Monday, June 27, 2005

Why do we need God?

Sigh! just realised that this blog is rapidly becoming a little more serious than I intended it to be. Oh well, figure we might as well get all this God business out of the way in the first week, so that we can start to focus on the really big questions - like what's for lunch.
Comments on my last blog led logically to the question - why do we need God anyway? A first answer to that is that social bad habits are hard to kick (just look at the number of people who still smoke, and bibles don't come with a Surgeon General's warning printed in bold red letters at the back - more's the pity) and if you come right down to it, why do we really need anything (except coffee, of course; and chocolate; and maybe vodka?).
As a self-respecting PhD student however (hey, someone has to respect me!) I can't let it rest at that. So here's my two-bits worth of theorising on the need for God.
The child's need for God
Let's begin by looking more closely at the psychological underpinnings of the desire for God (or what passes for psychology in my world - I'm not going to get into Freudian analysis about how God is just a personification of castration anxiety for men and a sort of spiritual penis for women - even though it does make you think about the Shiva Ling a bit). I believe there are two fundamentally different (and almost opposing) sources of the need for God.
The first, and more common need, arises out of what I call the child mentality. This is escapism, the impulse to flee the complexities of the world, the nostalgia for the simple world we all knew as children, and the desire to have someone else make decisions for us. This impulse - to cede control and be mastered by another - is one that I believe to be fundamental to all forms of human interaction and is therefore not purely religious. Even the most controlling of us have desired that mysterious someone who will make our decisions for us, who will tell us what to do - this is true in love, at work and in other social settings.
Where does this impulse come from? To begin with, as I suggest earlier, it is a throwback to childhood - a desire to return to the safety of the womb (and you thought all that "Our Father who art in heaven" stuff was just coincidence). Second, it is a consequence of the bounds to human rationality (what was it Eliot said, "Humankind cannot bear very much reality"), and the fatigue this implies. It is, after all, exhausting to have to think through all the decisions that make up the (supposedly) simple act of living, so it's not surprising that we would want someone to make at least some of those decisions for us (if there's one benefit I see to being married, it's that I can get someone else to go shop for clothes for me). Not, of course, that we want someone to run our lives entirely (more on determinism in some later post) just that it would be nice to have some limits. If everything is permitted, then the world is truly a frightening and vertiginous place (as Dostoyevsky so vividly shows us in Crime and Punishment).
Closely linked to this is the notion of God as scapegoat. God is not simply a source of hope for the child mentality, he is also a convenient alibi for everything that goes wrong with us or with the world around us (did anyone else do this silly little verse called Mr. Nobody in school?). Think how crushing the weight would be if we had to accept responsibility for all our faults, all our misfortunes (and not just ours mind, but even, in some part, the world's). Instead, we can happily blame it on God. Lost your job / business went bankrupt? It's not because you're a snivelling moron, it's because you didn't offer the right prayers. Can't have children? It could only be because the Gods are angry with you. Too lazy or slow to do anything to better your lot? These things must be sent to try us. At the extreme, a belief in God implies a complete abdication of all responsibility (notice that this need not apply simply to passive events - God can also help you dodge responsibility for the most brutal, sadistic and heinous crimes).
Linked to all this is the human need to be loved (or at least to be noticed). In some ways God is an ever-present audience - it's nice to think that somebody cares about what you're doing with your life, that you're the star of your own Truman show, even if God is the only demographic that watches. This is especially true of people who either live alone or feel themselves unloved (hence the tendency for hermits to become religious - though why someone with all of God's responsibilities should spend time listening to some stupid hermit is beyond me - probably all he needs is a good assistant and a Palm and we'll have no more of this. I've always wondered for instance, what the logic of giving fabulous weapons to people who did penance in the Hindu myths was. I mean, it's like you just spent some twenty of the best years of your life standing on top of some lonely mountain freezing your balls of because some mumbling old guru told you it might help, your fingers are about to fall off from frostbite, it's going to be years before you can fully turn your neck again, so obviously you're the right person to trust an all-powerful world destroying weapon to. Can you imagine if they did that today? What, you attended every single concert of the latest BeeGees tour? Here's your ICBM.)
Personally, I've never understood why people would want unconditional love. Frankly, if someone is loving me, I'd rather it was for who I was than on some general principle. What's so special about being loved by someone who would love pretty much anyone. It's like saying - I love you, but if you were an illiterate axe-murderer with bad breath and a penchant for latino music, I'd love you just the same. Who needs that? If I'm being loved, it should be by someone discriminating enough to really appreciate me. That's what makes it special.
Still, you can see how it could be comforting for some people to know that there's someone out there who'll at least pay attention to them, if not actively care for them and forgive them and all that jazz (why love, anyway? if there really is a God let him not love me, let him just do my tax returns)
The Thinker's need for God
So much for the child's impulse to believe in God. There is also, I think, a second and somewhat opposed psychological drive that leads us to God - this is the drive to find reason in everything. From an evolutionary perspective, this is the drive that makes us the dominant species on the planet (well, except for the dolphins; and the mice) - our ability to see cause and effect. The trouble with this, of course, is that we've managed to convince ourselves that there must be a reason for everything. It follows that sooner or later we had to start thinking about the meaning of our own existence (you can see it now can't you? the neanderthal classroom - the smart alec student who raises his hand and says in his most innocent voice "But sir, if there's a reason to everything than what's the reason for life?", then sitting there smirking and figuring now he'll get that cute cavegirl who sits three flat rocks ahead to go to the prom with him for sure until the teacher gets so infuriated with his questions that he sends him to meet the saber-tooth - corporal punishments were a lot harder in those days).
Why does God need to come into it though - precisely because he's the least abstract starting point for beginning to solve that problem. Imagine that there's a whole bunch of stuff that you don't understand about the world. Imagine that you haven't really got to the point where language or logic is capable of dealing with true abstraction. How do you begin to think about the problem of the unknown? You come up with a mythical being and try to figure out what he must be thinking if he's behind all this. Then, when that proves too hard, you make up a whole set of mythical beings. Or, if you're sophisticated enough to handle this, you come up with the idea of a mythical being so complicated that you can't understand him (thereby going back to square one, of course, but that's okay - you're SOPHISTICATED now).
Notice that in this interpretation God is just a bad habit of thought that we haven't been able to shake off - a frame that we adopted once to think about a problem that didn't work, but now we can't seem to get rid of the idea.
Why doesn't God work? Precisely because the world is too random and inconsistent for us to be able to find any rational pattern in it that we could truly call God. So we either end up with a God we don't understand or with a whole host of gods, each one of whom we understand (kind of) but whose combined actions we can't predict. Think of God as a regression equation on a set of data that's pure noise and you get the idea.
If this is true, then why do we continue to stick with the habit of thinking in terms of God? Partly because even if we don't understand him, our hypothetical God does at least give us a starting point for thought - it limits the solution to a deterministic non-arbitrary space, which is more than we could achieve otherwise (this is how God is different from the unknown / the supernatural - God is a thinking being and therefore more accessible to thought). In the extreme case, of course, we could believe that God was fair and just and compassionate (and this, if we could believe it, would be a blessing in itself - but the self-delusion required may be too much for most people) but even where God is petty and intensely human (such as with the Greek gods), a human mind is still easier to think in terms of than pure chaos (the supreme irony of all is that it's the world that created God out of chaos, not the other way around). This means that there is at least the mirage of a solution, and a definite problem that people can now spend their lives working on (I'm reminded of Hesse's Glass Bead Game - which is the archetype of what the thinking man really needs - a game that has no real meaning or significance, but whose complex world takes up all his ingenuity and skill; Hesse explicity disassociates the Game from Religion, of course, but I think there is a religious impulse that is very similar to that of the Game).
To summarise then, from a pyschological perspective God is either a way of ignoring the complexity of the world by creating a convenient scape-goat and accepting a set of dogma (in some sense also a name given to what we don't know so that we can stop thinking about it) or a frame by which the fundamental randomness of the world can be analysed.
This is how men of science can continue to believe in God - science may fulfill their thinker's need, but the child in them still needs God. Notice that the two drives, though somewhat opposed can (and I believe almost always do) exist together in one person. In fact, it's not as though the difference is so clear - at the limit, the mind is agile enough to believe in something and also know that it's a myth that it believes in (what was it Ghalib said: "Humko maloom hai jannat ki hakikat lekin / Dil ke khush rakhne ko Ghalib khayal accha hai")
Society's need for God
But the need for God is not entirely psychological either. There is also a social need for God - a sense in which God (or to be more exact religion) is an institution that helps define and shape society. Durkheim is instructive here - it is not the content of religion that helps keep society together, it is simply the energy that the questioning of religion generates, the sense of being threatened that pulls people closer together, that makes religion critical to society. It follows that if norms are valued not for their content but for their popularity (rather like Madonna albums) then it doesn't matter how outdated or illogical they are as long as they serve as a basis for social interaction. This, I think, is one of the key reasons why religion has survived as long as it has. It's also the reason why religious groupings tend to be so intolerant. Supporters of religion will tell you that most religions actually preach tolerance and brotherhood; this may be (though I'm somewhat sceptical) but the point is that the content of religion is irrelevant anyway, it's only the sense of differentiation it creates that matters - and intolerance is fundamental to this purpose.
This is also the reason why we are so weary of evaluating and choosing religions too closely. After all, there are many different things that people habitually disagree on (Swift's Little Endians and Big Endians come to mind) but you don't find people killing each other in the streets over whether chocolate chip icecream is better than strawberry (not that people who would choose strawberry over chocolate chip can be properly considered human, of course). Yet these could easily be thought of as defining identity as much as religion (and more practically so, I'll willingly eat with anyone from a different religion, but going to the house of someone who likes fruit flavours in icecream is really putting my immortal soul in jeopardy). The difference, I maintain, is that we are socialised to see icecream flavours as a choice we make in the real sense of the term. I mean it's not like your parents will be dismayed if you suddenly convert from mint chocolate chip to coffee chocolate fudge - saying, son, you've let us down, we had such hopes for you, where did we go wrong?! But religion is something we're socialised into being far more rigid about (of course people convert, but it's supposed to be a big deal). The result is that rather than choose an identity we really like and consider superior, we now have a classification thrust upon us and are forced to prove it superior. If the colour of clothes you could wear was decided by the day you were born, I'm pretty sure you would have colour wars right now - with those who were forced to wear pink every day, for instance, trying to achieve world domination just to prove that there's nothing wrong with them.
I said earlier, that the content of religions has no bearing on the social need for it, but this isn't entirely true. The second reason I think religion is important is because it provides a neat short-hand way of explaining complex social organisation to people with the IQs of a five year old (i.e. half the world). Consider, for instance, the question - why is it wrong to kill another human being? If you really want to explain this to someone logically you need to go through a fairly complex argument starting with the premise that human life per se is valuable and then running through (I imagine) Kant and Hobbes to explain the underlying logic of the social contract. Instead, it's easier to just say - look, it's wrong because God says so, okay. Again, this is the way grown-ups explain things to children, but the fact is that the bulk of humanity is too stupid to have things explained to them any other way. Religious dogma thus becomes a useful underpinning for practical, sensible laws.
The Need for God
So, do we really need God? My argument is that we don't, but that he may just be convenient. Basically, if we want to substitute God there's no one thing that will do the trick. Science and philosophy can fulfill the thinker's need for God (and in many cases already has); laws and national identities can serve the same purpose as religion in establishing social order (though these are not without their own perils); and the child's need for God may, perhaps, be served through Art and Feeling.
What do I mean by this? I mean simply that Art has tremendous power to convey the same sense of empathy and unconditional love that people currently find in God (that's why listening to Beethoven is a fundamentally religious experience) and if we gave more credit to our feelings and intutions we may need to rely less on some artificial arbiter of our destiny. In other words, we could let instinct cut down our options instead of relying on God / norms to do it. We just need to trust our feelings enough.
That said, it's obvious that this is a clunkier and more difficult solution. It follows therefore that for the foreseeable future, we may still need to keep God around, as a sort of convenience - a utility rather like electricity.
There's an awesome W H Auden poem - I quote from memory:
"In that ago when being was believing
Truth was the most of many credibles
More first, more always, than a bat winged lion,
Or an eagle-headed fish
More than mortals
Doubted by their deaths.
This while when
Disposable as paper dishes
Truth is convertible to kilo-watts..."
Will try and find the full quote - but the point is that you only have to substitute God for Truth and you have the gist of everything I've just said (why do I bother?)
Meanwhile, of course, I must start talking about something else on this blog. Will do that soon (provided of course I don't get struck down by lightning in the next 24 hours. If that happens, I may not be able to post anything more. I understand hell has firewalls.)

9 comments:

shucks said...

Phew! Some post. A comment on "a frame that we adopted once to think about a problem that didn't work, but now we can't seem to get rid of the idea".
You miss out on the excitement motive. The need to believe in God today arises out of a desire to make life seem less mundane than it actually is, wouldnt you say?

Falstaff said...

Completely agree - in some ways that was what I was trying to get at with the Glass Bead Game angle - it's general intellectual challenge. Overall, though, I think that's the one purpose of God that's most easily substitutable.

The Soliloquist said...

"In other words, we could let instinct cut down our options instead of relying on God / norms to do it. We just need to trust our feelings enough"


Feelings? Instinct? Arent they as abstract as God himslef?

Is the question of the meaning of existence, as simple and trivial as the quest for a girl for the Prom?
Probably, you wanna say the concept of God came in as a stop-gap solution , if my undertsanding serves me right..
If thats the case, then what is the real explanation? Why doesnt anyone who denies the veracity of God, give a plausible answer to such questions?? All they seem to do is to deny the answer, though with all their intelligence pooled in the question still remains open..

The Soliloquist said...

"Science and philosophy can fulfill the thinker's need for God (and in many cases already has);"

Has the thinker reached a state of stagnation? To be fullfilled by what he has thought of? Isnt it a state of complacency?? A psuedo-pride that blinds all thought?

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saif ahmed said...

Hi,

I and saif ahmed, an ex muslim. I liked your article very much. Can I use it in my discussion with religious people. I would be great help.

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Ankit Agrawal said...

Hmm...Interesting. Have a question. People pray and ask for something from God. If there wasn't a God, and just a 'random noise' some of them would get their wishes fulfilled and most of them won't. Regress this instance a hundred times, and U get people understanding the pattern that their wishes are fulfilled just by chance. However, if this happened, you would see a lot less people queuing up in front of Temples, Churches and Mosques. But we don't see that happening. That implies that there needs to be something that is more than 'Random Noise' that is still keeping them hooked. What is it? Probability?

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading the article. Wonderfully articulated. I think, God is a necessity and it produces power/energy in the humanmind and this produces self confidence and belief that he/she could perform what otherwise seems not possible. Having faith in God means to my mind is having self belief and accordingly getting inspired and motivated to work for the set purpose/goal with all commitment and full interest. That brings success.