I intend to approach this broad question with a broad brush, starting from the position that reasoned theories, however tentative, are the only credible basis of knowledge. From this perspective, the multitude of ‘beliefs’ still profoundly held in today’s world are to be seen as genuine but simplistic interpretations of the widespread sense of the numinous, which has always been a major part of the human psyche – always seeking a credible form of expression.
My theory is that it is rational to infer the whole object of being, its peak purpose, to be the expansion of the field of understanding by conscious life of the cosmos of which it forms the key component. It follows that any life which expands this field by one tiny jot will have been well spent, and – directly or indirectly – I suggest that most conscious lives can claim to meet this modest criterion.
In presenting my theory the first thing to clarify is the nature of our life and of its cosmic environment as we can now see it – still mistily, but a great deal more clearly than ever before in the history of life, or at least life on earth. To assist us we have two interlinked categories of information. Firstly, the numinous, accessible at all cultural levels. Secondly we have factual information about the material cosmos, in some sense accessible to all with eyes to see and ears to hear. Both categories provide information which appears to be solid, but both are very clearly apt to be misleading – did we not once assess the earth to be flat?
The basis of the numinous is the profound but simple “religious” feeling of oneness with all things, which is common to every race of mankind – both primitive and sophisticated. Just look at the gleaming eyes of believers of all faiths. The feeling may be nebulous or precisely directed, but its experience is a universal fact. Not surprisingly, humans have interpreted it in formats appropriate to their local cultures, and have fashioned its expression to meet their needs, which of necessity are biological and socio biological as well as ‘free-floating’. This is where problems start, because once the tummy is full and society organised (ie the biological requirements have been attended to), the most pressing of these needs is to achieve the best possible understanding of the altogether amazing – but usually distinctly uncomfortable – material world.
It is not the sense of the numinous but these human formats which have caused religion to become a disaster area. The formats are many and various, but all have tended to elevate erroneous factual interpretations to the status of dogmas, culturally condition successor generations into their unquestioning acceptance, and generally integrate themselves into the tribal nature of society. In the light of today’s factual knowledge most dogmas are clearly no more than myths, and cultural conditioning plus tribal organisation are outmoded tools of human convenience – yet all remain deeply entrenched and a source of constant problems.
Despite this, as the first generation with access to any real understanding of the night sky, the deep…