One God Further

In a recent post, Bill Vallicella chides Christopher Hitchens for a humorous jab at religion that he and Richard Dawkins often make. The offending remark, in its general form, is that since we are already all atheists as regards Poseidon, or Osiris, or Thor, all that is needed to finish the job is to go “one god further”. It always gets a laugh, but not from Dr. Vallicella.

Bill argues that this is, as he puts it, a “howling non sequitur“. And as a rigorous argument intended to disprove the existence of the traditional monotheistic God, indeed it is. A disbelief in the existence of Thor in no way commits us to any belief one way or another about anything else at all, really.

It isn’t surprising that a man who is both a theist and a professional philosopher would make this perfectly valid objection, but it does miss the point a bit: Hitchens knows quite well, as do all the others, that he is not going to prove the nonexistence of God. What this remark is meant to do is to illustrate, since we all can appreciate how unnecessary all these outmoded ideas of God seem to us now, that it is no different, for the atheist, also to deny the existence of the monotheistic God that so many of us still cling to. “Come on, you can do it! It’s easier than you think.”

But now, I’m afraid, this is where Hitchens and Dawkins miss the point. Although to them (and to me too, I have to say), there really is no more reason to believe in the Christian or Jewish or Muslim God than in Baal, for many people there is indeed a difference — a very major difference indeed — between supplanting earlier notions of God with a more “refined” version, and replacing them with nothing at all.

Bill makes a somewhat different point. We read:

What people like Daniel Dennett, another key Dawkins Gang member, cannot get through their heads is that religion might be subject to development and refinement just as science is. Such people cannot understand development of the God concept as anything different from deformation. They think, quite stupidly, that the crudest anthropomorphic conceptions are those with which religion must remain saddled. But they would never say something similar with respect to science. Why the double standard?

Well, here’s why: scientific models undergo refinement not by way simply of cloistered ecclesiastical debate, private revelation, or papal edict, but by a relentless process of theory-making, prediction of expected results, experimental testing, and withering peer review. There is nothing whatsoever in the evolution of religious dogma that is even remotely similar to the ruthless testing against the real world that is the hallmark and guiding principle of science. Does anyone imagine that they might open the paper tomorrow to find that some new fact about God had been discovered that throws conventional theology off its rails?

What, then, have the “refinements” of religion achieved? If you think it likely, as I do, that religion is primarily an exquisitely designed and adapted mechanism, of immense complexity, whose primary function is to provide a durable framework for social cohesion, then its refinements are likely either going to be those that improve its social utility — that is to say, that cause it to confer a relatively greater advantage upon groups that use it as an organizing principle — or those that improve its durability, its defenses against erosion from without or within.

As for understanding the latter, a useful metaphor is that of religions as memetic organisms that have an interest in avoiding rejection by their hosts, namely the minds of their believers. In this sense, then, a “refinement” is an evolutionary improvement — a new trick or feature of some sort, analogous, say, to an octopus learning to change its color, or to release billows of ink — that makes it less vulnerable to attack. And successful religions have evolved such features in spectacular abundance.

Foremost, of course, is the reliance upon the transcendant inaccessability of God. Where once men imagined their gods to be of quite definite description — the jackal-headed Anubis, say, or lame Hephaestus toiling at his forge — the more “refined” God of modern theists is, in definite terms, little more than a daunting collection of infinities. His existence is conspicuously irrefutable on any specific grounds, as there is very little for the skeptic to take hold of.

Likewise, much of theology consists of examining the places where a critic might in fact get a purchase, and buffing those surfaces to an intractable smoothness. Why do people do evil? Because God needed to create them with free will. All right, then why does God cause suffering in natural forms such as earthquakes? Well, perhaps because He is wrathful. Or even better, as an acquaintance of mine recently suggested, citing C.S. Lewis, perhaps our suffering is the chisel God uses to reveal our deeper character.

What is to be done with such reasoning? It is impossible to argue against. A highly evolved religion is like a polished steel sphere.

Another example is the placing out-of-bounds of certain areas of critical inquiry for being “offensive”, as discussed in a recent thread. It is an immensely effective defense against skepticism.

Say I have a package of beliefs X. Included in X is the belief that belief in X will confer upon me many extremely important advantages, but only if I maintain my belief in X. Furthermore, believers in X are warned that there are those in whose interest it is that believers in X be deprived of these advantages, and that these enemy agents will attempt to achieve this goal by luring the faithful away from their belief. Included also in X, therefore, is the belief that to express skepticism about X is threatening, offensive, and constitutes a personal assault of the gravest severity, in response to which even sanguinary violence may be considered justifiable, or even mandatory.

What a splendid set of memes! What a marvelous bag of tricks! It is so well-tuned that it is hard to see it as anything but the product of a lengthy and reiterative design process, which indeed I believe it to be. It is particularly impressive to note that it hardly even matters what X is about. But just for insurance, the system is made even more bulletproof by having whatever X is about be completely beyond the reach of any means of detection or empirical confirmation.

A splendid example of this sort of thing at work was given by Hitchens himself in a discussion of the recently published letters of Mother Teresa, in which she acknowledges having lost all faith in God long ago. Rent with anguish, she confessed this to her religious superiors, and received a reply that is simply stupendous in its brilliance: she was told that her crisis of faith, and the intense torment it caused her, must be a gift from God, because it allowed her to join in the sufferings of Jesus upon the cross.

On the atheist’s view, then, these are some of the “refinements” of religion. They are comparable, one might argue, to those evolutionary refinements of the AIDS virus that allow it to disable the immune system of its host. Note also that the fact that this comparison may itself arouse shock and give offense is yet another example of their outstanding effectiveness. They are impressive indeed.

  1. This is one of the central themes of Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell.


  1. Phillipa says

    The point of these later views is not to replace earlier views of god with “nothing at all” (though some in fact do just that).

    The point is to replace them with a stance that requires a rather more vigorous standard of proof regarding extraordinary claims.

    More vigorous, that is, than “I think it’s so.”

    I reject the existence of earlier gods on the same grounds that I reject the existence of current ones: there is simply no evidence that can touch the matter. Either there is a god, or gods, or there is not…or there is some set of cosmic conditions under which some gods exist at some times but not at others.

    There are people who devote themselves to worrying about such things. I’m not one of them. The closest I’ve ever come to a god concept is a hunch that there never was a god (at least in our spacetimecosmos)…but that one might well be emerging as the universe plays itself out. I base that on evidence: it seems apparent that intelligence and consciousness are evolutionary properties of this universe and time flow. In other words, god might exist, but only in the future.

    Posted December 16, 2013 at 5:45 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    And they may be us.

    Posted December 16, 2013 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

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