Lost in Space
Peter Hooton argues the case for belief in God.
“When I see the blind and wretched state of man, when I survey the whole universe in its dumbness and man left to himself with no light, as though lost in this corner of the universe, without knowing who put him there, what he has come to do, what will become of him when he dies, incapable of knowing anything, I am moved to terror, like a man transported in his sleep to some terrifying desert island, who wakes up quite lost with no means of escape. Then I marvel that so wretched a state does not drive people to despair. “ (Pascal) (i)
“About the gods I have no means of knowing either that they exist or that they do not exist or what they are to look at. Many things prevent me knowing. Among others, the fact that they are never seen.” (Protagoras) (ii)
I. Why do people believe in God?
The answers to this question are relatively straightforward and haven’t changed much over time. The assumed presence of a superlatively powerful, supernatural overseer helps us to make sense of our lives by explaining how we came to be and what we are meant to do. God is our moral compass; our companion in isolation; our champion in combat; our comfort in adversity. God is infallible and invariably just. His wrath is provoked by our ignorance and disobedience. His compassion and forgiveness are the unfailing expression of His love for humankind. Here, at its bleakest, we have a response to the horrors of Pascal’s dumb, dark and endless space; at its most sublime, an unconditional surrender, in love and humility, to life lived entirely in the presence of God.
While religious scepticism has a long history (Protagoras composed his Essay on the Gods in the 5th century BCE), it was, to say the least, an exceptional attitude to take until quite recently ‑ first achieving a degree of notoriety in 18th century Europe, before assuming a more settled place in intellectual thought over the next hundred years and, thereafter, more or less commonplace status in the 20th century West. Neither the heliocentric theory of Copernicus nor the laws of motion proposed by Newton diminished these particular men’s faith in God but the cumulative impact of their work and that of other great scientists and innovative thinkers has allowed us to assert an increasingly profound understanding of nature and its ‘laws’, and has encouraged a growing number of people to envisage a universe without God. Most human beings, though, still believe in a supernatural presence of some kind ‑ the kind we commonly call God; a presence with the power to influence events on earth and beyond it. But belief in God has declined, and continues to decline, particularly in the West, where people are more likely to approach with scepticism any explanation of reality for which there is no practical proof and no tangible evidence, and which calls for belief in fairy tales, like the creation, and in a God who manages, with quite deliberate authority, every detail of our lives.
II. The Case for No God
When, therefore, people either deny or simply lose interest in God, what do they in fact deny? They deny the existence or, perhaps rather more often, the evidence for an anthropomorphic, male, omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent God who first created the world and now controls it, and who (whether perfect and kind, or jealous and judgmental, or all of these things) takes an intimate interest in our affairs because He has made us the crown or pinnacle of His creation. Why, though, do they reject a view which is still widely and, in many cases, fiercely held; and how can they explain the origins of the universe, of being and consciousness, the complex order of things, without God?
Those who have chosen not to believe in God, and thought about it, will generally argue that there are other, and better, explanations for the origins of these phenomena. The explanations come from the remarkable expansion of scientific knowledge which has given us the infinite universe, geological time, evolution and natural selection, and a much better understanding of human biology and disease. The world may no longer be the centre of the universe but this doesn’t really matter because we now know so much more about the material universe than we did and the boundaries are being pushed out further day by day. Change is constant and progress inexorable. Indeed, they have come virtually to define life and success in the contemporary world.
Among the arguments that may reasonably be thought to support this view are the following:
1. God is an hypothesis that cannot be proved empirically. It may stand for a while but not for ever. In science, an hypothesis does not have indefinite validity.
2. The creation of the universe ‑ the emergence of matter from the void; of something from nothing ‑ does not prove the existence of God. Mass comes from energy, and Stephen Hawking has argued that “the mean energy density of the universe is exactly what it should be for a universe that appeared from an initial state of zero energy” ‑ from nothing. (iii)
3. ‘Nothing’ is in any case unstable because “many simple systems of particles (among which ‘nothing’ is the simplest) are unstable.” ‘Nothing’ is therefore quite likely to “undergo a spontaneous phase transition to something more complicated, like a universe containing matter. (iv) It is more natural for there to be something than nothing.
4. There is no need to ascribe a beginning to things and no reason why there should not have been other universes before this one. “The equations of cosmology that describe the early universe apply equally for the other side of the time axis, so we have no reason to assume that the universe began with the big bang.” (v)
5. The fundamental laws of physics are no evidence of a Universal Architect. They are not in fact laws as such in that they do not impose “restrictions on the behaviour of matter. Rather they are restrictions on the way physicists may describe that behaviour.” (vi) What’s more, the fundamental laws of physics can be shown to apply equally in a void (in a universe devoid of matter). They come from nothing and nowhere.
6. Nor does the evidence we have for the birth of this (our) universe support claims of an Architect or Designer. The universe was born in a state of chaos. Order and complexity have emerged progressively and naturally over time.
7. Self‑awareness and thought may prove our existence to the satisfaction of most people but they do not prove the existence of God. Consciousness is “a function of the number and complexity of neuronal linkages of the architecture of the brain.” (vii) It is a product of evolution and natural selection.
8. Darwin’s theory of evolution has made impossible for many the idea that God created the known world ‑ what is essentially, biologically, today’s world ‑ in a matter of days just a few thousand years ago. (Geology and astronomy have, of course, extended the evolutionary time line still further.)
A theory of intelligent design has been advanced as a scientific alternative to evolution, chance mutation and natural selection, but biologists such as Richard Dawkins dismiss it as unscientific, illogical and misleading: “Natural selection ... raises our consciousness to the power of science to explain how organized complexity can emerge from simple beginnings without any deliberate guidance... It shatters the illusion of design within the domain of biology, and teaches us to be suspicious of any kind of design hypothesis in physics and cosmology as well.” (viii) These are, in many cases, profound insights, and persuasive arguments against a particular view of God: an all‑powerful Creator God, who stands outside nature and ourselves, and who is responsible for everything that happens to us. But theirs is essentially a materialist critique of a materialist, anthropomorphic view of God. It is damaging to aspects particularly of the Judaeo‑Christian worldview, which is its focus, but much less so to the religious viewpoints of those who see God in other ways. It has little if anything to say, for example, to those who see God as the non‑material, formless source and expression of the fundamental unity of all things.
III. Is Science Enough?
There are, though, still some criticisms to be made of the rational scientific materialist critique of God. For example, Stephen Hawking’s concept of a universe emerging spontaneously from a state of zero energy would not seem fully to resolve the ‘creatio ex nihilo’ dilemma. To the extent that a state of zero energy may be assumed to comprise equivalent amounts of negative and positive energy, it suggests that, at the birth of the universe, there was energy, rather than nothing. The idea that it is more natural for there to be ‘something’ rather than ‘nothing’ is logically compelling and consistent with a cyclical, as opposed to a linear, view of ‘time’. The idea though that the transition from nothing to something can be explained by the fact that “many simple systems of particles are unstable ... as they undergo spontaneous phase transitions to more complex structures of lower energy” and that “ ‘nothing’ is as simple as it gets” (ix) seems almost disingenuous from the materialist point of view. ‘Nothing’ may indeed be simple but it is not ‘particular’ and it is not a ‘system’. The hypothesis, while necessarily assuming a ‘natural’ rather than a ‘supernatural’ transition from ‘nothing’ to ‘something’, appears nonetheless to depend on a transcendental proposition! An argument against the existence of God which rests on the gradual emergence of order and complexity from an initial state of chaos also carries little weight here. It is quite possible to believe in God and evolution, and to accept an apparent state of chaos as evidence neither of God’s absence nor of an untidy Mind. Evolution can in fact be seen to parallel a mystical unfolding of ideas or ‘possibilities’ contained in the Mind of God ‑ a process which, with the emergence and growth of consciousness, brings ‘knowledge’ of God.
Richard Dawkins, in the essay Atheists for Jesus, borrows a phrase from Richard Holloway, former bishop of Edinburgh, who has described humanity as a ‘singularity’ in evolution. Dawkins though, unlike Holloway, attributes the singularity to “blind evolution ..., not the creation of any unevolved intelligence” ‑ to “the natural evolution of the human brain which, under the blind forces of natural selection, expanded to the point where, all unforeseen, it over‑reached itself and started to behave insanely from the selfish gene’s point of view. “ Examples of this ‘over‑reaching’ include “intellectual and artistic pursuits which squander, by the selfish gene’s lights, time and energy that should be devoted to surviving and reproducing”, and “that super niceness whose singular existence is the central paradox of [his] thesis.” Dawkins wonders whether the ‘big brain’ may eventually prove capable of leading society “away from the nether regions of its Darwinian origins into kinder and more compassionate uplands of post‑singularity enlightenment?” (x)
Dawkins would almost certainly not agree that the phenomenon of consciousness involves more than physics, chemistry and biology, but he doesn’t really offer an explanation ‑ apart from ‘blind evolution’ ‑ for either the ‘singularity’ or the ‘over‑reaching’ which permit us a measure of freedom from the ‘forces of natural selection’ which otherwise determine the course of all life on this planet. Dawkins may of course be persuaded that ‘blind evolution’ provides sufficient explanation for this remarkable development, but this would make it something of an anomaly in science. Generally, when there is a substantial, and certainly when there is a profound, change in observed behaviour, a new or modified hypothesis is required to account for it.
IV. God and the State
Changes in the social and political order over the past two hundred years or so have also done considerable damage to a particular view of God. The growth of democratic institutions and the emergence of the secular nation state with its emphasis, again most dramatically in the West, on the rights of the individual, have contributed to a significant decline in God’s temporal authority. God has been caught up in the revolt against authoritarianism and has generally been assumed to be on the wrong side, a supporter of the opponents of political and social freedom. An absolute God could be expected to uphold absolute monarchs who ruled by divine right and were God’s earthly representatives. He also encouraged an essentially negative view of human nature ‑ as weak and sinful ‑ that kept us in thrall and in check. Democracy, on the other hand, is more or less bound to endorse freedom of belief and has generally admitted God to its legislative and judicial institutions as the symbol and expression of an ‘objective’ moral standard and guarantor of popular legitimacy. God, though, has not yet been absolved of association with oppressive political and religious institutions ‑ far from it ‑ and, on the whole, now plays only a very small part in contemporary (Western) politics, despite the regular, formulaic invocations of the name.
V. A New Sense of Place
What are we to make of all this? It is perhaps worth noting initially that, while there have been some big changes in the way many of us see God in relation to ourselves, and a sharp ‑ though not unmitigated ‑ rise in confidence in our ability to manage our future as a species, one thing hasn’t really changed much; and that is a belief that somehow ‑ whether because we are God’s favoured creatures or because of a chance outcome of blind evolution ‑ humankind occupies a unique, and uniquely important, place in the created or accidental universe. This view may of course be tempered with humility, as when we acknowledge our inherent sinfulness, or the sovereignty of God, or the fact that we may not be alone in the universe, or that we have the capacity to manage things so badly as potentially to extinguish all human life on earth, but it is nonetheless central to most religious and secular viewpoints.
In more superstitious and less self‑confident times, tempering humility would generally have prevented us from asserting what many are now also prepared to claim: that we are capable, given time and some luck, of knowing everything that can be known ‑ or, at least, of knowing everything that is worth knowing.
One might ask though, if it were possible for us to establish that horses believed this (about themselves), what we would think of them? This is not a claim we could take seriously, if it were made by a horse, because we can be reasonably sure that we have a more sophisticated understanding of the universe than they do, and that, as a consequence, we will always know more than they can. Indeed, it may be argued with some conviction that we have more right to a qualified omniscience than any other living creature because we have yet to ‘prove’ the existence of anyone or anything smarter than ourselves.
So, either we already know all there is to know (which of course we don’t), or will know it, or can’t know it. But why must we assume everything we don’t yet know to fall necessarily within the realm of sensible empirical ‘reality’ and everything we may never know to be not worth knowing? This is not just hubris. It is a failure of the imagination, which has in so many ways long been our principal intellectual adornment.
As we have seen, though, contemporary religious scepticism rests on considerably more than arrogance. Ours is not the world of Moses, of Jesus or Muhammad. It is a very different place characterised, principally, not by changes in technology and social order but by a disconcerting loss of intimacy. This is a product of quite recent times. Before space became infinite and human beings a comparatively recent innovation in an almost unimaginably ancient world, we lived under God’s ever watchful eye in a closed system of earth and firmament. Whether God was kind or cruel, whether He loved or despised us, was much less important than the fact that He was so obviously there, in every crack of thunder and bolt of lightning. That certainty has deserted us. Indeed, it has deserted many who choose still to believe in God and whose beliefs have been reshaped in different ways to accommodate a much larger universe.
VI. Ways of Seeing
There are, broadly speaking, five possible responses to this still relatively new sense of situational awareness.
• One is obviously a decision not to believe in God at all.
• Another is neither to believe nor disbelieve because the choice is either arbitrary or unimportant.
• Another way of responding to the challenges posed by contemporary circumstances is to turn one’s back on them by adopting a fundamentalist view of religion based on an uncompromisingly literal ‘understanding’ of doctrine, scripture and tradition.
• Others prefer an essentially humanistic approach, honing their religion’s social conscience and transforming its symbols, metaphors and mysteries into often rather uninspiring morality tales.
• Finally, there are those who recognise an opportunity to re‑examine and to change their beliefs in response to new interpretations of life and its possibilities. They see, and take, the chance to evolve.
There is a critical relationship here between belief and existential purpose. It is, after all, quite reasonable to ask ourselves, others, and God if we choose, what we are doing here. What is the essential, the fundamental purpose of life? Many have believed the answer to this question, assuming there is one right answer, to provide a metaphysical key to the universe. And while there may indeed be one right answer, there would again seem initially to be five broad possible answers to this question.
• The first may be that life has no purpose; it may be quite meaningless.
• The second could be that life is its own purpose; that our purpose is simply to preserve and renew life ‑ to survive and procreate.
• Or the purpose may be of our own design. Life has no inherent meaning; it has only the meaning we give it.
• If none of these suffice, must we look to a Creator, and find and do the will of God?
• Or, do we look to God for another reason, and perhaps see life as an opportunity to find our way back to the home we once shared with God ‑ a return to Unity, balance and harmony?
There are cases to be made for each of these arguments and none lacks competent advocates, but only one really answers the need of those whose inclinations best fit them for an open-ended exploration of ideas of God within a framework of belief. The first ignores the beauty, richness and complexity of life. The second, our potential as fully conscious human beings. Three seeks to remedy some of the deficiencies of one and two but lacks any sense of the transcendent. Four is much too hard to distinguish from morality and culture. It is too often a recipe for division and conflict. Only five implicitly acknowledges the opportunity we have as human beings to participate and to grow within a truly universal consciousness. We do not need God in order to be good. We need God to be complete.
VII. A Matter of Principle
In this article, I have focused principally on ideas of God rejected by modern science and moderated by politics, without offering much by way of definition in return. Putting aside the objection that one cannot ‘define’ (because to define is to constrain) the illimitable, there is also the problem that too abstract a definition makes God irrelevant, while too personal a definition makes Him merely (super)human.
God must though be present to us as something more ‑ much more ‑ than a bloodless Supreme Principle. The potentially most telling criticism of the God idea is this: if God exists, or may persuasively be argued to exist, simply and exclusively as the Unchanging Ground of Being, or Essence, or Principle, taking no part or interest in human affairs, who cares? What good is God to us?
God must engage with the world if we are to have any sort of relationship with Her, and I think there is a compelling case to be made for an all‑encompassing, caring and compassionate God whose presence and love flow naturally from Her Oneness with all creation. Whether or not, however, one has sympathy for this view, there is still, always and finally, a choice to be made, between the narrow ‘certainties’ of unbelief and the glorious ‘uncertainties’ of belief.
i Blaise Pascal, in Karen Armstrong A History of God (London: Mandarin Paperbacks, 1994), 343
ii Protagoras, in Carl Sagan’s ‘The God Hypothesis’ (Christopher Hitchens [ed.] The Portable Atheist, Da Capo Press, 2007), 238
iii Victor Stenger, ‘God: the Failed Hypothesis’, in Hitchens, 313‑4
iv ibid 326‑7
v ibid 320‑1
vi ibid 323‑5
vii Sagan, ‘The God Hypothesis’, in Hitchens, 234‑5
viii Richard Dawkins ‘Why There Almost Certainly Is No God’, in Hitchens, 290‑2
ix Stenger, in Hitchens, 326
x Richard Dawkins ‘Atheists for Jesus’, in Hitchens, 309‑10