Religious institutions have always been in a state of evolution. They will continue to be so, and in the long run, contemporary theism-atheism debates will come to be seen as an argument over semantics.
Once upon a time I used to describe myself as an agnostic. Then, during a two-year, round-the-world adventure I took it upon myself to read the Abrahamic scriptures.
The driver, ironically, was a hard-core atheist friend (this bloke) who delights in describing himself as a ‘spiritual nihilist’. He had read the Bible at university and that fact always lent weight to his criticisms (specifically: his derision) of it. For the sake of one-upmanship I decided to cover both the Bible and the Qur’an.
Anyone considering a similar undertaking should be warned: the core canon of Abrahamic scripture is not for the fainthearted. In the end, getting through the whole Bible took the unexpected intervention of a 12-day stay in a Croatian infection hospital, and was accomplished while attached to an intravenous drip.
After that experience, building up enough enthusiasm to tackle the Qur’an (an easier read, it turned out) required a further hospitalisation, a hernia operation, and a period at a loose end in Sydney’s bohemian quarter.
The conclusion I drew was that – assuming one is over the, now surely archaic, notion of an all-powerful human with a beard controlling the universe – the terms atheist, agnostic and theist are basically redundant. In my view, contemporary debates regarding all three positions will ultimately come to be seen as an argument over semantics (or, possibly, a gigantic red herring).
What do you mean by ‘God’?
Atheism, agnosticism and theism are standpoints concerning the noun ‘God’. In my experience, when you ask people what they mean by ‘God’ (which is not a defined term in Abrahamic scripture) their answer basically constitutes a reduction to a noun such as ‘force’, ‘power’ or ‘being’.
To us humans, thinking about an idea like ‘God’ in terms of an idea like ‘being’ comes naturally. Our mythology and art have always been full of non-human beings, such as dragons, aliens, conscious computers and fairies. We therefore effortlessly grasp the notion – one of the reasons we fail to ask basic questions about it. Because, of course, no computer which could reasonably be regarded as conscious has yet been built, no one has ever met an actual alien, and dragons and fairies are figments of our imagination.
In fact, the only non-imaginary, non-human examples of a ‘being’ we have ever encountered are Earth’s other animals, and yet we routinely overlook what a specific phenomenon life on Earth (and the behaviour we characterise as ‘intelligence’ it sometimes exhibits) is. If one is talking about a ‘being’ in that sense, you are exclusively talking about a set of creatures from a specific tree of life, on a specific planet, who came into being via the same process of Darwinian evolution. Assuming one isn’t talking about one of those when one says ‘God’ (and I’ve never heard anyone make that case), what is one talking about? I’ve yet to hear a coherent answer.
Some argue that it’s legitimate to postulate a non-human ‘being’ (intelligence’, ‘entity’, whatever), then debate its existence. But this is akin to saying ‘God is a thing which shares one feature of advanced animal brains, and is also omnipotent and omniscient’. That is simply to project oneself onto the universe, then argue about whether it’s essentially like you or not.
The deeper origin for this cosmic anthropomorphic confusion is that, because humans don’t have anything radically different against which to compare their world views (only those of other humans), we have no idea how arbitrary our basic cognitive architecture for thinking about the universe is. This encourages the creation of boxes which we then, collectively and resolutely, think inside – such as getting carried away arguing about the noun ‘God’, without being clear what it denotes.
This analysis is intended as a criticism of the atheist position just as much as the theist one. In testing these thoughts (by asking people what they mean by ‘God’) I asked far more atheists what they don’t believe in than theists what they do. Bearing in mind the above reasoning, what atheists ‘don’t’ believe in (when pressed) is an all-powerful human who controls the universe (which, bar fringe radicals, isn’t really what the theists are talking about).
So in my view, cut to their core, atheism-theism debates are about the semantics of the noun ‘God’, unless one is prepared to be more specific about what one means by the word. Allow me to give that a go.
Coherent definitions of the divine
Here is what I regard as the only intellectually coherent definition of the word God: God = the Universe.
Here is the definition of religion which leads from that: the conceptual architecture which has grown up in human societies in order to provide a framework for thinking about their place within, and relationship to, the Universe.
I’m not proposing a redefinition of these things, rather saying that this is what was always going on, even if humanity, has, in general, been too caught up in it’s own socially constructed mind games to recognise the fact.
Below I’ll set out why I regard ‘God’ as a useful synonym for the Universe, why such a definition is neither sterile nor emotionally unsatisfying and why it arguably provides empirical justification for the moral philosophy which lies at religion’s heart. First, I’ll set out my view as to how debates concerning the ‘existence of God’ got to where they are.
The evolution of religion
Humanity and human culture are intrinsically dynamic. Taking the long view, so are our religious systems – continually evolving along with the communities for which they act as frameworks for understanding (even if the adherents of said systems don’t necessarily see it that way). The religious systems in use during any particular period of history grew out of those which came before.
With the Abrahamic family of religions those interrelationships are unambiguous. Islam self-consciously regards itself as part of a tradition that includes Judaism and Christianity. Jesus (whatever else he may have been) was definitely Jewish, while Judaism grew out of even earlier Egyptian and Mesopotamian systems.
As part of that evolution (and I go into more detail in my book), the monotheistic idea of ‘God’ was conceptualised into broadly it’s current form in the Bronze-Age agrarian societies of the Middle East (when it was not unreasonable to assert that a big human in the sky created the world). While this looks cosmologically naïve with 3,000 years of hindsight, at the time they were simply using the most parsimonious language available to describe their impressions of the huge, mysterious, beautiful and frightening Universe in which they lived.
Millennia later, when the systematic investigation of the Universe through science started to reveal its nature in more concrete terms, it was inevitably not in harmony with the specifics of the language first used to summarise it.
The extant religious systems are more properly the contemporary expression of a constantly changing inheritance of ‘spiritual’ thinking which stretches right back into prehistory. We don’t know how long humans have pondered such matters, but presumably for at least as long as they’ve been behaviourally modern (about 60,000 years). There’s absolutely no reason to expect that process of religious evolution to stop now.
A God for the third millennium
With God defined as a synonym for the Universe, much of the confused metaphysical speculation accompanying theological discussion becomes redundant, as do arguments over whether to believe in ‘Him’. Meanwhile, the critical philosophy, practice and ‘meaning’ religion gives life (to the religiously minded) continue to hold true.
Anyone who thinks defining God as the Universe robs the term of emotional depth hasn’t been concentrating on the wonders being unveiled by the scientific project. As our empirical understanding of physical reality broadens and deepens, the whole thing looks more and more like a great flowering of (non-supernatural) miracles.
These include: the extraordinary sequence of events constituting cosmic evolution; the unfolding of the physics hydrogen and helium atoms into the labyrinthine wonders of full-blown chemistry; the astonishing three-billion-year process of parallel biological evolution of interdependent life forms on Earth building up a planet-spanning ecosphere; and the pattern within a pattern that is human cultural evolution – open-ended, apparently unlimited and becoming more interesting with each passing century. And it is saturated with meaning.
It is a remarkable and unexpected thing (as Robert Wright has pointed out in Nonzero, his review of cultural evolution) that the more closely we examine the drift of biological evolution and human history, the more there seems to be ‘a point to it all’.
Darwinian evolution, while blind in its mechanics, has driven a relentlessly more complicated and involved ecosphere, particularly over the past 600 million years. When looked at over such long timescales, many features of life seem to be not so much random developments as inevitable elaborations, given the evolutionary drivers imposed by physical reality. Eyes, for example, evolved at least 10 separate times.
The same appears true for many of the evolved features which – when finally combined in a single species – made humans so distinctive. For example: non-trivial language, grasping forearms, a complex social life and great intelligence. Believing humans were inevitable (let alone central to creation) is absurd anthropomorphism, but if humans hadn’t come along to question their relationship to the Universe, construct frameworks for relating to it and briefly wonder if it was built for them, eventually some other species would have.
In cultural evolution, the more the long-term flow of human history is deconstructed, the more intrinsically progressive it looks (particularly since the invention of agriculture). History may have recurring themes, and lots of ups and downs, but in the profoundest sense it is linear, not circular (compare the twenty-first century world with that of the Sumerians). As the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker set out in The Better Angels of our Nature, as recent millennia have rolled by, slavery, violence and autocratic rule have decreased while equal rights and representative government have increased. There has, and continues to be, tangible moral progress.
Attempts to crowbar these wondrous discoveries into a pre-scientific cosmology are to introduce a semantic befuddlement that will only hinder one’s ability to see the world for what it is. The Universe is the Universe. If, by some fantastical twist of metaphysics, it ultimately turns out that the underlying patterns of the Universe can be meaningfully abstracted to ‘a thing which shares one feature of advanced animal brains and is also omnipotent and omniscient’ we’ll eventually pin it down.
Even morality appears to have tangible cosmic underpinnings. Our moral sense may be evolved, but as our understanding of socio-biology deepens it appears that the moral laws the traditional religions, at their best, espouse (including the golden rule: “do unto others”) have deep roots in game theory. That is: they reflect something about the nature of reality that was not socially constructed so much as ‘discovered’ in the same way as mathematical rules.
Doing the right thing doesn’t just feel good because you’re evolved that way. You are evolved that way because it makes you act in harmony with the best-practice group dynamics of social animals – best practice that is ultimately derivable to the laws of physics.
At the launch of my book, someone asked if reducing the Universe to naturalistic terms robbed life of meaning. To my mind, if being an organic part of an immensely rich and complex cosmic flux (that’s infinite, should cutting-edge theoretical cosmology turn out to be correct), in which everything you do with your life will echo until the end of time, isn’t ‘meaningful’, then I have absolutely no idea what ‘meaningful’ would look like.
Conceptual architecture and neurological underpinnings
The more one understands its nitty-gritty details, the more evocative and filled with numinous connotations physical reality becomes (without reference to anything outside matter and energy). If there wasn’t a word for this aspect of the Universe there would definitely be a need to invent one. Luckily, there is.
If the authors of the Bible had had access to the facts regarding that cosmic story, they could have included it in their book (making it an even more compelling read). Nevertheless, the book’s central messages as to how to live one’s life in reference to it all could have remained essentially the same.
Because, stripped of its sanctions on enquiry and reinforcement of tribalism, the traditional religious systems provide frameworks for understanding of great utility. People will always need symbols to summarise, and help them grasp, the truths revealed by science and philosophy. That is a role religion can serve. Plenty of people won’t feel the need for that particular symbolical architecture. Others will find the stories and literature of the world’s religious traditions useful.
As the religious historian Karen Armstrong has said, religion will maintain its relevance if it leads to justice, compassion and peace, and helps people detach themselves from a selfish perspective and extend benevolence across their community (which, at this point in history, is global). At the end of the day action, not semantics, is what counts. You say ‘praying to God’; I say ‘meditating on your relationship with the oneness of creation.’
In my view, a scientific rationalist (let’s take Richard Dawkins as our example), who believes the Universe is internally coherent, and composed of matter and energy, and who feels awe at its numinous beauty, is experiencing the same neurological response to the same basic stimuli as a person from a traditional religious background (who believes ‘God’ is omnipotent and benevolent) when they feel religious awe. The difference is that Professor Dawkins has access to an array of empirical information which informs (and, some would argue, enriches) his sense of awe, while the religious person consciously ties their sensation to a cultural tradition, to which millennia of metaphysical allusions have become attached.
To my mind (and one has to be a little picky about which parts of Abrahamic scripture one takes seriously) the best bits of moral philosophy contained in the Abrahamic texts sum up fairly precisely how to live an ethical and satisfying life. The next stage in the Abrahamic religions’ evolution will not involve fundamental changes to core practice, only an updated interpretation of its pre-modern cosmological concepts.
The gates of interpretation
The major Eastern religious systems (Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism etc) are already largely in harmony with the reasoning above. Compared to their Middle Eastern counterparts, their founding doctrines far more readily survive the modifying force of modern science.
Within the Abrahamic faiths, the Unitarian movement is not all that far from the ideas above. We Brits are generally less strident about religious self-expression than our American cousins, and the British denominations of Christianity, which have been manfully struggling with the lessons of modernity for two centuries, are well set up, intellectually, for the further evolution of Christian concepts. It was from a British Christian that I first heard the view that Jesus Christ was the ‘son of God’ in the sense that he was tuned into cosmic realities and how to live one’s life in accordance with them (‘the exemplar model for living one’s life’).
The first three Gospels (the most contemporaneous with Christ) strongly suggest that Jesus himself wasn’t in the business of declaring himself divine in any ‘supernatural’ way. Such an interpretation is in keeping with the insights evidenced in his parables and the profound moral wisdom set out in the Sermon on the Mount. Writing as a humanist, it does not strike me as inappropriate – given the universal love and brotherhood practised and preached by him – to look to the life of Jesus Christ for meaning, and to his death on the cross as a legitimate symbol of redemption. Whether or not Jesus also had the ability to shoot lighting from his fingers is of no wider cosmological significance.
The Catholic church largely accepts the empirical findings of modern science and has shown a remarkable ability to adjust to changing realities over the millennia. Many Jews already see their faith as primarily a cultural choice, and Judaism has long approached its scripture more as an account of its people’s relationship with ‘God’, rather than a faultless cosmic instruction manual.
It’s true that many Christian denominations (particularly some of the American ones) can be somewhat fanatical in their literalist interpretation of the Bible – but in my experience, they largely live in accordance with the realities of modernity, while occasionally sounding-off with goofy metaphysics. Given time, I suspect those religious denominations will subtly but steadily shift their positions (and that the recent fad for ‘intelligent design’ is an expression of such a shift).
The Abrahamic religion whose contemporary mainstream practice seems furthest from re-evaluating its interpretation of God into something more in tune with physical reality is probably Islam. Much rubbish is talked about the Qur’an by non-Muslims. The Islamic holy book mainly stresses peace and tolerance (the directive that it’s OK to slap one’s wife appears once and is very measured). When it comes to encouraging people to think about their relationship to infinity, Islam has some of the finest cultural traditions (in the Five Pillars of Islam). Islamic philosophy – notably Sufism – has an incredibly rich history of pluralism and openness.
It’s true that contemporary practice of Islam often can give the impression of adherence to an unchanging set of words which disempower its members from assimilating to changing world circumstances. Unconstrained literary analysis of the Qur’an remains largely taboo in Islam’s heartlands. This has arguably led to a limiting of debate, which has led to a relative isolation from the world of ideas, and left many Islamic cultures relatively disempowered from harnessing the fruits of modernity in the best interests of the Muslim people.
For example, the concept of ‘ummah’ (the community of Muslims, tied together by religion), which is fundamentally about universal brotherly love, is often interpreted so as to highlight affronts to Islam and blame the underperformance of Islamic countries on outsiders or Muslim leaders of insufficient ideological purity.
In my view, the process social and cultural evolution currently playing out in the Middle East (The Arab Spring and all that it entails) will ultimately include the evolution of Islamic religious ideas. At a recent lecture at the London School of Economics, the Iranian philosopher Abdulkarim Soroush was asked how religion can remain consistent in an ever-changing world. He pointed out that, just as science can never hope to achieve anything more than a series of interpretations of the Universe, Islam will only ever be a series of interpretations of Islam, and the gates of interpretation are never closed.
Monotheism to Gaiaism
In speculating about the next stage of the evolution of religious systems, I’m not telling anybody what to do. My aim is to reflect upon a process which I regard to be inevitable – as the constructed symbols and language of religion catch up with the explosion in humanity’s empirical understanding of the Universe. It shouldn’t be surprising that the extant religions haven’t integrated all the new information about the world just a few centuries after the scientific project really started rolling.
As I say repeatedly in my book: look to the bigger picture. One day, all this will be a footnote on some far-future history database; one more phase in the evolution of religious systems that have been continuously evolving for at least 60,000 years. Does anyone with a passing familiarity with the longer sweep of human history take seriously the idea that, 1,000 years from now, the world will have religious institutions which look like those of today?
The underlying realities of nature aren’t going away, no matter how inconvenient they are to the ideologically stubborn. It’s true that in 500 years it’s likely there’ll still be some people who believe the world was created in 4,000 BCE. But with nine billion humans on the planet, there’ll always be some people who believe peculiar things.
The change from a monotheistic conception of ‘God’ to a more Gaiaistic conception has a deeper rational in cultural evolution than the theoretical arguments above first suggest. Ultimately, religions evolve to meet changing circumstances in the real world. The political scientist Francis Fukayama has pointed out that the development of monotheism, from around the sixth century BCE, was probably critical to getting people away from simpler animistic ideas and towards a moral universalism, which facilitated cooperation across wider groups.
Given that this globalised world’s make-or-break challenges are likely to be environmental for the next few centuries, more Gaiaistic religious frameworks make a lot of sense. Contemporary debates regarding whether ‘God exists’ are the fleeting expression of a cultural transition taking place in the way that we think about our relationship to infinity.
The redundancy of atheism?
When it comes to religion, I’m of the Samuel Taylor Coleridge school of analysis. Instead of asking ‘is it true’, the interesting question is ‘what is religion’. Many atheists dismiss it as a pre-modern delusion with no larger relevance. I think that’s a simplistic caricature, which fails to do justice to religion’s cultural and moral achievements and capture their value for posterity. Rather than a chapter in human history that will wither away, I predict religion will evolve and change (possibly out of all recognition), while remaining, in some sense, part of the continuum of human cultural evolution.
People who read my book occasionally describe me as an atheist, which always exasperates me. If you want to know if I believe in ‘God’, first tell me what you mean by the term. If your definition is a reduction to a word like ‘being’, ‘spirit’ or ‘force’, I’ll keep pressing until you say something concrete. If you want to know whether I believe in an ill-defined, all-powerful pseudo-human who controls the universe, I’d say that was a facile question.
What I object to about atheism is that it says little or nothing about one’s rich and diverse emotional relationship with the Universe, and puts denial of something at the root of one’s personal philosophy. That sounds too much like nihilism to me.
Atheism was a legitimate intellectual response to a phase in history when a traditional set of metaphysical concepts had outlived their relevance. However, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have come and gone, and certain truths have been settled intellectually, even if they haven’t sunk in emotionally.
Atheists would do better setting out what they do believe in, not defining themselves by ‘non-belief’ in an outmoded idiom. In the new millennium – with the extraordinary blossoming of cosmic and Darwinian evolution laid out before us, and an ever more integrated global society preparing for the future together – there is a more interesting discourse to be had.