The April 9, 2012 issue of Newsweek International contains a refreshingly honest jeremiad about the degenerate state of American Christianity (“The forgotten Jesus”) written by Andrew Sullivan, a confessed Christian.
Mr. Sullivan notes that above the parish level, the clergy of the papal Catholic Church contains not a few morally corrupt and self-serving men who value the reputation of the institution that supports them more than the well-being of its adherents. He also states that the ascendant sects in the USA, those of “evangelical” Christians, manifest “impulses born of panic in the face of modernity.” He could well have said that this is a principal basis of the entire evangelical movement. He acknowledges that Christians “obsess about others’ sex lives” and some of them “embrace a gospel of prosperity, which teaches that living a Christian life will make you successful and rich.” Christians in general do not publicly concern themselves with “inequality, poverty, even the torture institutionalized by the government.” Mr. Sullivan concludes that “Christianity itself is in crisis.”
The author continues with the welcome news that “the fastest-growing segment of belief among the young is atheism.” Most of these atheists, however, are not clear-thinking materialists. They are of the “spiritual but not religious” genus. And “polls show a huge majority of Americans still believing in a Higher Power,” which for most of them is God (albeit often some generic deity and not The Trinity of Christianity).
Now, those of us who do not give credence to a Higher Power perceive that the reason for this belief is simply indoctrination during childhood, supported by a social consensus that Christianity is both true, and beneficial to such a degree that it deserves both indirect and direct support from the public purse. Knowing nothing whatsoever about Mr. Sullivan’s background, one can be almost certain that he was indoctrinated in his religion as a child. And both the papal Catholics and (to an increasing extent) the evangelicals maintain their own religious school systems to ensure that their offspring receive the indoctrination that is lacking in the public schools (despite the best efforts of the latter to intrude it there).
The religious, however, do not acknowledge that their belief is a matter of training and custom. To do so would offend their sense of divinity. So Mr. Sullivan does not ascribe his and other persons’ “thirst for God” to indoctrination. Instead, he attributes it to three questions, which he calls “the profoundest human questions” and describes as “pressing and mysterious.” The purpose of the present essay is to answer, or provide sources of answers to, these questions. This is not difficult, and one wishes that in fact the answers would slake people’s “thirst for God.”
I shall respond to the questions in the reverse of the order in which Mr. Sullivan poses them.
What happens to us after death? The same thing that happens to other living organisms. The body decomposes and the component atoms and molecules are largely recycled into new generations of living things. This, of course, is not what Mr. Sullivan means. His question contains a hidden presupposition, and should be rephrased: There is an immaterial entity called a ‘soul’ that indwells each human being and is the seat of that person’s intellect and personality. It persists after death. What then happens to it?
Now, for those who believe the hypothesis of a soul, its postmortem state is necessarily a profound question because, like other queries concerning the characters of putative spiritual entities, no objective evidence about the matter can be adduced. So the response to the rephrased question is, “One’s opinion about this depends upon the particular notions or system of spiritualism that he or she adopts, and no general answer is possible, even in principle.” The various incompatible spiritualistic systems are equally insistent about being true, and equally indemonstrable (and unconvincing to the unindoctrinated).
How did humanity come to be on this remote blue speck of a planet? The answer to this is available in many places. If Mr. Sullivan would like a work that is recent and well-written, I recommend Nick Lane’s Life Ascending: the Ten Great Inventions of Evolution (Profile Books, 2009). This book does not detail the evolution of humans, and if Mr. Sullivan would like to go from a contemporary work back to foundational books, he should read (one hopes, reread) Darwin’s The Descent of Man.
Parenthetically, one asks, from what is earth “remote?” Also, the phrase “blue speck” may derive from Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot” (Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space [Random House, 1994]). It is worth reflecting on how the perception of our planet expressed by Dr. Sagan and Mr. Sullivan was wrested by sustained and sometimes perilous intellectual effort from Christianity’s insistence “that the earth is [not] the center of the universe … is philosophically … absurd and false.”
Why does the universe exist rather than nothing? This question also may contain a presupposition. Why perhaps does not mean for what cause, and the question is not “By what (natural) process was the universe formed?” Mr. Sullivan’s why may mean for what purpose, and his query is, “What was the reason that the deity in which I believe created the universe?” If so, he and his co-religionists think that doctrine answers the question. Whether this personal answer contents his readers is another matter.
If, however, the author wants an answer to the question “Why (for what cause) is there something rather than nothing?” it is addressed by Victor Stenger in chapter 16 of Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness (Prometheus Books, 2009). Prof. Stenger writes, “something is the more natural state of affairs than nothing” and shows that in each of two models of nonsupernatural formation of the universe from nothing, “the universe … is about twice as likely to be something rather than nothing” (p 251).
Thus the “mysteriousness” of the three questions is dispelled.
Mr. Sullivan concludes his article with the pious hope that “sheer Christianity, seeking truth without the expectation of resolution, simply living each day doing what we can to fulfill God’s will,” “one day soon … will rise again.” Of course, Christians who want to forbid contraception, outlaw homosexual acts, reinstitute compulsory sectarian prayer in the public schools, have their religion proclaimed an essential component of citizenship, or abolish the American republic and replace it with a theocracy, sincerely believe that they are “doing what they can to fulfill God’s will.” If Mr. Sullivan, thinking as a Christian, disagrees with them, that is only his opinion. Its theological basis is different from theirs, but not demonstrably more correct.