Tag Archives: theology

Theists thinking like materialists

Ophelia Benson has highlighted a wonderful comment on The Internet. The commenter, Sastra, has an insightful idea that ties in nicely with some of the discussions that have been going on here recently.

We’ve been talking on this blog about abstract things like beauty and morality – whether they are objective or not, and what it would mean to say that they are. What would it mean to say that moral rules exist?

I have written, in brief, that such things are not objective. Beauty differs according to who you ask, as does morality. People naively intuit that there are such things as “moral rules,” but these rules are not binding, and therefore amount to no more than strong preferences (and I intend on writing more about this soon).

Yet theists, especially, seem to be unable or unwilling to grasp this. Sastra spoke about this as it relates to the concept of love:

Supernaturalists seem to have a lot of trouble trying to make sense of abstractions and levels of experience: they want to take everything literally, as irreducible substances. Love is only real to them if it’s a thing, a sort of spiritual-substance which is made of neither matter nor energy because it is the immaterial essence of love. Ironically, that makes them super-materialists — spinning material into finer and finer substances until like only comes from like. Love is derived from love. Otherwise, it can only have the same properties that were there in its origin.

Despite their claims to be so comfortable with “higher levels” of reality, supernaturalists are concrete thinkers. They can only make sense of immaterial abstractions by turning them into spirit-things in a spirit-world.

This hits the nail right on the head. For all their alleged theological sophistication, supernaturalists (or theists) show an inability to think in abstract terms. Love is not a concrete thing, it is an interaction between two concrete things – my brain and yours. There is no “essence of love” floating about in some spiritual realm. Even if there were, this wouldn’t explain anything about love.  How does the essence of love make its way into my brain, and how does it make me want to spend time with my girlfriend? Couldn’t the photons of light that bounce off of her visage and into my retina, and the atoms of her hand touching mine, do the same? To say that I am touching Love Itself is to create a double-dipping explanation.

The same goes for concepts like beauty and life, even fire and wetness. These words describe a process or an interaction between substances – they are not substances themselves. To say otherwise is to be mired in essentialist thinking.

And thus we return to objectivity. Beauty, being the name I give to a pattern of colors and lines that I find pleasing, cannot be an objective property of a thing because it is dependent on my brain. While it is objectively true that my brain has this reaction to this stimulus, that does not guarantee that your brain will do the same. Nor should I feel the need to force such a reaction on you.

Moral rules stem very much from the desire to force such a reaction on others. I feel that you must not have sex before marriage, therefore you must not! But unlike gravity, there is nothing binding about these laws. So in what sense can they be said to exist? In what sense are they a “thing?”

If you argue with the theist long enough, you will find out that they are not a thing. “Morally wrong” simply means “God told us not to do it, and he will punish us if we do.” This is a concern, to be sure, but it’s also far less than what we were promised. Moral rules are not out there in the universe. They don’t exist, like gravity or paintings exist. They’re just some wants, as expressed by a deity. And “wants,” or things that are “dependent on the mind,” are the definition of subjective.

So I see the phenomenon described by Sastra – that supernaturalists ironically think in very concrete terms – as stemming from two things. Either they are unable to think in the more complicated terms of processes and interactions (rather than concrete “things”), or they resist doing so because it would force them to hold a more accurate view of the universe, in which God isn’t necessary, and the idea of him cannot be used to control others.


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The good things in life aren’t from God

I have often heard Christians describe certain things in this world that are pleasing to humans as “gifts from God.” Some examples include music, the beauty of nature, and the comfort and companionship of animals. These things, they say, are good for us and make us happy, and therefore we should be grateful to God for them. In fact, the existence of these things is evidence for God, for what are pets and flowers and symphonies if not indicators that God loves us and wants us to be happy?

Well, to answer that question, let’s take at look at exactly how these phenomena are beneficial to humans.

Modern research has shown that (pleasant) music is intrinsically rewarding –  like food or sex, it stimulates dopamine release in reward centers of the brain. Pets, as you’ve probably heard, are good for our psychological wellbeing and cardiovascular health. One study followed adults who had been victims of heart attacks, and found that after one year the adults who owned dogs had significantly lower mortality rates than those who didn’t. And nature, research has shown, has a positive effect on our ability to concentrate and deal with stress. One study even found that having a view of nature helped hospital patients recover more quickly after surgery!


Scenery that has a positive effect on wellbeing.


Scenery that doesn't.

So all of these things do indeed increase wellbeing. But the other side of the coin is that without them we are less healthy and less happy. Consider the hospital patients who didn’t have exposure to nature after their operations – those patients had longer recovery times and required stronger pain medication. Consider the adults who didn’t own dogs in the heart attack study – after one year these people were more likely to be dead than their dog-owning cohorts. None of these are favorable outcomes. Clearly, the factors that contribute to human wellbeing aren’t “optional extras” in our lives – they’re absolute necessities if we want to remain as happy and healthy as possible.

And here’s the thing- God made us this way. God made us so that we couldn’t be calm and focused and healthful while surrounded by concrete walls and desolate landscapes. He made us so that we would be at a greater risk of death simply for not having a dog in our lives. He made us so that certain patterns of sound are pleasant, whereas others make us miserable or set our nerves on edge. To call these things a gift is to imply that God gave them to us with the message, “Here, I want you to be happy.” But at the same time God made us dependent on these things for our happiness. Why should my wellbeing be dependent on something as changeable as the particular patterns of light that fall on my retina?

Just think of what life could have been! God had the ultimate say in how he created the universe. He could have made every flash of light a sunset, every sound an Ode to Joy, every touch a caress… How wonderful that would have been! Imagine if the monotonous, dreary walls of an office were as pleasant and invigorating to us as our favorite natural setting. That would have been a gift!

Yet this gift is something humans were decidedly not given.

I imagine at this point some theists will rebut that life cannot be one long uninterrupted joy. That we need both joy and sadness in order for either to have any meaning. If that’s the case, I hope these people do not also believe in heaven – because they’ve just refuted it.

Ultimately, the explanation for why we have innate preferences and aversions is because evolution made us this way. Preferences are a way of motivating us to seek out things that are beneficial to our survival (such as a savannah-like natural environment). Life isn’t one long stream of uninterrupted joy, because evolution had no need to make us that way. And God, if you think he exists, saw no need to give us anything better. That’s not to say that we must be despondent about our lot in life – on the contrary, there’s plenty to be happy about. But if our lives are wonderful it’s because we work hard to make them so. God doesn’t get the credit for that.

First image credit: ahp_ibanez
Second image credit: Michael Lokner

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Filed under Atheism, Evolution, Psychology, Religion, Science