Recently, a very close friend of mine from my university days came back from Canada. He told me that owing to the influence of his wife, he has become a Christian. He had resisted being such for a very long time. His wife belongs to one of those who have from an extremely early age been a very "devout" Christian who took every word in the Bible as the literal "word of God" and who has little ability to think outside of the "box" of "Christianity". I felt sorry for him. Out of concern for his well-being, I wrote him a long letter after he got back to Canada, trying to make him see the light: the light of reason. I won't mention his name. The following is the edited text of my letter to him, which I think might be useful not just for my dear friend.
People do have to believe in something, For some, it's the Christian God, for the Jews, it's Yahweh, for Muslims, it's Allah (although all three are in fact exactly the same God, just named and interpreted differently in different cultural contexts) ; and for still others eg. for the Hindus, it's Brahma and for the Buddha, it's the Wisdom of Life; for the Chinese, it's either Confucianism or Taoism and for the more politically minded, it's democracy, Marxism, socialism, communism, communitarianism, anarchism and for “Communist” China, it's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist-Dengism ; and for some philosophers, like Plato, Spinoza and Hegel, it's Logos (literally the word of Reason) or Rational Spirit or Mind (“Geist”) .
It’s very difficult for most people to accept that life is just that, life, (not even with a capital "L"), with no intrinsic meaning and value of its own or that it's a meaningless question to ask "what is the ultimate meaning of life?" AS IF life as a whole had some "objective" or "pre-determined" value or meaning, laid down from the beginning of time by some superior entity. To me, the question of the "ultimate meaning of life" cannot be posed as a "general" question at all because it just is not the “kind” of question which is capable of being posed in those terms.
Before we can even "try" to give an answer to that question, we need to ask ourselves, what the hell we mean by "meaning" in the phrase "the meaning of life"? That is not the kind of question capable of being given any kind of ready-made answers, AS IF it were it's a "one size fit all" pair of mental robe which can fit all kinds of people with different body sizes and shapes. That question can be meaningful only in the specific context of each individual's personal life, with his/her own specific genetic make-up in terms of his/her ability to perceive with his sensory organs, to think, to imagine, to feel, embedded in and inextricably enclosed and affected by his/her own gender, economic, political, racial, educational, religious, cultural and historical background as modified by his/her own unique personal experiences in its interaction with the specific events of his/her own life within those matrices.
Of course, there are factors within those matrices which he can never change eg. the kind of family and historical background into which he/she was born, physical laws like the laws of gravity, the Newtonian laws of motion, the laws of electro-magnetism, the second law of thermal-dynamics (the law of entropy) and the laws of quantum physics and such paradoxes as Godel’s theorem etc. To that extent our "destiny" may be said to be subject to a kind of "determinism" and to such extent, we can never be said to be completely "free" to determine our fate. But even within those limits, we DO have an enormous scope to "freely" choose the kind of life we want to live as a human being and in that sense, Sartre is right when he says that "being precedes essence" ie. we are free to choose what kind of life we would like to live and we really can't tell what or who we “are” until we have made our choices and lived our lives. We can choose to live the life of one who conceives of oneself as the rational master of one’s own fate or that of a slave, who desires nothing more than to submit oneself to a master, to give up one’s own freedom, perhaps because of what Eric Fromm calls "the fear /dread of freedom" : for the reason that one does not want to be held morally responsible for the results of one’s own choices and one’s actions . He/she becomes a "yes-man/yes woman" to other people's ideas, eg. what others tell him/her to be the irresistible and overriding "commands" of a supposedly all-mighty, all knowing, all loving “ God” , forgetting that it's more likely than not that it's not man who is made in the image of God but it's God who is made in the image of man at a specific period in man's history.
Moses is right when he condemned the wandering Jews, whilst still looking for their Canaan, when they worshiped the golden bull fashioned by his brother Aaron. which Moses said was a god his people made in their own image. But like so many ordinary guys, the old Testament prophet forgot to turn an impartial eye upon his own God. Perhaps he truly believed what he said! We really don't know and we can never know. It happened so long ago. Even if not, who can peer into the psyche of another, which psychologists tell us are little more than an omnibus “concept” for all that is going inside our body, our “heart” or “mind”. In any event, I think that modern cognitive psychologists are more or less right: we are all unconscious victims of the "cognitive dissonance" which affects us in our daily lives: we all try to fit our image of "reality" to one which causes us the least uneasiness. That, incidentally, may also be the cause of all kinds of conflicts between all kinds of religions, and all kinds of nations, all kinds of cultures, all kinds civilizations with its own ideologies and between all kinds of people, individually and collectively.
As Jesus said, we only have eyes for the speck in other peoples' eyes but not the beam in our own! If we want to look for something to blame it on, we can always blame it on the processes of evolution themselves. For the purposes of fitting us for survival, Nature has forced us to evolve in such a way that our eyes are always turned outward, never inwards: our eyes can only look out, not in. But now that we have invented mirrors, we do have the ability to look back at ourselves with the help of that wonderful invention. Our “rational consciousness” in the meantime has also developed another kind of "mirror", an internal mirror: complex neural pathways within our brain to enable "we" ourselves ( another empirically useful “hypothesis” and an entirely humanly created “mental fiction” that exist nowhere except inside our brain although based on this fiction, which is accepted by most so-called civilized societies, we have developed our systems of law to regulate rights and duties to resolve myriads of the inevitable social, economic and political conflicts in human societies) to monitor our own perception and our own internal visceral feelings generated by and accompanying our routine and not so routine activities.
The Indians have long discovered and taught us special meditation techniques and the Chinese too have also independently developed the same (Chuangtsu’s “sitting forgetfulness” ) which enables us to monitor even our own "thinking" and "feeling" processes, through what brain and neuro-scientists have now found to be numerous "feed-back loops" within our complex system of neural circuits which literally pass up and down and to and fro our organs, both for sensing and perceiving eternal objects AND for internal "sensations/perceptions" of and from such organs, muscles, etc. In short, we have now achieved a kind of limited “self-awareness”. But the greater part of humanity for most of the time still live rather like zombies, or sleepwalkers, unaware of what or who they really “are”, buffeted as they are by the vagaries of what they imagine to be their "fate/destiny" (which in reality is just another name for "chance", the influence of which is still largely neglected or ignored by the majority of them). And they don't like what they find. That's because the uncertainties of "chance" create a feeling of uneasiness and plenty of anxieties in them. Desperate to relieve themselves of such uncomfortable feeling and such unbearable anxieties, they find it far more pleasant and expedient to plunge headlong into all kinds of myths, illusions, irrational beliefs, superstition, hoping against all hopes, that thereby, they can somehow “appease” the fury of chance or what they imagine to be their "fate/destiny" IF they were to give respect or worship that which they fear and against which/whom they feel powerless, basing such thoughts upon what in their social reality, they perceive to be social and political structures within which they find themselves, something with which they are more familiar, by “bribing” the relevant physical and metaphorical embodiment of such hostile but superior powers, as if they were their real life bosses, their supervisors, their patrons, their rulers, their masters, when in reality such imagined or hypothesized “beings” are little more than the symbolic but somehow more "tangible" embodiment of those abstract "uncertainties" in the form of all sorts of person-like gods and they give them as many names as there are "uncertainties" to be tackled with in the different realms which affected their daily life. Thus were born the wind god, river god, the god of light, the god of thunder, the god the sea, the god of rain, the mountain gods, lake gods etc ( Greek mythologies has filled Mount Olympus with such gods), the god of heaven and of hell. Once the process of god-creation has started, the list of gods gets longer and longer.
Finally, as different gods vied with each other for dominance, some kind of final arbiter must be created. Where did they look for a model for such a final arbiter? What they found on earth! Some clever guy then invented the idea of a "king of kings", just like on earth, they found in the political order amidst the tribal chiefs, vassals and minor kings etc. an ultimate and most powerful of them, an Emperor! ( Thus we find Augustine's famous doctrine of two kingdoms, two cities: the City on Earth with the Roman Emperor as its chief, the City of Heaven, with the Christian God as its chief and expediently, with the Pope as God's representative on earth! ) Thus the Jews, the Muslims, the Christians had their monotheistic and exclusive God. The Indians invented their own version of the "king of kings", Brahma and his/her/its creator of our sensible world, Vishnu etc.
My friend, when we worship “God”, we are worshiping nothing but an "idol" created by the ancestors of a primitive Mediterranean desert race or an idol created by other primitive peoples ! In doing so, we have alienated ourselves from ourselves. We need to be the master of ourselves and of our own fate, which is open, not closed or pre-determined. No sensible person would and in my opinion, should, willingly become the slave of an idol created by a primitive Mediterranean race and adopted by Emperor Constantine in the 5th century and made into the religion of the Holy Roman Empire. We have come a long way from the Dark Age dominated by the fears and hopes skilfully invented and meticulously encouraged and exploited for the ease of political, social and religious control by successive groups of monkish “thinkers” called “theologians” who inflict their ruminations upon the mindless multitude whom they call their "sheep", holding in their hands the staff of immense authority as their worldwide "shepherd".
Nature gave us a brain. Nature has also given us a law: use it or lose it. The choice is yours.