Reconsidering why to believe (or disbelieve) in what we have been taught to believe (or disbelieve) about ‘God’
None can give to another what he does not possess himself. No generation can bequeath to its successor what it has not got. . . . if we are sceptical we shall teach only scepticism to our pupils, if fools only folly, if vulgar only vulgarity, if saints sanctity, if heroes heroism. — Clive S. Lewis
During a visit to the dentist several years ago, I remember a patient next to me speaking with his dental nurse. At some point of their interesting conversation, he recalled how, one day, he had decided that God didn’t exist.
“And I was very happy afterwards” he ended.
As a left-brained engineer pursuing studies in theology, I couldn’t say I almost fell of my chair, because it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to fall off from a dentist chair. But, unable to close my mouth given my surgeon’s intruding interventions, I almost chocked at his very words: My fellow patient “decided” that God didn’t exist.
Truth be told, I secretly empathized. As someone who has been a half-hearted skeptic, I have often ‘doubted’ the existence of God. At times, I have been also led to ‘conclude’ that the belief could very well be a superstition—a mental fantasy that exists sole in the human psyche. But “deciding”? I had honestly never heard that.
It somehow felt like deciding that aliens do not exist in distant galaxies simply because one has never seen one; or like deciding that music is an illusion because someone has, in actual fact, cut off the four stings of the only violin she has ever known.
Shot in One's Own Foot
That to admit the following before proceeding: speaking about believing in the God of Christianity in today’s relativistic society is very much like shooting one’s self in the foot. We do live in an age where we have been taught (often religiously) that energy and matter are all there is. We have been promised that chance, evolution, and the instinct for survival of the selfish gene can explain everything.
In turn, philosophers and social scientists from Ludwig Feuerbach and Sigmund Freud to Richard Dawkins and Jared Diamond continue to make the case that ‘God’ and the ‘gods’ are no more than a primitive invention—‘socially-constructed’ illusions—that our ancestors gradually came up with to comfort themselves. Allegedly, this happened either to explain their origins, to manipulate and control the masses, or to satisfy the desire for a strong father figure.
There are good reasons to admit this. As the best-selling Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind has shown more popularly, back in the day the Romans claimed that the gods were on their side; a belief they used to legitimize their empire and subjugate the imagination of over 100 million subjects (and to then empty their pockets by taxing them).
Today, too, the craving for money coupled with the mindless sensationalism of some preachers of the so-called prosperity gospel often proves that religion does function as the “opiate of the people”, as Karl Marx classically put it. The name of 'God' continues to be used and abused to serve the benefits of the few.
Added to that, Galileo, Darwin, Hubble, and Einstein have certainly put Aristotle’s ‘prime mover’ or Michelangelo’s white-bearded god out of fashion.
Without asking around too much, it makes good sense to question many of the aged, dusty images of ‘God’ and of the universe that have lingered with us until today.
What’s More Dogmatic than What?
What often goes unnoticed, however, are the ways in which the dismissal of monotheism can be equally dogmatic. Materialism still requires faith. Who, after all, can prove that matter and energy are all there is? What allows us to ultimately dismiss—from the get-go—at least the possibility of an ultimately inscrutable supreme Intelligence, mostly because we are unable to fit an endless ocean into the finite paper-cups of our comprehensions? Moreover, we must ask ourselves on what supposedly objective and unshakable grounds can we explain away invisible realities by reducing everything to the impersonal whims of subatomic particles and of selfish genes.
Consider the conclusion of world-leading physicist David Berlinski, himself an agnostic and secular Jew, author of The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions:
Has anyone provided a proof of God’s inexistence? Not even close. Has quantum cosmology explained the emergence of the universe or why it is here? Not even close. Have the sciences explained why our universe seems to be fine-tuned to allow for the existence of life? Not even close. Are physicists and biologists willing to believe in anything so long as it is not religious thought? Close enough. Has rationalism in moral thought provided us with an understanding of what is good, what is right, and what is moral? Not close enough. Has secularism in the terrible twentieth century been a force for good? Not even close to being close. Is there a narrow and oppressive orthodoxy of thought and opinion within the sciences? Close enough. Does anything in the sciences or in their philosophy justify the claim that religious belief is irrational? Not even ballpark. Is scientific atheism a frivolous exercise in intellectual contempt? Dead on.
None of this to affirm that our inability to fill in the gaps simply ‘proves’ the existence of God. But one should at least consider statements like Berlinski's should we decide to follow the increasingly-popular road towards atheism. And that because atheism is left with the difficulty of answering why is there something instead of nothing, and why is there order in the midst of chaos— two of the many philosophical tensions often addressed by both brilliant atheists and brilliant believers alike.
Perhaps more worryingly, at the end of the journey materialism also assumes as fact something that is ultimately as assertive as believing in a Transcendental Agent, or in a Cosmic Consciousness, or in a Unifying Presence that precedes and somehow embraces the cosmos. Atheism too requires faith.
Giving Ourselves a Break
This possibility happens to be one of the starting points of A Climate of Desire: Reconsidering Sex, Christianity, and How We Respond to Climate Change. The fact that many (or most) of our understandings of God are either partial, selfish, distorted, or straight-out false, does not automatically imply that God (whoever God may be) must be a mere illusion.
What if our ancestors, including the writers of the Bible, used the language and metaphors available to them at least to begin to make sense of a higher Reality that ‘was there’ already?
When back in the day someone like Jeremiah called ‘God’ a “potter”, for example, he was surely making sense of ‘God’ by drawing on an image familiar to him. But given that today we know there is no ‘physical’ heavenly giant with two enormous cosmic hands, that does not automatically rule out the possibility of the existence of an untamable Being ‘sculpting’ the universe—however slow, mysterious, and evolutionary the sculpting might continue to be.
My point is this: our ‘God’ language may not be a simple psychological projection into the empty canvas of the cosmos, nor a mere invention of the primitive human psyche. It may well be the case that at least some of the God-talk that is often dismissed in the name of science, actually does reflect a valid (even if limited) recognition of what’s ‘out there’—or, for that matter, of who’s out there.
Beyond Opiate Flowers and Magic Mushrooms
Even more, what if such Transcendental Source of the cosmos met our ancestors ‘where they were at’—as we might say—by somehow speaking to them in a way that would be comprehensible to their ancient minds—very much like a university professor of linear algebra drawing three dragons and four fairies to teach a 2-year old that three plus four equals seven?
Rather presumptuously, a first-year college student could outright dismiss the drawing as childish nonsense. But don’t we all start somewhere? Judging our millenary ancestors according to our modern scientific standards would make us guilty of the “chronological snobbery” once lamented by the cunning C.S. Lewis. In such case, the presumably bright light of reason could actually blind us to see anywhere beyond the tip of our nose.
We can surely label (bad) religion the “opiate of the masses”. It is. And it’s bad for us. But then the rules of fair play dictate that if we have blind faith in Materialism instead, then we’d be pretty much feasting on magic mushrooms!
As far as one can see, true intellectual openness requires that we at least allow for the possibility of the existence of God—regardless of whether we like, or understand, or know, such a God. It may well be the case that such a vast Presence is there whether we believe in it or not. And it is surely the case that a total eclipse or a perfect storm is not the same thing as the actual disappearance of the sun.
All That Said…
As a follower of the man Jesus of Nazareth, I personally find other, more concrete reasons to be suspicious about believing in ‘God’.
Not only much of the God-talk (including much of the supposedly ‘Christian’ God-talk) is absolutely divorced from the flesh-n-blood ‘touchability’ of Jesus (the Jesus whom the apostle John impeded us from seeing as any other than the Cosmic Consciousness made human during a turbulent blink of the universe’s history). More worryingly, there are also many other warnings around the public role of Christianity and of much of the ‘God’-talk that has gone with it.
We can call them as we may. From John Lennon’s rightful dismissal of religion in the 60’s to the abuses of religion highlighted by atheists like Christopher Hitchens; from the European crusades to the colonial evils against aboriginal people perpetuated by the church in the residential schools in Canada; from the so-called German Christians supporting Hitler to their countless parallels supporting the bigotry and nation-worship of today’s heads of state... there are 1,001 reasons to be suspicious about the role of (bad) religion in larger society. Countless in number have been the arrogance, stupidity, and the crimes perpetuated in the name of God.
But it’s not the intention here to pull out the files of the church’s checkered history. All this said simply to ask ourselves whether both traditional Christianity and atheism should reconsider themselves as we advance into the 21st century. And that because the question may not be a simplistic, black and white, “Do we believe in God?”
Instead, the question is of another kind: “Could there be a God that is actually rather different from the god we have come to believe in—or disbelieve in?”
As you may tell by now, this author happens to believe so; even if a fuller answer requires an entirely new and different essay.
Eduardo Sasso is the author of A Climate of Desire - a book reconsidering the original roots of Christianity to more fully enable us to respond to the challenges of climate change.