Note: This concludes the series, “God’s Emotions: Why the Biblical God is so Very Human.” Parts 1-8 are available at this website, Awaypoint.wordpress.com.
Man is, and always has been, a maker of gods. It has been the most serious and significant occupation of his sojourn in the world.
- John Burroughs
Almost two hundred years ago, a young European Christian, trained in theology, set off on a voyage around the world. When he left England, he did not doubt the literal truth of the Bible, and in fact during the trip he quoted the Word of God as a moral authority. But he returned with questions. He spent the next twenty years assembling the vast array of detailed observations that he had made as the ship’s naturalist into a scientific theory that rocked the world—and his own Anglican orthodoxy. In the end, Charles Darwin had many things to say, some with no small regret, this among them:
I had no intention to write atheistically, but I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [a parasitic wasp] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars or that a cat should play with mice.[i]
Lately Richard Dawkins put the point more forcefully: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
Dawkin’s statement feels harsh, even to me, and yet the claim he makes is modest. The universe we observe has the properties we would expect based simply on the natural processes we are able to identify. He makes no claims about what, if anything lies beyond the realm of our observations. Careful, repeated observation of the natural world, however meticulous, will never allow us to say whether there is another realm beyond the reach of our senses and our ability to process information. But they do allow us to understand the intricacies of the natural order, ourselves included. And they allow us to examine our god-concepts in light of what we know about ourselves.
What would we expect god concepts to be like if they were simply a product of evolved human minds? Rather like the ones we have. Pascal Boyer’s book, Religion Explained, outlines the many ways in which our minds are not blank slates. All kinds of efficiencies are built in, in the form of default assumptions and ontological categories that function in some ways like pre-labeled filing systems. We force our life experiences into the categories available to us, and one way we do this is to interpret the world in humanoid terms.
We are a species of social information specialists. Knowledge is our currency, and most of the knowledge we need to survive and thrive in this world comes from other humans. It is collective cultural evolution rather than biological evolution that has let us live long and prosper, outsmart nature’s balance, and populate a whole planet. Our minds reflect this niche—specialized systems in the brain are fine tuned for processing information about other humans.
One such system is our ability to represent the minds of other persons in our own mind. Daniel Dennett makes some interesting observations about this ability in his book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. As he points out, if we can’t anticipate the effects of our actions, then we basically have to learn everything by trial and error. How much better it is to be able to represent the external environment in our brains, and then run simulations. We send our teens to driving schools so they can learn on simulators where they don’t have to put real cars at risk – or squander the sixteen years we have put into raising them. Simulations have survival value. Consequently, natural selection has pushed in the direction of more sophisticated simulators. The human mind has particularly sophisticated social simulators. Rather than blurting, “When are you expecting?” we can anticipate how the other person will feel if, in fact, she isn’t pregnant. But in order to do so, we have to be able to represent other human minds – real, potential minds and even imaginary minds–inside our own.
Children assign names, identities, and –yes—emotions, to objects that are clearly, objectively inanimate. It helps if the object is stuffed with spun polyester and covered in synthetic fur, but really almost anything will do. When my daughters were young, we traveled to visit a friend in Eastern Europe. The girls were utterly disinterested in long adult conversations over beer and well-boiled cabbage with beef. At any restaurant, they simply would sit down and pick up their forks and spoons (which had been assigned names and identities) and continue a game in which these stainless steel characters inhabited a world peopled by empty bottles, cups, and pepper shakers. The cutlery game lasted only as long as the trip, but a shabby stuffed whale comforted one of the girls for almost ten years.
Adults don’t assign roles to silverware, though we certainly can, and we don’t usually have transitional objects. But we do give names to ships and hurricanes and then talk as if they had preferences and intent. We become more protective of whales and gorillas if we give them human nicknames. We unwittingly breed canines to look more like baby humans (e.g. big eyed) by preferentially nurturing the ones that look more like us. We spend time trying to cajole favors out of tree spirits and ancestors and gods. Adults who shed traditional religion may simply move to the next level of (still anthropomorphic, self-focused) abstraction, talking as if the universe itself heard our wishes and could be manipulated into fulfilling them (e.g. The Secret).
It is only with conscious effort that we are able to set aside the instinctive projection of ourselves onto the physical world let alone anything that may lie beyond. And yet, if we care about honoring reality, we must. Author Dexter VanDango put it this way,
If humanity is to get beyond God as the ultimate human male, for good or bad, it is vital to always keep in mind our psychology, our biology and our family relations. And it is equally essential to realize that God, if God exists, does not possess our hopes, our fears, our desires or emotions. If God does possess anything akin to desires and emotions, these “feelings” are unlikely to bear any resemblance to ours.
A friend put it this way: “I’ve always wondered how God can be considered omniscient and omnipotent and yet have anything resembling temporal intelligence and all that it implies (emotions, reasoning, etc). Without time, everything is definite and, possibly, indeterminate even at the same time, and the mind of God would be able to conceive of this.” As these two comments illustrate, if we let ourselves contemplate the little that smart humans know about reality, then orthodox Christian conceptions of divinity become transparently self-centered. It is a testament to our narcissism as a species that so few humans are embarrassed to assign to divinity the attributes of a male alpha primate.
To say that the descriptions of God in the Bible are metaphors does not make the situation any better. A metaphor about something as deep as the human relationship to ultimate reality needs to be deeply accurate. The center of gravity needs to be spot on even if the surface meaning is grossly simplistic. But biblical descriptions of God have this backwards. Rather than heightening the sense of an ineffable power that is compatible with philosophical concepts like omniscience or omnipresence or with the laws of physics and biology, they force divinity into a human template. Rather than evoking the humility, wonder and delight of the unknown, they offer the comfort of false knowledge. Rather than being true to timeless, placeless completeness, they are true to the place-time-culture-ecosystem nexus in which they arose.
When the writers of the Bible said God was angry, or regretful, or pleased, they had only a superficial idea of what these words actually mean. How could they know that these affective labels describe intricate, functional body systems, just like our visible appendages? Their peers didn’t yet understand how two eyes create binocularity or how our muscles contract the hand, let alone the chemistry and function of emotions. They were not responsible for their ignorance; they did the best they could with the information at their disposal. They looked at patterns in the natural world and human society and made their best guesses about what lies beyond.
We should do the same.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light, (Revised ed of The Dark Side) and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles can be found at awaypoint.wordpress.com.
Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained. NY: Perseus, 2001.
Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. NY: Touchstone, 1995.
[i] From Charles Darwin, “Letter to Asa Gray” (22 May 1860). For a complete account of his reasons for abandoning his faith (which still hold true today) see Francis Darwin, ed., The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, vol. 1 (London: J. Murray, 1887), pp. 175-78 (for the letter of 1860 see vol. 2, pp. 311-12).