The Case against Atheism
In Queensland, Australia, a few years ago I was giving a seminar on some of the principles contained in this book. A man approached me afterwards.
“I entered the room toward the end of your talk,” he said, “and heard you referring to God. Now then, I’m an atheist. How would you define God in a way that would be meaningful to me?”
I reflected a moment, then answered him, “Why not try thinking of God as the highest potential you can imagine for yourself?”
He stood there for a moment in surprise, then delivered his verdict: “Well now, that’s a definition I can live with!”
Mankind needs something to look up to — an ideal, a dream, an aspiration. We may think of that ideal as God, forever consciously awaiting and encouraging us to seek Him. Or we may think of it as merely some goal held consciously in our own minds. In any case, the goal is, in a sense, conscious, for to us its attainment implies something to do with consciousness, a conscious fulfillment. It is no wooden idol, certainly.
So then, for heaven’s sake, why not call it God?
Voltaire wisely said, “If God didn’t exist, mankind would need to invent Him.”
I’m not referring to a “God of the Christians,” or a “God of the Jews.” For that matter, within the actual body of worshiping Christians and Jews — and that goes equally for Hindus, Moslems, and the followers of every other religion — there are probably as many concepts of God as there are worshipers. The very word, God, is spoken merely by the tongue. It is doubtful that this word — in English, no less!—receives the same recognition elsewhere in the universe that we accord it ourselves.
Some people will imagine the Deity as Michelangelo’s God, depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the moment of creating Adam. Others will imagine Him as Krishna smilingly playing the flute to attract souls away from the delusion of ego-attachment. To still others, “He” will be a “She”: a Universal Mother. Again, to some, God will be an impersonal Light, or Love, or Absolute Consciousness.
People have fought wars over their definitions of God, not realizing that even within their own ranks there was never true unanimity of belief. For whatever words were used, the concept of each believer could only be the outcome of his own experience of life. And how can the experiences of any two people on earth be exactly alike?
I remember, when I was a young man, trying to visualize God as a Universal Mother. The thought of divine compassion as a feminine quality attracted me. I wasn’t familiar with Roman Catholicism and its many images of the Madonna. The best I could come up with, eventually, was a mental image of my godfather’s wife, a sweet-tempered, motherly lady, or at least one who had never been in the uncomfortable position of having to discipline me.
Will somebody scold me as a blasphemer for holding such a human concept? You see, I knew perfectly well that “Aunt Anna,” as I called her, wasn’t God. It was just that thinking of her helped me to conjure up in my own mind the qualities of kindness and compassion on which I wanted to concentrate. In prayer I eventually passed beyond this mental image to a sense of something more “acceptable”—a higher, omnipresent, ever-listening Presence.
The point is that even though no mental concept could ever fully define God, this doesn’t mean that we ought therefore to abandon mental concepts altogether and get on with the prosaic job of gathering in facts, facts, and more facts, like so many bundles of sheaves. (Odd, is it not? that professors who so love every sort of intellectual theory will generally avoid any mention of a concept of the Divinity — because, they explain, it is “only” a theory!)
I am not offering God as a theory, however, but as a universal need. “God” is, if you like, only a word. But what this word stands for is the universal desire of human beings to be inspired; to experience a higher reality than that of a full belly; to be lifted above the heavy mud of unknowing into the free sky of an expanded, ever-lighter awareness. It is a need most of us recognize, and all of us know on deeper-than-conscious levels of our being. Why quibble, then, about the mere word?
The problem is that the whole bias of modern thinking, and therefore of modern education, is, as we saw in the last chapter, toward the depths. Science came along a few centuries ago and said, “Look, we can’t prove the existence of God, or of heaven, or of angelic beings. But we can prove mass, weight, and motion. So let us stick with these.” Some of those scientists were in fact devout religious believers. They were only trying to evolve a new approach to reality, based on provable facts.
The idea they proposed was excellent. Moreover, it is amazing how vast and complex scientists have discovered the universe to be after four hundred years, merely as a result of this seemingly simplistic approach to reality. Science has shown us a universe of hundreds of billions of stars and galaxies — a picture of things that would have been dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic had it been suggested even as recently as a century ago!
In leaving God out of scientific reckoning, however, the impression conveyed, now that scientists have won the day for their scientific method, is that God should be left out of all sensible reckoning, even when dealing with non-material issues. It was said once, “The only fit study for mankind is man himself.” Today this maxim has undergone a complete change. The new study fit for mankind is expressed more or less thus: “The only fit study for mankind is the quantification of material phenomena by the sciences of physics and chemistry.”
Darwin claimed that man is “descended,” in a manner of speaking, from the monkeys. People in Darwin’s day were already schooled to think of matter, not man, as the proper study of mankind. And then Darwin’s claim caused people to see themselves as a mere coalescence of material atoms — a product, through a process of purely accidental selection, that we are pleased to consider intelligent and “civilized.”
Freud, following this natural ideological progression, explained human nature in terms of the basic sex drive, from which he ended up defining all of us in terms of various related abnormalities. Succeeding generations of psychologists sought to explain man in other simplistic terms, all of them related to our animal origins. Adler, for example, gave an equally Darwinian emphasis to the desire for power (a product, one assumes, of the Darwinian struggle for survival).
In these views, man is wholly identified with his lower nature, and is considered merely to gloss over this embarrassing fact when he pretends to possess ideals. According to such Darwin-inspired concepts, if anyone you know happens to believe in divine love, you’d be wise to consider protecting your daughters’ virtue. For divine love is only a mask, favored by hypocrites, for the earthy lustfulness of a two-legged goat.
And then, for that matter, why even bother to protect your daughter? If our only reality is our lower nature, why not with Sartre, and in the modern vernacular, “go for it”?
Modern education, whether consciously or unconsciously, is founded on this bottoms-up view of things. And the churches have made the worst possible case for their higher counsel by losing their tempers and hurling anathemas, by insisting that we are all sinners anyway (so why not “sin away” with the worst of them?), and by insisting on substituting definitions — dogmas, that is — for reality. They’ve given the educators the best imaginable excuse for not including God in the classroom. For religionists everywhere shout: “This is what God is!” “No, no, you fool, He is that!” Anyone in search of truth is likely to end up declaring in disgust, “A plague on both your houses!”
Scientists at least agree that the sun and moon are more or less what they can be observed to be. With so much disagreement in the churches, why should the schools deal with a subject that even churchmen can’t agree on, and that is, evidently, unteachable?
And yet, our children cannot but yearn for something more than sterile facts. They yearn to be told that there is indeed something worthwhile in which to believe and toward which to aspire. Yes, they yearn for ideals.
Knock out the concept of God and you knock out the very basis of civilization. For you knock out the fundamental hope for human betterment.
We have already seen that moral and spiritual values need not be confined to any sectarian teaching. Humility, for example, is quite unnecessarily called Christian humility. Humility is humility, simply. Our understanding of this quality is merely hampered by the additional label “Christian.”
Why can’t we do the same thing with the concept of God? Why plaster our concept of him with the various labels that religionists have given Him, along with their claim to speak on His behalf?
Why speak of a “Christian” God, or a “Jewish” God? Why not consider the possibility that there might even be an “atheists’ God”?
For though the atheist claims to reject God altogether, all he is really rejecting is definitions of God. For himself, he must be motivated by some ideal, some goal, some principle, or else abandon his very humanity. And that principle, for him, is what others call God, for it is the highest point toward which he himself can presently aspire.
Granted, one person’s ideals may not be another person’s. Yet I venture to say that there is no principle that the human mind, limited as it is, can conceptualize that can hold up its head and claim with conviction, “In this principle, finally, lies an absolute definition of God!”
In 1960 I was one of the speakers at an interfaith conference in Calcutta, India. It had been organized by a young and idealistic Jain monk who wanted to get representatives of the major world religions to agree on a set of tenets that would enable them to present a united front against the perceived threat of materialism.
Instead, the delegates used the conference as a platform to declaim on whatever beliefs seemed to separate them one from another.
As they spoke, I found myself imagining them trying actually to agree on even one universal tenet. Clearly, it would not be easy.
One of them might propose as self-evident to the followers of any religion the simple belief in God. But to this proposal, the Buddhists would object. For Buddhism is atheistical.
Well, then, what about getting everyone to agree that life continues after death? Here, too, certain religions would have to abstain.
In the nineteen-fifties, John Ball, the author, made a study of the major world religions, and found only one point on which all of them were in agreement: Every religion, he pointed out, teaches some variant of the Golden Rule: “Do as you would be done by.” It was an interesting study, though it left me thinking, “And for this we need religion?”
The Golden Rule seems little more than the sort of solution that any civilized human being would discover on his own as a result merely of living in the society of others. It is a philosophy, in other words, of enlightened self-interest. It would have been strange indeed if the great religions had not included some variant of this statement in their teachings.
But there is, in the world’s great religions, a higher teaching also. For all of them endeavor to inspire man in some way toward higher consciousness — in other words, toward a less “dense” awareness in the sense suggested in these pages, toward becoming less ego-centered, and more self-expansive. This is not, perhaps, a stated tenet in all the world religions, but it is certainly a universal effect experienced by anyone who sincerely lives by their teachings.
Even Shintoism, a Japanese ceremonial religion which more or less limits itself to marrying and burying its adherents, offers them in the process a sense of the harmony and fitness of things, and, as such, fosters a consciousness of harmony: one aspect, surely, of an uplifted awareness.
It is time, and long past time, that we reinstituted in the schools an emphasis on high values and high ideals. Indeed, the process of evolution — both of species, outwardly, and of individuals, inwardly — is not only a push upward from below, but also a magnetic appeal from above.
Science speaks of energy in both potential and kinetic states. Both states are real, though in its potential form the energy is not yet overtly manifested. Why dismiss human potentials, then, as non-existent? The very fact that they are potentials makes them real, in a sense, even now. If they were not potential, moreover, they could never become manifested. It is not only the push of the struggle for survival that moves us upward toward perfection: It is an attraction, recognized universally on deeper-than-conscious levels of our being, toward a state that we know to be true and natural to ourselves.
Mankind is not seduced from reality by his dreams of beauty and perfection. Rather, the greatest accomplishments are achieved by those who dare to cherish such dreams. For once the stomach has been filled, the body clothed, and one’s living space insulated against the elements, there remains a basic hunger in us all which no amount of possessions, power, or pleasure can fulfill: the need to know and to understand, to participate with wonder in the great adventure of existence in this universe.
Children cannot be forced to learn. And mankind cannot only be pushed up the ladder toward final awakening. We must be attracted upward by the response of our free will.
That magnet, finally, which has ever drawn humanity upward is what people define in their minds — dimly still, perhaps, but let us hope with growing comprehension — as God.