Wednesday, 4 August 2010

A Biblical Story

The religious like their stories. Postmodern relativist theists love them. It allows everyone to have their own cuddly warm snug safety blanket in which to wrap themselves, without fear of someone nasty coming along and snatching it away - a gift from their father, God. There's nothing nicer than being wrapped up, nice and warm, being told lovely stories about their heroic father protecting them from evil.

But there's another part of their story that's not so nice, but just as necessary, because we all like scary stories. One day a bully arrives in the class, and his name is Atheist. His favourite wicked pass-time is to snatch their faith blankets away and make them cry. His second favourite is to tell a frightful story, of how his own father, Nietzsche, is killing their father God.

But I've got a better story, a predominantly western story (for their are similar stories elsewhere). And it goes like this.

Nietzsche is blamed for killing God. How can that be? There never was a God to be killed. Let's start at the beginning, or as near to it as matters for this story.

Long ago humans evolved along with other animals from some common anscestor with similar characteristics. Humans have many featues in common with all vertabrates. Even more in common with mammals. Even more with primates. Most with the remaining other apes.

They have a mix of traits, that include complex combinations of being able to love and hate, help and kill. Their social evolution has caused them to be mostly loving to those close, and fairly neutral and even co-operative with other groups, suppressing their baser inclinations. However, conflicting interests, fear, misunderstanding, jelousy, etc., all the nasty bits, are just below the surface.

It's difficult to know for sure what real evolutionary mechanism caused religion to come about, whether it confered some direct benefit, or whether it's a by-product of the evolution of the degree of self-awareness. It remains a mystery, but many facts fit one particular idea.

All mammals have a sense of 'other', as in other external creatures: to be eaten by, to eat, to fight, to mate. Few animals are self-aware, so when self-awareness evolved to a certain degree there becomes both 'other' and 'self'. The brain sciences have shown quite clearly that these are in different parts of the brain, but are linked; that the confusion of 'self' and 'other' can give a feeling of internal 'other'. This is very striking in various forms of brain damage - the type and location of the damage can determine loss of this internal 'other' or its acquisition. It can also be induced or inhibited in healthy brains at will, in a laboratory. Many humans have a 'self-self' and an 'other-self'.

There were no brain scientists around in ancient times, but there were a multitude of unexplained awful events. With a familiarity of the powerful capabilities of humans compared to other animals, it might have seemed obvious that there must be some more powerful external hiddden 'others' at work, directing nature, inlfuencing lives.

Put these internal and external 'others' together, and you have gods that are doing things for and to humans, and even invade their minds.

But, some humans aren't quite as dumb as they first appear. Over the millenia, as the population increases, and pouplations merge and compare ideas, as they record their ideas and they spread them, it seems obvious that there are some inconsistencies, competing gods, silly notions of what it is to be a god.

From the recordings of the Greeks onward philosophy and rudementary science bring some critical thinking to the table, which begins the whole process of rationalising and economising on gods and their capabilities. There emerges the most concise God, the Jewish God, with many of his awkward inconvenient inconsistencies explained away into the sky, or heaven or wherever - depending on how critical the analysis has to be to avoid arguments from those that tend not to believe or who have competing gods. God goes into hiding, and leaves the material world behind, and his interactions with us and our world have to be explained by miracles.

The religions provide great social cohesion in times that are still barbaric and brutal. They provide an authority that can't be matched by individual rulers. They help keep the peace mostly, but can still just as easily be invoked for war. Religions are used control the uneducated supersticious masses, for reasons of good for the theologians, for reasons of convenience for the godless powerful.

Despite the reconciling role of great religions there are still independent theological thinkers who challenge the various orthodoxies, causing many schisms in what had been the start of a grand religious project. Other religions emerged on the boundaries of western thinking, the most prominat being Islam which separated much of western thinking from its Greek routes.

Come the enlightnement even more events and wonders of the world, like the rainbow, become explainable as natural phenomena. The Greeks are rediscovered, and Islamic ideas on science filter through. Western Europe becomes the focul point for many revolutions in thinking, and discovering, of ideas, places, animals and peoples. God and his works recede into the distance.

From Darwin and others a unifying explanation develops that shows not only that humans are not special, but that evolution can remove the need for a God, or at least push him back to the moment of creation. Sophisticated theology is required all the more to hide God somewhere safe. The struggle between the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other mirrors the internal dichotomy of the rational internal 'self-self' and the feeling internal 'other-self'.

This vanishing act needn't be the intentional and aware response it sounds to be. It can be a genuine shift in the detail of belief in thologians that have as much access to the enlightenment ideas as any atheist. They have to reconcile what they know with what they feel, but what they feel has a strong hold and won't let go.

So, God remains the primary presupposition that in their cognitive dissonance must override all other ideas. They may even have a sneaky suspision that their beliefs are nonsense, but what can you do if the internal 'other-self' is so convincing? They even see the folly in other beliefs that are similar, or in those of their own religion that have a less sophisticated view of what God is. They know they can't explain their God really, but they can have faith.

Some become so close to atheism in their intellectual disposal of God's inconveniences, that they even confuse what atheism means - Peter Rollins, with his really odd twisting of words is so confused, hence and confusing. No doubt Rollins is sincere. I'm not accusing these theists of being charlatons, though some of the money making TV evangelists may be, I don't know. But many theists clearly have an eye for this world as much as the next.

And so here we are. Nieztshce didn't kill God. There never was a God, just an idea of a God accompanied by a feeling. Nieztshce and many others have been dripping slow acting poisons into the challace, causing a lingering and painful death for the idea that is yet incomplete. Though the feeling remains you can see the agony of self-realisation of the inevitable dawning on the likes of the Arch Bishop of Cantebury, as they struggle to reconcile their faith with the ultimate demise of the God that never was.

Rather than let the atheist kill their God they would rather do it themselves. They suffocate him in an act of kindness, they bury him in the safest place they can find, in the depths of their souls where he'll be accessible to them. He becomes a fully personal God. No longer the need to explain him away, he'll still be close by, feeding ideas through the inner 'other-self'.

They see the problems, yet they still feel God, see God, or see the need for God, or fear the lack of God. What must it be like to have this inner self, the 'other-self', ripped from their hearts?

Those that don't have it can only sympathise. Atheists who see a grand picture of the universe and beyond as a natural unfolding process have no need for God. There's a freedom to think the unthinkable without fear, to find what we find without judgement, to see what the science tells us without thinking it has a moral dimension, that the creation of moral codes are anyway just one more human trait. We can take what evolution has given us and build our moral codes on top of that, and make those moral codes do the best they can for everyone, because the predominant evolved characteristics are to love, to help, not to hate and to kill.

This is just a story. Many different stories can be told, and are told. This one is as close to the observed facts that I know of. Think of it as a docu-drama - a story made to fit the facts; or as a working hypothesis that has evidence to support it. This is a story told by humans, about humans using evidence accumulated by humans.

The predominant alternative story is one written by humans too, but where the main unobserved fictional character is supposed to have written the story himself. And as such, the authors can have the character explain away any inconsistencies by the magic of miracles, or by claiming not to know the mind of the unfathomable character the human authors have created. Now that's some serious imaginative just-so fiction. An incredible story. Really, it just isn't credible.


Mike R said...


This is a great post. Amazingly well written, coherent and almost convincing. There are lots of bits in it which I sort of agree with. (E.g. yep I blame Neitsche for killing God. Oh hold on a minute wasn't that Pontius Pilate?)

Of course it all falls apart from me at 'There's a freedom to think the unthinkable without fear, to find what we find without judgement,] Oh yeh! If you say so.

I keep on meaning to take you up on the point that we theists somehow see God as all cuddly. You said at one point: 'What if God turned out to be as terrifying as some stories made him out to be?' Yep. For me he is a bit/lot terrifying. What sort of an omnipontent God allows the death of his son. Why do we pray 'lead us not into temptation', etc. etc.

Any way must stop reading blogs: Lesley’s, yours and now Gurdur’s . Off on holiday for two weeks on Saturday and much to do before then. I wonder whether you’ll all meet up at Grenbelt. If so I’ll be jealous.

Patmos Pete said...

Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.

Ron Murphy said...

Hi Mike,

Then I'll hold my response off, at least until you've set off on hols. I know what it's like - we're often setting off on hols and my wife has to drag me away from the keyboard as I try to post my last comments before I leave.

Have a good holiday.

Ron Murphy said...

Hi Pete, and welcome. Always glad to get someone else's opinion, but I'm not sure what you're trying to express. Feel free to expand.