The Moment of Truth — April 1, 2006

God’s Disappointment Rebutted

Welcome to the Moment of Truth: we put the ape in April Fool’s Day.

Last week, I discussed the tendency of major religions and economic systems either to assume the worst about humanity or to consider history as a progressive process of spiritual degradation, and the way that tendency creates a global self-fulfilling prophecy of social failure, or at the very least a drag on morale. And who needs a drag on morale, I asked, when we’re trying to address the age-old problems of mass malnutrition, poverty, disease, and war?

Many listeners and readers wrote in to plug philosophies they see as more encouraging in regard to the human historical struggle. A couple esoteric Christian sects were mentioned, some examples from the animal kingdom, and a TV show franchise.

I’ve always admired the Quakers, also known as the Friends, particularly their willingness to give asylum to persecuted expatriates from countries run by US-backed dictators, and of course their oats. When Wilfred Brimley became their oat spokesperson, however, there was a schism in the Friends church. Those who found Brimley annoying forsook the oats and but remained true to the social mission, while those who stood by the oats parted ways with the social consciousness of the church but did remain regular, particularly when they formed a coalition with a handful of raisins.

I’m told by reader Jeff of paperhat that the Quakers believe we ought to strive to make the world a better place, rather than wait for divine help. While admirable, this contrasts sharply with their method of prayer, which is to wait silently for communication with God, who almost always disappoints. Yet, in a way, their approaches to society and prayer are consistent: God is a disappointment, as he proves time and again when we sit in silence waiting for him to say something interesting, so we’re sure as hell not going to wait for him to rescue humanity from itself.

A prosecutor in Kalamazoo, Michigan, writes to inform me that Christian Science, the religious philosophy espoused by his ex-wife, asserts that reality is perfect as it is, since God made it. As the prosecutor notes, it requires a great deal of logical acrobatics for the Christian Scientist to explain much of the observable phenomena the rest of us call “life.” While it is certainly optimistic to view the universe as already containing the ingredients for a perfect human existence, and even more optimistic to hold that those ingredients are readily accessible to everyone, the problem is, when you’re so optimistic you refuse to admit something sucks even in the face of empirical evidence—such as science’s failure to cure cancer with no other tool than the power of Jesus—you yourself may retain a rosy outlook, but you depress the hell out of the rest of us. The only thing worse than being eaten alive by ants, I imagine, is being eaten alive by ants along with someone who insists the ants are just giving you a delightful massage.

A Mr. Callahan—a composer, arranger, musician, and legal mind all-in-one—writes that examination of the behavior of chimplike Bonobo apes has led him to conclude that many of humanity’s problems are the result of patriarchal domination. The Bonobos, ruled by matriarchs in a kind of hedonistic, happy-go-lucky collective, are not plagued by the kind of violent social disruptions endemic to humans and even regular chimps, who are socially dominated by males.

Mr. Callahan postulates that the outlooks of current religions are destructive because of having been steered by mainly male hands. Indeed, some scholars believe the book of Genesis to have its roots in one or several propagandistic parables meant to disparage matriarchal pre-literate religions and, of course, snake cults. These parables were intended to create a mythological prejudice against the political power of both women and snakes, snakes being man’s biggest rival before the advent of the battery-operated boyfriend, or so the story goes. I don’t know what the Chimp Bible says, but we’re all familiar with one of its most important aphorisms, “Hear no evil; see no evil; speak no evil.” I’m sure later chimp-terpreters of the text, chimp-ulating criteria for designating something evil, found that first and foremost fitting those criteria were snakes and politically powerful woman chimps of the kind one hears about, so often, causing an uproar by subverting the social order on the Ape Planet by siding with the talking human.

As for Bonobo society as a cause for human optimism, I suppose taken on its own terms, the Plato’s Retreat lifestyle of these peculiar primates is something to beat one’s chest in a dominance display about. But viewed within an ecology of societies, the Bonobos seem to be literally losing ground to their more aggressive human relatives. Still, they’ve survived this long, as have women. There are hormonal reasons for masculine aggressiveness, and perhaps certain social forces in the last three thousand years have favored testosterone-driven survival strategies. But certain phenotypical traits of high testosterone, such as male-pattern baldness and over-abundant body hair, have come to be seen as unattractive and will no doubt be weeded out of the gene pool within a few generations. So perhaps the future holds a more gentle, sleek, Abercrombie and Fitch-type of humanity that will have left the brutality of its skinheaded, dorsally hirsute progenitors behind.

So we look to the future, and when we do we see that Science Fiction has gotten there first. SS, a Waldorf teacher, mother of two, and freelance intellectual, informs me she and her friends look to Gene Roddenberry for the kind of boosterism I find so lacking in mainstream religion. The Star Trek franchise is not to be brushed off. It’s an epistemological juggernaut, and not without its subtleties. While accepting the Enlightenment realization that man is not the center of the universe, Star Trek nevertheless sees the ambiguities and paradoxes of the human combination of emotion and intellect as both the hallmark weakness and strength of our species. While other species of humanoid seem to possess only one character trait—the Vulcans are logical, the Klingons are warlike, the Jews, I mean Forengi, are greedy—humans possess such a broad pallet of traits as to confound even the brain-pulsing telepaths of Rigel IV.

And of course the technology improved over the generations. While Kirk and Spock had to travel at Warp V or below in their cardboard-and-Christmas-light vessel, Captain Picard frequently surpasses Warp VIII in his sleek resin-and-mahogany Enterprise upgrade. The kind of lust that sent Kirk into the embrace of many an alien female can now be channeled into computer-generated fantasies on the Holideck, which is especially nice for minor characters, who don’t get laid much. One used to ask for tea from the food-synthesizer and receive something akin to Lipton’s. Now varieties of tea are available from cheap instant iced to Earl Grey—hot. Meanwhile the Klingons have become more armored, stolid and hairy—a juvenile Klingon used to look like Lou Diamond Phillips with a Fu Manchu, now he’s more likely to resemble a heavily-lacquered Mister Peanut with a Bozo hairdo—and even the genetically-enhanced Ricardo Montalban is looking like hell. The Vulcans are still logical, except when they’re not. But humans are really improving. Rarely if ever is a Starfleet Captain called upon to engage in hand-to-hand combat with a giant lizard man anymore. Humanity’s greatest strength has become its emotionally-spiced intellect, and though human psychology is carefully monitored by empaths, I pity the transdimensional being who gets kicked out of the Continuum and falls into the hands of a starship crew he’s been playing tricks on for several seasons. You know what he should expect? The unexpected. You know when? When he least expects it.

All this really proves is that we take solace where we find it. The puzzle is why so many take solace in religious and economic worldviews that paint the human predicament in such hopeless colors. You’d think a short-sighted species that could gobble up the Earth’s resources as we have with no thought for the consequences would latch onto a feel-good philosophy in which each generation was better by virtue of its having consumed more than the previous one. Interestingly, if anything is making the world worse, it’s not inherent in our nature or in the nature of cosmic principles, it’s our day-to-day choices regarding how we treat each other and our planet. The pessimism is misplaced, but it’s not necessarily wrong. I guess, maybe, as a species, despite our expertise in self-deception, we’re actually a little bit honest with ourselves.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!