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Wednesday, July 16, 2014
Religion ... Society ... Spirituality ...

There’s a recent article on the Science20 web site about atheists. The basic premise of the article is that pure atheists may not exist — because deep down in the subconscious, there exists a pre-programmed bias towards the notion that something in the universe is looking over us, something more than what we know thru our normal senses and our logical minds. The author summarized the article quite well up front, saying that “Cognitive scientists are becoming increasingly aware that a metaphysical outlook may be so deeply ingrained in human thought processes that it cannot be expunged.”

Atheism is generally a product of the thinking, rational part of the mind. Yes, the part that gave us science and the Enlightenment, mathematics and the French Revolution, antibiotics and the atom bomb, etc. This is strong stuff, and many people really go head over heels for the atheistic / positivist-rationalist point of view. Still, this point of view may never completely overcome something deep inside the mind and brain. According to the article, an atheist scientist, Graham Lawton, was quoted in New Scientist as saying “atheism is psychologically impossible because of the way humans think . . . even people who claim to be committed atheists tacitly hold religious beliefs, such as the existence of an immortal soul.

So, given that scientists themselves have found atheism to ultimately be psychologically impossible, are they about to give up on it? Probably not. This knowledge now gives them the awareness and power to deal with whatever is causing this “irrational tendency”. Of course, the prime suspect is the usual suspect — evolution. In a nutshell:

If a tendency to believe in the reality of an intangible network is so deeply wired into humanity, the implication is that it must have an evolutionary purpose. Social scientists have long believed that the emotional depth and complexity of the human mind means that mindful, self-aware people necessarily suffer from deep existential dread. Spiritual beliefs evolved over thousands of years as nature’s way to help us balance this out and go on functioning.

Ah, so this unspoken bias towards teleology in the universe is all just an ancient and uninformed response to dread. And now with our knowledge of that, we can live fully in the light of rationality, free from the atavistic tendencies that plagued our ancestors as they neurotically sought out “Fathers in Heaven” or Great Spirits or karma or Virgin Marys. We can build our own Utopia.

Except . . . one problem . . . what about that “dread” factor? Where did it come from? If rationality prevails, then we are ultimately a group of highly sophisticated and complex machines. Are machines capable of “dread”? They certainly can be programmed to recognize danger and threats and respond to them. But as to “dread”, as to a deep down feeling inside that questions what am I (i.e., the alleged machine entity), what is my purpose, why am I here, and why am I going to die? Do machines get into that stuff?

And even if we teach them to think deeply, would they really feel anything? If we are ultimately machines, then the modern, enlightened, rationalistic world, with its great knowledge of neuroscience and psychotherapy, should be able to eliminate any problems regarding dread. Is that happening in our world? Do you think that it ever really will?

Personally, I have my doubts (without saying that I am sure it to be impossible). Dread might be the more important matter in the question of whether a supernatural God-like reality might be thinkable or not in our universe; as opposed to how hard it is or isn’t to be a pure atheist. As the aphorism goes, there are no atheists in foxholes. As to whether humankind can ever leave behind the foxhole of existential dread, the jury is still out. And I wonder if it ever will come in with a final verdict.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:39 pm      

  1. Beautifully expressed. Thanks Jim. A poignant read, on a non-verbal meltdown day such as this.

    Comment by DJ — July 17, 2014 @ 3:33 am

  2. Jim, If I understand this post correctly, I’m having trouble with the article you refer to limiting the concept of the “need for a god” to simply “dread”, that is, that “Social Scientists have long believed that the emotional depth and complexity of the human mind means that mindful, self-aware people necessarily suffer from deep existential dread.”

    I find myself questioning whether “dread” is the same as say, sorrow or deep unhappiness; search for purpose in life; deep, lasting frustration; search for help in life’s issues; loss of control over life, etc. It also seems to me that any and/or all of these I mentioned, given a particular intensity, could trigger a “need” for a god in a person’s life, not only existential “dread”.

    I have long heard the aphorism that “there are no atheists in foxholes”; I’ve instinctively related that concept to much broader things in life that can bring out an almost instinctive prayer and “need” to/for God than simply the dread that one may die in combat. In fact, I’ve often tho’t that there may be worse things than death. Living with some insidious disease that progresses over a long period of time, making a person’s life one continuous period of illness and pain may be far worse that a death that comes instantly. (Here I think of people who have lived long lives with medical problems such as M.S., ALS, certain kinds of cancer, strokes that allow a person to be able to think yet not express him/herself or live what others might describe as an unproductive life, etc. It seems to me that these things may, in some ways, be far worse than an immediate death that hits one, unless one considers worry about an immediate death that may happen long in the future what constitutes existential “dread”.

    Then there are those who are left to grieve. Is grief related to some kind of “existential dread”? Perhaps it is and I just do not understand the connection.

    Furthermore, it seems to me the height of hubris to maintain that, because one intellectually knows a lot about science, one has all the answers. This is a mistake I think a lot of today’s scientists make. (Stephen Hawkings comes to mind here, for one.) It seems to me that, while one may be highly educated in a particular field, there are other areas of knowledge that do not proceed intellectually but may proceed intuitively, mystically, spiritually, or some other way we have not yet been able to even grasp. Who is to say that we even have begun to consider all the various ways that one may “know”?

    While existential dread is surely serious and, to say the least, unpleasant to experience, I wonder if it could be called the most important in the question of whether or not God might exist or if this concept even enters the minds of most individuals. Perhaps I’m just being too subjective here. For me, I’ve often tho’t that perhaps there is no god. But, on the other hand, the times in life I’ve tho’t that there are “no atheists in foxholes” have *never* concerned “existential dread”.

    In the end, when seriously “pressured” by the forces of life mentioned above, deep sorrow, unrelenting pain, etc., those have been the times I’ve tho’t “there are no atheists in foxholes.” I would tend to think that for ordinary people who almost inevitably at times wonder if there is a god, those times usually have little to do with existential dread, but much to do with the deep intensities of life’s experiences. It is often the mystical or spiritual that brings people back to the concept that “there are no atheists in foxholes”. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — July 17, 2014 @ 10:27 pm

  3. “there are no atheists in foxholes”? Of course there are. I am not sure how many atheists you know, but I know many – including people who served in the military. It is true that during times of battle, some people who considered themselves atheists may start praying. So what does that prove? If you have an illness and someone who you know said and completely believed that if you say Bettlejuice three times, your illness would go away, wouldn’t you do it? Does that mean that they subconciously believe that saying beattlejice three times will solve their problem?

    And what does “dread” have anything to do with atheism? Everyone – including atheists – “dreads” some things. That just shows that atheists have human emotions and fears just like everyone else.

    Comment by Zreebs — August 6, 2014 @ 11:59 am

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