God in the age of Abraham: scientific materialism and religion

     Science and religion, it seems, are not good dance partners. Over the past few centuries, scientific progress has coincided with a sharp decline in religious belief. The bounties of technology and research are an ever-present testament to the power of the scientific method. At the same time, religion is perceived as something archaic and outdated. Our certainty in science has brought with it a skepticism for the value of religion: a skepticism which reduces it, at best, to a comforting story.
     The problem, we say, is a lack of evidence. Our intellectual capacities have split the atom and marked the moon, but have yet to catch sight of God. This position is best encapsulated by the person who claims no inherent resistance to the idea of God provided that the proper evidence is presented to him. This kind of talk is familiar: it’s the comfortable seat of the agnostic.
     But this claim rests on a very specific mindset: scientific materialism, the prevailing ontology of our time. Scientific materialism is best understood as the idea that at its truest level, reality consists of positive material substances which interact in ways that science can understand. This general perspective leads to a few conclusions, like determinism, which rejects free will and posits that the universe behaves in perfectly predictable ways. It also maintains that ‘higher-level’ subjective phenomena like joy, envy, and the color red are completely reducible to material interactions; our feeling of them is purely an illusion.
     But the aspect of scientific materialism I want to discuss here is its treatment of the concept of God. Scientific materialism operates under positivism, a theory about truth which states that valid knowledge can only be derived from sensory experience, logic, and reasoning: never introspection or intuition. For that reason, the scientific materialist conception of God is necessarily limited to an external positivity. This reduces what religious people would describe as the pursuit of the knowledge of God into an empirical task. That profound and mystical experience which the Sufis call the tariq, or pathway to God-consciousnness, becomes no different than the search for a Hominid bone or biochemical molecule. If the mystic professes a truth from his heart, the scientist will need outside evidence to confirm it.

Scientific materialism and Nietzsche’s death of God

     Writing in the wake of the scientific and industrial revolutions, Nietzche warned against the destitution of God in his 1882 work The Joyful Science:

“Have you ever heard of the madman who on a bright morning lighted a lantern and ran to the market-place calling out unceasingly: ‘I seek God! I seek God!’ As there were many people standing about who did not believe in God, he caused a great deal of amusement. Why! is he lost? said one. Has he strayed away like a child? said another. Or does he keep himself hidden? Is he afraid of us? Has he taken a sea-voyage? Has he emigrated? the people cried out laughingly, all in a hubbub. The insane man jumped into their midst and transfixed them with his glances. ‘Where is God gone?’ he called out. ‘I mean to tell you! We have killed him, you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness?…”

     The 19th century had been a profoundly transformative one for Germany and all of Europe. Railways now crisscrossed its rugged terrain, the power of coal was being harnessed in factories, and chemistry was beginning to establish itself as a potent alternative to alchemy. All this and more were consequences of scientific progress, which had provided new technologies and dramatically improved quality of life.
     But despite these bustling advances, Nietzsche sensed an unsettling absence: God was losing his place in society.  What was once a ubiquitous source of values, ethics, and strength among all citizens — a repository of common wisdom spanning multiple identities — was becoming suffocated by the indifferent march of technological progress. The madman’s speech in the marketplace, a setting which represents the public sphere, fell on the deaf ears of citizens who could only mock and dismiss him. The common conception of God was beginning to wane.
     How could we possibly have murdered such a powerful and established figure as God in such a short period of time? As the madman suggests, this was hardly a measured, intentional act. Instead, we can begin to understand the death of God if we consider it an automatic and natural result of the emerging scientific materialist world-view. As the cultural mindset shifted towards a more scientific one, the idea of God itself began to transform into an empirical hypothesis. This is nicely demonstrated by the onlookers’ jovial reaction to the statement “I seek God”: has he strayed away or become hidden? This is analogous to the example of the devout Sufi, who also seeks knowledge of God through introspection and whose personal insights mean nothing to science unless it can be demonstrated objectively. Similarly, the onlookers couldn’t help but objectify God as soon as he was mentioned. Once again, we see that God is presupposed by scientific materialism as an empirically-testable hypothesis: its positivist philosophy, in fact, limits it to this presupposition.
     On this reading, the scientific materialist mindset itself becomes the instrument of God’s death, because it’s a conception which collapses him into a positive externality and conflates knowledge of God with an empirical result. At a certain ‘tipping point’ during the later half of the 2nd millennium, it seems that whatever subjective certainty once constituted the ‘truth’ of God was rejected by an emerging definition of ‘truth’ which reflected the scientific method. In this way, correspondence to external reality became the standard of valid truth, and this is a standard which cannot help but ask whether God — absent as he is of all emperical demonstration — has ‘strayed away or become hidden’.
     This transformation, it should also be noted, worked retroactively: we cannot help but look back and believe that God has always been some kind of empirical hypothesis from the very beginning. This is best illustrated by the popular opinion that attributing natural forces to divine powers — a nearly universal phenomenon in early religious belief systems — was a means to explain the unexplainable and see the unseen. As our ability to understand the world continued to develop, this conception maintains, our belief in God naturally declined, until a certain tipping point of explanatory capacity sometime after the scientific revolution which led to a widespread ‘waking up’ or departure from superstition. But again, this idea fails to appreciate the degree to which a historical interpretation is influenced by the lens of our current ontology. It’s entirely possible that, sending a distinguished and persuasive scientist into an early religious society, the notion of God corresponding to something in external reality would have been rejected or poorly understood. In other words, who’s to say that the earliest religions perceived their gods in the way we assume? Instead, we should take seriously the notion that these people (and contemporary people of faith) are referring to certain subjective orientations when they use the word ‘God’. For ancient Mesopotamian farmers, the Goddess of the harvest could have been less of a posited externality which is causing crops to grow and more of a potentiating force which captured their fear, awe, and reverence for the cycles of life: worshiping her, then, became a way for them to mediate these subjective states. Where, in this conception, is the ‘truth’ of God? Certainly not in any empirical reality, but rather the subjective certitude of the worshiper: the feelings they develop accumulate symbolically into the figure of a God, and this God becomes as ‘true’ as their certainty in their own feelings is.
     This distinction brings up a vital aspect of Nietzsche’s conception of the death of God. To say that God has died is only half-true when we consider the concept of God as it’s understood by science: an all-knowing, all-powerful subjectivity out there who remains absent in the realm of empirical demonstration. But God as a certain subjective category will survive this death, and it’s precisely the fact that he survives this death that makes Nietzsche so pessimistic about the fate of European society. If we move beyond a scientific conception of God and start to understand him as a certain subjective reality — a way to understand our lives in an extramundane sense, a way to grapple with the irrational aspects of our psyches, and so on — we can begin to see how alternatives to the notion of God can come to take his place. Here, we must distinguish between the God the concept and God the structural feature of our minds: ‘God is dead’ is a warning precisely because the structural feature will never cease and can only be colonized by pathological formations like ideological possession. The psychical space that was occupied by God will come to be something else: fame, money (hence the cliche that for some atheists ‘money is their God’), and —  most relevant for our times — ideology. But of course, as we’ve seen, the scientific perspective does not view God in terms of his influence on the dynamics of thought, and so rejects that such a dramatic re-organizing of the human condition could occur in the wake of its rejection.
     What Nietzsche’s concept of the death of God demonstrates is that the scientific materialist conception of God, which regards its truth value as an empirically-testable hypothesis rather than any subjective orientation, has been the instrument of its widespread rejection. Next, we’ll see how our perspective in an Abrahamic age makes it so that this scientific conception rejects it necessarily. But to clarify this view, we should start at the very beginning.

Spirit, stones, and idols

     Anthropology has confirmed that the earliest religions took the forms of animism and object fetishism. These are cultural phenomena which are associated with the first human communities and call to mind totems, costumes, and stone statues adorned with jewelry. What contributes to the perception of these spiritual beliefs as ‘primitive’ (aside from, perhaps, Western hegemony) is the fact that both posit that spiritual essence underlies all substance. This is the central principle of animism, which regards all matter — mouse, wall, or teacup — as being infused with a spirit no different than that of man. Worshiping God, then, becomes an engagement with the forces that we come across: the rain-giving clouds, cattle, the pasture, and so on. Similarly, object fetishism involves a belief that certain items have a supernatural influence on us: they can help or harm, depending on how we treat them.
     Object fetishism takes its ultimate form in idolatry. The idol is an object which is considered a representation of God, insofar as petitions and gestures made towards it are considered equivalent to one made to the divine. It may also be considered an embodiment of God on earth: a material substance which inspires as much reverence, awe, and fear as its heavenly counterpart. But these are no more than conjectures which can be made given our knowledge of the physical archaeology, comprising only the remaining objects or object fragments. The exact relationship between idols and their worshiper’s conception of God is up to debate. The idols of Hinduism, for example, are sometimes considered to be mere representations of deities: symbolic manifestations intended to elicit in their devotees the proper spiritual orientation. In this case, the physical idols are not believed to carry some transcendent property in themselves, but are rather signifiers of a non-material God. On the other hand, a more ‘traditional’ type of idolatry may reject the idea that the statue is simply an inert substance which merely triggers a remembrance of God, and insist on the divine essence of the material object itself.
     How can we determine which mindset predominated idolatry in its earliest days? The representational theory of idolatry, which claims that worshipers were simply using objects as a tool for spiritual belief, or an essential theory of idolatry which views idols as immanent manifestations of the divine? I think that an analysis of the earliest movement away from idolatry — the mythical story of Abraham — will reveal the representational theory to be not only false, but merely a retrospective illusion caused by our vintage point in the post-Abrahamic era.

The primal baptism: Abraham’s destruction of the idols

     The life of Abraham is one of the central narratives underlying the eponymous Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — which together comprise the religious belief of more than half the human population. He is a figure venerated for his spiritual maturity and complete devotion and faith in God; the idea of God’s ‘covenant’ with Abraham is a concept which forever shaped how we think of man’s relationship to the divine. Perhaps most crucially, he stands for a principle which would become an essential pillar of the three Abrahamic faiths: unyielding monotheism.
     This foundational principle is dramatically expressed by the story of Abraham in the idol shop. Dismayed at the status of religious belief in his community, Abraham destroys all the idols in his father’s shop but spares the largest of them. When he’s questioned about the incident, he claims that the largest idol is the culprit: an offering of bread was made to the idols and, wanting it all to himself, he demolished the others. His interlocutor remarks that it’s absurd to believe that statues can have any knowledge or capacity for thought, and Abraham then replies that it is equally absurd to worship them. Eventually, Abraham is brought to the king of his city, the mighty Nimrod. Nimrod implores Abraham to worship fire, but Abraham points out that water extinguishes fire; Nimrod suggests that we should worship water instead, but Abraham simply rebuts that cloud holds water and are therefore more suitable objects of worship. This deferral continues until Nimrod becomes angry, and casts Abraham into a fire. Abraham is rescued by an act of divine grace, as God makes the fire cool and innocuous.
     There are two central arguments to be extracted from this story. The first comes from Abraham’s clever argumentum ad absurdum which he evokes by antropomorphizing the largest idol. By attributing intent to the statue, Abraham reveals the inherent contradiction involved with elevating an object to the level of the divine. How could a supernatural being, an all-powerful architect of fate, be equated to a stone with no capacity to speak or think? Essentially, Abraham is pointing out that material objects are inherently unfit for worship because their properties do not match those attributed to a divine agent. If God is commonly believed to possess intentionality, one cannot equate him to a lifeless inert stone. The next argument is implicit in Abraham’s dialogue with Nimrod. What Abraham seeks to demonstrate is that, once again, material externalities cannot be equated with God because their properties make them insufficient. Among material things, there are ephemeral inequalities and counterbalances. Fire burns wood, but is extinguished by water; water kills fire, but is contained by clouds; clouds bring rain, but are buffeted by the wind. No single substance can demonstrate the omnipotent, all-encompassing nature of God, which remains above and beyond the phenomenal world.
     The overall theme of Abraham’s critique is clear: the properties of positive, material reality make them unfit for worship and equation to God. This position is most clearly demonstrated by the fact that, among orthodox Jews, there is still a prohibition against speaking the name of the monotheistic god YHWY. This represents an extreme upholding of this rule which prohibits even the material speech product of his name, in addition to its inscription on paper. This is evidence for an intense break from the external positivity that categorized idolatry as a religious practice. It also demonstrates, in my view, that pre-Abrahamic idolatry was not simply representational but involved the belief that objects were material presences of God. Abraham’s critique of idolatry does not appear to be levered against a belief that statues signified the divine,
     We can now appreciate just how significant the ‘Abrahamic revolution’ was in the historical progression of religious belief. Having smashed the idols, Abraham expunged God from the level of immediate demonstration and instead posited him as an all-present all-encompasing being which is strictly negative with respect to external reality. This represents a movement away from the positive essentialization of God that is characteristic of idolatry beliefs, as well as a stark prohibition against experiencing God as any specific material object, no matter how adorned and valuable it is. Abraham would be opposed to any immediate demonstration of God that emanates from an external positivity.
     And here’s the ultimate irony: that the Abrahamic revolution, the starting point for the most prevalent religious beliefs of our time, set the stage for scientific materialism, the mindset which has contributed most to its very rejection. The pre-Abrahamic religious man, who attributed divine essence to objects, was incapable of even articulating the ‘lack of empirical evidence’ of God because he was immediately present to him in the forms of idols, the presupposed masters of his fate to whom petitions and prayers were offered. It took the complete severing of natural phenomena from the presumed activity of idols in order for humanity to start questioning what other factors might be at play — factors which, in common terms, might be called the laws of nature as they exist independently of us. It may be that Abraham’s projection of God beyond the level of external validation gave us the necessary ‘breathing room’ to start uncovering the eternal iron laws of physics.
     This has all the appearance of a Hegelian dialectic, because one is a logical conclusion of the other and yet they are contradictory positions. Abrahamic religions insist on the existence of God, but science banishes it as a hypothesis which has yet to be confirmed. At the same time, the scientific materialist mindset could not have existed without the severing of God’s immediate essence in the form of idolatry and other forms of pre-monotheistic religions. The concept of the Abrahamic God has, in the course of its historical unfolding, established the conditions for its own refutation in the form of scientific materialism.
     We can start to understand why the representational theory of idolatry may only be articulable from our position in a ‘post-Abrahamic’ spirituality. The presupposition of a divinity which is outside the level of the object, and which the object merely serves to signify, is a conviction that can only be supported by a belief that divine essence cannot permeate objects. The crucial distance which representational idolatry establishes between the idol and God seems to rely on the fundamentally Abrahamic principle that God is unlike any material substance we can encounter. Otherwise, even the most genuine representational idolator may fall into the risk of venerating and treating the symbolic object as a satellite of God: his immanent essence inscribed in substance.
     What all this suggests, I think, is that we ought to continue to grapple with the relationship between scientific materialism, that positivist mindset which presupposes God as an empirically verifiable phenomenon, and the Abrahamic God, whose essential quality is being transcendent, above and beyond any external demonstration.

Can subjective experience reach truths that are beyond scientific verification?

     This is the question at the heart of the intuition vs reason dichotomy. Positivists reduce our individual experiences into, at best, corroborations of external reality. What is primary remains an extra-mental world, which cognition and sensory data serve only to represent and grant access to. By contrast, introspectivists assert that some forms of subjective experience allow us to access truths which in some way transcend empirical verification. This is why the positivist, scientific conception of an Abrahamic God necessarily rejects it; only being an introspectivist allows one to seriously consider the idea of God.
     The primacy of introspection is illustrated by the familiarity example. Suppose I’m walking in the park and find something that reminds me of a human fingernail. I have an immediate feeling: disgust, maybe even morbidity, and I get closer to inspect it. At a certain distance it becomes clear that the ‘nail’ was actually a flattened out acorn. My eyes tell me where my mistake was: the overall shape of the thing and its horizontal stripes reminded me of the surface of an old, wrinkled cuticle. The scientific perspective would tell us that a physical feature of the acorn was the associative cause which led me to the thought of a human fingernail. In this case, it was clear what that cause was; it was enough for me to come closer and see it. Now suppose that I make a more subtle connection: I smell a dish and I remember my childhood home. To explain this, we’ll have to introduce a memory: perhaps I used to eat the dish regularly during my childhood. Science can still intervene here and remark that some neural connection between the precept ‘childhood home’ and the smell of the food can explain this association I’ve made. So far, we have an external physical feature (being flat and slightly brown) and an internal neural state (the connection between a smell and a concept) that science provides as the primary, causal factor in my thought process. But now, suppose I make a connection between two concepts that resists all obvious explanation — I definitely feel that these two ideas are familiar in some way, but the reason why is beyond me. This kind of experience demonstrates that introspection can anticipate empirical facts before we have any external way of demonstrating them. Unless we assert that connections in our thoughts can be due to purely random processes, this familiarity gives the subject access to a truth which is outside the domain of empirical verification.
     This should remind any psychologically-minded readers of the process of free association as described by Freud. Psychoanalysis is predicated on the idea that seemingly arbitrary or unrelated concepts connected as a product of speech are actually linked by unconscious processes, called the ‘primary process’. An investigation of these connections will reveal ‘shared features’, not unlike our acorn and nail example, and by elaborating on the source of these connections one can come to a place of self-understanding and insight. It’s for this reason that I consider psychoanalysis to be an introspectivist science and not a positivist one. The very idea of an unconscious process which is outside of conscious knowledge and open for investigation suggests that subjectivity carries knowledge that is outside the domain of empirical validation, or at least, precedes it insofar as one knows for certain that “something’s up” with a certain connection before science can tell us the relevant factors at play.
     I can think of one counterargument on the side of positivism here. This would be to say that even when subjective experience shows that a connection is present which science can’t explain, there is still a physical reason which could be found. Therefore, what is primary is still the externally-verifiable cause, although it remains hidden for the time being. But I see this less as a serious argument and more of a deferral which relies on some ‘future science’ to account for the cause of a personal intuition. Ironically, this is analogous to the ‘God of the gaps’ argument used by atheists, which claims that God exists simply to fill in the lapses in our knowledge of natural phenomena. It seems that there is a ‘cognitive science of the gaps’ which likewise seeks to colonize subjective experience by insisting that a future science will ‘fill in the gaps’ of consciousness in the next few decades. Of course, we should be just as skeptical towards this as we are of the God of the gaps, and take seriously the idea that scientific materialism is inherently incapable of explaining consciousness.

A call for an introspectivist search for God

     I hope that so far my opposition against the classic, scientifically-founded rejection of religion has been clear. Positivism is a system which, given our Abrahamic understanding of God, rejects the concept as soon as it’s supposed. For this reason, a scientific mindset simply cannot be our starting principle in the search for religious truths. Instead, introspectivism should guide our search for the ‘truth of God’ and the idea that religion can be a locus of truth. This leaves us with some breathing room: a way to embrace religious belief which isn’t automatically considered a rejection of empirical reality or conformation to superstition.
     What are the practical ramifications of this project? To observe one’s own conception of God — replete with all the baggage, presumptions, and projections that our innate disposition and experiences have given us — and, rather than dismissing the idea as an un-falsifiable absurdity, take seriously the notion that our very conception of God is a rich source of self-understanding and insight. This is an approach which goes beyond the idea of God as an externality and instead, in an ironic twist, embraces the fact he is a purely subjective construction. In so doing, faith in God becomes not so much a kind of blind adherence to an empirical reality, but rather a subjective position which trusts that the notion of God is a source of strength and insight, no matter how irrational or implausible that may seem at certain times.
     It should be noted, as a final comment, that the distinction between the scientific materialist conception of God and the introspectivist account pivots around an axis which will be the subject of a future article: the exact definition of truth.

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