Not long after the horrific shootings in Aurora, Colorado the religious community started generating miracle stories bizarrely “proving” God’s providential hand at work in the tragedy. One young woman who was struck in the head will make a full recovery because the bullet fragment lodged just millimeters away from vital areas of the brain without damaging them. Her pastor expressed his amazement that twenty-two years ago when this woman was born God had perfectly designed the structure of her brain knowing the bullet would hit it.
But what about all the dead and maimed? Was God asleep at the wheel when he designed their bodies? How can people so blithely claim divine favor in an event where many others were not so fortunate? This sentiment is deeply engrained in Christian piety. We hear it all the time. Just this week in three different conversations I heard people utter the phrase “There but for the grace of God go I”–which, when you think about it, basically means “God must like me better than that other poor slob with all his/her problems.” Really, there is no other way to take this phrase.
Of course a big part of the search for signs of God’s providence is a desperate need to find some kind of meaning in a world that often seems meaningless. Homo Sapiens is a meaning-seeking machine. Clearly the need to find meaning is so overwhelming that we will settle for almost any explanation even when the explanation doesn’t make any sense at all.
Christians who have a very high view of God’s sovereignty, such as the Neo-Calvinist guru John Piper, even claim that every single death is ordained by God, no matter how the death happens.
“Children of the Heavenly Father” is a very popular hymn in some traditions. People like it for its catchy, singable tune and for it’s reassuring message of God’s love and protection. Over the years, however, the song started to really irk me as I became more and more aware of the lyric’s sinister implications. Here’s the second verse: “God his own doth tend and nourish, In his holy courts they flourish./ From all evil things he spares them. In his mighty arms he bears them.”
“From all evil things he spares them?” OK, that is just manifestly not true. 146 people drowned when an overcrowded ferry capsized in Tanzania last week.
No matter how desperately we may want to believe that the stars are aligned in our favor and God smiles down from heaven on upon us, the reality is, of course, that the universe is indifferent to human suffering. To think otherwise is dangerous.
I think Ingersoll once said something like this: “Only human hands can solve human problems.” The gods aren’t likely to step in and save the day. They certainly haven’t yet. The love we need can only come from other people. It’s up to us.
Geckos abound in these parts during the summer. It’s a wonder to observe their ability to walk on virtually any type of surface. Until recently it was one of the mysteries of nature. We didn’t have a very good idea of how they climb like Spiderman. The science section in Tuesday’s edition of The Times contained a brief article highlighting the work of a scientist, Shihao Hu, who has figured out how it works. Apparently the toes of the gecko are covered with microscopic hairs, and each of these tiny hairs splits into hundreds of nanobranches, giving the gecko thousands of points of contact with any surface. Amazing. The mystery has been solved, but that does not diminish our sense of wonder. It’s one more reminder of the power and beauty of natural selection.
Back when I was religious, we in the church used to talk about the “mysteries of faith” A prime example is the doctrine of the Trinity– God is one, yet the godhead contains three distinct but equal “persons.” One can have a lot of fun pondering this “mystery.” Theologians even write lengthy treatises on the distinction between the “economic Trinity” and the ” immanent Trinity” (or “ontological Trinity.”) The problem of course is that the “mystery” of the Trinity is not a mystery at all. None of this means anything. While the mystery of the gecko’s climbing ability is based on something real we observe in nature, the mystery of the Trinity is not based on any observation or empirical evidence of any kind whatsoever. You can’t watch the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit interacting and then describe what you saw. There’s nothing to go on.
Religion misuses the term mystery. You just can’t make stuff up and then, because you have no explanation for what you made up, chalk it up to mystery. In my experience the “mysteries of faith” often become a burden to the faithful who struggle to get their heads around things like the Trinity or the “real presence” of Christ in bread and wine, and then feel like they are sub-standard believers because they can’t fathom the theologians’ supposedly profound insights. It’s nuts.
Leaving the crazy metaphysics behind doesn’t make the world any less wondrous. Quite the contrary. Looking at the world from a naturalistic perspective is far more interesting than anything theology could possibly dream up.
Let me close by quoting one of my favorite passages from Dan Dennett’s book, “Breaking the Spell,” where he talks about developing an “awestruck vision of the world.”
“If you can approach the world’s complexities, both it’s glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only just scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things.” (p.303)
Question from a reader: “Surely people have doubted their religions for centuries, yet all of the major religions have continued to grow and thrive. Perhaps it is our more recent understanding of science that has helped fuel the growth of religious dissent. How is it that we can still have so many people DEEPLY devoted to religion in the face of all we know?
Well, the short answer to the last question is that old habits die hard. And religion is a very old habit–a habit which evolved tens of thousands of years ago while the human brain was still developing. The human brain tends to naturally believe in gods because in our prehistoric past belief in the tribal myths conferred various survival advantages.
On one level, humans have a natural tendency to over-infer agency; we are predisposed to see threats to our existence everywhere. We tend to assume the worst–that the stick shaped like a snake is, in fact, a snake. A noise in the underbrush could be a predator. Natural selection of course would favor individuals who successfully avoided predators. And that’s a big reason why humans today still see agency everywhere, even where it’s not. The old Christian hymn “This is My Father’s World” expresses this primitive impulse: “In the rustling grass I hear Him pass; He speaks to me everywhere.”
Ancient hunter-gatherer tribes also discovered that devotion to the gods was an effective tool for tribal cohesion. The threats and rewards of religion motivated people to sacrifice and even die for the tribe. In the prehistoric world of almost constant inter-tribal conflict, the tribe with the strongest religion would survive and the genetic algorithm for religiosity would proliferate. It’s a little bit of an over-simplification, but not much.
So why do people still believe? Because belief is in our DNA. Science, however, having emerged long after the human brain evolved does not come naturally to us.
In your question you said that all the major religions have continued to grow and thrive. Actually that seems to be changing fairly quickly. In the parts of the world with access to better education, religion is stagnating or declining. There are very few believing Christians left in Western Europe. Religious Buddhism (as opposed to the non-theistic philosophy) hit a wall in Japan a long time ago. And this week the Southern Baptist Convention reported a loss of members for the fifth year in a row, which is astonishing for this powerhouse evangelical denomination. I think it’s a pretty clear indication of where the culture is going.
Today I just want to share a few random questions and observations for theists. These are not new questions; they have all been posed elsewhere by many others. But they are questions that should trouble believers, and they are questions we never get any good answers for. I am really not trying to be flippant or “disrespectful” of religion. I am genuinely interested in thoughtful, logical responses.
- When you are asked “Where did God come from?” answering that “God has always existed” or ” God exists outside the space-time continuum” is an evasion. These are not legitimate responses to the question.
- Isn’t it just a tad bit self-centered to believe that God is personally choreographing the “blessings” of your day when hundreds of millions of your fellow human beings are living on the brink of starvation?
- If God is necessary as the source of human morality, why do so many non-religious cultures have significantly lower crime rates than more religious cultures? Japan and Sweden, for example, appear to be doing just fine without God. (And please don’t point out that Japan and Sweden are more ethnically homogeneous, because the major racial groups in the U.S. are all predominately Christian.)
- Defenders of faith often like to point out that Stalin, Hitler, and Mao were atheists–ergo atheism leads to genocide. But one of the more recent instances of genocide–Rwanda–was the result of Christian on Christian violence. And in Bosnia it was a clash between Christians and Muslims.
- What logical, empirical evidence exists to support any human being’s claim to divine revelation? What is the basis for believing that anybody–from the Pope to the Dalai Lama– is privy to special knowledge about the workings of the universe?
Anyone have any thoughts to share?
A few weeks ago I was driving along a rural Texas highway and went past a church that had this admonition on the sign by the side of the road: “Love your neighbor as yourself”–The Lord Jesus Christ. (The biblical reference is Matthew 22:39) If you ask most Christians to summarize the teachings of Jesus, they will probably give you an answer like that, some variation on the Golden Rule. The saying, however, did not originate with Jesus. He was quoting Leviticus 19:18, which was written at least six centuries before Jesus was born. So the sense that loving your neighbor was a good thing to do clearly predated Jesus by many years. Furthermore, most of the world’s major religions have some core teaching that is analogous to the Golden Rule; the idea is in no way unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition.
One of the most ridiculous and illogical charges against unbelief is that without the constraining force of religion people will just do whatever they want and society will descend into some kind of Lord of the Flies chaos. Religion is necessary for a good society (the same religion that brought us crusades, inquisitions and witch-hunts and mostly supported slavery into the mid-1800’s).
OK, so here is a reality that more people in America should find puzzling: If religion really is a source of great moral good in society and propels people to altruistic behavior, one could reasonably expect that metrics of social well-being would be much better in religious areas of this country than in less-religious areas. The Bible Belt (pretty much contiguous with the old Confederacy) would be a much better place to live than the relatively godless regions of the Pacific Northwest or New England.
But that is not the case at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. The most religious areas of our nation consistently have more drug use, more STD’s, more teen pregnancies, more violence, and more poverty than the less religious regions.
Did we ever really need religion to teach us the importance of the Golden Rule? Probably not because the origins of the Golden Rule predate any religion that’s around today. Both our tendencies towards selfish behavior and our tendencies towards altruism are heritable traits that took root hundreds of thousands of years ago in our ancestral past. Humans did not learn altruism from God. Early humans who had altruistic proclivities tended to live longer and produce more offspring. Religion did not invent goodness. Religion merely codified the goodness that was already there–along with a lot of bad stuff like slavery.
On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendents I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.” (Genesis 15:18-21)
These words have probably caused more problems for the course of human history than any other single Bible passage. It’s a prime example of how the Bible continues to poison our national discourse and adversely impact the lives of millions. Because of this passage…
–The Unites States spends more money on military aid to Israel than any other nation. Your tax dollars at work!
–American politicians–including many running for president right now–feel compelled to out-do each other in their vociferous support for Israel, no matter what, no matter the cost, no matter the consequences.
–Humans continue to be slaughtered because of differing interpretations of this passage. A case in point would be the outbreak of hostilities along the Gaza border in the past couple days.
Of course for American evangelicals the significance of Genesis 15 goes beyond the Jews’ ancient claim on the land. Many Christians see the establishment of modern Israel–along with Jewish control of Jerusalem–as a necessary precursor to the second coming of Jesus.
And why does a tiny nation of some 7 million people have such disproportionate influence on American foreign policy, domestic politics, and budget priorities? All because an ancient, mythical nomad once heard the voice of a deity give the land to Abraham’s descendents in perpetuity. Does this make any sense at all?
Certainly one could make rational arguments for supporting Israel without saying, “for the Bible tells me so.” Israel is, after all, a rare democracy in a part of the world dominated by authoritarian governments. But for god’s sake, leave god out of it. Religion should have no influence whatsoever on how our government responds to geopolitical realities.