Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Another God-Substitute

In “The Belief Instinct,” evolutionary psychologist and lifelong atheist, Jesse Bering, admits to still having an “instinctual fear of being punished by God” (4). However, unlike the atheist Richard Dawkins who claims that this troublesome instinct is merely a negative by-product of an adaptive trait, Bering regards it as a positive, which has promoted socialization and survival, at least until now.

In support of his contention that the God-instinct is important for promoting moral behavior, he cites many social psychological experiments. In this regard, he quotes psychologists Norenzagan and Shariff:

• [Experimental] Activation of God concepts [among experimental subjects]…triggers this hyperactive tendency to infer the presence of an intentional watcher. This sense of being watched then activates reputational concerns, undermines the anonymity of the situation, and, as a result, curbs self behavior (193).

Although Bering readily acknowledges the advantages of our God-wiring, he also believes that it is delusional and that we humans can now set it aside like a worn-out overcoat:

• We are the first generation, in the history of our species, to be confronted directly by the full scientific weight of an argument that renders a personal God both unnecessary and highly unlikely (202).

Is God “highly unlikely?” In contrast to Bering’s position, many scientists take the opposite point of view, based on scientific findings of the fine-tuning of the universe, the immensity and improbability of the DNA informational system, and the complexities of the cell.

However, why would God now be “unnecessary” in light of the many benefits of this kind of faith that Bering has cited? He claims that we can now,

• Distance ourselves from an adaptive system that was designed, ultimately, to keep us hobbled in fear (201).

How can we “distance ourselves” from our built-in belief system? For one thing, we can recognize that wiring is all that it is. However, the Bible readily admits that we have this wiring (Romans 2:14-15), but this is not to say that our moral response is just a matter of wiring. It might be more accurate to regard this wiring as a built-in, God-given alarm system to alert us to a very real external reality with eternal consequences.

While Bering is clever enough to acknowledge the possibility of this reality, he regards it as unlikely. He also argues unconvincingly that we no longer need to be “hobbled by fear.” Although he cites Voltaire approvingly – “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him” – he argues that times have changed. How? Bering cites our advanced means of social control:

• Hidden cameras, caller ID, fingerprints, voice recognition software, “lie-detectors”…DNA and handwriting analysis (202).

However, isn’t this simply a substitution of one “fear” for another? Will Big Brother now fill God’s shoes?

• Who needs Voltaire’s “eye in the sky” when today we’ve got millions of virtual superhuman eyes trained on us from every possible angle (202).

I’ll take God’s benevolent eye any day of the week! However, Bering blandly adds, “We can live for each other” (205), perhaps sensing our distaste for his Big Brother. But it’s not merely a question of “distaste.” It’s also a matter of adequacy! Is Big Brother adequate to provide the type of world we all want to inhabit? We can answer this question by examining our modern-day totalitarian regimes, where we find its subjects desperately trying to escape. Who ever tried to climb the Berlin Wall to enter Communist East Berlin?

We have always been very creative in devising God-substitutes, but I think that we are running out of new possibilities. Perhaps there are sound reasons for opting for the original!

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