Gods swallow our humanity
Posted by Eric MacDonald
In the New York Times this morning there is a letter to the editor from Beverly Brewster, a Presbyterian minister, in response to Susan Jacoby’s article on atheism and empathy. Here are a few of her words:
The world’s enduring religions offer much more wisdom and meaning than a child’s idea of God as a superhero. As a Presbyterian minister, I often say to self-proclaimed atheists, “Tell me more about the God you don’t believe in; I’m pretty sure I don’t believe in that God either.”
Ms. Jacoby states that atheists “need to demonstrate that atheism is rooted in empathy as well as intellect,” but atheism is rooted in neither. A lack of belief in one concept of God is nothing more than that. Ms. Jacoby also presumes that faith in God necessarily includes belief in an afterlife, complete with angels in heaven. Here again, atheism ignores the great diversity of the world’s religious traditions.
Brewster is responding in particular to Jacoby’s realisation, as a child, that there is evil in the world, and finding it difficult to believe in a god which would allow such evil things to happen. Brewster’s response is that her god is not like that; it is not a superhero who comes to rescue us in need. She has a different concept of god, and so she comes out with that old chestnut:
Tell me more about the God you don’t believe in; I’m pretty sure I don’t believe in that God either.
This is so tired and worn out that I wonder at the person who could have repeated it and thought that she was saying something profound. Once this has been said, however, it needs to be noticed how very little has been said.
Atheism, says Ms. Brewster, “ignores the great diversity of the world’s religious traditions.” This is simply not true. What atheism does not give the religious believer room to do is to skate away over the surface of things with statements like this which subvert themselves. If the gods people believe in are simply the consequence of a bit of conceptual jiggery-pokery, as Ms. Brewster’s god appears to be, then there is simply no reason to believe in them at all. For how, after all, are gods to be identified? The great diversity of the world’s religions points out the problem. The only way to identify gods is to describe them. Whereas the god of Genesis is depicted anthropomorphically, as someone walking in the Garden in the cool of the day, from whom Adam and Eve have hidden in shame at their disobedience, so that God has to call out to them, “Where art thou?” (Genesis 3.8-9), very few believers think of their gods in this simplistic way. But if gods are not like that, then identifying them will be a problem. We cannot identify them by their works, for the only works of a god that might be considered godlike would be something supernatural or miraculous. Anything else we can account for in immanent ways, as the products of human action or activity, or the normal results of the workings of the natural world.
There is an old story that illustrates this point. There is a big storm, and as the flood waters rise, the people in the house first of all abandon the first floor and move to the second; then they move into the attic, and then, finally, they get out onto the roof which is even now being lapped by the rising floodwaters. But the floodwaters continue to rise, threatening their shrinking island. In desperation the the stranded family cries out to God for mercy. Soon, a rescue worker in a boat comes by, but the desperate people, full of faith in the mercy and goodness of their god, do not see the need of a boat, which continues on its mission of mercy. The flood waters inch up the incline of the roof, and, realising that soon there will be nowhere for them stand, they pray more earnestly, beating their breasts and promising, if they are spared, a change of life. Soon after, a rescue helicopter chances by and lets down a rope ladder, but for those who believe in God’s goodness, helicopters are merely human contrivances, and unnecessary. Not unreasonably thinking them a bit mad, the rescue crew goes on its way in search of other people endangered by the storm. The people on the roof cry out with even greater passion, begging their god to come and save them, lest they drown. At this, an exasperated voice cries out from heaven: “I sent you a man in a boat, and then a rescue team in a helicopter. What more did you expect?”
This story is told in all seriousness by religious believers, and some people, who think that prayer and anointing with oil is all that is necessary for the recovery of their sick children, actually behave this way, and rebuff offers to help with all the marvels of modern scientific medicine can provide. But this is not, Ms. Brewster would say, the god she believes in. The god she believes in, she is convinced, will not be the one upon whom atheists lavish their disbelief. Atheists, she thinks, simply ignore “the great diversity of the world’s religious traditions.” But this, of course, is precisely the wrong answer, for the great diversity of the world’s religious traditions is an argument against belief, not an argument that supports belief in gods or other supernatural or transcendent entities. Philip Kitcher calls it the symmetry argument (see page 5). As he points out, there is a perfect symmetry between believers in one religious tradition and those in another. They are born into it, taught it, learn its scriptures and its practices, and yet when confronted with each other, they do not agree. The tension between beliefs, and their lack of grounding in any objective criteria, suggests that religious beliefs are, one and all, simply constructs of the human imagination working on peripheral aspects of evolved human psychology.
Here are Kitcher’s words:
Most Christians have adopted their doctrines much as the polytheists and the ancestor-worshippers have acquired theirs, through early teaching and socialization. Had the Christians been born among the aboriginal Australians, they would believe, in just the same ways, on just the same bases, and with just the same convictions, doctrines about the Dreamtime instead of about the Resurrection. The symmetry is complete. None of the processes of socialization, none of the chains of transmission of sacred lore across the generations, has any special justificatory force. Because of the widespread inconsistency in religious doctrine, it is clear that not all of these traditions can yield true beliefs about the supernatural. Given that they are all on a par, we should trust none of them.
So, even if the god that atheists disbelieve is not the one that Ms. Brewster believes in, there is no reason we should take her word for it either. If it is simply a matter of reconceptualising God so as to escape one particular set of criticisms — say, Susan Jacoby’s childhood experience of having a friend contract polio and die young, with no apparent care or concern from a loving God — saying, rather blandly that she doesn’t believe in such a god either, the most appropriate response is that such reconceptualisations are cheap. Anyone can dream up a concept that escapes particular criticisms. The question is whether the concept so derived actually picks out some reality, whether something that exists, or, conscious of Tillich wagging an admonitory finger, some “thing” that is beyond existence, the Ground of Being, or ultimate reality as such. Reconceive God any way you like, it still will not solve the problem of justification. And, besides, if God is not some kind of superhero, then what, pray, is God like? And what reason can you give why we should believe in such a god?
In a remarkable chapter in her book Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, entitled “Divine Agency, Remodeled,” Marilyn McCord Adams, one time Regius Professor of Theology at the University of Oxford, rehearses in detail various suggestions as to how to account for God’s agency in the world, which both protects God’s function as creator, while at the same time preserving God’s nature as loving and caring. Reading this chapter in the context of studying the Holocaust, I wondered what significance such a conceptual exercise could possibly have, and how reasonable or reassuring the victims of so much callous violence would have found exercises of this sort. I came away from the chapter feeling bruised and violated. Whether the gods so conceived satisfy the theological problems that lie at the heart of the existence of so much incomprehensible suffering in the world, they neither relieve the suffering nor do they provide any basis for the conviction that the beings variously described stand a chance of being real in any of the various senses in which reality may be attributed to things. Nor is it clear what value belief in such reconceptualised beings could possibly have.
The problem, not to put too fine a point on it, is that our conceptions of God tend to swallow up the human. As in the story of the flood-stranded family on the roof of their house, human goodness is turned into God’s love and mercy. Once acknowledge that God does not act, in his own person, as it were, but acts in and through things that naturally occur, or that are done by other people, it comes to seem as though God is exhaustively described by the totality of things that occur, much in the same way that Spinoza spoke of Deus sive Natura (viz. God or Nature).
In general, of course, this is not how religious believers conceive of God, and this is the problem that I have spent the last fifteen hundred words approaching. For the religions, God tends to be the supreme person (in very much the same way as you and I, dear reader, are persons). All that is quintessentially human is vested in God. Justice, loving kindness, mercy, compassion, long-suffering, slow to anger, quick to forgive, generosity, nobility, gentleness, an ever present help in trouble, trustworthy – well, we could go on laying down superlatives with a trowel, a veritable infinity of them. The problem with this is that, once we have shifted all these good things onto God, and imagine them to be, there, raised to the highest power, we must inevitably think of ourselves as correspondingly inadequate in all the same respects, in need of God’s mercy for our failures, and quick to judge others who fail to measure up to the divine goodness which judges us. And, of course, since there is a diversity of religious traditions, the divine goodness that judges us, if we are Christian, say, is bound to be different from the divine goodness which judges others, since religions tend to adopt the ethical project as it manifested itself at the time and place where the religious traditions began, which has every chance of expressing a very different ideal of humanity along at least some of its dimensions.
The problem is that gods are forever (at least in believer’s minds), and so the values that are vested in them come to be seen as moral absolutes, and while morality has tended to function, traditionally, in this way, based as it has been in systems of religious belief, morality is seldom best understood in so marmoreal and intransigent a form. The pope tends to dismiss those who question the Roman Catholic Church’s unyielding moral laws as relativists without noting that the field is not divided, as he seems to think, into absolutes and relatives, but into principles and their application to complex and nuanced human circumstances in which there is no role for absolutes to play. Of course, the pope thinks that all values derive, in the end, from the absoluteness and infinite wisdom of his god, without noticing that it was he and his forebears who vested those values in their god in the first place. For, despite everything that he can say about moral value, he cannot provide evidence for the proposition that these values are either commanded by his god, or inscribed by his god into the very fabric of human nature. The values are purely human. They have a history.
The biggest problem the pope faces is providing an explanation as to why we should stop that history at some point in the past, and accept, as eternal, human values as understood at that point, instead of recognising that the ethical project has much of its history yet to run. Even people like Beverly Brewster recognise that many conceptions of god are now no longer useful — may even be morally repugnant, as the gods of Jesus or Muhammad often are – and need to be discarded. There is not one conception of god that has stood the test of time. Isn’t it about time that we recognised that gods are human creations, and that, in the end, we are responsible for what we do with them? It is simply untrue to say that
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. [James 1.17]
This belief in unchanging perfection has haunted humanity almost from the beginning. It is a will-o-the-wisp. It does not exist, but belief in its existence has set humanity, time after time, chasing after shadows and rainbows. Quite contrary to Beverly Brewster’s shopworn charge, that “atheism ignores the great diversity of the world’s religious traditions,” not only do we recognise the diversity, but we conclude from it that all the world’s religions are human creations, and none should be allowed to have final or supreme authority over us. They are images of perfection frozen in time, and all the worse for being so. The poison of religion consists precisely in this, that religions have stopped looking, when there is much that we still do not know, about our world, ourselves, and about how best to live. The gods swallow our humanity. We should ask for it back.