Debates about the existence of God have been going on for ages, and have gone nowhere interesting for almost as long. A regular dance now plays out – where believers and non-believers dodge and weave around the bones of old philosophers, their jousts and jibes predictably inconclusive. I think part of the problem is that what we have is a disagreement between apologists and critics – people who want to defend a particular theory, and those who wish to poke holes in it. What nobody ever seems to do in the debate is speculate – theorise openly about what sort of god, if any, the evidence might point to.
Atheists tend to merely claim that God is a “delusion” concerning a “supernatural being” or a “creative intelligence”. Monotheists tend to agree (apart from the delusion part), viewing these traits as the natural conclusion to draw from the various omnies they attribute to Him – omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, omni-compassion, omni-justice etc. This view has a long (Christian and Islamic) philosophical provenance, and aside from being logically fraught, seems to say more about what Divinity does than what it is. Even labels like “supernatural” tell us nothing other than this being or quality doesn’t fit within our world. It doesn’t stipulate how its own world functions, or how we might identify its effects on this one.
In short, it seems to me that whole debate is badly posed, and badly understood – even by theists. They cling to one particular image of Divinity, rather than approach that image philosophically and critically. The reason for this is simple – the importance of upholding the right set of beliefs in Christianity has always been paramount, and is at the very least important in the other Abrahamic faiths. As such, rather than openly ask the question “What is this Divine thing anyway?”, theists have spent most of their time trying to justify other people’s answers (i.e. those of Biblical or Quranic prophets) to this basic question, while atheists have spent most of their time trying to torpedo those same answers. Nobody is doing any blue sky research. Or nobody participating in the debate is, at any rate.
My approach to these questions, though, has always been one of looking to the blue sky for answers; always one of trying to explain experiences I have, rather than attempting to defend a theory somebody else has provided for such experiences. For me, the Divine is as real as joy, power or the colour green – it is something I experience directly. So the question isn’t “does this exist?” but “how does this exist?” Is it mere imagination, or does it relate at all to the world around me in some way?
From a reductionist atheist perspective, the gods are just mere imagination – voices in the head, created by some quirk in the evolution of the brain. Primitive man, so the theory goes, personified natural phenomena – thunderstorms, dreams, spring, childbirth – in an attempt to better relate to them. Those who still express this trait are a throwback to this earlier time, before mankind developed reason as a better way of understand the world. In anthropology, this idea was championed by Edward Tylor, who believed that religion was a “survival” from a prior phase of human evolution. He was working in 19th century, and his ideas are now seen as highly antiquated by contemporary anthropologists of religion. But they still prove popular amongst certain atheists – particularly Richard Dawkins – because they serve the same purpose for which Tylor originally thought them up – to discredit religious beliefs.
The problem for reductionists is, of course, that lots of other things exist primarily as structures in the brain – not least consciousness itself. Physically speaking, the human self and the persona of my gods are composed of much the same stuff – neurological matter. My sense of “I” and my sense of “Sulis”, “Frey” or “Nodens” are basically the same mental function – the brain being able to create a particular sensation, in this case, one of persona and agency. This is a foundational adaptation, and is basically as much a “sense” with which the brain decodes the world as colour or temperature perception. This sense of “sociality” is carefully tuned to help human beings interact with other consciousnesses, by allowing the brain to construct models, using its own neurones, of the brains of other beings. Capable of being used on predators, prey and most importantly, other humans, this ability to give voice to others inside our own heads is vital for anticipating how those others will behave in any given situation.
Now, one conclusion that could be made on this basis is that people who sense gods are misapplying this ability to things that, fundamentally, do not have consciousness. But one might equally say that applying instrumental logic – another great human adaption, evolved for the purpose of manipulating inanimate objects – to human interactions, is a “misapplication”. But we all know that being logical in ones dealings with others is often useful, so long as it is tempered by a sense of their agency; I’d say much the same is true for the wider world. Including Nature in one’s social world is perfectly acceptable, so long as maintain a fundamental sense of the logically observable differences between one’s own condition and that of the thing you are attempting to relate to. We may use sociality to make sense of stones, so long as we do not forget they are still stones, and not humans. The presence of this consideration is the difference between anthropomorphism (which is foolish) and egomorphism (which is not). To apply one’s full cognitive powers to any given situation, so long as it is done with sufficient awareness of the limitations and strengths of those powers, seems eminently sensible, especially given the fact that the human’s social sense is so exceptionally powerful.
When you consider the implications of the idea that social knowledge consists of creating “models” based on diligent observation that work unconsciously, it actually seems even more sensible to use sociality to engage with non-conscious things. This could explain why many indigenous communities – who practice empathy for their surroundings untrammelled by dogma and hewn from direct experience – are able to show such incredible powers of perception and foresight when hunting, gathering, planning settlements or travelling. It isn’t because they are “close to nature” in some essentialist way, but simply because by living attentively in the world, they are able to use their unconscious social processing as well as logic to correctly anticipate the behaviour of complex systems, such as weather or geology. Even though this information is refracted through “social” metaphors, it nonetheless retains an accuracy that is decidedly useful. This would also explain why it has proved to be such a successful and enduring adaptation.
Of course, this is all conjecture. The mechanisms for consciousness are still barely understood, and there are plenty of philosophers, and even some biologists, who believe that consciousness is an inherent property of all matter, rather than merely a function of the brain. But at least this is doesn’t stoop to the “all-true or stupid” dichotomy that most debates about gods descend to. Even if one entertains a reductive view of spirituality, it still can’t necessarily be dismissed as mere delusion. Reason is not the only means by which humans usefully interpret the world, and even if gods are just “in our heads”, they would still be no more or less real than each and every one of us.