Intimations of “God”

As promised, here are my thoughts on a hypothesis propounded by Robert Wright, briefly excerpted in a previous post.

  1. Ultimately, Wright’s argument is bound to disappoint theists and anti-theists alike.

    Most believers are committed to a particular scripture and a particular understanding of God. As Wright comments, “They don’t want to just hear that some conception of a god might be defensible, or that a personal god is defensible as some sort of approximation of the truth.”

    Meanwhile, anti-theists are dismissive of all arguments for God’s existence. They see no direct evidence of God’s existence, and no need to appeal to God as an explanation for any phenomenon — including the moral order.

    Thus Wright’s book is likely to annoy many people and satisfy few.

  2. But Wright’s argument may have some appeal to a certain class of believers — people like me.

    I have come to the conclusion that the traditional “proofs” for God’s existence are anything but. For example, the resurrection of Christ. It might have sufficed as a proof in the first century, when you could investigate the event for yourself by talking to the various eyewitnesses — Peter, John, James, Paul, etc. But 2000 years later, the resurrection is merely an article of faith rather than a compelling demonstration of the truth of the Gospel.

    Meanwhile, the theory of evolution, substantiated by a solid body of evidence, and subsequently corroborated by discovery of how DNA works — these scientific insights have provided an alternative explanation for the world that we inhabit. The ancient proof from nature — “The heavens declare the glory of God / the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1) — is no longer the only explanation on offer.

    What evidence, then, can we still appeal to — those of us who accept the conclusions of science, yet stubbornly persist in our belief in God? In my view, we are left with intimations of God’s existence rather than proofs.

    Wright is offering exactly that — an intimation of God’s existence — when he describes God as the source of the moral order. Wright interprets human history as a long arc toward a higher morality. To give some examples of my own choosing (I’m not sure what examples Wright would offer) :

    • “an eye for an eye” has been supplanted by, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44);
    • a love that was circumscribed — reserved for fellow tribesmen — has been superseded by the ideal of the “brotherhood” of all humankind;
    • a reflexive human tendency to organize people into castes, with kings and landowners at the apex, and common labourers near the bottom, and women as slaves to the slaves — has yielded to our democratic norms:  i.e., that every person is entitled to one vote, and women can rise to any office in the nation.
    • the arbitrary and absolute power of despots has been called to account by an international recognition of human rights:  “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”; “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”; “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law”, etc.

    Too often, the above ideals are honoured in the breach rather than in the observance. Nonetheless, Wright is correct to recognize a remarkable trajectory from a dimmer understanding of morality to relative moral illumination.

    Wright then intuits “God” behind this remarkable display of moral progress:

God, conceived as the source of moral order

Robert Wright puts forward a familiar argument, but with a fresh twist.

In a book with a provocative title — The Evolution of God — Wright proposes that we conceive of God as “the source of the moral order”. (I will be quoting from the book’s afterword, which you can access here).

When he speaks of the “moral order”, Wright isn’t referring to static assertions of good and evil:  e.g., “Pedophilia is wrong”. Wright is thinking in terms of the direction of human history:  history’s trajectory toward an ever-higher conception of morality.

We humans have made progress in our conception of morality as we have meditated on God as the ultimate source of the moral order:

To quit thinking about God now would be to abandon a path that has been successful on its own terms—not a path of scientific inquiry that has brought scientific progress, but a path of moral inquiry that has brought moral progress.

Wright then puts forward an argument that struck me as refreshingly unfamiliar:

Some people can lead morally exemplary lives without the idea of God. Others need God—and not necessarily because they can lead a virtuous life only if they fear hell and long for heaven; often it’s because they can most readily lead a virtuous life if they think of moral truth as having some living embodiment. They need to feel that if they’re bad they’ll be disappointing some one and if they’re good they’ll be pleasing some one—and this one is the one whom, above all others, it is good to please and bad to disappoint.

This is hardly a surprising need. After all, the human moral equipment evolved in the context of human society, as a tool for navigating a social landscape; our moral sentiments are naturally activated with respect to other beings; we are “designed” by natural selection to be good out of obligation to others, for fear of the disapproval of others, in pursuit of the esteem of others. And for many people, carrying these human relations to the superhuman level works well. They are better people, and often happier people, thinking of a God who is aware of their daily struggle and offers solace or affirmation or reprimand; they can best stay aligned with the moral axis of the universe by thanking God, asking God to help them stay righteous, seeking forgiveness from God for their lapses. It’s nice that some people can be paragons of virtue without this kind of help, but in a way it’s surprising; the natural human condition is to ground your moral life in the existence of other beings, and the more ubiquitous the beings, the firmer the ground.

In other words:  given the constraints on human nature, believers in God are interacting with the moral order as productively as possible by conceiving its source in a particular way, however imperfect that way is.

(emphasis added)

To explain the last statement:  Wright is acknowledging that our conception of God is very far from adequate; but thinking about God, even very imperfectly, has resulted in laudable moral progress.

Wright’s argument is multi-layered, and I haven’t done it justice in those brief excerpts. Read the afterword in its entirety :  I commend it to you.

I’ll share some thoughts of my own in response to Wright’s argument at my earliest opportunity — perhaps tomorrow.

Two styles of Christmas worship

I’ve just returned from a brief trip to Peterborough, where I participated in two worship services:  one at my parents’ United Church, and one at nebcanuck’s Salvation Army Church. The contrast between the two services was both amusing and enjoyable.

Worship in the United Church of Canada is a culturally uplifting experience. The building is a Gothic cathedral with stained-glass windows and an impossibly high, vaulted ceiling. The music, played on a massive pipe organ, is generally classical in arrangement. The language in the hymn book has been edited to make it gender inclusive. Here’s an example from the United Methodist Hymnal:

Stanza two of Wesley’s “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” (no. 240) was changed from “pleased as man with men to dwell” to “pleased with us in flesh to dwell.”

That’ll keep you on your toes if you’re singing from memory!

The highlight of the service was the offertory:  “What Child Is This?” played on handbells. Slow, quiet, resonantly melodic.

angelI enjoyed the service very much. It was like being lifted out of the ordinary, mundane world, and transported to a place apart, where life is lived on a sublime plane. It was easy to imagine angels listening in and approving of every note.


That afternoon, we were off to the Sally Ann with its brass orchestra. The opening number, “Jingle Bells”, was performed with rousing enthusiasm! The pastor acknowledged that it was a secular song, but he wasn’t apologizing for it.

Later we were invited to croon along with “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”.

I should perhaps say that this was a special Christmas celebration — not the regular Sunday morning worship. And of course there were lots of proper Christmas carols, in addition to the pop culture tunes.

The highlight of the service was a choreographed tamborine performance with about ten participants. (Now move the tamborine from left to right in a circular motion. Now strike the tamborine against your knee, then against your hip.) The tamborines had coloured ribbon hanging from them, so the effect was partly auditory and partly visual.

Both services were well attended. Both ministers invited us to be mindful of tragedies in other parts of the world, in contrast to the joy and comforts (and excesses!) of our Canadian Christmas.

The Sally Ann service was livelier, and we spent more time singing. I didn’t have the same experience of being transported to a higher plane:  but I had more fun! Do angels really prefer United Church worship to Salvation Army worship? — I wonder.

Diversity is a good, in worship as in other things. Consider that there are some 350,000 species of beetles in the world. God loves variety.

A study in depression

I’m curious how many of my readers are familiar with the Latin word, verisimilitude. It is a technical term used primarily in literary criticism, but I encountered it in my theology studies. Here’s a good definition:

The sense that what one reads is “real,” or at least realistic and believable. For instance, the reader possesses a sense of verisimilitude when reading a story in which a character cuts his finger, and the finger bleeds. If the character’s cut finger had produced sparks of fire rather than blood, the story would not possess verisimilitude. Note that even fantasy novels and science fiction stories that discuss impossible events can have verisimilitude if the reader is able to read them with suspended disbelief.

Note the phrase, “the reader possesses a sense of verisimilitude …”. The term tells us something about the text, to be sure, but it isn’t a characteristic we can define objectively. It’s fundamentally about the reader:  his or her subjective response while reading the text.

The word verisimilitude came to mind yesterday as I was reading this text:

Elijah went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” And he lay down and slept. (1 Kings 19:4-5a)

I find this story about Elijah startling and deeply moving. I don’t have any deep theological or psychological insight to share with you. I just wanted to say, here’s a text that has verisimilitude.

Years ago, I received some training before I began to work at a crisis support centre, answering telephone calls from people in distress. The trainer was a clergyman, and he drew our attention to this passage as a textbook example of depression.

Elijah has reached the end of his rope. He can’t cope any longer. He wants nothing more than to die. He sleeps.

The story is especially remarkable if you read it in context. It comes immediately after Elijah’s triumph on Mount Carmel, where he had proven that Baal is a false god and the prophets of Baal were false prophets. It was the high point of Elijah’s career; but immediately afterward, he was plunged into a state of depression.

The sequence is true to human psychology. Whenever you have a peak experience, you can expect to feel a letdown afterward. But the word “letdown” is hardly adequate in Elijah’s case!

To be fair, I should point out that there was one intervening event. Queen Jezebel had threatened to murder Elijah:

[King] Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets [of Baal] with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life. (1 Kings 19:1-3a)

Elijah was also suffering from the burden of carrying too much responsibility. He lived in an era when Israel had broken faith with God. He was the point man in God’s campaign to bring Israel to repentance.

And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word. (1 Kings 18:21)

This is a heavy burden to bear. The religion of Israel mattered profoundly to Elijah. He felt that its very survival rested on his shoulders, and his alone.

Elijah came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” (1 Kings 19:9-10)

So Elijah’s depression has three1 identifiable causes:  (1) the inevitable letdown after his triumph on Mount Carmel; (2) Jezebel’s threat on his life; and (3) the onerous burden of responsibility he carried.

“It is enough,” he says, with profound understatement. “Please — just let me die.”

Sceptics deride the Bible for its fantastic stories, and I understand that point of view. Elijah is associated with a series of outstanding miracles. It is as if earthly limitations don’t apply to him:  rather like Jesus walking on water.

Even if faith says that the stories are historical, it’s still difficult to relate to a superhuman hero.

It’s worth noting that the Bible also has this other side. In most cases — Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, and Jeremiah come to mind — the veil is lifted at least occasionally, and we see the frail, human side of the Bible’s heroes.

It is then that the Bible seems truest to us:  it is then that the reader experiences this subjective response, verisimilitude.

(Cross-posted on Emerging from Babel.)

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1Four, if we include physical exhaustion:  “And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, ‘Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you'” (1 Kings 19:7). This, after Elijah had run a great distance to escape Jezebel’s wrath.

The cautious theism of Canadians

Canadian Press and Decima Research have released the results of a survey showing that 60% of Canadians are theists. The Globe and Mail reports:

Canadians divide in essentially three groups on the issue of creation: 34 per cent of those polled said humans developed over millions of years under a process guided by God; 26 per cent said God created humans alone within the last 10,000 years or so; and 29 per cent said they believe evolution occurred with no help from God.

“These results reflect an essential Canadian tendency,” said pollster Bruce Anderson. “We are pretty secular, but pretty hesitant to embrace atheism.” …

Among respondents without a high-school diploma, 37 per cent said they believed God alone created humans less than 10,000 years ago, whereas only 15 per cent of university-educated respondents were strict creationists.

Rural respondents also had a plurality who believed in strict creationism at 34 per cent, whereas only 22 per cent of urban dwellers said they believed God alone created humans.

Mr. Anderson said the findings suggest Canadians lack consensus on creation, but also don’t view the issue as polarizing.

“It’s more as though for many, these feelings are unresolved,” he said. “We believe in a higher being, we know what we don’t know, are comfortable not knowing, and choose not to press our views upon one another.” …

The Canadian Press-Decima Research survey [of 1,000 respondents] is considered accurate within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times in 20.

How Canadian of us to refuse to be polarized over the issue!

A Roman Catholic perspective on evolution

From Vox Nova, a relatively new, stanchly Roman Catholic blog with multiple contributors. The specific post (in response to the position of a Republican presidential candidate) is More on Brownback and Evolution.

How should a Catholic treat this topic? Well, there is no inherent conflict between faith and evolution, as long as boundaries are respected. A person of faith should not castigate scientific findings about evolution that are accepted by all but a handful of quacks, and a scientist should likewise refrain from arguing that evolution proves the absence of a Creator (it proves no such thing). It’s really that simple. …

Pope John Paul II stated very clearly in 1996 that “new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis.” Cardinal Schonborn, who has reflected a lot on the topic, sums it up: “I see no difficulty in joining belief in the Creator with the theory of evolution, but under the prerequisite that the borders of scientific theory are maintained.” …

It is fully in accord with reason to see the hand of a creator guiding the evolutionary process. At some fundamental level, Catholics must believe in an “intelligent designer”. But it is important to note that the American-created “intelligent design” movement does not merely postulate that God is the Creator of everything out of nothing and guides all of creation (sensible), but encroaches on scientific territory by holding that organisms appeared simultaneously (not so sensible).

By the way, the claim of some prominent neo-Darwinists that evolution proves the non-existence of God is equally ludicrous, as they step rather indelicately beyond science and into theological speculation, where they clearly have no expertise.

A new, neuroscientific window on ethics

Aaron called this Washington Post article to my attention:

Neuroscientists are using brain imaging and psychological experiments to study whether the brain has a built-in moral compass.

Neuroscientists scanned the brains of volunteers as they were asked to consider a scenario:  should they donate a sum of money to charity or keep it for themselves?

When the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.

What does the research reveal about ethical dilemmas? They manifest as competing centres of electrical activity in the brain. According to Joshua D. Greene, a Harvard neuroscientist and philosopher,

simple moral decisions — is killing a child right or wrong? — are simple because they activate a straightforward brain response. Difficult moral decisions, by contrast, activate multiple brain regions that conflict with one another, he said.

But what does that mean? Is the electrical activity the origin of moral confusion, or a consequence of moral confusion that originates elsewhere? In effect, the article argues that what we call “conscience” reduces to a physiological process. Guilt feelings reduce to two conflicting physiological responses.

Theists regard the human conscience as something separate from and prior to those physiological responses. I don’t see how the brain scans constitute evidence to the contrary.

Experiments with other animals arguably present more of a challenge to the theistic account of conscience.

According to the article, if morality is hard-wired in the brain, it is “most likely the result of evolutionary processes that began in other species.” For example,

one experiment found that if each time a rat is given food, its neighbor receives an electric shock, the first rat will eventually forgo eating.

Joshua Greene maintains that morality is “handed up”:  i.e., an outgrowth of the brain’s basic propensities. Theists regard morality as “handed down” — conscience as a God-given faculty.

Does the rat illustration count against the theistic account, suggesting that naturalistic evolutionary processes led to the development of conscience and morals? Does the research prove that morals are “not a superior moral faculty” bestowed by God on human beings, one of the characteristics that sets us apart from other animals?

One more interesting observation from the article, plus a question of my own:

  • The more researchers learn, the more it appears that the foundation of morality is empathy (being able to recognize — even experience vicariously — what another creature is going through).
  • Don’t these experiments imply a (limited) universal morality of the sort that moral relativists deny?

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