The truth can be disturbing. Yet truth is immensely valuable. These two truths about truth present a dilemma to religious believers. They don't want to be disturbed, so they choose to accept falsehoods about reality.
By contrast, people like me who don't believe in religious fantasies are able to accept both truths about truth. We embrace disturbing facts such as the non-existence of God, no life after death, and the contingency of life on Earth.
That last fact is discussed by Buddhist skeptic Stephen Batchelor in an appealing little book that consists of talks he and his wife, Martine, gave at a 2016 retreat in England based on the Korean Buddhist tradition.
I'm enjoying "What is this? Ancient questions for modern minds." Here's some excerpts from a talk Stephen Batchelor gave. His theme is how amazing existence is, even though no God designed the cosmos or is overseeing how it operates.
Yet today when I read popular books, listen to a radio programme or watch documentaries about the discoveries of the natural sciences, it often evokes in me feelings that might best be described as religious. I find the sheer scale and vastness of space and time overwhelming.
And I become acutely aware of the poignancy, the utter contingency of existence.
Contingency means that, on the one hand, something arises contingent on other conditions, which, in turn, are contingent on yet other conditions, ad infinitum.
And, on the other hand, we make 'contingency plans' because we realize that what we prepare ourselves for might suddenly get thrown off course by circumstances we hadn't foreseen coming into play.
Such notions of contingency are very close, I feel, to what the Buddha meant by paticcasamuppada, usually translated as 'dependent origination' or 'conditioned arising'. Remember, in the early sutras the Buddha says that the person who sees such conditioned arising sees the dharma, and the person who sees the dharma sees conditioned arising.
So there's something very much at the core of the Buddha's teaching which has to do with waking up to what I would call the utterly contingent nature of experience.
...In terms of the cosmic timeframe, we are latecomers on the scene. The first human beings anatomically identical to us -- who, when naked, would have been indistinguishable from us -- first appeared somewhere between a hundred and fifty and two hundred thousand years ago.
Which is really just the blink of an eye. And how long we will manage to remain here is anyone's guess.
The fact that all of this has happened seems entirely accidental and arbitrary. This is difficult for human beings to accept. We like to tell ourselves stories that explain how special we are. We invent concepts like 'God' to show how the story of life on earth was designed in such a way that would culminate in humankind, made 'in the image' of God.
The idea that humans could actually be a purely contingent and haphazard event we find deeply uncomfortable. We have an instinctive sense that we're so much more than just a pure accident, that there must be some reason for our being here.
Buddhists may not speak of God, but they nonetheless have developed theories of karma, which attempts to explain how over countless lifetimes we have been reaping the results of our previous actions that lead us to getting born in one place rather than another, and as one kind of creature rather than another.
This too explains why we exist; it provides reasons that we can get our heads around. It makes us feel that we are meant to be here.
According to classical Buddhist theory, this has been going on forever -- since 'beginningless time'. But the natural sciences simply don't back that up. We have emerged, it appears, out of purely physical conditions by random mutations and chance.
In principle, I see no reason why Buddhists should have an issue with this explanation of how life evolved; it accords well with the principle of conditioned arising. But I suspect many of them, like their theistic brothers and sisters, find this account rather chilling. It makes them uncomfortable.
If everything is the product of chance, rather than the moral consequences of our karma, it cannot account for the dignity and special opportunities of being human.
But given what we now know from evolutionary biology, we have little choice, I feel, but to swallow the fact that these pre-modern explanations might simply be wrong. The fact is that we're here and, as far as we know, these material conditions alone are what gave rise to us being here.