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Some Thoughts on What We Call Real

by Hubertus Fremerey

Atheists always are struggling with theists about the question whether God is 'real'. When the Sputnik was launched into its orbit, some communist papers jeered that 'it hasn't found God out there'.

It seems quite natural that we should not have our world peopled with 'things that are not real'. This very probably includes unicorns and the Yeti and Bigfoot and witches and many other 'things' — and maybe even God. This would be a clean and orderly and reliable world, not that of Shakespeare or the Middle Ages, which was full of strange creatures.

Well, but is 'Oedipus Complex' a 'real' thing? Or 'class struggle'? Some people would fiercely defend them both, even as atheists. But they both may be as imaginary and fanciful as any God.

And what about the rainbow? You cannot bag it in. It's only in the eye of the beholder. Should we call this 'real'? But the rainbow is at least not purely imaginary, but is a beautiful pattern of 'real' rays of light broken in the tiny raindrops. In a similar way, 'Oedipus Complex' and 'class struggle' may be 'real' effects broken in some theories. Thus to dismiss 'Oedipus Complex' and 'class struggle' altogether as 'irreal' would screen some true insight from our awareness. Could it be that removing God from our awareness would be a mistake of a similar sort? I think so.

While I am a sceptic and a '95% naturalist' myself, if I had the option to remove religion from the earth I would not do it. There are problems concerning our human existence in this world that we should be sensitive to, and to sharpen our awareness religion in any 'advanced' form (as compared to mere magic and superstition) may be as essential as is good literature or a good work of art or good music.

The world of humans is too complicated by far to be left to the 'dumb scientists'. Why do we read novels or go to the cinema and the theater or attend a talk show or exchange with friends? Because we want to sharpen our awareness of 'things humane'. We need to see all these human dramas and tragedies and comedies to keep our understanding of what it means to be a human in this world alive and sensitive.

The main function of religion is not to explain the world. To think that is an example of what I call 'common nonsense'. To explain the world in a preliminary and pre-scientific way is only one and a minor function of religion. The central function of religion is to give meaning and perspective to our situation in the world, to establish values and goals by which to get orientation for our plans and deeds. This sort of orientation science cannot provide. But since humans are not only thinking ('homo sapiens') but much more 'acting' and 'creative' animals — and not only re-acting ones — they have to know why they should act this way and not that way and what to defend and go for. No science will tell them. We overestimate homo sapiens and underestimate homo creator, the creative human seeking solutions to problems which are neither practical nor technical nor scientific.

Morality does tell us in certain cases, but morality is not scientific, it's value ridden. And most of our actions are not even moral actions in the first place. To build a house or a family or to do a work of art is not a moral act, but those are activities we can love or leave, no science will tell us, and no morality either. But religion may do.

Well, religion may not tell us whether to build a house or a family, but perhaps may tell us to become a monk or nun. Would this be bad? By what standard? Who decides? Religion shows us some aspects of 'reality' which science does not know of and which 'common sense' does not know of either. Whatever we may think of the value of Christendom or Islam, the fact is: Both have transformed the world of humankind in a very important way. Our Occidental culture would be very different from what it is today without this strange rabbi Jesus, whoever he may have been. In the same way the world of Asia and Africa would be very different from what it is today without the impact of Muhammad. Same with South East and East Asia without the impact of the Buddha.

Neither the Buddha nor Jesus nor Muhammad even tried to explain something which science would explain better some day. To explain the physical nature of the world was never the concern of these 'religious founding fathers'. Thus to prove them wrong on scientific grounds is just missing the point. This of course may be read the other way round too: To attack scientific findings by religious arguments is missing the point likewise. As was said above: To explain the physical nature of the world at no time was the main concern of any great religion. Thus neither Darwinism nor Marxism nor Freudianism nor the theories of Einstein are in contradiction with true Christian or Islamic or Buddhist convictions. But they may be contradicting vested interests of those who claim to be 'the faithful'.

And one more remark on 'reality'. Not only is the rainbow in the eye of the beholder, not only beauty, but so are freedom and justice and progress and 'the good': Should we skip them all because they are not jumping around on a meadow like horses? No, they are guiding ideas of utmost importance, even while they are not 'real' in the sense an atom is. We all have to do some ontology then and now and accept that the question of what 'reality' means can be very difficult.

Our modern scientific approach tends to dismiss everything which seems not 'methodologically sound'. But images and symbols and 'theory generated concepts' like 'Oedipus Complex' and 'class struggle' all show some important aspects of reality that are missed by scientific methodology. The world of humans is not the world of the physical labs.

The world of humans is what Dante in the opening sentences of the 'Inferno' (1st part of Divina Commedia) depicted as 'a dark wood', a symbol standing for error and sin and confusion where we get lost until some 'light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not'. (John 1,5) The 'Pilgrims Progress' from Inferno through Purgatorio to Paradiso is something no science would ever have suggested, but it is something very characteristic of the human striving for the good, for getting out of the dark wood and its many fearful dangers that life is, to something where light and clarity and eternal peace abound.

Et lux aeterna luceat eis (Let eternal light shine upon them). You cannot approach the Christian requiem (see or mass with physical or logical devices. It would be meaningless. This text is not science, this is not even Antiquity, but it is what made up the Occidental tradition (think of the masses of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and many others) and one of the great visions of humankind and of human self-understanding and of understanding the world we live in. Should we call it 'real'? Who decides? By what standard?

It's not all physics and math and 'common sense'. But it's all human. It's about the greatness of human humility. And by this it's even far above Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. Man is not that simple an animal.

© Hubertus Fremerey 2006