This just in: The New York Times affirms that God exists.
After years of agonizing over whether the New York Times was going to come down for or against God, I can now rest. God exists. All is right with the world.
God exists NOT
One of the great things about being a secular humanist or at least an agnostic is that you never waste a single moment on the question of whether God exists. As I’m sure many philosophers have pointed out, merely to ask the question is to assume its legitimacy. Why should we even care whether God exists? Why should we care any more than we care about Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, unicorns, or (the example from Bertrand Russell, I believe) a teacup floating in outer space?
But clearly the New York Times Magazine does. I don’t believe in “never judge a book by its cover.” A book’s cover contains invaluable textual and graphic information.
The specimen in question is the March 4, 2007 edition of the New York Times Magazine, whose cover story is “Why do we believe?”, subtitled “How evolutionary science explains faith in God.”
Except for the author’s name, the entire cover is white on black. The clerical color scheme is a dead giveaway. It immediately and subtly confers upon belief in God a social acceptance and indisputable, universal correctness the very blessing of the New York Times.
As a linguist, I am constantly amazed by the power and subtlety of pronouns. The use of these tiny words can convey major implications about the writer, the audience, and the topic at hand.
Were religion a fringe phenomenon, such as Tarot reading or palmistry, or even Scientology, given its recurrent notoriety, the pronoun of choice might have been “they.” In such a case “Why do they believe?” the believers of the doctrine in question would have been excluded from the beaming beneficence and approbation of the New York Times Magazine.
The second-person pronoun is obviously out of the question. “Why do you believe?” would have drawn a clear, bright, and unacceptable line between the magazine and its readers. Not a good strategy. We must ALL believe.
Or perhaps the pronoun could have been replaced by a noun phrase, e.g., “Why do some (people) believe?” At least that would’ve allowed for the possibility that some don’t. But no. We believe. Now, all we have to do is explain why, over and over and over again.
Which leads me to the subtitle: “How evolutionary science explains faith in God.”
Again, there’s no question, philosophical or grammatical, e.g., “Does evolutionary science explain faith in God?” No. A declarative statement, again carrying the full weight of the New York Times Magazine.
There, as David Spade would say, I’ve said it. I’ve judged a book by its cover. And its cover is immensely revealing of the belief system of the writer, the editorial staff, and, I surmise, the readership of the New York Times Magazine. The article will consist, I predict, of more rationalizations that enable educated people who attend houses of worship to continue to believe that science supports their religious mythology.
Perhaps the article will present neurological evidence. Certain parts of the brain will be shown to be active when a person is having a religious experience. The conclusion will be that we are neurologically predisposed to faith.
This is a too-neat just-so story that ignores two important pieces of information:
(1) According to brain scientists, what gets fired gets wired. Repeated outside stimuli cause internal neurological changes. If, for millennia upon millennia, every human activity was organized by or around religion, don’t you think some basic wiring of the brain would occur? If we’re predisposed to believe, it’s not because of God, it’s because of priestly propaganda invading every corner of life and the fact that we didn’t know any better.
2) Over the centuries, believers have systematically exterminated or excommunicated nonbelievers. This systematic murder may have a genetic/evolutionary effect: Over time, the tendency/ability to believe grew more and more likely to be inherited. It certainly is not evolutionarily advantageous to be a non-believer now, but it was much worse, back in the day.
Another prediction about the article: if it’s not about faith and the brain, the bottom line of the article may be something about what I’ve called Cosmological God.
This is a divine entity (“divine” means that God does not exist in the real, measurable, physical world, but most likely in the mind of the believer) which created the world as we know it. The article will contain, I predict, scientific facts, and/or (mis)interpretations of scientific facts and/or arguable scientific facts, all of which support the divine origin of the universe.
But Cosmological God is just this side of hypocrisy. Such a God would require no services, no prayer, no obeisance, no ritual, no attention. Active communal religion requires Bible God, the God whom we pray to, the God who listens to us, our personal, imaginary friend who pulls all the levers.
“God” is one of the most overused and abused words in English or probably any other language. As long as you use it, you’re a member of the in-group, although it can have a wide range of seemingly incompatible meanings. That’s why a doctor who believes only in Cosmological God can attend religious service, contradictory as it may seem. Cosmological God may have started it all but now pays no attention. Yet they pray.
It is somewhat less likely that the New York Times Magazine article will contain the more retrograde view that evolution provides evidence for Bible God and the Genesis story. This is intellectual Know-Nothing-ism. The subject matter of Genesis was the product of human hands and in no way reflects historical events.
The New York Times Magazine is an establishmentarian, and such people are not usually fundamentalist or evangelical. At least I think so. I’ll read the article and supply further comments.
Challenging society’s bias towards belief in God
But so far the point is to make you aware of the degree to which belief in God is assumed by the political and media powers of our society. If conscientious atheists are to change anything about the situation, it is these centers of power that they must address.