Is myth more comforting than reality?

by Quinn O'Neill

Sky For parents wishing to introduce their children to a scientific worldview, two new books may make the job a bit easier. Daniel Loxton’s book “Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be” recently won the 2010 Lane Anderson Award in the young reader category. It was also a finalist for the Silver Birch Award and is in the running for a third Canadian book award for children’s nonfiction. For the curious, the National Center for Science Education offers an excerpt here. The other book, Richard Dawkins latest, “The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True,” makes a clear distinction between myth and reality while explaining a range of natural phenomena. Both books are aimed at kids in the 8- to 13-year-old range but could certainly be understood and enjoyed by those much older.

Introducing children to current scientific thinking about human origins and other natural phenomena may seem like a no-brainer for many parents, but for others the idea may not hold much appeal. Jeremy Paxman interviewed Dawkins on the subject of myth and reality and raised what I think is an interesting question: are myths more comforting than reality? Or perhaps we should ask instead, “are delusions more comforting than reality?” since myths generally aren’t comforting unless one believes that they’re true. I think the answer is both yes and no.

On a psychological level reality isn’t comforting at all. We are, as Paxman points out, insubstantial specks in the cosmos. A scientific worldview would tell us that we have no divine purpose, we weren’t created by a kind and loving god and there’s no guardian angel watching over us prepared to step in to prevent traumatic events. We or our loved ones could be mangled in a freak accident or develop a horrible illness at any time. We live in an unpredictable and uncontrollable world full of suffering and injustice, where bad things happen to good people for no reason at all.

Reality isn’t always easy to deal with and delusion can help people to cope with feelings of uncertainty and helplessness. Comforting delusions can take a wide range of forms like good luck charms, superstitions, and astrology. Perhaps the most pervasive and personally aggravating example is prayer for divine intervention.

Requests for my prayers routinely go through my facebook newsfeed as if some critical mass of praying people will bring about a desired outcome, like the return of an abducted child. Prayers for very reasonable things, like food and relief from pain, go unanswered all over the world every day, but if we could just get everyone on facebook praying for this child's return, surely we could make it happen. Because maybe God’s watching over the rape of the abducted child right now and he’s willing to intervene but he’s holding out for just a few more Hail Mary’s and a Glory Be? Somehow I doubt it. There seems to be no rational way to reconcile a kind and loving, interventionist God with the observable horrors of the world we live in.

The God people pray to for intervention in their own lives is the same God that seems to have no problem sweeping men, women, and children of all moral persuasions to their deaths in a tsunami and no problem with the suffering of innocent animals in the wild. Some might argue that God has his reasons and that suffering has its place. Fair enough, I'm not criticizing non-interventionist varieties of gods here. But, if we believe that god has his reasons for such things, then we should refrain from prayer and rest assured that whatever fate should befall us or our loved ones – as hideous as it may be – it will be exactly what God intended and there'll be a good reason for it. But there is little comfort in this view.

I’d love to think that my life has some higher purpose, that there’s some great fate that I was put here to fulfill and that everything good or bad happens for a reason – this would provide comfort. But a bit of knowledge, reasoning ability and honesty prevents me from accepting such things as anything other than fanciful myths.

Nature is beautiful and spellbinding, but it isn’t comforting. It is a comedy, a drama, a horror and a feel-good story all wrapped up into one awesomely complex, unpredictable, uncontrollable masterpiece that’s writing itself. This may not be the story parents want to tell their children and in some cases I suspect even staunch advocates of rationalism would agree. If a dying child takes comfort in the belief that she’ll become a fairy princess upon death, who would take this from her?

Prayer and belief in God, delusional or not, are undeniably comforting. A recent study revealed a correlation between the percentage of people who “strongly believe in god” and a measure of suffering (based on rates of infant mortality, cancer deaths, infectious disease, and violent crime) across the 50 US states.1 Parents are also more likely to believe in God if they have a child with cancer.2 A sense that things happen for a reason and that suffering has a purpose can help us cope. So why not share such a powerful coping strategy with children?

On a practical level, reality offers much greater comfort than myth. Most of the comforts of modernity – flush toilets, electricity, appliances, medicine, and convenient transportation, owe their existence to science and to those who subscribe to methodological, if not philosophical, naturalism. The material comforts that we enjoy depend upon our understanding the world as it is and not how we wish it were.

Science can also offer a degree of certainty and predictability. There’s comfort in learning that a biopsied lesion wasn’t cancer and that an ailment has a name and an effective treatment. In a world where accidents happen and people get sick, it’s nice to know that medical science and technology offer ever improving odds of recovery.

Accepting reality can also improve our decision-making and planning. If we accept that natural disasters and accidents are inevitable, then we can plan for them effectively and minimize their harmful effects. We can also take concrete steps to reduce their likelihood. It might seem like a good idea to shelter children and keep them innocent of harsh realities, like child sexual predators, but educating them about these dangers may be the best way to keep them safe. Ignorance may be bliss but it can also be dangerous.

Of course, we don’t necessarily need to choose between the material comforts of science and technology and the psychological comforts of a non-scientific worldview. It’s possible to be a scientist and not always think like one. It’s also possible to think like a scientist and not be one. But, in an age of man-made disasters, extinctions, and climate change with predictable dire consequences for future generations, I think it’s critical that kids learn to think like scientists. It’s important to be able to cope with problems but it’s more important to be able to solve them. A good grasp of reality may ultimately be the best gift parents can give their children and the benefits may extend well into the future.

References:

1) Gray, K., Wegner, D. M. (2010). Blaming God for our pain: human suffering and the divine mind. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(1)7-16.

2) Spilka, B., Zwartjes, W. J., & Zwartjes, G. M. (1991). The role of religion in coping with childhood cancer. Pastoral Psychology, 39(5), 295-304.

Photo Credit: European Southern Observatory

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