The terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center got up early on the morning of September 11 – they couldn’t miss their morning prayers. They prayed to their god who, they believed, promised them some special rewards for their sacrificial act.
This aspect – the fundamentalist-literalist religious belief aspect – motivated several books attacking religion – not just fanatical, primitive, belief-based religion, but all religion.
The bold book titles were intended to challenge believers to an old-fashioned duel. Sam Harris wrote The End of Faith, a best seller. Richard Dawkins titled his challenge, The God Delusion. Daniel Dennett threw down the gauntlet in a book he called Breaking the Spell. Christopher Hitchens’s contribution to the anti-religion genre is called God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
Then Bill Maher put together a rant showing how silly people are who believe in God or who consider themselves to be religious.
Each of these, and others, were written with the fervor of an Elmer Gantry evangelical rant. It’s not that I found myself disagreeing with most of what they said about the need to reject religions that encourage believers to kill in the name of god; or, in more subtle ways, to create the in-group and the out-group.
As fervent anti-believers, they are the mirror image of the true believers. They are just as certain that they are right and the believers are wrong.
While the battle over Darwinian evolution rages, the two extreme sides remind us of the primal survival-of-the-fittest struggle exhibited in the various forms of life on the planet. They’re like two bulls in the barnyard butting heads to see who will get to do the mating.
It’s almost amusing. Almost. But its destructive aspects require us to take it seriously.
Religion in some form is universal. The human tendency to believe has evolved, in part because it is adaptive. Just as the body needs certain things to survive, so does the mind have its requirements – the mind is a function of the brain which evolves for each individual as well as our species.
The anti-believers say that religion at its core is empty, “a vestigial artifact of a primitive mind.” Believers say that the tendency to have religious belief – the fact that we have the mental capacity to discern God, is proof that it was God who put them there. A tautology.
Believers say that explaining religion – the attempt to understand why we believe in the first place — is the same thing as explaining it away.
Stephen Jay Gould, who called for a truce between religion and science said, “The net of science covers the empirical universe. The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value…(Jewish) Christian theology teaches that people were crafted by God to be in a loving relationship with him and other people.”
Defenders of the faith say that believing in God and the afterlife is how we make sense of the brevity of our time on earth, ‘how we give meaning to this brutish and short existence.’ Religion offers solace to the bereaved and ‘comfort to the afflicted.’
On the individual level, religion makes people feel better – it helps us get through the dark night of the soul, relieving us of tormenting thoughts about sin and death.
William James, a psychologist who studied the human tendency to believe (Varieties of Religious Experience) distinguished between what he called healthy-minded religion and sick-minded religion. Healthy-minded religion, he concluded, provides people with ‘a new zest which adds itself like a gift to life…an assurance of safety and a temper of peace and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.’
Religion is here to stay. The question is ‘what kind of religion?’
A few months ago Robert Wright published a book he calls The Evolution of God, stealing the title from a sermon I wrote several years ago. (Actually the idea that our concept of God goes through stages of evolution is not new – it emerged long before Darwin.)
Wright traces the long and winding path of the evolution of religion in general and God or the gods in particular. He’s not an anti-believer, but neither is he a defender of the faith, in its traditional forms.
His bottom line is expressed in this statement: “God is that unknown thing that is the source of the moral order, the reason there is a moral dimension to life on Earth and a moral direction to time on Earth.”
He quotes Gordon Kaufman who said, “The partner in the dialogue with God is not the individual man but the human species as a whole.”
Neither Kaufman nor Wright draw a picture of an anthropomorphic god; the kind of god that people have in mind when they say they don’t believe in god — a god made in the image of man; a physical being who occupies space – who lives ‘somewhere else, out there.’ That picture of God is age-appropriate for early elementary school children. “When I was a child, I thought like a child.”
Emerson, who always had a way with words; said, “The religion of one age is the literary entertainment of the next.”
This may be said in a different way for each individual person – we move through stages of belief, thinking of a god who lives in the sky or in a far off heaven – a god who is like a person, perhaps a very old person, and often pictured with a long, flowing beard; sometimes seen as a disciplinarian, watching your every move, ready to catch you with your hand in the cookie jar; sometimes seen as a loving grandfather figure who loves you as you are.
As you learn the scientific explanation of life on earth, and the solar system in which we live, and the galaxy in which our little solar system exists, and the billions of galaxies ‘out there,’ our concept of God changes. It evolves. It matures. Hopefully.
For some it dissolves altogether – like ice on a hot stove dancing around until it melts, and then the water evaporates, leaving a shadow-like image on the stove.
Einstein is considered the ultimate example of the scientific mind and he has been quoted by both sides in the debate. “It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If there is something in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it. I am a deeply religious nonbeliever. This is a somewhat new kind of religion.”
He said, “I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or a goal, or anything that could be understood as anthropomorphic. What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism. The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naïve.”
Einstein said, “To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious.”
In what sense are you religious?
Can you identify stages in your religious evolution?
The God depicted in the Jewish-Christian Bible evolves, from Genesis to I John. “In the beginning,” we’re introduced to a God who creates everything with a word. “God said, ‘Let there be light…and God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…so God created man in his own image.” Etc.
As I looked again at the Genesis story I noticed something I’d never seen before: there’s a line in the creation story where God says, ‘…let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures.’
How interesting: let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures; anticipating the scientific explanation of life on earth coming out of the water…our distant ancestors, coming out of the water onto the land. We came from the water – moving onto dry land, over millions of years of evolution.
Back to the Genesis story that depicts God as omnipotent creator, creating everything by just saying the word, including the man and woman, who he instructs not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; but they ate from it, anyway.
So much for God’s omnipotence; or his omniscience – he apparently didn’t know they would disobey. He loses control of his creation, until he gets really, really angry and destroys it all with a great flood. When he sees the devastation he repents and promises never to do that again! He even puts a rainbow in the sky to remind himself not to be so destructive.
The Biblical God evolves, becoming partners with Abraham, who argues with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; becoming partners with Moses, leading the captive Israelites out of bondage in Egypt; torturing Job to put him to the test in order to win a bet God made with Satan.
These strange stories depict a changing, evolving God, just as each of us goes through changes in our concept of God. Hebrew Scripture warns us not to put a name on God – the nameless God that Moses encounters at the burning bush is referred to as a verb: “I am becoming what I am becoming.” Evolution!
One of my favorite depictions of God in the Bible is in the poetic expression in the Gospel of John, which opens: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.” Later John says, “God is love; who loves knows God for God is love.”
Quite an evolution! From an omnipotent, omniscient creator to the rather highly evolved notion that God is love…expressed in Robert Wright’s words as ‘…the source of the moral order.’
To return to one of my original points: it’s almost amusing to watch the ongoing struggle between literalist believers and the anti-believers.
Robert Wright represents a middle ground – similar to the ground William James walked – acknowledging that the idea of God emerged as an aspect of human evolution, without dismissing the need for or value of religion per se.
Another religion writer who has contributed a great deal to the conversation is Karen Armstrong, whose latest book was published just a month ago, a book she calls The Case for God: What Religion Really Means.
Karen Armstrong has written extensively and intelligently with books such as A History of God. She says in her introduction to her latest book, that religion is a matter of a practice, and may be compared with art music or poetry.
We’ll dig into Karen Armstrong’s new book later…for now, we’ll close with the lines from Whitman with which we began the service: from Song of Myself
It’s not my custom to try to ‘explain’ a poem – but there are a few words in lines from Whitman, with which I’ll close – words that deserve special attention.
For example the word ‘curious:’ Whitman says that we should not be ‘curious’ about God; knowing full well, of course, that we are curious…we want to know more…we want to understand more. But he uses the word curious to indicate the ‘unduly inquisitive’ interest, the kind of curiosity that ‘killed the cat.’ (Some suggest that ‘satisfaction brought him back!)
The poet asserts that he, too, is curious about everything, but he is not ‘unduly inquisitive’ about God.
He points to the paradox: ‘God is all around me but I do not understand God…I do not ‘know’ in the usual sense of knowing.
God is that which is without a name because it is a concept beyond our human capacity to explain or understand.
The Tao Te Ching, one of the sacred books of the Taoist religion, opens: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao; the name that can be named is not the eternal name; the nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth. The named is the mother of ten thousand things. Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.”
Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself
And I say to mankind, Be not curious about God,
For I who am curious about each am not curious about God,
(No array of terms can say how much I am at peace about God and about death.)
I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least.
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,
I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe’er I go
Others will punctually come for ever and ever…
There is that in me–I do not know what it is–but I know it is in me.
I do not know it–it is without name–it is a word unsaid,
It is not in any dictionary, utterance, symbol.
Do you see O my brothers and sisters?