The most uniquely human feature of our inner life is that dimension of consciousness called “imagination.” The reason it’s called that is because in the exercise of it, our minds create mental images. In some cases, those images have an important shaping influence on our lives; indeed, it is human imagination that has shaped the modern world.
This may be illustrated by taking Magritte’s Treachery of Images to what was surely its intended logical conclusion: every painting is a representation of its author’s “vision” (another word for image in this case, drawn not from “to see” but “to visualize”), and to the extent that the painting is an accurate representation of that image, it may be judged successful. That success itself is the end product of a technique that was gradually acquired by imagining the precise elements of motor control that would load the brush just so, move it across the canvas in a way calculated to achieve the desired outcome, and so forth – and then by going to work developing those very techniques that the imagination suggested.
The things that are true of paintings and their bringing-to-life are also true of musical compositions, poems, internal combustion engines, buildings, highway interchanges, radio telescopes, financial empires, atomic bombs and so forth. Science and art are the two preeminent products of the human imagination. Religion is another, unfortunately deeply-tainted: more on this later.
Unless and until it is possible to “put flesh and bones” on them, giving them actual, tangible form, mental images are not features of the real world; they exist only within the confines of our crania. We may imagine many things that remain imaginary only. I may imagine myself in an amorous embrace with Juliette Binoche, but doing so would serve little purpose beyond, perhaps, self-gratification. (I wouldn’t want to pursue this line of thought any further in print, but we’re all adults here, and we all have rich imaginations which we exercise as needed.)
Obviously, many people spend their lives mired in such unrealizable imaginings, such fantasies. To these musings we may accurately apply the descriptor “wishful thinking.” Self-help gurus capitalize on people’s propensity to this kind of imagining, as do pulpiteers, televangelists, and those involved in the running of stock markets and casinos. To be rich and successful is the dream of many, and most of those who harbor such dreams spend their lives dreaming them, while their actual lives testify to a very different reality. And those mired in “faith” spend their entire lives expecting a blissful eternity in heaven with Jesus and Grandma. Ask them to describe that eternal state, and you’ll hear a very revealing accounting of mental images, usually identified with certain aspects of their lives – an extension, in other words, of their present, actual life, only without the attendant aggravations. Such images will never be realized, because they are the product of human imagination only; they have no counterpart in the world that actually exists. (Those who spend their lives in expectation of a fairer one beyond Jordan’s chilly waters never actually live.)
“God” is such an image – a phantasm that no doubt provided needed explanations for the otherwise inexplicable phenomena that blessed and plagued the lives of prescientific people, hence its staying power among those who even in our time remain prescientific (including a good many members of the U.S. Congress and those who put them in office). The “relationship” that some claim to have with “God” is of course just as imaginary. Those who pray talk only to themselves.
“God” is such a powerful image for many that they organize their lives around it in ways that look remarkable to the rest of us. (Perhaps for “remarkable” I should have written “irrational.” It is impossible to “take the measure” of such people, although psychologists have struggled valiantly for well over a century to do just that.) That image is reinforced by various “holy books” and by other believers, especially in “faith communities” which aim primarily at mutual reinforcement. It’s also bolstered and perpetuated by childhood indoctrination, a brainwashing technique that targets those whose minds are still in their formative stages and for whom images are among the most powerful features of experience, as witness the ability of children to content themselves for hours on end with the company of imaginary friends.
Some believers’ imaginations are richer than others. Their febrile minds teem with a veritable pantheon that includes Satan, demons, angels, “spiritual gifts,” divine healings, glossolalia, miracles, signs and portents, and fulfilled prophecies. The close parallel to some forms of mental illness is obvious. The deeper one sinks into such delusional thinking, the more one’s life becomes divorced from reality. Those who are mired in such delusions will of course reject even the attempt to understand the world as scientists do (to say nothing of such scientific conclusions as evolution), and will also discount the contrary “revelations” of believers whose images do not coincide with their own, even going so far as to condemn those wrongbelievers to (an imaginary) hell or burning them at the (very real) stake.
The Bible includes a stern injunction against the creation of “graven images,” yet so long as our images are contained safely inside our heads and are not given tangible form, they seem to be encouraged or at least permitted by religious “authorities.” Keener thinkers among the religious have realized, however, that the worship of those inner images is a form of idolatry, and have developed a theology that aims at abolishing them. The via negativa embraced by some thinkers – God is not this, not that – is one such iconoclastic approach. But that’s too rarefied for the majority of believers who, recoiling from the very thought of the yawning maw of the Abyss, still need (or think they need) an imaginary playmate made – dare I say it? – in their image.
I am an agnostic atheist: I do not know whether or not some vast intelligence lies behind the universe and its wonders. I don’t think that’s the case, and I see no compelling reason to waste my time wondering about it (preferring instead to exercise my imagination with delicious thoughts of Juliette Binoche), but I would never claim to know it for certain. I am absolutely sure, however, that the (Bible-based) images I see trumpeted as certainties by True Believers™ bear no resemblance whatsoever to any such creative intelligence. It is simply inconceivable that the creator of a hundred billion galaxies would also delight in the smell of burning animal carcasses, or cares whether or not I pick up sticks on the Sabbath or believe impossible things or “commit adultery in my heart.” What sane person would imagine such a thing?
And when their images, and arrogant certainty about the unknowable, motivate such believers to make life miserable for their fellows by condemning their “sins” and standing in the way of the happiness that might otherwise be theirs – by legislating against their harmless predilections or corrupting public school science curricula with pseudoscience, for instance – then they make both an iconoclast and an enemy of me. I aim to make them lose their “faith” if that’s possible, because I think their “faith” is extremely harmful both to them and to those around them.
One of the main reasons I spill metaphorical ink on topics such as this and poke fun at the images that populate the minds of believers and crowd out reality, is that I’m trying to get the believers themselves to notice just how risible those images are. Do I imagine that I’ll experience any success in that? The chances seem slim to none.
It’s possible that the battles most worth fighting are those that are lost before we even so much as lift a finger.
Source for Cover Image
By Mehdinom (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons