One of the best things about not being a materialist is that the world becomes a lot more interesting.
For example, I visited some Mayan ruins yesterday, one of the most astonishing archaeological wonders of the Western Hemisphere: the ruins at Copán. A friend of ours, a local, told us to “be prepared for the magic,” which we found to be a humorous way to phrase it.
When we got to the ruins we found that they were, indeed, magic. I wandered among the temples, through the tunnels dug by archaeologists, and among the stelae with their strange-faced kings. Flights of macaws lifted suddenly from the surrounding forest and screeched as they poured overhead in a streak of red, blue and yellow. I saw the altars on which jaguars were sacrificed and their blood burned to the Sun God, to give him strength in his underworld sojourns. I saw the ball-field, whereon strong young men strove to defeat their rivals. After the game, the best player, the winner, was sacrificed before a crowd of thousands, and under the watchful eye of the king and queen.
There was a dark power in that place, but faded and shadowy. The Mayans that built it came from the heart of their civilization further north around 400 AD. Within 400 more years, their great city collapsed and passed into ruin and was lost to memory.
As I sat on top of one of the temples, overlooking the altars of sacrifice, I imagined a dark power, a local god, that had arisen from the seething jungles of Central America. The people built a massive complex of temples, rendered all in white stone and blood red paint (the paint came from the bodies of insects, millions upon millions of them squashed to make the blood-red temples).
With grim determination they sacrificed year after year. They burnt the blood of the jaguar. The whole region pulsed with the power of the god: dark, hot, mysterious, and stern.
Then, as quickly as it had arisen, it passed away. Plague took the population: old and young died, food became scarce. When the last king of Copán died, the remnant took his harem and traveled back north to what is now Guatemala and Mexico, leaving the altars and temples and ball fields behind. The surrounding jungle slowly grew back, engulfing the stones and stripping their color. Roots of trees cracked apart the faces of the stone gods. The power subsided back into the earth, where now it lurks low and quiet, breathing through the strange tropical plants, lashing out in petty resentment now and again, taking people silently with snake bites and plague.
My companion, a nice and respectful person with a generous heart, is also a materialist and (basically) a Leftist, in the non-strict sense in which most Westerners are Leftists today.
He made several comments on the “magic” of Copán. He seemed to want to acknowledge the grandeur of the brown Other. As a white Leftist, he needed to express awe at the culture of a non-Western people.
And, as the place was spooky, I’m sure he felt something too. But there was an odd detachment in his talking about the “magic.” I wanted to press him:
Do you think the place is literally magic, or do you mean that figuratively?
If you don’t believe in literal magic, where do you suppose the strange feeling you get is coming from?
Ironically, I’m not ideologically bound to “respect” other cultures and yet I believe I take the Mayans of Copán far more seriously than my friend. For a materialist, all religion must be viewed through a lens of ironic detachment. Even when one is ostensibly “appreciating” the “magic” of a remarkable place like Copán, one is aware that it’s not really magic and the Mayans were, after all, rather silly for having built all these temples and sacrificed all those jaguars and humans.
What a dull way to live!
Let me add a disclaimer: I don’t mean to assert that the Mayans did not have superstitions that might have been baseless. I assume that all people at all times make category mistakes of one kind or another.
Neither do I assert that my imaginative account of the rise and fall of a dark power is definitively what happened (though I believe it’s probably much closer to the truth than any strict materialist interpretation). I’m just imagining things here. I’m neither a Mayan, nor a scholar of Mayans. And I have no desire to start sacrificing jaguars to see if it calls some demon out of the warm, dark earth of Honduras.
But I can imagine these things, and can do so from a non-ironic, non-detached sort of way. Putting aside all truth value of allowing oneself to exist on the spiritual plane (and there is immense truth value, in fact infinite truth value), it’s also just more fun to believe. More interesting, more spooky, more terrifying, more joyous, more liberating, and more real… more alive.
The materialist will respond that my beliefs amuse him, and that he simply can’t believe in a patent falsehood merely for the sake of fun.
I say, what a shame.