Religious believers like to claim that they're more humble than us atheists. Their devotion to God supposedly is a reflection of a selflessness lacking in spiritual skeptics.
Actually, the reverse is true.
It's taken me a while to realize this, in no small part because I brainwashed myself into believing otherwise during my 30+ years of religiosity. For a long time I was deeply proud of my humility. Now I understand how deluded I was. (See here and here.)
The most astounding display of religious egotism is belief in an afterlife.
Think about it: it is obvious that all living beings are born, then die. Chickens, elephants, dogs, goldfish, spiders, pigeons -- they are all part of a natural cycle which begins with birth and ends with death.
Atoms exist forever, so far as we know.
Everything in existence can be traced back to the big bang that marked the formation of our universe. This is a scientific truth: we are made of star stuff, since the heavier elements that comprise us were created by exploding stars billions of years ago.
But things composed of those atoms are subject to the laws of nature, such as entropy. Order inexorably turns into disorder, notably including our own bodies. We wear down. We fall apart. We die.
Every other life form on Earth accepts this, because they have no other option.
I have closely studied our dog for any sign that she is anxious about her eventual demise, or puts her canine brain cells to work pondering what will happen after she takes her last breath. But humans, as I blogged about recently, have evolved to possess a mental "strange loop" that allows us not only to be aware, but to be aware of our awareness.
(Some other animals appear to possess a form of self-awareness, yet not nearly to the degree that we Homo sapiens have.)
Understand: it is totally understandable that people want to cling to life. The members of every species do. If living and dying were viewed as equally desirable by a certain type of creature, almost certainly it wouldn't exist for very long. Thus we have a natural predilection to remain alive for as long as possible.
But the human capacity for abstraction has allowed us to come up with concepts that don't point to anything in the natural world. Like, "God," "soul," "heaven," and "afterlife." Probably our unique animal ability to foresee our own death is a major reason these religious concepts have taken root so solidly in almost every culture.
When the first humans were able to think, "One day I will be dead and gone forever," likely it didn't take long before this sort of reassuring thought followed: "Unless... God saves me."
This also is totally understandable. It isn't true, though.
Modern science, including neuroscience, has progressed to the point that we can say with near certainty: (1) When the brain dies, we die, and (2) Further, whatever "we" are, it isn't anything separate and distinct from the workings of the brain.
Which was another point in my recent post, where I quoted Douglas Hofstadter:
Poised midway between the unvisualizable cosmic vastness of curved spacetime and the dubious, shadowy flickerings of charged quanta, we human beings, more like rainbows and mirages than like raindrops or boulders, are unpredictable self-writing poems -- vague, metaphorical, ambiguous, and sometimes exceedingly beautiful.
To see ourselves this way is probably not as comforting as believing in ineffable other-worldly wisps endowed with eternal existence, but it has its compensations. What one gives up on is a childlike sense that things are exactly as they appear, and that our solid-seeming, marble-like "I" is the realest thing in the world; what one acquires is an appreciation of how tenuous we are at our cores, and how wildly different we are from what we seem to be.
Religious believers, though, reject this modern scientific understanding.
They cling to an archaic assumption that people have an eternal soul-consciousness which lives on after the physical body dies. This is as false as the long-discredited belief that the Sun revolves the Earth, yet is much more difficult to dislodge -- because it is so reassuring to creatures fearful of their impending death.
Belief in an ego, a "I-ness" separate and distinct from the atoms that comprise our brain, along with everything else in the universe, this is common to almost everybody.
However, religious believers supercharge this intuitive, yet mistaken, perception with the high octane fuel of holy books, dogmatism, prayer, rituals, and devotion to an imaginary God who will embrace their supernatural soul after death.
I reject this extreme egotism, though I admit that sometimes it still seems tempting. Having once been addicted to religion, I'm akin to a recovering alcoholic who walks by a liquor store and still feels a desire to partake -- as in the good old drunken days.
Except... I know now that those days when I was inebriated on religious superstitions weren't so good. The pleasant feelings were founded on lies. My sense of being a humble servant of the Lord flowed from extreme egotism.
I'll end by quoting myself (yeah, I'm still egotistical, but at least now I admit it).
Virtually every religion and spiritual path considers that its adherents have a special relationship with God or whatever other supernatural entity they believe in.
There are so many chosen people on Earth, they vastly outnumber the unchosen, the non-special group I'm pleased to be a part of.
I understand that feeling special has its own delights.
In my case, I was a member of an India-based spiritual organization which taught that those approved for initiation by the guru had been "marked" to return to God/heaven after a karma-cleansing meditation process.
For about 35 years I embraced the enjoyable belief that, out of all the billions of people on this planet, I was one of a relative few who were the special beloveds of the supreme being.
Of course, devout Christians, Jews, and Muslims feel the same way, along with countless believers in other theological belief systems.
Eventually I started to realize that all the talk I was hearing about being "humble servants of the Lord and the guru" was, to put it bluntly, a crock of shit. Genuine humility wasn't much to be seen among devotees of my spiritual organization.
Since members of this group were told over and over that they've been singled out by a higher power to learn cosmic truths and experience realms of reality not available to other human beings, naturally a pervading sense of "tribal" pride was evident throughout the organization.
We were the cool kids in the spiritual lunch room. Other faiths were inferior, since they didn't have the direct connection to God we did.
I'm happy that this form of egotism has been discarded.
Sure, I've still got lots of other self-centered tendencies rattling around in my psyche, as we all do. But to get rid of The Big One, a belief that God had chosen me to be his best buddy for eternity, whereas my infidel wife wasn't going to get the same afterlife prize -- this increased my humility quotient by a lot.
Now I don't expect that I'm going to have any different sort of afterlife anyone else does. Namely, I strongly suspect, none at all.
I also don't expect that there is any power guiding my life which isn't also directing the lives of every other entity on Earth.