An Atheist in Defense of Religion
There’s a major division in atheism within the scientific community, and the two camps appear to be quietly at war with one another. One group considers religion and spirituality to be little more than delusions, and seems to believe that a truly strong-minded person will have no need for spirituality. This view seems to be based on the idea that religion can be reduced to an echo of our dependence on our parents when we were very young.
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There’s a correspondence between “internal working models of parents and God”. The more attached we were to our parents, the closer we are to (an illusory) God later on in life. We call out to God in the same way we once called out to our parents. We acquired the mental habit of expecting prayers to be answered just as we expected our parents to come to our aid when we were very young. We come to expect that someone has to help us when we’re suffering. This view (that God is a reflection of our parents) seems to imply that, if we could address the problems that appear in our lives with positive coping styles, we wouldn’t cry out – or perhaps we wouldn’t need to cry out – to an invisible God for help.
In other words, this kind of atheism presents belief in God as a symptom of a nearly universal sub-clinical (not serious enough to need treatment) mental disorder. It tells us that something is wrong with people who believe in God. This view (which we’ll call the delusion model of spirituality) is based on the idea that untruths are inherently damaging. Not surprisingly, it seems to be most popular among scientists, who are aggrandized most when they see themselves as bearers and defenders of truth. If ‘real’ truth truly belongs only to science, then its protagonists are the most heroic people on planet earth. Like any religion, this kind of atheism upholds its own faith (in this case, faith in the scientific community) as the sole source of the highest knowledge.
“I get attacked by everyone,” says Patrick McNamara, associate professor of neurology at Boston University and author of The Neuroscience of Religious Experience. “Atheists hate me because I’m saying religion has some basis in the brain and fundamentalist Christians hate me because I’m saying religion is nothing but brain impulses.” The Telegraph, Friday 20 June 2014
The other type of atheism we’ll look at here is the kind represented Dr. M.A. Persinger, whose God Helmet (often called the Koren Helmet) has provided evidence that religious and mystic experiences arise from specific brain functions. These functions are intrinsic to the brain’s operations, and are the result of our evolutionary history.
Exploring this kind of atheism will bring us face-to-face with a very different view – that we have not evolved to “see” the “truth”, but rather to survive. The many and varied psychological traits we show – the ones within the normal range – appear because they confer biological or social advantages. They help us survive and get along with other people. They lead to both survival and social success. Our evolutionary history has selected beliefs that foster adaptive behaviors as well as making the maladaptive ones less likely. Religion is perhaps the single most powerful cohesive force in human cultures. Culture is our survival strategy, so that spiritual beliefs are intrinsic to humans. Our minds may be configured to avoid challenges to them. Our thoughts and speech could have been more likely to meet with success (in our early evolutionary history) if our more practical thoughts and words are integrated with out religious beliefs. It doesn’t matter if these beliefs aren’t true. Evolutionary pressures don’t spare those who believe the truth. They are, however, likely to spare those whose beliefs motivate them to act adaptively.
If there is no God, then there are no sacred acts. Some acts are important, of course, but not sacred. If you believe that saving a baby from a hungry lion helps your people thrive, you’ll act to save the baby. If you also believe that the Gods will be pleased with you, and the shaman will give you a blessing of some kind, you may try harder than you would if it were only a social reward. If the Gods tell you to share with others as a religious obligation (like the Islamic injunction to tithe 10% of your income), more sharing will go on, and fewer people will die of starvation or exposure. The population will grow just a bit faster than otherwise.
We rely on one another for childrearing, obtaining food, protection, and obtaining the pleasures of life. We rely on one another to feel good, so we work hard to impress others; to gain their friendship and respect. Belief in God or the Gods allows the imperative behaviors forced on us by our reliance on complex culture to be expressed explicitly. We need to defend one another, so we accept Gods who tell us to act with compassion and sympathy more easily than Gods who tell us “to thine own self be true”. There are schools of philosophy and mysticism who uphold this as one of the principles of “the art of living”, but no popular religions. The Gods counsel peace within a community; the tribe, the nation, or “The People” whenever possible.
No religion that regards birth and death as ordinary events can ever survive next to one that treats them as sacred. The profound changes in the lives of those who’s loved one dies, or to whom a child is born, invite a larger-than-life interpretation. By treating these events as sacred, religious beliefs about them encourage people to be emotionally sensitive with the people they affect. Everyone ‘gives space’, and so avoids triggering conflicts during times when people are naturally most emotional – during grief or celebrations.
Religion is a projection of our evolutionary strategy, displayed on the screen of belief, and edited so that only its practical features appear. Religious behavior, overall, reflects the principles that complex culture is based on, while religious beliefs make them easy to remember and pass on to others.
Religious forms follow cultural functions. When a truth has no function in a culture, it will tend not to be preserved within the population (it will likely become a “worthless meme”). Some religious ideas, such as those unique to metaphysics, may be preserved, but in most cases “true” beliefs that don’t guide behaviors won’t last, and “false” beliefs that do guide behavior will be remembered and passed on. Since the invention writing, and then printing, many “worthless religious memes” have been preserved. Teachings about Atlantis, Lemuria, or ideas like “the quantum baby Jesus” can be preserved and spread in a tiny minority of the population. Such concepts probably would not have survived for long in our early evolutionary history. In our own times, using quartz crystals as a means to attain enlightenment had its heyday from the 1980s to 1990s, but is rarely heard of today. Nevertheless, Google showed over 650,000 results for the phrase “crystal healing” in June of 2014. It showed over 2 million results for “compassion lovingkindness”, a classical Buddhist phrase.
Some truths only have functions for a few (like calendars, whose calculations don’t depend on the God’s involvement, even though farming relies on them deeply). Others are important to almost everyone (like matters of birth, death, illness, and old age).
Our evolutionary heritage has made it advantageous to believe in nonsense. Our eyes see only the section of the Electromagnetic Spectrum (visible light) that helps us see threats and opportunities. Our ears hear only in the range where the sounds mean something to us (20 to 20,000 Hz). Our eyes and ears do not represent the world. They give us access only to the information we need. Our adaptive beliefs don’t represent the world, either. They give us access to the information we need about the culture we live in. That process may be more efficient if we build our beliefs slowly, forgetting the ones that don’t work and remembering the ones that do.
The “worthless memes” that don’t survive might be overly complicated, based on metaphors that are too obscure, or have morals that are too distant from ordinary experience, to name only a few problems with some of them. Since the written and printed word appeared in our history, few unproductive ideas die out completely, but the vast majority of the population won’t pay any attention to them. There are Hindu scriptures that delve into the metaphysics of creation and subtle energies (prakriti, and prana, to name only two), but most Hindus are much more interested in prayer, devotional practices, and spiritual practices (like meditation, chanting, and reading the scriptures). The Hindu epics (Mahabharata and Ramayana) command huge audiences when they’re made into television series, but very few people are interested in its metaphysics. Hinduism’s metaphysical memes are far from dead, but neither do they thrive. Metaphysics can make people feel they understand deeper truths, but the kind of religion most people practice helps in their daily lives. The Ten Commandments are useful guides to ordinary living, while the mysteries of the Kabala are not, and that’s probably why they are so much less popular. The same can be said for the Sermon on the Mount (“blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”) and Logos doctrines (“In the beginning was the word”).
One impossible belief can create contexts for many adaptive ones. The “will of God” can explain the inexplicable, and create a basis for libraries of moral codes. Its ability to motivate adaptive behavior isn’t diminished by its lack of veracity.
“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Alice in Wonderland.
The difference between the two lies in the way they explain why people are not all equally spiritual; why we don’t all have religious urges, and why some have religious and mystic experiences.
One of the main exponents of the Delusion Model is Richard Dawkins, whose book, The God Delusion, is one of the most influential works of active atheism in existence. He maintains that atheism is as worthy of respect and representation as any religion. Unfortunately, Atheism, the belief that there is no God, is a religion based on rejecting religious ideas rather than embracing them. For most people, it’s not at all clear that Atheism is a religion. Above all, it lacks the indefinable mood; the ethos that appears in the beliefs and paraphernalia of all religions. Most, if not all, religions encourage certain moods or states of consciousness. Compassion, devotion, awareness, awestruck wonder, faith, mercy, kindness, equanimity, love, silence, the dream state, calm, joy, empathy, receptivity, to name only a few.
Atheism offers little basis for these values (though that may change as science acquires a deeper understanding of them). Its ‘religious ethos’ appears to be limited to two points. The first is the sense that “… a proper understanding of the magnificence of the real world, while never becoming a religion, can fill the inspirational role that religion has historically – and inadequately – usurped (R. Dawkins).” The second is a rigorous adherence to ‘truth’ as ‘revealed’ by science. Alas, atheism has its fundamentalists, and like the religious kind, they actively oppose (perhaps even hate) ideas they disagree with.
Not long ago, someone brought my attention to a group called “guerilla skeptics”. These are people who write against “pseudoscience” on Wikipedia, including people and things like Deepak Chopra, Alternative Medicine, Marcel Vogel, Neurolinguistic programming (NLP), the “cosmic Pineal Gland”, and so forth. Such people are not writing for their beliefs, they write against those of others. Putting opposition to conflicting beliefs at the forefront is one of the hallmarks of fundamentalism. Perhaps the scientific world-view is so impoverished that it cannot be sustained without attacking those of others. More likely, aggressive skepticism appeals to those with aggressive personalities.
The sense of awe at understanding (or trying to grasp) the sheer size and elegance of the universe, and the mysterious fact that anything exists at all, seems to be the only religious sentiment atheism has to offer. With this in mind, we’ll think of atheism as a school of philosophy, and not a religion. In order to justify this decision fully, we’d have to delineate a set of criteria for what does and what doesn’t define a religion. The problem there is that religious believers and delusionalists (who see religious belief as ‘nothing more than’ or ‘just’ delusions) will both offer different criteria, and both will claim jurisdiction over the definition for the word.
Traditional religion and mysticism encompasses a much broader range of ‘spiritual states’. For people who have experienced them – being overwhelmed with compassion, bliss, or moments of very deep calm (“The peace which passeth understanding” – T.S. Eliot), the inspiration the scientific world-view offers will always seem insipid. Carl Sagan expressed the ethos well in his TV series and book, Cosmos, though like any other mood or ethos, it can’t be expressed in words. He told of how, as a child, he was amazed by the fact that the stars were suns, very far away. It imposed a sense of the sheer size of the universe on his young mind, and filled him with a sense of profound curiosity. He also repeated a phrase that seemed designed to amaze his audiences – “Billions and Billions” – values so large that the mind cannot grasp them. He evoked mind-mindbogglingly large spaces and numbers. Of course, having your mind “boggled” (being astonished or overwhelmed when trying to imagine something) is one possible point-of entry for spiritual faith, but it can also appear in the face of scientific truth. Those who experience it may become convinced that learning science is the way to the most powerful subjective experiences life has to offer. However, being astonished at the thought of the complexities of nature, the size of the universe, or the power of the human mind in its attempts to come to grips with it is a sensation that came late in our evolutionary history. The confrontations that our early ancestors had with “the mysterious” were probably far more likely to motivate adaptive behavior. The birth of a child may not be very mysterious (especially to obstetricians), but our emotional responses to it leave us acting as though it was one of the most sacred experiences possible. The child lives. The mind “boggles” at it. It’s not a miracle, but we respond as though it were, and so the phrase “miracle of life” is found in almost every language. Every mother becomes the Blessed Mother, and every newborn becomes like the infant Jesus.
To a person who’s had an experience with a personal meaningfulness, like the kind that can happen during a near-death experience, or spiritual epiphanies, like the kind where someone feels they have found their purpose in life, the sheer size of the universe means nothing. When a mother is handed her new-born baby for the first time, and cries her joy, feeling that nothing could ever be so important as the infant in her arms, the fact that there are ‘billions and billions’ of stars, organized into galaxies, galactic clusters, and even super-clusters of galaxies, becomes trivial. Nor can you tell her to be amazed at the seemingly miraculous biological complexity involved in conceiving a child and then giving birth. To her, the miracle is life itself, not the biological processes that stand behind it. To mention them in that moment could even be insulting. Complexity does not make something sacred, especially for those who express their sense of the sacred through prayer.
It might be true, but factual truth, whether it appears in science, law courts, or anywhere else, can’t compete with the states of consciousness that appear in religion or mysticism. A mind in a state of silence brought on through meditation is not going to be moved by large numbers – even googleplexes (10x10x100). Neither will someone who has the experience of being in God’s Presence.
An atheist of the delusion school might argue that these experiences are based on delusions, and that it’s self-evident that truth is better. Of course, the whole idea of self-evident truth runs contrary to the mind-set of science, as all assertions call for evidence (although few scientific ideas were supported by evidence when they were first proposed). Such an atheist might also argue that believing only the truth can save you from “cognitive dissonance” (yes, religions, including atheism, offer salvation).
The trouble with this view is that there isn’t any such thing as scientific truth. The major scientific truths, like quantum mechanics, evolution, and relativity, are subject to change. New theories replace and alter older ones regularly, though the process isn’t so obvious to the general public. Darwin’s original theory has been challenged and amended by things like “punctuational evolution”, “Baldwinian evolution” and the “selfish gene” model. All of these compliment the older ‘survival of the fittest’ view, but the picture of how biological evolution operates has changed considerably since Darwin’s time. Naturally, anyone who believes in classical Darwinian evolution will experience ‘cognitive dissonance’ when confronted by one of these newer and controversial amendments to the original theory of evolution. Some of them might even lash out at them.
Truth is not enough. Spirituality and religious faith are based on feelings and sensations, not any kind of knowledge that can be known intellectually or expressed fully through words. These paraphrased words are from Dawkins: “A proper understanding of the magnificence of the real world can fill the inspirational role religion has usurped”. Anyone who has had a spiritual experience will know these are the words of a person who’s never had one. The sense of wonder that comes from perceiving magnificence in the real (meaning physical) world usually includes a sense of meaningfulness – the feeling that its magnificence means something; that it’s somehow important. Of course, this feeling is something we project onto the physical world. Neither a snail nor a star cluster perceives themselves as magnificent. They are what they are.
If I ever meet Dawkins, I would ask him (after expressing my honest admiration for his work on the “selfish gene” and the notion of memes) who religion usurped its inspirational role from? He implies that religion acquired its inspirational role unfairly, and that makes no sense to me. There was no one to steal it from.
The idea that people can have spiritual feelings that go beyond seeing ‘truth’ or being amazed by the physical world offers a challenge to the ‘delusion model’. If spirituality is based on delusion, then spiritual feelings become symptoms of a psychiatric disorder. Any feeling that seems to be an expression of spirituality or that’s acted out through spiritual behavior automatically becomes a symptom. If religion and spirituality are delusional, then spiritual people (whatever that may mean to each person) are in the grips of a psychiatric pathology. If God is a delusion, then the people who believe in him are at least a little crazy. The extraordinary claim that everyone-but-atheists are delusional abandons one scientific idea – that clinically “normal” people are healthy. When normalcy includes an average degree of religious faith, atheism, especially the assertive kind, becomes abnormal, and may not be so healthy. Mental health can and usually does, include a certain amount of faith in things that are untrue. A touch of myth and faith can enrich people’s lives. The person who lives without it may not be very happy among their fellow humans.
Naturally, skeptics and atheists who believe in the delusion model try to discredit anything that implies that religious experiences are within the repertoire of normal human states of consciousness. This includes the God Helmet, a neural stimulation technology that has induced spiritual experiences in the laboratory. Skeptics try to explain religious experiences brought on by drugs as temporary psychoses. They try to explain Near-death experiences as brain malfunctions that occur when the brain stops working. Often, spontaneous religious experiences are explained as epilepsy.
When skeptics are confronted by the idea that spiritual experiences and faith are part of our survival strategy, they usually respond with silence. Most of them are more comfortable opposing religious beliefs based on religious sources. If spirituality is part of our evolutionary heritage, then spiritual experiences are normal and should be expected in some portion of the population. Skeptics and atheists are accustomed to responding to religion with arguments from evolutionary theory. They are not so used to responding to evolutionary arguments that see an adaptive role for religion.
Because of its pivotal role in the debate between religion and science in the battle of creationism, skeptical atheists have come to see evolution as “their territory”. However, very few of today’s more vocal atheists have any background in anthropology, and often fail to appreciate the role religion played in our early evolutionary history. I would go so far as to say, that in the dawn of humanity, culture and religion were one entity.
It has been argued that the propensity to hold religious beliefs is based on suggestibility.
Because suggestibility is crucial for learning and holding religious beliefs, it may be more heuristic to consider it as a skill rather than a trait. Like many social skills, it can be applied without the person knowing they’re doing it. Being able to believe in fictional concepts that both facilitate and motivate adaptive behavior (as well as concepts with an empirical basis) would have helped to raise a person’s social rank earlier in our evolutionary history. More recently, sharing the adaptive-but-untrue ideas of one’s group helps to be elected to government office. At least, it’s not easy for atheists to be elected in most of the world, and many religious men have been elected to public office (especially in the USA) by touting “family values”, which usually means “religious morality”.
If you lack suggestibility, you might well be more intelligent than most, but you would also be less imaginative. Above all, this refers to visual imagination. Seeing pictures in your mind, and even in the clouds (pareidolia). A lack of imaginativeness can alienate those who are very imaginative. Those who find the facts more interesting – and might like to hear things said correctly – seem a bit boring and flat to those who respond to events and perceptions with emotions or by imagination and association (being reminded of other things), or by looking for indirect associations (that turn things into jokes, or find romantic or spiritual associations). Suggestibility draws you into jokes so you laugh at the punch line as much as it contributes to being superstitious. It’s a skill that helps us interact with each other.
Being suggestibility helps you can integrate yourself into the culture, and the people, around you.
You accept what other people think as well as thinking for yourself, and so you fit into your culture. That helps you, and everyone around you, to survive.
“Men turned to stone when they ceased to believe in the beauty of the impossible” Arabian Nights.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”