Why We Don't Need Religion to Give Life Mystery

Sweet mystery of life
“What does Dr. Bloody Bronowski know about it?”

“He knows everything!”

“Oh, I wouldn’t like that. It’d take all the mystery out of life.”

It takes all the mystery out of life. This is an argument that sometimes gets made against the atheist/ materialist/ naturalist view of life. Naturalism is too reductionist, the argument goes. By seeking to explain the universe in terms of physical cause and effect, and in seeking to understand that physical cause and effect in increasingly greater breadth and detail, naturalism ultimately seeks to explain and understand everything. And that would be bad. We need some mystery. Mystery — unanswered and unanswerable questions — are a central part of what makes us human. Without it, our life would be bleak and empty, with a yearning that can never be satisfied… because there’s nothing left out there to satisfy it.

And religion, supposedly, offers that mystery. The belief in that which cannot be perceived by the senses; the belief in immaterial entities or forces that somehow affect the world but that nobody perceives in the same way; the belief in a life after this one that that nobody’s ever returned from and nobody really knows anything about… all of this fills the human need for mystery, the need for questions we don’t know the answer to.

Okay. Deep breath.


Thus begins my new piece on AlterNet, Why We Don’t Need Religion to Give Life Mystery. To find out how we can still experience a sense of mystery with an entirely materialist viewpoint — and how, in fact, religion merely punts the question of the mystery of life rather than addressing it — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Why We Don't Need Religion to Give Life Mystery

14 thoughts on “Why We Don't Need Religion to Give Life Mystery

  1. 1

    Seriously? That’s an actual argument they use?
    I think that would be my breaking point. I’d have to say:

    So you’re seriously saying that you want to remain ignorant of reality and instead believe in some arbitrarily chosen mythology, because it makes you feel more comfortable?

    Probably followed by a mumbled “Coward.” and walking away shaking my head and talking to myself about being unable to find intelligent conversation with anyone else.
    I’m okay with someone not being as curious as I am, but if they aren’t then they shouldn’t try to discuss things they know absolutely nothing about and, it seems in this case, don’t want to know.

  2. 2

    FYI, I love the pieces you write on Alternet, but some of the comments…? “Why didn’t you write about this [insert something they think has to do with the article], therefore you’re lazy.”
    Do they intentionally comment using the same fallacies that you call them out on in your articles?
    Great… Now I need a Jack/Coke.

  3. 3

    Here’s another way to think about this “mystery” thing. That there is an immense universe in which we exist; that we exist; that we experience love and hate and hunger and fullness; that stars and babies are born from comparatively nothing, and so on; these are not mysteries. They are facts.

  4. vel

    I don’t believe this mystery nonsense at all. I’ve heard it used but I have yet one to meet one theist, especially one Christian, who wasn’t sure they knew all about the universe, what God “really meant”, they’re a special snowflake because they have the love and complete attention of the creator of everything. What a primitive fantasy. Add to that, the fact that most if not all theists are quite happy to have the “mystery” solved if it contributes to their comfort and convenience and they come up as uberhypocrites. As usual.

  5. 5

    Agreed about the quality of comments on AlterNet, a shame!
    I’m slightly surprised by your choice of great questions. On consciousness, I would love to hear your thoughts on atheist Horseman Daniel C Dennett’s 1991 “Consciousness Explained”. There are many questions about consciousness that he doesn’t explain, but if you buy his way of addressing the problem, the sense of intractable mystery about it is replaced by a framework of approaches through which real progress is possible. Dennett has written a great deal worth reading.
    On “where did the Universe come from?” I’m not sure I even understand your question. Any answer to any such question has to posit some sort of model, so it’s open to being asked, but where did that come from? The best we can hope for is a simple model of the very earliest states of the Universe from which what we observe can be predicted.

  6. 6

    Add to that, the fact that most if not all theists are quite happy to have the “mystery” solved if it contributes to their comfort and convenience and they come up as uberhypocrites. As usual.
    Yeah, that cracks me up. “Science? We don’t need science to explain faith. Science CAN’T explain faith.”
    But when an ossuary is found, or some other discovery that could lead to scientific PROOF (of course, it never does) of their deity, they jump all over that.
    “Hey! Did you hear!? Scientists have proven that such-and-such is the ark, or the bones of Methusela!”
    They like science when it appears to prove them right.
    I mean, pick a side: either science can prove the existence of your god, or it can’t. (It can’t.) Frankly, you are trying to gain credibility by playing the science card, and you know it. And we’re not fooled.

  7. 7

    A good and thought-provoking article.
    By analogy, moving piece of music is not drained of its beauty and wonder by a close analysis explaining the elements that comprise the work. A poem is hardly made redundant by a paraphrase. Such commentaries on art actually enhance and deepen our appreciation of the work in question– they certainly do not lessen it.
    Likewise with science: I would say the more we learn about the natural universe we live in, the more awe inspiring it becomes, not less.

  8. 8

    I really like this article and I especially agree with your observation that scientific solutions to life’s mysteries “enhance” them rather than eliminate them and that no area of inquiry should be off limits. The only place I disagreed was with the statement that overwhelming evidence indicates that “the physical, natural world is all there is”. This bothers me simply because its tone seems to overstate the actual scientific knowledge of the nature of reality itself, time and the nature of conscious awareness. I’m agnostic myself, and, like yourself, willing to become gnostic, but, to paraphrase someone, ‘absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence.’

  9. 10

    The more we know, the more we realize there still is to learn. New discoveries and insights yield innumerable new questions. Yeah, we may have Newton’s laws pretty well figured out now, but look at how many other inquiries his insights opened up, most of which are still ongoing. Humankind will never run out of questions – “mysteries,” for those who prefer a sexier term.

  10. 11

    This is very off-topic, and for that I apologize. I just thought this idea so outlandish that I had to get it to Greta.
    From the very mainstream Businessweek:
    Small Business February 11, 2010, 5:00PM EST
    Caring for Pets Left Behind by the Rapture
    For a fee, this service will place your dog or cat in the home of a caring atheist on Judgment Day
    By Mike Di Paola
    “Many people in the U.S.—perhaps 20 million to 40 million—believe there will be a Second Coming in their lifetimes, followed by the Rapture . In this event, they say, the righteous will be spirited away to a better place while the godless remain on Earth. But what will become of all the pets?
    Bart Centre, 61, a retired retail executive in New Hampshire, says many people are troubled by this question, and he wants to help. He started a service called Eternal Earth-Bound Pets that promises to rescue and care for animals left behind by the saved.”
    The rest of the article examines the viability of the “business”. I will spare those of you who don’t want to read anymore by not providing additional quotes, but you get the idea.

  11. 12

    Regarding “answers to mysteries closing off the search”:
    For generations, mathematicians struggled to learn the nature of the fundamental constant, pi. Eventually, that ratio was shown to be an irrational number, which effectively ended the search. Oh, really? Aren’t computers continually being programmed to find the 27,734,569,237th digit of pi?

  12. 13

    Yes, it’s a pretty weak argument, but one I’ve hear time and again even amongst non-theists. IIRC it was mostly used to express opposition to research in biology or neurology or something (“but if you find out all about the brain, people will be just like machines, and this is scary. Can’t we just keep some mystery?”)
    I also find that the more you learn, the more mystery there is (plus, you get your mind blown on the way). Like living on a small island, you get to see only a small length of horizon, whereas on a larger island, the length of horizon is larger. Sort of, if that makes sense.
    @ Jim H: I don’t think what matters is really the umpteenth digit of pi ( rather, of its decimal expansion ), but if I believe it’s rather a traditional playground for people to test the speed of improved algorithms or computers.

  13. 14

    @Paul Crawley on evidence of absence. I take your point, but it’s a point about probability not absolute certainty. I admit the paraphrase is not applicable to many subjects that can be approached rationally, but what my point was trying to be is this: human ignorance is massively, if not infinitely deeper than our knowledge, though that knowledge is growing through scientific examination and open-minded consideration of possibilities.
    Of course it’s true that many religious claims are proven false by scientific inquiry, but to dismiss any possibility other than physical processes driven by random chance is highly premature and comes across as arrogance, even to someone like me, who isn’t at all theistic or religious or suspicious of science.

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