In its desire to celebrate reason, the natural world and rational thinking, atheism rejects the notion of the divine. Adherent often poke fun at theists who gullibly accept the Torah, the Bible or the Qu’ran as the true, only and ultimate representation of the divine.
It is important to ask for evidence when someone makes a claim and it is critical to use evidence and logic to challenge religious fundamentalism. However, just because one has no evidence for something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or that it is not worth having a discussion about it. It only means one cannot pretend to be holding the truth.
I wrote The Covenant to argue that the fundamental concept of Covenant in the Abrahamic religions originated from a secular alliance made during the Bronze Age with a Mesopotamian king, whose memory was elevated to the rank of deity after death. But however devastating for “faith” the provided evidence might be, one should not consequently throw the baby out with the bath water. Deconstructing and demythifying sacred texts has nothing to do with refuting the nature of the divine. It only has to do with challenging blind faith. Unfortunately, I believe that this confusion has been holding back Western societies from exploring more of the divine ever since the Age of Enlightenment.
The epistemological question of the divine is intimately tied to the all-important question of the origin of life, and more specifically to the origin of sentient beings capable of self-awareness. This question has been around ever since humans began to articulate their thoughts and concepts. Through religion, philosophy, art and science, every culture has tried to answer this evasive question the best it could. In this regard, shamans, sages, prophets, critical thinkers and scholars have all contributed to advance our collective knowledge. Among them, Charles Darwin made a significant contribution to our understanding of biological evolution. However, just because we can now explain “HOW” evolution happened, it does not mean we can explain “WHY” it happened.
There is nothing wrong admitting we don’t know. Even Richard Dawkins, a prominent ethologist, evolutionary biologist and committed atheist, candidly summarized his position at a recent live event with Sam Harris and Matt Dillahunty (@ 7min 22sec):
“The first step, the origin of the first self-replicating molecule, the origin of the first gene, that was a necessary first step before natural selection could get started and that is a step that nobody has yet solved. There are quite a lot of theories about it. We may never know for certain because it happened a long time ago. We know the kind of things that must have happened. And that is a big barrier; that is one of the main questions that remain… Once that’s happened, then the whole panoply of life, the whole branching, complexifying beauty of life then gets going. We do need a theory of the origin of life. But when that starts, then everything else follows with great logic and persuasiveness.”
There is no doubt in my mind that natural selection is the process by which nature evolves towards the more diverse, the more complex, the more beautiful, the more intelligent and the more conscious. And given that Creationism (the idea that the Bible should be taken literally for explaining how we came to be) defies even the most basic scientific logic, I think a lot more people would accept the theory of evolution if the scientific community at large was not so quick and bold at rejecting the idea that some yet-to-be-identified “divine” energy or force could be at work behind it. Unfortunately, many atheists are trying real hard to keep that door well shut for fear it might soften their position. But is such an attitude truly serving humanity… or one’s personal ego?
The scientific method teaches us that when in doubt, the only ethical thing to do is to remain open, to question everything, and to refrain from making assertions. If everyone followed this simple rule, we would quickly raise the quality and pertinence of the debates taking place between theists and atheists.
Every human being – regardless of his or her beliefs – share the same love, gratitude and amazement for the wonders of the world. And whether one calls it “life”, “nature”, “love”, “God”, “Allah”, “The Light”, “Greater Being”, “Universal Consciousness” or “Grand Architect of the Universe”, one is always referring to the same “reality”. So instead of asserting one thing or another, one should simply acknowledge the limits of science as well as of his or her scriptures, when speculating on the divine.
Through observation and experiments, scientists were able to identify four invisible forces that are at work in the mechanical universe: electromagnetism, gravity, as well as strong, and weak interactions. We can observe and control them at our scale through action-reaction. But what if there was another force, yet to be identified, that was acting on a much longer and broader scale? What if such a force was encompassing all other forces, and like a metaforce it was slowly guiding evolution towards the ever more complex, more beautiful, more intelligent, and more conscious forms? What if evolution and natural selection were just the observable effects that such a metaforce would have? And what if this metaforce was ultimately creating our material “reality” out of a field of information and energy, with the Big Bang being the initial step of this evolutionary process?
Based on my intuition, personal observations, and limited knowledge, I can freely make such a suggestion. I might not be able to verify it and I might not be able to provide any evidence for it, but someone else might like the idea and explore it further…
Yet, even if a pure mechanical accident sparked life on earth (or from outer space); with some random molecules somehow assembling together under the right conditions, the question of the origin, and eventually of the purpose of this very same material universe (i.e. the “WHY”), would still bring us back to square one. So no matter how I look at it, I can ignore it, but I cannot escape from it.
At a time of intense social media pressure and strong polarization of ideas, it seems that many people feel that the only valid option for acknowledging the presence of a greater being is to embrace a religion by committing oneself through an act of faith. Not all religious ideas may be bad, but blind faith always is. Less dogmatic alternatives, such as secular Buddhism, universalism and humanism appear to me as far better alternatives.
Regardless of one’s chosen path, one should always bear in mind that it is only through imagination, intuition and creativity that our collective knowledge can ever evolve. “Science” is not a theory or a religion. It is a universal method, an other name given to the natural selection process by which evidence is used to retain the best ideas. As such, it is not difficult to conceive why “faith” should be the very last intellectual practice one would willingly want to engage in, and surrender to, even for those seeking to get closer to the divine “truth”.
So, instead of claiming we know anything about the existence or nonexistence of the divine, we would do ourselves greater justice by simply acknowledging we don’t know. By freeing ourselves from religious dogma, by being more curious, open and respectful with one another, we can create the safe space needed to discuss this fundamental notion in a more constructive way. Without necessarily devaluating the wisdom they contain, there are no reason we should restrict ourselves to thousand year old books. We now have access to more knowledge, insights and resources than humans ever had. All we need to do is give free reign to our imagination, intuition and creativity and authorize ourselves to feel and think…