and doings, ever present. If you bend his ear in the right way, he may descend and give you your heart’s desire.
This conceit—of a god who watches over you, listens to your prayers, gives your needs precedence over those of others, and loves you even if you treat your fellow beings with cruelty — strikes me as fatuous and egotistical in the extreme. Any god who actually operates this way would have to roll dice, or flip coins, or something to decide whose wishes to honor in any conflict where both sides appeal to him. In a zero-sum contest, both parties cannot possibly win:
God strokes his chin: ‘Both sides in this basketball game call out to me, and I have heard. They both want to win. I guess they both deserve to…I know! Who has the sexiest uniforms?’
Peering closer at both groups of heads bowed in prayer, he lets his bored eyes drift from one team to the other.
‘Hmmmmm. You know, I’m not a fan of red,’ he says, gesturing to the team on his left, ‘and there’s too much red all over their jerseys. Down the legs, all over the back, even on the socks. Ugh, fuck ’em. They can die — uh, lose, lose. All right, who’s next?’
But given the all too human need to feel significant and unique and special against a backdrop of other variations on a single theme, I can understand why the Personal Creator God holds such a tenacious sway over people’s minds and why he gives comfort. It must feel good to have the deity who laid the foundations of the earth on your side.
And yet he doesn’t do a thing for me. What does?
A trip to the high desert at night.
I sprawl out supine on the ground, gaze out into the obsidian void and look back upon billions of years of time: an infinity of points of light — other stars not unlike the one my rock orbits — shimmying and thrumming and self-immolating unfathomable light-years away; the great Milky Way arching over the sky, offering protection while promising harsh exposure; the shimmering possibility of other worlds like this one and the taunting impossibility of ever reaching them without losing sight of this world as it is now.
It is a terrifying, humbling thought: I am but a teeny red chigger on the universe’s leg. But at the same time, I am, along with every other form of life here, part of this boundless cosmic conga, and I find this thrilling beyond measure.
Or I can go to the night beach, wade out into the violence of the crashing crushing surf where it calms to a passive-aggressive grumble, and watch sky melt into sea. Here a different sort of infinity licks playfully at my toes and legs: a world that we may never fully explore, for want of bodies and vessels capable of surviving the inexorable pressure of billions of tons of water above.
And yet. The sand and the salty air and the whipping wind on my wet skin remind me that my sense of separation from all is fiction, that I am — we are — part of this infinity too. The very edges of my personality, the core of my being? Stripped from my bones. I stand, naked as a newborn babe, one with everything. I’m tearing up thinking about it.
Lo and behold, this is the Total Perspective Vortex, and we are all standing in it, if we care to look around us. This is a kind of rationalist spirituality, and I am not alone in seeing the universe this way. I struggle with anxiety and depression, but mostly anxiety these days, and this?
This actually gives me a measure of peace.
All the little tediums that trouble me, make me nervous and afraid, slammed up hard against the massive wall of spacetime? Meaningless. Against the interminable blink of an eye that is one human life?
All my years, however many I have, walking on the surface of this lump of rock will mean nothing in the astronomical scale of time and space. This is all the time allotted to me, and how am I called upon to use it?
Savor it, for I am unbelievably lucky to be here; as are we all: gladden others’ lives, if I can; use my gifts while I still exist.
Does it sound as if I am describing the same communion, the same sweet obliteration of ego, that people experience in thrall to mystical or religious or psychedelic ecstasy?
I am verbalizing the effects of that flood of neurotransmitters that washes over the brain in all three instances. The same ego death, the deflation of the sense of self, the collapse of boundaries: it’s all the same.
The difference lies in where I go and what I do to kill my ego when it works against the service of my goals on this watery little rock. I make a pilgrimage to a local outpost of the Vortex, stand inside and take a long shower. Nota bene, fellow scientists, skeptics, rationalists: splashing in the Vortex does not lend the vast majority of people on earth a sense of healthy perspective. Rather, it crushes their egos, leaving them bereft. So stop recommending it as an alternative to god-mediated spirituality.
This is why religious people ask ‘Well, how do you find meaning in life without God?’ and ‘But doesn’t that emptiness fill you with despair? How are you ever happy?’ The omnipotent, omnipresent and yet somehow also omniscient Creator God fills much the same purpose of smacking down the ego when it gets out of hand: he reminds his believers that they are insignificant without his grace. Without him, the emptiness is intolerable.
The emptiness tugs at us both, but those with religion prefer not to acknowledge its presence, while those without can reach into it and pull out a sense of personal agency. Our coping strategies for fending off this existential despair, though both useful self-delusions, are fundamentally incompatible. And I don’t know how to bridge that gap.
That won’t, however, deter me from trying.