Deity as product of wishful thinking?

This is what I once thought, and it’s articulately presented by blogger Lousy Canuck.

Some humans were unsatisfied with a lack of knowledge about the world they knew of, and so, being the only creatures on the planet in possession of the power of imagination, they postulated that magical beings created the world they recognized, and did so in magical ways — ways we did not need to understand, in order to benefit from. . . .

As time marched on, these ideas evolved and changed with the times, as most ideas are wont to do. What was once a game of telephone, with myths passed through oral tradition, became written tradition with the invention of writing. These writings were corrupted by means of translation and retranslation, each time being changed slightly by the human doing the transcription and translation. . . .

Humans invented gods to fill in gaps in our knowledge of the natural world when we didn’t yet have the ability to investigate them and figure out how our natural world actually works. These gods became moral law-bringers over time, to explain why we shouldn’t go out raping and pillaging. Humans then developed science as a way to investigate how the universe actually works, and thus the acts attributed to these gods rapidly dwindled. And yet the concept of “god” is still around as some sort of law-giver despite these laws being entirely written by humans.

I understand this and consider it a reasonable argument, though heavily punctuated with bias and inappropriate assumptions: “some [laws] were merely built to perpetuate the religious stranglehold on the populace“, “humans are naturally disinclined to such objectively bad activities through long millenia of evolution” (oh, really?), and “as scientific experimentation identified issues with the proposed epistemologies of the religions of the time, those parts of the religion were for the first time ever questioned by their adherents” (as if the people in Jesus’ day would have needed a scientist to realize that it was impossible for someone who had been dead for some days to come back to life).

What is completely ignored in arguments like these is the fact that the sole function of scientific investigation is to determine how matter and energy generally behave. It is tempting to extrapolate these patterns into unbreakable laws, but it is logically invalid to do so. “I have seen Mrs. Smith down the block every day for the last ten years. I have even peered into her living room windows. Every time I see her, she is fully clothed. Therefore, she is always fully clothed without exception.”

So how can it be intellectually honest to assume that every report of events outside of the observed pattern is false? By definition, a “miracle” would run counter to what is generally observed. Does this mean it cannot take place? Our understanding of the Laws of Gravity doesn’t make us any more certain than primitive peoples that a dropped object will go down and not up. The inhabitants of a small town where Jesus preached knew it was impossible for a man who had been a blind beggar his whole life couldn’t regain his sight by putting mud on them and then washing it off in a pool. (See Gospel of John, chapter 9) The reported stir created by such events betrays their remarkable nature. The skeptic will assume that the story could not be true and will proceed to insist on a “scientific” (i.e. non-remarkable) explanation for the story: it’s a fabrication, the man wasn’t really blind, he was hallucinating, etc. But the skeptic’s bias prevents him or her from truly objective questioning, such as “Is the possibility greater than zero that this is a true story? What evidence, for and against, can be observed? What would be the outcomes if it were true? Can I observe any of these outcomes?” And so on.

The assumption that we are capable of understanding everything in the universe is hard to support. In an illustration I think I first read in C.S. Lewis, my dog may think he understands what is really happening when he sees me reading my evening newspaper, but he doesn’t. The possibility that more may be going on is beyond his comprehension. Can we safely assume that no such possibility applies to us?

Lousy Canuck suggests that moral and societal norms, attributed to a now-outdated deism, are really a solely human development.

Isn’t it about time we outgrow the need for gods to provide echo chambers for our own intrinsic beliefs about good and evil? Why can we not sit at a table and hammer out some equitable, moral, and just laws, laws which ensure the perpetuation of the human species and the fair treatment and protection of each of its members, and take credit for these laws as a species, rather than attributing these laws to some higher power?

This would be comforting to the materialist if true, as he describes the assumption of the existence of a higher power might have been to earlier generations. There’s unfortunately plenty of evidence to the contrary, witness the twisted use of good values (loyalty, desire for progress, self-sacrifice) to produce undescribable horrors in Nazi Germany. He suggests that a nameless group undertake to hammer out norms of moral and just laws. I wish him luck. (The inability of most groups to come to consensus on issues of much less scope makes me pessimistic.) Forgive me if I specullate that those laws might end up looking a lot like the Ten Commandments when complete. And, in the current environment of “Don’t impose your morality on me!”, they might run into a lot of the same challenges.

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