The Religious Instinct

Even atheists may have a need to look beyond science.

Posted Mar 07, 2020

"Truth is something so noble that if God could turn aside from it, I could keep the truth and let God go." —Meister Eckhart

Professor Ken Miller is a friend and colleague at Brown University. He is a Darwinist and a Catholic. At a recent interfaith dinner gathering, Ken shared his thoughts on science and religion.

S. Hermann & F. Richter/Pixabay
Lit prayer candles.
Source: S. Hermann & F. Richter/Pixabay

I listened raptly, but I did not respond at the time. My thoughts had to jell first. So here’s my response now, presented with respect and love, but, in the interest of space, in its simplest and least varnished form.

The question is how one can be both a scientist and a theist. Of course, there are many people who are both, and many of these people of goodwill see no problem with their dual allegiance, and it might be indelicate to push them to acknowledge the conflict. Faith, after all, can do anything it wants if it is private, emotional, and metaphysical. Leaving people of faith alone might be the mandate of respect and decency—as long as they don’t hurt anyone.

But Ken has to allow us, I think, to ask some questions. He is clear in this endorsement of Darwinist biology as the best available paradigm for the study of nature, and nature is the totality of everything that is in the physical sense. This identity of nature and what is leaves only the metaphysical.

What of the metaphysical? One option is to say that it is a waste of time to talk about the metaphysical, because if nature is all that is, then the metaphysical is not, and why should we talk about anything that is not: That is, why should we talk about nothing (Ayer, 1936)?


If you insist on the distinction between the physical and the metaphysical, you are a dualist, and you may wish to comment on the relation between the two. Perhaps you think there is none, but this raises the question of why you need the metaphysical? Why not eliminate it?

So perhaps you say that the two domains are related. This is what many religions, and certainly Catholicism, do. They claim that God is metaphysical and that he can intervene in the physical. In other words, God is supernatural; he created the natural world and he can continue to intervene at will. He created the natural laws, and he can override them if the mood strikes him.

Ken’s dilemma is this: If he is a Darwinist, he cannot believe that a supernatural force suspends Darwinism. Any change in nature must be imminent in nature. If Ken is a Catholic, he cannot believe that his metaphysical God is impotent to change nature.

How can Ken have it both ways? His endorsement of Darwinian biology, I suppose, is based on its tremendous explanatory power in the natural world. His endorsement of Catholicism must be of a different kind. Ken has served as an expert witness in court to argue that God’s intelligence is not a compelling explanation for why the natural world is the way it is. So why be a Catholic?

Ken’s answer is a social psychological one. He was raised to accept a set of beliefs and practices, rejected them in his youth, and then returned to them because they provide comfort. He attends mass because he receives emotional rewards, which are psychologically real and powerful. The pragmatic case for running with religion is clear. At issue is the epistemic question of why have a faith that cannot be justified with reason. 

God of gaps

At one point in his presentation, Ken commented on his dualism. He said that as science teaches us more about nature, faith must follow.

Even the Vatican now accepts evolution (Chaberek, 2015). Once you accept it, many theistic claims must go. It may be easy to grant that God did not create man in a day.

The critical claim of Darwinism, though, refers to the randomness of genetic mutation. It follows that a god that plays dice is neither omniscient nor clairvoyant. This, in turn, means that God cannot endure as an intentional agent. All you might claim is that God set the universe in motion, but then you have deism and not theism, and deism is boring.

At any rate, scientific progress reduces the God with a capital G to a god of gaps, whom we can only credit for anything we do not understand yet. As we learn more, god’s gap continues to shrink, although we cannot expect it to disappear completely (Larmer, 2002). Interestingly, Ken did not claim the inverse; he did not claim that as we learn more about faith, scientific views need to be revised.

Once God is in retreat, we can ask whether having a concept of Him is necessary—even if the gap will never fully close. When Laplace explained his deterministic theory of the solar system to Napoleon, the emperor asked—according to legend—where God was in that theory. Laplace replied “Je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là” [I had no need for that there hypothesis].

Theodicy: A job for Job

At another point, Ken touched on the issue of theodicy (Tooley, 2019), the question of God being just. Like everyone before him who tried to explain human suffering in metaphysical terms, he failed. Ken said that some Jewish friends told him that the Holocaust destroyed their faith in God.

If there is a metaphysical God that can intervene in human and natural affairs, then there must be a set of human or natural affairs that is so egregious that God will step in. If He doesn’t, it might be because He is impotent, because He is indifferent, because he is cruel, or perhaps because he doesn’t exist. But the idea that he exists, is omnipotent and is loving, cannot be reconciled with the holocaust. It cannot even be reconciled with the birth of a deformed baby.

Ken noted that as the Holocaust unfolded, there were also thousands of episodes of human compassion, help, heroism, and resistance. This view reduces the murder of 6 million human beings to the backdrop for a stage on which the good side of human nature can shine with a few thousand lights. We must ask whether this argument would accept (not "justify," but "accept") the murder of 100 million human beings if there were a single act of compassion. At issue is the failure of faith to provide a criterion for its own demise (Krueger, 2020).

In the final pages of "The Book of Job," we find one answer to the question of theodicy. Job, like all human beings, has endured massive losses, and he has suffered greatly. God eventually tells him to stop complaining, because he is not even entitled to that. At the very end, God mocks Job by restoring all his losses—and then some—just when Job surrenders his right to complain.

Here’s a God who breaks His servant whom He—allegedly – loves and then showers him with riches. This is cruel in all the obvious ways, but it is outright sadistic psychologically. Suppose you know that you will be rewarded with bliss after you had been broken; you will be tempted to surrender early in order to avoid all that suffering. But this option is closed to you because God considers it cheating. You must go through hell first before you can be redeemed. This is not tough love; it is sadism.

The con game of sin

In "Genesis," we find the earliest example of sadism. Paradise is a state of innocence, but the seed of guilt is laid down. Why plant a tree of knowledge and forbid humans to eat its fruit? Only a god who is neither omnipotent nor self-confident might be "tempted" to do that.

Now, humans do not eat from the tree on their own. So it was God, if He was omnipotent, who sent the serpent to tempt them. If He was not omnipotent, the serpent was an independent agent, possessing free will and foreknowledge of the havoc that was to come.

For humans, the game is rigged. They eat the fruit, which gives them the knowledge that eating the fruit is a great sin, to be punished down the generations to the present day. This is a recursive paradox. When humans decide to eat the fruit, they have no knowledge of good and evil, but then they learn that finding out the difference between good and evil is itself the evil. But now it’s too late.

The humans have only one bite. Had they eaten the whole apple, they might have realized that tempting them to do something before they know that yielding to temptation will be considered evil is, in fact, the greater evil. In defense of God, one might alternatively claim that the humans already knew that eating the fruit was evil because God told them not to do it. But had they known that disobedience was sin, they would have already had knowledge of good and evil, and eating the fruit would have been unnecessary. A god who plays Catch-22 with his creatures is not a benevolent god.

The mystical alternative

If theism fails to solve the problems of dualism and theodicy, how can the religious instinct be satisfied? It will not be satisfied with science. So far, science has produced new questions at a higher rate than it has produced answers.

From this and Gödel’s (1931) incompleteness theorem, we may conclude that omniscience is not our destiny. The epistemic gap will remain, and perhaps it will even grow larger as we contemplate the depth of our ignorance. With what can we fill this gap if a human-like agentic god is not up to the job?

Mysticism offers an alternative. Mysticism does not need to ascribe any properties to the divine. There is no need to believe in a God that is good (bad), omniscient (ignorant), benevolent (sadistic), agentic (lethargic), or anything else. The minimum requirement of mysticism is to allow the divine.

The divine can be contemplated but not described, experienced but not known, acted out but not acted upon. In other words, the divine is interwoven with human psychology. Like consciousness, it has no substance—but it is not consciousness.

The religious instinct can be satisfied by engaging with it. My friend Ken Miller engages with it at mass, in the lab, and when talking to a dinner group. I try to do the same, though without the mass. A mystical recognition of the divine does not threaten science, nor is it threatened by it; and it gives that old instinct something to play with.

A primer on mysticism

If you can study science at school and old-time religion at church, where will you find mysticism? The evasive answer is that it will be given to you when you are ready to receive it. Less glibly, I recommend the study of Meister Eckhart, Jakob Böhme, and Martin Buber. Of course, the Kabbalah is always de rigueur. In my opinion, there even is a bit of mysticism in the gospel of John. John [1:1] comes in with a bang, and it is a big one.

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Conventional theologians equate "logos" with Jesus, but that is just their opinion. "Logos" in Ancient Greek means far more than "word.’ It could mean "speech," "instruction," "meaning," or "text" (to our poststructuralist friends). But Logos might also refer to “an objective law-like principle that governs the cosmos,” as Heraclitus of Ephesos taught (Curd, 2019). If Logos is the beginning, God comes later and is absorbed into the Logos. This Heraclitean Logos does not judge, it does not play games, and it does not make for a good idol. But our religious instinct can contemplate it and wonder. 

As to the Meister Eckhart epigraph, replace "truth" with "logos," and you'll see what I mean.