1: The Rise and Fall of God
In which we briefly consider the history of God, how science has dealt a shattering blow to a thousand years of tradition, and how a second blow is about to be struck by new technology.
Imagine for a moment that God isn’t real, that he or she is an elaborate belief construct born of our yearning and despair, our puzzlement over incomprehensible cruelties, and our profound hope that we live, or might live someday, a kinder and more orderly existence. Let’s assume for a moment that we invented God. The question is where did the idea come from? Why does it keep changing? And how will the new technology, now transforming our lives, change God?
I grew up the grandson of a Baptist preacher. A small wooden cross I made myself hung on the wall of my attic bedroom, and as a Boy Scout I got an award for memorizing long passages from the Bible and learning the fundamental precepts of my Congregational faith. I was as religious as the next small town New England boy. By the time I got to college, though—a Methodist school in the Midwest—I had begun to have my doubts. When everyone around me was saying I should think for myself, I resented being told what to believe every Wednesday by visiting ministers from Cleveland who seemed to have little understanding of my life. But of course I was eighteen.
As the years went by I left the church behind and came to accept the idea that God was a force for order and beauty in the universe, beyond my understanding. But by the time I reached the age of forty, in the rough and tumble middle of my career, with a young wife, busy household, and five kids hostage to fortune, even that source of solace was lost to me. I began to wonder if I was in the world alone.
What if God doesn’t actually exist; what if we made him up? What does that tell us about us? Why do humans spend so much of their lives thinking, singing, and writing books about this Big Imaginary Friend? And as we look back over thousands of years of evolving god systems, what new versions of this belief construct might make more sense in the modern world? How do we get to a new and improved God? God 2.0.
In the Rhone Valley of southern France, 40,000 years ago, there lived two peoples: the Neanderthals and the Homo Sapiens, each competing to become the father of modern man. The Neanderthals were short, stumpy, and strong. They were skilled hunters with a good sized brain, good tool making skills, and a language, and for 500,000 years they had lived in caves with their loving families. They ate meat, cooked vegetables, nurtured their children, and cared for their elderly. The Homo Sapiens people who moved into the valley were taller, more agile, and less well equipped for a fight, though in many respects the two peoples were much the same, sharing the forests and even intermarrying. But the Homo Sapiens people lived in larger, more complex communities. They had more children, were smarter about hunting together, and in time they took over the best hunting patches.
Homo Sapiens was different in another very important way, they had a larger brain capable of abstract thought. They made flutes out of dead men’s bones. (Imagine for a moment that we are looking through the trees at a lonely man at twilight sitting on the edge of a cliff somewhere, fooling around with the noises he could make from his new toy, finding his way through the first simple tune.) They also painted pictures of stags on the walls of their caves.
A querulous visitor seeing these paintings for the first time is confused. “That’s not a stag.”
After 5000 years of friendly competition, it was Homo Sapiens who prevailed, and the Neanderthal people who disappeared from the valley. Not because Homo Sapiens could paint pictures or play the flute, but because this new species proved, to a greater degree than the Neanderthals, capable of imagining something outside themselves, beyond the limits of their experience.
We will come back to the caves at the end.
We all tell stories. We make up characters who never existed and put them in narratives that scare us, that make us laugh, and that help us see each other in a new light. In a larger sense, all cultures subscribe to belief constructs they have invented to make their lives more comprehensible. Take for example the divine right of kings, the rule of law, and the wisdom of nature. These provide a logical and moral framework for our daily decisions, a corpus juris for prosecuting and punishing those who deviate from our tribal code, a reason to hope. Our children memorize the details and we carve the words into the walls of our public buildings because they explain the unexplainable, they promise us that death is not the end, and they encourage us to be kind to each other—the bedrock belief of all religions. Are these ideas true? New England philosopher William James suggested that a description is true if it allows us to make successful decisions in the real world. Seen in that light, our treasured beliefs, even the conflicting ones, certainly are.
So true that it is sometimes hard to imagine these concepts could change. Yet over the millennia even the most basic of our beliefs have been transformed. King James, who succeeded Elizabeth on the English throne, proclaimed the Divine Right of Kings. No misconduct on the part of a sovereign could free his subjects from obedience unless the sovereign is a tyrant. So then the question became, who gets to decide? When James’ youngest son Charles I was led to his execution fifty years later, the emphatic answer was Parliament. But no sooner had that revolutionary act been absorbed by the people than John Locke said we should all participate in deciding who is and is not a tyrant, and the idea that we could think for ourselves made possible a more flexible, more responsive, and ultimately more successful scheme of government. After thousands of years of useful service, the Divine Right of Kings was dead.
Even our ideas about religion have changed. Whether it is the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, the Hindu Vedas, the Buddhist Tripitaka, or the I Ching, the core text of each faith covers every daily detail from diet to dying, from how to treat your parents to how many angels will greet you upon your arrival in heaven. But in recent years the importance of religion in our lives has begun to decline. In 1944, 96 percent of Americans claimed they believed in God, and only 1 percent said they didn’t, but in 2014, only 86 percent said they believe. The often elaborate and complex belief construct of religion—a faith-based tangle of social rules and ideologies, of myths, music, and mystery—is beginning to weaken its hold just a little. Even while pockets of extreme belief seem to flare up at the center, a more reason-based view of the world is eating away at the edges. Our most precious and influential belief construct is changing.
So why not our idea of God? A quick survey of past god systems shows us that the idea has changed before. As primitive peoples, we respected, feared, and sometimes worshiped spirits acting broadly in our world. The god of winds, the spirits of the forest, and the bloody justice of the jungle became a primitive template for how our own gods would behave. We associated them with the animals we hunted, the crops we grew, and the natural forces like the sun, the storms, and the heavens that seemed to beat upon our little lives. In time, we saw the gods we worshipped as more like us. We made them look like us and we sang about their human qualities like anger, mercy, and even their sense of humor. Gods became powerful and omniscient in our minds, flinging down storms against us, sending the rivers flooding over our fields, and blowing sweet spring across the land, depending on their mood. Depending, too, on our behavior, our sacrifices, and our prayers. Through shamans, mystics, oracles and priests, we started making deals. In a complicated world we didn’t really understand, we vowed to follow the rules we imagined these different gods to require, praying that they would grant us a happier, more prosperous life in return.
In time the idea of many gods, each with his own eccentricities, converged into a simpler, more manageable concept of a single god. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and many less populous cultures created organized religions around the notion that there was just one supernatural being, though his powers and personality varied slightly from system to system. In each religion, the god became God. A literature of rules and mythology emerged, along with a priesthood to interpret God’s will and offer increasingly detailed prescriptions for how His followers (God was always Him) were to lead their lives.
God, as he is imagined today in most of the religions of the world, is the creator of the universe, or at least its motive force. He has no corporeal existence yet he is able to direct the smallest details of our lives. Let no planet stray from its celestial rounds, let no sparrow fall. God is infinitely present among us yet beyond our understanding, demanding our adoration yet wrathful, unforgiving, and responsible at once for all the love and all the suffering in the world. He is an infinite paradox, entirely unknowable and beyond the reach of bony-fingered science. The obvious advantage of such a life form is that in the eyes of his believers God is thus unbounded by any definition and incapable of inconsistencies. His will cannot be challenged because it cannot be entirely understood. But best of all, God requires interpretation, and for those primarily responsible for explaining him to his followers the idea of God offers a promise of lifetime employment.
Why then do we keep him around? From the time of the prophets until the beginning of the nineteenth century, God and the religions that organized themselves around each of his variations were the primary framework for the growth of Western civilization. For a thousand years our characterization of God as the supreme and unfathomable being offered an unimpeachable authority for popes, kings, and caliphs. It stimulated a network of loving communities that reached into the human places where government could not go, and it provided a guide to everyday morality for believers and non-believers alike. The idea of such a God inspired art, architecture, music, and philosophy. It opened a new dimension in human existence.
It needs to be noted, though, that all through this period runs the stain of a profound misogynism. God apparently didn’t like women much at all. Karen Armstrong, former nun and pre-eminent historian of God, points out that it was Augustine who really established the precedent of treating women as evil. According to this fourth century theologian, perhaps the most influential in the history of the Christian Church, the serpent convinced Eve to eat the apple because she was, like others of her sex, impulsive and not very bright. Adam, ever the gentleman, joined her in crime out of loyalty because he didn’t want her to feel alone. Adam had failed to control his wife, and now humanity must suffer for all time, “wallowing in evil,” Augustine wrote, “and falling from one wickedness to another.” The sin of sex lay not in the act itself but in seeking pleasure from each other instead of from God. “If it was good company and conversation that Adam needed;” Augustine suggested, “it would have been much better arranged to have two men together as friends.”
Armstrong quotes Tertullian, the third century A.D. philosopher, inventor of the concept of the “trinity” and sometimes called the founder of western theology: “Do you [women] not know that you are each an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the unsealer of that forbidden tree; you are the first deserter of the divine law . . . you so carelessly destroyed man, God’s image. On account of your desert, even the Son of Man had to die.”
“Western Christianity never fully recovered from this neurotic misogyny, which can still be seen in the unbalanced reaction to the very notion of the ordination of women. While Eastern women shared the burden of inferiority carried by all women of the known world, their sisters in the West carried the additional stigma of a loathsome and sinful sexuality which caused them to be ostracized in hatred and fear.”
By the Middle Ages, the popular image of God had begun to resemble less the imperial hierarchy of the Greeks and Romans, and more the system of justice that was catching hold throughout Europe. Freed from the fields and jurisdiction of their feudal Lords, people in trouble, under suspicion, or just disliked by their neighbors were being “tried” in the public square, often by ordeal—dunked in water, held over a fire, or in some cases forced to eat a slice of bread without chewing. If you choked you were guilty. Attendance by the public was voluntary, but if you failed to show up you ran the risk of being denounced yourself. By the beginning of the twelfth century, the emerging “rule of law” involved a simple premise: for each enumerated offense there was a process for judgment and a prescribed punishment, known to all. Anyone high or low could be accused, tried, and punished by the local constable.
God, too, had become a system of judicial quid pro quo, with the church acting as judge, jury, and executioner, meting out worldly punishment in a manner transparent, predictable, and beyond appeal. The church could ex-communicate you, torture you until you made a full confession, or burn you alive at the stake (called “relaxing you into the arms of God”). On the other hand, you could buy your way around the rules or out of trouble by giving a stained glass window to the new cathedral or making a donation to the monastery. You could bribe the monks who kept the docket and managed the written record, or you could gain impunity through the purchase of indulgences, on sale by every priest, bishop and cardinal. But the church also made an offer the local constable could not. If you followed the rules and were appropriately worshipful, you might get a seat in heaven. The new God was stern, but reasonable.
In The Canterbury Tales, finished in the late 1380’s, Geoffrey Chaucer, part-time poet and bandy-legged bureaucrat in the court of Edward III, described the process:
“The man moved to contrition may hope for three things; that is to say, forgiveness of sin, the gift of grace in order to do well, and the glory of heaven, with which God shall reward man for his good deeds.”
And the punishment:
“The stern and angry judge sits above them and under him the horrible pit of hell, open to destroy him who must acknowledge his sins, which sins are shown before God and before every creature. On the left side are more devils than the heart can imagine, to harass and draw the sinful souls down into the pain of hell.”
“There they shall be wasted with hunger, and the birds of hell shall devour them with bitter death. The bile of the dragon shall be their drink, and the venom of the dragon their morsels. And furthermore, their misery shall be in lack of clothing, for they shall be naked in body as of clothing, save the fire in which they burn, and other filths; and naked shall they be of soul, as of all manner virtues, which is the clothing of the soul. Under them shall be strewed maggots, and their covers shall be of worms of hell.”—Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, (1478)
For the next few hundred years, the popular image of God was that of a wrathful judge. Executions were common in his name. Politics often seemed to color his decisions, while the church acted as interpreter, middle man, and collector of all fees.
The evil excesses of that system now seem prominent in our memory. People have been killing each other for millennia over their beliefs, and in some corners of the world they still do. Millions have been tortured, burned, murdered and gassed because their faith in a particular religion was disapproved by the Church or the government in power. But faith among God’s believers can be credited for creating a millennium of hope, altruism, and spirituality in the West, a world of quiet and unpremeditated kindness. People embraced the Christian god, praising him when things went well, and forgiving him when they didn’t, berating themselves for their lack of understanding. It was a good system.
But as recently as three hundred years ago, God began to change again. In the hardscrabble days of Colonial America, God had grown into a harsh and brooding presence, and at every moment pilgrims believed they were kept from perdition by his ‘mere pleasure’.
“The God that holds you over the pit of hell,” said Jonathan Edwards, “much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire.” —Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, (1741)
Puritan parents were cautioned against loving their children overmuch lest God, jealous of their love, should snatch the children away. The children themselves were advised to prepare for death each night when they went to bed. And for good reason. Of Cotton Mather’s 14 children, seven died in infancy and only one lived to the age of thirty. Those who labored tirelessly in the name of God were promised prosperity, and those who failed for any reason were deemed to have been divinely scorned. It’s a wonder that with all the difficulties the early Americans faced building a home in the new world that they should have added to their troubles by inventing such an angry and vengeful god.
But by the beginning of the nineteen century the beauty, freedom, and opportunity of the new world changed the people who lived there, and the people changed their God. While revolution was boiling in Europe, and a spirit of free-wheeling Romanticism was taking over music and literature in the West, the idea of God in America was transformed by a widespread religious revival in the new world. The strict rules of Puritanism and the Protestant reformation gave way to a new idea: God really loves us after all.
Evangelists began to stand up and speak all across the land. Church membership swelled and burst out into the open. Known as The Great Awakening, the movement called upon preachers to throw away their long gray lectures. To put up tents and tabernacles by the seaside, at county fairs, and wherever they could raise a crowd, to wave their arms and pound the pulpit and usher people forward into a new covenant with God. The focus of the church shifted from fear to love, from sin to song. Everywhere in small town New England, in the rural south, and in the plain-spoken Midwest, people marched by candlelight down to the river to be baptized again in the love of God. New religions sprang forth and missions were sent out into the frontier to bring the word of a loving God to the immigrants, the roughnecks, and the rabble. Everywhere people were called back to a simpler Christianity and the lessons of the Bible: God loves us every one, equally and without regard to our race, our origins, or our sins. Every man and woman was welcome to come to God alone, in singing, in joy, and without fear.
Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887)
Chief among the preachers of time was Henry Ward Beecher, all love and laughter, a short, paunchy, red-faced man who swung his arms wide when he spoke, drifting into dialect and slang, rising up on his toes and leaning forward over the pulpit to seize your heart with both hands. The best paid speaker on the circuit (he carried unset jewels in his pocket to comfort himself when he was low), he said he was here to spread the word that we have all been forgiven in God’s eyes; come forward in song now and be saved. He marched for women’s rights, becoming the first president of the American Women’s Suffrage Association. He led the fight against slavery and bought guns out of his own pocket for John Brown’s followers in Kansas. He supported laborers, and particularly the immigrants, fighting against big business and the capitalists of the Northeast. Thousands of worshippers flocked to his church in Brooklyn, including Walt Whitman , Mark Twain , and Abraham Lincoln , a friend, who said of him that no one in America had “so productive a mind.”
The “Most Famous Man in America” was also, by all contemporary accounts, a prodigious and enthusiastic philanderer. After a spectacular six-month trial for adultery , he escaped jail only by grace of a hung jury, even as he preached in the United States and Europe, railing against the travesty of free love. He said God loved us all, and we should love each other, though perhaps not in the same way:
“As when our infant children are gathered to our bosoms, we do not bless them according to their capacity for asking but according to the wealth of affection that is in our hearts. So does God, lifting us up and looking in our faces, bless us not so much by what we need to receive as by what he hath to give. Clouds never send down to ask the grass and plants below how much they need. They rain for the relief of their own full bosoms.”
“God pardons like a mother who kisses the offense away into everlasting forgetfulness.”
“What if God should command the flowers to appear before him and the sunflower should come, bending low with shame because it was not a violet? And the violet should come, striving to lift itself up to be like a sunflower? And the lily should seek to gain the bloom of the rose, and the rose to be dressed in the whiteness of the lily, each one seeking to grow into the likeness of the other? God would say ‘Stop foolish flowers. I gave you your own forms and hues and odors and I wish you to bring what you have received. You, the sunflower, come as a sunflower and you, sweet violet, come as a violet. And let the rose bring the rose's bloom, and the lily the lily's whiteness.’ Thus seeing their folly and ceasing to long for what they had not, the violet and rose, the lily, the geranium, the anemone, and all the floral train would come, each flower in its own loveliness, to send up its fragrance as incense. And they would wreathe themselves in a garland of beauty about the throne of God.” —from the sermons of Henry Ward Beecher (1837-1887)
This came as news not just about the nature of God as Beecher imagined him, but about us and how we should deal with each other. As war broke out—brother against brother—America found with a full heart a dimension of beauty and soulfulness that had been missing since its birth. Walt Whitman, Melville, Longfellow, Thoreau, and Henry’s sister Harriet told us stories about ourselves that inspired, frightened and consoled us. Education flourished in small town lyceums everywhere. Music became popular in America for the first time, and as immigrants poured in from around the world, the western frontier opened the way to a new . In the late nineteenth century, America was born again.
The Shadow of Science
In England, too, the idea of God was changing. As they ha d in America, revivals sprang up among the working classes, among the farmers, miners, and rural people of Wales and Scotland. Religious leaders convened, argued, and went off in different directions, scrambling to catch up with their followers. Rationalism and free thinking among the aristocracy and the educated elite, which had catapulted the British Empire into the forefront of the industrial age, were now scorned by the common folk in favor of the simpler lessons of the heart.
But the real challenge to the popular idea of God came from science. Once a hobby of the wealthy and the leisure class, this new way of examining the world was now available to anyone with a Bunsen burner or a telescope. Amateurs challenged with facts things that had for centuries been taken on faith. The oldest stories of the Bible were questioned by geologists and naturalists, by linguists and archeologists returning from the desert. Under attack was the very notion of a God who had created the world with a sweep of his hand, and rising in its place was the idea of intelligent design. If God had not made heaven and earth and all the creatures here below, then at least he guided the process of creation. But man’s world was still the gleaming pinnacle of his work, a little lower than the angels. And still at the center of man’s world lay England’s green and pleasant land.
Then came Darwin. Published in 1859, The Origin of Species proposed the radical theory of evolution. Through a process of random mutation and survival of the fittest, he wrote, the living creatures of the world had evolved over millions of years from the smallest single cell organisms to the unimaginable complexity of man. He said we were descended from the apes.
The son of a wealthy doctor in the western hills of Shropshire, Charles Darwin grew up in a love of natural history. He went to Cambridge, became a passionate collector of beetles (a popular hobby at the time), and in 1831, on the recommendation of his botany professor, he signed on to the HMS Beagle for a two-year voyage to chart the coastline of South America, collecting fossils, dissecting marine invertebrates, and making detailed notes. On the Galapagos Islands, he found systematic variations among the tortoises and mockingbirds that seemed linked to their location, and he noted that such facts “seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species”.
On his return, the young zoologist expanded the scope of his work to include variations in the human population, and by 1838 he had the outline of his theory of evolution. His books and papers on botany and geology brought him to prominence as a biologist, but he withheld publication of his “big book on species” for twenty years, fussing with the details and nervous about the significance of his radical speculations. Finally, challenged by similar findings of others and suffering from ill health and the death of his infant son, he published The Origin of Species in 1859, The first printing of 1,250 copies sold out immediately and the book quickly became the center of heated debate, not only in scientific circles, but within the church as well.
The battle between Darwin and his foes was framed around the somewhat silly question of whether or not your grandfather was a monkey, but the real issue was far deeper and more fundamental. Was God the creator of the universe, or was he merely the first cause, setting the world to spin forward along the lines that science seemed to suggest? If God was the creator, then the Bible was true, the church in all its variations was secure, and two thousand years of theology and moral guidance still had judicial relevance. But if God was not the creator—if he was merely the first cause, an original force for order and beauty in the universe—then a new standard for conduct might be required, and people deeply feared that the educated and libertine elite might be the ones writing the first draft.
Darwin described how his own faith was challenged by evidence he was gathering:
“During these two years I was led to think much about religion. Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, & I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers (though themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality. I suppose it was the novelty of the argument that amused them. But I had gradually come by this time to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, rainbow as a sign, etc., etc., and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian.”—Charles Darwin, Autobiography (1887)
Scientists challenged Darwin’s facts. Bishops pointed out that many great men disagreed with the idea, including the leaders of the church and no small number in the House of Lords. Reputations were made and broken, legendary witticisms were exchanged, but in the end a great schism had been opened and now it could not be healed. Everything in man’s knowledge and experience up until that point reinforced the image of God as creator of the universe. From the British Empire ranging across the seas, to the lowliest chapel in the hills of Wales, the world was organized around that principle. On the other hand, here was a simple piece of science suggesting that a natural mechanism, not the hand of God, was responsible for the glory and complexity of life as we know it.
But even more disturbing than that, Darwin’s theory suggested that the future will belong to the fittest, not to the hardest working or best educated, not to the well-born or the just, not to those who pray or follow the teachings of the church, not even necessarily to the strong. Everyone was in the scramble, believers and non-believers alike, and the prize—the future or our species—would go to someone chosen by chance. Our idea of God was turned upside down.
Darwin’s theory of evolution diminished the idea of God in Heaven and of ourselves as well, his chosen, happy here below. Darwin said all that was just a myth—no seven days of creation, no man in the image of God. He told us there were monkeys in the family tree. He said we are all stumbling forward alone, betting on random mutation and survival of the fittest. He said our idea of God was mostly a delusion. And after that everything changed.
Now we are on the verge of a comparably significant transformation. Today we stand at the beginning of a new networked world in which we will be profoundly connected to each other. When everyone can see all the knowledge of mankind at glance, the idea of an infallible church will disappear. When we can underwrite a cause or overthrow a government with a few clicks, when we can whisper in private on a worldwide scale, then the wisdom and power of a distant God may seem somehow diminished. Trust, solace, guidance, inspiration and fellowship that were the exclusive promises of religion for two thousand years are now a moment away on the internet. And tomorrow, through augmented reality and a vastly more powerful infrastructure, we will all be gathered in a new cathedral of the mind, as big as the universe and full of stars. But where will God be?
This question has been raised with more and more frequency over the last two hundred years; sometimes we didn’t even understand the dimensions of the problem. We can see ourselves now as we stumble forward through philosophy, psychology, sociology and science fiction, trying to figure out what comes next.