The Existence of 'God' Creates Human Meaning

Why humans created the emerging God and how the concept of a higher power has brought meaning into human life.

  • Human Meaning
    “God is endlessly emerging from the staggering complexity of all humanity’s aspirations across time.”
    Photo by Fotolia/agsandrew
  • A God That Could Be Real
    Nancy Ellen Abrams explores a radically new way of thinking about God in “A God That Could Be Real.”
    Cover courtesy Beacon Press

  • Human Meaning
  • A God That Could Be Real

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?

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