One of the terms the sociologist Robert Merton, who died last week, was known for was the self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s a lot of the sort of thing about. All the endless assuring each other, for instance, that rationality, secularism, skepticism, atheism are all wrong and mistaken and harmful and stupid because humans have a Deep Need for religion. We have a Longing for ‘spirituality,’ a Hunger for myth, a nostalgia for a Big Daddy to protect us. There is a god-shaped hole at the center of our consciousness and all the silly pointless time-wasting things we do are efforts to fill it. This review of Adam Sutcliffe’s Judaism and Enlightenment, for example, says as much (paraphrasing the argument of the book):
And the prospect of a world without myth is neither possible nor desirable, Mr. Sutcliffe argues: “We need both reason and myth.” Mr. Sutcliffe thus sees his book as more than a contribution to intellectual history. It is also a philosophical argument, he says, a cautionary tale against what he calls “the seductions of rationalist absolutism.”
But is it true? Or is it just something we’ve been told so many times we’ve come to believe it. Along with other mysterious things we’re told over and over until we believe them. Watching tv in the dark is bad for your eyes, swimming immediately after eating will cause you to drown, eating that piece of cake now will Spoil your Dinner, and you mustn’t be an atheist or you’ll spend the rest of your life seeking to fill that damn god-shaped hole. This putative need for myth we hear so much about. Funny, I’ve always (from childhood) been far more aware of the opposite reaction, a feeling of impatience and exasperation when people try to assure me of the truth of obvious fictions. I resented the whole Santa Claus imposition, and from that I went on to resenting similar kinds of fraud. So what about that need then? What about the need not to be systematically lied to all the time by grownups who ought to know better? What about the truth-shaped hole?