I’m currently reading Michael Dowd’s Thank God For Evolution. As I’ve stated before, Dowd is trying to build a bridge between the traditional religious ideas of pre-rational, mythic beliefs (Red and Amber in Integral Theory) and a rational theism (applicable to those at the Orange level). I’m about one third of the way through the book and I’ve noticed a pattern. I would say that I have no problem connecting with about 80% of the book. I am very satisfied with the central thrust of the book, which is that evolution, the wonders of modern science, and the understanding of brain research are the modern ways in which “God” is expressing itself. Down says that his concept of a divine figure is the universe and doesn’t stand outside of it. There is a Taoist or Deist (or Zen) interpretation of that which I can appreciate.
But every once in a while he throws in a paragraph that undoubtedly comes from his old evangelical preaching days, talking about “being blessed” or “living in God’s light”. He introduces the Epilogue with “I didn’t write this book. God did.” As someone who is coming at the book from a more atheistic or agnostic perspective (Orange or Green), I often cringe when I get to those parts. I understand what he’s getting at and can even stretch myself to understand how someone else would experience it that way, but it is very clear that Down is building his bridge from the traditional, pre-rational theist to what he hopes will be the modernist or even post-modern, rational theist. It is a bridge worth building. Ken Wilber has stated that if non-theist rationalists completely deny and ridicule any form of rational theism, it is effectively cutting off the possibility of personal evolution for many people. Including these rather traditionally religious expressions in his book may be designed to ease the transition and frame some of the “new” concepts in “old” speak. This is not hypocritical. New levels of development subsume the earlier ones, retaining many of the old concepts in a transcended form. I would not want to begrudge religious people that bridge.
As I said, I’ve only read the first third. At least to this point Dowd has not attempted to build a bridge from the rational non-theist to the rational theist. Many rationalists (Orange) who are also Atheists have placed science and scientific method on an alter of their own. Empiricism and materialism trump any sort of theism, and if it cannot be proven empirically or scientifically then they regard it as unnecessary and untrue. When you look at Atheist forums on the Internet or on Facebook, you often find passionate attacks against traditional religious beliefs. Some contain so much venom that it is clear they are driven by shadow issues. Rationality is attained, and for some the attainment came at a cost of rejecting their pre-rational values. Disowned beliefs still gnaw at some of them, creating Shadows and the need to lash out at the thing that they, themselves, have transcended. Dawkins often falls into this corner.
Even for those with no or few Shadow issues of this sort, there still tends to be a defensive stance against subjective metaphysics rather than the objective materialism that they trust. They would tend to look at many of Dowd’s preacher statements and say, “Well that sounds very nice, but why do I need God in the first place?” And that is the precise argument that has to be made if you are going to build that particular bridge.
Dowd wants us to see a version of God in scientific wonder. As we unravel the universe, he claims that this is God revealing itself. Again the question, “So what?” Well, as Einstein said, “Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in point of fact, religious.”
Science tells us that we are a perhaps solitary speck of life in a mechanistic universe. Understanding that, we can become Nihilists and despair, or we can appreciate the wonder and possibly unique (at least rare) status that we enjoy. In the latter, we recognise the preciousness of our planet, and it translates in to reverence, respect and caring about the environment.
Building the bridge that connects the intricacies of objective science to a sense of wonder and reverence is desperately needed. Religions carry much baggage with them, but there are several things that they do well.
They provide a context for meaning, leading to a sense of purpose rather than a sense of despair.
They provide passion and impetus to turn beliefs into action and routine.
They provide symbolic and ceremonial subtexts which are capable of transcending purely logical thought and gives access to deeper and profound parts of our mind.
They (at their best) ground us in a common goal with other people.
Secular Humanism tries hard to accomplish these things, but has mixed and inconsistent results. I believe this is because it lacks these things that something akin to a religious or spiritual belief brings to human nature. Environmentalism will never be a successful social movement until it takes on the power of a religious-like force. Wonder, love and reverence are not logical. Dowd’s book hints at the kind of bridge that could be built from rational secularism to rational theism; from the Objective to the Subjective, without losing the integrity of science and reason. Within the things that science is disclosing about itself, we should be able to find the context, the passion and the common goal. The symbols and ceremonial subtexts need a little work. But as each level of conceptual development transcends the last, retaining and amalgamating with it those things that can still add value at the new level. The spirit of creativity, scientifically iterated in evolution, can be one of those transcending concepts. The sanctity of life, also connected to evolution, can be another. This requires a little thought on our part. It is easy to point to fundamentalist religions, whether Christian or Muslim, and see the flaws. It is harder to allow them to evolve into something more positive. There needs to be a space created for that evolution.
AFTERTHOUGHT: After posting this I see that it appears right above my post about the novel, Dune. I found this interesting because the Bene Gesserit “religion” or order depicted in the book is very much the kind of secular theism that I’m talking about here. It has all the benefits of a “religion”, and yet never mentions God.