Wading Into the Shallows, Part 1

I don’t get it – never did, never will. On second thought, saying “never will” sounds a bit arrogant, too much like the pronouncements of the deluded religious-right ideologues I’m always criticizing. Of course I can’t predict my future with certainty; but then neither can you, or anyone. Especially not those religious fanatics who are always so spectacularly and embarrassingly wrong about everything. (Considering the preposterous claims they make, it’s hard to believe they even have the capacity to be embarrassed; but they are certainly an embarrassment to the rational citizens of this nation).

The “it” I don’t get is the whole concept of a supernatural realm – ghosts, angels, demons, gods, etc. Here I’ll focus on theism, which has the distinction of being the dominant world view in this hyper-religious country. Theism is the entirely speculative belief that there is an invisible creator-god who takes an active role in earthly affairs and maintains a close relationship with humans, whom he created from dust and ribs as the proud culmination of his work. In other words, a personal god who created us human mammals in his own image. And please note that theists make many testable claims about the nature of reality, one of the most grandiose being that their holy book is literally true in every particular. Also note that this absurd and provably false position forces theists to invent the most stupendous rationalizations, all too often with an air of pretentious, solemn piety implying that they understand something of cosmic significance that you better accept if you know what’s good for you.

Anyway, in the spirit of “Never say never,” and also in the much more important spirit of skeptical, scientific openness to new evidence, I must leave room for at least a smidgen of doubt. So I’ll just say that in all likelihood I will never get it. Of course there is always the possibility of a dementia-induced, deathbed conversion. But as Christopher Hitchens said, that wouldn’t really be me, so pay no attention if that should come to pass.

Understand that I’m not talking about deism, the belief in a creator/intelligent designer that does not intervene in the world. And while I can’t agree with them, I have no quarrel with deists, as long as they aren’t lending support to the fundamentalists/evangelicals (fundagelicals) who are trying to reverse the Enlightenment and turn our society into some kind of a non-thinking, science-denying theocracy in alliance with oppressive, right-wing politics. Jesus hates social programs, dontcha know?

From a practical standpoint, it seems to me that deism is virtually indistinguishable from agnosticism or atheism. How’s that? Well, the major point of contention between deists and nonbelievers seems to be how it all got started in the first place. Beyond that, deists are free to embrace the scientific account of nature, including evolution, in its entirety. They don’t claim to know the mind of some god or to know all the “revealed” answers to the meaning and purpose of life. And they don’t generally claim that features of living organisms (the eye; the notorious bacterial flagellum) reveal the hand of an intelligent designer who tinkered with the ongoing process of evolution. Unlike theists, they are not arrogant. And make no mistake about it: fundagelical theism is a supremely arrogant belief system. What else can be said of people who claim to know the absolute truth about all the big questions without a shred of solid evidence?

So if deists prefer to believe that a hidden and undetectable supernatural being designed and created the cosmos, I can’t prove them wrong, and I really don’t care to try. Unlike theists, their philosophical arguments and speculations are not shallow and dogmatic, but neither are they compelling. Deists have not marshaled enough real-world evidence to prove their hypotheses, and their god-in-hiding remains an inference.

To me, the only sound position is not to claim to know the answers to the big questions. In that respect I go along with Richard Dawkins, who points out that any intelligent designer would be far more complex – and therefore even more improbable – than an undesigned, natural universe. In the absence of evidence, postulating a creator doesn’t explain a thing but just pushes the origin question back to another level that itself requires explanation. Who’s to say what may have transpired in the fullness of time? The possibilities seem limitless. For example, it can be shown mathematically that in a multiverse that generates universes with different physical laws, everything that can happen eventually will happen. It is possible that a hugely powerful intelligent designer of this universe was the product of a lengthy period of evolution in another universe that itself was designed. Or that humans (or their successors) a million years from now will be designing their own universes. And so on. Who knows? It’s all speculation, isn’t it? But you’ll never hear that from a theist. They’ve got their culturally privileged, shallow little story and they’re sticking to it.

The late, great Carl Sagan took this position: Anything, however improbable, is possible, but only as long as the claims being made are general. When they start getting specific (miracles, the efficacy of prayer, prophecies), evidence must, of absolute necessity, come into play and be taken seriously. Which strongly implies that the hypothesized creator/intelligent designer of the deists bears almost no resemblance to the anthropomorphized, interventionist god who “speaks” to the Christian fundagelicals, the Mormons, and the Muslims. Of course Christians, who typically grasp at any straw that seems to support their presumptuous claims, want to include deists as their allies when it suits their purposes (example: appropriating the founders’ rhetorical term “nature’s God” as evidence they intended to establish a Christian nation, which is the exact opposite of the separation of church and state they really intended.) The idea that deism supports Christian dogma is, to put it bluntly, self-serving bullshit. Deism is much closer to a secular, naturalistic world view than it is to theism. Deism doesn’t make absurd claims about a six-thousand-year-old universe, talking snakes, virgin births, angels and demons, a Garden of Eden, heaven and hell, etc. It doesn’t deny established science. It is simply the position that, all things considered, it seems more likely to them that the universe came from conscious design rather than natural processes. I think most deists respect evidence and would agree that the evidence we have doesn’t prove the existence of a god and certainly doesn’t support the mythology of the petulant, jealous, vengeful, and fickle god of the Abrahamic religions. In contrast, theists look for any support they can dredge up to bolster their politicized claim that this is a Christian nation. It’s all a big god tent when they want something; the rest of the time they preach that all those others are going to burn in hell for worshipping the wrong gods, the wrong version of a god, or no gods. No one I know of has made this point better than Sam Harris.

Being a practical person, I’m inclined to go along with Thomas Jefferson, a deist, who said, “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Now there’s an example of the kind of tolerance that needs to be more widely practiced in this diverse culture. Unfortunately, tolerance is anathema to U.S. fundagelical leaders who are hankering to replace our Constitutional democracy with a Bible-based, oppressive, theocratic system of law.

Let us not overlook Mormonism, a newer (circa 1830) theistic faith that makes specific, testable claims. Among other provably false claims, their scripture says that three groups of immigrants sailed to the new world from the near east, starting with refugees from the Tower of Babel in 2200 BC, followed much later by two other groups from Jerusalem, around 600 BC. After a series of wars, so the tale goes, the unbelievers in Christ (never mind that he had not yet been born on the other side of the world) prevailed to become the ancestors of today’s native Americans. Now get this: Shortly after his crucifixion in Jerusalem, Jesus came to America, ministered to and converted the inhabitants. (Bet you didn’t know that!) And the whole crazy story goes on and on from there. Of course those clean-cut young men in the white shirts and ties who come to your door with the Mormon message won't be telling you all that. They probably won't mention magic underwear, either, or the Mormons’ pivotal role in bankrolling the successful opposition to gay marriage in California.

But of course in the U.S. we’re supposed to respect others' religious beliefs. Which leads me to ask just what is meant by respect? And why do prominent religious leaders keep saying and doing things that are impossible to respect? What the term seems to mean in the U.S. is something like this: “Keep your big freethinker mouth shut so we can continue to enjoy our privileged status and pursue our theocratic agenda without having to justify our unsupported beliefs.” In the case of the Mormons and Scientologists, it's also so they don't have to publicly reveal much of the weirdness that conflicts with comfortable, traditional beliefs. That unfamiliar stuff might drive away prospective converts before they have been softened up. Better to suck them in first with feel-good appeals until they've made a commitment, then let them in on the bizarre secrets of the inner sanctum.

Anyway, if I had lived in the 1800’s, 1700’s, or earlier, I probably would have been a deist, along with Jefferson, Madison, and other enlightened figures of the time. The world and the life on it certainly have the “appearance of design,” as Richard Dawkins has said; and before Darwin, there were few, if any, plausible naturalistic hypotheses to explain the bewildering complexity and intricate organization of the natural world. It really does look like it was designed. Charles Darwin certainly thought so before his painstaking observations and research led him to the idea of evolution by natural selection, which has been called the greatest idea anyone ever had. What a remarkable man; what an intellectual giant! Naturally, the ignorant, contemptible fundies demonize him along with what has become the established fact of evolution.

Now that I’m all worked up again over the ignorance and arrogance of the toxic religious right, I’m really looking forward to writing Part 2, in which I’ll refute the provably false claim that religion is the foundation of morality. That column will also deal with the slanderous religious-right meme that atheists and agnostics cannot be moral. Which leads me to reprise the following quotation from “Unknown”:

“Morality is doing what’s right regardless of what you’ve been told; religion is doing what you’ve been told regardless of what is right.”