‘necessity’ of belief

All theistic religions are founded on an insistence of necessity. There IS a god, you MUST believe him, he has spoken in a text which you will NOT question, wherein he COMMANDS you what to do (and when and how), which you then MUST do (as prescribed). There are various punishments god can inflict upon those who do not believe or those who, believing, fail to follow god’s prescriptions and proscriptions. Most of these, such as eternal damnation, are targeted at your ‘soul’ (which you must have because god says so), but any earthly disaster can be remarked by the ‘faithful’ as a punishment from a god so piqued that he simply can’t wait for Judgment Day to cause someone suffering somewhere. And of course in ‘communities of the faithful,’ particularly theocracies, the faithful themselves take it upon themselves as surrogates of the allmighty to enforce – by law and through judicial sentence – acts or prohibitions that god has enjoined in his holy book.
This insistence of necessity has had so powerful an influence over human thought, at least north and west of the Himalayas, throughout history, that most of experience gets perceived and interpreted through this filtering lens. There simply MUST be an origin of the universe. Life MUST have a purpose and clearly we have intelligence because we NEED to understand that purpose. There’s a NECESSARY reason why we find sunny landscapes beautiful and foggy, rainy days miserable. There is a proper person you will find to mate with and procreate, because children are a necessity for a ‘fully realized human life.’ We really just HAVE TO send young people off to kill and die in combat when we feel our way of life (determined by our the sacred book, in communities of the faithful) threatened.
But something odd budded on history’s vine towards the end of the Renaissance in Europe, blossoming in the age we call Modernity. Thinkers in all fields of thought – literature, politics, history, what we now call science and technology – even in religion itself – began to question the necessity of given ‘necessities’ and to devise methods of testing and investigating reality to see if matters might be, or could be made to be, otherwise.
Through the centuries of experimentation this new attitude brought forth in practice, it became more and more clear, to those who kept abreast of such efforts, that ‘necessity’ is really only a term applicable to the normative functioning of physical matter. An apple too heavy for the branch necessarily falls to the ground. Two hydrogen atoms swapping electrons with an oxygen atom necessarily combine with it to form water. The trajectory of a comet’s course through space will not change unless some force outside itself influences that course. Even death, the one true inevitability of any lived existence, is inevitable only because of certain predictable changes in the chemical and physical composition of the body. This, by the way, explains the necessity of evolution: a drastic change in the environment may determine that the physical and chemical composition of a whole species may not survive, while that of another species may thrive in the new environment.
So necessity is really only a useful term for scientists. But they generally don’t use it, since their reliance on mathematics grants them a language that demonstrates necessity without actually arguing for it, and the ‘scientific method’ – question, hypothesis, prediction, test, observation, result – will reveal necessity without anyone having to insist on it.
Outside of the physical sciences, ‘necessity’ is really a term of art – generally it is used enthymemically, closing off premises that could open up possible choices that a person doesn’t wish considered. This practice is revealed by confronting it with a conditional choice. Do humans need to eat? Yes, IF they want to go on living. And, yes, there are on record people who have literally starved themselves to death, either because they simply wanted to die, or because they found eating itself so repellent that they preferred to die. Were they insane, were they irrational? Possibly – but they made a choice. So the strictly logical answer to the question is, No. People do not NEED to eat, they want to eat in order to go on living (among other motives, of course). The hungry may feel this desire as a ‘need,’ as a driving, even maddening impulse to acquire food, but they could have it otherwise.
Is this true of non-human life forms as well? Frankly, I can’t say. There is much about life we know, but much that we are still learning. There is not yet a final word on how, say, bacteria are driven to certain nutrients, or on the functioning of instincts in other mammals. But humans are not instinct-driven organisms. There is nothing in human behavior that functions by necessity.
I haven’t shifted focus here. Modern science reveals that the sensation of hunger is inevitably produced by an imbalance of chemicals circulating the physiological system following the depletion of chemical reserves through the expenditure of energy in life’s activities. That doesn’t force us to eat, it simply makes eating desirable. Western religions, however, assure us that hunger is a NECESSARY consequence of human kind’s fall from grace through original sin, and will only cease completely in an afterlife. This because we will be regenerated in a new Eden, where there will always be plenty to eat, or regenerated in a form that requires no eating, or regenerated as conscious souls without material body. That will occur of necessity as well (the will of god), as, too, the damnation of those not so graced, who, we can guess, will suffer hunger eternally. The only way to avoid damnation is DO WHAT YOU’RE TOLD by the sacred book, thus determining that your ‘choices’ are actually necessary as well. (And in certain sects of Western religions, you don’t really even have this choice, it’s predetermined.)


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