Recently I have discovered god. No, it wasn’t some sort of revelation or epiphany. I experienced no ecstasy. Sorry, it was more a matter of figuring things out.
I used to believe that since the existence of some supreme deity was unprovable, and because the great world religions were causing more grief these days than comfort, I would proceed on the assumption that there was no such thing as godhead–that if it existed at all, it was simply a conceit lodged in the minds of most humans. I did recognize that a lot of people preferred to believe in god but nevertheless were able to carry on in reasonable ways; and these were people I could respect and work with. For example, a lot of people in my country believe in god but still support the separation of church and state. So I was not so much a flaming atheist as a rational humanist.
My conversion, if you can call it that, began with my adoption of the concept of “memes” as chronicled in my essay “Creatures of the Mind,” written almost two years ago. Then there was the issue of what is real, and what isn’t, which I explored in “How Culture Defines Reality, and Vice Versa.” That essay, written about six months ago, should have led directly to my present acceptance of the reality of god. But I guess I’m slowing down; it happens as one ages. Anyhow, better late than never: here I am now, ready and willing to let all you doubters know that god(s) exist(s), and why, and what we should all do about it.
God(s) exist(s) because he/she/they are major memes; they constitute(s) an important part of the world of ideas that exist in human minds and among human societies; and these ideas, for these human societies, are just as real as the biophysical world we inhabit. To say that no god exists is tantamount to denying the reality of all memes: all the techniques, technologies, myths, books, symphonies, and histories that have propelled our ungainly species out of apehood and into our present turbulent and confused configuration. Of course god(s) exist(s)! Without him/her/them our course, from our human origins up to our present condition, would have been even more difficult, and perhaps we would never have made it at all.
Having said that, it is important to distinguish between what god really is, in that real world of the mind which we all inhabit, and what most of us think it is. The essential point here is that god(s) is/are in this real world of the human mind for their own purposes, not for the good of the individual believer. They depend for their existence on the groups that believe in them, not on individuals. They compete with the gods of other groups, and their success is determined by how well their groups fare in competition with those other groups.
God is a creature of the human imagination, to be sure, but its ubiquity in human societies throughout our history suggests that it has always played a central role in forging and maintaining the sense of identity that makes individual members of a given social group or society fall in line and submit to the kinds of disciplines which that society requires of its members. The individual exists for the greater glory of his or her society’s god, not vice versa. If it is your god’s interest that you charge out of the trenches with your bayonet fixed to run into a hail of enemy fire, well, you do it, even though the odds are very strong that you will soon die, or at least be severely wounded.
It is true that your god provides you certain benefits, such as comfort when thinking about death, and solace in times of stress. But these are bribes your god offers you, to persuade you to act in accordance with its own purpose. Biology offers similar inducements, notably the pleasure attached to the reproductive act. Your biological purpose in life is to reproduce, and just in case you forget that, there is the pleasure of copulation to encourage you to behave the way your “selfish genes” want you to.
And it also true that god(s) strengthen(s) the moral and emotional bonds that link a society together, reinforcing moral precepts that inhibit antisocial behavior. This is usually a useful function, though it can become abhorrent when it leads one group to try to massacre another group, or banish it.
What is the larger purpose of god(s)? To survive, to grow, to increase the pool of human minds in which it has lodged itself, and to strengthen the conviction of every individual in that pool that It and only It is the one true God (or that They and only They are the one Proper Pantheon). Gods, in short, are just as selfish as genes. Like genes, their only purpose is to grow. Genes use individuals as their carriers; gods use whole societies. The people in the world today are the ones that carry the genes that were the winners in an ancestral battle for survival. The gods that survive today are likewise the survivors of a competition that has been going on among them, for as long as our ancestors have been human.
What an epiphany! What a revelation! On your knees, everyone, and sing Hallelujah! Now that we see Godhead in its true form, perhaps we can learn that it merits our respect but not our blind, slavish obedience. We might even start to learn how to control its more egregiously inhumane aspects.
Merry Christmas, everybody.
Carl Coon 12/13/99
PS: (4/00) Additional thoughts are at “Levels of Reality.”