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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.