Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Gods and Angels of Atheism

Having steeped myself in the writings and worldviews of the first century CE for much of the last week, an odd fragment that stuck in my head, one that came from the peculiarity of dipping my consciousness into a radically polytheistic pre-modern context.

Ancient Rome was a great heaping smorgasbord of gods and godlings, of peculiar beliefs from far off lands and odd mystery cults whose initiation rituals made joining the Masons look like applying for a library card.  It's worldview was a riot of magical beings and angelic influences, of spirits of the wood and stone and sky.  The world was rich with mystery.

Because my brain is peculiarly wired, I found myself taking that and playing it off of the secular assumptions of twentieth-century atheism about the nature of our cosmos.  There is no God, and there are no gods, and there are no spiritual beings, atheism asserts, with the certainty of empirical knowledge.

And yet, if Neil Degrasse-Tyson were to sit down with Cicero to describe what is known and expected about the nature of things, I wonder how that ancient would hear what he had to say.  Particularly when it comes to the heavens, and the gods.

Because in the heavens, most likely, there are living beings strange to us.  The cosmos is simply too vast to deny this as a probability.  Some may be simpler creatures, barely recognizable as life.  But some may have powers and capacities so beyond our own as to invoke Clarke's Third Law.  In fact, given the scope and scale of our time and space, the existence of such beings is not just possible, but likely.

This is why folks like Stephen Hawking would like us to maybe stop announcing our presence quite so loudly.  Who knows what beings lurk in the endless fastness?

Explaining what science knows and believes about existence to Cicero would just get a nod of agreement.  Oh, sure, he'd be a bit stunned at the size of things, but human beings adapt quickly.  I'm not sure the scientific view of the nature of existence would be quite as different from his worldview as one might like to think.  Beings more advanced than we?  Creatures inhabiting the heavens, with powers so beyond our own as to be indistinguishable from magic? 

Well, of course, the ancients would have thought.  You're describing the gods.

Funny, how little we humans have changed.