Dancing on Pinheads

By Colby Hess

Many people have at some point heard, or are at least vaguely familiar with the question, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” – a reference to the pointless theological debates that consumed much of European academia during the latter half of the Middle Ages.  Although it turns out this particular phrasingwas most likely never actually discussed (not appearing in print until hundreds of years later as a retroactive jab at Thomas Aquinas and his “scholastic” brand of philosophy) it continues to serve as a handy metaphor for any dubious intellectual endeavor lacking in apparent practical value and without any foreseeable means of resolution.

Questions of this sort, while no longer at the forefront of serious scholarly inquiry, haven’t completely subsided in the modern age, especially in the United States where we have the unusual distinction of being by far the most religious of any advanced, industrial nation.  As the so-called “culture wars” rage on unabated in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election (with back and forth volleys ranging from Rick Santorum’s failed candidacy to President Obama’s recent declaration of support for gay marriage), the subject of religious belief and its role in American politics has been pushed to the forefront of national discourse, and with it has come a revival of interest in a wide range of formerly obscure ideas relating to God and his role in the universe.

Most visible and controversial among these various heretical doctrines to emerge, and standing in direct opposition to the mainstream Christian beliefs still held by a majority of the populace, is the moral and philosophical position that God is completely imaginary; that he is nothing but a vestige of primitive ignorance and confusion about the workings of nature, and that it is therefore up to humans alone to determine what is best for our species.  Rooted in science and fueled in large part by a perceived religious overreach in all manner of secular concerns, this passionate and vocal “new” atheism has burst onto the scene over the past decade – a rapid resurgence of a phenomenon that had gone virtually unnoticed in the U.S. since the days of Robert Green Ingersoll and the “Golden Age of Freethought” at the close of the nineteenth century.

As a direct result of its newfound popularity, there are now more resources available for atheists and other such heathens than ever before, and the ideas they promote can no longer be as easily suppressed or ignored as they once were.  By embracing the power of the Internet to share information with a global audience, modern atheists have been remarkably successful in disseminating their ideas and attracting new supporters.  A simple Google search or a quick perusal of sites such as Reddit or Twitter gives a good sense of just how ubiquitous atheist articles and treatises have become among the blogosphere and other alternative forms of media.

Of course, such success has also inspired an army of detractors, many of them enraged to the point of madness over what they view as a blasphemous assault against everything they hold dear.  When you stop to consider the relative novelty of seeing viewpoints that were long regarded as taboo suddenly being publicly and unapologetically expressed (significantly easier now that doing so won’t result in you being burned alive at the stake), along with the brutal history of bigotry and oppression that have been directed against atheists since ancient times, it’s not surprising that Christians, Muslims, and other devout believers would lash out vehemently against these outspoken infidels and the threat they pose to their faith.

What is surprising however, is that some of the harshest critiques of atheism often seem to come, not from the believers, but instead from individuals who for all intents and purposes should likewise fall into the non-religious category – people who have rejected most tenets of orthodox dogma and yet who, for various reasons, still cling to unsupported and untestable beliefs about an ultimate divine power.  I’m referring here in particular to those calling themselves deists or pantheists.  For anyone unfamiliar with these terms, a brief overview may be of some help.

A deist is someone who believes that the universe was created by an all-powerful, supernatural intelligence who has since retired from active involvement with his creation, content to let it evolve according to the laws of nature.  Deists therefore tend to reject the idea of miracles, of prophecy, and of divine revelation – in other words, many of the things most cherished by the traditional Abrahamic faiths.  Counted among their ranks are such famous Enlightenment thinkers as Voltaire and Rousseau as well as several of America’s founding fathers, including James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.  It is to this deist “God of nature” that Jefferson was referring when he penned the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

Pantheists, on the other hand, believe that God is the universe, and that we, as well as everything else – all the stars and planets, all matter and energy, all thoughts and ideas, ants and worms, atoms and galaxies – everything – are all just various aspects of his divine being, or nodes in his cosmic consciousness.  Alternatively, for the less allegorically inclined, it’s the view that God, Nature, and the Universe are synonymous and interchangeable terms pointing to a single, grand unifying principle of existence – a stance Richard Dawkins has referred to as “sexed-up atheism.”  Notable adherents of pantheism include the Renaissance troublemakers Giordano Bruno and Baruch Spinoza as well as more modern thinkers such as Albert Einstein.

Now, there are myriad reasons why someone might choose to subscribe to either of these two positions.  Probably the most straightforward and respectable one is that they just truly feel that’s where the evidence leads; that in their opinion, Occam’s razor cuts most finely by positing the existence of some higher being to initiate the Big Bang, or to tweak the universe’s various physical constants in order to provide the necessary atomic stability that makes life as we know it possible.

For others, their basis of belief is not so much intellectual as it is the result of emotional attachment – a lingering nostalgia for one of humankind’s oldest ideas coupled with what is otherwise a scientific outlook – one that makes Creationism and other such forms of Biblical literalism untenable but still leaves room in their worldview for a deity of some sort.  Yet another possible route to such beliefs is that like Trekkies or die-hard Harry Potter fans, they simply find such speculative concepts mysterious and exciting to the point of infatuation, thus leading them to embrace these ideas as the ultimate truth about reality.  Regardless of the underlying psychological motivations, however, both of the positions outlined above share two major points in common.

The first is that despite whatever mental appeal they may hold for those who subscribe to them, both of these ideas are essentially pure speculation.  While they’re interesting to ponder as hypotheses or as thought experiments, by their very nature they seem doomed to remain forever trapped beyond any conceivable manner of investigation or refutation, thus placing them beyond the purview of science.

Think about it.  If you have a god who is the universe or who dwells fully outside of and out of contact with it – a god whose presence exerts no detectable, discernible influence over the physical interactions of matter and energy in space and time – then his existence would mesh so perfectly with the laws of physics as to make it indistinguishable from non-existence.  How is such a god in any meaningful sense “real”?  Faced with such fundamental limitations, it would therefore seem a bit presumptuous, or at least premature, to assert these ideas as gospel truth.  As the astronomer Edwin Hubble once said, “Not until the empirical resources are exhausted need we pass on to the dreamy realms of speculation.”

Far more important than disputing these positions, however, is drawing attention to the second point they have in common; that is, to the utter irrelevance of any such intangible and distant god in relation to the specific factual claims made by the world’s major religions, and to the effects that such claims have on human life in the here and now.

To say that God exists but that he’s uninvolved with the day to day workings of the universe, or unconcerned with human affairs, or that he is the universe and we and everything else are merely cogs within the grand machine of his being begs the question:  How does that have anything to do with the myths, rituals, and dogmas championed by Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc.?  How is such a god in any way relevant to what we know as organized religion or to the misguided morality it tries to impose on everyone it encounters?

I think that atheists sometimes get so hung up on the matter of God’s non-existence that we tend to forget this crucial matter of relevance.  It’s quite simple.  Unless God thinks and acts somewhat like a human being – unless he is concerned with our thoughts and behaviors, and listens to prayers, and occasionally suspends the laws of physics to perform miraculous interventions on our behalf (as envisioned by most devout worshipers and as described in their holy books) – then who really cares whether some abstract shadow of such a divinity exists or not?  If he lies wholly outside the spheres in which mainstream religion inserts itself, then the potential existence of such a being has absolutely no bearing on why society should be anything but secular!

Neither the God of deists nor the God of pantheists would have even the slightest relevance as far as why one should follow the Ten Commandments of the Bible, or obey Sharia or the Five Pillars of Islam, or abide by the kosher restrictions of Jewish orthodoxy.  This God would have nothing to do with the wearing of burqas, or mandatory school prayer, or with religious opposition to contraception, gay marriage, and the teaching of science – in short, all the things that get atheists so riled up in the first place.

If to believe in him requires just as much of a leap of faith as believing in Yahweh, yet the repercussions of doing so are utterly irrelevant to human life and interaction, there just doesn’t seem to be much point in getting so passionately attached to the concept.  Looking at it from a purely pragmatic perspective, beyond its possible sci-fi value, what’s really the difference between saying he exists or saying he doesn’t?  And if that’s the case, why dispute so heartily with atheists?  (Granted, you could fairly ask the same question of us, but that’s the whole point – it’s doesn’t matter either way.)

Atheists only concern ourselves with religion – we only bother with carrying such a ridiculously unnecessary label as “atheist” (after all, no one feels the need to declare himself an a-vampirist, a-leprechaunist, etc.), which brings us nothing but derision and grief from the general public – because we see superstitious, dogmatic, faith-based religion as one of the most destructive, baseless, and useless pursuits ever dreamt up by human beings.

Do you as deists or pantheists support the underlying ideas driving wars of religious hatred?  Do you agree with the censorship and other restrictions on freedom imposed by religious interference with laws and politics?  If so, then fine, we’ll add you to the rolls of the opposition.  But if not, why work to disparage the one group most vocally and vehemently opposed to all religious bigotry; to all indoctrinating of nonsense in innocent youth; to all anti-science, anti-progress, anti-learning, anti-pleasure, guilt-reveling death worship; to all peddling of false hope in order to control credulous masses brainwashed since birth?

With over eighty percent of humanity holding religious beliefs of some kind; with forty-six percent of Americans believing the earth was created six thousand years ago over the course of seven days; with a large contingent of murderous, fanatical Islamists bent on world domination and the complete destruction of secular society and values, we have our work cut out for us as it is.

So why obstruct us?  Why tear down the body of awareness we’re striving to build?  Why stand in the way of our vision of a happier, healthier, more peaceful future?  We should be at worst, uneasy allies, sharing a mutual interest in pursuing the truth about reality, free from the confines of mental and physical oppression and punishment, and the stifling of open inquiry practiced by both church and mosque for centuries.

With science now pointing towards such incredible and exotic possibilities as an infinite multiverse, hyper-dimensional vibrating strings, dark energy, the Higgs boson, quantum tunneling, and so many other exciting and fascinating facets of existence awaiting discovery, we should stop arguing about dancing angels and instead focus our energies on standing united against the common enemy of freethought.  Even a sentient universe ought to appreciate that!

Colby Hess is a freelance writer and photographer living near Seattle, WA.  He is currently writing a book about science, philosophy, and freethought.  Follow him on Twitter @ColbyTHess

 

Originally published as:

Dancing On Pinheads” on June 27, 2012 by Disinformation > http://www.disinfo.com/2012/06/dancing-on-pinheads/

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