RELIGION is way off-topic for us, but it’s Sunday and there’s no news of The Controversy between evolution and creationism. Religion is always in the background of The Controversy because without it there wouldn’t be any Controversy. So maybe this isn’t too much of a departure from our traditional concerns.
Religion usually involves three distinct components. First there’s the thing believed in — one or more gods or spirits, or fate, or (lately) an intelligent designer. Such entities precede and are said to be responsible for the laws of nature. We’ll refer to all of these collectively with the term “deity.” The natural world is said to be evidence for the deity’s existence. That’s a debatable but unresolvable proposition, so we won’t debate it.
In addition to the deity, there’s the religion about that deity, consisting of scriptures, dogma, rituals, and customs — which we’ll call the paraphernalia or the trappings of the religion. Finally there’s the priesthood — those who practice the trade of priestcraft and preside over the religion, claiming that both they and their trappings are sanctioned by the deity — and who usually assert that they have a special knowledge of and influence with the deity. All three — the deity, the trappings, and the priesthood — are different things, and together they’re what most of us call religion.
The trappings and the priesthood are the aspects of religion that are actually known to influence our lives, but intellectually they’re of far lesser concern than the deity itself. So we’ll discuss the deity, without which the trappings are meaningless and the priesthood are either fools or rascals.
Deities, by definition, are impossible to understand, so that doesn’t leave us much to talk about. We’ll have to think about something less grandiose than a deity, and try to work our way up. Therefore, let us consider gravity. (For our earlier posts on gravity, see: When Gravity was a Theory in Crisis, and also: Down With Gravity!)
Gravity shares some qualities with a deity — especially the traditional Jewish-Christian-Islamic deity. Gravity is everywhere and it always has been (as far back as really matters), it never dies, it’s invisible, it needs no food, no sleep, it’s always on duty (so to speak), it functions with perfect “justice,” behaving the same for rich and poor, it’s largely responsible for our existence, etc. We could go on, but you get the picture — such as it is.
By organizing our thoughts about gravity, and using that as a model (a very weak model to be sure) we may be able to apply at least some of that thinking to a deity.
Our first thought is that although we need gravity, gravity doesn’t need us. It functions quite well throughout the universe — in most of which we are not present. There’s no evidence that gravity is aware of us — or anything else — or that it’s in any way conscious.
We can accept gravity’s existence, we can ignore it, or we can even deny it. None of that matters. Gravity is there and it does what it does, regardless of our opinions. We can try our best to understand it, because understanding is good and useful. We’ve made some considerable progress in that regard, but our knowledge is woefully incomplete. We don’t even know if it’s a stand-alone force or the result of other forces we don’t yet know about. That doesn’t matter in our everyday lives. We watch our step because the thing we call gravity exists — regardless of our understanding.
Now let us suppose that somewhere some group of people — recognizing gravity’s importance — have put together a religion about it, with all the trappings — rituals, ceremonies, ancient writings, holidays, etc. They’d have a priesthood, of course. The priests would instruct the Church of Gravity’s members how gravity wants them to behave. They would probably have predictions about things that will fall down in the future, and sometimes those predictions come true. They would also have warnings that if we don’t behave properly we’re going to suffer a fall. Some members will indeed fall down from time to time, and the priests can react with appropriate smugness. You get the idea. But aside from the priesthood’s influence on its members, does the Church of Gravity really have any meaning?
We doubt that gravity would care about the church or its activities. Gravity is what it is and it does what it does. All the church’s chanting and candle-lighting won’t make any difference to gravity. It’s beneficial, of course, for everyone to be aware of gravity, and church membership can be valuable in that regard; but it certainly isn’t necessary for that awareness. We know what is known about gravity, and we know it without the help of the church.
The church adds nothing of any additional value. Well, it may be an enjoyable experience for the members, but the gravity-priests can’t make anyone float. The devout will still die if they fall off a cliff. When things aren’t going well, exhortations to bring the people “back to gravity” may serve to increase the priesthood’s flock, but they’re otherwise meaningless, as there’s no way for anyone to ever get away from gravity in the first place.
Gravity doesn’t care if we light candles or if we support the gravity priesthood. All we need to do is watch our step and play by the rules. If we get drunk and dance at the edge of the roof, we’re probably going to fall. But if we don’t recite the right rituals on the right days, gravity won’t get angry and pancake us in our beds out of spite. Gravity always plays fair, has no favorites or rejects, and never behaves arbitrarily.
Would a deity behave differently?
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