People find it easy to think that someone (or some bunch of someones) is in charge of running this glorious mess we call the universe—“higher powers” of some kind. It’s difficult even for hardened atheists to avoid thinking, “Please God, don’t let this happen” in a moment of crisis.
When I speak of the gods, I’m not asserting their reality, I’m just falling in with what appears to be a natural tendency for people to personalize the workings of the universe. They feel grateful when the universe treats them well—but there’s not much satisfaction to be had in expressing gratitude to, let’s say, the laws of thermodynamics. On the other hand, if a loved one dies in a plane crash, there’s not much satisfaction to be had in cursing the law of gravity. It’s understandable for people to direct these emotions toward persons—toward gods, in fact.
This doesn’t mean these gods are really “out there,” of course. They MAY be out there, but I have no information on that point (nor does anyone else). I can’t give you a definition of these thinkable beings—I can’t tell you what I “mean” by them. What I mean is only what people in general mean.
Living in the hands of the gods is a mindset that doesn’t necessarily reflect a belief in the reality of any particular gods. It’s a mindset that personalizes the universe as an essentially friendly place (which I personally have found it to be). People who live as if their neighbors are enemies turn their neighbors into enemies, whereas people who live as if their neighbors are friends turn their neighbors into friends. These are self-fulfilling prophecies. The same is true for the universe at large. People who live in it as if it were an enemy generally turn it into an enemy, and people who live in the universe as if it were a friend generally turn it into a friend.
To speak of nature as having “whims” is to turn it into a arbitrary and capricious person. What scientists find, on the other hand, is that nature is remarkably consistent—not at all given to “whims.” The Ihalmiut Eskimos lived very successfully and happily inside the arctic circle—“in the hands of the gods,” because they respected the conditions that the gods had set for them; they expected the gods to be consistent—and they were.
But if you venture into the arctic winter alone and unprepared, thinking the gods will take care of you, you’ll probably end up dead, not because they’re unfriendly or whimsical but because you were expecting them to make an exception for you, expecting them NOT to be consistent. (Substitute the word “nature” or “universe” for “gods” at will.)
posted: 25 Aug 2001
updated: 25 Aug 2001