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Book Review: The Case For God

September 2, 2010

The Case For God” by Karen Armstrong is an interesting history of religious faith, but it suffers from the fundamental problem that the God for whom she is making the case is not a God that would be recognised by the vast majority of people who would claim to believe in him. That said, it has at least given me fresh insight into why things are the way they are and forced me to think a little more deeply about the issue. At the risk of being thrown out of the atheist club for heresy, I’m prepared to countenance the notion that a case can be made for religion.

Rather than try to address the entire book, I’m going to focus on one central idea which Armstrong seems keen to get across which is that for the truly religious, God exists outside the realm of rational thought and language. There are no words with which one can adequately describe God, the best one can do allude to a transcendent state of being (or as the Greeks would call it, ekstatis) and suggest that this means that God is somehow present. In the early days of religion, such states would be brought about in people through rituals and activities such as fasting.

I find this idea quite fascinating and I grant that these states of mind can be quite mysterious and impossible to describe adequately with words. However, this doesn’t mean that they’re entirely beyond rational analysis. For example, one might begin by picturing the mind a computer running a program: it has inputs (nerve impulses from various sense organs) and outputs (control signals to various muscles), some kind of storage, and the outputs are responses to the inputs, mediated by a controlling program with information from the storage unit (disclamer – I’m a computer geek, not a neuroscientist and these are speculations).

Obviously, this is a rather absurdly simplified model, for at least the following reasons:

  • The hardware on which the brain’s software runs is slightly flaky (and gets flakier with age) so that even if you could reproduce exactly the same internal state in successive experiments and feed it the same inputs you wouldn’t get exactly the same outputs. Nonetheless, it is extraordinarily powerful, running operations in parallel (with some cross-talk), and extremely good at pattern-recognition tasks.
  • The code running in the brain is capable of modifying the environment in which it runs in real-time, thereby affecting the execution of the code (one might attempt a crude description of the descent into paranoia involving some kind of positive feedback loop of thoughts rewiring the brain to make it more receptive to those thoughts, which rewire the brain further). There’s much less of a distinction between hardware and software as in a real computer.
  • The storage is imperfect and it decays in haphazard and non-linear ways so that subsequent recall of a fact is not guaranteed to return it correctly (even assuming it was stored correctly in the first place) and (owing to the various feedback processes involved) is almost certain to modify the storage of the fact.

The reason for bringing up this analogy is that computer programs have ‘state’ – the values of certain values stored within the program as it runs. Careful analysis of a computer program might reveal that certain states will never be reached by following any sequence of inputs. For example, such-and-such a number might vary but can never be more than some other number. There is a large (but finite) ‘state space’ that the program could exist in (including all possible values of all of the ‘variables’), but much of it may never, in practice, be reached.

My suggestion is that the brain also has a ‘state space’ – infinitely big, but with a rather fuzzily defined ‘reachable’ subset. Daily existence consist of the state of the brain (the relatively static web of neural connections and individual neural configurations, together with the dynamic picture of the messages currently in transit between neurons) constantly wandering through the reachable subset of the state space. This doesn’t happen in any completely predictable way. In this picture, most of the joy of living really boils down to observing physical manifestations of these state changes in others when you have some control over the input you’re feeding them.

Where religion comes in is that, in this analogy (and my conjecture), the various rituals and patterns of religious thought have the effect of manoevering the brain into hard-to-reach (or even apparently ‘unreachable’) regions of its state space. Since we are so used to having our internal state manipulated through language (and being able to account very roughly for our current state in terms of our (recollections of our) previous state and the inputs we were fed), it is not surprising if such esoteric regions of state space are impossible to express in words. Such states probably have something in common with the very curious states of mind one can find oneself in during a bout of fever, or (so I am given to understand) while under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs.

But, the fact that one can get into such states of mind reinforces the idea that there’s nothing magical about them – they are in principle understandable as patterns of neural activity that are in some sense different from the normal patterns of activity. The change may have an external cause (an increase in temperature during a fever, or changes in neural chemistry caused by drugs), or it could happen in response to a particular set of unusual stimuli such as might be found during a religious ceremony. Zen Buddhism explicitly tries to put the mind into odd states – to ‘break the mind of logic’ – through the use of bizarre and illogical parables. Closer to reality, Richard Feynman observed that there are colours which can never be perceived in normal vision, but which could occur as the after-image of observed colours – when perceiving such a non-colour, your brain is in a state that it wouldn’t normally get into through regular input of sense data from the world, it’s a consequence of the nature of the visual system.

As I said, these are speculations, but they suggest to me that the experience of God which Armstrong is touting as authentic (the ‘ekstatis’ or whatever you want to call it) will have a rational explanation involving physical factors within the brain. The fact that one can get into states of mind which are qualitatively similar through entirely physical interventions would suggest that there’s nothing magical about these states, they’re just unusual.

The God for whom Karen Armstrong seems to be making the case is the God, or divinity, experienced during these transcendental states. It certainly seems plausible that the ancient civilisations which discovered these states, lacking any understanding of how the brain / mind worked, could interpret them as indicating a connection with something divine outside them. It also seems plausible that the experience could have a profound effect on their beliefs about the world and their relation to it (again, it is my understanding that LSD has a similar effect).

Unfortunately, this is not the God that is understandable to a large number of people who profess to believe in him. A great many people (particularly in America) clearly believe in a God who is a real entity, and who brings along an awful lot of baggage – he created the world in 6 days, he sent his son to save us and die on a cross, he’s responsible for good and evil, he is vengeful and demands worship (or maybe he’s benevolent and all-loving – I get confused on this point). I don’t think Armstrong approves of this God, and regards worship of him as essentially idolatrous. In this, I agree with her – indeed, one of my main criticisms of Christianity is that pretty much everyone who claims to be a Christian simply isn’t. They have these strange notions of God (I would say primitive notions, but it’s become apparent to me that actually this kind of literal thinking is relatively modern) and, curiously, they often find that God hates exactly the same things as they do – gay people, socialism, or taxes for example.

Unfortunately, this is the conception of God that we’re up against. It’s no use complaining, as Armstrong and others do, that the New Atheists (Dawkins et al.) are not theologically educated and the version of religion that they attack isn’t the real thing – they’re attacking religion as it’s practised by a large number of people in the world today. It may be an appalling corruption of how, in Armstrong’s eyes, religion is meant to be (and I agree), but that’s sadly irrelevant – “religion” as it is now clearly inspires many people to behave in unhelpful and even evil ways.

It is true that there are more thoughtful Christians, who realise that the text of the Bible is not meant to be interpreted literally and requires a more imaginative exegesis. It is also true that the fundamentalists don’t like these Christians, who tend to be disturbingly liberal on social issues that the literal-minded prefer to see in black-and-white terms. Indeed, fundamentalism arose in part as a reaction to the ‘Higher Criticism’ of the Bible from Germany, which emphasised the importance of studying and analysing the text – anathema to the evangelical types who wanted a simple common-sense approach (we see this today in “God says it, I believe it, that settles it” bumper stickers).

A more subtle problem for the thoughtful Christians is that by interpreting the Bible as another human text, they’ve reduced God down to the level of the rational – searching for the divine in a text which you acknowledge has been written, copied, miscopied, edited, sabotaged and generally manhandled through the ages by humans is surely a fruitless endeavour. You might hope to gain an insight into what the authors thought about the divine (which might be interesting) but that’s about all. And why start with the Bible? The more thoughtful Christians seem to arrive at a reasonably liberal, tolerant version of Christianity which must require some interesting logical and semantic contortions given that the God of the Bible is, by at least one account, a bit of a shit. If you’re going to have to stretch your interpretation of the text to breaking point to make it say what you want it to say, why not just start with what you want to say and say it? Relying on cherry-picked plums daintily plucked from a morass of vaguely unpleasant sludge to back up the ethical system you’ve derived doesn’t seem to ‘add value’ (to use a particularly vile marketing phrase) to your philosophical offering. You might as well go the whole hog and become a secular humanist.

In short then, it’s an interesting read to get some perspective on the issue, but I’m not convinced by it. If we could persuade people to revert to the older, more ‘proper’ appreciation of God then it would probably be a good thing, but the chances of that ever happening are almost certainly nil, therefore discussion about how modern religion has got it all wrong seems a little irrelevant – it’s what we’re stuck with.

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