Smoke on the Breeze

In May, I wrote about the freethinker Giuseppe Verdi and my experience attending a performance of his operatic masterpiece, the Requiem. At the time, I had one other thought: strange as it sounds, and despite the fact that its composer was no friend of orthodoxy, Verdi’s Requiem was one of the more effective arguments for Christianity I’ve ever heard.

I’m not a frequent attendee of sermons, but even so, I doubt few of them would match Verdi’s orchestral eloquence. Even though its arias were sung in Latin, the music itself powerfully conveyed the ideas that lay behind it. In Verdi’s hands, the enduring Christian concepts came to vivid life: the dreadful realization that finality has at last arrived; a terrible day of darkness, unquenchable fire descending from heaven to consume the world; the contrite sinner’s realization of unbearable guilt, in the face of the divine judge’s awesome majesty; the hope of mercy freely offered; and the joy of ultimate salvation, escaping doom to be numbered with the saints and the angels. Religion’s forte has always been to persuade through the evocation of emotion, and nothing evokes emotion like a symphony as masterful as this one.

Of course, this doesn’t constitute evidence that any of it is true. And there are still the absurdities and moral outrages that go along with believing a perfect god would create imperfect humans and then consign them to torment for being what he created them to be. But nevertheless, if you overlook all this, it’s still a great story. From rising action, defining the conflict and setting up the protagonist in seemingly hopeless circumstances (and casting each one of us as the protagonist – a masterstroke!), to dramatic climax, to denouement and seemingly impossible triumph snatched from the very jaws of doom, it has all the elements shared by great fiction throughout the ages.

And atheists shouldn’t find it surprising that religious belief systems have mythologies which stir the spirit. Every major world religion does. (One of my favorites is the story of the Buddha calling the earth to witness on his behalf.) This is to be expected precisely because it’s the possession of these great stories that inspire human beings’ allegiance and devotion. More so than any purely rational argument, most people are moved by the dramatic power of stories that appeal to the emotions.

I’m sympathetic to the story-telling impulse that underlies religion. In a way, it represents humanity’s first, tentative effort to make sense of the cosmos. In the prescientific past, the world was a frightening and chaotic place, and of course people were afraid of disasters against which they were helpless. Under these circumstances, it’s entirely understandable that they would grasp at any thin reed that seemed to promise safety or deliverance. It’s always been part of the attraction of religion that it gives people a sense of understanding and control in an uncaring and dangerous universe, and it’s completely natural and forgivable that people of the past used it for that purpose.

The problem, today, is that religious beliefs have outlived their usefulness. That desire for understanding, for control, has been distilled and expressed in a pure form: the scientific method. Now, for the first time in history, we have real answers, not just guesses, for the fundamental questions of existence. The codified dogmas of the past, the ones that touch on those same questions, are stale and outdated. We no longer need those fragile trappings of myth when we have genuine understanding to light the way.

In the light of that understanding, the superstitions that once hedged us about seem not just incorrect, but foolish. The deities, those towering shapes that seemed so imposing to our ancestors, have dwindled in stature. Up close, they are no more substantial than shadows; they waver and dissipate like smoke on the breeze. We no longer need them to direct our steps. We have something better now: the true stories of science, guided by empirical evidence, that reveal the full scope and complexity of the cosmos and our own place within it.

That’s not to say that the religious stories, which still have emotional power to stir us, are entirely without value. Within those traditions, there is superb poetry, enduring parables, and some good moral lessons. But we can extract those and use them, if we wish, without pretending that the rest of it is in any way literally true, or that the people who wrote them were guided by anything more than human creativity.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://wordsthatsing.wordpress.com/2008/02/22/reliable-signposts-for-personal-growth/ Lirone

    It strikes me that the problem is that our knowledge is expanding, and our societies changing, faster than our myths are changing. Myths seem to build up slowly, take time to become established. So they’re powerful, but almost inevitably out of date. Maybe in a few centuries we will have myths that reflect our 21st century knowledge about the world… which of course will by then be out of date themselves!

    It’s not just religious myths – I’ve recently been reflecting on the myths and fairy stories about women that are now so out of date and irrelevant for the lives of modern western women.

    But myths are nevertheless hugely powerful. I’m absolutely with you on Verdi’s requiem which has an amazing ability to dramatise the story of death and judgement. And there’s a moment in Bach’s B minor mass, describing the crucifixion, which gives an incredibly uncomfortable feeling that something is terribly, fundamentally wrong. It’s all in the harmony… but it brings out the emotions incredibly powerfully!

    As a singer performing these works, my responsibility is to convey these emotions and tell this story at full intensity. But as an atheist I do feel slightly uncomfortable when I know that some people in the audience are taking this literally, and believe that I do too! Of course in operas and plays people suspend their disbelief in order to enjoy the story… unfortunately not everyone does that with these religious works!

  • Christopher

    I can see why one’s emotions can be moved through mythological tales – in fact, one of my favorite myths is that of Ragnarok (or “Twighlight of the gods”): I love the manner in which it displays the efforts of those considered high and lofty by mortals far and wide as ultimately being fruitless.

  • Alex Weaver

    Will someone please fix that record player?

    Anyway, Adam, I find similar inspiration in some more modern music which habitually deals with Christian themes (Nightwish, Blind Guardian, and Symphony X come to mind). Any experience with any of these?

  • Alex Weaver

    (Actually, I should qualify that. Nightwish is very powerful and evocative musically, but I somewhat doubt there’s anyone on earth who listens to it for the lyrics).

  • Christopher

    Alex,

    “Will someone fix that record player?”

    I don’t see any context for this statement to fit into – would you care to fill us in on you attempted to communicate?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Thanks, Lirone! I couldn’t agree more. Myths, by their nature, are reflections of the natural cycles: life and death, the seasons, the rhythms of nature. Those things change slowly, if at all, while the pace of change in our society constantly accelerates. We travel into space, build skyscrapers, and reshape the face of the planet, and we’re still relying – as Sam Harris puts it – on the myths accumulated by societies so ancient and primitive that for them the wheelbarrow would have been a major technological advance. Sure, we can study those stories, and admire them for the power they have to stir our emotions, because storytelling is a truly universal trait shared by people of all eras. But to take them as infallible guides for living our lives today? The idea still amazes me. How can you play with sandcastles on the beach when there’s an ocean to explore?

    Alex: I’ve never heard of Nightwish, but I do like Blind Guardian and Symphony X as well (and bearing that in mind, I’ll have to check them out). Along those lines I might also recommend Kamelot and Sonata Arctica – both are great, complex progressive rock bands that also weave in classical instrumental themes. Very good music to get in the mood for writing. :)

  • Malenfant

    Let’s not forget that the Techno-Age brings it’s own Myths and irrationalities, 2012 and McKennas ‘Timewave Zero’ are examples for that, similarly to the aforementioned Singularity.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    religious beliefs have outlived their usefulness

    I agree completely, which is why I have difficulty with the ideal you expressed in your closing paragraph. Religious people often have difficulty extracting the meaningful portions out of their stories and leaving the tall tales behind. Even liberal believers, who do this more effectively than conservatives and fundamentalists, frequently retain some of the woo and mysticism that comes with their religious traditions.

  • Christopher

    Malenfant,

    “Let’s not forget that the Techno-Age brings it’s own Myths and irrationalities, 2012 and McKennas ‘Timewave Zero’ are examples for that.”

    And lets not forget the urban legends – tales of old ladies putting cats in microwaves, female fashion models being literally cooked by tanning beds and girlfriends that shoot their boyfriends’ computers for attention! This modern culture has just as many ridiculous tales to tell as those of the ancients – and many people are gullible enough to believe them too…

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    That desire for understanding, for control, has been distilled and expressed in a pure form: the scientific method. Now, for the first time in history, we have real answers, not just guesses, for the fundamental questions of existence. The codified dogmas of the past, the ones that touch on those same questions, are stale and outdated. We no longer need those fragile trappings of myth when we have genuine understanding to light the way.

    Ah, but so often when we are inspired by science, we are inspired by some story — a story containing scientific truths, to be sure, but one which rings with myth and metaphor nonetheless. We are stardust; we are the universe beginning to comprehend itself; we are a small note concluding the ‘Ancestor’s Tale’ and a lead in to some descendant’s tale to come. We haven’t outlived the need for story, and it isn’t the facts themselves that provide the story, it’s the way we choose to view them.

  • Alex Weaver

    And lets not forget the urban legends – tales of old ladies putting cats in microwaves, female fashion models being literally cooked by tanning beds and girlfriends that shoot their boyfriends’ computers for attention! This modern culture has just as many ridiculous tales to tell as those of the ancients – and many people are gullible enough to believe them too…

    Not to mention “vaccines-causing-autism” myths. My grandparents in Soquel (yes, Adam, the same set I mentioned a couple years back in connection with 9/11 conspiracy theories) occasionally forward me articles about that, and I reply with links to Respectful Insolence. While they claim not to believe in it wholeheartedly, they don’t seem to be moving away from that position; they seem to be intensely predisposed to crediting any account which paints the industrial sector or mainstream political institutions as villains, whether the facts support it or not.

  • Christopher

    Alex, I have some relatives in that teach spec. ed – and they firmly believe that the various mental illnesses that their students have are directly connected with vaccines as well. I honestly don’t know how much of their suspicions are real or imagined, but I strongly doubt their opinions are based in fact: after all, they also believe that large Satanic cults have conjured demons onto the mortal plane and control our government (yeah, they’ve read too much Rebecca Brown liturature).

    So I take any claims they make without any basis in fact with a grain of salt.