Many people are fed up with the way traditional religion alienates them: it can too easily perpetuate conflict, vilify science, and undermine reason. In A God That Could Be Real (Beacon Press, 2015), author, philosopher of science, lawyer and atheist Nancy Abrams discusses how imagining a higher power gave her a new freedom in a time of struggle. Throughout the course of the book, Abrams dismantles several common assumptions about God, explaining how an omnipotent, omniscient God isn’t compatible with science, but this God is different than one who can comfort and empower us. This excerpt, which discusses how humans created God and how the concept of God has provided meaning on Earth, is from Chapter3, “A God That Could Be Real.”
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The Emerging God
When I was fifteen and the rabbi became furious at me for writing that God was a fiction created by humans, I was right in believing that humans were not created by God, but I then jumped to conclusions, because I didn’t think scientifically. I didn’t understand that you can’t conclude what’s true from simply eliminating one false possibility. Here are the two crucial mistakes I made at fifteen: that humans came on the scene before God does not mean humans created God, and it doesn’t make God a fiction.
Humans didn’t create God intentionally, the way they created cars. There’s a crucial difference between “emergence” as a result of human intentions and emergence in nature. When we look beneath the hood of a car, we see many parts whose interaction generates an emergent property—automotive motility—through many emergent subsystems: ignition, acceleration, cooling, and so on. But a car engine doesn’t construct itself; the parts are prefabricated and assembled by humans. In contrast an organism is said to self-organize. When a human egg is fertilized and starts to cleave into two and then four and then eight cells and on to a trillion cells in the newborn, different sets of genes are expressed in different cells, and the resulting different sets of proteins interact to generate distinctive embryonic and then fetal and then newborn traits. The mother is not on the observation deck giving orders. The interactions between cells are key to this process: during brain development, for example, protobrain cells (neurons) migrate into the cranium, making physical contacts and secreting hormones that influence the migration and final location of each one, eventually generating minds that are capable of learning, memory, and language. Emergence undergirds every step of this remarkable process. The mother may have no clue how the process works and is in some sense right in feeling, as many mothers do, that what has emerged is not her creation but a miracle.
My second mistake: God is not a fiction. Our ancestors over tens of thousands of years collectively gave rise to almost everything that is now most important to us and most influential in our lives. Cooking, language, agriculture, technologies, government, the economy, science, education, art, religion—are these fictions? They’re abstractions that emerged from different aspects of human behavior, and they’re real, even though no one can completely define what any one of them actually is.
God has emerged from some aspect of us, something we were already doing in prehistory, something so ancient and fundamental that it was in our ancestors before the first ideas of gods arose. It has to be so basic to us that without it, we might not be human. What could that be?
What truly defines us?
Since ancient Greece, philosophers and later scientists have struggled with the definition of human. Some have defined us by our intelligence, others by our ability to make tools, and still others by our facility with language. But recent findings don’t support those theories. We’re not the only toolmakers; many primates use sticks or grass to fish termites out of logs and stones to crack nuts. We’re not the only thinkers; a species of crow has been shown to reason out simple mechanical problems in advance without even having to go through trial and error. We’re not the only communicators; many animals communicate warnings, invitations, pleasure, and threats by sounds and signals. So what makes us distinctive?
We have no evidence that other animals use their abilities to create meaning or a better life for their children than they had. When you really come down to it, what makes us distinctive is that we humans change and grow not just because we have to in order to adapt to external conditions but because we aspire to something more. Intelligence, tool-making, and language help make us human, but they would never have developed as they did if our ancestors had not been aspiring to do something better than it had been done before.
Aspirations are not the same as desires, like food, sex, and security. Every animal has these desires from instinct alone. Aspirations reach beyond survival needs, to something that shapes each of us into an individual. Aspiration isn’t always to create; it could be to restrain ourselves to fit in better. We all aspire to different things.
We humans are the aspiring species.
Because we feel driven to be better, to do better, to create better, to understand better, to have more, to be safer, we have become far more than the sum of our instincts. The interacting aspirations of humanity make up an extremely complex system, and this is true even in isolated communities. From the expanding complexity of generations of aspirations mixing and cross-fertilizing, gods emerged virtually everywhere there were people.
As we pull back the zoom lens on reality, expanding our frame of reference by orders of magnitude, the world and universe become new, beyond not only prediction but previous imagination.
God is endlessly emerging from the staggering complexity of all humanity’s aspirations across time.
God Emerges from Humanity’s Aspirations
Are aspirations real enough that they can conglomerate and result in an emergent phenomenon? If we ourselves are real—and we’ve already established that—then our aspirations must be real, because they are our defining characteristics; they are our purpose. They play out in our behavior and beliefs and interactions with each other. They’re affected by what we see other people do, which is largely a playing out of their own aspirations. The aspirations, fulfilled and unfulfilled, of countless people, living and dead, influence our sense of what is possible and desirable and meaningful. To question the reality of our aspirations is to allow the possibility that we are nothing but meat with habits. We know that’s not true about ourselves; surely we can’t believe that about other people.
Aspirations are the stories of our future, the stories we live for. Aspirations are among the abstractions, like love, that are the most real to us.
The idea that God is a phenomenon that emerges from human aspirations turns out to be astonishingly fertile. It casts human progress in a new light. This ever-emerging God can be understood as the dynamic presence of what humanity has collectively achieved. In this sense God is indeed a creator—of tool-making, ritual, and language and later of ideals like truth, freedom, and equality, which have taken hundreds of generations to clarify in practice.
The emerging God also can be seen as the guiding force of science. If every astronomer, for example, had to start over observing the stars, no one would ever understand anything. Thousands of years of humans aspiring to understand the heavens better, and aspiring to build on each other’s work, were necessary to arrive at the science we have today. It’s the emerging God that allows us to stand, as Isaac Newton phrased it, on the shoulders of giants. This God has shaped the development of the scientific method from a weaving of many humans’ curiosity, rationality, dedication, bravery, and patience. The emerging God has developed meaningful concepts of love and beauty, as well as power and greed. This God is filled with the sense of purpose—not always good purpose but on balance good enough so that we have thrived as a species. Emerging from the collective aspirations, good and bad, that have defined every individual throughout all history and prehistory, God is behind our shared drive to control, change, or experience more deeply our lives and our world.
This emergent phenomenon is worthy of the name God. And it may be the only thing that exists in the modern universe that is.
This is not a God that demands worship. Worship is the wrong word, because it implies distance and hierarchy. The emerging God is wherever humans are, and its very existence celebrates our amazing place in the cosmos. Each of us is directly connected to the emerging God. We can draw on God’s power by identifying with the ancient and uplifting force of aspiration that is in us as members of the human species. No worshipping is necessary.
What Is the Relationship Between the Universe and the Emerging God?
God did not create the universe. God created the meaning of the universe. There is something out there that is 13.8 billion years old, from which our galaxy and our solar system evolved, but God had nothing to do with it because God didn’t exist then. However, if God had not emerged later, whatever is out there would remain unknown and meaningless, as it is to the other animals on Earth. It wouldn’t even be a universe, because “universe” is an idea and there would be no ideas. Only through generations of humans who aspired to share wonder did the emerging God create the concept of “creating the universe.” In this sense God has indeed created order from chaos.
God literally brings meaning into our lives—not just spiritual meaning, not just purpose, but meaning itself. I see a thing moving, making noise. It’s simply there, but God is what makes it a bird walking along the railing of the deck, makes it cute, makes its chirp lovely, makes me want to watch and protect it, rather than eat it, makes me grateful for it and also want to categorize and understand it and its entire genus. Thanks to this emergent process I’m calling God we have concepts, stories, identity, language. They have all emerged from the mixing and catalyzing aspirations of billions of humans over millennia. The emerging God has created the meaning of everything and deepens it moment to moment. The emerging God is where we get our ability to recognize and wonder about the beauty in nature—to find it so exquisite that some people think only a God could have created it. A God did create the most important aspect of it: what it means to us. What we do not owe to God we cannot even articulate, because it’s meaningless. Without the emerging God, we could not even be grateful for our own biology or existence, because no animal on its own could ever come up with a profound concept like “gratitude” or “biology” or “existence.”
This is not just a language game. This is about recognizing the enormity of the aspirational potential of our species and its achievements so far. The emerging God is the source of humanity’s insatiable desire for new beauty and wonder, for participation and appreciation, and for stories illuminating where it all came from and how we fit in. The nonstop, long-term, back-and-forth process between every individual and the ever-emerging God of our species has over time constructed a meaningful world so complex that many believe it was handed down by a Creator God—just as the Great Pyramid of Giza, built by a pharaoh and his workers around 2500 BCE, was believed by the still-ancient Egyptians of 1500 BCE to have been built by an earlier race of godlike beings.
So long as we hold to the belief that God created the universe, we condemn ourselves to live in a tiny imaginary universe, banishing God to a distant place outside it. With this level of denial we will never be able to benefit from the large-scale discoveries of science— or figure out how to live together for the long term here on this very real planet, which is integrated into the very real universe and undergoing very real changes that are challenging us right now to expand our aspirations beyond our personal and local goals.
The old Creator God and the universe that actually surrounds us are incompatible, and trying to reconcile them causes both internal and external strife. To redefine God as an emergent phenomenon, however, may at first feel worse than a little incompatibility. But if you’re seeking a big picture that brings into harmony our understanding of God, our growing scientific knowledge, our human emotions, and our fundamental story of ourselves, this is it. Your resistance is God at work, as your aspirations struggle to live in this world.
Excerpted from A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet by Nancy Ellen Abrams (Beacon Press, 2015 ). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.