The Wall Street Journal asked religion writer Karen Armstrong and uberatheist Richard Dawkins to answer the question “where does evolution leave God?” Their responses forced me to ask some serious questions about my beliefs, but in the end I’m even more confident I’m on the right path for me.
On first reading, I instinctively sided with Armstrong. She explains the difference in logos and mythos: how they are complementary and not oppositional, and how we need both to live lives that are materially rewarding and spiritually fulfilling. And she explains how modern-day fundamentalism that attempts to read myths as literal truths is a product of rationalist, Enlightenment thinking taken too far.
Dawkins uses evolution to argue that not only is God unnecessary, God is so improbable as to be impossible. His facts are undeniable; his error is in assuming that the God of Western Monotheism is the only possible God. He goes so far as to say that those – like Armstrong – who worship a “God beyond God” are really atheists.
And yet… Dawkins is right when he says “The mainstream belief of the world’s peoples is very clear. They believe in God, and that means they believe he exists in objective reality, just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists.” And while Armstrong is correct that the theologians and philosophers of antiquity understood “it was only possible to speak about the ultimate reality … analogically,” that’s not how our pagan ancestors understood – or related to – their gods and goddesses.
So where does that leave Pagans in the era of Darwin and Einstein? Where does that leave those of us who readily use science to refute the claims of “Young Earth Creationists” but who also have had personal experiences of God, gods and goddesses that are undeniably real?
For starters, Dawkins’ case isn’t as strong as it seems – he subtly changes the rules in the middle of the game. He uses science and reason to argue against one view of God but uses populism to argue against another view. Dawkins calls Armstrong (and by proxy, me) an atheist because she believes in a God who isn’t the God Dawkins doesn’t believe in. Huh?
Throughout history, “the elites” Dawkins ridicules have seen and discovered things ordinary people couldn’t or wouldn’t. Scientific knowledge was advanced by Aristotle, Galileo, and Newton, not by ordinary people. Religious knowledge was advanced by Lao Tzu, the Buddha, and Jesus, not by ordinary people. The works of these great people were validated by their results, not by their popularity.
Science and reason have built a convincing (though far from certain) case that the God of Western Monotheism does not exist. But Armstrong’s “God beyond God” is either beyond science or beyond the capabilities of our current science – we have no way of knowing which. And there’s still the matter of mystical religious experiences.
I could rationalize my experiences down to fluctuations in brain chemistry, and if I am completely honest, I must admit that’s a possibility. But something inside me, something at the core of my being, whispers that it’s more – so I choose to believe I have experienced the Divine in several of its facets, forms and subdivisions. I find this belief to be meaningful, helpful, and relevant, so I act as though it’s true, even though I can never be sure. That belief causes me to do my best to live in community with others, to honor the Earth and work for its care, to see the Holy and the Divine in women as well as men, and to stand in wonder and awe at the majesty of Nature and the miracle of Life.
So where are Pagans in the era of Darwin and Einstein? We are where religious people have been in every age: responding to the human religious impulse and responding to the call of the Goddess in a manner that speaks to our specific needs in this particular place and time. We are under no illusion that we have discovered, invented, or been handed the “One True Faith.” But for now, we are growing a tradition of belief and practice that is timely, relevant, and helpful.