Saving gods by making them even emptier of meaning

I was having a conversation with a colleague last night, and one of the things we were talking about is the way modern religion has rushed to emulate the trappings of science, where every explanation must have an epistemological foundation in real world observations. A paradigmatic example is Ken Ham’s bizarre Creation “Museum”, which on the one hand repeatedly rejects the power of human reason, while on the other constantly throws up pseudo-scientific displays that mimic those of real museums, trying to illustrate the apocalyptic fever dreams of a world-destroying flood with mechanistic explanations, from floating islands of logs that carried the koalas to Australia to faux-authentic maps of the path of the tidal wave that killed everyone; the literature of creationism is also thick with ‘feasibility studies’ of the engineering of the Ark, estimates of how many species could have fit aboard, peculiar adoptions of physics software that, by diddling certain inputs, they use to justify such nonsense as hydroplate theory, explanations of the distribution of fossils by hydrologic sorting, etc., etc., etc. Witness also the recent small surge of creationists maneuvering to get Ph.D.s from prestigious institutions, from Berkeley to Harvard, not with the intent of doing actual scientific research, but because it adds an illusion of authority to their apologetics and denial of science.

What we are witnessing is the obvious bankruptcy of spiritual thought. We know it, and they know it; it is not sufficient to declare the Noachian Flood to be a miracle, a catastrophe conjured up in an instant with a snap of God’s omnipotent fingers, with all of its traces magically erased or juggled by God for God’s ineffable purposes. It is not enough to say that God willed that trilobites would come to rest in certain layers of Flood sediments, and the bones of mammals would be buried in yet another graveyard of stone; no, they must invent natural processes that assist their enfeebled deity, that sound more plausible than that their god placed each dead clam in its final resting place, one by one, with loving attention to its stratigraphic layer and accompanying fauna.

Their work is an admission of failure. They are struggling to embed their deity in the natural universe of Newton and Darwin, steadily stripping him of powers in order to accommodate themselves to a very human success story, the power of rational, scientific thought, while somehow, they hope, not losing god among the protons and black holes and mitochondria and ion fluxes across neuronal membranes. It’s not working. They dream of shackling dinosaurs to help them popularize creationist apologetics, but it only works if the people don’t look too closely, don’t get so enthralled with the gimmick that they look more deeply at the evidence than at the faith message, and discover that the creationists are lying to them. They are lost because they are praising the evidence of the natural world rather than the unfounded revelations of spiritual guesswork, and at some point, some people are going to notice the bait-and-switch of using dinosaurs to sell god.

At least some people are noticing, though. The Wall Street Journal commissioned Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins to answer the same question: Where does evolution leave God?. Of course, Richard Dawkins slams that one out of the park. Evolution leaves the gods nowhere, with nothing to do. The world trundles along on the laws of physics, with never a violation in sight, and god has become a cosmic irrelevancy, and worse, a boojum that defies reason and evidence. We have no need of that hypothesis, and it is nothing more than an obstacle to comprehension.

Karen Armstrong takes a different tack. She has noticed that religion has been busily undermining itself by coupling faith to fact. When theologians accept the explanations of science and try to absorb them into their religious understanding, they are binding their notion of god to a rather more limited body of abilities; now God’s actions are suddenly constrained by E=MC2. Not that they would say such a thing, of course; God is omnipotent, so he can break all the speed limits if he wanted to, he just chooses not to. She admits that Darwin has created a crisis for religious thought because “Christians [had] become so dependent upon their scientific religion that they had lost the older habits of thought and were left without other resource.”

For once, I agree with Armstrong. She’s precisely correct — rational thinking, evidence-based reasoning, and science in general are inimical to the spiritual state of mind, and draw us away from superstition and other failed modes of thinking. What has occurred over the course of the last few centuries is a growing (but by no means universal or certain) recognition that science gets the job done, while religion makes excuses. Sometimes they are very pretty excuses that capture the imagination of the public, but ultimately, when you want to win a war or heal a dying child or get rich from a discovery or explore Antarctica, you turn to science and reason, or you fail.

If you’re one of these New Atheists, the lesson is obvious: ditch the useless faith, and follow science. But then, we’re the results-oriented children of the Enlightenment, so of course we prefer to do what actually works. If you’re a die-hard faith-head like Karen Armstrong, though, you instead turn to that religious style of thinking, and make excuses for happily following the path of failure and nebulous, airy-fairy know-nothingness.

But Darwin may have done religion–and God–a favor by revealing a flaw in modern Western faith. Despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our understanding of God is often remarkably undeveloped–even primitive. In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call “God” is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited by means of spiritual exercises and a compassionate lifestyle that enable us to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart.

Neat trick, that; she takes the notion of a worldly god, one tied to the operation of the world, and calls that “primitive”, while suggesting that a god that is a symbol, a transcendence, a spiritual (whatever that word means) intuition, is somehow the more sophisticated god. As Dawkins explains, mere existence and effect are trifles with which a truly awesome god does not trouble himself. Armstrong carries it even further: her god is a sublime state which we can only appreciate by contemplating the pain and suffering of life and distancing ourselves from it — god seems to be that which we get when we reject the universe. She even asserts that religion explains nothing, as if this were a positive attribute.

Religion was not supposed to provide explanations that lay within the competence of reason but to help us live creatively with realities for which there are no easy solutions and find an interior haven of peace

Shorter Karen Armstrong: Ignorance is bliss.

I don’t want to live peacefully with difficult realities, and I see no virtue in savoring excuses for avoiding a search for real answers. I am the product of millions of generations of individuals who each fought against a hostile universe and won, and I aim to maintain the tradition. I want my children to do the same, and I want all of my fellow human beings to struggle to wrest a better world from the rocks and gasses and radiation of this universe we find ourselves in. There are no easy solutions. Each of us can think of a thousand thorny problems, from the personal to the global, and we all know this: we will not solve them by going to church and kneeling down and praising an immaterial god whose primary attribute in the sloganeering of theologians like Armstrong is that he is a symbol of that which doesn’t exist.

In my conversation last night, my friend reminded me of a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche that is appropriate here: “Mystical explanations are thought to be deep; the truth is that they are not even shallow.” Let’s work to spare humankind from further further religious ‘thought’, that shallow pretentiousness with delusions of profundity.