Stephen Kahn

I Wonder as I Wander

In Hard to tell on October 19, 2011 at 3:53 am

As far as I can see, humans seek transcendence. We know that we will die, that all life involves suffering, and most of us know that life is not fair — the wicked sometimes prosper and the good are sometimes punished for no particularly good reason.

An early remedy for this painful realization is to imagine that there is a reason for we suffer and to imagine that there is a solution for our suffering. This solution is now called religious belief.

Over the course of human existence, and even now, there have been thousands of religious beliefs, but through a process of competition, we are refining our way down to five main ones (in two categories).

One category might be described as Genetic belief, in that it is transmitted mainly through clan and culture. Three of the “big five” religious beliefs seem to fall into this group, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism. I would describe the other two as Viral beliefs as they are transmitted not only genetically but also by persuasive memes and active proselytizing (Islam and Christianity/Mormonism).

One can expand, revise, and quibble about my attempt to summarize all of religious belief in less than 150 words, which is why at least 572,153,789,999,444,420 words (which I think puts in the quintillions, but I could be wrong) have been written over the course of human history explaining, analyzing, revising, reforming, and dissecting religious belief.

Most people are religious believers, but gradually people are losing religious belief. Now religious belief is something like spiritual nutrition. We can limit how much we drink and eat (in fact it is a good idea in many respects), but we can not sustain ourselves on nothing. So just as we need SOMETHING for our physical survival, we need SOMETHING for our spiritual survival. For example, this blog post by Scott Erb provides an excellent discussion of this very issue.



For some people, the drive to find transcendence was expressed by science fiction.

Why did I not become a traditional religious believer? I remember, pretty clearly given that it is now 57 years later, reading much of the Bible at the age of 10 and thinking, “This was either written by human beings or it was written by some being called ‘God.’ Sure seems to have the fingerprints of human beings all over it.”

I read quite a bit of varied material as a child, and by the age of 10 I was already reading some science fiction.

One of the most popular phrases in science fiction is “Sense of wonder.” I’ve interpreted it as a kind of substitute for religious belief. The three most popular science fiction writers when I began reading science fiction were Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Issac Asimov, often called the “Big Three” science fiction writers of their time. Each dealt with religious belief, societal organization, in different ways that still resonate today. (Like a Soviet encyclopedia, this wikipedia entry may have changed from what I read by the time you get to it.)





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