Shaun de Waal
Shaun de Waal

A God response

Mike A asks some honest, meaningful questions in his take on my recent God blogs. Instead of battling on about the existence or provability issues, he asks about the implications of atheism, so I feel it’s worth giving some serious, honest replies, accounting for my beliefs (or non-beliefs) on these matters.

Q: Why do we all seem to have this “inner judgment” of right and wrong (even if we often differ on the details)?

A: Because we are deeply social creatures, whose societies have developed from the small groups of our deep hunter-gatherer past to the vast conurbations of contemporary life. And part of that development has been the development of a moral sensibility, which grows out of the need for reciprocity — basically, the fundamental idea summarised in many cultures (and religions) as “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.”

I think this is a very basic human need and drive; if we didn’t practice reciprocity, based on mutual sympathy or empathy, our communities and social groups would fall apart. It’s the basis of all forms of affiliation. Some evolutionary psychologists will tell you that this formation is part of “group selection”, which helped humans survive and evolve further: the inner cohesion provided by mutual support and so forth makes our species stronger.

Of course there is also an opposing drive, which is the competitive one, and some would see this as the more basic driver or determinant of evolutionary progress. After all, evolutionarily speaking, the first level of competition (which drives the development of the species) takes place between individuals of the same species. That is, the more successful ones survive and get to reproduce, and the less successful ones don’t. Over time, this competition drives the evolution of the species, making it overall more successful, depending on environment and circumstances.

So the basic reciprocity that allows for social formation is often in conflict with the deep evolutionary competition between individuals, or at least in tension with it — but then isn’t that part of the human condition? That is, the tension between self and other; individual and group. This tension, I think, itself drives the development of morality: we have to arbitrate between selfishness and communality. We have rational minds capable of a great deal of careful reasoning and decision-making, and we work these things out communally, in the form of dialogue, interaction, discourse. Psychologists and sociologists will also tell you that the more social connectivity a human has (family, friends, teams, groups, community), the happier and more successful he or she is likely to be. This is scientifically measurable.

Q: And if we do differ on an important issue, is there any (rationally satisfying) way to resolve which of us is right?

A: No. Not if you want an absolutely final, no-possible-arguments resolution delivered by an incontrovertible superhuman authority. No God will descend one day to deliver an ultimate judgment and send one lot of us upstairs to heaven and another lot downstairs to hell.

There is only endless discourse; careful but hard-headed engagement with each other, study, learning, and thought, with a fair amount of honest self-examination thrown in too. For as long as humanity survives, we will have to keep working this out between ourselves, and trying to get better at running our lives and our societies.

This is not to promote a kind of bland relativism in which all views are equally acceptable and there is no scale of values. We have to decide what’s good and what’s not, and then work for what we deem right. This process of mutual engagement does produce results, does drive progress. The development of human rights and democracy, say, over the last three centuries, is an example of how this process works in human, historical terms.

Q: It is quite hard to exist for long without a belief system. If one chooses to define atheism as a non-belief-system, then I would argue that it pretty soon requires a belief system to lean on (like the evolutionary belief that all life developed as a consequence of entirely random processes).

A: Okay, there are two questions (or statements requiring answer) there. Like a politician, I will tackle the second one first.

It’s not quite right to call evolution a set of “entirely random processes”. Not all the processes (such as natural selection) are “random” in the way we understand that term. The division of which half of your genes (the basic units of selection) you get from which parent is, it would seem, indeed “random” (or at least arbitrary). That is the first throw of the evolutionary dice.

But which genes, and which combinations of genes, get to survive as they are passed on through the generations, over the very long time spans of evolution, will depend on environmental and other pressures. The genes that produce useful characteristics will get reproduced and developed further, while the less useful ones will die out.

So the process is in fact a very careful, very long-term, detailed one — it’s what Darwin called natural selection. With the usual caveats about anthropomorphising Mother Nature (where, arguably, all the religious trouble starts), let’s say by way of explanatory metaphor of agency that there is a long process by which She combines the basic elements of life, or the instructions for all the possibilities of life (the genes), again and again, offering endless opportunities for useful and beautiful adaptations to the world — ways to be and live in the world (which is itself evolving, so everything’s co-evolving, really). The sheer diversity and complexity of life, on all levels from the chemical to the mental, show the extraordinary variety of possible adaptations this process can produce.

Still want to call that “random”?

And, now, back to the other issue. Yes, we need belief systems of some kind. But what do you mean by a “belief system”? Let’s be clear. Are you talking about the past or the future? Do you mean something that tells you how things came to be (that is, God or evolution), or something that tells you what to do? In other words, do you want an ontology or an ethics? You may have to get back to me on this, but I think what I’ve said above offers both an ontology and an ethics.

Q: Our perception of our “fundamental need” is not necessarily completely congruent with our actual need (although, intellectually, it is wise to be slow to accept or dish out definitions). The point is that our “need” is not necessarily totally related to our belief system.

A: Agreed.

Q: You know that addressing your needs yourself is real. You imply that falling back on God is not real. Fair enough, but is this definitely a valid assumption? It is a little trite to observe that the fact that many millions have not experienced any reality of God is not logically a proof for His non-existence. But, if one has tried Christianity’s recipe to experience the reality of God, and it has not worked, then it is understandable that one rejects that recipe. But, logically speaking, what becomes of the assumption of God’s non-existence if others have experienced it? On the other hand, how are we to objectively verify assertions to that effect?

A: For millennia, humanity experienced the earth as flat (and believed it to be so). Did that make it true?

Objective verification is a matter of the maximum consensus based on empirical, third-person observability, backed by (or developed through) a good, workable theory that explains the most data in the leanest, neatest way. The theory or hypothesis God doesn’t do that, or not any longer. It raises more questions than it answers.

Q: I agree that you should never lean on something that you hold to be a fantasy — you should never take a “leap of faith” just for its’ own sake, or for what is essentially a narcotic effect. But, what if it were possible to have another shot at asking God to show that he is real? What if there was something that you weren’t told before? What if God IS real, and what if He has been waiting for you? Maybe I am pushing it too much, but read the parable of the prodigal son again, and ask yourself whether it is merely wishful thinking.

A: I wonder what it would mean (to me) to “have another shot at asking God to show that he is real”. Should I be praying to a being whom I don’t believe exists to demonstrate otherwise? How do I go about that? “Dear Lord, I know you don’t exist, but I’m asking you one last time to prove that you do …”? I’m happy to receive such a message from God at any time, but to keep asking apparently gets one nowhere.

And what would count as a final, definitive statement from God? A burning bush that speaks? A still small voice, murmuring from the whirlwind? You tell me. Where is God’s incontrovertible statement that he exists? Why doesn’t he put us out of our misery and give us a clear sign? If he hasn’t given us one in all the millennia so far, why should he now? Is he just toying with us, testing us? And, if so, is he God?

(In an earlier post, MikeA said: “The Bible is either true, or it is not. Why not consider its claims on their merits?” But that’s another argument for another time. Perhaps we’ll get to that; in the meantime, I’d relish a clear statement of precisely what its claims are, with chapter and verse.)

This and previous God pieces draw on material in the following books, in addition to those already mentioned; all are well worth reading for more:
The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom to the Test of Modern Science by Jonathan Haidt (Arrow)
Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life edited by Louise M Anthony (Oxford)
The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution by Sean B Carroll (Quercus)