The Problem With The Supernatural
Hmmmmmmmmmm, loving, life-affirming mutual empowering relationships sounds pretty good to me. I think I understand the existential challenge that we are faced with because of the structure of our brains. But, I must admit I am still left with the feeling that all of this stuff you’re writing about is pretty utopian. I just don’t see it happening. You admit that the thinking and beliefs that have brought human civilization to our current destructive, possibly fatal and terminal ways are based in thousands of years of human history. As much as I would like to live in the world you are suggesting is possible, I just don’t see it happening. I hope there is some important thinking or evidence or element that you haven’t presented yet. Is there?
Yes, there is. It is a challenging topic to present clearly, challenging for people to communicate about because they must invoke both the scientific and the artistic – the limbic and the neocortical; nevertheless, it is a topic we must deal with if humans are to become fully empowered. The topic is belief in the supernatural. Please note that the topic is belief in the supernatural, not belief in God or adherence to a specific religion. If one’s belief in God includes belief in the supernatural, then one’s God is relevant to this topic. Also, if one’s adherence to a specific religion includes belief in the supernatural, then one’s religion is relevant to this topic. However, one may have a definition of God and adhere to a religion which does not include a belief in the supernatural. For example, one may define their God as the essence of the awesome and ecstatic experience that they have when they are with someone they love and when they feel as one with that person, or when they feel at one with the life-affirming energy of the universe. Their religion could be a commitment to a practice of service to others and to our planet which has the potential to permit all people to have that experience and to preserve the natural world.
So, what is the problem with believing in the supernatural?
The main twofold problem is the belief in a supernatural God or religion, or for that matter the belief in a supernatural group of pixies. On one hand, such a belief inevitably leads to the believer becoming disempowered to a greater or lesser extent. On another hand, if a supernatural God or religion can be invoked by the believer in a rational dialogue, then the believer possesses an unbeatable Trump Card. If the believer can say at any point, “I know what I say is true because it is the Word of God,” there is no way to argue that point – it is just so. The believer holds that it is true because they have received directly the Word of God, or their Religious Leader who cannot be wrong and has received the Word directly in some form or other. Of course, a considerable problem exists if two people believe that they are the direct or indirect recipients of the Word and if those Words are contradictory. This problem expands to global proportions when countries or other international bodies fight wars or perpetuate terrorism with both sides genuinely believing that God is on their side.
This problem, which is potentially fatal to human civilization, could be fully mitigated if those who believe in supernatural Gods would agree that such beliefs are to be used only to guide people in their individual lives, cannot be used to influence the institutions pertinent to human affairs, cannot be used to justify someone having power over another, and certainly cannot be used to justify killing. There are many people who in following the Word of their God live loving lives, who are respectful of the human dignity of all people, who live lives of service committed to justice and freedom for all people, who live simply while striving to see that all people have the resources they need to live lives of dignity. Such people are making real life-affirming contributions. I happen to believe that their most essential motivation, in fact, comes from inside them, from their capacity for loving resonance with others and the natural world, not from some external supernatural force. I believe that they would be even more empowered, more joyful, more loving, more connected with other people, more free for further growth and development if they did not give away some of that power and love to a supernatural entity.
Even if one restricts God to being solely the guide for one’s individual actions, there is still the likelihood that in doing so that person is giving away power in their life. The central question that all people deal with, consciously or unconsciously, is what does one do when one reaches the realm of the unknown. No matter how much we know individually or collectively, there remain today and will probably remain forever some mysteries, some gaps in knowledge. For example, we can accept as a known that our universe began millions of years ago with the Big Bang. But, we do not know what existed millions of years before the Big Bang. How did all of the matter of the universe compress into a small ball?
With all that science can explain, there is still much that it cannot explain and perhaps will never be able to explain. In the face of that situation, do we then choose to accept that those phenomena that we cannot explain scientifically still must conform to natural laws, even though we don’t yet know what they are or how they work? Or, do we choose to posit a supernatural God whose powers take care of the gaps in our knowledge? Or, instead of God could it be a band of pixies who have these supernatural powers and sit on our shoulders and guide us? Or, did the Big Bang result from a science experiment that a teenager abandoned and that continues to play out and thus far continues undiscovered by our sloppy teenager? Is it incumbent upon those who believe in a supernatural God to prove his existence, or for those who don’t believe in a supernatural God to prove his nonexistence? His existence has not been proven. And, the absolute nonexistence of something cannot be proven. We can only establish that to date there is no evidence of its existence. So, does an individual seek to maximize the “power to” in their life, or does one yield more or less power to a supernatural God? These are questions that we deal with, consciously or unconsciously, every day of our lives. They are examined in clear detail and reason in “Breaking The Spell: Religion As A Natural Phenomenon” by Daniel C. Dennett.
Much has been written over the centuries about the historic processes by which polytheisms turned into monotheism – belief in gods being replaced by belief in God. What is less often stressed is how this belief in God joined forces with the belief in belief in God to motivate the migration of the concept of God in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) away from concrete anthropomorphism to ever more abstract and depersonalized concepts.
What is remarkable about this can be illuminated by contrast with other conceptual shifts that have occurred during the same period. Fundamental concepts can certainly change over time. Our concept of matter has changed quite radically from the days of the ancient Greek atomists. Our scientific conceptions of time and space today, thanks to clocks and telescopes and Einstein and others, are different from theirs as well. Some historians and philosophers have argued that these shifts are not as gradual as they at first appear but, rather, are abrupt saltations, so drastic that the before and after concepts are “incommensurable” in some way.
Are any of these conceptual revisions actually so revolutionary as to render communication across the ages impossible, as some have argued? The case is hard to make, since we can apparently chart the changes accurately and in detail, understanding them all as we go. In particular, there seems no reason to believe that our everyday conceptions of space and time would be even somewhat alien to Alexander the Great, say, or Aristophanes. We would have little difficulty conversing with either of them about today, tomorrow, and last year, or the
thousands of yards or paces between Athens and Baghdad. But if we tried to converse with the ancients about God, we would find a much larger chasm separating us. I can think of no other concept that has undergone so dramatic a deformation. It is as if their concept of milk had turned into our concept of health, or as if their concept of fire had turned into our concept of energy, and (today, according to many but not all believers) you can’t literally listen to God or literally sit beside Him, but these would be strange claims indeed to the original monotheists. The Old Testament Jehovah, or Yahweh, was quite definitely a super-man (a He, not a She) who could take sides in battles, and be both jealous and wrathful. The original New Testament Lord is more forgiving and loving, but still a Father, not a Mother or a genderless Force, and active in the world, needless to say, through His miracle-performing Son. The genderless Person without a body who nevertheless answers prayers in real time…is still far too anthropomorphic for some, who prefer to speak of a Higher Power…whose characteristics are beyond comprehension – aside from the fact that they are, in some incomprehensible way, good, not evil. Does the Higher Power have (creative) intelligence? In what way? Does It (not He or She) care about us? About anything? The fog of mystery has descended conveniently over all the anthropomorphic features that have not been abandoned outright.
And a further adaptation has been grafted on: it is impolite to ask about these
matters. (pp. 205-206)
We got ourselves caught in a hypocrisy trap, and there is no clear path out. Are we like the families in which the adults go through all the motions of believing in Santa Claus for the sake of the kids, and the kids all pretend still to believe in Santa Claus so as not to spoil the adults’ fun? If only our current predicament were as innocuous and even comical as that! In the adult world of religion, people are dying and killing, with the moderates cowed into silence by the intransigence of the radicals in their own faiths, and many afraid to acknowledge what they actually believe for fear of breaking Granny’s heart, or offending their neighbors to the point of getting run out of town, or worse.
If this is the precious meaning our lives are vouchsafed thanks to our allegiance to one religion or another, it is not such a bargain, in my opinion. Is this the best we can do? Is it not tragic that so many people around the world find themselves enlisted against their will in a conspiracy of silence, either because they secretly believe that most of the world’s population is wasting their lives in delusion (but they are too tenderhearted – or devious – to say so), or because they secretly believe that their own tradition is just such a delusion (but they fear for their own safety if they admit it)? (p. 291)
It is time for the reasonable adherents of all faiths to find the courage and stamina to reverse the tradition that honors helpless love of God – in any tradition. Far from being honorable, it is not even excusable. It is shameful…. There is only one way to respect the substance of any purported God-given moral edict: consider it conscientiously in the full light of reason, using all the evidence at our command. No God that was pleased by displays of unreasoning love would be worthy of worship. (p. 298)
Today we have a similar phenomenon brewing on the religious right: the inevitability of the
End Days, or the Rapture, the coming Armageddon that will separate the blessed from the damned in the final Day of Judgment. Cults and prophets proclaiming the imminent end of the world have been with us for several millennia, and it has been another sour sort of fun to ridicule them the morning after, when they discover that their calculations were a little off. But, … there are some among them who are working hard to “hasten the inevitable,” not merely anticipating the End Days with joy in their hearts, but taking political action to bring about the conditions they think are the prerequisites for that occasion. And these people arenot funny at all. They are dangerous…: they put their allegiance to their creed ahead of their commitment to democracy, to peace, to (earthly) justice – and to truth. If push comes to shove, some of them are prepared to lie and even to kill, to do whatever it takes to help bring what they consider celestial justice to those they consider the sinners. (p. 338)
So, in the end, my central policy recommendation is that we gently, firmly educate the people of the world, so that they can make truly informed choices about their lives. Ignorance is nothing shameful; imposing ignorance is shameful. Most people are not to blame for their own ignorance, but if they willfully pass it on, they are to blame. One might think this is so obvious that it hardly needs proposing, but in many quarters there is substantial resistance to it. People are afraid of being more ignorant than their children – especially, apparently, their daughters. We are going to have to persuade them that there are few pleasures more honorable and joyful than being instructed by your own children. It will be fascinating to see what institutions and projects our children will devise, building on the foundations earlier generations have built and preserved for them, to carry us all safely into the future. (p. 339)
Wow! I had no idea that so much is at stake and that outmoded ways to thinking and believing are so prevalent, so dangerous, and so deeply and unconsciously held by so many. I am beginning to see that I have incorporated many of these outmoded ways. I feel a deep sadness knowing that many of these I have learned at my parents’ knees. I know they have tried to love me and to help me be happy; but, it seems that they have unknowingly passed on many of these outmoded ways. How can I raise these matters with them and with other people whom I care about and to whom I would not want to be hurtful in any way?
Isn’t this a curious dilemma that you pose – you fear that if you speak what you consider to be truth you will be hurting someone you care about! If in speaking the truth, you intend to be right and make someone else wrong – to express some kind of power over them, that person may indeed be hurt. However, you or they can transform that potentially hurtful situation by seeking mutual empowerment. You or they can genuinely seek to understand each other’s truths, without rights or wrongs, without judgments, without the need to put someone else down. Then sharing truths becomes an exciting adventure in which you both move closer and closer to life-affirming resonance. What could be more joyful and meaningful than a life filled with such adventures!