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.

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