Abstract painting of subject, generated by DALL-E 2

A Christmas thought

25 Dec 2009 - Bruno Prior

I think we in secular society are missing God. Too many people have an inflated estimation of human understanding, power and impact. They think that our economic activity can be understood and controlled to everyone's benefit by a few experts looking at statistics and pulling economic levers. They think that, of all the animals on the planet and all the forces in the universe, man is the dominant force on our climate, and that we can calculate accurately the causes of changes to our climate, predict those causes and impacts for a century into the future, and know how much of which measures to take over the course of that century to mitigate our impact. They think that they can know what is right for other people and other cultures that they barely know, and impose it on them.

I'm sorry. This is human action, nature and the future we are talking about. We don't even know that much about ourselves. We know less about our acquaintances, almost nothing about the vast majority who are strangers to us, less than that about the complex web of interacting factors that is nature, and the only thing we know about the future is that it will almost certainly turn out differently to how we expected.

That, incidentally, is why I am particularly sceptical about "solutions" to anthropogenic global warming like "carbon-capture and storage" and "geo-engineering". Geo-enginering - "engineering the world" - how arrogant is that? Are we to be real-life Slartibartfasts, putting finishing touches to Norwegian fjords? It is bad enough that we over-estimate our understanding and impact. But to compound that by over-estimating our powers to manage the climate and to anticipate the consequences of global-scale engineering projects with absolutely no benefit other than the theoretical impact on the climate, is to take our arrogance to extremes. Climate sceptics promoting geo-engineering are a particularly strange combination of humility and hubris. "We humans are too insignificant to impact the climate, but sufficiently powerful to engineer that climate", they seem to be saying.

Belief in an omnipotent, omniscient God makes believers acutely aware of their insignificance, ignorance and impotence. It may not be a coincidence that America retains a higher proportion of active worshippers than most other developed countries, and also retains greater scepticism about the power of the state and the accuracy of climate models (though their attitude to exporting democracy shows that their faith has not made them immune to delusions of omniscience). Nor that the growth of the managerialist mindset has been increasing for the century and a half that faith has been declining.

Unfortunately, I cannot bring myself to believe something simply because that belief has social benefits. Fortunately, there is an alternative that can make atheists and agnostics (like myself) feel as insignificant and impotent as any god can make a believer feel.

I am off skiing in a couple of days. As any experienced skier will tell you, you must not fight the mountain - the mountain will always win. If you have stood and looked, overawed, at a sea of peaks as far as the eye can see, you cannot have failed to realise your own insignificance. If you have skied in powder that could slip and bury you at any moment if you do not treat it with the utmost respect (and a good dose of luck), you will have been mortally aware of your own impotence.

It doesn't have to be skiing. Go to the coast during a storm for a graphic reminder of nature's power. Better still, get out on the sea. Windsurfing on a big wave, you are aware that there will be only one winner if you get it wrong. You can never anticipate perfectly how even that tiny section of sea that you are riding will behave. The inevitable sinus-full of salt water at the end of the day is a reminder that you will never conquer the sea, you can only do your best to work with it. And what a feeling it is for those brief moments when you are in harmony with the sea and the wind.

For others, it could be mountaineering, or kayaking, or mountain-biking, or sailing, or surfing, or paragliding. It doesn't matter what, so long as it exposes you to the force and infinite variety and unpredictability of nature.

The greatest understanding we can have is to know the limits of our understanding. So this Christmas, get yourself to a place of worship or to the great outdoors (whichever works for you), and experience a force so great and incognisable that it refreshes your humility and humanity.

Merry Christmas.


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