A Guide to Finding Faith
Imagine yourself back in time, to an era — ancient, medieval, pre-Darwin — when you think it made sense for an intelligent person to believe in God. Now consider why your historical self might have been religious: not because “the world is flat” or “Genesis is an excellent biology textbook” (claims you will not find in Augustine), but because religious ideas seemed to provide an explanation for the most important features of reality.
First, the idea that the universe was created with intent, intelligence and even love explained why the world in which you found yourself had the appearance of a created thing: not just orderly, law-bound and filled with complex systems necessary for human life, but also vivid and beautiful and awesome in a way that resembles and yet exceeds the human capacity for art.
Second, the idea that human beings are fashioned, in some way, in the image of the universe’s creator explained why your own relationship to the world was particularly strange. Your fourth- or 14th-century self was obviously part of nature, an embodied creature with an animal form, and yet your consciousness also seemed to stand outside it, with a peculiar sense of immaterial objectivity, an almost God’s-eye view — constantly analyzing, tinkering, appreciating, passing moral judgment.
Finally, the common religious assumption that humans are material creatures connected to a supernatural plane explained why your world contained so many signs of a higher order of reality, the incredible variety of experiences described as “mystical” or “numinous,” unsettling or terrifying, or just really, really weird — ranging from baseline feelings of oneness and universal love to strange happenings at the threshold of death to encounters with beings that human beings might label (gods and demons, ghosts and faeries) but never fully understand.
Got all that? Good. Now consider the possibility that in our own allegedly disenchanted era, after Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin, Einstein — all of this is still true.
I do not mean to claim that 500 years of scientific progress have left the world’s great religions untouched or unchallenged. The Copernican revolution overthrew a medieval cosmology with a tidier celestial hierarchy than our own. Darwinism created still-unresolved problems for the Christian doctrine of the Fall of Man. Many supernatural-seeming events can now be given purely material explanations. And the modern experience of globalization has had an inevitable relativizing effect, downgrading confidence in any one faith’s exclusive claims to truth.
But there are also important ways in which the progress of science and the experience of modernity have strengthened the reasons to entertain the idea of God.
The great project of modern physics, for instance, has led to speculation about a multiverse in part because it has repeatedly confirmed the strange fittedness of our universe to human life. If science has discredited certain specific ideas about how God structured the natural world, it has also made the mathematical beauty of physical laws, as well as their seeming calibration for the emergence of life, much clearer to us than they were to people 500 years ago.
Similarly, the remarkable advances of neuroscience have only sharpened the “hard problem” of consciousness: the difficulty of figuring out how physical processes alone could create the lived reality of conscious life, from the simple experience of color to the complexities of reasoned thought. So notable is the failure to discover consciousness in our dissected tissue that certain materialists, like Dennett, have fastened onto the idea that both conscious experience and selfhood must be essentially illusions. Thus the self that we identify as “Daniel Dennett” doesn’t actually exist, even though that same illusory self has somehow figured out the true nature of reality.
This idea, no less than the belief in a multiverse of infinite realities, requires a leap of faith. Both seem less parsimonious, less immediately reasonable, than a traditional religious assumption that mind precedes matter, as the mind of God precedes the universe — that the precise calibrations of physical reality and the irreducibility of personal experience are proof that consciousness came first.
In fact, the very notion of scientific progress — our long track record of successful efforts to understand the material world — doubles as evidence that our minds have something in common with whatever mind designed the universe. As much as religious believers (and nonbelievers) worry about the confidence with which our modern technologists play God, the fact that humans can play God at all is pretty strange — and a better reason to think of ourselves as made in a divine image than the medievals ever knew.
I think there is some confusion on this last point among scientists. Because their discipline advances by assuming that consistent laws rather than miracles explain most features of reality, they regard the process through which the universe gets explained and understood as perpetually diminishing the importance of the God hypothesis.
But the God hypothesis is constantly vindicated by the comprehensibility of the universe, and the capacity of our reason to unlock its many secrets. Indeed, there’s a quietly theistic assumption to the whole scientific project. As David Bentley Hart puts it in his book “The Experience of God,” “We assume that the human mind can be a true mirror of objective reality because we assume that objective reality is already a mirror of mind.”
… The spell-breaking I’m offering here is a beginning, not an end. It creates an obligation without telling you how exactly to fulfill it. It opens onto further arguments, between religious traditions and within them, that aren’t easily resolved.
The difficulties of those ancient arguments — along with the challenge of dealing with religion as it’s actually embodied, in flawed people and institutions — are a big part of what keeps the spell of materialism intact. For finite and suffering creatures, religious belief offers important kinds of hope and consolation. But unbelief has its own comforts: It takes a whole vast zone of ideas and arguments, practices and demands, supernatural perils and metaphysical complexities, and whispers, well, at least you don’t have to spend time thinking about that.
But actually you do. So if you are standing uncertainly on the threshold of whatever faith tradition you feel closest to, you don’t have to heed the inner voice insisting that it’s necessarily more reasonable and sensible and modern to take a step backward. You can recognize instead that reality is probably not as materialism describes it, and take up the obligation of a serious human being preparing for life and death alike — to move forward, to step through.