Religious philosopher Loyal D. Rue says modern culture urgently needs a "noble lie" - a myth that links the moral teachings of religion with the scientific facts of life.
He said science "has eroded the plausibility of the Judeo-Christian myths. It has got into our heads and consciousness in such a way that the traditional myths can't be swallowed."The myths, he said, include archaic views of the universe; a presumption that humans are at the center of existence; and the stories of Jesus' resurrection and of Moses bringing God's Ten Commandments down from a mountain.
Dispel the myths of religion, he said, and all that is left is nihilism, which considers life and the universe meaningless.
"Nihilism is not something that can be argued away. . . . ," he said. "I assume it's true. But it is ultimately destructive," a "monstrous truth."
The myths served as a framework for religious teachings that brought about man's betterment, Rue says. Without their "integration of cosmology and morality" - of cosmic facts with idealism - people will deny fixed standards and do whatever they choose, splintering society.
Or, they might embrace the "totalitarian option," which relies on government to force humans to behave, he said.
Rue, 46, a professor of religion and philosophy at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, presented his thesis at a recent symposium of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington.
A churchgoing but skeptical Lutheran, Rue suggests that we start all over, and create a new myth - a "noble lie" that squares with what is known scientifically, something that is convincing though it may not be factual.
What would that lie be? He doesn't specify. "It remains for the artists, the poets, the novelists, the musicians, the filmmakers, the tricksters and the masters of illusion to winch us toward our salvation by seducing us into an embrace with a noble lie," he told the scientific meeting.
Perhaps, he said in an interview, it is possible to rework, transpose and rephrase the Judeo-Christian tradition to make it plausible again.
In any case, the illusion must be "so imaginative and so compelling that it can't be resisted," so "beautiful and satisfying" that all would feel they have to accept it, he told the meeting.
"What I mean by the noble lie is one that deceives us, tricks us, compels us beyond self-interest, beyond ego, beyond family, nation, race . . . that will deceive us into the view that our moral discourse must serve the interests not only of ourselves and each other, but those of the earth as well."
He said this lie would present a "universe that is infused with value. And such a universe is ultimately, I think, a great fiction. The universe just is. But a noble lie attributes objective value to it."
He said "the great irony of our moment in history" is that what "we have most deeply feared" - being deceived - "is the ultimate source of our salvation from psychological and social chaos."
He said "a good lie, a noble lie, is one that can't be shown to be a lie by exposing it to a known truth or to science."
"We need a kind of myth, a story, a vision of universality, that will get us pulling together, not just as Americans, but that will make us one, and give us solidarity of purpose," he said.
"It must be a lie that inspires us to give up selfish interests in the service of noble ideals. . . . " he said. "Without some kind of shared orientation, we can't cooperate and can't have a coherent society."
"Without such lies we cannot live," he said.