The Stickiness of God

Happy Monday to you! In today’s Must Read, Emory University Professor Frans De Waal writes in The New York Times that human morality wasn’t born in religion. But that doesn’t mean we’ll ever be free of God.

(F)emale chimpanzees have been seen to drag reluctant males towards each other to make up after a fight, removing weapons from their hands, and high-ranking males regularly act as impartial arbiters to settle disputes in the community. I take these hints of community concern as yet another sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and that we do not need God to explain how we got where we are today. On the other hand, what would happen if we were able to excise religion from society?

I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion.

The idea that our animal nature is good as well as bad has to be revolutionary. The concept certainly kicks over the apple cart of Original Sin.I also find the idea of the stickiness of God to be interesting, and after a moment’s thought, unsurprising.

If we judge the necessity of a concept by its longevity, then religion and a God or divinity of some sort may be as necessary to our survival as oxygen. Something in the human heart — or in the hearts of many humans throughout many thousands of years  — has called out for religion. Some need is being met. What happens if we exorcise God from society? Atheists see nothing but good coming from such a surgery, yet I wonder. What harm might accidentally be created? What unintended blowback would occur?

Would the moral ground suddenly disappear from beneath our feet? Would concepts of right and wrong vanish? Would good and the pursuit of goodness disappear? If de Waal is right, then we don’t need to worry about such a horrific world. But I’m serious about this question: What would vanish if belief in God were suddenly to end? Not just for one person, but for all. What does belief provide the believer?

Hat tips to Kay and Nancy for pointing me to de Waal’s essay.

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2 Responses to The Stickiness of God

  1. SarasNavel says:

    Dawkins beats the point to a pulp in The God Delusion. He actually forms and explains the argument quite well, he just tends to drag it out a bit past the point where you start thinking about temples and ice picks. Other than that, more than half of the book is an okay read. You just have to skip alternate paragraphs or even pages, that’s all.

    Seriously, if you get the chance, his exploration of that one argument is worth the book; that God is not necessary for moral behavior. It helps to explain the multiplicity of gods created over time and cultures and can cause you to look at the purpose of religion in a different light.

    But let’s not conflate the removal of God with religion or spirituality. The latter could be seen as an inherent respect for the interconnectedness of everything in the natural world and as a starting point serves the purpose of human survival quite well. God gets layered on at a much higher level, when we make it personal.

    I’m a spiritual atheist that has spent decades studying why religion exists and over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that it acts as a regulator in societies. It keeps them cohesive and internally consistent and therefore, safe from outside disruptive forces. Originally religion formed as a way to attempt to predict that which was not yet understandable and to maintain basic practical survival in nomadic cultures; this goes way beyond not eating pork. The oldest known prayer, as it turns out, was a recipe for low alcohol beer. Not to induce a religious state of consciousness, but to keep water potable. In a similar fashion, once people settled down after discovering agriculture the need to maintain cohesion among growing numbers became crucial. Religion served that purpose through ritual, cosmology and uniformity. God may not be necessary for moral behavior but something along the lines of religion or spirituality, it would seem, just might be when enough people are added to the mix.

    Sadly, as the numbers of people in the in-groups grew to national proportions, fear (and it’s cousin, hatred) has been invoked to keep them uniform and self-policing. That aspect was manipulated until it has now become near synonymous with spirituality, religion and yes, God. In turn the very foundation that underlies a belief in God, that of connectivity, is damaged in many modern cultures. That to me would seem to be a terrible waste of our potential.

  2. dianesilver says:

    Thanks so much for this thoughtful comment and for providing perspective.

    Strictly speaking I’m an atheist because I don’t believe in God, the entity, but I do believe in, for want of a better word, the goodness of spiritual practice. I recognize the kinship between chanting as a Buddhist and saying the rosary as a Catholic. Both appear to me to be meditative practices. I also know that there is a state of mind, and a connection to the universe (which may include connection to some kind of divinity) that comes from religious and spiritual practices.

    What bothers me about the New Atheists is that they seem to want to destroy everything that can’t be measured and sweep myriad practices away as if all were the same, and all were tainted. At the same time, I’m not arrogant enough to think that everything has to reach these states of mind, or find spiritual comfort, in the same way that I do. In other words, even though I don’t believe in God, I don’t condemn others for doing so. It’s what one does with one’s belief that matters.

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