Q: Archbishop J, why do you believe that God exists (part 8)?
Have you ever wondered why we humans have a concept of God? Why there is in us a reach for the transcendent? Have you ever wondered why religion emerged in the first place? More importantly, why it is still around?
I want to look at the question of belief and unbelief from a different perspective—the unreachable itch of the human for transcendence and the resilience of religion, despite all prophecies of its immediate doom.
Despite all that atheists—ancient and modern—have said, religion keeps defying the odds. God and religion continue to test the understanding of our brightest secular minds.
A world come of age
In 1965, Harvard professor and theologian Harvey Cox wrote his well-acclaimed book, The Secular City. In this book, Cox described the retreat of religion and the secularisation of the city.
Some 20 years later, he wrote: Religion in the Secular City: Toward a Postmodern Theology. To the surprise of Cox, religion was making its reappearance in the secular city. This was not just resilience; it was a resurrection of religion in ways that could not have been imagined two decades earlier.
The Lessons of History, by Pulitzer Prize winners, Ariel and Will Durant, was written after they had finished their 11-volume set of The Story of Civilization. Reflecting on religion, from the great perspective of having examined at the earliest civilisation, they say in Chapter 7 of The Lessons:
One lesson of history is that religion has many lives, and a habit of resurrection. How often in the past have God and religion died and been reborn! Ikhnaton used all the powers of a pharaoh to destroy the religion of Amon; within a year of Ikhnaton’s death the religion of Amon was restored. Atheism ran wild in the India of Buddha’s youth, and Buddha himself founded a religion without a god; after his death Buddhism developed a complex theology including gods, saints, and hell. Philosophy, science, and education depopulated the Hellenic pantheon, but the vacuum attracted a dozen Oriental faiths rich in resurrection myths. In 1793 Hébert and Chaumette, wrongly interpreting Voltaire, established in Paris the atheistic worship of the Goddess of Reason; a year later Robespierre, fearing chaos and inspired by Rousseau, set up the worship of the Supreme Being; in 1801 Napoleon, versed in history, signed a concordat with Pius VII, restoring the Catholic Church in France.
The perspective of the Durants is that theism and atheism oscillate through history. When religion manages to bring order and high culture, it is followed by an attempt to untangle the State from its religious moorings. Then, there is a period of decline and the re-emergence of religion. This has been happening from very early civilisation and, well, it continues today.
When Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche took aim at religion, all the learned people of the day believed there was no room for God or religion in a world come of age.
Between science, philosophy, sociology, and the sciences, we can answer all of life’s questions, it was assumed. Religion has never disappeared as they believed or hoped. Neither God nor religion has disappeared.
The assumption was that God and religion is “opium of the masses”: with the truth of science, that old outmoded human crutch will disappear. It has not disappeared, and the greatest opponents of religion cannot explain why.
Cambridge anthropologist, Hervey Peoples, in a co-authored article, ‘Hunter-Gatherers and the Origins of Religion’ traces religious impulse back to the earliest emergence of humans.
Though firmly committed to evolutionary theory, the authors say: “Recent studies of the evolution of religion have revealed the cognitive underpinnings of belief in supernatural agents, the role of ritual in promoting cooperation, and the contribution of morally punishing high gods to the growth and stabilization of human society” (Abstract).
The writers see the social impact of religion as promoting cooperation and contributing to morality and growth and the stabilisation of society.
I am intrigued by their affirmation of the “cognitive underpinnings of belief in supernatural agents”. Think about this for a while. Why would primitive humans come up with supernatural agents? That is a far leap from the mundane challenge of survival.
Is it that the social function of religion created the need for the supernatural? This seems implausible to me; they simply could not have known or made that leap.
Is it not more likely that the inner impulse in the human to transcend, that capacity for communion and communication with transcendence and ultimately mysticism was a driving force towards the supernatural?
More importantly, why was this drive to the supernatural found in all the communities they were able to study? Regardless of where in the world we find early humans, we also find a reach to the supernatural.
Peoples et al say: “We should not dismiss the possible presence of non-linguistic religious thought and sentiment among early members of the genus Homo.”
The notion of transcendence requires that the human first has a capacity for the supernatural. That capacity, I am proposing, is more difficult to understand and explain away than the fact of a religious expression from the earliest humans.
That capacity is the foundation of humanism which believes that the human is capable of transcending itself. That capacity is also inherent in music and poetry and art, all of which do not need to exist, but they do, and their existence says something profound about the human.
During a two-month mission in Russia, I was amazed that in that pinnacle of atheism, the communist architecture was so bleak and bland and lacking beauty. But, down below in the subways, each station was a work of art and beauty. Our translator told me after one of my talks on God, that when she was a child, she used to have certain experiences at night that filled her with warmth, and she sensed a deeper connection with something beyond herself.
She knew there was no God: she learnt that in school. It was only during her time with us she realised she had been having mystical experiences. The 70 years of communism could not erase 1000 years of Russian mysticism. There is resilience.
The earliest humans had a notion and religious expression of the supernatural. Was this an inner impulse born of an innate capacity? Or was this just an accident of evolution?
Take three deep breaths, close your eyes, and experience the inner connection. Say: “God if you are there, I want to know You.”