Warning: if you're comfortable feeling that the cosmos is designed around you, or humanity in general, what you're about to read runs the risk of putting some leaks in your belief bubble.
I'm not only speaking to the religious, even though theology and metaphysics is where you'll find the most egregious examples of Homo sapiens centeredness. The churchless also are prone to self-centered grandiosity.
I know, because I am one.
For me, faithlessness came down the track of my psyche long before humility. Understand, I'm not claiming any sort of ego-loss now. I'm still as full of myself as ever.
The difference is that I'm increasingly able to recognize how much I want to believe that the universe has a special concern for me, or is fashioned in a way that makes its ultimate reality potentially comprehensible to my consciousness.
Here's a seeming paradox: the less religious I become, the more I feel like I'm approaching the central goals of religiosity – and without the nasty side effects of ingesting dogmatism.
Namely, I'm coming to see myself as a humble part of a marvelously grand whole. I bow down before this imaginably vast cosmos, recognizing that little me can do nothing other than accept the oft-heard adage, Man proposes, God disposes (except I like to substitute Nature for "God"). I do my best to embrace what comes to me as the result of forces far beyond my control – which will include whatever happens after I die.
So the aforementioned paradox really isn't one at all.
What religion seeks, union with a greater reality beyond that known to our limited mind and senses, is contradicted by the privileged position almost every faith claims for its followers.
I've had a lot of experience with this, since for over thirty years I was a member of an organization that held out the goal of a soul "drop" merging with God's "ocean," while simultaneously proclaiming that believers were chosen people on a unique path that couldn't be traveled by others less fortunate (such as my wife).
Eventually this disconnect – how could I be on the road to losing my ego while continually being told how special I was? – led me to recognize that if I wanted what led me to sign on the religious dotted line, I'd have to tear up the contract.
I want to be in harmony with the universe and other people. I'd like to be content with what I have, not desiring something always beyond my grasp. I yearn to live happily and die content, not worrying about what will happen in the next moment.
For a long time I thought that expanding my consciousness until it was co-equal with the cosmos was the way to achieve this. Now, this strikes me as both an exceedingly unlikely eventuality and also disturbingly focused on me, me, me.
What's the matter with the cosmos doing what it wants, and me adjusting myself to it the best I can? The universe is a lot bigger and more powerful than I am, so I don't have any choice in the matter anyway.
I've got a lot more faith now that I'm churchless – faith that everything has been fashioned just fine, without any existential blunders.
In this regard I've got more trust in the rightness of creation than John McCain, who said today that life isn't fair (because Obama is rising in the polls after McCain put his campaign on hold to supposedly work on the financial bailout plan).
Last year I explained why life is fair, saying:
By "fair," I mean there's a reason for things. They don't pop out of nowhere, miraculously or randomly. Even the laws of quantum physics, where randomness is an integral aspect of the subatomic world, have a foundation in well-formed mathematics.
When people say, "life isn't fair," they're speaking anthropomorphically or personally. What they usually mean is that stuff happens that shouldn't, in their opinion. Babies are born blind. Tsunamis strike villages without warning. Bad things happen to good people.
But unfairness doesn't exist without a privileged position, either human or divine.
Religion demands a privileged position: a special relationship with God, a favored understanding of metaphysical reality, a unique method of merging with the divine.
This presupposes that human beings in general, and people belonging to a certain faith in particular, are centrally located in the cosmic sphere of things. Naturally this is a comforting feeling, which goes a long way toward explaining why religions are so popular.
In "Wanted: Intelligent Aliens for a Research Project," Olivia Judson points out how biased toward us is our view of the cosmos.
On the overestimation side, we only need to look at history to see that humans tend to have any number of self-aggrandizing beliefs — we have a long tradition of believing ourselves to be the center of the universe, for example, or to think the planet was created especially for us. We often forget that for the first two billion years of its existence, the planet was home only to bacteria, and that bacteria make all other lifeforms possible: we are as dependent on the bacteria in our guts as a termite or cow.
She finds a bright spot in our increasing recognition of how un-special we are. Still, it's likely that we'll never be able to fully illuminate the blind areas of human consciousness. If you can be comfortable with this, you won't mind giving up the illusory enlightenment of religion.
As we continue to learn about the inherent human tendencies towards bias, and the flattering illusions we like to maintain, it may get easier to guard against the problem, and to assess ourselves more clearly. Yet perhaps — probably — there are some biases that our brains have that we simply can't see at all, blind spots that we, as a species, can never discover we have.