by Joe Váradi
This essay was prompted by my exchange with the thoughtful and prolific Jack Preston King, on the tail end of his article below. Honorable mention to Dermott Hayes, Mal, ANDRE R, Mitchell, jayrayspicer,Paul Easton for your clever responses.
Nobody Believes God Is a Magical Old Man with a Beard In The Clouds
But They Still Believe In God. Angry Atheists, Take Note.
Though not an angry atheist — I took note. But let me start in a different place …
One recent Saturday, in late October, we took a drive up to Dutchess County, New York, for an afternoon of apple picking. It was an hour north of our home, two hours north of New York City. The weather was unseasonably mild, with blazing sunshine and warm gusts of wind rushing in from the Hudson Valley.
There was a heady aroma of sweet vinegar in the air from the tangles of apples that had collected and begun to rot under every tree of every row of the orchard.
Took the picture above in the corn maze, atop a wooden bridge that afforded us a sweeping view of the landscape, the hills of the Taconic range and the Catskills further off in the distance to the West, the flat expanse of the farm around us.
As I was taking it all in, holding on to one of my favorite people in the world, both of us squinting from the late afternoon sun, giddy with the pure joy of the present, it occurred to me that many people in my shoes might record this moment as a religious experience, or more broadly speaking, an affirmation of their spirituality.
The township where we were happened to be marking its 300th anniversary. Everything that I was seeing now — the mountains and woods, the corn field and apple trees — would have looked much the same to those early colonists that settled here in the 17th and early 18th century … and to the Native American Wappinger tribe that called these parts home before them. Presumably, those folks, surveying the landscape from the same hilltops, would have believed, as a matter of course and without much room for doubt, that this bountiful land had been created, by a God, or gods, or something possessing higher ability and intellect than themselves. How else could all this beauty and complexity have come into existence?
We’ve come a long way since then.
Or, have we.
Our pre-Industrial Age ancestors did not, collectively, have the benefit of the far-reaching observations and discoveries made about the natural world since then, from the microscopic to the astronomical, and of the nuanced insights and sophisticated theories built on those observations and discoveries.
They had not yet dug deep enough to discover a whole lot about the Earth’s crust, didn’t know about tectonic plates, nor how seismic activity can make mountains rise out of plains, nor how wind and water erosion can over time carve out valleys and grind mountains down into hills and plateaus.
They did not have Darwin and his theory of evolution. They had not yet discovered the replicating model of DNA, nor how genetic mutation leads to variety and paves the way for natural selection and the multitude of species.
They had no notion of the vastness of space and time, nor any way to measure cosmic radiation and how that hints at the expanding state of the universe. They did not have machines that could peer into space and capture light that had been traveling as long as the universe has existed.
We may not know everything there is to know about the universe, or about life on Earth, but we do have some very solid and resilient working theories that explain the workings of the natural world and the intricacies of life. Theories that continue to be strengthened with a steady supply of new evidence. And here’s the thing — none of these working theories requires a maker, or some mysterious overseer, to keep the lights on and to keep the machinery humming.
So why do so many of us continue to hold on to romantic, pre-Industrial notions of the original creator and the invisible helmsman?
“turtles all the way down”
The ancients had to invent a creator, they had no other plausible explanations for the natural world. Creation was their clever and convenient placeholder for all the discoveries yet to be made, for all the more structured theories yet to be formulated.
The fundamental problem of creationism is that it doesn’t simplify our understanding of our world. It adds another layer of unfathomable complexity. And it leads to the infinite regression problem. If we were created by a higher intelligence, then who created it and its world?
This idea is captured in an anecdote — generally attributed to philosopher-physician William James — one that I first encountered in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time:
At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said:
“What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.”
The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?”
“You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”
This is where Jack might jump in and point out that most religious folks today do not subscribe to traditional, literal imagery of Divinity. He may restate the point made in his essay that no Christian above the age of 10 believes that the Christian God is “a magical old man with a beard in the clouds”.
Of course not. Thanks to elementary science (!) education, most pre-teens today know enough about gravity and the consistency of water vapor to reject that notion. Similarly, no one today with an introductory understanding of astronomy or why day follows night at regular 24 hour intervals believes that the Earth is flat, or that it rests on the back of turtles or elephants or any such thing.
(As a side note, various polls I’ve seen put the portion of Americans who believe that the Bible is a literal word of God anywhere from 20 to 50 percent. Here is a recent Gallup poll. Frankly, any percentage in the double digits is shocking, but I don’t put much weight in these polls. I think that when people say they believe the Bible literally, they are engaging in moral signaling or social posturing — declaring their loyalty to their church and to the family values they were raised with — rather than taking a personal stand. What they are really saying is: I’m with this crowd, over here. Why should I imperil my bonds to my faith community and to my family, for the sake of indulging some itinerant pollster.)
But a maturing of the God-view does not legitimize it.
Whether you profess to believe in the literal God that dictated verbatim the holy text of your particular faith, or some other more nebulous, fuzzy, personal God, one that exists in all things living and inert, a life force that pervades the nooks and crannies of your world and your consciousness — you are still professing a belief in that supernatural, spiritual entity traditionally called God.
And this brings us to the concept of being spiritual, that happy grey area which more and more people in our day and age choose as their home on the faith spectrum. It is, roughly speaking, the preferred label for folks who don’t subscribe to organized religion, who perhaps don’t consider themselves “religious”, but aren’t ready to go full on atheist.
the trouble with spirituality
Let’s consider what people may mean when they describe themselves as spiritual, starting with the definition of the word.
1. relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.
2. relating to religion or religious belief.
source: Oxford English Dictionary
We can set aside the second definition right away, as it basically equates spirituality with religiosity. The first definition at least appears to make a distinction. My issue with it is that it is still quite vague and self-referencing. It uses the terms spirit and soul, which are concepts traditionally associated with religion, indeed terms that do not have well-defined definitions outside of theology. Finally, by juxtaposing spirit and soul with “material or physical things”,
the implied definition of spirituality is that it is concern with things that aren’t real — or concern with things that are imagined.
Let me put on my linguist, wordsmith hat for a second. Spirituality is a wonderful word. It gives off a warm and fuzzy, enticing vibe. It holds out the promise that those who possess it will be endowed with powers and sensations beyond the earthbound and terrestrial.
But as an atheist, I have a hard time identifying with this term, and I believe many other atheists feel the same way, for the reason that it is too loaded, too entwined with religious concepts of the soul and the spirit. It is a pseudo-science of all things that aren’t real.
Is spirituality defined by belief in something intangible — be it the soul, life after death, a supernatural entity? That may be the most agreeable definition. If there is one quality that unites atheists of all feathers, it is skepticism. We don’t outright reject the possibility of any belief as valid, but we tend to ask for evidence. Atheism is not another system of beliefs, as some theists like to dismiss it. No one sat us down at the dinner table or sent us to Sunday school to teach us to not believe. And if one day we receive evidence of a higher order intelligence that created our universe in a (metaphorical) petri dish, I and most atheists I know will celebrate that monumental discovery as another triumph of science and the human quest for understanding.
spirited, if not spiritual
Let’s bring this home on a positive and reconciliatory note:
theists and atheists are in the end all human beings
That’s right. Whether your believe in God, or many gods, or the soul, or the Holy Spirit, or a supernatural life force that guides our moral compass and connects all living things — or whether you are okay the notion that we are physical lifeforms produced by evolution in a universe born out of quantum uncertainty, a spec of stardust in a vast and rapidly expanding cosmic vacuum — we are in the end all human beings.
We, all of us, feel and crave the sensations known as love and companionship. We all have a sense of right and wrong. We all struggle with the daily tug-of-war between selfishness and generosity. We all try balance the attraction of physical comforts with the emotional rewards of helping others and contributing to society. We are all grateful when we feel the warmth of sunshine or a cool breath of fresh air on our skin, and we take in the beauty and bounty of nature, with a loved one on our arms.