The Handbook: Learning to Move Past Religious Narcissism.

On the first episode of the rebooted Cosmos, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about our “cosmic address”, which is what someone from across the universe would write on a letter’s envelope to make sure it gets to us:

Earth, Solar System, Milky Way, Local Group, Virgo Supercluster, Observable Universe.

We recently added another line to that cosmic address–did you notice? After “Virgo supercluster,” we now have Laniakea, a galactic supercluster that comprises Virgo and some other local superclusters. Scientists have figured out how to tell what galaxies and groups are part of our galactic supercluster, and in addition and almost as importantly, they finally have a model of it that fits predictions and equations both.

If you watch that clip–and I highly recommend you do–then you’ll perhaps notice something I noticed in it, something that maybe only someone who was steeped for a lifetime in religious narcissism would notice. It is perhaps strangely fitting that not only is our solar system kinda on the far-flung edge of its little galaxy, but also that our very galaxy is on the far-flung edge of its galactic supercluster. Noticing that was a bit like noticing that some billionaire’s mansion had a terrible zip code. I’ve been reading science blogs for a while today and haven’t noticed anybody mentioning how, well, hole-in-the-wall, how deliciously poorly-situated we seem to be. All the exciting stuff is happening over at the Great Attractor (like it seems like it is at the center of our own galaxy!), and we’re off farting around on our little alley walkup flat thinking we’re all that.

Earth's Location in the Universe SMALLER (JPEG)
Earth’s Location in the Universe SMALLER (JPEG) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What astonishes me is that in the middle of all that, I really thought at one time that every bit of it was created by a loving god just for me to play in. It’d be like a doting grandpa creating a scale replica of Renaissance Rome in the middle of Ohio, complete with costumed actors of all types, all the aqueducts and art, and of course the Tiber River snaking through it all, for the delight of a visiting eighteen-month-old toddler.

I was taught that this sort of display was totally within my god’s power–he was infinite, so really making this sort of universe wasn’t a difficulty at all. Regrowing limbs was obviously out of the question, and I was shit out of luck if I wanted him to give me a single bit of undeniable evidence that he even existed–but making an entire universe full of quarks and quasars, full of elegantly graceful superclusters and creepy giant black holes, that was all completely and totally reasonable.

Why the universe existed at all was as big a question as how it had come to exist in its current form.

And in answer to that manufactured need of a question, my religion said proudly and loudly and often: The universe exists as it does because obviously human beings needed somewhere to live. But don’t get any ideas, it continued: you’re still totally unworthy of this universe’s Creator and damned lucky he condescends to let you into the party van after you die, because nothing you do merits being in that van. But yeah, all that you behold was made simply so you would have somewhere nice to sit down. Don’t get attached to it, though, because after a while that Creator will become the Destructor, sure as the night must follow the day, and he will tear it all down because its purpose will have been fulfilled. At least you’re incredibly smart and discerning enough to have made exactly the correct choice about who to worship!

Seriously, as I asked last time: how could someone come out of that with anything but a messed-up sense of their own importance?

I’m spending a lot of time on this topic in our Handbook for the Recently Deconverted because I know I struggled to figure out the big picture about just where I fit into the grand scheme of things, and I’m sure others do as well. I want to spend a little time talking specifically about how I began making strides to understand my own value after leaving a religion that both slapped me down constantly and overinflated me constantly–often in the same breath.

Did you know there’s a whole raft of cognitive biases about how humans often under- or overestimate themselves? Usually it’s in the direction of overestimation, and for a good reason. It can be really hard to figure out just where we stand. Our natural tendency is to overestimate our awesomeness.

* Illusory superiority can make people overestimate how good they are at something or how above-average they are.

* The Dunning-Kruger effect leads to unskilled people thinking they’re skilled–and more to the point, way better skilled than they really are.

* The Overconfidence effect leads people to think that their guesses are better than they really are (in that link it talks about how people who say they’re 99% certain turn out to be wrong about 40% of the time!).

* The False Consensus Effect causes us to think that our opinions are more representative of our culture and group than they really are.

* The Choice-supportive bias makes us remember our choices as being better than they really were–rationalizing those choices as the best possible one whether they were or not.

Feel free to take a look at the whole list–the point here is that while a lot of these seem like they reinforce an overinflated view of ourselves, not all of them are flattering, and some of them could be downright disastrous if taken too far.

Just knowing about these biases helped me a lot when I was figuring my shit out. Just having names for it all made such a huge difference to recovering from my cosmic assholery. But there was more to it than that.

It can be painful to realize, after a lifetime of “you’re so incredibly special and all this was for you,” that no, really, if that were the case then this “god” would have a lot of explaining to do about his sheer, reckless wastefulness and incompetence. Hopefully the sheer scale of galactic superclusters would be enough to shake someone who still possesses a sense of shame out of feeling that all this universe was really just because a god thought we’d like to see stars shining at night (which is the stated reason I was told in a few different Christian denominations for why the universe was so vast). I can’t even fathom thinking that way and knowing about Laniakea at the same time.

That’s one reason I value astronomy like I do, and history. In astronomy, we learn that every bit, every single piece of human achievement, every single thing we’ve done, is less than a grain of sand on a beach compared to the cosmic web of all those interconnected galactic superclusters. The sheer size and scope of what we’ve found staggers and dwarfs the imagination, leaves us gasping and straining to hold it all in our minds. We grapple with numbers like “400 million light-years” and “billions of years,” and look at concepts like curved space-time and black holes with so much suspicion that it can lead us to doubt they exist even when we find evidence of them aplenty. Next to that, a tiny tribal Ancient Near Eastern storm-god throwing fits about genital mutiliation starts to seem a little, well, banal. There is a lot of astonishing stuff out in our universe, and not only are we finding more about it every single day, but we’re finding out how much more there is of it than we ever suspected–and also finding out how little of it aligns with Christian theology.

But I feel the same way about human history.

I’ve heard that about 7,500 generations of humans separate me from the first homo sapiens to emerge blinking into the light, and about 500 generations have come and gone since the beginning of human civilization. I love the idea of genealogy–of finding out about my ancestors. I’ve found some astonishing stuff about my own family, but I can only go back so far. I wonder sometimes what those 500 generations of ancestors, in particular, were like. I wonder how they loved, and fought, and wrestled, and yearned, and strove. I wonder what my many-times-great-grandmothers’ dreams looked like and I wonder who they fucked (or were fucked by, alas) to produce the next generation, and if they and their partners were good to each other. I wonder who among my ancestors was a warrior, a slave, a religious figurehead, an artist, or a leader. And I wonder how they died. A lot can happen in 500 generations. Only the last 100 or so of those generations would have been Christian–if that many, considering that some of the countries involved in my ancestry weren’t Christian till the Dark Ages or later. I wonder what they believed and if they really bought into it or if they questioned it or rejected it altogether.

The grand sweep of history in all its glory really is a recent arc, only the last few thousand years or so, a tidal wave that began from a humble seeping of here-and-there findings and discoveries: fire, wheels, weapons, tools, food tech, precession, that built up and rushed to a roar of life. And yet that sweep of history is what brought us all here; each of us is a tiny little droplet of water in that ocean-sized wave. One day maybe future generations will puzzle over our written grocery lists and our LiveJournals, or marvel at our mortgage applications and FMLA paperwork. We don’t and really can’t know what will be ephemeral and what will last the ages; I’ve seen an ancient Babylonian marriage contract outlining just how much land a middle-class farmer’s daughter will get when she is married off, and I’ve searched in vain for important documents related to super-famous political figures in the 1500s. What we get is as maddeningly inconsistent sometimes as the fossils that archaeologists luck into finding. Worse, oh infinitely worse than the sheer inconsistency of the finds we make is the precious fragility of our more modern outpourings, all of it slowly turning to dust and jagged edges before we get a chance to transfer it all to something less prone to deterioration. There will come a day when nobody alive knows who Howdy Doody was, or what “Thriller” sounded like, or why the United States had to insert language into its laws to specifically prevent religion from overstepping its bounds in government (I like to think sometimes that the entire Separation Clause will remind our future generations of those stupid laws about it being illegal to ride an ostrich in rush-hour traffic that we see in forwards).

It’s an awe-inspiring and yes, staggering picture. It humbles me and exalts me to imagine what went into bringing us all to the point we’re at now. I’m not having kids, but I still see myself as one link in a very vast chain, as standing on the shoulders of many, many ancestors who lived and died before me. Even though I’m not having kids, I don’t see that chain as dying with myself. When I die, I will go into the mix along with them and hopefully become part of what forms the next generation’s minds and ideas, if not its DNA. DNA’s almost paltry compared to that contribution. Nobody really needs my shitty DNA to be passed on, trust me; my family is wonderful but we’re not exactly genetic ubermensch. And my story is just one of several other billion; my ancestors mingled and mixed with those of a great many other people and chances are you, reading my words, are related to me somewhere and somehow. All we need, really, is to find out how–if we can.

Through it all, we muddle through our individual lives and in so doing we are part of that sweep of history and that vast, gripping picture of space. Individually, we are of greater or lesser importance in our communities–fish of varying sizes squeezing alongside other fish in varying ponds. But together, we can accomplish great things. We got lucky enough–through a series of total coincidences–to develop consciousness, minds, and social cohesion, which carried us through to where we are today. That doesn’t make us gods, but it does make us human, and that’s better than gods because it’s true. We did not use religious knowledge to find out what galactic superclusters are; we used the scientific method and very simple, stable rules to figure out what was real and what wasn’t. No Popes or pastors helped figure out what Laniakea was. Scientists did that. And religious leaders have almost never been on the right side of any other bit of human progress we’ve made since religion got invented as a formal idea; they have encouraged slavery, the subjugation of women, the control of sexuality, the spread and glorification of ignorance, and the torture and outright murder of dissenters, so color me unimpressed when Pope Francis said that mayyyyybe, just mayyyyybe, Catholics should be nicer to gay people and atheists. What’s mind-blowing to me is that Christians don’t notice this huge disparity between advances in reality-land and advances in religious thought.

In the end, I realized that I, myself, had flaws and potential alike, but that when I added my efforts to those of others I could become more than I was. I can no longer imagine standing under the night sky here in my beautiful mountain home, my adopted state, and looking up at all those stars and the Milky Way and thinking this is all here so I’d have somewhere nice to sit down and keep my stuff. I can no longer look at the arc of my own history from the birth of civilization to 2015 and think all this happened just so I could be here. I’m part of something much, much bigger, in both my own tiny corner of the universe with its awful zip code and in my own part in the story of humanity itself. I’m not the end-run reason for any of it, but I’m part of it.

That’s what being human is, and that’s how I moved away from religious narcissism.

We’re going to talk more next time about some of the nuts and bolts of that move, and I really hope you’ll join me.

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