So, the kid grew up. Now, at 72, what does he have to say? What has he learned living through life’s stresses? Here, lest the reader suppose that I have only overreacted to my early proselytization, I want to shift to a somewhat different viewpoint, moving away from my personal experiences, anecdotes of my young life, to a more analytical look at God and religion. As a systems analyst one learns that the most direct approach to any complex system is first to study it as dispassionately as possible. So my argument here will be framed around the reasons that have been put forward in favor of the belief in a religion.
In fact, there are surprisingly few of them, though they are of course more nuanced than their simple statement implies. If one rashly disregards all advice usually given, and actually ask people whether or not they think there is a God, and why, the essential answers I have been given for a belief in God, and in religion generally, seem to be three. I list them here more or less in the order of their ascendancy:
The first answer, Faith, is of course irrefutable since it is an emotion, a passion, and such feelings seem too deeply embedded in a believer’s fiber to be susceptible to mere rationality; logic often seems a mere gloss over our primitive selves, weaker than emotion, unable to stand up to a deeply felt need or desire. Nevertheless some observations can be made about this answer which I think illuminate important characteristics of it.
The first is the strong correlation between faith and the need for succor; the more highly stressed an individual becomes, the more passion, reversion to our elementary animal nature, comes to dominate our thinking. In the long history of humankind it is only comparatively recently that life stress, society’s inability to control circumstance, has not been endemic and overwhelming.
The second is the natural harmony within a society with respect to faith; when a group as a whole must endure unusual stress, faith spreads under its own impetus, not unlike the way a flock of pigeons will take flight all together, communicating soundlessly the sign of threat. It is a passionate emotion, one that provides a collective, unthinking reaction to a situation that seems to have no rational response.
These observations are not criticism; we are trying only to understand. Any complex system that has existed over a significant period of time has an underlying basis for its longevity. Some good has been realized from it or the system would not have survived, much less flourished. And faith, this particularly strong emotion, has been so dominant for so long in human history that one must respect it in order to understand it, and to understand it one must ask, What is the benefit that it has provided society that it should have become so pervasive and have lasted so long? And a corollary question with increasing resonance today, Why is it that society’s faith decreases as its wealth increases?
I believe the primary benefit of faith is that it has enhanced the cohesiveness of society, the sense of brotherhood, of cooperation, of altruism, the feeling of being in the same boat together, historically a boat often—even usually—tossed about nearly uncontrollably. It seems to me that this benefit has been quite potent in the history of our species. There is probably not a single primitive society without faith, whether in the sun and stars, in animal nature or, more recently, in abstract gods of one variety or another. Faith is pervasive in human culture.
In support of this observation one can easily see that cohesiveness is, after all, one of the defining characteristics of human society. It is clear that an individual human unsupported by others could not survive, even into adulthood, Tarzan notwithstanding. So society begins with the family, proceeds to form tribes, and so on, with larger and larger aggregations providing increased group benefits and faith providing a key bond helping to hold everything together so that larger and larger units can be formed and maintained (up to the point where internal stress overcomes the alignment). One would have to be blind today (2006) not to see this system still hard at work; only look to the east, to Islamic society.
Today one can begin to observe the relative quiescence of faith as society begins to surmount some of its problems technologically, with an increase of wealth and as a direct consequence a significant reduction of stress. This can be seen most vividly today in the relative lack of faith in western Europe—though one must distinguish between the loss of formal religion and the loss of faith itself, the former certainly more common than the latter—whose magnificent gothic monuments, now filled largely with tourists, stand in awesome testimony to their former significance.
Yet even now, and everywhere, faith, as it has all along, continues to offer individuals strength under personal adversity, helping them to accept and bear the burden of misfortune, thus sparing society the disruptive behaviors that might otherwise result. Even in modern days, when society as a whole is arguably under less stress than formerly, it is not hard to see that this strong attraction to faith is most ascendant among individuals that remain under extraordinary stress, physical or emotional, those who have suffered the death of a loved one, contracted a serious disease, been sent to prison, or are bearing some other personal trauma.
The second answer, Design, the notion that people, animals, the world in general, and the universe, are so complex that there must be a master designer, that all this cannot be merely accidental, tells us that people are skeptical that mere evolution is fully up to the task of shaping us, or that physics is capable of simply operating under its own laws. The feeling expressed here is that these laws must have come from somewhere, that they cannot simply exist, that, whatever is going on, the plan must have been formulated by some one or some thing, a superior being, and cannot merely have come about spontaneously. In fact there is an organization that formally promotes this outlook, The Discovery Institute, which one may explore using the link at the left.
A systems analyst must ask, From where does this very common, one could easily say pervasive, intuition of a central, purposeful designer come? I think the fundamental answer is that it comes from my simple title question, Where did it come from? Or, who made that? Or, what caused that? The notion that complex things can have been shaped by a thoughtless process like evolution, or that physics could simply be, is foreign to our way of thinking, contrary to the intuitions of our very long past. Isn’t the most defining characteristic of our species, thought? We seem to be preprogrammed or hardwired to seek reasons for things. The history of our species is one of asking: What is it made of? How can I catch it? What causes sickness? How can I cross the river? Why does the sun come up? What are the stars? And of course the more impenetrable questions such as: Why was I born? Why must I die? Our species seems uniquely programmed by evolution to ask these questions ad infinitum.
Significantly, the “Where does it come from?” question applies as well to science as to religion. For everything there is a reason and, if we don’t know what it is, then for scientists it is simply assigned to: more work needed. In science, an unknown simply triggers a search for its cause: An apple falls from a tree; there must be a cause; we’ll call it “gravity”. This of course, in its turn, begs the question, Where did gravity come from? In fact, this is a question for which scientists are even now searching for an answer. Together with trying to understand the so-called weak and strong forces, dark matter and dark energy, scientists are attempting to construct what has been blithely referred to as the Theory of Everything. This built-in curiosity inescapably leads us into an infinite loop, beginning with the question, Where did physics come from? The answer to this seminal question that is put forward by theists is of course that physics comes from God. But then, rationally, should we not ask the question, Where did God come from?
Certainly, if the reason that we require a God is because we, the world we occupy and the universe are so very complex, then how much more complex must God, the putative creator of Everything, be? And in that case, why would He not require a creator? So then is there a God2? a God3? Where, exactly, do we stop? And if we stop casually at God1, what is the reason for getting out of the loop there? Of course as we see the conundrum we have created here it might reasonably be asked, Why not just stop at physics? What is it about physics that is insufficient?
The insufficiency we sense is that physics seems undirected, not thoughtful, and certainly not in respect of ourselves, which, quite understandably, is our central interest. With physics as the first cause we then seem only to be tagging along helplessly on the refuse of a vast explosion, when what we want most is a master designer, a super architect, especially one that will have a care for us. Because thoughtless processes like physics and evolution have in a sense been hidden from us for millennia, and only recently have we found out some of their secrets, now that we see them they don’t seem up to the real job we want done. Yet, what is our aim here, to learn what we wish to see, or to discover what is? Ironically, as science, rationalism, illuminates more and more wondrous complexity, it is our steady old friend, Religion, that shields our eyes, as though fearing the vision may burn them out.
In the Christian faith the tolerance of reason is one of a slowly increasing, and usually grudging, acceptance, as Copernicus and Galileo, were they still speaking, might attest. As an example, the current Pope, Benedict XVI, has recently weighed-in on the question of whether “intelligent design” is valid. He says no. The teachings of the church, he claims, are not incompatible with those of evolution. This statement should tell one something of the extent to which mystery has been cornered, and faith is squirming in the Western world. In Islam the acceptance has been slower still, and more grudging. And though science marches on, seeming to sweep away all mystery before it, the faithful still insist that it stop at the ultimate question, Where did God come from. Religionists that I know would think this question impertinent at best, sacrilegious at worst. Why? Primarily because they do not consider rational thought a fruitful method for the understanding of God; faith is the tool of choice here. God is a mystery and must remain thus.
Yet if we must eventually stop asking the question, “Where did it come from?” and the ultimate, “Who’s in charge here?” then it looks like we have a choice to make between two root sources, God and Physics: there seem no other contenders. While we completely understand neither Physics nor God we, as relatively helpless beings, quite naturally have a favorite in the race: The God we picture, though sometimes inexplicably acting in ways that hurt us, seems to be a more or less Good Fellow, with our best interests at heart, like Dad, firm but loving. Rational or not, God seems most like Dad, which, I suppose, is why Christians and others call Him God, the father.
And Physics looks like … what? Like things whirling around, like cold space, like electricity, weird and dangerous radiations, cold, inhospitable and unfeeling, it looks like everything inimical to our wellbeing. You see the problem. Rationally, even if it were six of one, half dozen of another: God or physics, emotionally we naturally have a preference: religion, and our nature, tell us to believe, believe. While science tells us always to doubt, to doubt even its firmest tenets.
We have simply not been evolved in such a way as to think of something as formless as Physics, as the ultimate cause. At a minimum it just doesn’t seem friendly to us. Religions, the arbiters of faith, have the good sense to humanize God to make the concept more accessible, more intuitive or at least more satisfying. In the Catholic faith God is a trinity of The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit. Both Father and Son are familiar anthropomorphic symbols that we can get our minds around. The third member of the trinity, the Holy Spirit used to be termed the Holy Ghost when I learned my catechism. Doesn’t the modern change from Ghost to Spirit endeavor to make even this amorphous entity less threatening? The Greek, Roman and Germanic gods were humanlike, and not excluding our faults, as are many in the Far East today. It is enlightening to look at religion from a marketing point of view: the product must seem attractive, even if just a little forbidding for added piquancy.
The other thing in our minds arguing against physics as God, is physics’ complete indifference to us. Traditional gods may or may not be, shall we say, friendly, yet they seem marginally interested in us. Even the concept of Satan, as a fallen angel, or anti-god, is concerned with us in the sense that he wishes to corrupt us. Physics on the other hand really shows no interest in us whatsoever. With physics it can only be that we are riding on a small pebble in this grand universe, with absolutely no control, as on an immense Disney-ride destined for oblivion.
The third answer, Morals, the notion that regardless of the facts of the matter, faith is desirable because it makes us better humans, is of course not a reason but a belief or a hope. In a sense it is an acquiescence in doubt. It is an agnostic who says, I’m not sure, but nevermind, this seems to be the best path. It is a denial of analysis and the assertion of an intuition, unstated, that without religion, man’s baser instincts would run wild, a view of religion as a counterpoise to entropy. This instinct is informed by the thinker’s awareness of weakness within himself. Furthermore, its advocates might add, with a slight shrug of the shoulders, What can it hurt? In this way of thinking it is less important what the facts of the matter are, they are made moot by the desire for order and the conviction that religion and a belief in God can provide it.
On the trip our species is taking along the great superhighway of thought, we have encountered two possibilities: God and Physics. Each offers us succor on our life trip: religion and gods have provided cohesiveness and enhanced our ability to cooperate to the point where science and its offspring technology are now increasingly ameliorating the fraught situation in which we find ourselves.
I think of religion as a precursor, a necessary forerunner, a system without which our species likely could not have developed to the stage of rationalization, a point where science and technology are now beginning to make our lives more stable, even enjoyable, perhaps someday even artful. I do not at all belittle our old friend, God, I think of Him in somewhat the same way as the British see their Queen, a respected symbol of a past during which her predecessors were much more than figureheads. And, with deep respect, I award Him His traditional capital letter.