God: The Great Substitute

Despite my openly articulated opinion that religion is a childish, illegitimate aspect of society, I feel that its prominence in human life renders it deserving of attention. Though I generally consider it a manifestation of human weakness and ignorance, I believe that its profuse acceptance throughout our world – and more so, our country – reveals some significant characteristics of human nature that should be considered. Therefore, I pose the question: why do people buy into religion?

Accepting an all-powerful, invisible ruler that actively intervenes in nature and is capable and willing to interact with human beings (his creation), indicates that some sort of psychological need is not being fulfilled in one’s life. If our condition as humans did not render some sort of emotional void, we would have no reason to deify a socially constructed entity. Combine this unidentified psychological need with the question that has plagued human life since the dawn of consciousness – how did existence begin? – and we have the perfect recipe for God.

We have identified two basic human ailments that God fulfills: emotional despair – a feeling of hopelessness or meaninglessness that often arises when contemplating one’s life, and more so, one’s death – and intellectual curiosity – the natural impulse to question the origins of existence. In this post, I will attempt to identify more specific conditions that prescribe a god and also how we can direct our mental energy more valuably than in prayer, churches, Bible studies, etc.

The human condition, certainly from some angles, is a tragic one. We learn to cherish certain ideals that require an enormous amount of emotional investment – love, relationships, etc. – and then are removed from the world as quickly as we were born into it. We form intense attachments to our fellow humans; abandoning such attachments seems incomprehensible. However, the reality of our situation is that one day, we will perish, departing from everything that we hold close. The overwhelming anxiety that accompanies the acknowledgement of death is simply too much for many people to handle. Matthew Alper, in his book, God Part of the Brain (http://www.godpart.com/), brilliantly explores how this anxiety originated in humans and how it has manifested in modern life. Essentially, he argues that this tremendous anxiety about death necessitated a major change in how humans must evolve. In order for humans to survive this anxiety, nature, according to Alper, was forced to modify the human brain and develop a mechanism to overcome this anxiety – that mechanism was spirituality, a means by which to achieve meaning in life while accepting that life, at the physical level, will one day end. Therefore, the theory suggests that humanity’s way of alleviating the anxiety of death was to convince itself that death itself was an illusion and that better days would follow our departure from earth.

The point is that, as humans, we are prone to form deep and meaningful relationships. Given our capacity to conceive and interpret our surroundings, we must cope with the reality that one day these relationships will end. On top of that, we are encumbered by the mere strains and stresses of survival. To soften this emotional blow, God comes to the rescue, not only promising us eternal paradise, but intervening in our lives to help us through the trials and tribulations that are, of course, only temporary. This belief assists us by combating the most bitter form of despair life has to offer. And it is a despair that every human is forced to confront. Clearly, one can see the sheer emotional power that a “god” figure is capable of stirring.

So why is this bad? Why, if God induces such euphoric psychological states, is it necessary to debunk him? Well, aside from the fact that believing in a totalitarian ruler of the universe is unconscionably dangerous, as has been proven time and time again throughout history, it is not, in my opinion, a healthy way to handle our emotions and relationships. I think most of us would agree that living in lies is bad. When we accept something to be true that offers no evidence, we put our ability to reason and approach problems in a rational way into question and we skew our entire perspective on life. If you are certain of something that is grounded in no proof, you distort your approach to every aspect of life, by living by living within the narrow bounds of this untrue proposition and assuming its correctness despite any contradictory evidence. Furthermore, putting God, as most Christians do, as the first priority, even above family – as Jesus demands of his followers – encourages us to devalue our immediate relationships and deemphasize the fact that we only have access to these relationships for a limited time. The general outlook of Christian philosophy is don’t worry about your life because a better one is soon to come. This teaches us to take the awesome mysteries and experiences that the universe has to offer for granted, in favor of an imaginary realm that offers nothing but an ambiguous sense of eternal bliss. Additionally, a proposition that Christianity persistently reinforces is to concede the pleasures in this life to secure those in the next. This further detracts from our time here on earth – the only time that we know we’ve got.

Along with God’s role of providing emotional fulfillment, he so conveniently provides answers to every single question imaginable. Why are we here? How did life begin? How did the universe begin? Why did I choose to eat Sushi rather than a bologna sandwich today? While no person of faith will claim to know the details of God’s decision making – after all, God works in mysterious ways, – he will be certain to claim to know how and, to an extent, why, all of this came about. This information sure makes life a lot easier, just knowing the answers before the problem has been explored. Now, everyone can relax – the universe has been solved!

However, we know that this is a cheap way of approaching the questions that our incredible abilities of critical thinking allow us to ask. It is like claiming to know the answer to a math problem before one has begun solving it. It leaves no room for scientific exploration and, worse, provides no reason to think critically and to use reason to question our surroundings. In fact, religion blatantly encourages us to be satisfied with the knowledge at our disposal and to blindly oblige with the demands that are expected of us. Sugar-coated by the characteristics of being loving and generous, God passes as a totalitarian dictator, a figure who encourages no thought for the morrow and no progression scientifically. Even if you insist that God is loving and all-merciful, you cannot – if you are a Christian – deny that your god is a totalitarian dictator who requires that you believe in him in order to avoid enduring the worst imaginable punishment for all of eternity. What a disgusting moral proposition that is.

Although most modern religious moderates will claim that they fully support science and intellect, the very foundation they claim to build their lives on insists that they do not do so. As I hope I have made clear, claiming to know the answers with no proof whatsoever leaves no reason to go out and find the actual answers. Scientists will be the first people to tell you they don’t know something if science has not yet developed the capacity to know it. But they will keep digging, they will keep searching, and they will make steady strides in uncovering truth, a natural truth that becomes increasingly special as we keep learning. If one is certain he knows the answer, however, the curiosity that drives the motor of science runs dry.

God is cheap. He teaches us to devalue the life we live and to stop digging for the truth that makes life meaningful. Although many religious people certainly live fulfilling lives, I would contend that they are doing so despite religion, not because of it. In this modern age, isn’t it time that we free ourselves from these crippling chains that restrain us from cherishing life and love alike? Can’t we accept that our lack of knowledge about the universe is something that must be fostered and contemplated rather than blindly ignored? Isn’t it time we that we focus on achieving happiness in this life rather than procuring it in the next? I’d say yes – the role God plays in the lives of billions around the world is one of unhealthy emotional dependence and intellectual narrow-mindedness. So, I encourage all to muster up the courage to defy this imaginary, mythical, universal dictator, and to demonstrate the boldness to think independently and freely. Let us treasure, not devalue, the things that make us fully human, and let us also have the courage to not surrender our intellectual convictions, even in the face of our greatest fears.

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6 responses to “God: The Great Substitute

  • Noah Ketterman

    This post might be one of the best defenses for the Christian faith you have produced. In raising critical questions that Christianity (let’s not kid ourselves, you keep saying “religion” generically in some of your writings but really all of your posts target the Christian faith exclusively) is able to answer, and the spiritual void that people endlessly attempt to fill with non-Christian ideas, I believe you point your readers straight into the arms of Christ.

    Let’s start with emotional despair. Essentially, you are arguing that our experiences as humans create a certain void of fulfillment that we cannot satisfy ourselves. You cite death specifically, but I think it is fair to extend this emotional lacking to all other disappointments like being let down by a loved one or having a crime committed against you. In an artificial attempt to fill this void, we turn to God who makes us feel good about life and make sense of things we cannot comprehend on our own (as a side note consider how detrimental it is to your argument that this inability to cope exists – why put so much faith into the reasoning of man when we often are incapable of making sense of the world around us).

    What is fascinating to me is the fact that you bring this emotional void up without properly considering why it exists. The fact that we live in a fallen world is not only a reality to the non-believer, but also it is an essential doctrine of the Christian faith. The creation story tells of how man once lived in paradise, disobeyed God’s only rule in paradise, and was banished from what was quite literally heaven on earth. When this happened, we were led ourselves into a world of pain, suffering, and depravation because we trusted in our own shortcomings.

    However, according to the study you cite, there is a need within us (our brains) to move beyond the fallen nature we have chosen for ourselves and trust in something much greater. How can you not stop to consider whether or not that fundamental need exists for a reason? I don’t know of the study you cite, but I think it is easy to argue that our desire for something greater has always existed. Whenever we study ancient civilizations or isolated tribes of people, the one thing they all have in common is religion. So I don’t think it is fair to say that this spiritual void evolved over time, it has always been there because we have always known that we were wired to worship. Exactly! We were made to worship, and that makes perfect sense only if we stop and consider that maybe there is someone worthy of this worship. We were created by a Creator who gave us an intimate desire to find him. So if there is a triangle shaped void in our brains, why would you try to fit a square into it? Why would you encourage your audience to fill that void with anything other than the exact thing that was meant to fulfill it? Isn’t it interesting to stop and consider some of the alternatives we try and use? Go to the self help section of the library and you will see many attempts. Go again ten years from now and you will see a brand new set of attempts to fill this void artificially. Substitutes come and go, but the one constant is Jesus. He put a desire in us to find him, logically; it makes no sense to fight that.

    I also find it very interesting that you only go halfway into the “life’s questions” argument. You say there are meaningful questions that we ask every day; questions that Christianity can answer. Thanks for the plug. However, you raise those questions and provide no answers to them from your own camp. In fact, I believe that this is atheism’s most crippling shortcoming, its complete inability to answer the biggest questions in life. So, I will pose them to you. Why are we here? How did life begin? How did the universe begin? Science alone, by definition, cannot answer this. Science uses a series of tests to confirm or deny a hypothesis. Using this method, there is nothing science can do but simply raise the questions and admire them on paper.

    Honestly, when I hear or read atheists try to answer these questions about how life began and where we came from, I am thoroughly convinced that their beliefs require a much stronger, and blinder, faith that is employed by any Christian. How the universe can first come to exist from almost nothing, and then life to be created from nothing, is statistically impossible without divine intervention. When we further consider that this life happened to be created in the one place in the universe capable of sustaining life, trying to explain it outside of God becomes even more ludicrous. Finally, when we fully understand how many times this miracle of life has occurred to create different species of animals and plants, we logically can only turn to one place to make sense of how it all happened.

    In closing, show me where God “cheap(ly)… teaches us to devalue the life we live and to stop digging for the truth that makes life meaningful.” I find that nowhere in the Bible. Actually, God frees us to do just the opposite. Without the necessary order that He provides, how can we study anything? If we come to understand anything that science teaches us (which, as you fairly cite, is not an endeavor that in any way contradicts Christian teachings) how can we know that it will continue to be true going forward if there isn’t a God to establish and maintain order in the universe? God gives us an anchor in life and without any such anchor, I don’t see the point of anything else.

  • Noah Ketterman

    As a side note, in this post (and in others) you refer to religions people as “ignorant.” Honestly, nothing could be less progressive than that kind of name calling. There are intelligent people on both sides of the debate. In fact, consider your own family. Of the three biological McHugh children, the two with the highest GPAs, SAT scores, and IQs have examined the facts (which absolutely exist despite what you say above) and have come to the conclusion that the most logical explanation for them points to Christ. Can you honestly look them in the face and say that there is information and knowledge out there that you, among the three of you, are the only one capable of understanding? There is no way that is the case. I don’t say this to be mean, but just because someone disagrees with you, it doesn’t mean he/she is less intelligent than you. We can continue this discussion (because there might not be anything more important for us to discuss) but only if you stop using counterproductive adjectives like that one.

  • Noah Ketterman

    As a final note, if you really are against religion in general, why don’t you try and pick another target next time? Honestly, slamming Christianity is waaaaaaaaaay overdone. My faith has survived decades of onslaught and it will survive decades more of it. However, if you really want to do something new and interesting, why don’t you go after the Jewish faith or, if you really have the cajones to do it, the Muslim faith? Why is it always Christianity? Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the platform that you give me to defend the faith, but you aren’t pioneering anything at all by going after God.

  • Mark McHugh

    I cannot begin to describe how eager I am to respond to this. I will attempt to go point by point.

    First of all, you are correct in saying that I mostly criticize Christianity. This is not because I harbor some special resentment towards it particularly, but because I am far more familiar with it than any other religion. But I disagree with your suggestion to shift my arguments towards other religions, mainly because of two reasons: 1) Christianity is by far the most prevalent religion in the world and 2) If I do attract any sort of religious audience with this blog, it will very likely be Christians.

    Now, I will start with a point you made near the end of the post which I find particularly stunning. Although I am not offended by your observations about my GPA, SATS, and IQ (though you have absolutely no grounds on the IQ point, and I could have very easily found this insulting), I think you are making an outrageous correlation between school-based intelligence and the ability to rationalize something like religion. Frankly, my GPA and SAT scores indicate virtually nothing about my ability to assert an opinion about such a thing as religion. While there are plenty of highly intelligent people on both sides of the argument, GPA and SAT scores indicate very little about the validity of one’s logic on a given subject, so I suggest that you not to get tied up in childish assertions such as “so-and-so did better than you on this, therefore making his argument more legitimate.” Frankly, I am incredibly disappointed by the shallow, crude, and useless nature of this point.

    Oh, and about my “ignorant” statement. NEVER do I do the injustice to myself or others by calling anyone ignorant, unlike your inference in mentioning my inferior standardized test scores. But I consider religion itself ignorant on the grounds that it makes undeniable claims about the universe that – as the word would suggest – “ignore” the ample evidence against them. People are not necessarily ignorant for accepting ignorant ideas.

    Now, on to your more constructive points. Initially, I wrote a novel-like response to counter each of your points. But as I did so, I found that I repeated myself, the reason being that the core of the argument here is the same. Therefore, I will try to sum it up as succinctly and clearly as possible, excluding anything that may be repetitive.

    You say, “I believe that this is atheism’s most crippling shortcoming, its complete inability to answer the biggest questions in life.” Precisely. Atheism does not even to attempt to answer these questions. You do, and you do it poorly. The point is this: why must we come to conclusions to questions that are, by our capacities, unsolvable? Can you not live with the acceptance of your own lack of understanding? Atheism tries to make the very best of the circumstances that we are dealt, acquiring meaning and purpose from the ample resources available to us in this universe. It does not assume the arrogance of knowing what we cannot possibly pretend to know, which deals with nearly everything you talked about in that post. I contend that the real “shortcoming” is the incredulity it requires to buy into the fallacies you buy into just because it provides a certain level of comfort. Each and every point you make, from your explanation of emotional despair to your apparent knowledge that we were “made to worship” Jesus Christ, involves utterly unfounded assumptions that may make sense to you, but cannot be held as truths in the wider discourse of society given the total absence of evidence they entail, and the indisputable need for evidence that they demand.

    Furthermore, you seem to hold the incredibly narrow-minded belief that only through God can we find any purpose in life, at all. All you must to do clear this up is take a look around. Plenty of people are living deeply fulfilling lives without God. God helps YOU live a meaningful life, but you simply cannot accept this as a concrete, pervasive truth because it simply does not apply to everyone. The great thing about Atheism is that it does not require that everyone believe the same thing or live by the same rigid standards. We are free to think independently and critically, and in my judgment, this type of thinking can only lead to a more tolerant and compassionate society. Intolerance arises when dogmatic rules, such as those found in the Bible, demand that everyone abide by them. This creates the tension that we have seen for centuries, in which people ruthlessly and callously murder others who do not share their beliefs, and it is precisely this trap that you fall into. You are under the impression that Jesus works for everyone. It doesn’t. And it is impressions like these which fomented the Crusades, the Inquisition, and all the other violence that has occurred in the name of religion.

    The story of Jesus can absolutely provide some deep, meaningful, and beneficial truths to how to live a better life. Indeed, most of his teachings were wise and insightful. But so were Mohammed’s. And so were Buddha’s. And so were those of countless others who, unlike Jesus, never made the shockingly selfish, arrogant, and wicked claim that one must believe in him in order to achieve paradise. Yet you accept this proposition, despite the others who refrained from standing upon this narcissistic platform, and were equally as effective in communicating their messages. We can use the truths compiled from all the wise teachers in history to live more fulfilling lives. But why must we demand that any of them were divine? It is unnecessary, it is cruel, and it is the precursor to violence.

    To conclude, I will just say that merely creating unfounded solutions to problems is never the way to reach a positive result. The God explanation may have worked, and may have even been rational, to our ancestors who had no understanding of science or the laws of nature. But today, God is a weak and meager substitute for that which we cannot understand. Unlike our early ancestors, we know how rain falls. We know the contents of the sun. We know what the stars are. We know how day turns to night. And most importantly, we know enough to come to the realization that the answers to life’s biggest problems are far from concrete – as religion would suggest – and instead, improve only with the incessant speculation that free-thinkers always have, and always will, dare to undertake. With that, I rest my case.

    NOTE: For how something, indeed can, come from nothing, look into the brilliant physicist/atheist, Lawrence Krauss. His theory of the origins of the universe provide incredibly insightful information that contradicts the need for an initial causer. And although he will be the first to admit that we don’t know for sure – at least yet – he will also be the first to tell you that our lack of understanding in no way directs us to God as the answer.

  • Noah Ketterman

    My mention of academic performance was not an insult against you and I am glad you didn’t take it that way. I just went back to try and reference an earlier post where I flat out admitted that I thought you were smarter than me but I couldn’t find it – I didn’t look very long as I now have left many responses on this blog but if I didn’t say it, I definitely thought it while writing one of them. I am relieved to see you admit that there are intelligent people on both sides of the debate. As I read back through what I wrote I am less proud of how I said it now, but I stand by my objection to the word “ignorant.” You cannot call Christianity ignorant without logically extending that to calling Christians the same thing. You cannot separate a worldview from the individual, at least not any worldview that is worth it. To argue that it (the worldview) is wrong is one thing, but to say that it is ignorant in my view is much different. Either way, we have both made our points about this kind of word choice and can both agree that our discussions are more productive without language that even insinuates an insult to character (to clarify I admit I am guilty).

    Moving on, are you ok with stopping at the edge of the cliff of asking life’s profound questions without even venturing an attempt at answering them? Essentially what you are saying is that we shouldn’t even bother attempting to answer them. I find this to be no better than what you are accusing me of doing above. Above, you say that I fill in the blanks of these tough questions with Jesus because I desperately need at least some kind of answer. You, on the other hand, are just encouraging us to leave the test blank. I find that to be in direct conflict with the examined life you are pushing in other posts. You are acknowledging an intellectual shortcoming (which I do agree exists and am just fine with), and then immediately putting your faith into the same intellectual faculties that you just admitted are not worthy of confidence. I think you do need to answer those questions. If you object to Christianity, then defend the alternative. I hope you will consider doing that for some of your next posts.

  • Mark McHugh

    I do agree that insulting language is counter-productive to these arguments. I apologize if I have used such language, and maybe you’re right in asserting that calling ideas ignorant cannot be separated from calling the people who hold those ideas ignorant. I think I still disagree but I will be more cautious of it in the future because it is a valid point.

    Perhaps I failed to communicate my message regarding your other point. I do not believe that we shouldn’t bother to answer profound questions about life. However, I think answering them while making definitive scientific claims regarding our beliefs is unwise. I’m not sure how you justify your God given that you do claim him to be the causer of the universe and you likewise claim that he supersedes the laws of nature. These are scientific claims that deserve to be treated like such. However, I’m not so sure you would disagree with that. I think our disagreement arises in the necessity and appropriateness of believing in God. I think the profoundness of life should be treasured and explored – we are capable of feeling incredible emotions and uncovering life-changing truths. However, when you ascribe God as the author of all of these things, you build a concrete wall in the middle of a path in which the end is truly an unforeseeable destination. Exploring down this path can be a deeply fulfilling activity and can be wonderful for one’s quality of living. But I don’t think that any purported truth (in this case, God) should be falsely established along this path, as all things are susceptible to change in our minds, and stunting that change is a highly restrictive way to live. In other words, I believe that the profound questions of life should absolutely be explored, but also, that we should never fool ourselves into pretending that we know the answers. In doing this, we only – in my view – narrow our vision of truth.

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