Facing Yourself Facing God

Voices in an Old Argument

An inflexible mind is rather worse than an inflexible body, even if both have their pitfalls.

A Facebook friend recently posted the video above, provided by TED.com, challenging his contacts to discuss it. Well, I am bad at refusing challenges. But I always like to know exactly what I am being challenged about, and why; so I watched Richard Dawkins’s 2002 talk first, and as I respect my readers’ intelligence, I expect they shall as well.

The first thing to note is that the emphasis is political, not theological. This is not to say the two areas aren’t frequently confused, and much to the detriment of both. (One might suspect America’s Founders had much the same idea, but that the good intention of separating the two had the paving effect it usually has.) The combination of market-driven capitalism and American democracy likewise has altered both frameworks, and the tension of these is as prominent today as is the tension between Christianity (which is Dawkins’s principal “faith target”) and atheism.

Having had quite enough of politics, I’m addressing the theological focus. And this is appropriate, as Dawkins has wandered into the territory of God. Questions about how humans approach God have better grounding in theology than in American politics, whose mere 250-year history postdates “God” by a considerable span of time.

Second, Dawkins’s talk openly presents two assumptions, which are wrong (particularly in their universal application):

  • People who are not atheists are not intelligent.
  • People who are not atheists are not honest.

But it also contains two other assumptions, not openly stated (though he comes close):

  • Science is the chief area in which humans should engage, and it is unsullied by other areas of life.
  • Scientists who are atheists aren’t affected by bias. (The late physicists Erwin Schrödinger and John Stewart Bell, among others, would shudder to hear this one.)

Both unstated assumptions contain a bit of reasoning that posits, as poorly as any badly framed religious argument, that the speaker is not merely entitled to the respect of being heard and taken seriously (which he is, though Dawkins himself openly declares that people of religious belief are not) but is superior. To back up this assertion, Dawkins points to a century and a half of scientific consideration of evolution and its widespread acceptance.

In other words: I am right because a lot of people have thought so. And you are wrong despite a lot of people thinking you are right. This is because I am a scientist, and scientists are right. We are also brighter than you are because we are scientists. (It pains me to spell that out, but long having been exposed to the arts-sciences debate, I know the snobbery well.)

It is not surprising that Dawkins has not gained much ground with this approach. While the frustration that people who apply reason to problems feel when facing those who apply emotion first is something I understand, the frustration that reasonable people who see possibilities feel when told that particular capacity to see something else is “bad,” “wrong,” or “inferior” is something I comprehend even better. In fact, it prompts an emotional reaction of disgust toward the speaker.

Humans are emotional as well as rational – a fact long recognized and explored in philosophy – so emotions are bound to surface and affect the argument. This correlates with aspects of Bell’s theorem and Schrödinger’s thought experiment involving a cat in a box (though the latter demonstrates an interesting difficulty in that it pretty much assumes the nonexistence of any perception that isn’t human, and so itself tends to cut off possibilities). Our (necessary) emotions condition how we observe and approach everything. It is a question of degree, not of presence, of bias.

Dawkins’ own talk leaks emotional elements throughout, including a need to be seen as right, frustration with extremism (as exhibited in both the then-recent 9/11 bombings and the Bush-dominated American political landscape), and a certain loneliness.

Universe Timeline

Artist’s concept of the universe’s timeline. Created by NASA.

Dawkins stereotypes religious people as “creationists,” and his chief issue appears to lie in the old argument over the development of species – how long it took and who (if anyone) “did it.” It is not surprising that he should have this emotional blind spot, as his field (evolutionary biology) remains a crucible that brings together not-very-like-minded people. Further, the “intelligent design” crowd have themselves been more emotional than intellectual in argument, choosing to backwards-engineer a god from the study of evolution rather than cheerfully accept that evolution is another area for fascination, wonder, celebration, occasional skepticism in some of its iterations, and considerable discovery and speculation about past and future.

In other words, they have chosen to focus on religious defense rather than curiosity.

People’s desire to defend God never ceases to astound me. We state we believe in a God who created a universe (and I do – all scientific theory aside, how God came up with the notion and the specifics of the process are no more comprehensible to me than how adding basil rather than thyme achieves a particular flavor). Then we undermine this God by supposing the Deity needs to be defended: that this Creator-God is immensely weak and needs the intervention of that which it created.

It seems to me that a Deity capable of establishing a universe doesn’t need an attorney.

Similarly, militant atheists’ desire to attack something they do not even believe in is as far beyond my logical comprehension as the neurological operations that cause schizophrenic delusions. To attack political interventions that affect funding for a discipline or that structure education to the exclusion of science, is one thing. To take cheap shots at something you purport to disbelieve, is quite another. There is something emotional going on here – but I cannot say I understand exactly what it is.

To borrow a reference from Dawkins, I don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy. But I spend very little emotional energy campaigning against one. (I might believe in a sock elf, who steals single socks and causes pairs to mismatch. I have considerable empirical evidence on my side here.) In no way do I feel threatened by the Tooth Fairy.

What we see, on both sides of the debate, is fear. Whether that fear is of “being wrong” or “being abandoned” or “being embarrassed” or “being controlled” or “being underfunded,” or simply of the Unknown, is irrelevant. It is still fear, and it must be recognized as such. And fear is not wholly reasonable.

But fear is personal.

Since it is personal, I cannot address Dawkins’s or creationists’ individual fears. What I can do, is speak a little about God in terms that may be uncomfortable for both sides, but which are not new, and are part of an ongoing intellectual attempt to set aside fearfulness and be more, well, “scientific” about the issue.

Oddly enough, I get there by being creative.

If you believe in a God who is a Creator and a Redeemer, reason must tell you that this God is beyond worrying about such belief.

In her essay “What Do We Believe?” mystery writer and Christian apologist Dorothy L. Sayers made a compelling argument about the nature of God, relying (much as science does) on observations about humankind at its most productive, satisfied, and effective and relating these to aspects of God’s character as testified through time. To Sayers, creative activity defines the nature of God the Father, and,

by implication, man is most god-like and most himself when he is occupied in creation. … Our worst trouble today is our feeble hold on creation. To sit down and let ourselves be spoon-fed with the ready-made is to lose our grip on our only true life and our only true selves.

DaVinci's The Last Supper

Artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”

Those who have engaged in creative activity will recognize the grain of truth here. In the act of creation, we become intensely focused and involved in our imagination of a possibility and our exploration of that possibility. This applies to the choreographer structuring a dance, the potter designing a vase, the photographer selecting a scene with certain light and structures, the writer inventing characters in a situation – or the engineer working out how to rescue miners from a Chilean mine, or the chemist exploring the combination of properties to increase the odds of stopping the spread of cancer cells, for that matter. Creation is an exploratory act:  developing a possibility, drawn from the observable, and investigating where it goes as it develops into something new.

The creator does not generally feel threatened by her or his creation. Apart from being an area of exploration in science fiction or horror, writers do not fret that their villains will creep into their bedrooms and murder them in their sleep. Dancers may feel risk, but (the strange narrative of Black Swan aside) they do not feel the work itself is threatening. They may feel the stage or their fellow dancers or the company director constitutes a danger, but they do not imagine the piece itself will turn around and bite them. Even in science, while outcomes may ultimately prove to be threatening, the initial vision that sustains the process is generally not for the extermination of the species. The Manhattan Project saw that risk, and it is real; but the impetus was protection and survival, not total annihilation.

Most important, neither dancers nor writers (nor painters, sculptors, architects, interior designers, what have you) worry about whether their area of exploration believes in them. Not even in the vast array of sciences do we find much worry about whether atoms, genes, cells, and molecules are looking up and saying, “Yep, you are there, and life is good because of you.” (If there is this degree of egocentricity in the sciences, I will be more than a little worried.)

Which leads me to a peculiar difference in much of religion.

Religion posits that the Creator is in intimate, personal relationship with the thing created.

Christianity (the tradition I can speak to with some authority) has a number of seeming contradictions here. The concept of “relationship” has firm roots in the tradition, and for us as human it requires a sense of interest and awareness. But the tradition has struggled with the issue of God’s engagement with creation, and it continues to do so. That God gave humans “free will” comes into conflict with our framing of an intimate relationship as one with attention, reciprocity, generosity, and even elements of control.

Human relationships contain power struggles centered on the ego. So how can a relationship with God not involve a worried, interested, even interfering god, fussing like a parent or partner over our habits and tendencies?

Sayers takes us to God the Son, who suffers, sacrifices, and loves:

The creative will … does not choose suffering, but it will not avoid it, and must expect it. We say that it is love, and sacrifices itself for what it loves; and this is true, provided we understand what we mean by sacrifice. … When one really cares, the self is forgotten, and the sacrifice [what it looks like to other people] becomes only part of the activity.

“Oh, oh,” we may exclaim, “this is codependency, or an abusive relationship, or something wrong. Love is happiness!” Ask any parent: love is not all happiness. Love suffers – not for the self, but because it must sacrifice the instant-gratification happiness of the self for the other. Love, in Christian terms, is not about “being right,” “being popular,” “winning,” “getting funding,” or “having everything turn out the way I want it to.” It has a more immense gratification in the losing of the self for the other – for the focus shifts away from the self.

Love respects, attends, and even allows. A parent who does not allow the child to make a mistake – who hustles the child away from every danger, or who denies error or fact to make the child “feel good” – is not exhibiting serious love and respect for the child’s future self, who must know in order to function in society that pets die and fire burns and destroying other people’s property is punishable. The parent will suffer to see the child in pain, or to hear screaming and temper tantrums. The parent will experience exasperation. But the loving parent does not then turn the child in for a newer, better model that “makes me happy.”

And the parent does not set aside concern for the child for what the neighbors think he or she should be doing. In true concern within a one-on-one relationship, the neighbors don’t figure at all. They have to get their own relationships.

If love resides in setting aside the desire of the self, then a loving God can be both intimate and respectful of free will. A creative God that sets aside God’s self can be for the creation, not worried about what the creation thinks of God.

Sayers was careful to note that whether faith is “comforting” is not addressed by the question of “What do we believe?” Indeed, Dawkins’s greatest wrong assumption is that religion, Christianity in particular, is “simple explanations,” not a wrestling with the most complicated emotional and rational issues of humankind. Dawkins assumes people believe in God because it makes them comfortable, and therefore he takes more literally than many Christians the shepherd/sheep metaphor and casts believers as blindly following and never struggling or questioning.

Crucifix by Michelangelo

Crucifix by Michelangelo, Florence, Italy. Photo by Sailko. Used under CC Atribution Generic 2.5 license.

Belief can be a vastly uncomfortable thing – not even mostly because of the challenges of people like Dawkins. (Sorry, sir, you’re the least of our problems.) Mature belief requires discovering and facing unpleasant truths about yourself and others. It requires “disillusionment” in its truest sense – a growing out of the childlike “everything is going to be all right” model into a constant battle to see in a dim environment. Far from being blind, mature faith requires a peculiarly developed eyesight that is as ruthlessly willing to turn the gaze upon the self as upon the conditions around it.

Of course, it has its moments of great comfort and satisfaction. But it is not as simple as militant atheists want it to be. And that is their blind spot.

The position “you must believe exactly as I believe” is an ego assertion, not a matter of what God is and has done. There are those on both sides of the faith argument for whom the ego’s concerns win, and God undergoes backwards engineering with none of the humility Christianity and other traditions profess as a virtue (and which is required in science, for to approach the unknown with “it must be this, because I have to be right” is hardly an exemplar of the scientific method). If Christians have tended to hare off into stubborn exertions of the ego through power, atheists do not demonstrate much more self-security in their fussing that people mustn’t believe “fairy tales.”

The Christian explanation of this psychological battle is that these anxieties are manifestations of sin. The unwillingness to make the sacrifice of ego anxiety to love is sin. It is what corrupts the sexual act into something based on “what I am getting,” what divides people through taking what you want without caring about an impact on others, what expresses itself in exclusivity (Babel) versus inclusivity (Pentecost) and in the violence of rape, warfare, and occupation. Love strives to overcome the focus on the self and one’s own will that expresses itself through rules, demands, shouting matches, and punishment.

The church, as an institution of humans “in bondage to sin and unable to free ourselves” (which Lutherans confess each week), is as likely as anyone to fall into unloving behavior. We just happen to think there’s something better to strive for.

At the heart of the Resurrection is the account of a Creator who manifested as a Redeemer by showing a way to work with these issues and assuring the promise of acceptance. The story of the Crucifixion is one of the actions of frustrated, unreasoning people who succumbed to desire and instant gratification and fear – and turned themselves into abusers. It is much closer to our everyday life – but not therefore something we feel we should be satisfied with.

What we believe is up to us – but disrespect always damages the functioning of society.

I have been very close to some militant atheists, two of whom launched at me from the start by saying, “How on earth can you believe in God?!” I never wanted these people to go to church or become religious, any more than I want artichokes to be pineapples. I may want to tell them about my experiences in the church, or my thoughts about a religious issue – but that is not the same as demanding that they believe what I believe, nor is it insulting them for their disbelief, any more than sharing my perspective as a woman is meant to insult a man for being what he is. As I told one atheist, who asked whether I “made” another atheist go to church, “God believes in him whether or not he believes in God – that’s all that matters, and it’s hardly my problem.”

Prehistoric wasp in amber

Extinct species of wasp, Leptofoenus pittfieldae, encased in amber and dating to a geological period over 5 million years ago. Photo by Michael S. Engel, rotated by Kevmin. Used under CC Attribution 3.0 license.

To backwards-engineer a person-God who is purely for one’s own fulfillment, who shares one’s nationality and political views and tastes in food and music, is a religious error. But to make God a “concept enemy,” whose followers “get in my way” and so are to be belittled or put down, is not better. It is yet another human power struggle, another means of avoiding the truth: this is an ego issue, the child not getting what it wants. And that emotional moment has very little to do with objectivity or reason or fact.

To the militant atheists: what do you want? Is what you want really in line with your values? (“I want everyone to do things my way” – is that your value system?) What do you really want (“I want people to respect what I have discovered” – better – or “I want to share things, and I become frustrated when people attack it” – yep, been there – or “I feel lonely and unsure of how to relate to these people” … ah, now we’re getting there, aren’t we?).

It sounds to me more about people, and your relationship to them, than about God at all.

Perhaps, as an experiment, you might reframe the issue to see it from their perspective. But as with all science, that will take a fuller investigation of what guides and influences that perspective.

You will have to decide whether that is “worth it” for you.

2 thoughts on “Facing Yourself Facing God

  1. Susan

    I tend to view Richard Dawkins’ theories on socio-biology – and now, on this subject – to be lacking something I can’t quite put my finger on. But it’s close to my problem with the scientist who has studied for decades the strenuous and fraught migration of human sperm over the female cervix, and then comes out with a book explaining how these observations can de-mystify the vagaries of gender relations and sex.

    • Joanna Mullins Post author

      Nice analogy. I think Dawkins does overreach himself in a number of areas, and I don’t think he has the slightest idea he’s doing it – which is unfortunate. I believe he genuinely appreciates, and wants others to appreciate, numerous things he has learned; but on the one hand, he sometimes commits a scientific error of drawing too-broad conclusions from his data, and on the other hand, he allows his need to be right to distract him from a more interesting and illuminating investigations. Perhaps this is the danger of the “popular” scientist?

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