Summary: There is either a God who cares about us, or an animating spirit that does not care, or creation is an accident. But the difference between an animating spirit that does not care about us and the accident theory seems negligible. Believing in a “God” that might just as easily be described as “nature’ involves only a small semantic distinction, hardly a leap of faith.
In his book ‘God’ Reza Aslan, himself a believer, asserts that religious belief necessarily requires a ‘leap of faith’. He says any believer that tells you otherwise is probably in the process of trying to convert you. Although a believer, Aslan is not evangelical.
Aslan commences his book by discussing theories on the origin of religion.
Edward Taylor thought the source of religion lies in the enigmatic belief in that the soul is separate from the body. He attributed this belief to dreams. If our primitive ancestors dreamed of a dead relative they would naturally assume the spirit lived on in another realm even after the destruction of the body.
Max Muller believed religion grew out of human beings’ early encounters with nature. Human beings observed the skies, oceans and forests. They knew they did not create them. So they assumed someone, or something, else must have done so.
Similarly, Robert Marrett argued that human beings believed in what he termed ‘mana’- a supernatural force that lives in both animate and inanimate things.
Aslan argues that what these theories have in common is the assumption that religion arose to answer unsolvable questions. This explanation for religion remains popular today. But Aslan doubts that any of these theories provide for any adaptive advantage that might help explain religion in evolutionary terms. He says there is no evidence that the existence of any emotion associated with religious belief gave rise to an evolutionary adaptive advantage.
Durkheim explains religion on the basis that its religious rites and rituals help a community form a collective consciousness. He thinks religion arose as a kind of social adhesive. It is not difficult to see how a more cohesive community might give an evolutionary advantage. But Aslan argues that religion is just as much a dividing force as a uniting one and that kinship is a stronger primal tool for social cohesion than a common religious belief.
Aslan favors neurology as providing the best evolutionary explanation for religion. He says religion is first and foremost a neurological phenomenon. He says through evolution we have developed mental processes that lead us to assign agency to inanimate objects, to endow objects with a soul or spirit and then transmit these beliefs to succeeding generations. He is convinced that the widespread belief that we are embodied souls is the source of religious belief and that we do not really know where our idea of a soul comes from.
But Aslan never explains why there might not be a combination of sources for religious belief or why only a source that provides an evolutionary advantage is real. We must eat to survive. But our culinary cultures are not determined, or completely determined, by evolutionary advantages.
Aslan’s rejection of Durkheim’s theory that religion is a kind of social adhesive is unconvincing. It is true that religion is a dividing force as well as a unifying one. But human “unity’ is often based upon membership of a special group from which other groups of human beings are excluded. Depressingly, the exclusion of some is indeed part of the appeal, and the unifying force, for the included. Religion is but one example of this. Tribal loyalty to a football team is another, more harmless manifestation of the same phenomena.
Aslan also fails to explain why, if religious belief is “hard wired” in us through neurology, atheism can exist at all, even among a small minority of people.
Most of Anslan’s book aims to demonstrate, which he does convincingly, that most religion involves a humanized version of God. We invent God in our image rather than the reverse.
“Studies performed by a range of psychologists and cognitive scientists have shown that the most devout believers, when forced to communicate their thoughts about God, overwhelmingly treat God as though they were talking about a person they have met on the street…Think about how believers so often describe God as loving, cruel, jealous, forgiving or kind. These are of course human attributes.”
Aslan says religion thus becomes merely a reflection of everything good or bad about us. We create a superhuman being (God) endowed with human traits but without human limitations. This explains why, throughout history, religion has been a force for both good and unspeakable evil.
Aslan analyses religion through different epochs and civilizations to support his thesis. But it does not require such in depth analysis to conclude that religion is a human construct, not a godly one. One only has to look at how the concentration of different religions in different parts of the world largely corresponds to that region’s history- especially its history of conquest and colonization. Also, the way in which, throughout history, religions have often spread due to promotion from powerful human leaders. Constantine’s promotion of Christianity, as a means of unifying the Roman empire under his command, and Islam’s military conquests being perhaps the two most outstanding early examples.
Aslan argues for a dehumanized version of God.
In his own religious history he converted from Islam to Christianity, where the God-man figure of Jesus Christ represents somewhat of a nadir for belief in a humanized God. Aslan then converted from Christianity to Sufism, a mystical form of Islam, which he claims rejects a humanized version of God.
Aslan wants human beings to stop foisting human attributes upon God and to adopt what he describes as a more all encompassing, peaceful, primal form of spirituality. Hope away!
Aslan favors obliterating any distinction between creator and created and supports the view there is nothing else but God. He says we should think of God as light passing through a prism refracting into countless colors. Things that, on the surface, seem to be separate and distinct realities, are in fact a single one- what we call God. Aslan says the modern term for his kind of religious belief is ‘pantheism’.
Caution needs to be taken with the use of this word. Pantheism can mean the belief that God is the universe, or the universe a manifestation of God, which is the sense in which Aslam uses it. But its more common usage is to describe something very different- the belief in a multiplicity of Gods.
Aslan acknowledges that his conception of God is much like that of the 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza was apparently one of Einstein’s favorite philosophers. Born into a Jewish family, Spinoza argued that there could only be but “one substance” in the universe, displaying infinite attributes, which might be described as either ‘nature’ or ‘God’.
Jewish religious authorities censured Spinoza, causing him to be effectively shunned by Jewish society at age 23. His books were also later put on the Catholic Church’s ‘Index of Forbidden Books’.
Aslan says his view of God means that his worship is not based on fear of God but on awe at the working of the universe. Also, that good and evil are not metaphysical things but are moral choices that should not be rooted in fear of eternal punishment or reward.
So how are Aslan’s views distinct from those of atheism, which the religious authorities also accused Spinoza of? Aslan explains this on the second last page of his book:
“Whether we remain believers is nothing more or less than a choice. One can believe that everything- the Big Bang, the distribution of space and time, the balance between mass and energy and so on- is all just an accident of atoms. Creation may very well have originated purely through physical processes that reflect nothing more than the articulation of the most basic properties of matter and energy- without cause, value or purpose. This is plausible- and just as plausible- and just as impossible to prove- as the existence of an animating spirit that underlies the universe, that binds together the souls of you and me and everyone else-perhaps everything else- that is or was or ever has been.
So then make your choice. Believe in God or not. Define God how you will. Either way…you need not fear God.
You are God.”
But for me, all this really leads nowhere.
Even if we equate God with the universe and accept that as a part of the universe we are a manifestation of God- what does this mean? Surely one can awe at the workings of the universe irrespective of belief in an animating spirit? What is the point of a God who has no special interest in human beings, who does not create rules to live by and who fails to hand out eternal rewards and punishments?
The concept of a God who does these things might well seem absurd to we non-believers. But at least one can see the point of this God in the everyday lives of human beings. This God provides a moral code to live by and an opiate for those who need it- the heart of a heartless world. What can a mere animating spirit, which pays no special attention to human beings, add to the quality of human existence?
In the end, there is either a God who cares about us, an animating spirit that does not, or creation is an accident. The difference in consequences between an animating spirit that does not care about us and the accident seems negligible, if there is a difference at all.
Unless the animating spirit has consciousness and purpose and cares about us, what consequences flow that are any different from the belief that the universe is just matter and energy without any purpose? At the very most, the animating spirit version might be a slightly more comforting way of describing reality without any other practical consequence.
Certainly on Aslan’s own account we cannot imbue his animating spirit with that most human of attributes, consciousness, for if we do we are back to the humanized concept of God.
Aslan never explains why it might be better for us if there is an animating (yet unintelligent) spirit underlying the universe, as opposed to the universe just being an accident.
Yet Aslan insists that his religious belief still involves a ‘leap of faith’. For me, believing in a God that might just as easily be described as “nature’ involves only a tiny semantic distinction. I do not see that any leap is required.