Last time, I tried to tackle the raging debate between religious persons and a group of thinkers that at least aspire to speak for science who go under the name of the New Atheists. I tried to show how much of the New Atheist’s critique of religion was based on a narrow definition of what “God” is, that is, a kind of uber-engineer who designed the cosmos we inhabit and set up its laws. Despite my many critiques of the New Atheists, much of which has to do with both their often inflammatory language, and just as often their dismissal and corresponding illiteracy regarding religion, I do think they highlight a very real philosophical and religious problem (at least in the West), namely, that the widely held religious concept of the world has almost completely severed any relationship with science, which offers the truest picture of what the world actually is that we have yet to discover.
In what follows I want to take a look at the opportunities for new kinds of religious thinking this gap between religion and science offers, but most especially for new avenues of secular thought that might manage, unlike the current crop of New Atheists to hold fast to science while not discarding the important types of thinking and approaches to the human condition that have been hard won by religious traditions since the earliest days of humanity.
The understanding of God as a celestial engineer, the conception of God held by figures of the early scientific revolution such as Newton, was, in some ways, doomed from the start predicated not only on a version of God that was so distant from the lives of your average person that it would likely become irrelevant, but predicated as well on the failure of science to explain the natural world from its own methods alone. If science is successful at explaining the world then a “God of the gaps” faces the likely fate that science at some point eventually explains away any conceivable gap in which the need for such a God might be called for. It is precisely the claim that physics has or is on the verge of closing the gap in scientific knowledge of what Pope Pius XII thought was God’s domain- the Universe before the Big Bang- that is the argument of another atheist who has entered the “God debate”, Lawrence Krauss with his A Universe From Nothing.
In his book Krauss offers a compelling picture of the state of current cosmology, one which I find fascinating and even wonderous. Krauss shows how the Universe may have appeared from quantum fluctuations out of what was quite literally nothing. He reveals how physicists are moving away from the idea of one Universe whose laws seem ideally tuned to give rise to life to a version of a multiverse. A vision in which an untold number of universes other than our own exist in an extended plane or right next to one another on a so call “brane” which will forever remain beyond our reach, and that might all have a unique physical laws and even mathematics.
Krauss shows us not only the past but the even deeper time of the future where our own particular Universe is flat and expanding so rapidly that it will, on the order of a few hundred billion years, be re-organized into islands of galaxies surrounded by the blackness of empty space, and how in the long-long frame of time, trillions of years, our Universe will become a dead place inhospitable for life- a sea of the same nothing from whence it came.
A Universe from Nothing is a great primer on the current state of physics, but it also has a secondary purpose as an atheist track- with the afterword written by none other than Dawkins himself. Dawkins, I think quite presumptuously, thinks Krauss will have an effect akin to Darwin banishing God from the questions regarding the beginning of the Universe and its order in the same way Darwin had managed to banish God from questions regarding the origin of life and its complexity.
Many people, myself included, have often found the case made by the New Atheists in many ways to be as counter-productive for the future of science as the kind of theologization and politicization of science found in those trying to have Intelligent Design (ID) taught in schools, or deny the weight of scientific evidence in regards to a public issue with a clear consensus of researchers for what amounts to a political position e.g. climate change. This is because their rhetoric forces people to choose between religion and science, a choice that in such a deeply religious country such as the United States would likely be to the detriment of science. And yet, perhaps in the long-run the New Atheists will have had a positive effect not merely on public discourse, but ironically on religion itself.
New Atheists have encouraged a great “coming out” of both fellow atheists and agnostics in a way that has enabled people in a religious society like the United States to openly express their lack of belief and skepticism in a way that was perhaps never possible before. They have brought into sharp relief the incongruity of scientific truth and religious belief as it is currently held and thus pushed scholars such as Karen Armstrong to look for a conception of God that isn’t, like the modern conception, treated as an increasingly irrelevant hypothesis of held over from a pre-Darwinian view of the world.
Three of the most interesting voices to have emerged from the God Debate each follow seemingly very different tracks that when added together might point the way to the other side. The first is the religious scholar Stephen Prothero. Armstrong’s Case for God helped inspire Prothero, to write his God is Not One (2010.) He was not so much responding to the religious/atheist debate as he was cautioning us against the perennialism at the root of much contemporary thought regarding religion. If the New Atheists went overboard with their claim that religion was either all superstitious nonsense ,or evil, and most likely both, the perennialists, with whom he lumps Armstrong, went far too much to the other side arguing in their need to press for diversity and respect the equally false notion that all religions preached in essence the same thing.
Prothero comes up with a neat formula for what a religion is. “Each religion articulates”:
- a problem;
- a solution to this problem, which also serves as the religious goal;
- a technique (or techniques) for moving from this problem to this solution; and
- an exemplar (or exemplars) who chart this path from problem to solution. (p. 14)
For Prothero, what religions share is, as the perennialists claim, the fundamentals of human ethics, but also a view that the human condition is problematic. But the devil, so to speak, is in the details, for the world’s great religions have come up with very different identifications of what exactly this problematic feature is ,and hence very different, and in more ways than we might be willing to admit, incompatible solutions to the problems they identify.
God is Not One is a great introduction to the world’s major religions, a knowledge I think is sorely lacking especially among those who seem to have the most knee-jerk reactions to any mention of religious ideas. For me, one of the most frustrating things about the New Atheists, especially, is their stunning degree of religious illiteracy. Not only do they paint all of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam with the same broad brush of religious literalism and fundamentalism, and have no grasp of religious history within the West, they also appear completely disinterested in trying to understand non-Western religious traditions an understanding that might give them better insight into the actual nature of the human religious instinct which is less about pre-scientific explanations for natural events than it is about an ethical orientation towards the world. Perhaps no religion as much as Confucianism can teach us something in this regard. In the words of Prothero:
Unlike Christianity which drives a wedge between the sacred and the secular- the eternal “City of God” and the temporal “City of Man”- Confucianism glories in creatively confusing the two. There is a transcendent dimension in Confucianism. Confucians just locate it in the world rather than above or beyond it.
For all these reasons, Confucianism can be considered as religious humanism. Confucians share with secular humanists a single minded focus on this world of rag and bone. They, too, are far more interested in how to live than in plumbing the depths of Ultimate Reality. But whereas secular humanists insist on emptying the rest of the world of the sacred, Confucians insists on infusing the world with sacred import- of seeing Heaven in humanity, on investing human beings with incalculable value, on hallowing the everyday. In Confucianism, the secular is sacred. (GN1 108)
Religions, then, are in large part philosophical orientations towards the world. They define the world, or better the inadequacies of the world, in a certain way and prescribe a set of actions in light of those inadequacies. In this way they might be thought of as embodied moral philosophies, and it is my second thinker, the philosopher Alain de Botton who in his Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion tries to show just how much even the most secular among us can learn from religion.
What the secular, according to Botton, can learn from religions has little to do with matters of belief which in the light of modern science he too finds untenable. Yet, the secular can learn quite a lot from religion in terms institutions and practices. Religion often fosters a deep sense of community founded around a common view of the world. The religious often see education as less about the imparting of knowledge but the formation of character. Because religion in part arose in response to the human need to live peacefully together in society it tends to track people away from violence and retribution and toward kindness and reconciliation. Much of religion offers us tenderness in times of tragedy, and holds out the promise of moral improvement. It provides the basis for some of our longest lived institutions, embeds art and architecture in a philosophy of life.
Often a religion grants its followers a sense of cosmic perspective that might otherwise be missing from human life, and reminds us of our own smallness in light of all that is, encourages an attitude of humility in the face of the depths of all we do not yet and perhaps never will know. It provides human beings with a sense of the transcendent something emotionally and intellectually beyond our reach which stretches the human heart and mind to the very edge of what it can be and understand.
So if religion, then, is at root a way for people to ethically orient themselves to others and the world even the most avowed atheist who otherwise believes that life can have meaning can learn something from it. Though one must hope that monstrous absurdities such as the French Revolution’s Cult of the Supreme Being, or the “miraculously” never decomposing body of V.I. Lenin are never repeated.
One problem however remains before we all rush out to the local Church, Temple, or Mosque, or start our own version of the Church of Scientology. It is that religion is untrue, or better, while much of the natural ethics found at the bottom of most religions is something to which we secularists can assent because it was forged for the problems of human living together, and we still live in together in societies, the idea of the natural world and the divinities that supposedly inhabit and guide it are patently false from a scientific point of view. There are two possible solutions I can imagine to this dilemma, both of which play off of the ideas of my third figure, the neuroscientist
and fiction author, David Eagleman.
Like others, what frustrates Eagleman about the current God debate is the absurd position of certainty and narrowness of perspective taken by both the religious and the anti-religious. Fundamentalist Christians insist that a book written before we knew what the Universe was or how life develops or what the brain does somehow tells us all we really need to know, indeed thinks they possess all the questions we should ask. The New Atheists are no better when it comes to such a stance of false certainty and seem to base many of their argument on the belief that we are on the verge of knowing all we can know, and that the Universe(s) is already figured out except for a few loose ends.
In my own example, I think you can see this in Krauss who not only thinks we have now almost fully figured out the origins of the Universe and its fate. He also thinks he has in his hand its meaning, which is that it doesn’t have one, and to drive this home avoids looking at the hundreds of billions of years between now and the Universe’s predicted end.
Take this almost adolescent quote from Dawkins’ afterword to A Universe From Nothing:
Finally, and inevitably, the universe will further flatten into a nothing that mirrors its beginning” what will be left of our current Universe will be “Nothing at all. Not even atoms. Nothing. “ Dawkins then adds with his characteristic flourish“If you think that’s bleak and cheerless, too bad. Reality doesn’t owe us comfort. (UFN 188).
And here’s Krauss himself:
The structures we can see, like stars and galaxies, were all created in quantum fluctuations from nothing. And the average total Newtonian gravitational energy of each object in our universe is equal to nothing. Enjoy the thought while you can, if this is true, we live in the worst of all possible universes one can live in, at least as far as the future of life is concerned. (UFN 105)
Or perhaps more prosaically the late Hitchens:
For those of us who find it remarkable that we live in a universe of Something, just wait. Nothingness is headed on a collision course right towards us! (UFN 119)
Really? Even if the view of the fate of the Universe is exactly like Krauss thinks it will be, and that’s a Big- Big- If, what needs to be emphasized here, a point that neither Krauss or Dawkins seem prone to highlight is that this death of the Universe is trillions of years in the future and that there will be plenty of time for living, according to Dimitar Sasselov, hundreds of billions of years, for life to evolve throughout the Universe, and thus for an unimaginable diversity of experiences to be had. Our Universe, at least at the stage we have entered and for many billions of years longer than life on earth has existed, is actually a wonderful place for creatures such as ourselves. If one adds to that the idea that there may not just be one Universe, but many many universes, with at least some perhaps having the right conditions for life developing and lasting for hundreds of billions of years as well, you get a picture of diversity and profusion that puts even the Hindu Upanishads to shame. That’s not a bleak picture. It one of the most exhilarating pictures I can think of, and perhaps in some sense even a religious one.
And the fact of the matter is we have no idea. We have no idea if the theory put forward by Krauss regarding the future of the Universe is ultimately the right one, we have no idea if life plays a large, small, or no role in the ultimate fate of the Universe, we have no idea if there is any other life in the Universe that resembles ourselves in terms of intelligence, or what scale- planet, galaxy, even larger- a civilization such as our own can achieve if it survives for a sufficiently long time, or how common such civilizations might become in the Universe as the time frame in which the conditions for life to appear and civilizations to appear and develop grows over the next hundred billion years or so. See the glass empty, half empty, or potentially overflowing it’s all just guesswork, even if Krauss’ physics make it an extremely sophisticated and interesting guesswork. To think otherwise is to assume the kind of block-headed certainty Krauss reserves for religious fanatics.
David Eagleman wants to avoid the false certainty found in many of the religious and the New Atheists by adopting what he calls Possibilism. The major idea behind Possibilism is the same one, although Eagleman himself doesn’t make this connection, that is found in Armstrong’s pre-modern religious thinkers, especially among the so-called mystics, that is the conviction that we are in a position of profound ignorance.
Science has taken us very very far in terms of our knowledge of the world and will no doubt take us much much farther, but we are still probably at a point where we know an unbelievable amount less than will eventually become known, and perhaps there are limits to our ability to know in front of us beyond which will never be able to pass. We just don’t know. In a similar way to how the mystics tried to lead a path to the very limits of human thought beyond which we can not pass, Possibilism encourages us to step to the very edge of our scientific knowledge and imagine what lies beyond our grasp.
I can imagine at least two potential futures for Possibilism either one of which I find very encouraging. If traditional religion is to regain its attraction for the educated it will probably have to develop and adopt a speculative theology that looks a lot like Eagleman’s Possibilism.
A speculative theology would no longer seek to find support for its religious convictions in selective discoveries of science, but would place its core ideas in dialogue with whatever version of the world science comes up with. This need not mean that any religion need abandon its core ethical beliefs or practices both of which were created for human beings at moral scale that reflects the level at which an individual life is lived. The Golden Rule needs no reference to the Universe as a whole nor do the rituals surrounding the life cycle of the individual- birth, marriage, and death at which religion so excels.
What a speculative theology would entail is that religious thinkers would be free to attempt to understand their own tradition in light of modern science and historical studies without any attempt to use either science or history to buttress its own convictions.
Speculative theology would ask how its concepts can continue to be understood in light of the world presented by modern science and would aim at being a dynamic, creative, and continuously changing theology which would better reflect the dynamic nature of modern knowledge, just as theology in the past was tied to a view of knowledge that was static and seemingly eternal. It might more easily be able to tackle contemporary social concerns such as global warming, inequality and technological change by holding the exact same assumptions as to the nature of the physical world as science while being committed to interpreting the findings in light of their own ethical traditions and perspectives.
Something like this speculative philosophy already existed during the Islamic Golden Age a period lasting from the 700s through the 1200s in which Islamic scientists such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna) managed to combine the insights of ancient Greek, Indian, and even Chinese thinking to create whole new field of inquiry and ways of knowing. Tools from algebra to trigonometry to empiricism that would later be built upon by Europeans to launch the scientific revolution. The very existence of this golden age of learning in the Muslim world exposes Sam Harris’ anti-Islamic comment for what it is- ignorant bigotry.
Still, a contemporary speculative theology would have more expansive and self-aware than anything found among religious thinkers before. It would need to be an open system of knowledge cognizant of its own limitations and would examine and take into itself ideas from other religious traditions, even dead ones such as paganism, that added depth and dimensions to its core ethical stance. It would be a vehicle through which religious persons could enter into dialogue and debate with persons from other perspectives both religious and non-religious who are equally concerned with the human future, humanists and transhumanists, singularitarians, and progressives along with those who with some justification have deep anxieties regarding the future, traditional conservatives, bio-conservatives, neo-luddites, and persons from every other spiritual tradition in the world. It would mean an end to that dangerous anxiety held by a great number of the world’s religions that it alone needs to be the only truth in order to thrive.
Yet, however beneficial such a speculative theology would be I find its development out of any current religion highly unlikely. If traditional religions do not adopt something like this stance towards knowledge I find it increasingly likely that persons alienated from them as a consequence of the way their beliefs are contradicted by science will invent something similar for themselves. This is because despite the fact that the Universe in the way it is presented by the New Atheists is devoid of meaning this human need for meaning, to discuss it, and argue it, and try to live it, is unlikely to ever stop among human beings. The very quest seems written into our very core. Hopefully, such dialogues will avoid dogma and be self-critical and self-conscious in a way religion or secular ideologies never were before. I see such discussions more akin to works of art than religious-treatises, though I hope they provide the bases for community and ethics in the same way religion has in the past as well.
And we already have nascent forms of such communities- the environmentalist cause is one such community as is the transhumanist movement. So, is something like The Long Now Foundation which seeks to bring attention to the issues of the long term human future and has even adopted the religious practice of pilgrimage to its 10,000 year clock- a journey that is meant to inspire deeper time horizons for our present obsessed culture.
Even should such communities and movements become the primary way a certain cohort of scientifically inclined persons seek to express the human need for meaning, there is every reason for those so inclined to seek out and foster relationships with the more traditionally religious ,who are, and will likely always, comprise the vast majority human beings. Contrary to the predictions of New Atheists such as Daniel Dennett the world is becoming more not less religious, and Christianity is not a dying faith but changing location moving from its locus in Europe and North America to Latin America, Africa, and even Asia. Islam even more so than Christianity is likely to be a potent force in world affairs for some time to come, not to mention Hinduism with India destined to become the world’s most populous country by mid-century. We will need all of their cooperation to address pressing global problems from climate change, to biodiversity, to global pandemics, and inequality. And we should not think them persons who profess such faiths ignorant for holding fast to beliefs that largely bypass the world brought to us by science. Next to science religion is among the most amazing things to emerge from humanity and those who seek meaning from it are entitled to our respect as fellow human beings struggling to figure out not the what? but the why? of human life.
Whether inside or outside of traditional religion the development of scientifically grounded meaning discourses and communities, and the projects that would hopefully grow from them, would signal that wrestling with the “big questions” again offered a path to human transcendence. A path that was at long last no longer in conflict with the amazing Universe that has been shown to us by modern science. Finding such ways of living would mean that we truly have found our way through the great God debate.