The earliest records of man, in the form of cave drawings, show that our ancestors believed in gods over 50,000 years ago. Psychologists and theologians have theorized that the principal drivers were a desire to find meaning for the awesome natural forces that wreaked havoc on their world from time to time and anxiety as they faced the knowledge that death awaits all living things.
Those early believers, almost certainly, did not have to face arguments from atheists – because the ‘proof’ for their god hypothesis was a frequent and dreaded visitor.
Fast forward 47,000 years and the first monotheistic religions arrived. The claim that Judaism was the first is disputed by many archeologists and theologians who point out that a number of monotheistic religions arose in the Middle East about 3,000 years ago. Zoroastrianism may have preceded Judaism, and as the official religion of Persia, a major power in those times, certainly had a much larger following.
The invention of writing was an important milestone for all religions, giving priests a means of recording the ‘facts’ (and myths), that were the foundations of their belief — ‘facts’ that had previously been passed for many generations by word of mouth. These records (initially stone slabs, then scrolls, and finally handwritten books) became important physical tokens of the religion concerned. They became objects of worship in the same manner that statues of gods were for millennia. Today there are literally hundreds of different scriptures that are viewed as ‘holy relics’ by their home religions. Many of these scriptures are believed to be ‘the words of God’ and, accordingly, ‘inerrant’ in every detail.
And then there were the ‘revelations’ that provide ‘proof’ for most, if not all, of the major religions — miracles and appearances of divine messengers. Unfortunately for those who would have us take these events as proof, none of the revelations were sufficiently controlled (in the sense of controlled experiments used to support a thesis) to be viewed today as any more than hearsay — relayed, unproven, accounts of those who are said to have witnessed the revelation.
Today’s reality is that the God hypothesis, 50,000 years after it was first postulated, remains just that — a hypothesis. It cannot be proved by any method that would satisfy a high school student’s understanding of science. In contrast to the earliest days of the God hypothesis, however, today there are a growing number of atheists who have no qualms about expressing their skepticism.
The other day I was checking out discussion groups on the web and came across a group that was asked to declare, justify and then debate their personal belief, or disbelief, in God. Predictably the main combatants were Christians opposing atheists. As I ‘lurked’, I found myself thinking about the dark days when Christians were placed in Roman arenas to oppose lions for the entertainment of the Romans. With few exceptions the atheist ‘lions’ in the discussion group swiftly dispatched the Christians — the exceptions being skilled Christian debaters who did not so much win as filibuster until the atheists were bored into silence.
Armed with the literary efforts of ‘new atheist’ writers such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins — plus the ammunition readily available on atheist web sites which list all the ‘arguments from…’ that theists use, and then provide ready-made rebuttal lines — today’s atheists are having a field day. ‘Faith’ versus ‘fact’ is a one-sided contest in today’s world. Those who predict a steady decline in the Abrahamic religions (those based on the Old Testament) in the future are on safe ground.
But is that it? Do we only have two choices? Is it either faith-based religions drawing on holy scriptures and revelations, or ‘modern’, ‘rational’ atheism? Many individuals, like me, are uncomfortable about a choice between ‘blind faith’ and ‘nothing’.
There is, in fact, another legitimate option — and I am not talking about ‘sitting on the fence’ as an agnostic. It is to believe in the God of deism. For useful discussion of theism versus deism we need to clarify the differences.
Theism is the belief in a ‘personal’ God that has revealed himself to man and who takes a keen interest in the affairs of human individuals (all 7 billion of us). The God of theism is ‘good’ (at least once he got over a grumpy spell in the Old Testament). Paradoxically, however, the God of theism makes favorites. The Jews were the ‘chosen people’ acccording to the Old Testament and most versions of theism give themselves favored positions over all other versions — even to the point that they label those who do not believe as they do ‘unbelievers’ who are doomed to a terrible fate — with extremist, fundamentalist factions ready to help them in that direction.
Deism is the belief that a supernatural entity was responsible for the creation of the universe (the Big Bang) with a plan (i.e. purpose) in mind — but what happens to us, individually and as a species, is entirely up to us. Deists believe that God is interested in the fulfillment of his plan – but whether we play a useful role in fulfilling the plan will be decided by our conduct. Deism is NOT a religion. There are no churches, priests, scriptures or any other props for deism.
My own journey to deism (from an agnostic-leaning-to-atheist starting point) came as a result of my research for my book ‘The Future of Man – Extinction or Glory’.
As I sketched out the book’s outline, I could see that I would need to face the question ‘Is there a God?’ and I asked myself what ‘fact gathering’ would be required to answer this question. I wondered if I should study the Bible – then realized that, if I did, it would be necessary to study the bibles of all the other religions (and there are hundreds of them…). Then I considered studying the works of philosophers such as Aristotle, Kant and Spinoza who have pondered the existence of God over the centuries. Again I decided no – a) because it would take a lifetime to do justice to the task and b) since they all had different views, who was I to decide which was right?
So I settled on a ‘naïve’, ‘modernist’ approach – I decided I would form my own opinion, based on the relevant facts. This led me down two ‘evolutionary’ paths – path ‘A’, our physical universe (i.e. cosmic evolution) and path ‘B’, life (i.e. biological evolution). This was still a large task, but I realized that I did not have to become ‘an authority’ in these fields. I just needed to reach an understanding of the major ‘generally accepted’ scientific facts that were the foundation of modern thought in the fields.
Without getting into the details (they are in the book), the conclusion I reached was that while there is nothing that can be viewed as proof or disproof of the God hypothesis, there is strong circumstantial evidence of purpose. Now, if there is purpose, that implies intent — and if there is intent behind the evolution of our universe then there is a strong argument for a supernatural creator worthy of the name God. Not the ‘God of the tribes’ based on holy scriptures and revelations, the God of the future – the god of deism. A God we can all believe in.
I am going to ask you, the reader of this post, to let me know (click on ‘leave a comment’ below) if you think my view makes sense to you – and also to ‘pass the word’ to other like-minded people. I intend to expand on these thoughts with a series of deism-themed posts if I see an indication of interest.