I finally finished reading Evolving God by Barbara King, which I first wrote about several months ago. The book is fascinating and thought-provoking and refreshingly kind, which is surprisingly hard to find in books about religion. If Barbara King is an atheist (and I was right, I still don’t know whether she is), she’s a pink atheist. Her book inspired me to be more tolerant of religion and spirituality in all its forms. I’ve always tolerated monotheism fine, but now I can also see pantheism, animism, shamanism, etc. as part of the same thread.
Dr. King’s thesis is simple and cogent: “The religious impulse is rooted in a deep longing for the emotional meaning-making with other beings that is so fundamental to the prehistory of our species.” King says religion is hardwired in humans, but not in the way that science often tells us. She disagrees with both genetic and memetic explanations for the origin of religion, as do I. According to her, religious belief came about through social evolution, beginning with the simplest relationship, that between mother and offspring.
“The human religious imagination developed in ever widening circles of engagement from immediate social companions, to members of a larger group, then across groups, and, eventually, to a wholly other dimension, the realm of sacred beings.”
It’s obvious that Dr. King thinks religion at its core is good. I’m not inclined to disagree. As for whether any religion is true, King seems to think that’s an irrelevant question. She defers to this quote from Karen Armstrong:
“Ever since the prophets of Israel started to ascribe their own feelings and experiences to God, monotheists have in some sense created a God for themselves. God has rarely been seen as a self-evident fact that can be encountered like any other objective existent. Today many people seem to have lost the will to make this imaginative effort.”
I may actually be convinced that there is indeed a “God-shaped hole” in every person. (How I hate that phrase, but for lack of a better one…) I’m also convinced that it does not necessitate the existence of a God. Barbara King paints a very convincing picture of how religion, and a need for God, evolved as a consequence of social relationships. A God-shaped hole isn’t so much an indication of God as it is an impetus to create God.
I’ve known many Christians whose faith is motivated far more by their need for God than a desire for objective truth, which would certainly seem a small concern if you were just trying to get through life. But what about when life is already great without God? I’ve said before that I know I could make myself believe in Christianity again if I needed to in order to cope, but this is the first time I’ve considered that “creating God” doesn’t necessarily have to be motivated by weakness or a desire for comfort. What if it was a response to a desire for richness? What if an atheist’s life could be made even better with religion?
This is a possibility I’ve seriously considered. I don’t feel my life is lacking in any major way. But after reading about the ways in which humans have evolved to become religious beings and the ways in which relationship with the supernatural is essentially the pinnacle of human social development, I can’t help but think that religion could still be beneficial to me. I don’t want to deprive myself of this most unique and complex of evolutionary products.
Is there anything to lose by valuing truth about all else? It might surprise you that I think the answer is yes. Unless, that is, atheists can create meaning in a spirituality as rich as religion that is also consistent with our view of the truth. If atheism could not be spiritual, I would not be able to remain an atheist, no matter what I thought was true.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote: “Spiritual life begins when a human being is ‘seen’ to be more than the sum of his component parts.” I would say that a spiritual person strives to see everything as more than the sum of its parts. One of the best things about atheism is that it allows us to see the parts as they are in all their beauty and uniqueness, but there is something more that I want to strive for in my spiritual life as an atheist. More than just appreciating science and beauty and human relationships, but less than attributing them to sentient invisible agents. What I want may best be likened to what Barbara King and Karen Armstrong call the sacred, whatever that might be.
There may come a day when I decide that only supernaturalism can provide the richness I desire. I’ve been through enough changes to know that it’s useless to try to predict my future beliefs. For now, I continue to pursue both truth and beauty in spirituality. To elaborate on something Richard Dawkins once said, my mind is open to the most wonderful range of true possibilities that I cannot even imagine.