Is God Personal

The main source ot the present-day conflicts between rhe spheres of religion and ot science ties in [the] concept of a persona J God.

—Albert Einstein1

One of the main obstacles to belief in God, at least for scientifically educated people today, is that God is usually thought of as personal. That God is personal is an essential teaching of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Bur not all traditional religions and bef ief systems have been comfortable clothing ultimate reality in the lowly apparel of feeling, care, responsiveness, love, anger, and so on, Afrer Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, the idea of a personal God may be harder than ever to swallow, for many evolutionists the ruthlessness implied in Darwins notion of natural selection has apparently stripped the universe of any connection to a caring, providential God, And Einstein speaks for countless scientists and philosophers by insisting firmly that the lawfulness of nature is incompatible with trust in a personal, responsive deity, A God who can answer prayers might interrupt the closed, deterministic continuum of causes and effects that science requires in order to make right predictions. So if Darwin represents biology's demvstification of life, Einstein represents the modern depersonalization of rhe universe by physics.

Physics provided rhe intellectual basis of scientific skepticism about God during much of the modern period, bur today biol ogy has taken its place. Evolution has become the scientific foundation of the new atheism as represented by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Everything else that fuels their intellectual arguments against faith is secondary, Harris and Hitchcns, for their part, simply take the Darwinian debunking of faith for granted without giving any evidence that they have thought much about it. But for Dawkins and Dennett, Darwinian science is as secure a support for atheism as one can find in in tel-lectual history In The Blind Watchmaker (1986) Dawkins wrote that, prior to Darwins Origin of Species, one might have had an alibi tor not being an atheist, but after Darwin no excuse remains. Darwin destroyed every reason people formerly had for belief in a Creator who designed and cares about life in the universe. The God Delusion assumes the same but adds that evolutionary biology is the ultimate explanation of religion and morality. Over a decade ago Dennetts book Darwins Dangerous Idea argued that evolutions blind and impersonal way of creating life's diversity and complexity is irreconcilable with theistic faith. Now Breaking the Spell attempts to unfold in even more detail Dennetts beliei that Darwinian biology holds the key to deep understanding of why humans are religious.

Dawkins, angrier than Dennett, adds that Darwinian biology exposes the idea of a personal God as not only intellectually but also morally offensive. Any creator who would be responsible for the suffering and struggle involved in the emergence of species hardly seems to be personally interested in the world, Darwins own observations led him to doubt that the universe could have been created by a caring and responsive God. And, although Darwin himself was never an outright atheist, many evolutionists today agree with Dawkins and Dennett that it is impossible to reconcile belief in a personal God with the randomness, blind selection, struggle, waste, and lethargic unfolding of life on Earth during the last 4 billion years. Evolutionary biology provides all the proof they need that the universe lies beyond the pale of providence.

Meanwhile the idea of a responsive God h as also been challenged for several centuries by influential philosophical interpretations of physics. Einstein's dismissal of a personal God is hardly unique since physics had long been able to dispense with that "hypothesis. Einstein talked a lot about God, and he even spoke of himself as a "religious'1 person. Bur he considered himself religious only to the extent that he had a strong sense of cosmic mystery and a passionate conviction that we need to commit ourselves to supe [personal values. He was convinced [hat a religious devotion to truth, lor example, is essential to good science, which is what he meant when he said that science without religion is lame. But in no sense did he endorse theistic faith. His oft-quoted line, "God does not play at dice with the universe," has sometimes led to the mistaken supposition chat Einstein was a rheist of a sort, but by this unfortunate expression he was simply stating his firm belief that the universe is lawful and intelligible, not that it is in any sense grounded in a compassionate personal God; If physical laws are to be perfectly steady and free of caprice, then there can be no personal deity that can conceivably act or intervene in the natural world, fhis is why* for Einstein, the idea ol a personal God is the main cause of conflicts between science and religion.2 The new atheists eagerly second this sentiment.

Nevertheless, most human beings are religious in one way or another, and many atheists now agree that ^spirituality is healthy. Even Sam HarrisT who wonders whether anybody has ever been as convinced an atheist as himself, thinks that a "spirituality" within the context of a purely naturalistic world view is essentia!. Some scientific naturalists allow that the 'mystery" of the universe laid open by science is inspiration enough to arouse a religious kind of devotion. In fact, Einstein thought of himself as a religious person partly because of his appreciation of the "mystery** that enshrouds the universe, especially the mystery of why the universe is intelligible at all. As long as the welcoming depths of mystery motivate the scientist to keep traveling along on the road of discovery, there can be no conflict of science with a purely 'mystical religion. Many other scientists today also think of themselves as religious in this nonthcistic sense. The mysterious silence of the cosmos is enough to fill their hearts, and it has the added advantage of being easy to reconcile with the Lawful, impersonal universe of phystes.3

Einstein thought the universe, in order to be compatible with science, has to be impersonal—that is, impervious to any acts of intervention by a personal God, If the universe were open to unpredictable divine actions, miracles, or responses to our prayers, this would put limits on, and even undermine, the predictive power of science. Recently the renowned physicist Steven Weinberg, cited approvingly by Dawkins, has echoed Einsteins convictions about the impersonality of the cosmos. He surmises that physics may be on the brink of discovering a "final theory' that will lay open the "fundamental" dimensions of the cosmos. When physical science arrives at the basement of all being, little chance exists that any footprints of a divine Friend will be visible there.4 However, Weinberg is disappointed that Einstein is willing to refer to himself as a religious man, and Dawkins is inclined to agree with Weinberg on this point. Since religion in Western culture usually entails belief in an interested God it could be misleading for an atheist to embrace terms such as "God' and "religion. ° Instead, the scientific atheist should accept the meaning that the term "religion" has for most people, in the West at least-—namely, belief in a distinct, personal, transcendent, divine being, endowed with intelligence, will, feelings, intentions, and responsiveness. Atheists need to be completely candid so as not to make themselves seem less opposed to religion than they really are when they deny the existence of God,5

So, according to Weinberg, we should renounce theism not only for Darwinian reasons but also because physics is in the process of finishing up its modern project of desacralizing the natural world. Contrary to those who think contemporary physics is in the process of re mystifying the world, Weinberg is adamant in claiming just the opposite. Still, he is not ashamed to admit that it would be comforting if an interested, personal God did exist. But in the absence of evidence* honesty requires that we resign ourselves—-in the spirit of tragedy—to the impersonality of the cosmos. In his desire to draw out the real ethical implications are obvious. The new atheists all take great pains to convince readers that religion has been the cause of more evil, destruction, violence, and death than atheism has. I don t know quite howT the two sides can be accurately compared, and considering the sorry records that both have chalked up, any measuring to see who comes out on top seems ludicrous. Nonetheless, it is not silly to ask about the implications various worldviews have in shaping the ethical sensibilities of people. Here I shall have to be content simply to ask readers to think carefully about the extent to which mass murders, pogroms, executions, wars, and exterminations, especially over the last century, have been facilitated by a worldview according to which not only the value hut also the very reality of personality is up tor question.


My second critical observation is that the new atheists, following a tendency habitual to scientific naturalism, are confused about what it means to explain something. How this question relates to the idea of a personal God I discuss at the end of this chapter. For now I want to note that Dawrkins and Dennett take it for granted that, if biology can explain morality and religion in natural terms, no room remains for theological explanation. In Breaking the Spell Dennett implies that if Darwinian biology can account for why people are religious, then theologians and those who believe in a personal God should give up their own attempts to do so. Almost everything die new atheists have written about the emptiness of theology is based on the gratuitous assumption that natural and theological accounts are deadly enemies*

This assumption overlooks the fact that multiple layers of understanding or explanation can exist. Almost everything in our experience, after all, admits of a plurality of levels of explanation in which the various accounts do not compete with one another, i:or example, one explanation of the page you arc reading is that a printing press has stamped ink onto white paper.

Another is that the author intends to put certain ideas across. Still another explanation is that a publisher asked the author to write a critical response to the new atheism. Notice that these three layers all explain the page you are reading, bur they are not competing with or contradicting one another. It makes no sense to argue* for example, that the page you are reading can be explained by the printing press rather than by the authors intention to write something. Nor does it make sense to say that this page exists because of the publishers request rather than because the author wants to record some ideas. The distinct levels are noncompetitive and mutually compatible.

So also wc do not have to agree with the new atheists that it is because of evolution, or any other natural explanation, rather than because of divine inspiration, that morality and religion exist, just because religion and morality have a natural., neurological, psychological, or evolutionary explanation, it does not follow that a theological explanation is superfluous. Even if religion and morality have been adaptive—say, in the evolutionary sense of aiding the survival of human genes—theology is not necessarily wrong to claim at the same time that religion and morality exist because of a quiet divine invitation to each personal consciousness to reach beyond itself toward an infinite horizon of Meaning, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Such an explanation in no way competes with or rules out evolutionary and other scientific accounts of religion and morality. You do not have to choose between evolution and divine inspiration any more than you have to choose between the printing press and the author's intention when explaining the page you are reading.

Conversely* people ot faith would be wrong to claim that religion and morality exist only because of divine persuasion rather than because of evolution. The page you are reading exists because of a printing press, because of the author s intention > and because of the publisher's request. In this explanatory hierarchy several levels coexist without mutual contradiction. Likewise one can logically maintain, all at the same time3 that morality and religion exist because they have been biologic ally adaptive, because people are responding to a divine invitation, and because some human persons and communities experience a divine personal "Thou" addressing them from a dimension of depth to which science has no access.

Like other scientific naturalists* the new atheists suffer from a bad case of explanatory monism. That is, they assume that there is only one explanatory slot available, namely, the one shaped to look tor physical causes, and this is enough, Scien-rism has shrunk [heir perspective to the point where it leaves only a narrow slit through which they view the complexity of the real world. The subjective, intentional, personal side of reality remains completely out of its sight. Consequently, when the new atheists examine phenomena as labyrinthine as religion and morality, they are fully satisfied if they can pare their explanation down to purely physical or biological terms. The outcome is about as illuminating as my telling you, the reader, that in order to understand this page it is enough to know that it came from a printing press. After all, doesn't Occam's razor specify that there is no point in looking for deeper explanations if simpler ones are available?

Occam's razor is one of Hitchenss favorite tools (68-71), but like other devices that he seems to have only recently discovered (such as the projection theory of religion), his use of it is unwieldy enough to be dangerous. I believe, then, that this is as good a place as any to comment on the way in which he and Dawkins use Occam's razor to slice the world down to manageable size. Occam's razor, named after William of Occam, a late medieval monk and philosopher, maintains that if there are multiple competing explanations available, we should choose the simplest one. Also known as the law of parsimony, the principle advises us that when we are trying to choose between competing hypotheses it is a good rule of thumb to take the one that makes [he fewest assumptions, which seems like good advice. Why, then, Hitchens and Dawkins ask, should we look for a theological explanation if a natural (evolutionary) explanation of morality and religion is now available?

The new atheists all reason in th is fashion. However, evolutionary and theological accounts lie on logically different lev els, and hence they are noncompeteng. So Occam's razor does not apply. If, like Dawkins and Hitch ens, you prefer to approach all questions with an explanatory monism, then only a single causal slot is available, and in that case you have to decide between evolutionary science and theology. Accordingly, the new atheism advises you to take the natural explanation rather than the theological one if you want to understand morality and religion fully. But this would be as silly as being advised to choose the printing press rather than the authors intention or the publisher's request as the explanation of the page you are reading. Obviously in order to understand this page you have to assume that there are multiple levels of explanation available, but these levels complement rather than compete with one another. So it is with evolution and theology.7

Hitch ens uses Occam's razor to choose between a theological explanation of religion and his not-so-original natural explanation that religion is "man-made." He simply assumes the presence of a forced option here. But the fact that biological and psychological factors are involved in the genesis of religion does not rule out the possibility that faith is awakened by the presence of God, a presence that scientific method is not interested in, but which may be experienced in other ways by those, properly disposed. In faith's response to the loving presence and lure of God, the believers brain chemistry imagination, creativity, social belonging, past experience of parental figures and other persons, emotional life, need to be loved, and manifold other psychic factors are not pushed our of the way but instead are fully mobilized.

Theistic faith cannot make the idea of a personal God optional I Inmate reality, the deepest dimension of being, cannot be less than personal if it is to command our reverence and worship, A necessary condition of our encounter w ith God is that we have already had the fully natural experience of interpersonal life. Experiencing ultimate reality only as an impersonal "It' rather than also as a personal "Thou" would leave the be I icvcr in God psychically, socially, and religiously unsatisfied. In one sense God is the ultimate in Being, Meaning, Goodness, trying to express a meaning on this page> and that the publisher has an even wider goal in mind? What Dawkins is in effect demanding is that his readers choose the printing-press explanation since it is simpler and more parsimonious than the author explanation (or the publisher explanation). Bur what Dawk ins is overlooking is that these are not competing explanations and that Occam's razor applies only to competing accounts. Furthermore, William of Occam said that explanations should not be multiplied beyond necessity. Sometimes it is necessary to have a plurality of levels ot explanation.

Dawkinss ideal of explanation begins with an unwarranted decree: There shall be no more than one explanatory slot!1 Then he tries to force the idea of God to play the role of a hypothesis just like those ot science, That way he thinks he can compel theology to compete with and then be defeated by his "simpler'' Darwinian explanation. Indeed rhis completely arbitrary decree of his—let us call it the postulate of explanatory monism—is the fundamental principle behind his uncompromising insistence that God is a hypothesis. It is the fundamental, but false, principle that underlies most of Dawkinss speculations about faith and God.

If you were illiterate and hence unable to read the meaning that can be expressed in print, it wrould be quite easy to convince you that the authors or publisher's intention is not a causal factor in the production of this page. As you examine how ink bonds with paper you would find at that level o( analysis no physical evidence that there are more fundamental and more subtle levels of influence involved. Similarly, if someone is religiously or theologically unlettered, and has no capacity to look for deeper meanings in rht: natural world* it is easy to deny thai life's complexity requires anything more than a Darwinian explanation.

Here again Dawkins seems to have learned the rtiles to his game from creationists and ID theists who also adopt the postulate of explanatory monism. They too are willing to think ot God as a "hypothesis. Its just that for them the winner is God rather than Darwin. Hut the games rules are the same as they are for

Dawkins: there shall be no more than one explanatory slot. Theology, however, does not have to play by these arbitrary rules, and fulm ¡nations such as The God Delusion are not going to persuade theologians to exchange richly textured understanding of the world for [he shallowness of single-level explanation.

In keeping with his postulate of explanatory monism, Dawkins (147) also raises the pseudo-objection that if theologians are going to use God as an explanation of living complexity, then they have to take the next step and explain the existence and "complexity" of God (whatever "complexity" might mean as an attribute of God). The God hypothesis, Dawkins insists, makes too many initial assumptions, especially the assumption that there already exists an extremely complex intelligent, personal Designer named God who can then create immediately the complex design in cells and organisms. How then can theologians expiain the existence of this God (147)?

1 do not have the space here to unfold all the assumptions that must have gone into the begetting of this question. Let us just say that Dawkins seems win ing to listen to theologians, provided we first agree with him that: (I) God, if God exists, is an instance of complex design; and (2) like any other instance of design the existence of God requires an explanation, such as the Darwinian one, in wrhich complexity arises gradually out of phvsical simplicity by way of cumulative small changes over an immense period of time, for Dawkins this is the only way in which complex design could conceivably emerge.

Dawkins, of course, is free to define terms any way he wants, but theology does not have to accept his characterization of God. The God of theology is not an instance of complex design in Dawkinss sense of a composite put together over the course of time out of simpler components. Rather, God is the ultimate reason that there is the possibility of any complexity at all. For Dawkins the ultimate ground of complex design is physical simplicity plus time plus gradual cumulative change, and his quest for ultimate explanation comes to a dead end in this Darwinian formula. But rhcologv has to probe deeper, seeking the ultimate explanation of the existence of a universe in which physical simplicity plus rime plus gradual cumulative change can lead to complexity at all.

What Dawkins is demanding is that theology agree to drop its timeless understanding of God as the ''ultimate ground of all being and substitute for that understanding one in which God—if God exists—needs an explanation just like every other instance of complex design. That is, God would have to come into existence gradually out of a primordial simplicity. Here Dawkins is again assuming that there is a single explanatory slot available, the same slot that scientists fill with purely physical accounts of experimental outcomes. So God has to play by Dawkins s rules and become the outcomc of a physical process that hypothetically preceded rhe existence of God. Needless to say, theology does not have to embrace the postulate of explanatory monism.

Is this discussion relevant to the question of whether God is personal? Yes, because it shows that Einstein, when lie forbade God to be personal, was making the same mistake Dawkins does about where to locate theological explanation in relation to science. Like most other scientific naturalists, Einstein was afraid that a responsive God can act in the world only by intruding into the natural continuum of causes and thus disturbing the lawfulness of physical reality. But Gods personal wisdom, love, and responsiveness no more compete with physical causes than my publishers request to write this book interferes with the chemical laws that bond ink to the paper on the page you are reading. The physical determinism, or lawfulness, of the lower levels in the hierarchy of explanations does not need to be suspended in order for the universe to be influenced by a personal God.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment