I am a lay Unitarian-Universalist preacher. Since 2005 I have given a sermon every year at the Community Unitarian-Universalists of Brighton congregation. This is a sermon I gave on March 30, 2008. Please give this sermon a try. I think it has much in it that will be of interest to a wide range of readers: philosophy, cosmology, evolutionary theory, and science fiction, as well as theology. And nothing in it depends on believing in God at all.
You will learn a lot about Unitarian-Universalism from the fact that this sermon was very warmly received. To explain the emphasis on Christianity in this sermon, let me say that both Unitarianism and Universalism (which later merged to form Unitarian-Universalism) were historically Christian, though the decision to put freedom of thought first broadened them beyond those historical Christian roots.
Update: You can see a video of this sermon here.
Abstract: In a recent book, Dinesh D'Souza takes on the arguments of recent bestselling atheists, including Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Victory Stenger. I agree in important measure with both sides of this debate: I accept the standard scientific picture of the universe laid out by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens and Stenger, but agree with D’Souza–and Rodney Stark–that many of our most cherished ethical, political and even scientific ideals stem from our religious heritage. This motivates the question of how far apart an enlightened atheism is from the relatively enlightened version of Christianity that D’Souza presents.
As an enlightened form of atheism, I turn to teleotheism. Teleotheism is the view that God comes at the end, not at the beginning, where I am defining “God” as “the greatest of all things that can come true.” In this view, the quest to discover what are the greatest things that are possible is of the utmost importance. The best of our religious heritage is just such an effort to discover the greatest things that are possible.
Many recent books advocating atheism have made the bestseller lists. I have enjoyed reading many of these books, including The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Dennett, Daniel, The End of Faith by Sam Harris, God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens and God: The Failed Hypothesis by Victor Stenger. So I was intrigued when I saw that Dinesh D’Souza had written a book attempting to defend Christianity against my favorite authors. Instead of talking past each other, a believer in the Biblical God and nonbelievers were in a real dialogue! I was not disappointed. Though, as you will see, I disagree with much of what D’Souza writes in What is So Great About Christianity, D’Souza has understood and digested the recent spate of atheist books well enough that his summary of the arguments of the atheists persuaded me all over again to doubt the existence of God. So he is fair in representing the arguments of his opposition.
As an aside, let me say that real dialogue, and real attempts to understand those who think differently are especially important in a political season like this one. In my own view, we are lucky this time to have three potential presidents [Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain], each of whom would be a credit to our republic as its leader. But in the heat of political competition, many of us will be tempted to recoil in disgust from the sincerely held political views of some of our acquaintances. I hope that instead we can try to understand and appreciate the things these people care about that lead them to support one candidate or another. Although we may disagree on political choices, I think it is usually possible to understand and even learn from the concerns that lead people to a particular choice.
In the debate over God, there are many voices that are less temperate than D’Souza. Every time I see Ann Coulter’s book “Godless” on a bookstore display I have to laugh because she uses the word “Godless” as if it is a bad thing. She attacks liberalism by calling it a “godless religion,” but I stood up here a year ago saying that “godless religion” is exactly what we need so that those who don’t believe in God can also get the benefits of religion. But I feel we need to constantly improve godless religion and agnostic religion beyond the current level. If godless religion and agnostic religion are to be fully competitive in the religious market place, they must have deep theology and a profound power to propel people to goodness, build strong religious communities, and provide experiences of transcendence.
Because Unitarian-Universalism combines a respect for its religious heritage with a firm commitment to freedom of thought, I believe there is a better chance of creating an agnostic religion that lives up to this standard with Unitarian-Universalism than anywhere else. But I do not think we are yet up to the standard the world needs us to reach for the sake of future history.
Today, I am going to talk first about theology and science, then about precious things. Propelling people to goodness, building strong religious communities and providing experiences of transcendence fall under the heading of “precious things” at the end.
Since “theology” is Greek for words about god, it might seem strange to talk about the need for a deeper theology for godless religion. But I think it is important for those in a godless religion to talk about God. Let me explain why.
Let me start with Pascal’s wager, which Dinesh D’Souza thinks is a good reason to believe in God. Blaise Pascal was a 17th century French mathematician and philosopher who did some of the early work on probability theory that is the foundation of statistics. He argued that one should bet on the existence of God because if there is a God, believing in God makes the difference between heaven and hell, while if there is no God, it is not so bad to be wrong. One may have wasted some time and money on a false belief in God, but nothing approaching the danger of hell and the prospect of heaven on the other side. When I was a Mormon, before I went too far toward unbelief, I considered carefully whether God would punish me for not believing in him. I decided that despite my imperfections, I would not punish one of my children harshly for not believing in me. Therefore, a perfect, loving Father in Heaven would not punish me if—doing my very best to figure things out—I came to doubt that he existed. Deciding that God—if he existed—would not punish me for my honest beliefs was and is a key ingredient to my being an atheist.
In general, even aside from Pascal’s wager, deciding whether or not to believe in God depends heavily on what one thinks God would be like if he did exist. This is one reason I can see that thoughtful atheists still need to think about God. Later I will talk about other reasons thoughtful atheists need to think about God, even if God doesn’t exist.
The definition of God is often squishy. I remember vividly attending a Reform Judaism Yom Kippur service as a college student, just to see what it would be like. The rabbi said “Many people think they don’t believe in God, but God is just the idea of goodness. So they believe in God without realizing it.” By that standard, I am certainly a believer in God. At the other extreme, there are enough details in the Bible about the Biblical god for me to feel quite confident that the god described in the Bible, taken literally, does not exist.
One of the biggest gaps in the arguments for the existence of God given by people like D’Souza is the leap from the existence of some superbeing, which the arguments have some force for, to the existence of the specific god described in the Bible. For example, invoking Kant and Hume on the limits of knowledge, D’Souza argues that we can’t really know there isn’t a god, so why not believe? Let me run with this argument, and even lean in the direction of the existence of a superbeing, and I can easily get to a totally reasonable place that D’Souza would not be happy with because the superbeing is not the god of the Bible.
There are at least two ways in which the standard scientific worldview is consistent with the possibility of a superbeing. These possibilities are both common themes in hard science fiction. Hard science fiction is science fiction that focuses on things that are genuinely possible given what science we know. One of these hard science fiction themes is reminiscent of traditional Christian theology, while the other is reminiscent of Mormon theology.
Traditional Christian theology, put into a hard science fiction straightjacket, is like the idea that we are all software programs inside a superbeing’s computer. There is no way to know this is not true. If it is true, miracles would just be a special case in the programming. The normal laws of nature could be as simple and regular as they are simply because that was easier than programming more complex laws for the default case.
Mormon theology, put into a hard science fiction straightjacket, is reminiscent of the idea that we are watched over by benevolent aliens from an advanced civilization. Not only is this plausible, it is even possible to argue that it is likely. There are a lot of stars in the Galaxy, but even at a fraction of the speed of light, it would take only a small fraction of the time since the Big Bang to get from one end of the Galaxy to another. If evolution often favors intelligence, why couldn’t intelligent life arise several times in our galaxy? If any intelligent life has arisen before us, chances are it arose many, many millions of years before us, simply because it has been billions of years since the Big Bang. So it is not a big stretch to have aliens from an advanced civilization reach Earth. The big issue would be Fermi’s paradox: “Where are they?” “If they are here, why they are hiding themselves from us?” and whether they are benevolent or not. If they are here, they don’t seem to have destroyed us, which is something.
To me these are important religious questions, but science fiction is not always recognized for the serious theological speculation that it often is. A truly open-minded search for God would consider as many possibilities like this as possible, but instead, the focus is usually the much narrower one of whether certain ancient religious texts are true or not. Looked at without preconceptions, and without regard to which will get you laughed at in polite company, which is harder to believe? The possibilities laid out in hard science fiction, or the god of the Bible? By all means, let’s be open-minded about whether God exists or not, but not just about the God of the Bible.
Let me leave aside for now the possibility that there are superbeings that are relevant to our choices of what to do. Indeed, even if there are powerful superbeings in existence who are aware of us, one of the simplest reasons for them to be hidden is that they want us to act as if they don’t exist. If so, it would be the will of the gods that we be atheists or at least agnostic in relation to them.
In the absence of God, our creator would be the laws of physics and the principle of evolution. Dinesh D’Souza argues that the Big Bang is evidence for God. I thought his science was outdated. In order to explain why distant galaxies are so uniformly distributed across the sky, cosmologists rely on the theory of cosmic inflation, in which a small patch of false vacuum can grow to a region trillions of light-years across in a tiny fraction of a second. This patch of false vacuum keeps growing, but islands within decay into matter and energy in what we locally call the Big Bang. Once the Big Bang is embedded in this larger picture of cosmic inflation, the universe is big enough that almost anything that can happen will happen somewhere. But one must be careful to remember that the universe is vastly bigger than the tiny piece that we can see with our telescopes. Almost everywhere in the universe is so far away that light has not had a chance to reach us from there yet. Given the vastness of the universe, it is almost a certainty that life would arise somewhere, even if the beginning of life is a very improbable event on any given planet.
To his credit, D’Souza accepts evolution, but he underestimates it. Contrary to what he argues, it is straightforward to explain the evolution of morality. For at least a million years, our ancestors have been choosing who they want to hang out with, ally with and have children with. Those who are trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, curteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent are often chosen as allies and mates, helping these traits to survive and prosper in the population. My friend Randy Nesse has worked out some of the details of this story of the origin of morality. Darwin began his argument for evolution by pointing out the power of the selective breeding that farmers use to domesticate animals. Randy pointed out that in many ways human beings seem more like domesticated animals than like wild animals—and with good reason: we have been domesticated by the choices other proto-human beings made about whether to hang out with our ancestors.
The key difference between evolution as our creator and the god of the Bible is that with evolution the best comes at the end, not at the beginning. There was no Garden of Eden—only primordial soup in a warm pond. But heaven is still possible; we and our descendants just need to build it.
The first task is to decide what we want. The medieval theologian Anselm defined God as “that than which no greater can be thought” and proceeded to argue that God must exist since something that exists is greater than something that doesn’t exist. Therefore, the greatest of all things must exist. It is my understanding that modern philosophers reject Anselm’s argument on the basis that “existence” is not an ordinary attribute like being massive or being photosynthetic. Existence has a special status in logic. So let me do a riff on Anselm by defining God as “the greatest of all things that can come true.” God is the heaven—or in Mormon terms, the Zion, the ideal society—that we and our descendants can build, and god is a reasonable description of the kind of people who make up that society. But what does a heavenly society look like?
Let’s start with the easier question of what an ideal human being looks like. Here I look to Jesus. Not the historical Jesus, but the imagined Jesus who is the projection of every good human trait, as valued by our culture. It makes all the sense in the world to ask “what would Jesus do” even if one believes that the historical Jesus was only a man, since “what would Jesus do” is a good shorthand for what our culture thinks a good person would do. This is an example of the way in which many of the highest ideas of goodness in Western Culture are embedded in religious language.
Just as our culture’s ideas of the ideal human being have been embedded in the image of Jesus, many of our culture’s ideas of the ideal society have been embedded in the image of heaven or of the holy city. D’Souza’s book is at its best when it is listing the good things that may have come from Christianity: separation of church and state, limited government, the rule of law, the free market, the affirmation of ordinary life, valuing the relief of suffering, the idea of limiting war, a higher level of respect for women than among the Romans, the idea that all humans are of equal value and equal before the law, emphasis on individual freedom, and even the idea that nature can be understood because of the divine spark within us. D’Souza writes: “The life of the West, Nietzsche said, is based on Christianity. The values of the West are based on Christianity. Some of these values seem to have taken on a life of their own, and this gives us the illusion that we can get rid of Christianity and keep the values. This, Nietsche says, is an illusion. Our Western values are what Nietzsche terms ‘shadows of gods.’ Remove the Christian foundation, and the values must go too.” I agree that many of our values come from Christianity, but I believe that we can honor the best of those values without thinking that God exists.
The key to understanding our religious heritage and the clues it provides for the greatest things that might be possible is to realize that wonderful things are truly wonderful, whatever they are made of. There is something wonderful about a tight-knit religious community, whether it is based on a belief in God or not. A rose can be just as beautiful when one knows it is made of evolved molecular machinery. Consciousness is just as amazing even after one realizes that is made of the interactions of quarks, electrons, and photons. So much the better for the quarks, electrons and photons. Spiritual experiences that break down the barriers between self and nature can still be transcendent, even when we realize they involve the suppression of the part of the brain that deals withthe self-other distinction. In general, information, whatever substrate it is embedded in, and however well science can explain its transmission and processing, seems to have something of the divine to it.
Teleotheism is the idea that God comes at the end rather than at the beginning. If God is the greatest of all things that can come true, then we and our descendants can build God and Heaven. The first step is to envision the greatest good that we can imagine. Next, we need to assemble relevant knowledge, so we can build on a solid foundation of the truths about human nature and the Universe. Finally, we have to step out into the unknown, exerting the faith to act when we know something might be possible but don’t know for sure that it is. I agree with the Existentialists that having been thrown into existence by physics and evolution, we have to choose our own purpose to life. Can there be any greater purpose to life than working toward that day, that fine day, when God and Heaven do exist?
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion
Dennett, Daniel. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
D'Souza, Dinesh. What’s So Great About Christianity?
Harris, Sam. The End of Faith
Hitchens Christopher. God is Not Great
Stark, Rodney. The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success
Stenger, Victor. God: The Failed Hypothesis