Religion is a perennial cause of war, and also a major contributor to planet degradation. This is because religions contend with all-or-nothing, take-it-or leave-it belief systems, and because the presumption of a second life in a supernatural realm devalues life on earth in nature. God couldn’t be blamed for abdicating religion and forsaking human agency altogether, not so much in anger, but for our own ethical good. We have the capabilities and the sole responsibility to end war and clean up the planet. God isn’t responsible for our perils and debacles. Why should we expect God to save us from ourselves?
While admittedly agnostic and unbelieving, I am not a confirmed atheist. I’d prefer that God exist. There is just no evidence that one does. I remain a hopeful theist though. If people felt one necessary, and cosmic good could come from it, I would welcome a friendly companion type of god, devoted to thanksgiving and emergency care, but disinterested in domination, praise, penance, and the issuance of commands. But there’s an etiology problem.
The would be theist faces a problem: all the nouns, pronouns, and adjectives available for describing god are human in origin and evolved first to characterize us, species homo sapiens. Devil worshippers, angel enthusiasts, and fairy tale authors face the same problem, but the right to far fetching imagination is more easily extended to their designers than to inventors of god. Where are theologians to get the words and images to devise their god if not from dictionaries, encyclopedia, selfies, and other human portraits? There really is no alternative. Some congregations would protest that they neither name or picture God; that would be idolatry. Instead, they look to the whole of nature and apprehend ineffability. Yes, but still, the source of whatever imagery is used to cognize the divine comes from human experience, not from beyond space and time. The human being comes first. Besides, humans, disregarding advice to the contrary, much prefer to anthropomorphize and idolize their gods.
A large part of the problem is the disorienting time gap between universe creation, the beginning of life on earth, and the availability of human attributes by which to depict divinity. God, by whatever characteristics are assigned, is supposed to have had them full bloom before the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago. In contrast, recognizable gods would have had to wait until our arrival 200,000 years ago to have access to a storehouse of human attributes. That’s a rough surmise. It is possible that symbolic personae weren’t available to cognize gods until the start of “ancient history,” with the arrival of Sumerian cuneiform script five thousand or so years ago.
I’m afraid the conceptual problem gets even worse. When god is portrayed in personal terms, we don’t depend exclusively on ancient history. We may also use up-to-date information and sophisticated abstractions. We might speak of god today, I’m just saying, as friend, parent, coach, mentor, database manager, and chief executive officer, whereas ancestors earlier may have conceived of “Him” as patriarch, judge, lord, and king. We not only fashion a deity who is supposed to have existed eons ago, at the beginning of time, but do so through words and phrases that gained currency only recently.
The problem becomes positively ridiculous when the “real” versus “ideal” distinction is introduced into the discussion. Since god must be perfect in order to fit our high standards, we imagine an ideal human being. Since we wish to attribute to god our finest human characteristics magnified—god being so much greater than ourselves—the source code has to come from images of an ideal human being. Where is that ideal to come from? Perhaps from our anticipated perfection, in a foreseeable but not infinite future. Since both beings, human and divine, are “ideal,” the design of a god of creation, the “One” who comes first, is a realization of a human who hasn’t been born yet, a to-be-perfected one, a human being who arrives last! Perfected man provides the model for start up gods. Whatever the specifics of the case, images of future humanity, ideal posterity, promise the finest imagery for the invention of the pluperfect god of creation.
The inverse etiology and origin of god, as I’ve represented it, apparently happened by mistake. I see two mistakes that meld into one. The first was made by our earliest ancestors and is carried forward and repeated up to the present. The second is happening now, in the so-called space age, and effects the future.
Concerning the first mistake, we know today that the universe began in a “Big Bang” out of a Planck scale singularity, and how galaxies and stars formed, and then orbited, aged, exhausted their fuel and exploded in supernovae, and how the chemical elements came into existence and dispersed, and how our solar system and Planet Earth were born, and that life began on our planet billions of years ago, and how through the process of evolution by natural selection self-conscious intelligence came to be our inheritance. We didn’t know then, but do now, that this was a singular occurrence. Our species’ most prized characteristic of self-conscious intelligence is its only known occurrence. While the chance of life evolving elsewhere in the universe is near certain—because there are billions of galaxies with billions of stars in an expanding universe—we’re the only one we know of at the moment and, given the prohibitive expanses of space, will be for the foreseeable future. Not knowing these things then, our ancestors would have assumed that an intelligence like theirs must have preceded and created them. They would have naturally projected a perfected image of themselves onto a fictive “being” and called it God. That’s would have been an easy mistake to make. It still is.
We know too that we’ll abandon Planet Earth some day. We are engaged in space travel and in making colonization plans. We’re already scattering electronic images of ourselves into Milky Way galaxy and beyond into deep space. Alien forms of life will eventually receive word of us and conjure our image. When it happens, they may draw unfortunate conclusions. One would be to invent their creator God on the basis of our poor example. They might idealize, perfect, and deify us in some way. That would be an easy mistake to make, a second one. The initial mistake, as we’ve seen, came early in human history; this second one comes late, and is likely to recur again and again as humanity spins into the future. Actually, looked at within an extended time horizon, these two are instances of the same mistake made at different points in time: a creator god is fashioned out of idealistic self-reflection. Because it can happen, we should think long and hard on how we want to represent ourselves before audiences in the universe.
There is good news. We know of these mistakes and are in a position to counter them. If we wish to avoid being mistaken for gods, we can provide more honest descriptions of ourselves in our space messaging. We are certainly not gods, or God. We can convey that we are imperfect, humble, lonely, not so smart bipeds, with lots of questions and few answers, aided by good science and cool technologies. We can admit we evolved by happenstance. We can inform alien intelligentsia about natural selection, recommend Darwin’s book, and publish a catalog of life forms found on Planet Earth. We can deny having anything to do with the start of oscillations and light waves. We can say: “welcome, join us, be our friend. Let’s evolve together.” Once we get the hang of it, we ought to be able to shout out to the universe all kinds of good, true, and useful things. The possibilities are endless. Honesty and realism should be our guiding principles.
There’s another stubborn problem. We have been discussing how to avoid having a creator god foisted onto the universe in our image. Realism was said to be required to avoid such a fate. Fine, but life evolves. Change happens. Humans are born, develop, mature, age, and die. Along the way, they aim to “improve,” “better,” and even “transform” themselves. “Identities” and “selves” are among the “objects” that are expected to “change” and “transform.” “Idealism,” it seems, is at least as important as “realism” in contriving human life. But there’s a difference. Idealism privileges the future over the present. Realism may be indispensable on specific occasions, in dealing with specific problems, but humans appear to prefer idealized images of their not yet actualized selves. Consequentially, billions of images of fantastic futurity have already been posted to the electronic universe, realism be damned.
If it’s that important to us, what is this commitment to idealism about? What can come of it?
One possibility is that idealism will lead us to supersede ourselves. Robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and genetic engineering all lead to replacing parts of ourselves, along with various roles and functions. Do we really want to displace and replace ourselves? Wouldn’t that be the same as destroying ourselves? Nevertheless, we routinely “improve” technology in the name of saving time, preserving health, and reserving ourselves for really important work. Yet it looks as if fear of death, moneymaking, and laziness have something to do with it. The modern culture we’re theoretically preserving ourselves for is looking more and more drugged, wild, fantastic, explosive, game ridden, party-time focused, entertainment riven, diverting, and frivolous. We seem to be replacing ourselves mostly for the fun of it.
Another possibility is that idealism really is an impulse to “perfect” ourselves. We expect over time to become better human beings, achieve self-actualization, and some fine day attain perfection. Instances of near perfection are common. Spectacular events and performances are practiced to near perfection in concerts, theaters, super bowls, world cups, and olympics games. Superb performances of quarterbacks, dancers, soldiers, snipers, musicians, teachers, acrobats, and clowns are witnessed. If such islands of perfection exist, do they sum to human perfection? No one seems to think so. No one claims that we’re maximizing our capabilities as a species. Wise and just institutions and good citizenship would be signs of that. In contrast, civilization seems to be regressing. Religious wars, terrorism, entrenched nuclear bomb technology, jumps in earth temperature, devastating weather spikes, and the aforementioned frivolity, are signs that global civilization may be actually devolving, even as individual and corporate achievements multiply and abound.
As dire and discouraging as the human condition may at times seem, I have a positive idea to offer as antidote. Assume that our species could eventually actualize its capabilities in the form of just institutions and robust global citizenship. Why not invite people everywhere to play “visioning games” designed to educe such positive futures. I have in mind a game to be played by high school students, and by adults around the world. Participants would be invited to craft an image of what our species would look like when we reach full potential. They would be asked further to sketch out a model of the institutions and norms that would exist then. People could answer any way they want, in any form, through any medium. No right answer would be expected or chosen. No competition would be held. The idea is to facilitate and accumulate good ideas! Let a billion visions flourish! Game guidelines, helpful conveners, funding sources, and facilitators are all that is needed. The rest is citizens sharing their visions of the future. Human potential would thereby be owned and explored democratically in the spirit of learning. Libraries would make the ever-evolving product available to the public. Good thinking would be thereby facilitated and prized.
Future of God
While a creator god lacks a past, could an aspirational deity have a future? If we succeed over time in actualizing our finest attributes, would a god fashioned on our late example be worthy of its divinity? Would it be so terrible if human perfection someday attains the distinction of divinity in the minds of successor life forms when we go extinct? By aspiring to breathe life more fully into ourselves, are we inviting posterity to aspire to finer divinity?
A humbler, more honest option is available. Life exists on Earth and begets us through a process of evolution. We subsequently beget god. Life thereby precedes both man and god. Only within the evolution of life does humanity issue forth and through us does divinity attain possibility.
Yet, this view is still too limited. All life forms, in profuse diversity, not just our species, are endlessly valuable. Life alone is essential and imperative. We humans are but random beneficiaries and privileged participants. We are not the apex of life. We are not its crowning achievement. We are not even its exemplar of perfection. We are not life’s future.
Life goes wondrously on, and, hopefully, on and on. At any point in the history of Life, life forms extant then are excellent, as perfect as the laws of nature allow them to be. Every life form is conditioned, each dependent; all live within conditions of adaptability, and then die. When perfection is evident, credit the laws of nature. That’s where the credit belongs.
Intelligence emerges out of a process of evolution under the guidance of the laws of physics. Full blown Intelligences can evolve into existence, but not pre-exist, history-less. The key question is what to do when excellent intelligences materialize in life? Shall we externalize the perfecting mind and project it onto a fictive being with a mandate to preside over us? Or, shall we be satisfied to accept and prize intelligence among ourselves and throughout the animal world, and ask only good work of it and us?
It seems wisest, I conclude, to concentrate on our own conduct and betterment as persons, groups, nations, globe, and species. Science, given its growing powers, can provide sufficient guidance in these endeavors, and on most everything else. Before we invent another dominating deity, we should give ourselves a chance to thrive, fully and modestly, using all the intelligence we possess.
Will Callender, Jr.
June 25, 2019
Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good