So three things occasion this post: I watched Avengers: Endgame last night, Will Shetterly posted an observation about fandom and its religious nature, and I stumbled upon an article in my feed from a left-ish site about how new studies suggest human beings are not rational (ya think so?).
If there’s one thing I preach, it’s the power of evolutionary logic, especially as applied to human psychology. The perspective that humans are not strictly rational because they are strongly biased toward the preservation of their genes has produced a wealth of insight into our psychology, where all other competing explanations have produced none. (What? None? Yes, none. Just like evolutionary theory has produced billions on insights into the diversity of life, supported by experiment and observation, and all explanations that try to compete have produced none. Yes, none. Or to put it another way, the theory of evolution has passed billions of falsifiable tests. The competition? None. Not one truly falsifiable test that would promote it, even provisionally, over the theory of evolution. Some people are shocked by this and struggle to deny it. But it’s true.)
Those who see in evolution a direct challenge to their religion conflate the modes of religio-aesthetic and objective discourse. I think this is a grave mistake. I put it to a dear lifelong friend: “If I could convince you — and given time I think I could — that evolutionary theory is the best explanation, not ‘true’ in an ultimate sense but the very best explanation, for all the observed phenomena in its domain, would you lose your religious faith?”
He admitted he probably would, or at least that’s how I remember it. Maybe he only conceded that his faith would be shaken.
We humans seek promotion of our genes, but somehow we manage to form societies with people of very different ancestry. So how do we reconcile this fact? It seems a miracle. And that’s what it is. A miracle that we owe to religion, whose space is carved out by evolution. As Slavoj Zizek noted recently (and as I posted here years ago), the great central paradox of Christianity is the self-sacrificing God who himself may become an atheist and holds that potential in an eternal moment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
We are in an age of intense crisis of faith. People have lost faith in God, masculinity, and femininity. But these things were not created by human beings and cannot be killed by them. They can only be repressed and denied and projected in negative ways. They are, at heart, products of evolution through deep time, determined as to general form rather than the contents of experience shaped by them. They are potentiated by adaptations that helped our species survive, but paradoxically, we will sacrifice ourselves to affirm them. It is very clear to anyone who studies evolution deeply that there is no meaning — no verifiable teleology — in evolution. It is not a goal-driven process. Yet the process has fixed meaning and hunger for meaning in us all the same. By this fact, that a value-neutral process produces our capacity for meaning, the theory of evolution has actually made many people religious. “Supernatural” does not mean superstitious; it means outside of nature, a realm of ideals, and we find evidence for its preeminence in our hearts.
Blockbuster superhero movies are insanely popular. They reach and inspire people across the major religions. They are, when they connect with their audience, a form of mind technology that allows a lonely tribal animal to extend the reach of its fellowship toward all sentient life. Maybe they are religions in every important sense: they affirm the existence of the archetypes and show their positive representations to emulate, and their negative representations to hold in check. The radiant king and the radiant queen are cold, dead icons apart from the human dramas that fuel their light. To the extent they inspire and move us, they renew our faith in Meaning. People let each other down all the time as representations of the archetypes. Superhero movies that make us cry or cheer remind us that being let down is not always an inevitability.
I’m still trying to tease out whether there is any real difference between an aesthetic and religious mode. Every disappointment my friends have with religion — believers and atheists alike — stems from their ability to see how religion is corrupted by confusion and cynical politics, a conflation of modes, and their inability to see the awe and joy toward which it properly strives.
Anyway, Avengers: Endgame is a good show. If you like superhero movies, you’ll probably enjoy it.