Making Sense of the World

Before Christmas, I posted something on Facebook about how both the religious and secular sides of Christmas bring a message of joy and hope. The wife of one of my nephews replied that as an atheist, she loves the lights and music and decorations and all the other trappings of Christmas. My response to her was that religion is one way to make sense of the world, but there are others.

Religion generally explains the ultimate questions about life and the universe in terms of unseen forces and entities that may be called supernatural. They are outside the natural world and cannot be perceived by the senses. Belief in them depends on faith, though reason may have a role. Most religions call the source of these forces God, under one name or another. Complex systems are developed to describe the relationship between this source and the universe that it creates, and complex rituals are followed to maintain a proper relationship between human beings and their God. Many people believe that religion embodies ultimate truth, while some view it more as a paradigm for living.

For those who cannot relate to the concept of God, there is the somewhat similar approach we call philosophy. Like religion, it does not limit itself to facts based on the evidence of the senses. But compared to religion, it relies more on reason and logic than on faith. Like religion, it can be viewed as either a source of ultimate truth or simply a way of looking at things that seems to make sense.

Many people in the modern world have little use for either religion or philosophy. They see both as grounded in nothing but unsupported speculation and therefore unable to tell us anything about reality. They think that truth can be known only through empirical evidence based on data gathered through the senses. To them, the only reason to believe anything is that it can be proved. Their province is the material world, not forces outside of nature. The system they rely on is science. And yet even in science, there are those who see it less as a way to discover any objective reality than simply as a way to organize our perceptions of a universe we can never fully fathom.

Another way to make sense of the world uses objective reality, if such a thing is acknowledged at all, only as a starting point. The arts fly on the wings of imagination to create worlds of their own, worlds often inspired by but never limited by sensory data or scientific process. Literature, music, painting, sculpture, dance, and all forms of art cast new perspectives on the knowable and seem to establish a human connection with even the unknowable.

All the above paragraphs have of course been vast oversimplifications of infinitely complex fields of human endeavor. And these various fields are becoming less and less distinct from one another. The lines between religion and philosophy are less clear than ever. Scientists are moving in directions quite far afield from traditional concepts of matter and energy, and science has always been dependent on logic, which is a branch of philosophy.

Music, painting, sculpture, and dance have always been important in religion, and architecture is an ever evolving blend of art and science. We may never be able to make complete sense of the world, but we will keep trying, and perhaps our most satisfactory attempts will come from combining all of these approaches, along with some others, transcending boundaries that keep us from seeing the big picture.


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