Are Theists Unnatural? My Shot At An Answer

I've been reading the post and discussion from Alber Crombie's discussion, "Are Theists Unnatural?" with great interest. I started writing an entry to their discussion and found myself writing the proverbial War and Peace in response. Rather than deluge their discussion with my response, I decided to post my POV as a blog post here and see what response comes out of it.


Sad to say but true, theism is a naturally occurring phenomena. The proof is all around us. It is a product of a combination of ignorance and a quest for explanation of the age-old question: "Just how the *&%!! did we GET here?!?" The gods and religions which were the attempted answers to that question were the direct result of a vacuum of knowledge, plain and simple. The absence of sophistication, of a developed intellect and the means of science and logical thought among our forefathers was that vacuum filled by those who imagined and guessed and spun tall tales ... and in some cases, had their own agendas. From that genesis (pun at your leisure) came the gods, whether Egyptian, Greek, Roman ... or Jewish, Christian or Islamic. On those easy answers were built traditions after the cultures they came from, as well as dogma and legend and stories aplenty. Also coming out of these constructs was power, created by those who supposedly knew over those who had no means to know the secrets of life and putative afterlife. In many civilizations, the priests of the temples vied for power with those in the government (when these two were separate entities [and they sometimes were not!]), and in addition, controlled education for the participating populace as a means of perpetuating themselves. Each of these religions or beliefs waxed and waned in power as their cultures did for the most part, in some ways displaying their own "natural selection" over the centuries.

It wasn't until about 400 years ago that dictum ex cathedra was challenged by those such as Galileo, who was among the first to apply the scientific method to the process of learning and so began the concept of objective verification of learning and knowledge. The use of logic, experiment and methodology was carried on by thousands of others who came after him, slowly but surely fomenting what we now think of as the Age of Science, a time when the objective school of learning at least in theory outweighs the subjective school of holy writ, dogma and scripture.

We of the 21st century who no longer subscribe to that subjective school of thought can do so because we, as Newton said, "stand on the shoulders of giants." We benefit from those who figured it out, who realized that the teachings of the church were a dead end, who had a spark of imagination to ask, "What if?" and who dared to pursue that question using means outside those the church provided. We are the current product of the evolution from ignorance and its dependence on superstitious belief into knowledge and understanding and its reliance on objectivity and verification of hypothesis, giving rise to useful theory.

And indeed, the process of evolution continues as we speak and rather obviously, we are smack in the middle of it. Our history, the history of rationalism and atheism, is relatively young in the overall history of humankind. By comparison, the history of religion spans thousands of years, so it should be no surprise that it continues to dominate the landscape and that some people, deeply inured with that tradition, resist leaving it behind. When the transition from ignorance to knowledge and from irrationality to rationality will be completed, I have no idea, though I suspect it will be a considerable while. My sense remains that things had to start out as they did, in ignorance and the religions which fed on that, until we as human beings developed the sophistication to grow out of that ignorance.

In that regard, I think I can say that atheism is becoming MORE natural, because it is better supported by the social and scientific environment. Religion was natural ONCE ... and is now becoming less so for the same reasons.

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Comment by mojo5501 on February 3, 2010 at 1:47pm
Are you familiar with the work of Daniel Dennett? I'm currently in the middle of "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon". If not, I'd highly recommend it. If you've read it, I'll remind you of some interesting things Dennett had to say about this matter:

"(RELIGION) is both testable and worth testing (SCIENTIFICALLY)....Trying to bridge the gaps in our knowledge forces us to frame questions we haven't framed before, and puts
the issues in a perspective that enables further questions to be posed and answered. And that in itself can undercut the defeatist proclamation that these are mysteries beyond all human comprehension. Many people my wish these were unanswerable questions. Let's see what happens when we defy their defensive pessimism and give it a try." (p 104)

"The fundamental incomprehensibility of God is insisted upon as a central tenet of faith." (p 220)

"And a further adaptation has been grafted on: it is impolite to ask about these matters...People of all faiths have been taught that any such questioning is somehow insulting or demeaning to their faith and must be an attempt to ridicule their views. What a fine protective screen this virus provides--permitting it to shed the antibodies of skepticism effortlessly". (p 206-7).
Comment by Howard S. Dunn on January 18, 2010 at 3:45pm
I would only equivocate this analysis with one observation. Pagan means 'of the country' and many of the myths had as much to do with an oral tradition of fairly practical knowledge of nature. I would assert that the depth of an ancient farmer's belief in an actual goddess was not as valuable to her as the knowledge of seasons, weather patterns, planting and harvesting timing, etc. were. A 'kinship' with nature was not really an issue in the same way that a 'personal relationship' with a 'one true god' managed to morph into. Sacrifices were eaten. Some customs were made more brutal through the concept of appeasement.

It was when this 'common man's' culture lost its context as almanac as civilizations grew in the city states that politics usurped these ideas and bent them to the purposes of demagogy.

Our worship of celebrity is akin to the worship of ancient pagans - in demigods and demigoddesses - half us - half other.

Otherwise - I think you are right. Joseph Campbell points out that we saw in the natural world, reflections of ourselves and vice-versa. Our instinct for self-preservation and, by extension, preservation of the species was, nearly inevitably, extrapolated to include the general preservation of everything we need to survive. So, our prey was sacred, the predators who ate our children as well. The sun that warmed our land and the rain that slaked our thirst. All these things were and remain real - even if our understanding of them has been refined.



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