Part Two, Chapter IV (pp. 188-198), “Myth and Magic”
Humans seem to have considerably more imagination than other animals. They believe some things because of evidence, but they believe many other things because they feel these things to be right, despite the absence of (any further) evidence. “On the whole, as men become more civilized, the sphere of evidence in the formation of beliefs becomes larger, and the sphere of imagination smaller [pp. 188-189].” Imaginative beliefs still form a significant part of our belief systems. Even though any connection between truth and imaginative beliefs is coincidental, they allow us to make our way through the world and suggest ideas that sometimes lead to improvements in art and science. An intense imagination, as Shakespeare knew, can lead to belief in the reality of what is imagined.
The intensity and drama of dreams might be the source of the power we allow our imaginations. From dreams and daydreams, which often derive from imagined fears, “men have fashioned the vast systems of magic and ritual and myth and religion which have influenced human life at least as profoundly as the skills and observations out of which scientific knowledge has grown [p. 190].” Other beliefs held without evidence, such as the effect of the phase of the moon on weather, are not based on deep emotions, and so do not present serious social concerns.
Hopes and fears lead to imaginary beliefs because of inflated senses of self-importance, ideas that the universe itself must care about what we care about. We even believe that natural processes have causes that mimic the causes of human action. “Eruptions and earthquakes seem like manifestations of anger, and so we imagine an angry spirit which is causing them [p. 191].”
Beliefs held without evidence speak to the passions of the people who hold them. The cruelty with which these beliefs have been operationalized suggests that the underlying passions are dark. All sorts of terrors are inflicted through imaginary beliefs, yet few charitable acts possess similar sources. Fear of death led to the invention of afterlives that often were themselves full of torment. Irrational fears of happiness have led to self-inflicted torments though asceticism and self-abasement. “The things that men have thought pleasing to the gods throw a strange light upon their own emotions [p. 193].” Self-hatred frequently finds its expression in cruelty towards others, including in the form of human sacrifices to placate or honor an angry god. (Here we have an echo of a passage from Chapter Ten of Unpopular Essays: “…when a man tortures himself he feels that it gives him a right to torture others, and inclines him to accept any system of dogma by which this right is fortified.”)
Desires for dominance and for submission are strong human passions. The mutual existence of these passions – even within a single individual, both passions can abide – has helped to stabilize unequal societies, where the leaders get satisfaction from dominating and others obtain satisfaction from being dominated. The leaders can satisfy their desire to be dominated by inventing a god who rules over them. This can allow them to enjoy a type of submission that does not hinder their accumulation of earthly power. Their attempts to force others into virtue are justified by their own abstemious behavior. Their asceticism with respect to sensuality does not extend to the enjoyment of power. “It is the prevalence of this type of psychology in forceful men which has made the notion of sin so popular, since it combines so perfectly humility towards heaven with self-assertion here on earth [p. 195].” And this self-assertion can take the form of inflicting pain on the less virtuous, without remorse.
We imbue the cosmos with human emotions. Good outcomes are caused by love, bad outcomes by hate or anger. We try to influence the extent to which the cosmos loves and hates us, through piety and faith. The scientific approach is much different – causality does not reflect our hopes and fears, but is determined (imperfectly and probabilistically) through the accumulation of evidence. Scientific knowledge has liberated us from much cruelty inflicted by mythical beliefs.
Science now provides us with the possibility of self-extermination as well as the liberation from myths. To prevent the self-extermination, we should not retreat into myths. “If salvation is to be found, it must be by the help of more science, not less…[pp. 197-198].”