It’s decidedly odd. The higher human scientific achievement has risen, the lower human self-esteem has sunk. I can find only one explanation. When people lose faith in God they lose faith in humanity also.
Consider the past five centuries. First came Copernicus and Kepler and Galileo and taught us that the earth, our habitation, is not at the centre of the universe. It is not even at the centre of the solar system.
Then it got worse. The solar system is only the tiniest part of a galaxy of perhaps a hundred billion stars. The galaxy is only the tiniest part of the universe, with a hundred million other galaxies. The planet we once thought so vast is mere dust on the surface of infinity.
Then came Spinoza and told us that freewill is an illusion. We are physical. All things physical are subject to natural causes. The connection between cause and effect is necessary. Therefore there is no freedom except the consciousness of necessity.
Then came Marx and told us that the most sacred of human activities, religion, was a instrument designed by the rich to keep the poor in their place by telling them that their suffering is the will of God.
Then came Darwin and said that there is nothing different in kind about being human at all. We are not the image of God. We are close cousins of the apes.
Then came Freud and said that our highest instincts are really our lowest. Long ago the children of the tribe banded together to kill their father, the alpha male, so that they could take his place. Eventually they were haunted by guilt – he called it the return of the repressed – and that is what religion is. He called it the obsessional neurosis of mankind.
Then came the neo-Darwinians of our time to tell us that we are selfish genes and everything that looks like idealism, virtue and nobility of character is in fact just a gene’s way of replicating into the next generation. “Scratch an altruist,” said Michael Ghiselin, “and watch a hypocrite bleed.”
Our very existence, they say, is mere accident. Our evolution was random. The nature that begot us is blind. If we were to go back in time and replay the evolutionary process there is no guarantee, not even a probability, that Homo sapiens would emerge.
All this was being said and thought while human beings were achieving what no other life form has ever achieved, what no previous generation of humans even thought possible.
So, the higher our scientific achievement, the lower our self-evaluation. We act like angels; we see ourselves as worms. Sometimes you have to be very intelligent indeed to believe so foolish a proposition.
Yes we are part of nature, but we also have culture. Yes our acts have causes, but they also have purposes, ones we freely imagine and freely choose to bring about. Yes, religion consoles us for our fate, but it also moves us to believe that with God’s help we can change it. Hence the Christians, Jews and others who fought to abolish slavery then, global poverty now.
Yes we are part of the Darwinian family of life. Ecclesiastes said so: “a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.” We can all feel that way on a rainy Thursday afternoon. But a mood is not a truth.
No animal painted the bonobo equivalent of the Sistine chapel ceiling. No animal said, “To be or not to be.” No animal philosophized that he or she might be nothing more than a hairy human. No animal was even an atheist, as far as I know. We may share many of our genes with the primates, as we do with fruit flies and yeast, but I still can’t see the family resemblance.
I draw the opposite conclusion. As Jews prepare for Yom Kippur, the holiest of days, when we stand before God in judgement and ask for his forgiveness, I know that we can do what no other life form can do. We can say, “I did wrong.” All that lives, acts. Only we can express remorse for our acts. Only we can resolve to change.
We are small but capable of greatness, selfish but often selfless, dust of the earth but also the image of God. When I have faith in God I find that I recover my faith in humanity as well.
(First published in The Times)