So he’s pretty delusional. But let’s say you bring him back to sanity (oh, so that’s what you’re doing in the mental hospital!). What does he do then? Does he thank you?
No. He’s all depressed.
“My life has no meaning,” he complains.
Well, OK, that makes sense. The poor guy went from thinking he was on a special mission to save the universe and now he finds out he’s just a guy who’s been wasting his time on some really crazy ideas. It’s going to take him a while to adjust.
But you’d think his recovery incomplete, wouldn’t you, if he never got past needing the delusion to make sense of his life? If he couldn’t see the value of the people around him, the people who love him, and all the real-life, here-and-now things he could do to make his and their lives better?
My point here isn’t subtle, but I’m not trying to be snide by comparing religious faith to a psychotic delusion. My point is merely to take a different look at a big assumption that we often make about life.
Most of us, for most of our lives, have been told in a thousand different ways that our meaning and significance comes from our place in some divine plan. On a personal level we say something was meant to be, or feel a calling to a certain role or decision. We might even seek God’s will on a matter. On a national level many of our countrymen believe in American Exceptionalism (just as our ancestors believed in Manifest Destiny), and the more devote are part of the Kingdom of Heaven. Being made in God’s image, we’re separate from nature, and most Americans still believe to some degree that we are a special creation and that the earth was made for us.
We no longer believe, as our ancestors did, that the earth rests at the center of the universe, with the sun, planets, and ‘fixed stars’ forming concentric spheres around it. As Galileo found out, a lot of people were profoundly unhappy to find out that one wasn’t true. If it all doesn’t revolve around us, then what are we?But we got over it.
We’ve heard grandiose delusions for so long and in so many ways that we’ve come to assume that meaning and significance must be found somewhere out there, on some grand scale, and not near at hand among the people we know and love. Religion has been relentless on this point: Your life has no meaning without the narrative that we alone can offer. Outside of this grand, sprawling, science fiction epic, your life and the lives of everyone you love are just matter in motion, zero plus zero. In this way religion tends to cheapen and devalue everything that’s precious about humanity in order to convince you that it isn’t enough.
But if you step back and look at it from afar, it’s crazy. I don’t mean the religious stories themselves (OK, they can be pretty crazy, too, but that’s not what I’m talking about). I’m talking about the notion lurking behind the stories, the idea that unless we become like my hypothetical mental patient, convinced that we’re getting messages from the aliens, then our lives are nothing but a worthless bore.
That, I think, is one of the big delusions of religious thinking, and it’s not a harmless one. It offers you the illusion of meaning in the hereafter, while blinding you to the possibilities of real meaning in the here-and-now.