In his “Spirit of Utopia” Ernst Bloch makes the observation (I paraphrase slightly) that animals live within their bodies but cannot get out while human beings live outside their bodies and cannot get in. What he means by this is that one of the most important and distinctive elements of human evolution is self-consciousness. As far as we know we are the only species that is conscious of the fact that we are the only species that has consciousness.
He quotes GK Chesterton on this difference. Chesterton said that human beings may well look like ants from a distance but if you open an ant hill you will never find statues of famous ants. Human beings labour and cooperate in order to produce and reproduce their means of subsistence, but our existence goes beyond this in that we are able to understand and direct this process in an active way. Part of the instinct that drives us on is the anticipatory hope that what we do will create better conditions for the future. Of course it could be argued that all species do this and that all activity is simply about creating the conditions for the transfer of genetic material down through the generations. Richard Dawkins would maintain that this process of the Selfish Gene is the thing that is central to species evolution.
Of course, this is indubitably true. There is no purpose to evolution other than the transmission of genes from one generation to another. Since Nietzsche at the very latest we have been aware that existence on this planet is purely contingent and carries with it no particular point. As he pointed out, one day In a few billion years the sun will expand before it collapses and, if they are still around, the “clever animals will have to die”.
However, the important point here is that we are “clever” animals. We have invented the whole system of living in the world that we call knowledge. This knowledge emerges out of the process of evolution and sets us apart from evolution in some important ways. Consciousness of this process is central to our existence. What consciousness also gives us is the ability to see that our existence, contingent upon evolutionary logic though it is, has a dimension that takes us beyond mere dasein. We are not simply in the world and of the world but are able to reach beyond the world in both physical and metaphysical senses.
The evolution of consciousness and the recognition that we live outside of our bodies and – in a metaphysical sense — the world, leads us to posit that there is something separate from our bodies and the world that gives rise to this recognition. We call it a soul or give it some other dis-embodied name and we give credit for the creation of this disembodied entity to an extrapolated second level disembodied entity we call God. We then believe that we are created in his image and that our separate status means that we have both responsibility for and dominion over all of those other species who still live within their bodies.
This means that religion, faith, certainty in the resurrection, elpis, are fundamental integral parts of human consciousness because they serve to give sense to the evolution of human consciousness. The trick that evolution has played on us is to have given us the ability to think about our own existence in disembodied form. We are aware of ourselves because we are outside of ourselves, looking back in. In the first world at least a lot of time, energy and money is expended in the effort to put ourselves back inside ourselves. We call it “flow” and everything from yoga to excessive alcohol and drug consumption is about trying to achieve the oblivion and obliviousness that nonhuman animals live with all the time.
There is no escape from this reality though and the metaphysical system of thought that has been built up around our contingent existence (this is what I mean by the metaphysics of contingency that I have been working on for several years now) has as a fundamental part of it the logical extension of our own externality of individual consciousness into a cosmic consciousness in whatever form.
Religion cannot therefore be abolished by simply saying that it is illogical, as Richard Dawkins does, because it is a central byproduct of the evolutionary process. Of course, as individuals, we can escape a belief in this externality and disembodiedness but as a species we are probably condemned to some sort of anticipatory belief or hope in the future. One can be an atheist – and I certainly am – but one has to decide whether one is a secular or a religious atheist.
It is my view that we should start to take the inescapable nature of this conclusion seriously and say that paradoxically, religious belief should be understood as a positive sign of the ability of human beings to escape the limitations of merely animalistic existence.
Religion is a byproduct of evolution but it is one that shows that, as a species, we are not limited by evolution in the same way that other animals are.