“There Has To Be Something More”: Atheism and Yearning


Hands reachingDoes there have to be something more than our everyday existence?

And if so, does that something have to be God?

Or indeed, anything supernatural?

There’s a curious argument that gets made a lot by theists. It’s often called the “God-shaped hole in our hearts” argument, and it goes something like this: “Human beings have a strong emotional yearning for something more: something outside our ordinary experience. The fact that we yearn for it shows that it must be there. God has put a God-shaped hole in our hearts: a restless yearning that we long to fill with spiritual experience.”

Or, boiled down more succinctly, “Human beings want there to be a God. Therefore, there is a God.”

(Karen Armstrong refers to this argument in her “In search of an ultimate concern” piece that I recently fisked, and Ebonmuse recently wrote about it on his Daylight Atheism blog, citing a study showing that believers are no more happy or content than atheists. Which is why I’m thinking about it.)

So today, I want to look at some of the more obvious, practical problems with this argument. And then, I want to look at a different flaw: one that’s more subtle, but one I think is far more fundamental.

Snape

The most obvious problem with the “yearning” argument is this: Yearning for something doesn’t prove that it exists. I can rattle off a long list of things I yearn for that don’t actually exist. (Severus Snape leaps to mind…) The fact that I want something to be true doesn’t make it true… no matter how deeply or powerfully I want it.

Mistakes were made

In fact, I would argue the exact opposite. I’ve said this before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again: When we really, really want something to be true? That shouldn’t be seen as evidence for why it is true. Quite the contrary. When we really, really want something to be true, that’s when we have to be extra careful, extra suspicious of our motivations, extra cautious about our thought processes. That’s when rationalization, and confirmation bias, and all those other mental processes that support us in believing what we already believe, seriously kick into high gear.

That’s exactly why the scientific method has so many rigorous cross-checks. Science is full of stubborn bastards who crave recognition and would love nothing more than to prove their theory correct. Hence, double-blinding, and placebo controls, and peer review, and publishing not just results but methodology, and replicating experiments, and all that good stuff. A rigorous application of the scientific method doesn’t guarantee that personal bias won’t affect results… but it’s the best method we have for minimizing bias and filtering it out in the long run. That’s the whole point.

But back to religion, and the yearning for God. Someone (I can’t remember who now) recently pointed out that the “no atheists in foxholes” argument, even if it were true (which it’s not), isn’t an argument for God’s existence. It’s actually a strong argument against it. It’s an argument for God as wishful thinking; for God as a sign of desperation in desperate times. If what it takes for atheists to convert is being faced with imminent death and the profound wish for that death to not be real… how is that an argument for God being anything other than a figment of our imagination?

Ingrid morris wedding

What’s more, the “God-shaped hole” argument completely overlooks the people who don’t yearn for God: people who don’t have God-shaped holes in their hearts. Ingrid is a good example: she has never had the sense that there had to be Something Out There, something she yearned for outside the vast and freaky physical universe. She never thought that it had to be there. And she never wanted it to be there. Of course she yearns for transcendent, transformative experiences; but she finds them in Morris dancing and rock concerts and the fight for social justice and whatnot. And she’s hardly the only one. If God made us with the desire to seek him out, why didn’t he do that for everybody?

And now, we come to my main point: the profound, fundamental flaw in the “we yearn for something more, therefore God exists” argument.

It’s this: There is a far better, far more obvious answer to the question, “Why do people yearn for something more, something larger, something outside our everyday experience”?

That answer: People are restless.

We’re wired that way by evolution.

Galileo-telescope

Human beings are curious and restless. We’re not barnacles, content to find one place and cling to it for the rest of our lives. Our evolutionary strategy is based on seeking, exploring, discovering, inventing. Our brains are wired by evolution to wonder if there’s better food behind that tree, better land over that mountain, a better way to gather roots and hunt gazelles.

And those impulses aren’t limited to survival. Like so many of our evolutionary strategies, they’re deeply rooted in our psychology, and they spill out into every area of our experience: into art, science, friendship and love, philosophy.

Pottery wheel

I can’t remember now where I read this, but I’ve seen studies showing that, despite our tendency to think otherwise, what makes us most happy is not relaxing on a beach with a cocktail in our hand and nothing to do. What makes people most happy is working at a task that engages us: a task that’s challenging, but within our reach. Our brains are not wired to sit still and be content. Moments of perfect, ecstatic bliss happen: but they’re fleeting, quickly replaced by the chatter of the mind and its constant urge to chew over what just happened and what’s happening next. And unlike many advocates of Zen and such, I don’t see this as a big problem. It’s what makes us special. We are wired to seek, to explore, to discover, to invent.

Yearning is our evolutionary niche.

Breaking the spell

Then add to that all the other psychological wiring that leads us to believe in God: such as our tendency to see intention even when no intention exists, our tendency to see patterns even when no pattern exists, our tendency to believe what parents and authority figures tell us. And then add to that the massive array of armor and weaponry that the religion meme has built up to perpetuate itself. When, for all these reasons, we’re already predisposed to believe in God or the supernatural or whatnot… then of course the part of us that yearns for something more, something larger, something different, something outside our ordinary experience, etc., is going to fixate those yearnings on God or the supernatural or whatnot. What could be larger, more different, more outside, more more, than purported beings and worlds whose entire existence is separate from our own, and that we never see and never will?

But that still doesn’t make it real.

Augustine was mistaken. Our hearts are not restless until we find our rest in God. Our hearts are restless, period. We don’t have a God-shaped hole in our hearts. We have a hole-shaped hole in our hearts. And if the study cited on Daylight Atheism is correct, the hearts of atheists are no more restless or empty than the hearts of believers. We have simply chosen to focus our yearnings on this world, the one we can see and hear and touch… the one we know exists.

There’s plenty to yearn for right here.

Comments

  1. says

    “Yearning for something doesn’t prove that it exists.”
    If it did, then unrequited love would never happen, and poetry would never have been invented.

  2. says

    I think the quote you might be looking for is, “’There are no atheists in foxholes’ isn’t an argument against atheism, it’s an argument against foxholes” – James Morrow

  3. Rieux says

    My impression was (is?) that the argument you’re beating up here was first, or maybe just most prominently, pushed by C.S. Lewis:

    A man’s physical hunger does not prove that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist.
    In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will. A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called “falling in love” occurred in a sexless world.

    – Lewis, The Weight of Glory (1949)

    Other skeptics’ fiskings of the argument here and here.

  4. says

    (Oh, bleah. Somehow Imanaged to reply to the wrong post, earlier.)

    Someone (I can’t remember who now) recently pointed out that the “no atheists in foxholes” argument, [is] actually a strong argument […] for God as a sign of desperation in desperate times.

    I had a post on ths subject in the Carnival of the Godless last year. Is it possible you were thinking of that?
    Because that would be cool. And since I yearn for Greta’s recognition, it must automatically be true :-)

  5. G.S. says

    “There’s plenty to yearn for right here.”
    I agree. There is so much mystery, wonder, and amazement in this world, so many yet-unaccomplished possibilities, that this world is wonderful enough, even if it is the only one that exists.
    Thank you for another wonderful post, Greta.

  6. Rationalista says

    I think the supposed need for god is a leftover emotion. Before science, god (or gods) were needed to explain the world. As science began to rise, god became more and more abstracted. Unfortunately, while all this was going on, god was becoming completely ingrained into the culture. Now some think that the need for god is a “natural” yearning because they believe god is a “natural” part of the world.

  7. Liz Highleyman says

    I like the restless heart argument. I’ve always thought of the “yearning for something greater” as an outgrowth of the fact that humans evolved to be self-conscious and aware of the fact that we, and those we love, will die. While animals are surely aware of death and develop strategies to avoid it, only humans are heir to the existential angst of contemplating the possibiliy this this really is all there is. But I think the restlessness argument adds yet another explanation for the seemingly unquenchable thirst many people seem to feel for the supernatural. As for why some people have it and some don’t, I suspect that’s probably like sexual orientation, or the “maternal urge” — a matter of nutural individual variation.

  8. mikespeir says

    I have a bit more pedestrian take on this restlessness. I suspect even that springs from our instinct to survive. We’re hungry to know because the more we know the better prepared we are to deal with situations that might threaten us. Granted, the lust to know and experience with which Nature equipped us can take us far beyond what Nature “intended.” But I suspect that’s fundamentally why the yearning lies within us.

  9. windy says

    CS Lewis, evolutionary psychologist!
    “But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist.
    In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will.”

    He uses a sleight of hand here- the first part is correct, of course: our desire for food or love is caused by living in a world where these things exist. Our ancestors experienced them and passed on a tendency to seek them; most of us have personally experienced these things and have a memory of them; and we’ve observed other humans enjoying these things. But none of these reasons should apply for the supposed desire for Paradise even under the Christian scheme, so it does not make sense to say that the desire for Paradise came about “in the same way”.

  10. says

    “And those impulses aren’t limited to survival. Like so many of our evolutionary strategies, they’re deeply rooted in our psychology, and they spill out into every area of our experience: into art, science, friendship and love, philosophy.”
    If God doesn’t exist, then we got done pretty hard by evolution :(
    You raise wonderful points Greta, but I find them incompatible with reality. Contrary to what you said about finding fulfilment in ‘seeking, exploring, inventing etc.’ I can find a good number of philosophers, businessmen, artists, scientists etc. who have spent their whole lives doing and doing, and yet find that at the end of the mountain climb they are no better off from when they started.
    If what you’re saying is true, we’ve evolved ourselves into unfulfilment!

  11. says

    If God doesn’t exist, then we got done pretty hard by evolution :(

    Well, yes. Evolution doesn’t give a damn whether we’re happy, or comfortable, or fulfilled. Evolution cares only and entirely about whether we survive and produce fertile offspring who also survive. Thus making it a somewhat harsher hypothesis than the hypothesis of the loving God… but one that’s a lot more consistent with reality.
    But I don’t agree that this means we’ve evolved into unfulfillment. It’s just that we often make the mistake of thinking that fulfillment comes with the achieving of goals… rather than the act of the work itself, and the experience of losing ourselves in it.

  12. says

    ” It’s just that we often make the mistake of thinking that fulfillment comes with the achieving of goals… rather than the act of the work itself, and the experience of losing ourselves in it.”
    Haha, now you’re sounding pretty religious yourself :)
    Yeah, evolution IS a pretty depressing theory. I always thought the word evolution had a positive connotation — like we were evolving towards something better, more adaptive, more intelligent. I guess not.
    If evolution was geared towards making us more able to survive, why didn’t evolution stop at cockroaches though? They seem to display a better survivability than us. They don’t get a lot of predators, and they can take a lot of damage from nature. Also, they don’t band together and start wars with one another, a tendency human has that doesn’t speak well of our “survivability”.
    What’s the link between survivability and our existential awareness? In other words, using your very definition of evolution — “Evolution cares only and entirely about whether we survive and produce fertile offspring who also survive” — how does becoming aware of our own existence make us more evolved?

  13. says

    Evolution concerns not the survival of the fittest, but the survival of the sufficiently fit.
    As for awareness, the answer really depends on how you would answer this question: is it possible to create something with the processing power of the human mind without producing consciousness? If you answer yes, then you are a dualist of some kind, and I have no idea of how dualists approach the evolution of awareness. If you answer no, then any evolutionary increase in brain complexity would result in greater awareness as a natural consequence.

  14. says

    If evolution was geared towards making us more able to survive, why didn’t evolution stop at cockroaches though?

    That’s a misunderstanding of evolution. In the theory of evolution, there’s no peak or pinnacle or stopping place. As long as the conditions continue to change, living things will continue to adapt to the changed conditions… and will continue to speciate (i.e., divide into different species) to fill newly available evolutionary niches.

    What’s the link between survivability and our existential awareness? In other words, using your very definition of evolution — “Evolution cares only and entirely about whether we survive and produce fertile offspring who also survive” — how does becoming aware of our own existence make us more evolved?

    We have an evolutionary niche that is heavily based on exploration, discovery, and invention. Consciousness seems to help with that.
    And while evolution is in some ways a harsher hypothesis than theism (I did say “harsh” and not “depressing,” btw), at least with evolution we don’t have to be wondering why a god who supposedly loves us has created us in such a way that our terrible suffering is inevitable. I’m not just talking about human- caused suffering: I’m talking about floods and famines, Alzheimer’s and pediatric cancer. With a naturalistic explanation of the world, we don’t have to contort and torment ourselves trying to figure out why God wants us to suffer do horribly… or why he doles out suffering and happiness more or less at random.
    More importantly: Evolution is consistent with reality, while theism is not. The most uplifting and inspiring hypothesis in the world isn’t going to do much good if it isn’t, you know, true.
    Finally: Experiences of transcendence and losing one’s self in one’s work and activities are not necessarily religious. They don’t require a belief in the metaphysical or supernatural, and many atheists have them.

  15. Shaun says

    I think that a major flaw in the ‘god shaped hole’ argument is that a belief in god does not fill this hole. If it did, religious people would not be unsatisfied or yearning for more.

  16. Locutus7 says

    Greta and others so inclined,
    Check out below site, which contains a paper on self-trancendence and damage to the parietal occipital cortex.
    The main point is, the feeling of being one with the cosmos (or god) emanates from a specific portion of the brain, no supernatural or external stimulus required.
    http://www.ibcsr.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=147:removal-of-portions-of-the-parietal-occipital-cortex-enhances-self-transcendence&catid=25:research-news&Itemid=59

  17. says

    that we yearn for something more is not different than the drive to obtain better paying employment, the best possible partner
    it’s just the striving to be part of something better and bigger than we are and what we have
    if we didn’t yearn, we’d still be in the stone age, because that was good enough for survival

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