The Battle for God

I read this introduction to the book The Battle for God, By Karen Armstrong, and thought it was very insightful. It appears to be taking a balanced historical view of the causes of religious fundamentalism. What I thought was particularly interesting was the tension between Mythos, those things that give life meaning and Logos, those things that help us to understand our world. Over the years I’ve been occasionally concerned that our ability to understand and manipulate the world around us is getting far ahead of our ability to cope with these capabilities. It doesn’t mean those capabilities are bad, but it might mean that we’re out of balance.

The more recent systems, typically religious systems, that provided us with meaning and purpose aren’t working for us anymore. When the foundations that support these belief systems diverge sufficiently from what we have learned to a point that denial is necessary to maintain them, we get pretty stressed. This can make us angry, which can lead to violent behavior ranging from nasty comments on Facebook to racism, bigotry and beheadings. We apparently went through this during the agricultural revolution as well eventually adapting our belief systems to our new found technological circumstances 2015.02-Wales-0578with its resulting wealth and relative leisure. All of the gods that were required to make everything work and each needing to be appeased in some way were replaced by a more simplified and easier to manage monotheistic approach (at least in the west). We still had a god as the explanation of last resort and someone we could claim to be accountable to in order to justify our actions. This turned out to be much more successful than the old polytheistic approach and those who didn’t get it were marginalized, persecuted, and eventually became novelties and oddities or died out completely. The struggle, of course, took several generations with a lot of intermediate belief systems being developed in the process and a lot of violent disagreement between those with different points of view.

We’re at a point now where the god notion isn’t helpful at all as an explanation. St. Mary's University Church MartyrsThere are no little men and women inside making things go as in the pre-agricultural days nor is there a need for a puppet master with his fingers in everything to make things work. What we’re able to observe and extrapolate from those observations seems to be a sufficient explanation for why things do what they do. It doesn’t mean that that those prior systems were bad, they were quite useful, it just means that we’ve found better ways to explain things1. But this isn’t enough. It’s only half of the value provided by these beliefs. It answers “how” questions very well, but doesn’t answer “why” questions well at all unless you’re satisfied with “because that’s the way it is”. In the system we’re evolving from “why” was answered by “because it’s God’s plan”. That worked for a long time. It made us feel comfortable. It helped us understand our role. It made life easier because there were a lot of things that we didn’t have to expend energy thinking about. We could just be soldiers and let the general do all the heavy lifting. It’s a good life.

It turns out that there may not be a plan or a general. We now find ourselves in a situation where we may have to take more responsibility for our lives and actions than we thought we did. ColossusOh no! Now what? We’re now accountable directly to each other and directly to the only world and universe that we’re aware of. No pushing the blame and responsibility to someone else. This is terrifying for a lot of people. It’s why they resort to violence in order to try to go back to the days when they didn’t have to be responsible. There’s no going back and wishing or anger or denial won’t help, on either side. The discussions about how to be accountable to each other will continue. The debate around how to treat our LGBT friends is an example of this. The discussions about how to be accountable to the world we live in will continue. The debate around climate change is an example of this. As with all changes, we’ll either figure it out or die trying. It will be a struggle and there will be a lot of casualties, but I’m hoping we get there. What alternative do we have?

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What to believe?

Religion, or the lack of it, is a hot topic on my Facebook news feed this morning. One friend came out of the closet and admitted to being an atheist, another shared a post having something to do with how science is increasingly demonstrating the existence of God. In the news a former Seventh-Day Adventist minister has decided that God doesn’t exist but that atheism can be “awkward” 1. Deciding what to believe with respect to this God thing is a puzzle. I believe that for the vast majority of the universe, the part that doesn’t include humans and human civilization, the notion of a deity plays no part. The subtle complexities of observable physics are sufficient even if I don’t understand them all. On the other hand, for human society, the notion of a deity or deities plays a significant role. It has a huge impact on this artifact we call civilization. This is where we live our lives.

The human obsession with God(s) raises interesting questions. Perhaps the most interesting is why are humans so passionate about their beliefs on Hugh Latimerthis topic? Christians have, for the most part but not completely, given up on killing people who don’t share their beliefs. Portions of Islam seem to still be working on this. Many Christians have moved on to the much more civilized and satisfying tactic of ruining the lives of people who don’t believe the way they do. I guess this is an improvement, but it seems to be just a different variety of cruelty. On the flip side, the atheists who believe that God doesn’t exist because of all of the bad things that happen is hardly conclusive. It depends on what you define your god to be. There are certainly gods in many belief systems that are the cause of problems, not the mitigators. Some of these atheists then go on to deride those who don’t appear to be paying attention. To cite the often used explanation, people have a need to explain the unexplained. Fine, but why is it also true the people have a need to harm others who don’t agree with their explanation? How does this help?

A second question is why are there these two camps at all? One way of identifying them is that one group relies on observations or the observations of others. The other group relies on imagination or the imagination of others 2. This doesn’t work. Religions begin with an attempt to explain observations and all of science is an application of imagination to observation. Along this dimension they aren’t at all different. A key difference with science comes from critical thinking. In other words, being critical about what you’re thinking. If my theory stops explaining what I’m observing then I let it go and move on to another theory. Many religions take an opposite approach. When observation disagrees with theory (aka belief) then denial kicks in and the observation is questioned rather than the belief. Science can lead to atheism, but science isn’t atheism. Atheism can be little more than “I don’t know what to believe at the moment, but I’m certain I don’t believe what you believe.” A fun thought experiment is to imagine obtaining conclusive evidence for the existence of someone’s definition of a god. I wonder what percentage of atheists would change their beliefs. I suspect that for some atheism is just the default religion.

Creating beliefs is system two work 3. It can be painful, unpleasant and exhausting. For some reason though, like sex, we just have to do it. It’s an innate part of being human. The easiest way is to let someone else determine our beliefs for us. This is what most people seem to do. It’s much more difficult to create your own from rawer materials.

I guess there are three takeaways from this ponder…

1. Can you explain why you believe what you believe in a way that doesn’t simply rely on appealing to some authority?
2. If evidence is presented that refutes your belief, can you let it go?
3. Are you OK with someone believing differently than you do?

If the answer is “no” to any of these questions, particularly the third question, then we have less to talk about. If the answer to all three is “yes”, then let’s grab a cup of coffee and talk more. There are likely things we can share with each other that will make both of our lives richer, more interesting and more satisfying.

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