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Supernatural Agent Detection (Part 2): What’s Credible?

In my previous post in this series, I talked about the theory of “anthropomorphic promiscuity” as a mechanism of supernatural agent detection among early human beings — or, you might say “hominins” if you’re a bit embarrassed about being one yourself. I said (and I am really only reacting out of my own experience about the credibility of this) that the theory seems quite credible and certainly accounts for much God-detection in our own day as well — though, I think this is mostly bad (or mistaken) God-detection.

theology-after-the-birth-of-godAs I mentioned previously, the theory can be found in atheist theologian F. LeRon Shults book Theology after the Birth of God: Atheist Conceptions in Cognition and Culture as well in several of the essays available at his web site: especially Bearing Gods in Mind and Culture, and Excavating Theogonies: Anthropomorphic Promiscuity and Sociographic Prudery in the Neolithic and Now.

Put simply, it is a “god of the gaps” view. There was an evolutionary advantage enjoyed by those early peoples who posited the existence of human-like supernatural beings to explain otherwise ambiguous aspects of human experience. So, natural selection favored those who believed in the gods.

This, by the way, is what he means by “the birth of God.” God is borne in human minds as a way of helping them to explain their life in the world — and affords them a significant survival advantage.

As a theory this works well for me in some ways — and doesn’t in others. Having said that I feel it does account for some supernatural agent detection, I wish to also indicate some ways (it seems to me) this doesn’t work.

First of all, these kinds of “natural selection” theories don’t impress me — generally speaking. I’ve always been instinctively skeptical about them. I (at least inwardly) shrug a bit when I encounter these. They have only their own inner credibility to recommend them. One can easily imagine certain traits in living things surviving in spite of the fact that they gave no survival advantage — or even that they worked against survival — and that the survival of some species — or of some characteristics within some species — is to a large extent random and fortuitous. “Natural selection” is the survival of the survivors. I’m honestly not sure about what that says about “fitness.” Fit enough to survive need not mean perfectly fit, or perfectly adapted. And, as I said, such a theory has only its only inner credibility to recommend it. If it’s a likely explanation it is taken as therefore proven and “scientific.”

faith-in-scienceSo, yes, this may be how some god-conceptions arose. it may be how some still do (see previous post). But, since it’s credibility is its greatest proof — it’s worth asking: how credible is this as an explanation of the basis of belief in the Christian God? In my point of view, the answer is: not very credible.

It seems to me that God conceptions are not primarily attempts at the explanation of natural-world phenomena that are otherwise unexplained. It seems to me to arise from something endemic to human experience. Observation of the world is part of our experience but it is not the whole. We know ourselves as freely-willing, morally responsible beings. We seek to know what life as a whole is all about. This seems to me to be a fundamentally different quest than the quest to know where the wind comes from or why the sun rises. Our beliefs about God are related to our moral perceptions, our perceptions of beauty, our desire to understand the meaning of our lives, our knowledge of ourselves as free moral agents. We are spiritual beings.

Science can inform faith and faith can inform science but neither of them set out to do what the other does. Faith speaks to our human conditions and offers meaning and direction to life. Science tells us what the natural world is like and how it works. They are (as they say) separate magisteria because we have made them so.

Theology as we know it addresses the meaning of life as a whole — not the phenomena we cannot explain. Sure, God of the Gaps thinking is still around — as in the case of Intelligent Design, for example — but it is surely not the dominant way of thinking about God among theologians themselves. And, I think it is that meaning of life questions that is really most important.

The god-perceptions that arise from “anthropomorphic promiscuity” are gods along the line of demiurges, responsible for certain specific processes — those thought to be otherwise unexplained. They are more like the Greek or Roman gods — each responsible for particular realms of action. Such gods themselves require the same degree of explanation as anything else in our world. This is why ancient peoples who believed in a pantheon of gods, often also affirmed the existence of a High God who was the source of all things.

We think of the generations before us as ignorant and primitive — unable to come to the insights that we can — as a way of congratulating ourselves. Yes, many accounts of God in the Old Testament particularly seem to be speaking of a local and tribal God. But, I am often impressed by the exalted conception of God that we find in the Psalms (for example). The writers of the Psalms are aware that the God they are talking about is a being greater than anything their minds can conceive. This God is the Creator of all. So, they would praise the “name” of the Lord, as if to acknowledge that the God they worshiped was beyond their comprehension. They recognized that their God was the one true God — and thus, the true God of all people and all creation.

David Bentley Hart

Monotheism and polytheism are in different categories. As David Bentley Hart says:

Most of us understand that “God” (or its equivalent) means the one God who is the source of all things, whereas “god” (or its equivalent) indicates one or another of a plurality of divine beings who inhabit the cosmos and reign over its various regions. This is not, however, merely a distinction in numbering, between monotheism and polytheism, as though the issue were merely that of determining how many “divine entities” one happens to think there are. It is a distinction, instead, between two entirely different kinds of reality, belonging to two entirely disparate conceptual orders. In fact, the very division between monotheism and polytheism is in many cases a confusion of categories. — David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God (pp. 28-29). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

So, looking at it this way, Shults does not give a credible account of the way the concept of God (in the sense of the High God, the source of all being) arose at all. And, this accords with my perceptions of the way god-detection works in the present day, as well. God-detection arising from mechanisms like “anthropomorphic promiscuity” are mostly wrong anyway.

To buy Shults’ account we would have to believe that the concept of God in the classical theist sense arose from the concept of the gods by a process of abstraction. I guess. This doesn’t seem credible to me because they are fundamentally different concepts.

And, there is far more to be said. I would also contrast the concept of god (or the gods) that arises from the mechanisms Shults has identified with the conception of God that arises from the Cross and Resurrection of Christ — very different conceptions indeed. This really gets closer to my initial contrast between the God who is understood as guardian of the status quo and the Redeemer God of Scripture — something I discussed in my last post.

I will have to leave it to another time — or to the imagination of my readers — to fill out that contrast. I’ve typed enough about this already.


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