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Religion as a human construct

Bishop Richard Randerson discusses Richard Dawkins, Lloyd Geering and God in the 21st century.

Richard Randerson  |  17 Sep 2013

Address to Sea of Faith, Auckland; 15 Sept 2013

Richard Dawkins, Lloyd Geering and God in the 21st Century

Sea of Faith sub-title: Religion as a Human Construct, some meanings:

  1. Like a road sign pointing towards a city, religious words and images are human constructs that point to the reality of God. Creeds, images, liturgies, music, even the pages of scripture, are designed to point to God. We don’t confuse the signage with the reality: signs and language merely point the way. And because they are human constructs they can be varied in the light of fresh ways of thinking and understanding. Kerugma in context: in every age the reality of God needs to find expression within contemporary thought forms
  2. There is a road-sign but no city to which it all points. The signage is a deception. So ‘religion as a human construct’ can likewise be an illusion: there is no reality to which it all points. “Humans make God”, as Lloyd said recently.
  3. Theism: a word often used for the traditional image of God as a supernatural being, with the capacity to think, respond and intervene in human affairs. This, too, in my view, is a human construct, and one that is helpful and real for many people. But when it is held as the ONLY image of God, excluding any other, it becomes an example of religious fundamentalism: in spite of changes in the contemporary context, there is only one image, one way.
  4. Fundamentalist atheists who refuse to allow religious people to change their language and imagery in line with contemporary understandings because then, I believe, they can no longer easily knock over the old traditional constructs. Science, technology, medicine, law, social mores or philosophy may all change, but not religion’s human constructs.

Richard Dawkins is a good example of this 4th group. In December 2006 I was interviewed by Kim Hill on National Radio. I listened as she first interviewed Richard Dawkins by telephone from Oxford, UK, on his 2006 publication The God Delusion.  Then for the next half hour Kim and I chatted about the book and Dawkins’ arguments.

My opening comment to Kim was that I thought the book to be the most dishonest I had ever read. I said this because Dawkins’ attack on religion was based entirely on caricatures and fundamentalist viewpoints. He certainly doesn’t want the traditional images changed because then all his arguments would fall to the ground. Totally absent from the book was any reference to contemporary mainstream theologians such as Rowan Williams, Richard Harries, Karen Armstrong, Marcus Borg or Tom Wright. Academic integrity requires an impartial overview of a spectrum of opinion, not a narrowly selected set of extreme views on which to base a pre-determined conclusion.

Dawkins is well aware of alternative views. He worked at times in Oxford with the then Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, an eminent theologian. On one occasion they wrote a letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair protesting at a proposal to introduce the doctrine of creationism into a state school science curriculum. The letter was signed by eight bishops and nine senior scientists, and Dawkins notes that the letter was drafted by the Bishop of Oxford. Church and Science lined up in opposing fundamentalist religious viewpoints, but Dawkins nonetheless ignores intelligent religious perspectives, presumably because they would blunt his attack on religious extremists.

But lop-sided as his arguments are, Richard Dawkins has a large global following. There are many today who know little about faith. Gone are the days when most might recall some church upbringing and know the basics of Christianity, even at a Sunday School level.

Caricatures of religion abound in the popular mind. Speculative theories are advanced that Jesus didn’t die on the Cross but was revived from a death-like coma and then went off to live by the Dead Sea. There he married Mary Magdalene and they both lived happily ever after. A religiously uninformed population lacks the basis whereby to critique the theories of Dawkins and others, and hence their theories are taken as authentic. There is also a genre of journalists who delight in flow-of-consciousness, caricature-based raves against the Church. Like Dawkins, they exclude any objective or intelligent assessment.

Dawkins has a legitimate target in the extreme fundamentalist viewpoints offered by some church-members. Belief by some in the imminent end of the world leads to conclusions like ‘don’t bother working for peace, or justice, or to help the poor, or to save the environment: the world will soon end and all those problems will be forgotten’. Mainstream religion is at one with Dawkins in attacking such gross theological and ethical distortions.

Dawkins directs much of his energy to showing the irrational nature of belief in God.  I am not referring to God in a theistic sense as a supernatural being. That is a well-established image, but it is an image of a mystery that no human word or picture can adequately express.

Let me also say that there is no stand-up, knock-down argument to prove the existence of God. In fact the whole question of belief in God is wrongly construed. For when someone asks: ‘do you believe in the existence of God?’, the popular understanding is in theistic terms of whether or not one believes in the existence of a supernatural being. One is an atheist, agnostic or believer on the basis of how one answers that question.

This is where Dawkins gets off on the wrong track to start with. Assuming that the faith question is about belief in the existence of a supernatural being, he cites Bertrand Russell’s analogy of a celestial teapot. Russell’s line of argument hypothesises that a china teapot is in orbit between Earth and Mars. The teapot is too small to be observable, so no one can prove it doesn’t exist, but who in their right mind would believe it actually does? So it is with the existence of God, says Russell, and Dawkins agrees. The proposal cannot be disproved but anyone with an ounce of common sense would regard it as ridiculous.

With this argumentum ad absurdum, Dawkins dismisses any rational basis for belief in a theistic god. But perhaps we should be grateful to him. For in demonstrating one absurdity, he unwittingly demonstrates an even greater absurdity, and that is the absurdity of trying to address the question of faith within this kind of framework. I want to suggest that the question of faith is addressed not by an intellectual assent to the existence of something, but arises out of our experience of something at the heart of human living, something many choose to name as God. People interpret such experience in different ways. There is nothing one can prove. Here is how I have come to see things over the course of a lifetime.

Let me start with the story of a man who was dying of cancer in his 60s. He was not a religious person, but he wanted me to conduct his funeral in a way that respected the integrity of his non-religious beliefs. I have conducted many such funerals over the years and was happy to accede to his request. I asked him how he viewed life and death, and his answer amazed me. He said: “I don’t believe in God, but I have a feeling of being part of something bigger than myself”. I was amazed because central to my own experience of God is a feeling of being part of something bigger than myself, something that transcends all human life and creation and links me to every person and part of the world around us.

For another perspective consider the words of Dag Hammarskjold, former general secretary of the United Nations, who wrote:

I don’t know who or what put the question. I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone, or Something, and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.

Hammarskjold records an experience of otherness, of mystery, something that cannot be put into words, but out of which arose his sense of vocation to serve others. This sense of vocation came strongly also to Moses on Mt Horeb.  Moses turned aside to see a bush that was alive with fire, and heard a voice speaking of the suffering of his people Israel, and calling him to the risky task of confronting Egypt’s Pharaoh and leading Israel out of Egypt into the freedom of the promised land. Again, that same sense of otherness, of mystery and calling.

Exodus 3 reports that Moses asked God who could he tell them had sent him to free his people. God replies that he should tell them ‘I AM sent you’. Here again is a title full of mystery: I AM has connotations of being or essence at the heart of life.

Or again we are deeply moved when people have the capacity to transcend a massive loss and act with greatness of spirit. One such example moved the nation a few years ago when a young Christchurch mother, Emma Woods, spoke of the death of her 4-year old son, Nayan, who was tragically killed by a car that spun out of control. Emma said of little Nayan: “We had a perfect day at Playcentre, played lots of games together, and had a good time at the mall. I have no regrets about that day – we had fun together”.

And of the young driver of the car: “We are pretty clear we don’t want this to be the defining moment of his life. He is young, only 17. He has got his whole life ahead of him and we hope he will use it to do good things, to be good with people, and maybe eventually to be a good father”. I do not know of Emma’s spirituality, but her words are an astonishing statement of wisdom and generosity in the face of unimaginable grief. She has drawn on the deepest resources of spirit, while acknowledging the extent of the loss and pain she will feel through long years ahead.

These experiences and reflections outline a way of thinking about God that is quite different from the traditional one of whether or not one believes in the existence of a supernatural being. We are talking of realities that lie at the heart of existence. They lie beyond the theistic image of God, and point to a mystery no words or pictures can express. The American sociologist, Peter Berger, refers to them as signals of transcendence.

People will choose different frameworks for those experiences - frameworks of religion, humanism, atheism, psychology, or ethics. Nothing can be proved. One can only identify one’s experiences, find a framework that gives best expression to them, and choose to live within that framework. For the Church, God has been the name given to these central experiences in life. Words and images have been formed that seek to give expression to the nature of God. Stories, music, paintings and icons are part of the rich heritage of our human expression of the divine. These are human constructs but for many they constitute a heritage which is very evocative and adds much to the richness of living.

But the heritage can also be a barrier to understanding if interpreted in a literal manner. Much of the heritage is symbolic, and points to a reality lying beyond and beneath what appears on the surface. We do not have faith in the heritage, but in the reality to which the heritage points.

The theistic image speaks of wisdom, love and care for all of God’s people. It is an image that works for many people but increasingly in the 21st century it is an image that has diminishing attraction for many, for these reasons:

First, it conjures up pictures of a three-decker universe of heaven, earth and hell, a universe inhabited by gods, demons, angels and spirits. There can be symbolic meaning to these concepts, but for many today such symbolism is out of reach, and the whole framework rejected.

Second, there is a tendency to anthropomorphism, to construct God in our own human image. A recent address by Lloyd Geering , entitled How Humans Made God, addresses this theme. While I disagree with Geering’s conclusion, he nonetheless sets out  lucidly the dangers of anthropomorphism. Such awareness dates back 2,500 years to the classical Greek era when a philosopher, Xenophanes, satirized this tendency thus:

But if cattle and horses and lions had hands or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do, horses like horses and cattle like cattle, (they) would depict the gods’ shapes and make their bodies of such a sort as the form they themselves have.

In other words, if the horses wanted a god they would choose a horse. It could not, of course, be any old nag that whinnied and wheezed and grew old and died. It would have to be a horse characterized by the finest of equine qualities – power, wisdom, eternal youth, leadership and protection of all the equine race. The danger of having a theistic image of God is that we can append the highest of human aspirations to God – love, wisdom, all-knowing, all-powerful, eternal, pre-existent – so that our image of God is of a super-human, made in our own image.

The concept of pre-existence leads into the ongoing, sterile debate with science about the origins of the universe. Time and causation did not come into existence until the universe was formed, so concepts of pre-existence and first cause have no meaning outside the existing cosmos. In truth, neither theologian nor scientist has an exact answer about cosmic origins. Endless debate leads nowhere. Science and religion are complementary. Concepts of evolution and the Big Bang add much to our knowledge of the physical workings of the world. Religion offers wisdom as to how we live within that world, our sense of connectedness to all people and the earth, our sense of care for all that is.

The problem of evil is another major issue with an anthropomorphic deity. It cropped up with the Asian tsunami a few years ago, or with the more recent Christchurch earthquakes, or at the personal level when someone we love is dying, or has been killed in a road accident. Did God send such disasters? Or why didn’t God intervene to prevent or remove such human tragedy? The concept of a supernatural being who intervenes, or doesn’t but should, is a product of anthropomorphic thinking, a problem avoided by other images of God.

For myself in recent years I have felt increasingly comfortable with the reality of God as mystery. I do not need to have answers to all the “Why?” questions about life and the universe. Like the man I quoted at the outset, I have a sense of being part of something bigger than myself. I have a sense of being cared for. I understand God as love or spirit. In prayer I feel I open myself to such love and spirit which provide a sense of spiritual well-being. Like the experience in prayer which Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury, describes: “I feel I am being attended to”. It is an experience which is personal without necessarily feeling there is literally a Person on the other side. One could describe the mystery as Trans-Personal. It is an experience which clarifies vision, re-sets directions, reminds one of one’s calling and values, and helps one reach out with compassion to all in need.

In what sense is God ‘real’? God as mystery may seem altogether unreal.  A good analogy is that of love. No one would deny the reality of love. It is one of life’s most powerful forces, but where does love come from? Is it from some outside source, some reservoir of love on which we can draw, perhaps like one of Plato’s forms? Or is it something that springs into life spontaneously whenever people act lovingly to one another? Whatever one’s view, the reality of love is the same. The experience of God as love is widespread, and the reality of God may be conceived in the same way as the reality of love.

And here is where I disagree with Geering’s conclusion in How Humans made God. He concludes his lecture with a quote from Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72):

We must replace the love of God by the love of man as the only true religion. The fate of mankind depends not on a being outside it and above it but on mankind itself…My wish is to transform friends of God into friends of man, believers into thinkers, devotees of prayer into devotees of work, candidates for the hereafter into students of this world.

To which Geering adds:

In the evolving world of human thought the idea of God has now done its work and a great work it was. It is over to us, as humanity come of age, to shoulder responsibilities we once expected the heavenly parent to do for us.

What Richard Dawkins and Lloyd Geering have in common is a simplistic choice between a theistic view of God as a supernatural being, and atheism or humanism. Each limits his view of God to one exclusive, albeit traditional, supernatural image. This is fundamentalism. Each demolishes that one image, Geering in a more sophisticated and erudite fashion than Dawkins. Each concludes the only alternative is humanism or atheism. Each ignores the whole concept and experience of God as mystery, and contemporary images of God.  And many today lack the capacity to critique such a fundamentalist dualism.

Bishop Richard Randerson is retired and lives in Wellington.