Monday, February 1, 2010

'God, the universe and everything': part 2

In my last entry I looked at Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, a stunningly effective attack on the evils of organised religion. In this post I’ll try to explain why I disagree with Dawkins’s accompanying dismissal of the existence of some version of God.

(I'm a bit worried about revealing my views on spirituality as blatantly as I do in this entry -- I'm concerned that some readers will judge those views as, well, very nutty! So be it. I welcome comments, although I'm having a bit of trouble with comments being only partly legible at the moment, and am trying to sort this out. )

As outlined in my last post, I share many of Dawkins’s concerns about religion, and, given the rise of the Religious Right and creationism, I have a huge amount of sympathy with his fears for the future of Enlightenment thinking.

What I don’t agree with is his complete dismissal of a non-denominational belief in some kind of divine intelligence, or at least a spirituality that can encompass human capabilities that scientists are yet to explain.

The central problem with Dawkins’s stance is that he mishandles the very thing that is most oppressed, enslaved and exploited by religion – humanity’s capacity for spirituality. Dawkins ends up doing exactly the same injustice to spirituality as religion does. (Admittedly, the same accusation can’t be levelled at all atheists.)

In this regard, the devil is in the detail, so to speak.

The God of Dawkins

Part of the problem with Dawkins’s broad approach is that the God he grapples with is always, within human culture, first and foremost a set of conflicting concepts rather than a being. Whether or not you believe in a divine intelligence that’s exterior to the human brain, an invocation of God can enable access to one’s most altruistic, positive aspects; it could also be an incitement to feel hatred and do evil. Even prior to the question of his or her independent existence, the God Dawkins seeks to pin down is a moving target.

Nevertheless, Dawkins makes very clear from the get-go the kind of God he is disputing:

An atheist …is somebody who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe, no soul that outlasts the body and no miracles – except in the sense of natural phenomena that we don’t yet understand. If there is something that appears to lie beyond the natural world as it is now imperfectly understood, we hope eventually to … embrace it within the natural. (p. 14)

Elsewhere, Dawkins defines the God he is critiquing as ‘a super-human, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us’ (p 31).

Dawkins bases his non-belief in this kind of God on probability theory. He asserts that, although we can’t actually prove that there is no God at this point (and an extremely unlikely proposition shouldn’t have to be proven anyway), we can be almost certain there isn’t.

I don’t argue with Dawkins’s insistence that it’s absurd to have an abstract belief in God without any evidence. But personal experience, for the average person, does itself constitute a kind of evidence.

So it’s tempting for me to pore over the above quotes like a progressive biblical scholar trying to give a challenging scriptural passage the interpretation that favours my view of the world, and try to find an opening for a belief in a layer of spiritual experience that could perhaps encompass some notion of God. That’s not impossible to do: the qualification ‘except in the sense of natural phenomena that we don’t yet understand’ seems to leave the way open for scientists to validate everyday ‘spiritual’ experiences that are yet imperfectly understood.

Further, Dawkins does not dismiss transcendental experience, only what he sees as the false premises it is often based on. He wants readers to discover an awe and excitement in the universe that science is revealing to us. He describes his unending wonder at this universe and nature in general as ‘a quasi-mystical response’ that is ‘common among scientists and rationalists’ (p 11). He believes that humans can feel a transformative wonder simply by observing the accidental beauty of the world.

So perhaps Dawkins is, after all, cautiously open to the idea that humans may possess spiritual capabilities yet to be discovered by science? Perhaps he can validate the aspects of lived experience that materialists so often dismiss? Perhaps we’re simply talking about a different level of materialism?

Unfortunately, Dawkins soon puts the lid on this possibility. Of personal experience as an argument for belief, he’s disappointingly cliched and reductionist. Think you hear an inner guiding voice? Check into the nearest psychiatric facility.

Dawkins sees no difference between a religious delusion (Bush thinking the Old Testament God is telling him to bomb Iraq) and the painstaking task of uncovering and starting to listen to one’s innate inner guidance. (Is a strong inner force pushing you away from a particular job, relationship or trip, despite the urgings of your rational mind or the insistence of a loved one? Better ignore it.) It’s no surprise that ‘spirituality’, ‘non-denominational spirituality’ and ‘near-death experiences’ aren’t included in the book’s substantial index.

These are bleak alternatives indeed: a purely materialistic universe that abhors any aspect of human experience that cannot yet be explained by science; or a rigid, judgemental god who hates the erotic urges of the human body. In both cases, some aspect of the human is being repudiated. Although I disagree with those critics who accuse Dawkins of being religious about atheism, I can’t help seeing a connection between the different ways that both science and religion deny aspects of human experience. In both cases, they are telling us we can’t trust ourselves.

Evidence for God?

Given that there’s so much still to discover about the material world, it seems an odd time to be totally dismissing some version of God, and particular human capabilities often associated with such a belief. How can we, at this early stage of our knowledge, claim that we know enough to dismiss a dimension of the body and the mind that is only termed ‘spiritual’ because we haven’t yet pinpointed how it operates?

New findings in physics continue to upend accepted ideas about how the world works. We now know that energy and matter are interchangeable – scientists can turn energy into matter and the other way round. Furthermore, some kinds of subatomic particles that have once been linked together continue to act as if they are still linked, even when they’re separated; this is one of the mysteries of quantum mechanics. It’s a mainstream scientific fact, but it raises many basic questions about how legitimate it is to assume that, in the absence of technology, communication can only take place between living creatures if they’re in actual physical proximity to each other.

Physics also shows us that the very idea of objectivity is flawed. A number of experiments have demonstrated that particles behave differently depending on how they are being observed. In other words, subjectivity is built into the operations of matter on a quantum level (this is not to denigrate scientific attempts at objectivity).

Since the nineteenth century, parapsychologists have been investigating layers of experience that appear to defy scientific understandings of the material world. These researchers seek to ‘investigate the existence and causes of psychic abilities and life after death using the scientific method'.

What they are investigating are the scientifically inexplicable experiences of hundreds of thousands of people throughout human history. These include telepathy, premonitions, serendipity, apparitions and intuition. These experiences and skills don’t actually require a belief in a supreme being, but they’re often associated with a non-denominational version of God, and placed under the umbrella term ‘spiritual’. The consensus in most scientific circles is that they are either a load of hogwash, or emanate purely from the brain.

I think that the way these experiences are represented in the media is part of the problem. For example, in popular culture telepathy is as an ability of some superheroes. (Ironically, some prominent sceptics mistakenly use telepathy as an explanation for the power of mediums – they find it a more ‘rational’ explanation than communication with the dead.) Meanwhile, the US army has received funding to develop a kind of synthetic telepathy, although it’s quite different in kind from the one I’m talking about.

Unlike popular culture representations, my experiences of the 'uncanny' are always very subtle and always tied up with relationships. For example, I only experience some version of telepathy once in a blue moon, and with someone I’m connected to in some way; it’s not that I’m constantly picking up on other people’s thoughts. Similarly, the only premonitions I've had are very occasional strong images of some emotional or physical state being experienced by someone I’m close to; feeling inexplicably sad before receiving very bad news; or having a strong sense that a particular outcome that a friend was hoping for wasn't going to happen -- all very subjective, of course.

For me these experiences are short flashes; I don’t at all see myself as particularly psychically gifted. This presents a central problem for science: none of my experiences would be remotely testable in a laboratory.

Intuition, similarly, is an inner guiding force that I’d be lost without. It was there all the time, but I’ve had to gradually uncover it and to some extent I’ve learned to trust it. Usually it’s a feeling or intimation within, but seems to come from a deeper place than everyday emotions. I’ve learned through painful experience to follow my intuition – and I would like to think that I’d do so without hesitation if I was about to walk down the ‘wrong’ dark street, catch the ‘wrong’ plane etc.

For most people, the experiences I’ve described are never going to constitute a gift that they can make a living out of. They’re simply a utilisation of part of the brain that was ignored or closed down in the past, often simply through a conventional upbringing and education.

However, scientists like Dawkins ignore the fact that an openness to non-rational aspects of the world is not always voluntary, but may be a byproduct of an adverse event like an addiction or even a near-death experience. When we discover new aspects of ourselves we encounter the world in ways that are sometimes deeply uncomfortable.

When Dawkins tries to tell me that these experiences are bulldust, it’s a bit like him telling me that he can't see, and therefore the belief that I can is simply an illusion; and that he won't rest until I’m walking around with my eyes closed, bumping into things that I would otherwise see coming and be able to avoid.

Certainly science needs to avoid strenuously a belief in ‘common sense’; but that’s quite different from dismissing the lived experiences of millions of people – in fact, common sense might be the unacknowledged basis of the excessive scepticism of some scientists in this area.

Parapsychologists are not the only scientists who swim against the tide. A minority of scientists in a variety of fields have rebelled against a scientific establishment made up of what they call ‘pseudosceptics’ rather than the open-minded sceptic that a true scientist needs to be. These maverick scientists claim that, in debunking any human capability that threatens their worldview, such as telepathy, pseudosceptics fall back on grossly inadequate evidence and faulty logic.

Rupert Sheldrake, for example, has developed a theory of morphogenetic fields and of morphic fields to explain respectively the growth of plants and animals, and mental abilities like telepathy (interestingly, his theory does not rely on, and appears to be uninterested in, a belief in God).

Further evidence – near death experiences

Of course, the weirdness of physics and unexplained psychic experiences isn’t in itself evidence of God. However, evidence for the existence of some kind of non-denominational higher intelligence can be found in the extensive field of near-death studies, which is a subject of interest not only to neuroscience but also to sociology, psychology and philosophy as well as theology.

One of the most common experiences in a typical near-death experience (NDE) is an encounter with an energy that seems to radiate infinite love, security and compassion on a scale not experienced in normal life and not easily described. Neuroscientists have been quick to offer brain-related explanations for this experience, in particular the ‘dying brain hypothesis’ developed by Susan Blackmore and others, which suggests that hallucinations occur at the time of death.

However, a huge array of anecdotal evidence, including reports of NDEs resulting from car accidents, suggests that some experiencers are able to witness the events that take place immediately after their supposed deaths. Also, many subjects come away from such experiences profoundly emotionally and spiritually changed and with a more accepting, loving and grateful approach to life – a transformation that would seem beyond the ability of a mere hallucination to produce. Many of those who experience NDEs were not interested in spirituality beforehand; yet some seem to have emerged with healing or psychic abilities they did not have previously.

But a belief in God shouldn’t rely solely on abstract evidence. Either you experience a sense of something larger, something both in and outside of yourself, or you don’t. The evidence above would hardly impress Dawkins, but it merely confirms something I’ve experienced. Like Dawkins I abhor the idea of ‘faith’, because it asks people to suspend their thinking abilities and also leaves them open to manipulation. If you haven’t experienced a sense of a force for good, then there is no reason for you to develop a cognitive belief in such a force.

In my next entry I’ll talk about my experience of this force for good. I’ll also return to Dawkins and a more detailed attempt that he’s made to debunk the spiritual.


  1. hello Catherine,

    an extremely interesting post. Thank you for sharing your views, however controversial some may consider.

    I find, exploring such issues as spiritual and religious views of others, fascinating.

    Although I do not believe in the accepted sense of 'God', and I do not follow any organised religion, I have never considered myself an 'atheist'. I guess this is difficult to explain, but at the same time, I do not consider myself hypocrytical.

    When I am reading text that instructs the reader to read the word 'God', I replace it with a word or phrase I find appropriate for the context. It might be 'the Universe', or 'my inner voice', or 'my inner being', or 'spirituality', or 'Nature', or 'my soul'. This gives me the opportunity to still read text that consists of something I am not comfortable acknowledging.

    If Dawkins, and others, suggest that no such concept as 'spirituality' exists in any manner, then those people are in conflict with Nature and trying to live a totally materialistic life. Well, this is, of course, just my considered opinion.

    Everyday, it is evident that much of the world's population is assigning too much importance on materialistic values. Our priorities are mixed up. We are depending far too much on a man-made existence, rather than relying on Nature. Nature does not just mean the trees and water and animals, but the Being that we are.

    I have blogged on my ideas of spirituality over time. My concept and wisdom changes with time and experience. I will create another blog on spirituality in the near future.

    Thank you for your openness on this subject.

    Kind regards,

  2. Hi Gaye,

    Thanks for commenting! I agree that using the name 'God' is a bit problematic (and makes me feel like I'm being religious when I'm not!) -- I tend to use it as a kind of shorthand, but any of those alternatives are just as, if not more, meaningful. But you picked up on what I was trying to say, which is that this 'force' is not something that's just on the outside.

    I like your idea about relying more on nature -- one of the problems with Dawkins and those like him is that they assume science is always about progress. I'm not against science by any means but if we rely on it as a basis for everything we think, feel and do we're in big trouble!

  3. This is an amazing blog, im glad I found it :)