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Wednesday, February 4, 2015
◊  God 2.0
Philosophy ... Religion ... Spirituality ...

I’ve talked here before about the “New Atheism” movement, a rather interesting social development over the past decade or so. Citing progress in particle physics and cosmology in crafting a “theory of everything” (based on vacuum energy, superstring/M-theory, inflationary cosmology, and the resultant multi-verse process), along with continuing scientific and philosophical work on the deep nature of human consciousness, a handful of philosophers and scientists have propounded a new synthesis by which science explains it all; there is no further need to appeal to ideas about “God” or any other mysterious phenomenon or force in the universe. Perhaps the most famous proponents of this movement are philosopher Daniel Dennett and biologist Richard Dawkins. But many people say there are “four horsemen” of this new view: Dennett, Dawkins, the now deceased writer Christopher Hitchens, and neuroscientist Sam Harris. Their overall synthesis boils down to a mix of 1.) physical monist philosophy, in which all things are either known or will eventually be known through empirical science and rational analysis; and 2.) secular humanism, the notion that human beings are capable of being ethical and moral without religion or a God.

I just put the New Atheism’s ideas in a positive fashion, i.e. emphasizing what they appear to be arguing FOR. But they are probably better defined by what they argue AGAINST: i.e., classical theistic, God-based religions. According to Wikipedia, the New Atheists believe that religion should not simply be tolerated as an alternate if inferior point of view, but should be aggressively countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises. The famous biologist E.O. Wilson recently said that “the best thing we could possibly do would be to diminish, to the point of eliminating, religious faiths.”

The New Atheism thus takes the secular humanist agenda to the next level, by asserting that humanity will achieve the highest levels of humanism and goodness possible once all forms of religion and God belief (or even God-hope, however agnostic) are eliminated. It will be as close to Utopia as we can get.

This is quite a vision, in some ways similar to the ideas that Karl Marx had about 150 years ago. Actually, an argument could be made that the New Atheism mimics Marxism in several important ways. So far, though, the New Atheists aren’t advocating anything political or muscular to get their point across. No revolutions, no burning of churches, no exile for religious leaders and forced re-education for the unwashed religious masses (according to a recent Pew survey, 37% of Americans attend church services weekly, another 33% stop in at least once a year, i.e. for the major celebrations like Christmas, and the other 30% very rarely or never go to church). Well, let’s hope there won’t be a violent revolution, as seemingly innocent ideas occasionally get carried away, as at the Bastille and in St. Petersburg. So far, the new atheists are sticking with their books, articles, talks, videos, interviews and condescending attitudes; they thankfully haven’t gone political.

But let’s face it, right now the atheists just don’t have the numbers to start influencing politicians. According to Pew, affirmed atheists comprise about 2.4% of the American population. Another 13.9% say they believe in “nothing in particular” and 3.3% call themselves agnostic. These numbers have grown in recent years, increasing by 0.8 percentage points for atheists, 1.2 points for agnostics, and 2.3 points for “nothings” between 2007 and 2012. That is, about 4% more Americans might be sympathetic to what the New Atheists are saying versus 2007. If that trend were to continue for another generation, you could imagine perhaps around 40% of the population wanting nothing to do with religion and being potentially hostile towards it.

At that point, a “New Atheism” movement might start to flex its political muscles. Hey, it took Marx a half-century before his ideas injected themselves into world history, and another three-quarters of a century (along with some bloody revolutions, brutal governments, gulags, wars, cold wars, proxy-wars, and space programs) until they played themselves out.

So, is the New Atheism the next version of Marxist Communism? Maybe not. I’ve noticed over the past year or two that some proponents and sympathizers of modern rationalist atheism have been hinting that perhaps physical monism and secular humanism really isn’t enough; perhaps scientific method and rational debate isn’t going to uncover all of the truths about life (even if religion and God don’t properly do that either). First off, Sam Harris wrote a book called Waking Up, which says that human desires for spirituality and transcendence should not be discounted and dismissed in the name of scientific rationality. Harris seems to admit that these are a legitimate part of the human experience after all. He sticks by his guns in attacking religion and God-belief, of course; he feels that the new humanists / rationalists can find a better way of satisfying this not-quite-irrational human need than the old time religions did. But still, one is quite tempted to say that a slight crack has opened in the physicalist monist facade; Marx never had time for yoga or meditation practice, of course.

Since then, other indications of “second thought” on the part of the New Atheists and their sympathizers have appeared. For instance, a recent article in the journal Space Policy (an interdisciplinary journal which draws on the fields of international relations, economics, history, aerospace studies, security studies, development studies, political science and ethics to provide discussion and analysis of spaceflight activities) written by academic biologist Kelly Smith argues that rational thought and even ethical notions have a very good chance of evolving from the natural processes by which the universe is ordered. There is just something about the fundamental laws of physics that stack the deck in favor of the evolution of complex structures and information concentration, which under the right conditions express themselves in life-forms that attain very sophisticated rational thinking ability, with such ability leading to notions of ethics and morality.

Nobody here is using the G-word; but it certainly does make you wonder just why the rules in our universe seem to be stacked in a way such that highly intelligent and (eventually) moral creatures result. (Yes, I know that the inflationary cosmologists and string theory people will shoot back that there are innumerable possible universes out there, and it’s just a lucky accident that we wound up in the one that could support us; but still, even if it only takes place in one out of some incredible, perhaps even eternal number of universe formations, that’s still pretty impressive!).

Let’s next go back to E.O. Wilson himself. He also has a new book out, where he argues against theism and theistic religion, but says that spirituality is a legitimate human experience that somehow must be fulfilled. Interestingly, he said in an interview that he doesn’t consider himself to be an atheist. He stated that there might be a cosmological god, something beyond our comprehension that started the universe, and calls himself a “provisional deist” (perhaps more accurately, an agnostic deist).

In this sense, his stance on God is somewhat similar to the late biologist Anthony Flew, whose 2004 conversion to a form of “God belief” after a lifetime of strident atheism created something of a stir. Like Wilson, however, Flew believed that the idea of a personal God, an all-powerful God who is aware of us and has an on-going relationship with us (which the classic religions mostly teach) is impossible. Flew was more of a classic deist, believing in a god who created the universe and gave it its laws and tendencies, but has no further contact or relationship to what goes on within it. Wilson is basically a step further down the ladder, saying that Flew’s god is only a possibility. Still, that’s a step up (or down, depending on your perspective) from classic atheism (and certainly from the New Atheism).

One more little example. Being interested in the discussion and debate on the nature and meaning of human consciousness, I am presently reading a book called “Mind and Cosmos” by atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel. Nagel has been very active in the consciousness field over the past generation, and has presented a lot of interesting thoughts about mental life (perhaps he is most famous for the article asking “what is it like to be a bat”). Although there are a wide variety of positions, the consciousness debate basically comes down to the physicalists (including Daniel Dennett) who feel that consciousness is completely explained by science; and the dualists, who say there is something more to it that science hasn’t yet captured and may never be able to fully explicate.

At the risk of oversimplification, I would say that Nagel has come down on the side of the latter position. Although he clearly rejects any sort of theistic association involved with the human experience of being conscious, he indicates that scientific knowledge and paradigms just do not capture everything there is to know about reality. He says that this is not limited to consciousness, citing ultimate uncertainties about the process of biological evolution. This uncertainty ultimately extends to EVERYTHING we know about the universe.

Nagel is a very cautious writer, and definitely stops himself before implying what else may be out there, past the limits of what we now know and what we are ultimately able to know. But he does use the word “teleology” in discussing a possible ultimate synthesis in how humankind should look at itself and the world surrounding it. Science and philosophical logic will continue to remain key foundations in thus future ultimate synthesis; but they will need to allow room for “something more”, even though that “more” would NOT include the classic teachings about God.

So what do we have here? Are these very erudite men rebelling against the New Atheism/Humanism, or are they trying to re-direct it in a way that will ultimately be of more interest to the average person? And is there something real after all to the hint that “science and classic rational logic can’t capture it all”? Obviously, they are presently taking the latter proposition very seriously. Ironically, so have the classic religious faiths, for many centuries, even millennium.

In sum, this New-But-Not-Exactly-Atheism, or Humanism-Plus movement, seems to be saying that the old time religions were on to something, something fundamental that humans somehow sense beyond the immediate capabilities of their eyes, nose, taste and touch, and even beyond the immediate scope of their mental cognitions. But they blew it. They amped it up, make it political, made it all about power and even war. They took some old-time pre-scientific philosophies from the ancient Greeks and merged these into their superstitious rituals to come up with a God that is all-powerful and on our backs 24/7. No where to hide from this God.

The bishops, abbots, priests and prophets co-opted the God establishment, managing to convince others that they know this God better than most; they must be listened to if you don’t want any trouble from God (especially when you are dying, and the divine promise of an afterlife is your last hope). They pushed it to the point of holy wars and righteous killings; i.e., some people got to be disposed of, if everyone else is going to get it right. And this still goes on today. Yes, the radical Islamists are the most notorious suspects, but even some Buddhists are shedding the blood of those who are different from them (as in Myanmar, where Buddhists wield knives, swords and bamboo poles against Islamic minorities).

So, the proverbial cities of God that the classical religions built need to be raised, with new cities built on better foundations. The New Atheism started out by proposing to replace the old structures with a new foundation built solely upon science and logic. But these Atheists are smart people, and the old Marxist connection and lessons of 20th Century history (and 18th Century) probably didn’t entirely escape them. So now they are mixing up a new batch of concrete, one that folds in the notions of possible transcendence and ultimate purpose.

I myself find this to be positive, so long as it doesn’t become a dogma and ideology in and of itself. There are actually some progressive elements in the classical religions, people who realize that the old castles and fortresses are beginning to crumble. One hopeful sign in Christianity is the move (unofficial though it may be) to define God in more of a “process” fashion, to give up some of God’s almighty power and admit that the divine too is subject to imperfection just like us, and is learning along with us. This viewpoint still retains a personal connection between humankind and the transcendent; by contrast, that remains a no-no with the New-New thinkers, who fear that a god with personality will settle anew into the old masculine king and warrior role.

But at some point, I can’t help wondering if there will be a third wave to the new Sam Harris-style transcendent thinking, one that captures the importance of relationship. At some point, some scientists and analysts are going to point out that it’s all about relationship; every known physical process is powered by the fact that two or more things or forces are interacting. And at that point, perhaps the New-New thinkers will admit that the old God paradigm, politically dangerous as it was, did indeed capture something ontologically essential by asserting the fundamentality of the God-human relationship.

So if there is then to be a “something more”, a transcendent component to reality, then perhaps it will be necessary for us to have relationships with it. Not a cold cause-and-effect relationship at a distance, but an on-going interactive relationship, akin to what quantum physics says about the relationship of entangled particles. The distant, uninvolved God-creator that Flew and Wilson propose just aren’t consistent with what science and rational analysis (on both the fundamental and cosmological levels) show us.

At that point – we’re really not all that far off from the way that a process theologian like the Jesuit Teilhard De Chardin understood God. Certainly there can be no going back to the classic “big daddy / big boss” God. Just as we, and all of the physical reality that we know, is powered into life and growth through random changes and breaks from grand symmetrical patterns (what you might call “imperfections”), and just as we in our lives are subject to non-eternal, incomplete information states, God too would exist in a “flawed” but on-going relationship with us. From this dynamic relationship, a distant ideal / teleology interactively emerges, towards which all is tending (but never finally attaining, thus allowing for eternal life). The true God is ultimately the on-going relationship between God and us, the whole of it. We are then a necessary if imperfect part of the God process.

So, I’m dreaming here that the New-New-Quasi Atheism movement could somehow learn to dance with the more progressive, process-based aspects of the established religions, and somehow progress toward a God 2.0, a God for the future. I.e., a God that truly exists, but that we are also responsible for. We will finally see that we get the God that we deserve. If we want war and exploitation, we get a God like that. If we truly want peace, growth and cooperation, well guess what kind of a God we would get then? If we want a God that ignores us and turns away from us . . . it doesn’t sound pretty. I’m not optimistic that something like this grand synthesis will happen in my lifetime. People are still too political, there is still way too much hubris and fear in the air. But I can dream, and this blog is the place where I will share my dreams. Make of it what you will.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:45 pm      

  1. Jim, I find it most interesting to follow your tho’t process as you ponder whether or not there is a God. I must confess I was surprised to find that you have come to the point where you are thinking about “the importance of relationship” in the whole God/human context.

    I found particular interesting and thoughtful your point that if a God truly exists we are not only responsible *to* that God but we are also responsible *for* that God. As you say, we get the God we deserve, depending on how we see that God. Since depending on the kind of God we see, we get the kind of world we see; then would *humans* not be creating the earth at least, if not more aspects of creation?

    I also think the concept of being “responsible *for*” God (which idea I like very much) to be particularly new and intriguing. Would I be correct in thinking that if the term “responsible for” is used, it likely also has some relation to the same idea as “responsible for” humans, i.e., parents for children, spouses for each other, etc.

    I ask: Would you leave out this aspect of “responsible for” God? If so, why? If not, I find the idea one that would take some serious tho’t: How could we be “responsible for” God? Is there a hint of humans creating God?. . . which is also definitely in your idea that “we get the God that we deserve”; if we want war, we get war; if we want peace, we get peace. (I reduce the point you make here.) If so, then would not humans *be* God? Might that then be a reason humans feel a responsibility for other humans that they may have no direct relationship to but find that relationship in the very human-ness of each other since we are all “God”?

    In addition as I think about de Chardin and his concept of evolution, it seems to me that eventually, one would come to your point of responsibility *for* God and thus for the entirety of creation. Or would Chardin say that God evolving makes creation? It’s been so long since I’ve read him that I’m unsure of which idea he’d agree with. Then again, I can’t remember his asking a question like that. It may be he avoided the point to avoid more of the problems he was already having with the Roman Church. But in that entirety of creation, we surely have little knowledge of the massive number of steps involved in what humans, to say nothing of evolution, will eventually become.

    A most interesting idea, Jim: That any relationship to God brings a responsibility *for* that God. Requires a good think. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — February 5, 2015 @ 3:21 pm

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