Chapter 1: There is a God
Chapter 1 of the manual begins with an argument that I am finding less and less persuasive. Alma‘s argument for the existence of God has a slightly more sophisticated corollary among modern deists who argue that the “parameters of the universe” seem too finely tuned to be set by chance (if you are unfamiliar, see this). In a recent general conference address, Russell Nelson made a similar point with his unfortunately smug dismissal of “big bang” science.
These kinds of arguments disappoint me most in their refusal to engage with the strikingly beautiful and fully materialist accounts of man’s (and the universe’s) origins. We can probably forgive Alma as the cosmology of either his time (assuming his historicity for a moment) or Joseph Smith’s time (relaxing that perhaps problematic assumption) really had no plausible competition. Russell Nelson shouldn’t so easily be given a pass.
To me, modern creation myths (like this one by David Christian) are absolutely awe-inspiring. I am almost embarrassingly sentimental about these kinds of things. Corny youtube videos featuring Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking like this one or this one will reliably send chills down my spine. When I contemplate the diversity and unity of life on earth — the fascinating complexity that surrounds us, I cannot help but take a reverential attitude toward the whole amazing story.
But, of course, none of this requires a god.
It seems silly to me to argue that the “finely tuned” parameters of the universe are evidence of some unseen watchmaker. I am not the first to observe that there is some pretty serious selection bias in universes that we are able to observe. It will always only be the case that universes that produce life (and thus the ones that are capable of producing living beings to notice them) will have the precise conditions necessary to support life.
Indeed, I am inclined to find the materialist accounts of life’s origins more inspiring than the traditional creation narratives that I have grown up with. When Carl Sagan says that we are “star stuff” and I pause to reflect on the idea that we are all in some profound way embodied expressions of the universe engaged in a great collective act of self-contemplation… it’s mind-blowing.
With all of that said, I’m not ready to give up on the divine altogether.
I’ve been reading Karen Armstrong’s excellent History of God, and it has greatly expanded my thinking on the subject. She outlines an evolution of thought in the monotheistic traditions that, on balance, I believe reflects well on the religious endeavor. For all of its faults (and there are many), the religious impulse has been a tremendous force for good in the world.
I am particularly drawn to her discussion of mystical traditions in the monotheistic religions. We’ll dive more deeply into the nature of God in the next few posts, but the most compelling “evidence” for me of the divine is wrapped together with the ineffable and transcendent I catch glimpses of from time to time in poetry, nature, and the heart-rending beauty of the human experience.
I am well aware of the attempts at accounting for these types of divine encounters in materialist terms (for example the fine scholarship of Scott Atran or Ara Norenzayan), and we would do well to seriously consider what science has to say about the religious experience. However, a satisfactory explanation of a thing does not allow us to curtly dismiss it. While I think that people take Gould’s “non-overlapping majisteria” too far as a cover for some of the more indefensible claims of religion, there are some realms in which science is not well-equipped to fully understand.
And so it is with God (or perhaps gods). Something beyond reason pulls me toward the divine, and for now that is enough for me.