My idea of sacredness, divinity, and religion

Here’s a conception that I have about sacredness, divinity, and religion.

There’s a sense in which love and friendship didn’t have to exist.

If you look at the animal kingdom, you see all kinds of solitary species, animals that only come together for mating. Members of social species – such as humans – have companionship and cooperation, but many species do quite well without being social.

In theory, you could imagine a world with no social species at all.

In theory, you could imagine a species of intelligent humanoids akin to Tolkien’s orcs. Looking out purely for themselves, willing to kill anyone else if they got away with it and it benefited them.

And then in another sense, some versions of love and friendship do have to exist.

Social species evolved for a reason: cooperation does pay off. Individuals who band together and help each other out even when that requires making the occasional personal sacrifice actually do have greater success.

If no social species existed yet, but the conditions were right for them to evolve, then given enough time it would be inevitable for them to evolve.

Think about that for a second. It would be inevitable for them to evolve. Why? Because of how the laws of natural selection and game theory work. There’s a path from pure selfishness to cooperation, and cooperation is beneficial.

It’s not a given that any single species that evolved sociality would be successful – they could still get unlucky and be wiped out by something completely different. Sociality won’t help you if the only valley you live in gets covered by a volcanic eruption.

But sociality would still keep evolving, over and over again, until some social species would manage to maintain themselves.

There’s a sense in which the laws of natural selection and game theory are deeper than the laws of physics. Cooperation would likely still be beneficial in universes with five physical dimensions, or where life was based on elements very different from carbon, or ones where D&D-style magic was real. Assuming that something like life could evolve at all, cooperation would be beneficial in a broad range of possible universes.

And where do the laws of natural selection and game theory come from? At their heart, they are mathematical laws, inevitably following some given axioms. There are universes where those axioms wouldn’t necessarily be true – ones where no organisms could exhibit heritable variation, for instance. In those worlds, nothing could evolve.

But if the “structure of reality” refers to our laws of physics, then the laws that create companionship somehow go even deeper than the structure of reality. Across a vast range of possible realities, something akin to companionship must come into existence. Somehow, this is just an intrinsic fact about something that governs everything that could ever exist.

In Egyptian mythology, the first god Atum created himself out of the waters of chaos. Likewise, the structure-of-that-deeper-than-reality is such that across many many possible universes, cooperation and companionship will create themselves out of the waters of selfishness.

Love doesn’t always win. There are situations where loyalty, cooperation, and love win, and there are situations where disloyalty, selfishness, and hatred win. If that wasn’t the case, humans wouldn’t be so clearly capable of both.

It’s possible for people and cultures to settle into stable equilibria where trust and happiness dominate and become increasingly beneficial for everyone, but also for them to settle into stable equilibria where mistrust and misery dominate, or anything in between.

When I look around in my room, it’s filled with the fruits of cooperation. For one, the very fact that I even live in a building that someone else built, surrounded by roads that someone else built, filled with everything from books to sophisticated electronics to everything else that I did not personally create. And yes, some amount of coercion and exploitative labor practices no doubt played a role in the creation of some of that, but it’s still our nature as a social species that allows us to have any amount of specialization and the creation of such things in the first place.

To me, if anything deserves the label “divine”, it’s this force of cooperation that transcends universes. Everywhere I look, I am surrounded by artifacts that are of divine origin. Even discarded food packaging is a divine artifact.

And I have friends and I have people who I love, I have happiness. I live in a local pocket of the universe where even my interactions with complete strangers – such as the salespeople at stores – tend to be friendly and warm in tone, or at least politely neutral.

All that because of a cosmic force of love and cooperation which happens to be predominant where I live, whose energy and nature shapes much of my psyche – even as I also carry the energy and nature of unhealthy selfishness and destructiveness in the shape of much of my psyche.

If there is a multiverse, if there are universes beyond our own – then those two forces are locked in an eternal struggle across all the universes that are capable of supporting something like intelligent life. The dance of good and evil within me, in some form mirroring the dance of good and evil across the entire multiverse.

To get even more mystical about it – to me, this doesn’t feel like just an abstraction. I’ve experienced altered states of consciousness – induced by things like meditation, therapy and ritual – where I have felt something like an energy pattern of pure love, confidence and okayness arising through my body, experienced the term “uplifting” as a literal force pulling me up on my feet.

There is a feel to all that, a particular kind of – for a lack of a better word – “energy”, that feels different from the kind of “energy” that comes up when I am being insecure, or selfish in a bad way, or subtly manipulative. Now being able to notice the difference doesn’t always mean that I’d be capable of acting any differently – I can recognize that the energy of what I’m doing doesn’t feel good, and still end up acting according to it since it’s the only energy I have available at the moment.

But feeling that energy does at least let me know that I could be doing better. It does let me know that my actions are not in the service of the kind of power I would like to be serving.

For that’s what it feels like when I am best able to tap into it. Like I am in the service of a greater power, that is by its nature impersonal but takes a human form by channeling itself through me as one of its many vessels.

This has a religious and mystic flavor to it, but not the kind of religious that would require belief in anything that would be called supernatural or contradictory to science. It is the kind of religious and mystic practice that Eric Raymond describes in his essay Dancing with the Gods: one grounded in experience, not belief. As Raymond puts it, we do not need to “believe” without evidence that the sun rises in the morning; we can experience it ourselves.

In the same way, I do not need to “believe” in a god of which I have no direct experience; I can feel it in myself and my body, see what it does to my behavior and state of mind, and call the thing-which-is-all-that a god or divine power that I would like to see myself in the service of.

One comment

  1. John Baometrus

    Wow. I’m starting to arrive at a very similar place. Thank you for articulating things I struggle to.

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