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Why God is Necessary to Our Humanity

David Burton

Mason Neck, Virginia

 

This sermon was delivered August 31, 2003, at the Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington, DC.

 

When we think about what it means to be human, about the things that differentiate us from inanimate objects or lower life-forms, we think about our capacity to reason, to exercise our freedom to make choices, to recognize right from wrong, to love and to create and to appreciate beauty. It is these things that make us human. It is these things that constitute our humanity.

It is my contention that God is necessary to our humanity. In other words, God is a necessary predicate of our freedom, of morality, of love, of creativity and of aesthetic appreciation of beauty. Conversely, atheist philosophies — including Marxism, the Objectivism of Ayn Rand, scientific materialism or Unitarian Universalist humanism necessarily require the rejection of our humanity. These philosophies necessarily and logically require the rejection of the proposition that there is such a thing as right and wrong, the denial of our ability to make choices, and necessitate the view that love and beauty are not real.

It is only by embracing the reality of God that we may retain our humanity, our capacity for moral choices, for love and for the aesthetic appreciation of beauty.

 

The Materialism of Science and Humanism

I am not familiar with the traditional Universalist position on the subject, but traditional Unitarianism embraced both science and God, regarding both as critical to a proper understanding of the human condition. The science that Unitarian Universalist humanism embraces, in contrast, is an atheist science, a science uninformed by religious insight, a science that rejects any role for God. In the words of the well-know 1933 Humanist Manifesto (nearly half of whose signatories were Unitarian), “humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values” and, further, that “there will be no uniquely religious emotions and attitudes of the kind hitherto associated with belief in the supernatural.” They raised the scientific method to status of an all encompassing understanding of the human condition — to the metaphysical foundation of their world view.

Modern physics implies determinism (or, as we shall see, randomness). Determinism is the proposition that all our actions are effects necessitated by preceding causes. In classical physics, the physical state of a system at time B is a function of the laws of nature applied to the previous physical state of the system at time A. Physical state C is a function of the laws of nature applied to the previous physical state at time B. And so on. There is no room for free will. Everything we do is a function of the laws of nature and the physical state of the universe from the beginning of the universe until the end of the universe. In this view, we are no different than inanimate matter and inanimate matter behaves predictably in accordance with the laws of physics. With sufficient information about the state of a system (including the universe, which is just a big system), the future state of the system could, in principle, be predicted using the laws of physics. One might not have enough information to accurately predict the future but, in principle, the future was pre-ordained by the past. The algorithm that connects the past to the present to the future is the laws of physics. This scientific view has been called the “clockwork universe.”

Albert Einstein, for example, squarely stated this in the New York Times in 1930 and acknowledged its moral implications:

“The man who is thoroughly convinced on the universal law of causation cannot for a moment entertain the idea of a being who interferes in the course of events — provided of course that he takes the hypothesis of causality really seriously. He has no use for the religion of fear and equally little for social or moral religion. A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable to him for the single reason that a man's actions are determined by necessity, external and internal, so that in God's eyes he cannot be responsible any more than an inanimate object is responsible for the motion it undergoes.”

Einstein’s views are not idiosyncratic but representative of most scientists’ views. The English astronomer and physicist Arthur Stanley Eddington in his 1928 book The Nature of the Physical World wrote "religion first became possible for a reasonable scientific man about 1927" with “the overthrow of strict causality by Heisenberg, Bohr, Born and others." What he was referring to was the advent of quantum mechanics and, specifically, Werner Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle.”

Without going into details unnecessary for today’s purpose, quantum mechanics stands for the proposition that it is impossible in principle to know with certainty both the momentum and position of a particle. The more accurately momentum is measured, the less accurately position can be known and vice versa. Now this can be interpreted as just a measurement problem. At the subatomic level, the act of measuring affects the particle. But physicists have generally adopted a differing view, known as the Copenhagen interpretation. The world, at its most fundamental level, is viewed by the vast majority of physicists as being extremely uncertain. At the subatomic level, the world is regarded as composed of a vast array of particles but these particles are not regarded as “real” in the ordinary sense. They are ghosts that simply represent statistical possibilities until they are observed and the act of observation “collapses the wave function.”

Einstein, it should be said, rejected the Copenhagen interpretation with his famous dictum that "God does not play dice with the Universe." He preferred a more classically deterministic view of the universe and believed that quantum mechanics must be a manifestation of a deeper reality. But his rejection of the now dominant view is considered by most physicists as one of his lesser moments.

Now let us look at the implications of all of this for us. Whether Einstein was right or the current interpretation of quantum mechanics is right, free will is a casualty. In the classical deterministic physical world, the past determines the future. The neurons in our brain fire as a direct result of the physical state of our brain and the matter and energy with which it interacts in a previous period of time. Subject to the problem of insufficient information, the future can be predicted by a rigorous application of the laws of physics. The future is determined. It is, in fact, as determined as is the past. Our decisions, all aspects of our lives, are determined. All that quantum mechanics really does is replace classical determinism with a statistical function. Randomness replaces hard determinism. It does not live up to the religious promise that Eddington saw, at least the version of quantum mechanics widely accepted today.

If matter and energy is all that exists, if everything is a matter of physics and there is no other force or realm that influences real events in the universe, then our humanity is a necessary casualty. Whether our actions, thoughts, and feelings are a function of classical determinism or quantum indeterminance, we are not free in the sense that we mean when we talk about free will in religion, philosophy or law. Whether our actions are a function of physical states in a previous period or the function of purely random quantum events, in no meaningful sense do we have a choice about our actions. Therefore, in no meaningful sense can we be held morally accountable for our actions because we had no choice over them. Einstein is right that it is not just to hold someone accountable for an action over which they had no control. Similarly, concepts like love and beauty begin to rapidly lose coherence and meaning if the Universe and everything in it simply had to be the way that it is or, in the alternative, is a function of random interactions at the subatomic level.

In fact, even such an apparently rudimentary idea as that of cause and effect is incoherent in the absence of volition or free will. In the absence of volition, space-time is a seemless web of being, not a process of becoming. Everything just is, was and always will be as it is. That is why the physicists question even the idea that time is unidirectional — that there is a past, a present and a future. Albert Einstein, again, was characteristically forthright saying: “For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion, even if a stubborn one.” Thus, time, as we normally conceive it, is also a casualty of a Godless universe.

When I reflect on the philosophical position of modern science and the humanists, I am reminded of the proposition proffered by the Pragmatist school of philosophy, namely that any philosophical proposition should be suspect if it is quite literally impossible to actually lead your life in accordance with the proposition. Since it is clear that nobody can make it through life living as if they could make do without choices or as if there were no tomorrow andr no yesterday or as if there was no such thing as right or wrong, then I submit to you that there is something seriously, fundamentally and irredeemably wrong with the scientifically materialist and atheist humanist world view.

In the words of mathematician, physicist and later in his life philosopher-theologian Alfred North Whitehead, the problem is this:

Science can find no individual enjoyment in nature: Science can find no aim in nature: Science can find no creativity in nature; it finds mere rules of succession. These negations are true of natural science. They are inherent in its methodology. The reason for this blindness of physical science lies in the fact that such science only deals with half the evidence provided by human experience.

There is the need for a paradigm shift. I believe it will come in time as science realizes its limitations and as religion jettisons certain outmoded ideas about God and embraces science and the exploration of God’s creations once more.

 

Affirming Our Humanity: Rejecting Humanism and Embracing God

The prominent 19th Century Unitarian, William Ellery Channing, in the introduction to his Collected Works wrote:

“One of the greatest of all errors, is the attempt to exalt God, by making him the sole cause, the sole agent in the universe, by denying to the creature freedom of will and moral power, by making man a mere recipient and transmitter of a foreign impulse. This, if followed out consistently, destroys all moral connexion between God and his creatures. In aiming to strengthen the physical, it ruptures the moral bond which holds them together. To extinguish the free will is to strike the conscience with death, for both have but one and the same life. It destroys responsibility. It puts out the light of the universe; it makes the universe a machine. It freezes the fountain of our moral feelings, of all generous affection and lofty aspirations.”

Channing was responding to Calvinists and others that adopted the position that the future was pre-ordained by God. His criticism, however, is no less valid of humanists who substitute Science for God. An affirmation of our free will, our moral responsibility, our capacity for self-culture and self-improvement and our humanity is an absolutely central tenant to a traditional Unitarian understanding of mankind. In the absence of some means for us to exercise free will (however, constrained by physical reality our range of choices may be), we cannot be human. If we cannot make choices, then we are ambulatory automatons — not substantially different in kind from rocks.

Humanists have no means of explaining free will. They have no way out of the box they have created for themselves. As noted above, they reject God the creator, even though the science of the Big Bang and the Second Law of Thermodynamics tell us the Universe must have had a definite beginning. They reject a “supernatural” God, a God beyond matter and energy, a God that can influence the physical universe. They reject God as a source of values. They reject any uniquely religious insights. They reject the idea of a soul or of the Holy Spirit. They must, if they are to be intellectually honest, reject our humanity because their position requires that they follow Einstein (or the quantum theorists) and reject our free will. They are, in an important sense, modern day Calvinists.

We, however, can affirm our humanity by embracing God. God is the source of our free will. Our freedom is a central fact of God’s creation. One may express this insight in traditional terms as God infusing us with the holy spirit, or as our soul being the source of free will. A modern form of this point of view is the Open Theist or Freewill Theist position that, while engendering great controversy, is gaining ground in evangelical circles. Or one may adopt a process theology perspective based on the work of Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, David Griffin and others. In their view, becoming rather than being is the true reality, all matter is imbued with the potential for freedom and complex beings such as ourselves manifest that freedom to the greatest degree. In their view, time is real. The future represents potential. The past is concrete and determined. The present is the foundation of reality where the potential future is transformed into the concrete past. In either event, God has given us the gift of free will. By exercising that freedom, we influence the future course of the Universe. Just as God created the universe, we create the fabric of our lives and become co-creators of the future of the Universe. In that sense, we are indeed created in God's image as the ancient Hebrew prophets held.

This creativity is a fact of the human condition. This creative reality is the source of not only decisions about our daily lives but of our great art, of institutional innovations, even of scientific and mathematical insight. Its reality is a manifestation of divine love. And this creativity is wholly inconsistent with Unitarian humanism.

God, as the source of our freedom and creativity, is not wholly transcendent but also immanent or indwelling. God is not wholly beyond time but also temporal and a part of this world. This is how God’s creative power is manifest and how God influences the world. This means that we can know God not only by looking upwards to the heavens but also within us to our soul. It means that the traditional view that God is omnipotent and omniscient is wrong. God does not know the choices that we will make for they are our choices not God’s. God has either in practice or as a matter of necessity given partial control over the future course of the universe over to those of us living within the world. God is not, as Hartshorne put it, a totalitarian God. God has given up total control. God’s power is persuasive not absolute.

This has important implications for theodicy. It helps us effectively grapple with some of the most vexing problems in theology, most notably the problem of evil. As God does not control the future, God is not the cause of all that happens. This is clearly the case with respect to evil done by humans. But if one adopts the view of Whitehead and Hartshorne, called psychicalism by Hartshorne, that all matter, even if to an infinitesimal degree, possesses some measure of freedom, then even so-called natural evils can be explained without reference to a decision by God for it to happen. In effect, God has not created a dead universe but one that is alive and living things can do good or evil.

This view also has an important implication about the value that God placed on freedom. God valued freedom highly enough that the consequent suffering was held by the creator to be worth it. If God so valued freedom, then should not we? When you think about it, our dignity and worth are a function of that God given freedom and the consequent ability to map the course of our lives. Freedom makes us moral beings. Freedom makes us immeasurably greater than we would be in the dead universe of science and humanism.

Those of us who are engaged in the religious enterprise are truly affirming our humanity and seeking after truth. It is not a particularly easy or simple task but it is a worthy and necessary one. As James Freeman Clarke, the prominent Transcendentalist Unitarian minister once wrote, in language that must be regarded as very un-UU:

Use and improve the powers which look up to an infinite truth, beauty and goodness, and they lift you towards these. Let them sleep, and they cannot see this Kingdom of God, this Divine element in the universe. The fool, who has not developed his spiritual nature, says in his heart, “There is no God.”

We must embrace science but must understand its limitations as did the early American Unitarians. It enables us to understand one aspect of reality, but there is more to the world than just matter and energy and the laws of physics. God is a necessary hypothesis unless we are willing to abandon our humanity. Since we know that our humanity is real, we must add religious insight to the insights of science to achieve a full understanding of the world in which we live. Our own experience and reason tell us that we are more than rocks, that there is such a thing as right and wrong and beauty and love. And God is the reason.

In the words of James Luther Adams, we are creatures fated to be free. It is the important business of religion to help us grapple with this reality, to embrace the reality of God’s gift to us and to encounter God’s sustaining love.

 


© 2003 American Unitarian Conference