We live in a world that is now, and has always been, shaped by competing narratives. Maybe "always has been” is a bit too strong. We really are just guessing about prehistory. If our ancestors left the equivalent of their journals or Facebook pages lying around, we haven't figured them out yet. Some good guesses perhaps, but nothing really solid. However, once writing became the norm — hieroglyphics, cuneiform, and all that — the messages become much clearer, and sadly redundant. Many of the messages chronicle competition and carnage, and most often, the winner writes the history.
The competitive narratives that sent our forbearers out upon the field of battle were most often commercial, political or philosophical in nature. Someone had something — better grazing, access to a port, whatever — that someone else wanted. And, having been absent when their preschool class learned about sharing, they mounted up an army and rode out to take it, blood for treasure.
While many conflicts were at least in part commercial, they often were heavily glazed with a political, philosophical or theological patina. The "other" was "bad" and one’s own people were "good." The reasons were often a bit foggy, but the result was sadly predictable: the bodies of young men (usually) dead upon the battlefield, and the bodies of civilians dead in the cities. And the victors left writing the history.
Most regrettable — certainly from a long view of history — is the fact that every so often a figure arises that fits the "monster" view of history that is used to justify war. Hitler can claim that mantle — pure hatred of any "other" outside his narrow view of "one of us." The war to stop the spread of his diseased worldview eventually even drew active opposition from the poster boy of "radical pacifism," Albert Einstein. No doubt others can provide their own names from other times in human history that should appear on that list of "true monsters."
The problem is that those horrific historical realities are used to justify making war on opponents whose only real transgression is that they wish to possess the same material benefits that we covet, or even more intolerable, they worship in a different manner than we.
Do not get me wrong. I am not arguing that the world is free of oppositional groups willing to drag the world into chaos if that is the price of advancing their perception of "truth." What I do wish to emphasize is that such opposition is the product of a clash of beliefs in which objective data plays little or no role.
Belief derives from a personal perspective that one is in possession of the truth. Many faith-based communities draw their beliefs from a particular document — their "good book." Problematic for life in the 21st century is that none of these dominant works were written in what is now the real world. Rather they were philosophical works designed to explain a world millennia removed from the one that greets us every day.
And that is, or at least should be, the shared goal of philosophy, religion and science: to advance our understanding of the present world and clarify the role of humanity in that world. We cannot, despite the attraction of the perspective, declare existence frozen. I am afraid that the Christian doxology's claim "as it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be," simply flies in the face of the data of the experience of the last two thousand years. Similarly flawed is Islam's assertion that "truth" was finally decreed some 1400 years ago. Pick any ancient and revered text from any faith and you will often find wonderful insight compromised, if not crippled, by a simple ignorance of the natural world. Yet it is often a work seen as a theological line in the sand beyond which inquiry cannot pass.
Examine the intellectual position of a modern day fundamentalist of any of the world's major faiths and you find a mind willingly submerged in ignorance, shackled to beliefs coined by the best and brightest minds — of thousands of years ago. Brilliances that struggled to discern the meaning of the universe from data which could penetrate no further than the next town, bolstered by fantastic tales embroidered by merchants who traveled the mysterious trade routes that probed beyond the near horizon.
Science, philosophy and theology all should seek to create narratives that can lead us to a greater understanding of, and appreciation for, the staggering complexities of the universes. But for those narratives to be anything other than fairytales they must rest upon everything we know about our universe — know, not simply believe. The sciences, physical and social, lead us to what we know and right up to the very edge of the unknown. Philosophy and theology should explore why what we know is important, and in doing so point science’s quest for what in new and unique directions.
The problem, of course, is that the edge of the unknown can be a frightening place. Global warming as a result of human activity? The Zika virus? A world population spiraling beyond our ability to feed all those mouths? An increasing demographic skew between the "have’s" and "have not’s" that points eventually to revolution and chaos or repressive totalitarianism? No, I'd rather not think about that. I would much prefer that you tell me a story in which I, or at least the group with whom I identify, play the heroic role.
And so, those in power or seeking power do just that. The recent American presidential election is only the most recent example of this time-honored chicanery. The Trump campaign, whether attacking fellow republicans in the primaries or Clinton in the general election, crafted a narrative from xenophobic falsehoods and pseudoscience — alternative facts. It is a narrative in which Trump himself was cast as the only hero who could defend America from the alien hordes gathering on the horizon. Neither his republican opponents in the primaries nor the Clinton campaign could appreciate the impact of such a dark narrative on an American electorate seemingly fearful of its place on the world stage.
When science works to provide the "what" to philosophy and theology's reflections on the "why," cultural narratives tend to be thoughtful and flexible. Data helps to guide and temper belief. But when belief dictates what should be true, what science is permitted to address, the cultural narrative becomes a farce; on that way lies madness.