Religion is like seeing faces in nature?

September 25th, 2018 in clues. Tags: , , , , ,

Recently a friend referred me to a 2013 blog post (God: Personification ≠ Person) by Rev Michael Dowd, which explains his somewhat unorthodox views on God and religion.

Dowd is a former Catholic who embraced Pentecostal christianity while serving in the army, got himself a theological education and served as a church pastor for a decade.

Since then he has developed a strong interest in ecology, and believes the human race needs to embrace the realities of climate change and the importance of ecological conservation before it is too late. He now describes himself as an evolutionary evangelist or pro future evangelist, travelling around the US speaking about his particular brand of evolutionary religion.

I support many of the things he says about the importance of evolution and ecology, but in this post I am examining his theology of God and his take on the christian religion, based on his 2013 God: Personification ≠ Person post – a little old now, but listed on his website and apparently still his current view.

Michael Down on God

Dowd begins his post with a statement that will be “in-your-face” for many christians:

God is a personification, not a person

To illustrate, he refers to Poseidon, the ancient Greek god of the sea. Today most of us don’t believe such a god exists as a being, but we may see him as the personification of something that does exist, the seas and oceans. Perhaps a more familiar example would be the way the Roman god Cupid is used as a personification of love.

He is saying, I think, that God doesn’t actually exist as a supernatural being, but just as a useful idea that helps people make sense of life and live productive peaceful lives. The following quotes seem to me to sum up his argument:

1. The evolution of religion

“Religions foster outlooks and practices that help adherents live in right relationship with each other, with society, and with Nature as a whole ….. the usefulness of the images and concepts are what matters most — not their truth value.”

He points out, referencing a bunch of scholars in a variety of fields, that “the human mind instinctively relationalizes (personifies) reality when interpreting and making meaning of its experience” – we see faces in clouds and on Mars. Thus many social scientists conclude that religion develops because we “see” God in nature.

Religion has survived, it is argued, because it generally helps people live well, to be sociable and altruistic, towards their fellow believers at least, and often towards others too. And from a sociological viewpoint, it doesn’t matter if what we believe is actually true or not, as long as we believe it is true. (He quotes social scientist David Sloan Wilson, who points out that practically useful beliefs will always win out over factual beliefs.)

2. God doesn’t exist as a being

“Evidence from a wide range of disciplines, from cognitive neuroscience and anthropology to cross-cultural studies of the world’s myths and religions, all support the claim that “God” is (and always has been) an interpretation (a personification), not a person.”

His arguments for this statement are not stated clearly, but seem to be:

  1. He seems to argue that if the human mind instinctively “sees” God in nature, then that explains belief and shows theism isn’t based on evidence. But of course this is fallacious. Our minds could easily be that way because God made them that way. It is worth noting that of the scholars he quotes, Justin Barrett is a christian and so clearly doesn’t think this is evidence against God’s existence, and Andrew Newberg says that this characteristic of our minds says nothing against God’s existence.
  2. He says that believing there is no God is the only way to “make sense of the thousands of competing stories as to what God (or the gods, or the Goddess) supposedly said or did”. This seems to be suggesting that if there are many different opinions on a subject, none of them can be correct. But there are other ways to explain the diversity of belief. Surely it is possible that God exists and the diversity of religious beliefs is a result of the human tendency to disagree on important matters like religion, ethics and politics.
  3. He says religion involves supernatural belief, which is “unnatural”. This is a strange argument because he has previously argued that religions arise because people naturally personify reality and see God where there really isn’t anyone. What he means, I think, is that religion involves the supernatural, which is not acceptable to the philosophy of naturalism. But it is hardly news that theism is contrary to naturalism, but that doesn’t necessarily make it wrong!
  4. He criticises some specific christian beliefs on the nature of God, hell, heaven, the devil and the incarnation of Jesus. However he doesn’t present an argument against these teachings but rather ridicules them by offering a parody of a christian doctrinal statement. It is easy to do a parody (I could easily do one against atheism if I chose, but it proves nothing), much harder to give a good argument. In reality, some of the beliefs he ridicules are not believed by all christians (including me), and others are presented in an unfair form.

So if we look just at his theology of God, it is just atheism based on neuroscience, anthropology and ecology, and dressed up with religious language. There is little that is philosophically new, and the arguments in support of his atheism are not compelling (to me, at any rate).

3. Christian theology is boring and unnatural

“Supernatural Is Unnatural Is Uninspiring …. As we have collectively learned ever more about the natural, the supernatural has become ever less. Supernatural and unnatural are, after all, synonyms. Anything supposedly supernatural is, by definition, unnatural. And most people find unnatural relatively uninspiring when they really stop and think about it. ….It should not surprise us that young people are turning their backs on religion”

It is difficult to argue with any of this. Many people are indeed so strongly committed to the natural and scientific that they have no credence for anything supernatural.

4. Present day understandings of religion will be replaced by something better

“I foresee that within a few generations the concept of a personal God imaged as an unnatural Supreme Being with both the best and the worst of human traits ….. will be replaced by a reality-based view of God. ….. Such a shift compels a serious upgrade of our map of reality — opening a door to detecting “God’s ways” and “God’s guidance” no longer in ancient texts but via the collective and ongoing learnings of the self-correcting, global scientific tradition.”

Again, it is difficult to argue with the fact that people, especially younger people, are turning away from the religious beliefs of their parents, in the western world that is. In other parts of the world (Africa, Asia, South America), the christian faith is booming.

All of this is interesting, but none of it proves or disproves God. And his confidence that his version of religion will replace current religions isn’t supported by many sociologists of religion, who believe the world is likely to get more religious overall, not less.

In a nutshell

He summarises his message this way:

“Reality is God and evidence is scripture. If we don’t come into right relationship with Reality soon, we will perish.”

I think we can fairly summarise his view as a form of atheism which views religion as a sociological and psychological phenomenon. This view isn’t very unusual among thoughtful atheists, especially social scientists who study religion. Perhaps the most original aspect is the way he dresses up his atheism in language that almost deifies progress and ecology.

Are there reasons to believe or disbelieve him?

There are many reasons to doubt the truth of his “theology”:

  • He is arguing for atheism using rather weak arguments – there are far stronger arguments for atheism (e.g. the problem of evil).
  • He hasn’t considered any of the arguments for theism. Nothing he says refutes the argument that it is hard to explain the existence of the universe and its apparent fine-tuning without God, as in the Cosmological and Design arguments. Nothing he says refutes the arguments that atheism cannot explain human free will, ethics and rationality. Or human experience of God. Or the life of Jesus. It is as if these evidences are unknown to him.
  • Further, the fact that religion works to benefit people and societies is surely some sort of evidence that it might be true. After all, in our experience, true things tend to benefit more than untrue things, don’t they?

Nothing he says gives us any reason to believe there is no God. It seems like he has just proposed what he finds congenial without offering any cogent reasons to believe it is true.

My conclusion

So I believe it is true, as he says, that religion, overall, benefits the human race, and people’s brains seem to be attuned to believe in some sort of God. I don’t see this as evidence for atheism, I see it as slight evidence for theism. I think it more likely that God made us this way than that it was just an accident of evolution.

If what he says was true, we should stop believing in God. Which would mean we would stop getting the benefits. So the more people accept what he says, the more likely it is that people will stop “outlooks and practices that help adherents live in right relationship with each other” and so not behave so altruistically – unless he can replace religious belief with something else that achieves the same purpose.

He is suggesting a form of atheism that is more positive about religious belief (in the past at least), but it is still atheism, and I have good reasons to reject atheism. I have good reasons to think belief in God is more than just seeing faces in the clouds.

He dresses it all up in the suggestion that religion is not believable for modern people and we should take a more enlightened forward thinking view, which somehow makes his ideas seem progressive, but I think that is image rather than substance.

I can share his sense of urgency about the ecological state of the world without sharing his theology.

Photo: Appearance of a face on surface of Mars, courtesy of NASA