On page 29 of Greg Egan’s excellent science fiction novel Teranesia, you will find the following passage:
Life and death were mysteries to him, but no mystery was impenetrable. The earliest attempts to understand these things, he reasoned, must have foundered against obstacles that seemed insurmountable, leaving behind failed systems of knowledge to ossify or degenerate. That was the source of religion. But someone, somewhere had always carried on the search in good faith; someone had always found the strength to keep on asking: Are the things I believe true? That was the legacy he’d claim.
I was really struck by this passage when reading it for the first time. Previously, I had always thought of most philosophies and religions as ugly warts on the face of human knowledge. The problem is not just that their teachings are incorrect: it is that they insist that they are sacred, correct, and unquestionable. Therefore, these systems of knowledge (as Egan neatly terms it) have no lasting purpose or value.
Put in the light of the quote, however, they do have significance: as discarded remnants left along the path to truth. Thinkers like Aristotle, Buddha, and Thomas Aquinas developed religious and philosophical systems which, continued by others well past their creators’ own lifetimes, became rigid and dogmatic. Because of this, the modern incarnations of these schools of thought have little value. This makes it easy to be dismissive of the men who created them, as well. But in fact their creations represent necessary steps - the inevitable branches and dead-ends - on the long and eternal road to enlightenment. These thinkers should be respected for assisting humanity down that road, not for their actual teachings.
This represents a significant shift in attitude for me. Imagine some stone tools of primitive man on display in a natural history museum. On viewing them, I might be impressed at the ingenuity of early man, or perhaps surprised that game animals could be killed and meals prepared with such crude implements. But certainly I would not say, “I’ve got WAY better tools than those at home in my toolbox. What’s the big deal with these dumb things that they deserve public display?”
The religions and philosophies developed by history’s great thinkers are like those stone tools: not very useful today, but relevant as pieces of history. Comparing them against modern knowledge is not only unfair, but outright pointless. We have the benefit of today’s tools only by way of their cruder historical counterparts.
Thinking this way also imbues me with a sense of kinship to all the truth-seekers - now, and throughout history. This bond stretches back in time, not only to relatively modern heroes of science like Maxwell, Newton, or Galileo; but back even further to Luther, Aquinas, Buddha, and Plato. Most of these men framed their truth-seeking in terms of religion, because that was the nature of human philosophy in their time. Their ideas are not of much application today, but they are worth study as historical markers. More importantly, these men should be appreciated for their approach to the development of ideas. That approach shares the common thread that exemplifies humanity at its best: the relentless questioning of one’s own beliefs.