Politics & Policy

God & Man & Gratitude

Giving thanks--and not just for evolutionary reasons.

God, unlike, say, North Dakota, has an uncanny gift for staying in the headlines. Often enough He has His bitterest adversaries to thank for the press. Michael Newdow, the man who fought to excise “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, is suing yet again to cleanse the public square of all references to the deity, supplying further proof that bad head cases make for bad law. This time around Newdow has decided that “In God We Trust” on our money has been a symbol of theocratic oppression all these years and we didn’t even know it.

Another proud atheist, Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller fame, took to the air this week as part of NPR’s revived This I Believe series to deliver a passionate and condescending renunciation of God’s existence, mocking believers of all stripes for their faith in their “invisible little friend.”

Still, even the faithful do their part to surround the Lord in public controversy, as we see in the efforts on behalf of “Intelligent Design,” the belief that God takes time out of his schedule to nudge evolution along.

We’ll have all year to gripe about the public-policy issues on both sides of the God divide. But since this is Thanksgiving, I thought maybe we could take the discussion in another direction. Thanksgiving, after all, is first and foremost about giving thanks (a close second is the tradition of lying on the couch eating super-nummy turkey sandwiches off your belly like a sea otter munching a crab leg).

And if you’re going to give thanks, you’ll need someone to give thanks to. Typically, that would be God–although, no doubt, if Messrs. Newdow and Jillette got their way, we’d direct our thanks to a large coalition of benefactors, including everything from a random universe and primordial ooze to the guy who delivered the turkey. But God himself? He’d be left off the thank-you card list.

In the current issue of The Atlantic, Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology and linguistics at that New Haven trade school otherwise known as Yale, offers an interesting perspective on the whole God thing. He makes a very powerful case that belief–or a tendency toward belief–in the supernatural in general and God in particular is hardwired into our systems from birth. His article is titled “Is God an Accident?”

Citing among other things some very clever experiments with babies and young children–don’t worry, no babies were harmed in the process of writing his article–Bloom argues that we come into this world preprogrammed to divide the world into spirits and objects, or minds and bodies. This, argues Bloom, is an evolutionary adaptation designed for one thing–socialization–which has made us susceptible to another thing: religion.

We aren’t “supposed” to believe in God. But in addition to our evolved tendency to split the world into spirit and object, our operating systems are also set up to want to believe that everything happens for a reason. Our brains don’t like randomness, so we assume that there is an intelligence or purpose behind events, something that requires things to happen the way they do.

Bloom’s argument is polite, informed, insightful–and annoying.

Scientists often fall into a fallacious tendency, after studying and describing something according to the methods of their discipline, to believe that their appraisal of it is somehow more real than the thing itself.

Evolutionary psychologists have explained almost every human interaction from grocery shopping to men throwing themselves on live grenades in clinical terms. But that doesn’t make them clinical events. Marxists did the same thing–actually, they still do at some of our finer universities. They’d point to the class interests that supposedly compel this or that behavior and call it a day. But anybody not already converted to the faith understood that while Marxism might sometimes offer interesting insights, to mistake the Marxist story for the whole story would be no different than a lie. Science is wonderful at explaining what science is wonderful at explaining, but beyond that it tends to look for its car keys where the light is good.

For example, according to evolutionary totalitarians, I love my wife because I want to propagate my genes and attain an exemplary mother for my children. That may or may not be true, but that is hardly the whole truth. For whatever electrochemical signals my brain may be receiving, my awareness of their existence doesn’t diminish the fact that I love my wife or that I think love is something more than mere electrochemical signals.

Some have defined God “as love.” That’s not my personal definition, but it’s not a bad one. Both God and love defy science’s attempts to define them. Whatever science tells us about either, we know that’s not all there is to say. Scientists should be skeptical, but I would have found Bloom’s article just as interesting and informative if “by accident” was changed to “on purpose.”

Indeed, considering that religious belief has coincided with the fairly remarkable success of humans vis-à-vis the atheistic Dodo bird, perhaps religious insight isn’t gratuitous programming after all?

Perhaps humans aren’t so stupid for believing that turkey sandwich ended up on their belly for reasons more profound than mere electrochemical coincidences a billion years ago. Whatever those reasons are, Lord knows I’m grateful for them.

(c) 2005 Tribune Media Services


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