One of the things that strikes me about the idea of God is how universal that idea is. To the best of my knowledge, every society in every age has had some sort of spiritual core belief.
I used to state this as the assertion that every society believed in some sort of god or gods, but it was pointed out to me that Buddhists don’t actually have a god. They do have some metaphysical entities, and more importantly, Buddhism is certainly a belief in a metaphysical reality that transcends this one.
So the question is: if humans universally find themselves finding God(s), what does this mean?
It would seem to mean one of two things: First, that there is some universal twitch in the human mind that invents the idea of god to account for the nature of existence. Alternately, it could mean that humans apprehend some aspect of reality (as we do justice and equality) that really does exist.
Atheists are quite clear on it being the former. Theists are equally clear on it being the latter.
So while physicists search for the absurdly named “God particle,” psychologists search the human mind for the “God circuit.” There has been some progress along these lines, and it may be that someday we will find God in our own minds. (That may, or may not, close the matter. Human belief is a powerful thing, and you mess with it at your possible peril.)
It may turn out that belief is a feature of evolution (wouldn’t that tweak the Creationists). It may turn out that we need the idea of god (if not the reality) in order to form working societies. Atheists like to point out that science is very useful, since it creates refrigerators, medicine, atomic bombs and potentially lethal bacteria. Religious belief is also useful to society, since it creates charity, social cohesion, inquisitions and crusades.
Particularly powerful swords, such as chain saws, gun powder, justice, love, television, science or religion, tend to have two edges. The key is in how you use (or misuse) them.
Michael Shermer has a new book out, The Believing Brain, that sounds interesting. I’m hoping he addresses some of the latest science on the mechanisms of belief (the first possibility that I mentioned above).
I have to be honest that I sometimes find Shermer as strident and insistent about his atheism as I do any religious fanatic. Certainty on this topic tends to repulse me regardless of from which side it comes. Both atheists and theists have a tendency to argue passionately that their beliefs must be correct. (I will give credit to atheists for–as far as I know–not actually killing anyone over it.)
But I am sometimes reminded of alcoholics and drug users who are also very insistent that you join them in their worldview and practice. Belief on the level of such certainty does sometime strike me as an addictive drug. One of the few things of which I’m certain is that little is certain (another of life’s ironies).
The thing is, both sides are matters of faith at this point. Atheists are just as hard-core in their belief in a specific worldview as theists. Only the nature of their Belief is different.
It seems interesting to me that we accept many universal human perceptions, but we argue so much over this one. That all humans (normally) see color or spacial relationships bothers no one. That so many societies have a perception of abstractions, such as Honor, Truth or Justice, also seems easy to accept.
But a perception of God drives atheists (and some scientists) crazy. That universal perception, they feel, must be wrong. Color and spacial relationships are testable and quantifiable, which accounts for their acceptance. Social abstractions are less so (in fact, many scientists look down on social sciences as not being True Science at all), but still aren’t the quagmire that belief seems to invoke.
With so much heat, it almost seems there has to be some fire here somewhere. When something is so compelling and universal, I think it begs for an explanation.
I want to close this with the observation that belief in a spiritual metaphysics and worldly religions are two very distinct topics.
I am not a fan of most worldly religions. To some extent, I consider the concept an oxymoron. A spiritual metaphysics is, pretty much by definition, not a worldly thing. These organizations that feed off our (putative) spiritual connections are just that: organizations. And they often suffer from the same flaws as any organization. They are run by flawed humans and often serve the primary purpose of surviving and growing.
[This is the second of a series of posts about spirituality. The first is Big Bang? Let there be Light?]