“I don’t believe in God. But I miss Him.”
– Julian Barnes, beginning of Nothing to Worry About.
Mr. Barnes never believed in god, at least from his age of reason. His brother, a philosopher (really, his brother is a professional philosopher), jokes with him that this makes no sense – he doesn’t believe in fairies, but he does not miss fairies.
But Mr. Barnes makes total sense. I never believed in god either. But I wish I did. I wish there was Someone there to believe in.
But there isn’t. Christianity and other Abrahamic religions play upon how the human brain works. Christianity tells you something is there, that your brain tells you is there because your brain naturally seeks and eventually sees patterns in randomness: and we naturally anthropomorphize, we feel more comfortable thinking we are dealing with another person, whether we are confronted with another person, a bear, a burbling brook, a thunderstorm, or death stealing our parents away. Young children assume the pet dog is as smart as anyone else in the family. This is just the way our ancestors had adapted to the world we live and move in and which we crave to have some control over – yes, it is the way we have evolved.
And this has been a very successful part of us. Now, we talk to our cars – “C’mon, start, dammit!”. We treat our computers like they are thinking on their own – “Apparently, Windows decided it doesn’t want to open this file”. And even people who do not believe in god ‘default’ to assigning some overarching cognizant motivation to random events – “Of course, my car would have a flat today of all days!”
This is as natural as how we get excited over unhealthy donuts in the office, how we will talk slowly and simply to someone whose speech is slurred due to Parkinson’s although there is no reason to assume they are stupid, and how we are suspicious of people who look different from us.
That is, just because our minds viscerally respond to things in certain ways, does not mean those ways are necessarily the healthiest or even realistic. Or most mature. To strike back at someone who hits you – ensconced in Abrahamic tradition as “an eye for an eye” – is something that is not tolerated by adults overseeing a playground. And it is not acceptable under the laws of most civilized countries, even though it is what we want to do, even though swinging back and feeling our fist connecy would feel so good – because it is understood by cooler heads in the midstsof drafting laws that in the long run automatic revenge does not sustain a successful civilization. (A culture which has the cycle of revenge as a cornerstone can be successful keeping foreign empires at bay, but has a hard time contributing much meaningful to civilization and the common good.)
Praising God for His mercy to save a baby in the rubble of an earthquake while thousands of other people died comes from the same part of our minds that says Barack Obama cannot be trusted because his father’s family name sounds like the first name of a billionaire terrorist. It’s expedited thinking, it’s convenient and settled. It’s magic thinking. And it’s pretty much bullshit. But it’s also the way we our brain is hardwired – the same way my brain is hardwired to have been digging into a big bag of tortilla chips while I write this. It isn’t smart, seeking comfort in levels of fat and sodium that are not found in nature, but for better or worse I am designed for a world full of danger and chaos and uncertainty and therefore I’m designed to grab that fat and salt while I can. It’s not the healthiest thing for us to do, just like thinking everything that happens to us is guided by the Invisible Hand of an absolutely omniscient being who happens to have the outlook and benevolence of Ward Cleaver.
We are not reasonable creatures, and strident atheists must recognize this. But Christians must also recognize that God can be explained away by wishful thinking. And as much as I wishfully think – much more so than my apre-Buddhism would lead to you believe, believe me! – I need to see some real coin before I will ante up with Pascal.