Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About

"Living in Lubbock, Texas, taught me two things. One is that God loves you and you're going to burn in hell. The other is that sex is the most awful, filthy thing on earth and you should save it for someone you love." ---Butch Hancock

This side of the pond, things are somewhat different. Most people I meet in the UK couldn't give a monkeys about religion: in other words, they're not even atheists. Those that have thought about it are mostly atheists or agnostics, or occasionally, pantheists. This, I think, depends on how easy they find in letting go the idea of God. However, the concept of God is so widespread that becoming an atheist requires conscious effort. Atheists are people who are sure that no gods exist (otherwise they would be agnostics), based on lack of evidence for any god. The onus is not on them to prove the non-existence of God, but on others to prove the opposite.

In this article, I will prove that atheists are wrong. At this point, they will recoil in exasperation that they've heard all the arguments before, but the argument I am about to advance is rarely examined by them, or if it is, it's misunderstood. I would advise them to continue reading, as I expect they will end up largely agreeing with my position. Most believers in God, especially Christian fundamentalists, will, however, find much of what I have to say unpalatable. They should read on too, as it's always worthwhile to read things which challenge your beliefs.

The first point I want to make is that not believing in God does put an onus on you: to provide a definition of God. Here occurs the first flaw in the typical atheist argument: the God that doesn't exists has been defined by the very people (orthodox Christians) whose position they disparage. That God created the universe, intervenes in it from time to time to break the rules, rewards or punishes people for their faith or actions. That's the definition that atheists accept, and I would contend that it's a straw man.

It's now accepted by almost all scientists that life on earth evolved from simpler forms, with no divine intervention. There is no "wiggle room" in this. It's even accepted by most Christians who understand enough biology to reach an informed conclusion. The Roman Catholic position, for example, is that evolution by natural selection is the mechanism by which God created all life, and that God just "sat back and let it all happen". AIUI Billy Graham is largely in agreement on this. Anyone who thinks that God intervened should learn biology (or, in the case of Michael Behe, explain why intelligently designed life is so prone to extinction).

It's also accepted by almost all scientists that the universe started with a "big bang" and developed into its present form without any divine intervention being necessary. There is still a small amount of wiggle room in physics, particularly around the Anthropic Principle. Except for its weakest form (that the laws of physics must be compatible with the emergence of intelligent life) it's speculation, but many physicists (Paul Davies?) still think that God might have been required to select the laws of physics. My position is that they're mistaken. Gaps in our knowledge are not evidence of the supernatural.

The additional parts of this working definition of God, that he intervenes to perform miracles, would require extraordinary evidence before it's acceptable to science, and it's not at all clear how you would go about proving reward and punishment in an afterlife.

So my conclusion is that a divine creator is unnecessary on scientific grounds, and unsatisfactory on even the most cursory philosophical grounds. (Who created God?) That makes me, by most atheists reckoning, one of them.

But their definition of God is wrong. This is because they have made an implicit assumption that orthodox Christianity is a typical religion. It is anything but. In fact, it is unique in having attempted, and largely succeeded, in erasing all evidence of its origins. Instead, we are confronted with a stark choice: either Jesus was the son of God (with the above definition of God), or an impostor, if he ever existed at all. If Jesus was the son of God, it means that Christianity would be unique and that all other religions (except for Judaism, which would be incomplete) would be bogus. In other words, orthodox Christians are atheist about every God except one.

So far we can conclude: atheists accept the same definition of God as orthodox Christians do, and Christians are atheists about all gods except one. Many atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, even evangelize their lack of faith.

It's instructive to examine how people began to believe in gods. The generally accepted view is that early man attributed extraordinary events such as thunder, volcanoes, earthquakes, good or bad harvests to supernatural beings (gods of thunder, etc.) and interpreted bad things as retribution for sins, and attempted to influence the gods through prayer and sacrifices. This is the view accepted by atheists generally, and by Christians (and more generally monotheists) about gods other than their own. And it's completely wrong. There is ample anthropological evidence that religions start in a completely different way, and only become like that late in their development. Only in the case of Christianity has that process run to completion.

Here, we run into a problem: atheism is largely a product of science, and to explore the origins of religion requires skills different from those used by scientists. The methodologies of history, anthropology, folklore, comparative religion, and even art have to be used instead. Scientists with only limited knowledge of these fields are not the best people to arrive at the truth here. This is made worse if they take an adversarial stance (there is a god or there isn't) rather than the inquisitorial approach (what different people mean by God). Ironically, science's usual modus operandi is inquisitorial. So while they might win arguments, they won't find out the truth.

Religion, or more accurately, spirituality, extends back to our distant past as tribes of hunter-gathers. There is limited direct evidence of how religions were practised among the ancestors of modern industrial societies, but today's hunter-gatherers invariably have shamans, who practise their religion by altering their state of consciousness and interpreting their experiences in terms of a spirit world which coexists with the physical world. I first learned about this by reading Haunted Land, and Fairy Paths and Spirit Roads by Paul Devereux, but other studies of shamanism are worth reading too. The shamanic experiences are real though subjective, repeatable, universal apart from inessential cultural differences, and ineffable. Those experiences are arrived at by a variety of methods. They can occur spontaneously, or through consumption of entheogenic drugs such as mescalin, through meditation, by being close to death, and even through trepanation. Shamans become experts in reaching these states but communicating them to others is difficult. Either the shaman teaches the techniques, which are then practised by the student, or they have to be accepted on faith (trust), aided by the artistic expression of the shaman. (perhaps in the form of petroglyphs) In small tribes, spiritual experiences (altered states of consciousness) were accessible to many people, but as tribes grew in size, settled down and became farmers, things started to change. First, only certain classes of people could become shamans. Then their knowledge was codified and transmitted to the general population by people (priests) without direct spiritual experience, often as a means of social control. Finally, the means by which the experiences were originally acquired became forgotten, or were suppressed. In Robert Pirsig's terms (see Lila, Metaphysics of Quality), the religion loses its dynamic quality and retains only static quality.

These ineffable experiences, which happened during altered states of consciousness, are not what cause shamans (and prophets) to believe in God, they are what they mean by God. This is the difference between the argument presented here and the Argument from Mysticism. Whether there is anything transcendent about the experiences is very interesting, but beside the point, so this is true even if the physicalists (such as Daniel Dennett) are right.

When these experiences occur regularly to someone who lives in a society where a priesthood is dominant, the person is called a prophet (this is the definition of prophet). Such a person represents a threat to the existing priesthood and is often the object of hostility. Sounds familiar?

It's now worth reinterpreting Christianity in the light of the above.

Much of the Gospels is taken up with things that Jesus did, in particular miracles. Numerous studies of eyewitness testimony are in are in agreement that eyewitness accounts are unreliable, and that versions of events become exaggerated over time if correcting mechanisms (such as skeptical inquiry) are not used. We can use this to discount the miracles, at least as literal events. We then appear to be left with, as Douglas Adams put it, someone nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, but there is more to it than that.

Many people have doubted that Jesus even existed. There are other apparently historical figures who probably never existed, such as Robin Hood. The canonical gospels rely heavily on one another (and John's Gospel wasn't even written down within the lifetime of any eye-witnesses), and there are only a few historical references to Jesus, the best known being by Tacitus and by Josephus. Tacitus refers to a Chrestus, who may not have been Jesus at all. Josephus's account could not have been written by the Jew that he was. It's almost certainly a later interpolation, added by a Christian scribe (perhaps based on earlier, more neutral wording.) See Historicity of Jesus.

However, there are other mentions of Jesus which are often ignored by those who deny his existence: in the Talmud, and in the Christian apocrypha. The accounts in the Talmud mention a Jesus who was an itinerant preacher and heretic, who was the bastard son of Mary and a Roman soldier, and who was stoned to death for blasphemy. There are important differences, but it confirms the existence of someone called Jesus who fell foul of the religious authorities and was executed. Until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library in 1945, there wasn't much in the way of alternative Christian text to examine. Suddenly, there was an abundance, and as their message was quite different from that contained in the New Testament, can be considered independent of them. In particular, there was a translation into Coptic of the complete text of the Gospel of Thomas, until then only known from references and a few fragments in Greek. Biblical scholars date this work to the first century, possibly as early as 50AD. It contains only sayings attributed to Jesus, some of which are found in the canonical Gospels, others being quite different. Jesus talks about "the kingdom" (heaven?) not as somewhere people go to when they die, or which appears when the world ends, but as something which is here, now, superimposed upon the physical world, if only people would see it (logia 3 and 113). This appears to refer to an altered state of consciousness, and echoes shamanic experiences. The canonical gospels contain accounts of Jesus spending forty days in the wilderness (Matthew 4) on what is best described as a vision-quest.

We have, then, a set of teachings which are internally consistent attributed to a single person. It would, therefore, make as much sense to doubt the existence of Pythagoras.

After Jesus's death, some of his followers continued to practise techniques, which have not been recorded, by which they might also experience "the kingdom". Those were the Gnostics, whose teachings were suppressed around 350AD but continued underground, resurfacing in the middle ages among the Cathars, who were brutally suppressed by orthodox Christians during the Albigensian Crusade. Gnosticism as a philosophy separate from Christianity survived (or kept recurring), and influenced writers such as William Blake, Philip K. Dick (who acknowledges its influence in Valis), and in movies such as The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor. Some elements of it, arrived at independently, have been accepted by some orthodox Christians. Examples include the Inner Light of Quakers and the ecstatic visions of St Teresa of Avila.

St Teresa's vision was described in Viruses of the Mind as "orgasmic". This is plain wrong, but understandable to someone who hasn't experienced religious ecstasy. Orgasm is certainly the closest to it that most people have experienced, but religious ecstasy is much more pleasant, and qualitatively different. It can be experienced during meditation, after sufficient practice. This typically takes months or even years. (It took me about one month, but I was going through a dark night of the soul at the time.) St Teresa's visions are the result of her religious background, and would be dismissed by Zen Buddhists as makyo, but her ecstasy was real.

The Gnostics had, and to a lesser extent the Quakers and the Carmelites have, an element of dynamic quality to their religion absent from almost all other forms of Christianity. Casting the net wider and examining other religions, we find the same distinction. All have a mystical branch. Islam has its Sufis, Hinduism has its Yogis, Judaism has its Kabbalists, all of whom pursue dynamic quality and can claim to have direct experience of God. There is even greater emphasis of this in Buddhism (particularly Zen and Tibetan Buddhism) and Taoism, both of which are essentially non-theistic (but that is largely a matter of which definition of God is accepted).

By comparing religions this way, it is easier to see how similar the different mystical branches are. A while back I lent a book on Zen Buddhism to a Sufi, who returned it saying that it was very similar to Sufism, except that in Zen the emphasis is on truth, while in Sufism the emphasis is on love. I added that Gnosticism was very similar to both Zen and Sufism, except that the emphasis was on knowledge. Sin and redemption are replaced by ignorance and gnosis, or enlightenment. In all of the different mystical paths, meditation is used to reach extraordinary states of consciousness, and insights gained are applied to daily life.

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and was last updated on 2006-01-23 at 00:40.

© Copyright Donald Fisk 2006