Our illusory God

“Your belief in God is a cognitive illusion.”
“No it’s not. I am certain that God exists.”
“You see, that just proves what an effective illusion it is.”

It would be unfair to suggest that that exchange, although accurately reflecting the author’s thought, did justice to Jesse Bering’s new book, The God Instinct. That is partly because it is an interesting and pleasurable book to read, but mainly because it throws up demanding challenges. It may never achieve the notoriety of The God Delusion but its fundamental approach took me from Professor Dawkins’s cliché-ridden arguments into more original territory.

Jesse Bering is an evolutionary psychologist and director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at the Queen’s University, Belfast. He writes regularly for Scientific American. Bering argues that we have developed the illusion of a moral God because it has been evolutionarily useful. It derives from our, virtually universal, habit of attributing an interior personal life to other people.

This is technically known as “theory of mind”. That is, the ability to recognise one’s own and others’ mental states such as belief, desires, knowledge etc. Scientific purism names it a theory because mental states cannot be empirically demonstrated, although we are certain that such mental states exist even if in many cases we mistake their nature.

Bering claims that this attribution of mental states runs so deeply in human nature that we often apply it inappropriately. Having just lectured a cat on the unlikelihood of my giving her tea twice, I find that it happens to me. And I certainly say, “thank you”, to Sainsbury’s automatic checkout. What a helpful young lady, and so patient!

He takes us on further to consider our widespread assumption, by no means confined to religious believers, that “there’s a divinity which shapes out ends, rough hew them as we will”. The human tendency to see fate at work, more or less articulated as a superior power or purpose, is widespread even among those who repudiate the supernatural. Few of us can exorcise the suspicion that there is meaning and purpose guiding the events in life, although at the human level these events seem to be random
Bering must now show that having theory of mind is a result of evolution; that is, it has an adaptive capacity in which the illusion of God plays an important part. He focuses on the concept of shame which we experience when others observe us behaving unworthily or immorally. Shame tells us that we are damaging our standing in society by our acts. And that checks us because our reputation in our social groups must be high if we are to obtain a mate. Consequently, those who preserve their reputations have more progeny than those who have lost them. Gossip becomes a sort of social regulator which benefits the morality, and therefore the flourishing, of society.

But our wicked acts do not necessarily have to be seen by others in order for society to be damaged. Indeed, we often behave worse when we think that we are unobserved. Society needs a regulator who will always know what we are doing.

God is the obvious candidate. One attribute which all religions give to God, Bering claims, is that he knows our inmost thoughts. In him theory of mind reaches, literally, its apotheosis. Thus the human race needs a concept of God, illusory though it may be, to act as our ultimate regulator. We experience fear of punishment, or at least shame, because God’s eyes are on us even in an empty room.

But this need is necessary only for the common clay of humanity. The enlightened atheist can see with clarity that the processes of experience are random, and that good and bad behaviour should be more properly styled adaptive and maladaptive behaviour. Morality in the sense of moral obligation or aspiration is replaced by rational decision.

A skeletal summary of his argument cannot be a full substitute for a case which takes some 200 pages to present. But in essence Bering’s argument starts with the presumption that God is an illusion. Given that, his explanation is not implausible – although it leaves many questions unanswered. Had he started with the presumption that God exists and created man as an expression of his love, he could, with equal plausibility, have argued that such a God would have implanted in man a natural sense that he has been created for a purpose and a natural sense that he owes his being to a higher power.

The evidence which shows that religious people have better self control, and that the same brain areas are active both in social communication and in prayer (Bulletin of Psychology, Jan 2009), would not surprise Bering as they are consistent with his theory. They are also consistent with a true belief in God. This is well summed up by Michael Reiss, who is professor of science education at London University’s Institute of Education, and also an Anglican priest: “I am quite sure there will be a biological basis to religious faith. We are evolved creatures and the whole point about humanity is that we are rooted in the natural world.”

The God Instinct is published by Nicholas Brealey, priced £14.99

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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44 Responses to Our illusory God

  1. st.joseph says:

    I read a little booklet ‘ God Stares You in the Eye’ Rev.J. McKee B.A. Published by the London Catholic Truth Society 1970. Price 9d. (4p.)I have it on my bookshelf for years.
    A small booklet of 16 pages.It can be found by googling. ‘God stare you in the eye.’
    It is interesting to read.
    It proves nothing to me. Nor does the Eucharistic Miracles which can be found again by googling ‘Eucharistic Miracle’s where one will find hundreds of facts., but again very useful information for those looking for convincing comments.
    The miracle of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
    After complying to the Bishop’s request for a sign,She left for us an image of herself imprinted miraculously on the native’s Tilma, a poor quality cactus-cloth,which should have deteriorated in 20 years, but shows no sign of decay 475 years later and still defies all scientific explanations of it origin.
    It apparently even reflects in Her eyes what was in front of her in 1531.
    There is reason to believe that at Tepeyca ,Mary came in her glorified body, and her actual physical hands rearranged the roses in Juan Deigo’s tilma,which makes this apparition very special. Our Lady of Guadalupe http://www.sancta.org.
    Less than 20 years later,9 million of the inhabitants of the land, who professed for centuries a polytheistic and human sacrificing religion, are converted to Christianity.
    Our Lady appeared with a black cloth like bow on Her stomach, which is supposed to represent a pregnant woman. Hence She is the Mother of the unborn Child.
    Faith is not always blind. We can have faith I believe when we have knowledge.
    We have the knowledge of the Gospels.God has spoken to us through His Son Jesus Christ, as He said ‘When you see me you have seen the Father, the Father and me are One’. (or words to that effect.)The Holy Spirit reveals Him to us.
    What I am trying to say I suppose is ,that we will be given all the Graces necessary.
    The words of St Therese in her obscuration of faith remind us that the light of Jesus truly shines in this fallen world, no matter how great the darkness:
    You must imagine that I’ve been born in a country entirely
    overspread with a thick mist; I have never seen nature in her
    smiling mood,all bathed and transformed in the sunlight.
    But I’ve heard of this wonderful experience,ever since I was a child,
    and I know that this country in which I live is not my native
    country that lies elswhere,and it always must be the centre of my
    longings. Mightn’t that, you suggest, be simply a fable,invented by
    some dweller in the mist?.Oh no the fact is certain; the King of the
    sunlit country had come and lived in the darkness, lived there for
    thirty three years.

    I have believed that since I was 5 years old.

  2. claret says:

    i do sometimes wonder why those of us with a Christian faith constantly have to beat ourselves with books of this kind as though they contain such great works of merit that we are obliged to be impressed by the intellect of their authors and desperately search for arguements to counter them.
    These authors will be long dead, and probably forgotten, while the word of God will live on.
    It really is quite simple. Was Jesus the son of God or not? if you beleive the former then you have all the evidence for the existence of God you need. If you beleive the latter then there is a whole series of endless permutations to muddle over.
    If you are one of the vast millions in the middle then it really does not matter enough to bother finding out.

  3. st.joseph says:

    So right Claret. As Voltaire said in his day that the Church would not last more than 20 years. Voltaire is dead and the Church continues with undiminshed vitality and vigour.

  4. Ion Zone says:

    While it is possible we have an instinctive need for god(s), I think it has been very well demonstrated that the kind of gods this creates are the Egyptian\Greek\Roman sort who are, essentially, just superhumans. These kinds are based around a mythos – fireside stories that are passed down through the generations as ‘just so’ stories. These do not explain our God, who relies on testament and named witnesses. You could argue that much of the Old T is similar in nature to the old fables, and I would say maybe so (hence the need for the more reliable New T). There is no way that this instinct could possibly have created the Abrehamic faiths, which are highly singular and staggeringly different to everything before (It bears no relation to Mithras before anyone mentions it – Mithras was said to have been born of a rock, for one).

    This author, in her haste, seems also to have forgotten CS Lewis – in his eyes an inherent instinct that tells us to look to God would be as fundamental to Christianity as the inherent nature of God’s Morality, and I am inclined to agree.

    This is just another attempt to thrust the anti-science of assumed absolute materialism on us.

  5. Ion Zone says:

    He, sorry, author is male. 😛

  6. JohnBunting says:

    Here we go again.
    The one word that sums up my thoughts on this is “Consciousness”.
    The natural world is a given fact, but not self-explanatory. Did it arise spontaneously, or from an act of conscious creation? Is the watchmaker blind or not? The scientific atheist trots out Occam’s Razor, and declares that yes, it’s blind: that’s the simpler explanation, and so almost certainly correct.
    Sorry, I don’t buy it. Our notions of what is simple or complex are drawn from within the natural world. What on earth makes anyone think they can be applied to the origin of the world as a whole? It makes at least equal sense to say that a rationally accessible world results from a conscious and rational source. In the beginning was the word.
    Can I prove it? Of course not, but I can live with that much uncertainty. As GKC put it, “All arguments begin with an assumption that you cannot prove. If you could prove it, you would simply be stating a different argument, starting from a different assumption”.

  7. James H says:

    CS Lewis also pointed out that for most religions, morality and worship were two separate things.

    Morality as defined by Karma, or in the Book of the Dead, has nothing to do with Buddha or the Egyptian gods respectively. Violation of morality had consequences on the afterlife or the next life, but the gods didn’t do the judging – in these examples, Karma is an accumulation of goodness, and entrance to the Egyptian afterlife depended on one’s soul being balanced on Anubis’ scale with Truth, represented by a feather.

    The ‘innovation’ of the God of Israel was that He was the Righteous One, the ultimate judge who sees all things. It must have been quite a frightening thought in the ancient world, that the inhabitant(s) of the heavens would judge human conduct. It made the burden of morality much heavier. Other gods could themselves be startlingly immoral (Zeus with his catamite, Krishna with his girlfriends).

    As usual, the budding debunker assumes that All Religions Are The Same, and attributes a Judeo-Christian concept of a judging God to all religions everywhere. Bering may have shown the psychological impetus for the Natural Law, but the existence of God remains untouched.

  8. Ion Zone says:

    By the way, slightly tangential, but has anyone heard of Dawkin’s ‘evolution program’? It’s this computer program where he said he could create pictures through evolution and natural selection alone….and then ended up micromanaging the whole process and acting like a ‘creator god’. And since he wrote the program himself, he actually defined the physical rules, created life, and managed how it developed!

    Now that, that, is ironic. (I believe in theistic evolution before anyone asks)

    The main thing they always use, and I presume they do here, is what I have heard termed the ‘look both ways fallacy’. This is, essentially, atheism as pure faith in that they look back into the distant past and imagine a time when abiogenesis could have occurred, and forward to a time when we will understand the entire universe through the simplicity of the centuries-outdated philosophy (not even a theory as such) that all things in the universe are composed entirely of matter or energy.

    It doesn’t even really seem to bother them that a lot of their theories seem to prove this philosophy wrong (e.g., quantum theory, if I remember), so long as they have an extremely handy reason to dismiss God.

  9. John Candido says:

    Believers have nothing to be concerned about when scientists write books or give lectures stating that God does not exist, God is a fallacy, or in this case, that God is a product of evolutionary neurobiology, and can be conceptualised as a compensatory mechanism. A scientist with just as many academic qualifications as the former can confidently state the exact opposite case from a faith perspective, in a very competent manner.

    Neither scientist can conclusively prove their case with indisputable evidence, verifiable facts, or mathematical logic. Because of this, both come from a faith perspective, which is somewhat paradoxical for an atheist to acknowledge. As one debater attempts to circumvent the other, the opposite number returns fire with a hoped for similar effect. Assuming both have equal abilities, sometimes nobody can get the upper hand and convincingly win the argument, and we are now somewhat at the beginning point of the interlocution again.

    I have often written within SecondSight; debate and discussion is an excellent means of advancing the interests of both debaters and society in general, and these atheist vs. believer types of debates, need to take place for a number of legitimate reasons. It is comforting for me to remind myself every now and then that brilliant intellectuals come from theistic, agnostic, and atheistic positions. I find these debates interesting at times not only for their subject matter, but also because they are an exercise of our right to religious freedom, and an exercise of the freedom of our human consciences.

  10. I really can’t see how Bering’s argument is that original; it just appears to be a rehash of Freud’s ‘The Future Of An Illusion’. As such, he commits the same genetic fallacy: – the fact that we might all be acting in a delusional way says nothing about whether God is actually real or not.

    The First Vatican Council marks us out from other Christian denominations; we hold that God’s existence can be known through reason – SCIENCE provides proof that God is real. Even Richard Dawkins seems to be painting himself into a corner to deny the existence of Intelligent Mind (where did the Selfish Gene spring from?). One would suggest that people like Bering can’t see the wood for the trees.

    • mike Horsnall says:

      But there is an interesting point here.

      Its not a matter of trying to prove or disprove anything or anyone. I have no need to justify my ‘faith’ to any man or woman living, my job is to live according to the level of revelation I have recieved. Paul the apostle makes this very clear -he has no need to even think about such issues -having only one master to please he just has to get on with it.

      I seem to have a fairly strong committment to being a Christian-I seem to pray a lot and get involved in church things. I spent 5 years in China just after Tianmnen square working with the house church there. I’ve been involved with all sorts of evangelism initiatives over the years and recently I’ve become more involved in retreats and contemplative prayer-I’m about to start running painting and praye workshops……

      Yet I have no real idea why I do these things or why even many of my cycling mates seem to have barely a religious bone in their bodies! When we take away all the religious jargon and get over the need to quote the catechism it remains true that none of us can accurately account for why we are the way we are and importantly why ‘ME’ and not the other chap.

      I think its a fair point that different people simply have a greater appetite for God than others-it isnt too far from here to argue that God is an illusion or that some people have religion ‘hard wired’ neurologically while others do not.

      But so what? Jesus said so often the word ‘if’…if you love me. We are faced with the same question and given the choice to live BY FAITH. So yes,actually I don’t know if this God I love and worship is simply a necessary illusion or not-I guess all will be revealed on the day! But it doesnt matter to me one jot because as far as I am concerned I am hopelessly in love with a beautiful God who is kind to me completely without cause, need or reason-for I am a wretched man after all.
      The obvious answer to this line of enquiry from non believers is either “taste and see..” or “Its up to you!” I tend to find that most peoples objections to God are far more visceral than they appear. By this I mean that a person may well come with some bright question or another -but that is not the real reason they refuse God-usually its something else-either a habitual blindness or some experiential issue fro way back.

      So is God an illusion? I don’t care-if He is then I’ll love him anway and take the risk-only the fool says in his heart there is no God.

      • st.joseph says:

        Mike Horsnall.
        You are very blessed that God has revealed Himself to you,and you say you are lucky He is kind to you completely without cause,need or reason.
        You say the obvious answers to the line of enquiry from non-believers is either ‘taste and see’ or ‘its up to you’. and ‘Only a fool says in his heart there is no God’.
        I believe that as we are blessed that God the Father has revealed Himself to us through His Son Jesus Christ, it is necessary for us to understand ,that we must ‘also understand’ that people need more than that those kind of statements.
        There are people suffering hurt, pain, and all sorts of greivances in their life, that God to them is a lot further away than all of us in the Church-or the Church for that matter.
        We say ‘God is Love’-but I believe we must tell people who ‘God is’ Then I think it will begin to make sense to them.

    • Quentin says:

      Fr Chris, I suspect that none of these arguments turn out on analysis to be original. Even the answer I gave is no more than was used to deal with Frazer’s Golden Bough. Where Bering is very interesting, perhaps for other reasons, is his exploration of our tendency to personalise.

      You say that science provides proof that God is real. Perhaps you could indicate what order or type of proof you have in mind.

    • Ion Zone says:

      Fr Chris, I suspect that none of these arguments turn out on analysis to be original.

      I’d bet money on it. Atheists have been recycling their arguments, if you can call most of them that, since the very beginning. So long, in fact, that they have turned into a weird mythos that bears little resemblance to reality. For example, did you know that there are TWO creations stories in Genesis and that they completely contradict eachother? Gosh, we ask, what is the second one?

      The one with Adam and Eve.

      Even Richard Dawkins seems to be painting himself into a corner

      Not just that but he tries to argue his way around inconvenient facts. For example he uses extremely dubious rhetoric to imply that religion is a direct cause of war and suffering. He takes this route because he knows that this common misconception is patently, and very factually, false. So false, in fact, that I can prove it to you right here and now.

      As Vox Day notes in his book The Irrational Atheist, according to the massive (1502 pages) and extremely reputable Encyclopaedia of Wars, which covers pretty much every known war from 2325 BC onward, only 123 of all the conflicts recorded therein (out of a massive 1,763) actually have a religious connection (that’s just 6.98%), and most of those quite a tenuous one. The Crusades, for example (If I remember rightly), started as a war against an invading Muslim army and quickly lost all religious association, dissolving into nothing more than an excuse for anyone with an army to go off and smack the Holy Lands around. In fact, I am pretty sure that if you went though the entire list you would find that almost all of these conflicts would have happened without any religious reasons whatsoever.

      • Horace says:

        I have always understood that human reason is not able to prove the existence of God, whether by the methods of science or philosophy. Probably the best that we can hope for is (as Superview explains below) “Pascal’s wager”!

        The Church, I think we all agree, is happy enough with the idea of Evolution and similarly should be happy with the thesis that the human being’s idea of God is a product of evolutionary neurobiology. I have not read “The God Instinct” but I can’t see why “exploration of our tendency to personalise” should be in any way upsetting.

        When we consider the Bible and Evolution we should remember that the first account of creation is a very remarkable exposition of our ‘scientific’ ideas for primitive readers. Adam and Eve only appear in the second account which is focused not so much on what happened but on the meaning of creation. Here again we see the remarkably astute insight of the early writers when they emphasise shame as a distinguishing mark of humanity (when did you ever see a dog or monkey trying to hide his ‘private parts’?) and the same concept seems to be of great importance to Bering’s argument.

    • John Candido says:

      Fr Chris has written that ‘the First Vatican Council marks us out from other Christian denominations’. Looking back at history, I believe that it certainly has done so in quite deleterious ways. The doctrine of papal infallibility was theologically defined for the first time in the history of the Catholic Church, as a result of Pope Pius IX’s unchristian bullying of his fellow bishops during the 1st Vatican Council, which occurred between 1869 and 1870. Pius IX wanted for himself and his successors, the power to be able to define any matter of doctrine in an infallible manner.

      Apart from this issue, I agree with Fr Chris that, ‘God’s existence can be known through reason’. We have probably all read of Aquinas’s quite clever use of reasoning in deducing the existence of God. However, knowing of God’s existence through the interpretive agency of reasoning is not science. It is still the exercise of faith in the final analysis.

      Fr Chris stated in his post that ‘science provides proof that God is real’. Science is structured around observational and measurable experimentation that follows certain protocols or standards of experimental operation. It attempts to demonstrate the effect of an independent variable, or factor, on an experimental group as distinct from a control group. The goal is to demonstrate that the independent variable or factor does or does not have a causal link to a measurable effect or outcome. The data that is obtained through experimentation has to be carefully interpreted by scientists in order to arrive at a plausible explanation or conclusion. After peer review has occurred, which is usually conducted by expert editors and reviewers within the field of research that the scientist is conducting the experiment, scientific work that is deemed worthy of inclusion, is then published within a professional scientific journal.

      Science only deals with matters that can be subjected to an observable experiment. The mathematical sciences and more theoretical disciplines such as cosmology, and theoretical physics, are exempted from the need to offer observational data, every time they present a paper for peer review. The subjects of experimentation must be observable and measurable in an accurate manner, by the scientist doing the experiment. As science by definition can only deal with material matters that must be subject to measurement and observation, God must be excluded from scientific experimentation, because God is both immaterial and unmeasurable. Therefore, it is absolutely impossible to conduct a scientific experiment that will prove or disprove the existence of God.

      God will always be a matter for one’s faith. The writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Chesterton, Belloc, and C. S. Lewis et al, are of some considerable use and benefit for those Christians who would like to debate others with whom they do not see eye-to-eye, or for their own edification within the subject of apologetics. There are some good resources on the internet on apologetics. Using ‘apologetics’ in your browser’s search engine, you can obtain a lot of useful information.

      A general site on apologetics can be obtained on Wikipedia and can be accessed here… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apologetics.

      A more specific Christian treatment of apologetics can be accessed here… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_apologetics.

      • st.joseph says:

        John Candido.
        You say the doctrine of Papal infallibility was theologically defined for the first time in the history of the Catholic Church etc; The Church didn.t begin in 1869-it began when the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles at Pentecost.
        Authority was given to St Peter, when Jesus gave him the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, When Jesus told him ‘Whatever you shall loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven,and whatever you shall bind on earth. will be bound in Heaven.
        The underlying premise to much of this opposition is the belief that it is only necessary to accept that which has been infallabily defined, and not necessary the ordinary magisterium of the Church (Some of course, would question even that which had been infallibly defined, and would exclude from infallability moral matters!)
        If such a premise were correct, then the early Christians would not have had to believe in anything because nothing had been infallibily defined!
        Yet it is clear that Our Lord gave his apostles the commmission to teach in his name, and to teach not an uncertain message, but the outline of teaching that he himself had entrusted to them.
        St Paul tells Timothy to “insist on sound doctrine in season and out of season in all patience”preciselly because there were some who disputed this doctrine; so too in numerous other texts in the Acts of the Apostles.
        This means that the early Christians did believe in certain definite truths;They did believe that Our Lord was God; they did believe in the forgivness of sins; they did believe in Heaven and Hell;they did believe in the bodily Resurrection of Jesus; even though none of these doctrines had been defined. In other words, infallability precedes definition.
        Very often a doctrine was defined infallable because it had been disputed.

    • RMBlaber says:

      In brief reply to Fr Chris Findlay-Wilson’s point – there was, of course, an even older argument than Freud’s (and Freud clearly derived it from him), namely that of Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72), in Das Gewesen der Christentums (The Essence of Christianity), translated by Mary Anne Evans (George Eliot). It is curious that this ‘projection’ theory of God (that He is a ‘projection’ of Daddy, or of ideal humanity, or whatever) should turn up again in the non-realist ‘theology’ of people like Don Cupitt, who says that God is a ‘symbol of our ideals and values’.

      Surely, to worship a ‘symbol’ is ‘symbolatry’ – which is just ‘idolatry’ by another name. The God I believe in is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe. He’s no-one’s idol!

  11. Superview says:

    Mike Horsnall’s comment is lively and interesting and, being without the sour tone found in others, much to be respected. From one perspective it is reminiscent of Pascal’s Wager –
    summarised as follows:
    “The Gamble:
    The philosophy uses the following logic
    1. “God is, or He is not”
    2. A Game is being played… where heads or tails will turn up.
    3. According to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.
    4. You must wager. It is not optional.
    5. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.
    6. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.”
    Other comments make the case for belief in Jesus as the Son of God as the touchstone of faith, which it is for us Christians. Yet there are other religions that believe in a deity or deities with particular characteristics, and Jesse Bering’s arguments will apply in all these cases. So I guess we shouldn’t take it personally.
    It seems to me, however, that if the issues were confined to whether God existed or not – that wonderful, awesome question for humanity – life would be simpler. Instead we have so much dross associated with religions and religious belief. Take Catholicism: From the fancy dress of prelates to babies in Limbo, from imaginary miracles to the worship of relics, from the all-male priesthood to Papal infallability, and so on, it is not in the least surprising to me that so many well-intentioned people say ‘If that is what it means to believe in God then no thank you!’
    I have read recently in a CTS pamphlet from the 1960’s that Catholicism differed from other denominations by embracing science as compatible with belief, yet what we see in reality is visceral reactions to modern scientific developments, for example, in fields such as biology and genetics. In fact, I think at the time the pamphlet was written it was still Catholic doctrine that Adam and Eve was true in every detail. Even now, though the science points to us all having been evolved from stardust, and genetics is revealing the origins of the human race, the Catechism, revised just a few years ago, recognises it as figurative yet insists that the story ‘relates to a real event in human history’ without any attempt whatsoever to say how or when or where.
    Of course, this position of denial is understandably in fear of the consequences:-
    ” 37. When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.”
    Humani Generis 12 August 1950
    I notice that Quentin, despite a demonstrated knowledge of the relevant science, from time to time references ‘Adam’, and I do wonder what kind of intellectual accommodation takes place that allows one so to do. I really would appreciate knowing. It seems to me that the position of ‘denial because of the consequences’ could only be taken so far, and is now wearing pretty thin to say the least. The point is, together with other implausible things, doesn’t it appear that belief in God for Catholics has to also to include rejection of evolution?

    • JohnBunting says:

      Superview: if I may try to address one or two of your points; possibly raising more questions rather than answers!
      “So much dross…..Limbo….. miracles….relics”, etc. This seems to me to result from an attempt to build a detailed and coherent structure of belief and practice, with a place for everything. We have the essential teachings, expressed in the creed, the scriptures, authoritative documents etc., and also a great variety of popular and local devotions and observances, not to be despised, but largely to be taken or left, according to choice.

      “Visceral reactions to scientific developments….” Is it perhaps the applications of science, actual or possible, that provoke such reactions, rather than the growth of knowledge itself? Problems which the Church sees as having a moral dimension may be seen by others only as something requiring a technological fix. Should the Church speak, or keep quiet and await results?

      Adam, polygenism and sin.
      Animals can’t sin (although there seems to have been a little confusion about that in the middle ages). Only man can sin. The first man, therefore (let’s call him Adam), must have been the first creature capable of knowing when it/he had done something wrong. Not just foolish, but morally wrong: an offence against some kind of natural law. But would he also have to have some idea of God, however vague, to qualify as ‘man’? I suppose somebody had to be first; but would it make any difference, theologically, if some other hominid, miles away and years later, had come to a similar realisation quite independently?

      Evolution. The Church is happy with it, given the obvious proviso that it must not be seen as denying the idea of God as creator. If a long process of evolution gave rise to a creature capable of knowing God and the moral law, along with all the other things we see as distinctively human, is not that ‘creation’, just as much as if the whole thing was done instantaneously?
      The scientist, as such, will regard the outcome as either fortuitous or inevitable, depending on his/her personal view. But ‘creation’, being a matter of metaphysics, is not – at least in theory – within the province of natural science; and we are not obliged to regard the limits of science as limits on reality.
      The Church’s position on science, while by no means faultless, seems to me basically sound, in that – unlike the fundamentalists, both religious and scientific – it has learnt to recognise the proper limits of natural and supernatural studies. A variation on the idea of ‘God and Caesar’, if you like. However, I, like Quentin, would be most interested to hear what Fr Chris might have to say about this.

    • mike Horsnall says:

      Well thats very nice of you superview! As it happens I do like Pascal very much-Have you read his The Pensee’s?

      I am a catholic and have been these 4 years-I’ve done the catechist training which is essentially a quick whip through the basics of the faith and issues that surround it. However a couple of months ago I took my brother to Midnight Mass and it became very clear to me there that -if I wanted to logically sanely and rationally demonstrate the existence of the Lord of heaven and earth…then probably I wouldnt try to do it from the visual spectacle of the mass!
      Yet when I personally participate in the mass (through faith) a very different experience presents itself than did for my poor older brother who ended up hopelessly lost stumbling around in the liturgy and becoming completely overawed by the general spectacle-to him it was rather a wierd experience as it remains so to so many. When people ask me about what it means to be a catholic I geneally say that its a bit like suddenly coming to participate in Dr Who…You find yourself drawn for some inexplicable reason to entering what seems from the outside to represent a dusty old law machine (The Tardis as police box)..but then when you get inside everything changes and wonderful vistas seem to open up.
      But the thing is that once the question ‘does god exist?’ is answered -both for individuals and cultures…then hard on its heels comes the next question “Well what does He want from us?”
      This then leads on to other things and suddenly in you have a body of theology which has to test its thinking along the lines of reason-theology is after all the process of faith seeking understanding is it not?

      I did for several years share your perplexity at the collective strangeness of catholicism-something only really clear to the outsider or the recent convert I think. I also found -and still find- the shriller end of catholic polemic hard to stomach simply because I havent grown up as one- and all this stuff about ‘believe it all because you have to’ and ‘don’t be a pick and choose catholic’ stuff seems to imply that I ought to immediately ratify things that I havent even had time to ponder and mull over!!! and to express bafflement or doubt is somehow a betrayal-yet ,lets face it, when faced with perplexity and apparent discord, all the disciples around Jesus simply took to their heels and ran!!!
      But unlike you I cannot discard the bits I don’t much like for I am obliged to consider them and mull them over in good faith. Mainly when I do this over time I find that understanding dawns-though I have simply no way of telling whether this ‘understanding’ is simplya slow form of acculturation into a dominant church worldview and an inculcation of deeper symbolic forms.

      At least some of the time though I am convinced that there is a kind of process where the heart chews over tenets of faith and comes to acept them as authorative…if pressed I would probably conclude that the forms of religion correspond -a bit like Plato’s forms to levels of ‘reality’ that are relational in nature and are not thus amenable to simple discursive and ‘objective’ reason-you will never completely know how I relate to someone close to me unless you risk that intimacy yourself-if you get my meaning.

      On the subject of Dawkins-personally I don’t have much time for the chap but I do think that he is right to poke holes in the assertion that: ‘evolution describes the hand of God’ simply because the genesis of the theory of evolution has nothing to do with a creator God but is derived from a secularised philosophical system which by its very nature is predicated on randomness…methinks that can’t be right-If I pick up a shovel and try and clean my teeth with it then tears will surely follow!!

  12. st.joseph says:

    Superview.You say-Take Catholicism to fancy dress of prelates- to babies in limbo,
    imaginery miracles to the worship of relics-All male Priesthood- Papal Infallability and so -on. Does your so- on continue further to the Incarnation, Resurrection, Descent of the Holy Spirit ,Transubstation etc all further miracles proclaimed by the Church
    When you say’Modern scientific developements,’ Do you mean experiments in ‘biology and genetics’. This is why we need the authority of the Church to sort out good science from bad science..
    Or are you a pick and choose catholic. Mini pope other words.
    From its very beginning the Church indeed has been a sign of contradiction , founded on the ‘failure’ of the Cross, hallowed by the blood of martyrs (feast day to-day)
    “as dying and, behold we live, as chastised and not killed; as sorrowful,yet always rejoicing; as needy, yet enriching many; as having nothing and possessing all things”
    (II Cor.6,9 10) All these martyrs reveal the love of Christ Crucified.
    We believe in the Blessed Trinity,Father Son and Holy Spirit. three Persons in One God.
    You are entitled to believe in any God you wish, but as catholics we ‘still believe that,as professessed by Holy Mother Church., Pope Pauls V1 http://www.Credo of the People of God.

    • mike Horsnall says:

      Hi St Joseph,
      Of course we should tell people about who we understand Jesus Christ to be-I’ve smuggled bibles across borders of communist countries and stood on windy street corners in English towns to do just that. I take communion to the sick in hospital and pray openly with patients there so that others may see the beauty of our faith and I get regular pastings on the subject from all kinds of people at the Liberal/secular Art college I attend one day a week and occasionally risk reprimand in my job for discussing the subject openly in lectures etc…But thats got nothing to do with proof-we are the blessed of God who have not seen -unlike doubting Thomas who-very reasonably and sensibly in my view- asked for proof. God comes to us as friends , as lovers, as brothers and sisters and in the course of daily life. I am not particularly lucky or exceptional in any way. We may try all sorts of ways of substantiating our faith -reason,science etc etc but we cannot ‘prove’ God to anyone-not even to ourselves- faith is the assurance of things hoped for and who hopes for what he already has?

      • st.joseph says:

        Thank you mike Horsnall for explaining your first comment in more detail as to what you meant.
        You do some wonderful work for Our Lord.

  13. st.joseph says:

    ‘transubstantiation’ correction in spelling.

    • Ion Zone says:

      That’s very odd, my comment appeared half way up the page instead of at the bottom….

      • Quentin says:

        Is it possible that you clicked on “reply”? It would have linked your response to the contribution you were referring to. But if you go independently to the bottom of comments, that’s where it appears. Drop me an email if that doesn’t make sense. Q

  14. Ion Zone says:

    That’s what I did! 😛

    In any case, this is a pretty good response to the idea that we created God:


  15. Ion Zone says:

    And this:


    (double post to avoid post needing aproval)

  16. Superview says:

    I recognise and relish the enthusiasm of Mike Horsnall for his adopted Catholic Faith – it sounds like a movement in a reverse direction from that elegantly described by Ronald Knox in his book ‘Enthusiasm’ and summarised at http://www.ronaldknoxsociety.com/enthus.html – the more so because he seems to have captured that essentially balanced perspective of doctrines and emphases described by Knox. John Bunting also must have it right when recognising the legitimacy of trying to find a place for everything in a system of belief. There is much in both comments that I would like to develop further but space and time does not allow. So please don’t take it that I have failed to recognise the truth in what was said or the value of the ideas.
    As a cradle Catholic, and with so much more baggage than the fortunate Mike Horsnall, I want to explore what it is that is essential and important and isolate the accretions and barnacles and simple fictions that have attached themselves to Catholicism, and towards which I have long had an intuitive aversion. I do this with a sense of history and knowledge of the fate that befell many in the past who questioned any part of the Church’s views.
    I am also led by an awareness of generational differences in perception, with my adult children showing much less tolerance of what may be described as traditional forms and attitudes. At a higher level I am intrigued by the absolute reliance on Scripture and tradition – with the sole authority to interpret claimed by the Popes drawn from that same Scripture – that seems on the one hand weak and fearful of the present and on the other arrogant and dismissive of other attempts to find truth. Along with others, I find Jarolslav Pelikan’s assessment that ‘Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living’ gives much food for thought.
    The Second Sight blog is an exploration of the relationship between science and faith, so I hope I can be excused for staying a little longer with the topic of evolution, and poor Adam and Eve in particular, as a concomitant for belief in God. There is, surely, an unresolved and compelling question as to what is put in the place of Genesis now that the story is seen as ‘figurative’? If, as the Catechism insists, there was a real event in human history that corresponds with the story of the Fall (and, critically, Original Sin) what elements must this real event contain? Would it be correct to assume we don’t expect to find an apple tree, or a serpent, or an Eden? But there must be conversations between a man and a woman and God? And they did something so inexcusably terrible in God’s eyes (so to speak) that Divine justice came down upon their heads and all their succeeding generations to the end of time?
    Perhaps the first challenge is to locate this event in the evolution of humanity, which seems to span hundreds of thousands of years?
    According to Pius XII, in Humani Generis quoted above, there actually was a first man and a first woman, and we are not at liberty to believe or think otherwise. So, allowing for sufficient human aptitudes for a choice to be made between good and evil, are we in the region of 50,000 years ago when it is thought homo sapiens first emerged? Certainly, by 35,000 years ago, from when the magnificent cave paintings in Chauvet are dated, we were there. So what could possibly have happened that was, in judicially satisfactory circumstances, so abominable that the severest sentence in the history of God’s creation was imposed on our prehistoric ancestors and all their progeny?
    It is easy to see why Christian fundamentalists stick obstinately to Genesis. Move away from that account and the Church ends up with a momentous quandary. But is that justification that we should then be forbidden to explore whether Augustine in the 4th century or Aquinas in the 13th century might not have reasoned quite as they did if they had the science that we have?

    • st.joseph says:

      Superview,May I be so bold as to ask what Doctrines you would change if you were the Pope.?
      Do you not find any happiness in the Church at all?
      There are plenty of catholics, and I suspect you are one of them, who can only be miserable and moaning all the time! Be happy!
      Life is to short. Correct me if I read you wrongly-and I will apologise.

      • mike Horsnall says:

        So there’s these two theologians in the vatican talking over the issue of original sin, one is Polish and the other Chinese.
        “Its all a question of culture” says the chinese theologian:
        “If Adam and Eve had been Chinese none of this would ever have happened”
        “How so Dr Lee?” asked the Pole,
        “Simple my friend, they would have left the apple and eaten the snake..!!”

    • Quentin says:

      Superview, you make some very important points – and I hope that others will lead on from there. For what it’s worth I see an outline approach in this form:

      * we are all aware of the tension between our animal nature (by definition amorally selfish) and our spiritual nature (the will and ability to seek the good and avoid the evil). We are an ensouled animal.

      * every human being has this tension by virtue of being a human being. Therefore it is inherited through our humanity.

      * the first sin ever committed (when and by whoever) was the sign and symbol of our tendency to embrace evil.

      * our aspiration and ability to embrace the good is possible only through the grace of redemption furnished by Christ. The need for this grace does not affect our free will.

      * there does not appear to be a practical way to establish whether the whole human race descends from one couple. At that level therefore we do not know whether or not the Church is right. Nor do I care – the story of salvation is effectively just the same either way.

      * I am quite happy to use “Adam” as a metaphor for the beginning of the human race. Those who wish to take it literally are free to do so.

      • st.joseph says:

        Quentin.your latest site’ I am Probably Right’
        My last comment there will be appropriate here.!

    • mike Horsnall says:

      I’ve often wondered that and the answer would seem to be yes they would-but not so sure really. It is difficult to see how science now has affected the debate largely on account of our inability to swim in another epistemological sea. By that I mean that both Augustine and Aquinas lived in their age and reasoned as they did- we live in ours and reason as we do…is there that much difference. I ask this seemingly stupid question because my own reasoning about God isn’t based mainly on culturality I don’t think. I seem not to have a great trust in scientific thinking. Though I am impressed by the abilities of science in engineering,medicine and technology it must be obvious that the whole theory of evolution is basically a best guess secular ideology so I see it chiefly as a metaphor. I would think that our illustrious fore fathers did the same. You are right that in seeing the first few chapters of genesis as metaphor we do run into difficulty-rather we run into deeper mystery. Whyn do you continue to follow Jesus Superview ? Is it a habit? is it because you have been programmed so by the church? What was it that you went out into the desert to see?
      The reason I ask is that as you probably know by now faith and belief have many skins which tend to peel back until we are left with darkness and silence, I guess Augustine and Aquinas came to understand this too in their own hearts as they struggled to name the nameless and capture the Word of God or at least that much that can be grasped.
      For both of you, Superview and Quentin, the point is that metaphors must have a basis in experience somewhere I guess. I am personally led to the conclusion that the fall metaphor is adequate for the war we see raging in our own hearts-(The Apostle Paul also speaks of this well without needing to evoke animals) Yet another part of me assumes that somewhere at the dawn of time when the first hominids had developed sufficiently to become men then one or two of them looked heavenward and comprehension began to dawn- followed by a look down and around to see what could be seen….all the rest stemmed from there!!.
      Finally I’m not sure that we can say sin is inherited (though we do believe its a kind of tainted blood line I guess) It does seem to me that the propensity to sin is a kind of neccesary component of free willing -not neccesarily inherited.

  17. st.joseph says:

    Very good.
    And if they had been cannibals they would have eaten each other.
    Then would any of us be here to tell the tale?

    • mike Horsnall says:

      Nice to raise a grin here and there-often seems far to weighty for small folk this place-thats despite my degrees in Politics/economics/Fine Art and Osteopathic Medicine….not to mention several Higher certs in Theology of one form or another a Cert Ed and being a catechist……just goes to show that too much education is very bad for a man!!


  18. Superview says:

    Quentin’s response is interesting – Jesuitical is the word that came to mind.
    Mike H. presses me on a number of points. The question ‘Why do you still follow Jesus? is fascinating. Let me try and explain why.
    The term ‘cradle Catholic’ means, at one level, let’s say the sociological, being submerged from childhood in a complete and authoritarian religious system, where even the air you breath is conditioned to promote an exclusive world view, and where a view is taken, and taught, on every subject under the sun. It has its own vocabulary and a minutely detailed legal system that leaves the 614 laws of Judaism looking half-hearted. Many people thrive in this environment and strive to live a good life. Others, maybe the majority, spend much of their lives within it, but regularly opt out when there is a conflict between their reality and the rules, and strive to live good lives. Still others find it too claustrophobic to breath and seek fresh air outside and strive to live good lives. The litmus test of status on this spectrum, and the question put, would be ‘Do you still go to Mass?’
    On the other hand, the question ‘why do you still follow Jesus’ is Evangelical in character and literally took me by surprise. A full answer would be complex, involving family, personal identity, and the witness of some remarkable people. But it would still be framed within Catholicism and that can only be as an accident of birth, or providence. So what does following Jesus mean for a Catholic? Although admittedly reductionist, the answer many would give, for sure, is obediently following the laws and teachings of the Church. My present journey is, if you like, exploring this thesis.
    Both Quentin and Mike H. mention the use of metaphor, which I also find interesting, as I am on a metaphor alert. Adam is certainly on the list, as is ‘sitting at the right hand of the Father’ and ‘Queen of Heaven’. The last thing I would want Heaven to be is a monarchy.

    • mike Horsnall says:

      Has your doctor placed you on ‘metaphor alert’ Superview?!! does it mean you are ever in danger of suddenly expanding into something else of which you are right now only vaguely repesentative of?…is it catching over the net do you think? Why have you been placed into such special measures dear boy…was it something you did?

      I asked about Jesus because I was trying to burrow a bit deeper than the ‘jesuitical’ veneer of causistry which seems to be the by word for this site.
      Obediently following the laws and teaching of the church does make sense as a faith statement I guess since we are the body of christ and the church is his.
      I am used to something a little more tactile than that one might say though I have this past year or so begun to appreciate a more contemplative encounter along the line which tends to be more and more beyond words as regards the inner man in his encounter-whatever that might mean. But I am interested in -and trying to grow into the version you point to of humility and obedience….it just seems to be happening rather slowly!

      So I say following Jesus because thats what-at root we are about doing however we couch it-all this talk of being united with him and meeting with him in eucharist etc had better not be only metaphor or we might as well all stay at home and clean the car!

      I like the bit about half hearted judaism and appreciate it as I browse my way through the catechism-but law in the end is law and must be enlivened with something else otherwise why put up with it all! If there is no sense of the presence of God (whatever that might mean!) no personal resonance- then surely we are to be pitied-I cannot see why we should hedge ourselves round with mores sufficient to make Moses blanch if we couldnt justify the process somehow to ourselves- I have this sneaking suspicion that for many ‘cradle’ catholics the whole process of encounter is so far beneath the shoreline so as to be completely inarticulate and buried beyond the reach of consciousness!!

      I don’t think I am an evangelical anymore- certainly not consciously- but I realise this ‘following Jesus’ is an odd line of questioning for a catholic so perhaps a trace remains.
      Tell me seriously now about this ‘metaphor alert’ thing!

  19. Superview says:

    Mike H. – I think you understand that I was only surprised by your ‘following Jesus’ question, and its evangelical resonance was not in any way meant to be disparaging, but I should add, for the absence of doubt, that it was enlivening to respond to it. A couple of weeks ago I attended a talk about St. Matthew’s Gospel (who’s now believed to be a Jewish scribe and not the Apostle Matthew) by a celebrated writer and scholar, and the matter of the Jewish Law came up in the sense of Jesus ‘fulfilling’ it. But, very dramatically, having mentioned the 614 laws of Judaism, he asked his largely Catholic audience how many laws Christianity had. With little hesitation, thank God, the answer rose in a swell ‘One!’ – and that being Love. You make the same point I think. Unfortunately, the professional and amateur canon lawyers in our ranks would think that is a bit flaky.

    Writers, poets, teachers, public speakers, philosophers, theologians, and comedians, could not do their job without metaphor and analogy. A key aspect is the transfer of a word from one context to another, to enable us to better appreciate a concept in the new context. We all use it all the time in speech and we are in illustrious company – Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas all used metaphor to great effect. But it has not always had an uncritical reception.
    For those with no team in any of the major competitions, time can be rewardingly employed with this extract ‘A short history of metaphor’ from an Open University course:
    The 17th century political philosopher John Locke addressed the problem in a broad sweep: ‘all the artificial and figurative application of words eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead the judgement; and so indeed are perfect cheats.’

    I have my own concern that metaphors can be a mixed blessing. I think there is a general problem with monarchical metaphors in prayers and liturgy, because they surely draw their potency from centuries ago, if not antiquity, when kings were powerful absolute monarchs? In the 21st century the nearest we get are the Arab Potentates – not great exemplars of kingship in the contemporary imagination. I don’t imagine the harmless version, such as Juan Carlos of Spain, quite fits the bill.

    Let me give a particular example of an unhelpful metaphor in prayer. The Gloria, with several metaphors, seems to have been composed in the third or fourth century, and gives the words locating Jesus ‘seated at the right hand of the Father’ in heaven. This conveys an image of thrones – one for Jesus, and one for God the Father. It conveys figures seated on those thrones (although the place and figure for the Holy Spirit, co-equal in the Trinity, escapes the imagination), all very much in the manner of a typical heavenly scene of Greek or Roman deities. Does it assist with an appreciation of the mystery of the Trinity, or does it add confusion? Does it contribute anything to appreciating the mystery of heaven?

    My point is that the power of metaphor is culturally and historically determined, with the consequence that a metaphor can outlive its usefulness. Those that don’t work, it seems to me, do more harm than good.

  20. Michael Horsnall says:

    Not being a Russian oligarch I found the time to breeze through the short history of metaphor-thanks for that. The idea of metaphor as pattern is a nice one which leads equally into linguistics as it does neurology. Its true that neuroscience (see for example Antonio Damasio’s: Joy Sorrow and the feeling Brain) has moved closer to the spatial patterning theories which link both thinking and being in terms of reflexes. I like this kind of thing but it begins to beg a question with regard to symbol and metaphor. As far as I understand no one ever invented a symbol-they just wave around us like kelp in the sea and we glide among them. I guess that metaphor is similar.. The idea that metaphors can hang around in the culture like shipwrecks is again interesting-particularly from a religious perspective…. but cultural history is long is it not so our collective memory can easily span several hundred years particularly if we are taught ..history in schools. The Gloria seems to me personally a live thing not suffocated overmuch by the dead hand of the past and I attribute this to the cultural history alive within me to which I have recourse still…what image would you use to replace the throne by the way?

  21. Superview says:

    I’m afraid the more forensic I get with the traditional metaphors used in prayers and the religious imagination the more problems I find. That’s why I left my penultimate paragraph hanging on the two questions.
    The question perhaps is not what I would replace throne with, but can the Trinity be represented at all with such a device? Two thrones? As for King and Kingdom, the time will surely come when a generation will emerge without any perception of what it all means. Even more controversially, I suspect many do not understand the allusion made with ‘Lamb of God’, and if they did would find it, as I do, an uncomfortable metaphor drawing on the blood sacrifice of animals. Part of me argues it is all better left well alone, as it does resemble pulling on a loose thread on a magnificent embroidered tapistry. So no more.

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