25 March 2013

Faith & Progress

I had a double free period, some delicious Brighton High School lunch (complete with the standard rice & gravy) and 1000 words of rough draft to write for the Cornell Club of Rochester Essay Competition.

To be fair, my English teacher had assigned us the task with plenty of notice, but important tasks like being awkward around girls and playing Halo 2 got in the way. My first draft ended up only being 650 words, but I was able to fluff it up in time for submission and ended up winning an Honorable Mention - my greatest and only literary accolade.

I'm currently working my way through a recording of The Illiad, so it seemed appropriate to revive the essay starting with a quote from The Odyssey. As with all my work from the archives, I make no claim to factual accuracy or quality of content. Its written quite naively from a period when I honestly believed that everyone subscribed to some form of rational, objective philosophy, and merely disagreed on the details. The strange alternatives of subjectivism and nihilism had simply not occurred to me as things that people would seriously believe.

However, I can see early glimmers of my current philosophical deism in the text, and an unstated notion of 'God as axiom'. It would be a fun concept to revisit today!

"Without gods, men are nothing"
-Homer, The Odyssey

Since the beginning of human existence, we have searched for ways to describe and explain the world around us. When something was inexplicable, we attributed it to some sort of divine force, whether it be angry spirits, a pantheon of deities, or a single omnipotent God. Even today, there are some things that science simply cannot explain, perhaps things that never will be explained. The idea of a higher power has contributed immensely to the fields of science and the arts, whether indirectly or directly. Also, faith has been a decisive factor in determining global politics and shaping the world as it is today. Without a belief in something - an idea, a philosophy, or a deity - humanity would remain stagnant and progress in almost all areas would be halted.

In ancient times, the advent of civilization was marked with further development of religions. In many classical and pre-classical societies, priests or religious leaders served also as the teachers, keepers of knowledge, scientists, and political rulers. For example, the Pharoah of Egypt was said to have descended from the gods. The people's faith in his divinity [and lots and lots of slave labour] inspired them to create such wonders as the Pyramids of Giza, and all of the archaeological artifacts that were buried within. Later, the split between the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Byzantine led to the separation of the Roman Empire and eventually the creation of the Byzantine civilization. This split had extremely far reaching consequences, providing the cultural basis of both European and Russian society. In addition, the Catholic Church was virtually the only Roman institution to survive the Dark Ages, bringing the wealth of knowledge from Greco-Roman civilization through intact.

Religious fervor also had a hand in the creation and destruction of some of the greatest empires the world has known. The spread of Islam across Asia and northern Africa saw the creation of one of the largest nations of all time. In the same way, a schism in the Islamic faith, concerning the rightful successor to Mohammad, caused the vast territory it controlled to fragment into dozens of new countries, which in turn gave rise to their own cultures and empires. All across history, the spread of religions is virtually inextricable from cultural diffusion, in many cases with the arrival of missionaries or travelling monks becoming a prelude to increased trade or conquest. The arrival of Buddhism form China to Japan and the surrounding regions led to the rise or combination of the various writing systems present in the area, not to mention the intermingling of cultures.

Contrary to popular belief [this is almost certainly not popular belief], which states that faith and science are entirely opposite and irreconcilable, the two are more times than not proponents of one another. During the European Renaissance, although the Church did try to hinder certain advances with which they disagreed, the majority of scientists and mathematicians were actually seeking better ways to understand and explain their God. In their view, they had been granted intelligence and conscience by a higher force and to let this gift go to waste was irresponsible. They used the power of observation and reason to discover more about the world around them. Even today, much of science is fueled by a desire to discover the reasons why things exist, and laws to govern how they exist. Ultimately, this is what God has always been, a universal force. Scientific progress is not only motivated, but in fact governed by faith, a strong belief that something is pushing the universe forward in a defined (or random) pattern. Even those who firmly believe that God is a myth created by man are driven by this very same myth when they seek to disprove it.

If science and politics were heavily influenced by religion, or lack thereof, art was born of it. The earliest cave paintings were symbolic of early faith, and all of the earliest stories and myths attempted to explain the creation and nature of the world, or celebrating ritual hunts and harvests. Throughout the ages, some of the greatest artistic and literary works were created in an expression of the divine, or an interpretation or allegory of a religious story or parable. The best selling book of all time is the Bible; it has been translated into dozens of languages and published in virtually every country. The greatest architectural feats, the most recognizable sculptures, almost every fictional story; all have been touched by religion.

It makes sense that culture would have been affected most by the presence of religious ideals. Ancient law codes were inspired by and in turn inspired many of the moral guidelines present in religious texts. In every region, country, state, and household the ways of life present are dictated by faith. It could be as simple as a pre dinner prayer or as complex as a ritualized worship ceremony. Whatever the case, religion affects us on all levels of life.

Although it goes by many names - God, karma, nature, and science - the belief that the universe is governed by some set of unbreakable regulations or a divine force is a common factor uniting all of humanity. Without belief, the fields of art, science, politics, culture, and life itself would be empty. Without faith, the world we know today would not exist. Without gods, men are nothing.