A Primer for the Parents and Children of Reason in the Modern Age

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This may seem presumptuous of me, but I felt inspired to compose this for those who face the daunting task of raising a child of reason in a very difficult and confused age.

Or, as Joseph Campbell wrote in Primitive Mythology: “For surely it is folly to preach to children who will be riding rockets to the moon a morality and cosmology based on concepts of the Good Society and of man’s place in nature that were coined before the harnessing of the horse! And the world now is far too small, and men’s stake in sanity too great, for any of these old games of Chosen Folk ( whether of Jehovah, Allah, Wotan, Manu or the Devil) by which tribesmen were sustained against their enemies in the days when the serpent could talk.” (Toward a Natural History of the Gods)

Dearest Child, there will come a day when it will be our responsibility to discuss with you in detail the nature of human mythology, religion and our infinite capacity to create stories, and sometimes, perhaps, many times, we are genetically, socially and familially compelled to believe them. It is the way humans have bonded and survived for hundreds of thousands of years.

While other species have “closed” nervous systems and pass on their vital information through their genes, natural instincts, and behavior, homo sapiens have uniquely adapted “open” nervous systems where we pass on survival information by perceiving patterns in the stars, fire, tea leaves, animal intestines, acts of nature, and random events, and weave marvelous tales around them through our rituals, stories, costumes, dances, superstitions, and song.

The great ethnologist Leo Frobenius described this process as “paideuma”. Philosophers call it teleology, and neuroscientists know it as H.A.A.D or Hyper Active Agency Detection. We experience this everyday through another cognitive mechanism known as Pareidolia, or the innate ability to see faces in the moon, a tree, the sky, a mountain, or even a burnt tortilla. Many people today will see a holy visage in a cheese sandwich and believe it to be a miracle or manifestation of a god, saint, or beloved ancestor. They call them “signs”.

Most of our modern religions attest to this as the groundwork for all of them was laid tens of thousands of years ago in the human brain and developed over time by priests, kings, scribes, tribal shamans and sacred texts. Today, we call them religions.

Another name assigned to that process of creative adaptation, revisionism, syncretism, interpolation and fabrication is called theology. The purpose of theology is to constantly improve upon and update the various canons, dogmas, and logical holes in a doctrine, and apply its own “spin” on any countermanding argument that questions or threatens the belief. Dr. Peter Boghossian calls this “false epistemology”.

The four building blocks to ensure the success or spread of any spiritual or contrived belief system are:

1.) Create, exploit or ritualize an individual or group experience of awe, otherwise known as the Mysterium Tremendum.

2.) Invent a cosmology that explains how the universe was created and humans came into being.

3.) Mythologize or lionize a legendary figure, be they a king, magus, hero, savior, military leader or world teacher and endow them with magical abilities who, in turn, passes down or imparts:

4.) A social system of codes, mores and parables that initiate an individual into a particular belief system, while often demonizing those who reject it.

Throughout the history of humankind there have been tens of thousands of gods, goddesses, messiahs, saviors and holy ones and all of them have passed on into the realm of myth, mnemohistory and tradition.

We name the days of the week after a few of these extinct gods and goddesses of yore: Monday for Mani, the moon god, Tuesday, after Tir, or Mars, the god of war, Wednesday takes its name from Wotan, or Odin, Thursday from the Norse god Thor, Friday, from the Germanic Celtic Roman goddess of love (Venus), Frīġedæġ, or Frigg. Saturday, from the ancient god Saturn, and, alas, Sunday from the Sun god also known as Sol.

In modern times we meet many intelligent, and some not so intelligent people, who embrace the doctrines of a religion, as well as some fundamentalists and fanatics who cannot imagine or conceive of any truth outside of their ingrained belief system. We call them theists or religionists, or according to their own brand of belief, be it Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and a thousand other denominations and nomenclatures.

We also meet a growing number of equally intelligent men and women who have studied the evolution of misbelief, mythology, neuroscience, anthropology, archaeology, evolutionary psychology, quantum theory, physics, empirical evidence, comparative religion and science who understand the natural origins of belief, and see no evidence or need for these old Bronze and Iron age gods and their doctrines. We know them today as agnostics, atheists, secular humanists and skeptics.

They still experience awe and mystery, gratitude, morality and compassion but they do not assign it to any particular god or religion, but only to the natural evolution of the human species, and its necessity to communicate, socialize and advance through knowledge and education. Many of these people still celebrate the traditions of the world religions like Chanukah, Christmas, Easter, Ramadan, or Diwali, etc. but they do so knowing they are ancient traditions, customs and rituals, and not exclusive objective truths for all humankind.

In the end, dear child, it is good and proper to question everything, be it Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny or even Jesus, Moses and Mohammed.

As Thomas Jefferson, one of the great founders of our country once wrote: “Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, then that of blindfolded fear.” (letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787)

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