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The Debate Over God's Existence | Evolution, Creation, Naturalism, Emergence, Brain Science, God, Religion | The EVOLUTIONARY TIMES

The Debate Over God's Existence

by Michael Dowd

Few things are more antiquated than the debate over the existence of God.  Prior to an evolutionary worldview, such debates made sense.  In an evolutionary context, however—in light of what Ursula Goodenough and Terry Deacon call "The Sacred Emergence of Nature"—such arguments are outdated at best.  (I discuss this at length in chapters 4-7 of my book, Thank God for Evolution, the section titled "Reality is Speaking".) Here's how I begin Chapter 7, titled "What Do We Mean by the Word 'God'"?

Do you believe in life? What an absurd question!  It doesn’t matter whether we “believe in” life.  Life is all around us, and in us.  We’re part of it.  Life is, period.  What anyone says about life, however, is another story, and may invite belief or disbelief.  If I say, “Life is wonderful,” or “Life is brutal,” or “Life is unimportant—it’s what happens after death that really matters,” you may or may not believe me, depending on your own experience and worldview.  What we say about life—its nature, its purpose, its meaning—along with the metaphors we choose to describe it—is wide open for discussion and debate.  But the reality of life is indisputable.  This is exactly the way that God is understood by many who hold the perspective of the Great Story—that is, when human, Earth, and cosmic history are woven into a holy narrative.  Our common creation story offers a refreshingly intimate, scientifically compelling, and theologically inspiring vision of God that can provide common ground for both skeptics and religious believers.  For peoples alive today, any understanding of “God” that does not at least mean “Ultimate Reality” or “the Wholeness of Reality” (measurable and nonmeasurable) is, I suggest, a trivialized, inadequate notion of the divine.


The crux of the problem, as I see it, is the failure of millions of people, religious and non-religious alike, to distinguish meaningful metaphor from measurable reality.  God as a subjectively meaningful interpretation simply cannot be argued against.  God is always a legitimate interpretation.  But God is NOT (and never has been) an actual, physical Being, as science and common sense define reality.  (Those who would attempt to argue that God is a REAL Father or King, but just in an unnatural, otherworldly sense are left in the bizarre position of claiming that God, the Creator of the Universe, is less real than the Universe, as I discuss here.)

HERE IS A WAY OUT OF THIS IMPASSE:  Whenever you hear the word ‘God', think ‘Reality'.  "I have faith in God" can be translated "I trust Reality".  "God is Lord" means "Reality rules".  Throughout the world, God has never been less than a mythic personification of Reality as a Whole, Ultimate Reality, or what today some call "the Universe".  If we fail to recognize this, we miss everything.  ALL images and characterizations of God are meaningful interpretations of Reality As It Really Is.  When we forget this, we will inevitably trivialize God, belittle science, and desecrate nature.  As renowned systems thinker Gregory Bateson has said,

If you put God outside and set him vis-a-vis his creation, and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you.  And as you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration.  The environment will seem to be yours to exploit.  Your survival unit will be you and your folks or conspecifics against the environment of other social units, other races, and the brutes and vegetables.  If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell.  You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate, or simply of overpopulation and overgrazing.


God does not have multiple personality disorder, as a literal reading of the world's scriptures might imply.  Cultures that tell stories of God as Mother have known reality as mother-like.  Those who speak of God as Father, or as a steadfast rock, have known reality as father-like and as solid and unchanging as a boulder.  And as we all know, reality at times can be like a trickster—a fox, or coyote—as some indigenous stories remind us.

There are an infinite number of metaphorical images and instructive (or misleading) interpretations of reality, but there is only one Reality, a Uni-verse.  Religions are all about meaningful interpretations.  Science is all about trying to understand the nature of measurable reality.  The two really can work together, but only if we distinguish what in my book, Thank God for Evolution, I call, descriptive "day language" and interpretive "night language".

This is not theological rocket science.  Theists are right when they insist that God is real and faith (trust) is transformative.  Atheists are right when they insist God is imaginary and supernatural claims are fiction.  If we do not understand how both of these can be true, we don't understand the evolved nature of the human brain and the metaphorical nature of human language.  Arguing whether it was God or evolution that created everything is like debating whether it was Gaia or plate tectonics that created Mount Everest.  Such silly and largely unnecessary confusion will remain the norm until we distinguish and value both metaphorical and descriptive language.  In the meantime, I'm grateful to Richard Dawkins and the other "new atheists" for bringing this debate front and center.  Perhaps in the coming decades we can finally move beyond the mistaken notion that science gives us a meaningless universe and religion is primarily concerned with unnatural (supernatural) entities. 

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