Friday, August 22, 2008

Playing Two-God Monte with Christian Apologists

There can be no doubt that the Christian God has anthropomorphic qualities. The Old Testament Jehovah was more of a human caricature in that he seemed less than omnipotent, prone to anger and revenge, an advocate of tribalism, and too much like some kind of ancient patriarchal potentate. The New Testament version had a much softer image, but he still behaves largely like a person. He has emotions, thoughts, and goals. He loves humans and orders them to behave in ways that benefit human relations. He takes an interest in sexual behavior, just as any human would, and he is moved by praise from humans and pity for their plight.

Christians have a problem with charges of anthropomorphism, because it makes their god look more like the cartoonish creation that some would argue characterized the pagan gods of ancient mythologies. Those gods were too obviously made up out of whole cloth by primitive people who needed to explain natural forces in terms of human-like agencies. We no longer tend to think of natural forces as the result of imaginary beings that we can influence with gifts of wealth and devotion. So God has been cleansed of many of the old anthropomorphic traits. A modern Christian might use a male pronoun for God, but most seem to reject the idea that he is anything like a male in the conventional sense. In more recent times, a picture of God has emerged in liberal theology that is more of an essence--a Ground of Being--than a person. So allegations of anthropomorphism by skeptics are quite often countered by descriptions of God's essential ineffability--his immanence in and transcendence of our physical reality. A kind of First Cause that is beyond our comprehension or understanding.

The stripping from God of all anthropomorphic traits leaves us with a God that cannot really be argued against. It is hard to argue with the abstraction of an essence that is alleged to permeate everything and whose behavior and motives are beyond our understanding. Do you believe in the existence of things that are beyond your awareness? I don't know. There are certainly things that I will never be aware of, but what could a "thing" be that is beyond comprehension? This is the Shield--the belief that cannot be denied.

But do any of the believers stop praying because God's motives are unfathomable? Do they abandon religious morality because God maybe didn't literally appear as a burning bush and hand some stone tablets to Moses? Not usually. They still attend church and sing along with the choir. They still pray for forgiveness and praise the Lord as if God were subject to human feelings. You can't love an abstraction, and religion isn't much use if it has nothing to offer. So God switches right back to the anthropomorphic entity that serves the needs of those who worship him. You don't worship a First Cause. You worship a being that can be influenced by worship.

This oscillation between anthropomorphic and non-anthropomorphic deities is something that I have experienced many times in my lifetime of debating with Christians and others of faith over the nature of religious belief. It is a pretty good defense mechanism for a largely untenable belief. The God-as-essence version is the shield that defends the more vulnerable God-as-person version. The former wraps around the latter when it comes under attack, but the latter emerges to serve the believer's real needs when the former has warded off the attackers.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Daniel Dennett: Breaking the Spell

I am currently working my way through Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. If you are a Christian, you will likely have the same reaction to it that Leon Wiesletier, a book critic for the New York Times, does. I have to say that the book that Wiesleter read seems completely different from the one that I am reading. Most of Dennett's book has little to do with Christianity or Christian concepts of God. Rather, it is a study of the phenomenon of religion, and it is based on research that he undertook in support of philosophy classes that he teaches. Unlike Dawkins, in his well-known book The God Delusion, Dennett does not confine himself to an attack on Christian views of God. What has surprised me is that I think Dennett has done a far better job than Dawkins at exploring the evolutionary bases for religion in the human species. Dawkins is the evolutionary biologist, but Dennett seems the more thoughtful and objective evolutionary thinker. Perhaps it is because Dennett is not really engaged in a polemic. That is, while he makes the occasional polemic remark, he is for the most part concerned with just trying to understand what it is about religion that makes it so ubiquitous in human society.

The thing about Dennett's book is that he constantly asks the Latin question "Cui bono?" (To whom is the benefit?). This is the essence of evolutionary thinking, because evolution is design by what Dennett calls "free floating rationales". That is, there is no intentional designer with a rationale. There is just a free-floating benefit to replicators that happen to be lucky enough to be in the right place when the conditions are right. Religion is an expensive form of behavior. It requires people to devote large amounts of their time to maintain and promulgate it. Vast resources are expended to defend various competing religious doctrines. Quite often it leads to strife and warfare, causing members of the species to die off prematurely. So why would it have emerged as such a common form of behavior in human society? To answer the question, Dennett takes the view that there must be some payoff somewhere to make religion such a species-wide phenomenon. What do people get in exchange for all that effort to "keep the faith"?

There is no simple answer to this question, because evolution is always messy. There are usually many factors that come into play to support specific behaviors. Evolution is a "substrateless" phenomenon in that it always requires 3 ingredients: 1) Replication (a copying process), 2) Variation (mutation), and 3) Competition (natural selection). It is not just about DNA and genetics. There may be no single gene that causes humans to be religious, but there is likely a complex of genes that favor the creation and replication of religious "memes" in human society. For example, we are all programmed to believe in and obey authoritative sources of information. Children in particular benefit from this programming, because it favors their survival to take advantage of the experience of more mature members of the species. Ancestor worship is a form of authoritarianism, and ancestor worship seems to form to basis of many religious myths, e.g. the Gilgamesh epic. So these are the kinds of issues that Dennett analyzes and critiques in his very detailed analysis of the ubiquity of religion. I highly recommend this book, but only for people who have the stomache for provocative thinking. Dennett never tries to hide his atheist bias, but he also allows for the possibility that atheism may not be the best answer to our survival as a species.