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Helping God Help Us Help Ourselves

If you are looking for an answer to the nagging question of why religion persists, you can find it hanging on the walls in the homes of countless believers. It is the sappy Christian anecdote, “Footprints,” about a troubled soul who fears that God has left him when he looks back after a trying journey and sees only one set of footprints. Where, he wonders, are the footprints of the God who once accompanied him? Before the absurd notion that he’s been walking by himself gets a chance to take root in his mind, God reassures him that the one set of 10EE’s are God’s very own. It turns out that God had carried the man through the hard times. The moral of the story: Lack of evidence for God is not a problem if you just apply a little theological creativity (and some nice embroidery). This little story is only one example of the pervasive religious tactic of finding clever ways to give God the credit for what humans have so clearly done for themselves.

Besides modern printing techniques, mass-production, and marketing, there is nothing new here. This tactic appears in the Old Testament in the explanation of the Rape of Canaan. We the faith-challenged might be tempted to think that the Hebrews invaded and conquered Canaan using human guile, skill, and good old fashioned brutality, but what do we know? Moses recorded for posterity what really happened:

Genesis 12:7 The Lord appeared to Abraham and said, “To your offspring, I give you this land.” (NIV)

After the Jews wandered for 40 years in the desert of Sinai, sent several men on spying missions (often returning with very bad news), wound their way around the Dead Sea, crossed the Jordan River, enlisted the support of ethnically similar tribes, fought a series of bloody battles, slaughtered and enslaved countless Canannites, God made good on His word and handed Canaan over to Abraham’s offspring. Applying this same “reasoning,” I could say God just gave me a car. I came up with the money. Saturn came up with the car, God worked His magic, and voila! I’m driving. A true miracle. Hopefully, He’ll keep those green lights coming.

The Conquest Narrative of the Old Testament is a rather transparent and primitive example of giving God the “credit” for human action. It is obvious to all but the most ardent fundamentalist that it is simply a rationalization of aggression against the Canaanites. The belief that one is acting on behalf of a mandate from God Himself can be a strong guilt-palliative for those who have caused enormous suffering. The concept of “Manifest Destiny” – the idea that God gave European Christians North America, with the proviso that they clear out the original inhabitants first – is just one modern example.

But even ardent theists would find a God who did nothing more than advocate acts of extreme violence hard to love. To soften God up a bit, and perhaps overcome the aversion of the squeamish to carrying out God’s uglier demands, He is also given credit for humanity’s most admirable accomplishments. He must be made worthy of the slaughter He so often demands.

One of the greatest human achievements of all time was the creation and implementation of the Constitution of the United States of America (along with that afterthought known as the Bill of Rights). Its brilliant combination of idealism, common sense, and technical bravura established the foundation for the world’s first sustainable democracy. Despite the obvious human toll, effort, and sacrifice behind the creation of this amazing document, many influential people forcefully insist that this was a triumph not only of God, but of the Judeo-Christian God, in particular. We are reminded over and over again that America is a Christian nation, the famous First Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting the government from establishing a state religion notwithstanding.

Invariably, the claims are pure irrational bluster, but some have at least attempted to provide a semi rational argument in support of the notion that God – at least indirectly -wrote the Constitution of the United States. They claim that Christianity’s belief that every single human being is a unique and equally valued creation of God is the spark that ignited democracy.

There are at least two problems with this argument: The first one is the existence of (semi) democratic Athenian Greece. Those heathen worshippers of a messy pantheon of imperfect, lusty, scheming, and downright twisted semi godlike misfits managed to come up with the concept of democracy, and give it a short-lived trial run. No, they didn’t figure out how to make it work over the long haul, but the 2,500 years that separates their attempt from that of the American colonists is plenty of time for even mortals to figure out how to get it right. (Somebody, somewhere, is going to say, with a straight face, that God provided the time necessary for Christians to figure out how to make democracy work)

Secondly, even if Christian theology jump-started democracy (after about 1,780ish years), that does not in any way prove God exists, only that belief in God can motivate people to do amazing things. Christianity has inspired many great acts, along with the atrocious ones that we atheists like to belabor, but so have other religions. Hindu theology was instrumental in inspiring Ghandi’s gentle but successful resistance to the British Empire. Does that mean the Hindu pantheon is real? No, only that it, like the Judeo-Christian God, can serve as a magnifying glass through which human aspiration is focused.

You can say human rights come from God until you are blue in the face, but until God comes out of hiding, those rights are going to be defined, established, enshrined, refined, and protected by the works of mere mortals.

After thousands of years of relying on made-up stories to explain natural phenomena, and prayers and rituals to cure illness, we have recently begun to understand much of how the natural world works, alleviate suffering, and stretch out the average human life span prodigiously. Science, which has had to fight the church for every inch of intellectual territory it has managed to conquer, is behind both of these triumphs. This would seem so obvious as not to require comment. Pray for knowledge, and get fairy tales. Pray for relief, and get results no different from random chance. Apply your mortal faculties, and positive results sprout like dandelions in an untended lot.

Still, the need to give God credit, even when the effect in question can be traced straight to the cause of human effort, persists. One of the most amazing examples of this occurred in November of 1997, when Bobby McCaughey gave birth to septuplets – after receiving state of the art fertility medication and the care of half the nation’s highly trained neonatal specialists – and it was declared a “miracle” in newspapers and magazines across the country.

A more subtle tactic is to give God credit, not for the event itself, but for the science behind the event. Just as God gave Canaan to the Jews after they fought and died for it, He gave science to faithful Europeans after they spent several thousand years observing the world, forming both natural and supernatural hypotheses, testing the hypotheses, and discerning that the naturalistic ones held up better under scrutiny. Yes, and He also blesses farmers with wheat after a long, hot summer of toil.

There is a more sophisticated claim that the Judeo-Christian belief in a single God was what opened humanity’s mind to the very possibility that the universe could be scientifically understood. If the universe is the product of a single mind, then it follows that it would have consistency and order. The prospect of a consistent and orderly universe having sprouted from monotheism, it was only a matter of time before the monotheists invented science.

This argument parallels the argument made about democracy, and it has exactly the same problems. First, science, like democracy, was born in ancient Greece, without the benefit of God, or at least the God modern theistic apologists believe to be the author of science. (I don’t think modern theists would be too keen on the idea that science was given to humanity by Prometheus.) As with democracy, the science experiment of the Greeks was (relatively) short lived, but the soil in which it first sprouted was not – by modern standards anyway – divine.

Belief in God may arguably have contributed to the rise of science, in much the same way it is alleged to have contributed to the rise of democracy, but again, this demonstrates not the existence of God, only the motivational power of the concept of God. I could, in theory, make up a God, claim that He commands people to be intelligent, compassionate, eat healthy foods, and help the poor every chance they get. With a lot of hard work, and even more luck (and some good scare tactics), I might convince a lot of people to believe in this God. The believers might very well make more of an effort to be compassionate, intelligent, healthy, and charitable than non-believers, but that doesn’t make my made-up God any more real than the tooth fairy.

Clearly, the need to believe in God is as strong as the evidence for God is weak. From Old Testament times, and no doubt long before, the problem of lack of evidence has been circumvented by humanity’s limitless capacity for creative self-deception. If this provides comfort and inspiration, and keeps more people out of trouble than it gets into trouble, then it may be beneficial up to a point. The problem is that we have outgrown that phase of our development where unchallenged and unsubstantiated beliefs can be relied upon to support society. The footprints in the sand are our own, have always been our own, and it is God who is being carried.

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