God and society: the imaginary divine attributes.

Principles of scientific pantheism* by Paul Harrison.

The "justice" of nature is random. The cosmos shows a complete indifference to our personal welfare or misery.

The Last Judgement, by Hieronymus Bosch (detail).

The cosmos and the imaginary divine attributes.

Many of the characteristics attributed to God - mystery, omnipotence, creation, eternity, infinity, omnipresence, transcendence - are based on the real properties of the cosmos.

But others have no basis in empirical reality outside of human psychology and society. These include omniscience, judgement, love, and mercy. These are, as Feuerbach, Marx and Durkheim suggested, projections of the human mind and of the functions of society - or simply wishful thinking.

The divine being is nothing else than the human being, or rather, human nature purified . . . made objective, that is, contemplated and revered as another, a distinct being.
Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, (1841).

Religion . . . is a system of ideas with which individuals represent to themselves the society of which they are members.
Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, (1915)

This [capitalist] state, this society, produce religion, an inverted world consciousness, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its universal ground for consolation and justification.
Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, (1844)

God is judgmental.

In all monotheistic religions, God allocates rewards and punishments according to our actions and thoughts, either in this life or the next.

The concept of divine judgement is not based on any observed property of the cosmos, nor on any objective evidence. It is a human invention, designed to reinforce norms of social behaviour or religious beliefs, backing them with the threat of a supernatural police and legal system of far greater reach and efficiency than any human one.

But the "justice" of nature - as opposed to the justice of man - is random. Disease, congenital handicap, accident, premature death and disaster: all these strike individuals with total disregard for merit or blame. They do show a preference for certain social groups: they hit the poorest and weakest first.

If events like these are the direct work of a thinking and personal god, then his justice is of a kind that is quite incomprehensible to humans: as arbitrary and brutal as a corrupt dictatorship.

One answer might be that God is not omnipotent, and the natural world is out of his control. Another, advanced by Zoroastrians, Manicheans, Cathars and other heretics, is that evil and suffering are produced by rival powers to God.

Believers who wish to preserve God's omnipotence have three standard answers.

The first is that the ways of God are beyond our comprehension: his actions have purposes that we cannot conceive of. This is simply dodging the question. If God's justice bears no relation to human justice, then we have no basis for saying that he is just.

A second answer is that God is helping us, through suffering, to become better people. Overcoming pain can strengthen us and sometimes makes us more compassionate. But severe trauma often leaves scars that are never overcome, leading to neurosis, anxiety or depression. And the human price of this "education" is appalling. It is as if a parent were to beat its child brutally, to teach it a lesson in endurance.

The third answer is that God settles accounts in the next life. The truth of this no-one can know until they die - and if there is no afterlife, not even then. There is not a shred of evidence to prove it this side of the grave.

God is omniscient.

Divine judgement demands that God be omniscient. If God did not know everything, he could not judge fairly. A strict form of this belief is that God knows and judges even our thoughts. Self-restraint is not enough; we must buckle a strait-jacket onto our minds.

But the concept of divine omniscience is an invented one.

Omniscience is a practical impossibility. Accept the popular image of God as a conscious being, with a `mind' capable of storing information. To know everything God would have to remember the location and momentum of every particle in the universe. Since indeterminate events are possible at any moment, this data would have to be remembered for every millisecond of cosmic history. The storage capacity required would exceed the size of the universe by many times more than the universe dwarfs a single atom.

However, the laws of quantum physics do not allow simultaneous knowledge of location and momentum.

Chaos theory also makes omniscience a practical impossibility, just as it rules out long-range weather-forecasting for even the most powerful computers. Minute differences in initial conditions and unpredictable fluctuations can lead to enormous differences in the final outcome. A butterfly flapping its wings in China could cause a hurricane over the Bay of Bengal. Chaos rules in the short-term in climate and ocean systems, over the medium term in human societies, and over the long term in plate tectonics, galaxies and galaxy clusters.

The reality is that the cosmos does not `know' anything in the human sense. There is no location where `knowledge' could be stored.

Yet there are metaphorical senses in which the cosmos `knows' everything. In a physical sense, every particle in the cosmos is influenced to some extent by every other, just as a series of interweaving ripples on a pond criss-cross each other.

The cosmos also includes all minds of all sentient and intelligent beings, and so embraces the knowledge of all beings who are capable of knowing.

God is personal and loving.

God is believed to be concerned with our individual fates and welfare, at least in this life.

It is conceivable that a god might be concerned about us in general - in the way that politicians are supposed to be concerned about the general welfare of their constituents. But if the word "personal" is to have any content, it must mean that he brings each one of us to mind separately.

This is a tall order. First, it demands infinite information processing capacity. By 2000 there will be six billion humans. In all probability there are billions of other species of intelligent life in the universe with whom a deity should also be concerned.

Second, it requires that God be capable of love in that warm, parenting sense that is common only among to mammals and birds. Species whose offspring fend for themselves without parental care (plants, most reptiles and amphibians, most fish and insects, amoebae, bacteria) know nothing of love.

The idea of a loving and forgiving God had a paradoxical origin in Judaism. It began during the exile, when Yahweh was at his least loving and forgiving. Previously he had been a deity of war, wrath and judgement, whose punishments and rewards were meted out on earth. It was not till he made the whole Jewish people the target for collective punishment, mass slaughter and exile, that prophets like Ezekiel and second Isaiah began to see him as a loving, forgiving God:

In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you.
[Isaiah, 40.1-2, 54.8.]
The truth is that the cosmos - and God if he moves its cogwheels - shows a complete indifference to our personal welfare or misery. As Lao Tzu says:

Heaven and earth are not humane.
They regard all things as straw dogs.
[Tao Te Ching, 5]

Reality is far from loving and merciful. The totality of the cosmos is not "concerned" about each individual, nor even about whole species, planets or solar systems. Galaxies collide. Suns explode as supernovae. Over the history of the earth meteors have wiped out up to 90 per cent of species.

This is not mercy, but it is not cruelty either. The cosmos has no emotions or consciousness with which to feel love or mercy, wrath or sadism. As Spinoza wrote:

God is without passions. God does not love or hate anyone. For God is not affected by any emotion of pleasure or pain. . . He who loves God cannot endeavour that God should love him in return. [Ethics V.17-19]

God is forgiving.

Like omniscience, forgiveness is a necessary component of a judging God if he is to enforce norms and religious beliefs.

Suppose God were not forgiving of sin and unbelief. Once they were committed he would pursue and punish them without cease through all eternity. Sinners and unbelievers would have no incentive to change, and every incentive to carry on in their ways. If you know you'll be hanged for a penny you stole, you might as well carry on stealing as much as you can before you're caught.

Yet a forgiving God also brings problems. If we can repent on our death- beds, then sinners may delay reform until their final hours. If weekly absolution is available, we can sin every Saturday night.

A more serious problem is that God's forgiveness applies only on this side of the grave. After death - at least in Orthodox Christianity - there is no possibility of forgiveness. Retribution for a brief lifetime of sin carries on without end for the rest of eternity.

Reality is both less and more forgiving than this. The mark of a misdeed is etched on the mind of the doer forever. But there are real ways in which its pain can be removed: through expiation, through social punishment, and through the forgiveness of other humans. Forgiveness is a quality and a concern that is human, not divine.