© 2009 by Kenneth Keith Krogh – All rights reserved.
The idea of God Almighty is more sacred today than ever before in the minds of many. To others, that idea has long been seen as catering to the rich and powerful. Its dominant ethos, seemingly: “God helps those who help themselves!”
Meanwhile the idea of a more relevant higher power is gaining prominence in yet other minds, as the only one under which mankind can peacefully and productively relate. The evolutionary power of Nature is thought by many to govern the cosmos and all its contents under the strictures of a moral imperative of interdependence. This holds that all creatures must learn to live together or perish in favor of yet other life forms that can live interdependently. Its ethos, in contrast, is: “Nature helps those who help each other!”
It is this moral imperative of interdependence which leads more and more people to acknowledge that Nature is the higher power to which man must answer if he is to survive on planet Earth. It is not sufficient nor helpful to be preoccupied with gaining dominion over the Earth to the glory of God Almighty in the Highest. We must all devote ourselves to the productive interdependence of life as we know it if we are to provide a future for our posterity. Our religious views themselves are in process of epochal, evolutionary change.
There are at least two kinds of higher power now in contention: “supernatural” and “natural.” The “supernatural” is thought to exist in the form of an omnipotent, universal, other-worldly being: “God Almighty.” This being is thought to be located in another realm beyond man’s ability to comprehend or question but in whose image man himself is thought to have been fashioned. Such a being is believed to be the source of the sacred texts of three “supernaturally oriented” religions: Jewish, Christian and Muslim.
The “natural” higher power, however, is different. Nature is thought to be this-worldly in character rather than other-worldly. It does not exist as a being in itself. Rather, it is believed to be (as best we can describe) an evolutionary process of processes as exhibited in the primordial, evolutionary conditions thought to have given rise to the cosmos as a whole. Thus while Nature’s origins are still in question, its behavior is not. The behavior of this “natural” higher power is evident in regularities which can be read from the cosmological, geological, physiological and psychological records. And many such regularities are not only discernible but replicable as well. This means that, through scientific observation and experimentation, man can predict much of Nature’s behavior, sometimes to an exquisite degree of accuracy.
Religions are not necessarily a way of thinking which “poisons everything” as suggested by Christopher Hitchens in his perceptive book, “God Is Not Great.” (1) The emerging new religion is in the robust position of being able to clarify and confirm things as never before. Throughout history religions have sought to answer two of life’s fundamental questions: how the world works and how man should act. Religions toward this end have followed one after another through the ages–when one doesn’t seem to work, another has been tried. Often as not, however, the validity of a given religion has been determined through force of arms rather than the force of reason. But today we now are possessed of a peaceful kind of religion: a discriminating, more comprehensive and more relevant religion which can refine itself as man’s cognitive grasp of the world improves. The new religion thus represents an adaptive way of thinking which accepts only that which can be verified through an open process of reasoned debate. In line with Hitchens’ thinking, the new religion rejects blind acceptance of the fixed dogmas of old.
The suggested name of this new religion, reflecting a frame of mind already widely in vogue, is that of “Naturalism.” Its motto: “Getting right with the world.” And because a religion so described must of necessity be based on the principle of evolution, the first task of “Naturalism,” should be that of placing the idea of God Almighty within an evolutionary context.
The new religion does this by recognizing that thousands of years ago the idea of God Almighty played a formative but restrictive role in helping to establish a new era that we have called “civilization”– within which we still live. This period is widely regarded as being more “civil” in character more ethical, moral and principled) than primitive history inasmuch as the level of human development is believed to have evolved from a violent, fearful stage to an advanced and more ordered stage of cultural achievement. The idea of God Almighty is widely thought to have played a formative role in such “civilizational” advance. But, while the idea of God Almighty did play a formative role at the outset of “civilization,” it has played an increasingly restrictive one ever since, as we shall see.
What was that initial formative role? The notion of “one-god” to replace the thousand gods of old, proved necessary to what Walter Bagehot has described as “making the mold for civilization:” “In early times the quantity of government is much more important than its quality. What you want is a comprehensive rule binding men together, making them do much the same thing, telling them what to expect of each other – fashioning them alike, and keeping them so. What this rule is does not matter so much. . . . How to get the obedience of men is the hard problem; what you do with that obedience is less critical. “ . . . The object of such organization is to create what may be called (2) a cake of custom. All the actions of life are to be submitted to a single rule for a single object; that gradually created the ‘hereditary drill’ which science teaches to be essential and which the early instinct of men saw to be essential too. That this regime forbids free thought is not an evil; or rather, though an evil, it is the necessary basis for the greatest good, it is necessary for making the mold of civilization, and hardening the soft fiber of early man.
“ . . . But when we come to history as it is, we are more struck with the difficulty of the next step. . . . The great difficulty which history records is not that of the first step, but that of the second step. What is most evident is not the difficulty of getting a fixed law, but getting out of a fixed law; not cementing (as upon a former occasion I phrased it) a cake of custom, but of breaking the cake of custom; not of making the first preservative habit, but of breaking through it, and reaching something better.”
In such words a century and a half ago, Bagehot described the challenge of “civilization.” To overcome the senseless violence of primitive times, he believed, it was necessary that man somehow develop a sense of coherence around an idea so powerful as to overcome the fear that pervaded his psyche and so universal that “no one could dream of not conforming to it.”
Such a sense of coherence has indeed been achieved for thousands of years. The idea of a supernatural “God Almighty” has succeeded in providing “a comprehensive rule binding men together, making them do much the same thing, telling them what to expect of each other – fashioning them alike and keeping them so.” Most of its adherents today continue to believe in a God Almighty so powerful and universal that they cannot “dream of not conforming to it.”
During recent millennia, the idea of God Almighty divided into three closely-related but competing religions: Jewish, Christian and Muslim, abruptly undercutting the claimed universality of any one of them. Most Jews today are so riveted to their particular idea of “God Almighty” that they seemingly are unable to dream of “not conforming” to it! Likewise with the Christians and Muslims. All think in terms of absolute, unswerving godly power and are unable, in their religious thinking, to consider the possibility of thinking in any other way. All three are caught in a “cake of custom!”
To be sure, a supernatural “God Almighty” was not the only religious idea to help usher in the era of “civilization.” Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism and Buddhism, among other religions, contributed in much the same way. Like the three religions devoted to the idea of God Almighty, Buddhism and Hinduism continue today as major religions. And Buddhism does so without much need for a god at all! But of all the religions which helped to usher in “civilization,” none have been so dynamic and powerful as those devoted to the idea of “God Almighty.”
Strikingly, the membership of the three “supernaturally-oriented” religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – is greater collectively than the membership of all other religions combined. And the implacable animosities and atrocities emanating from the contention of these “supernaturally-oriented” religions not only have become central factors in the current world crisis but stand as a striking rebuke to the idea of God Almighty itself as a force for sustained moral advance in the social development of mankind. Their internecine warfare over the centuries has become so intense and ar-reaching, and the collateral damage to other peoples so egregious and unforgiving, that the whole world has an acute interest in helping them break out of their particular “cake” of religious custom.
As Bagehot has observed, breaking a cake of custom can be much more difficult than creating one. This has often been the case because the origins of a given cake of custom may have become largely lost on later generations whose behavior continues to be ruled by old axioms which are “remembered” in a different context than they were first experienced. To be more specific, the idea of God Almighty gained its influence at the outset of “civilization,” not so much by presenting moral teachings as such, but actually by compounding primitive man’s sense of fear. Primitive man, we might recall, had already been beset with fearful, widespread and indiscriminate violence from all sides, especially human violence. But to this fear, primitive man in the Near East was subjected to a yet more focused and ultimately more terrifying fear of “supernatural” violence emanating from on high! That singular source of violence was the “onegod” concept – the concept of an angry, omnipotent, omniscient, warrior god who was believed to control all the forces of the universe and who had become more and more feared as he became known to violate his own commandments: slaughtering whole populations – men women and children – to get his way! The story of the “great flood,” in which an angry God Almighty drowned virtually everyone on earth, sparing only Noah, his family, and two each of all other creatures, is perhaps the most sweeping of many examples.
God Almighty was thought to be so powerful as to be able to do anything. He was believed to control all the violent forces of the universe. And there was nothing, it seemed, he would not do to prevail. “Fear of the Lord,” it was held, “is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 110:10).
Man’s salvation in the face of such all-pervasive fear was made clear by God Almighty’s earthly representatives. He must worship the deity with all his heart and all his mind or suffer an horrific denouement. First, he would burn forever in the tortuous fires of Hell. Second, he would be denied life everlasting in the blissful, “supernatural” realm of Heaven where he might otherwise continue to live forever with his departed loved ones. And third, even if he devoted himself to the worship of God Almighty as best he might, he was fearful of “purgatory,” the passing of judgment at the “pearly gates”of Heaven. With the advent of God Almighty, “civilized” man became obsessed with fears far exceeding those of primitive man. Whereas primitive man might seek the safety of his cave or other redoubt, there was no refuge from this ubiquitous “supernatural” power that demanded total submission. God Almighty was everywhere. God Almighty could read everyone’s thoughts. His judgment was sharp and severe, and he was inescapable!
Primitive men were not enticed into a more coherent way of life by the niceties of a more thoughtful way of social interaction. Rather, they were primarily bludgeoned into it by the force of sheer fear. “God Almighty” was the most powerful, frightening and overwhelming threat ever imagined, then or since! Proof of its power is self-evident in the fact that only the religious idea of God Almighty has expanded its influence through the millennia to stand today at the center of the current world crisis. But we are proving inept in coping with this powerful idea today because we have largely forgotten the fearful nature of its origins.
In many minds, the prevailing idea of God Almighty is different from what it was initially, having evolved into a more kind, gentle and loving god. But still buried in the psyche of people generally are memories of a jealous, cruel and domineering God. Also buried in their psyche is the ruthlessness of its basic ethos: “God helps those who help themselves.” The frightfulness of those memories and the ruthlessness of its basic ethos have critically affected and circumscribed our behavior today in ways large and small of which we are largely unaware.
As a result, many politicians in the Western world today (especially in America) pray regularly to a kind, gentle and loving God Almighty for his assistance in correcting social ills. But they do so seemingly oblivious to the fact that many of the social ills affecting us today are rooted in policies engendered by the earlier fear of a jealous, cruel and domineering God Almighty and his still (4) active ethos: “God helps those who help themselves.” God Almighty’s basic ethos has not changed to match the evolutionary advances implicit in the more modern claims of a kinder, more gentle and more loving God. The old ethos, therefore, still stands as the dominant organizing principle of the era of “civilization” in which we still live, even as an evolutionary view of a kinder, gentler, more loving God has swept much of the world.
The evolution of the idea of God Almighty has been described by Harry Emerson Fosdick in “A Guide to Understanding the Bible”4 as follows: “ . . . In retrospect, the road traveled by the idea of God through the Bible as a whole presents a fascinating spectacle.
|“Beginning with a tribal war god on a desert mountain, it ends with men saying, ‘God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ (John 4:24.)||“Beginning with a tribal, war god, leading his devotees to bloody triumph over their foes, it ends with men seeing that ‘God is love; and he that abideth in love abideth in God, and God abideth in him.’ (I John 4:16.)||“Beginning with a territorial deity who loved his clansman and hated the remainder of mankind, it ends with a great multitude out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, (Revelation 5:9.) worshiping one universal Father.||“Beginning with a god who walked in a garden in the cool of the day or who showed his back to Moses as a special favor, it ends with the God whom ‘no man hath seen . . . at any time’(John l:l8) and in whom ‘we live, and move, and have our being.’ (Acts 17:28.)||“Beginning with a god who commanded the slaughter of infants and sucklings without mercy, it ends with the God whose will it is that not ‘one (5) of these little ones should perish.’ (Matthew l8:l4.)||“Beginning with a god from whom at Sinai the people shrank in fear, saying, ‘Let not God speak with us, lest we die,’ (Exodus 20:19; cf. Deuteronomy 5:25.) it ends with the God to whom one prays in the solitary place and whose indwelling Spirit is our unseen friend.||“Beginning with a god whose highest social vision was a tribal victory, it ends with the God whose worshipers pray for a worldwide kingdom of righteousness and peace.”|
A scholarly account of the evolution of the nature of God Almighty has been developed by Karen Armstrong in her book, The Great Transformation: The Beginnings of our Religious Traditions. (5) In this tome, Armstrong describes the attempts of a succession of prophets (Amos, Hosea, Jeremia, Ezekiel, etc,) to describe a more kind, gentle and loving God Almighty who cares about every person, especially the least advantaged. In the conclusion of her book, she states:
The sages were ahead of us in recognizing that sympathy cannot be confined to our own group. We have to cultivate what the Buddhists call an ‘immeasurable’ outlook that extends to the ends of the earth, without excluding a single creature from this radius of concern. The Golden Rule reminded the fledgling individuals of the Axial Age that I value my own self as much as you do yours. If I made my individual self an absolute value, human society would become impossible, so we must all learn to ‘yield’ to one another. Our challenge is to develop this insight and give it a global significance. . . . Today everybody on the planet is our neighbor. . . .Mozi tried to convince the princes of his day that it made good, practical sense to cultivate jian ai, a deliberate and impartial ‘concern for everybody.’ It would, Mozi argued, serve their own best interests. We now this to be the case. What happens in Afghanistan or Iraq today will somehow have repercussions in London or Washington tomorrow. In the last resort, ‘love’ and ‘concern’ will benefit everybody more than self interested or shortsighted policies.
Fosdick and Armstrong have depicted the efforts made through the millennia to help change the conception of God Almighty from its early image of a jealous, cruel and domineering deity to a more kind, gentle and loving god. And although such an evolution in thinking has succeeded to the extent that many world leaders and their followers today do pray to the concept of a more kind, gentle and loving God Almighty, this has had little redeeming effect in bringing about any workable solution toward resolving the intractable differences between the “supernaturally-oriented” religions themselves. Each believes that its version of a permanent, absolute, universal, fixed and unchanging God Almighty is the only true god for all time. The continuing ferocity of the world struggle in which they are engaged gives ample evidence that the old ethos of God Almighty is still at work: “God helps those who help themselves.” Each faction believes God Almighty is pulling for it and it alone. There is no room in their thinking for compromise. No need for negotiation. The ethos of a jealous, cruel and domineering deity forbids looking for a kinder, gentler and loving outcome acceptable to all.
What has become obvious is that idea of God Almighty is not the answer to today’s current world problems! It has itself become the problem! The basic problem lies in its fixity – in its insistence that it represents a permanent, absolute, universal and fixed destiny for the universe as a whole. But the existence of feuding Jewish, Christian and Muslim versions of this idea alone undercuts their respective claims of universalism. If the idea of God Almighty were truly universal there would be no such fighting.
A relatively new and more relevant higher power has been emerging for centuries which is “natural” rather than”supernatural in character. And a new ungodly religion, Naturalism, has been emerging for decades which gives structure to such an evolutionary transformation. Indeed, the basic outlines for this religion were set forth by Harry Overstreet nearly sixty years ago in his book, The Mature Mind:
“Today we are uneasy about religion because we note, with a feeling of guilt, that what should unite us has served to divide us, and that institutions that should help us become immune to the ordinary standards of power and success have themselves made an ill-conceived surrender to those standards. With our guilty religious conscience we try to overcome religious disunity: we hold interfaith meetings and world congresses of religions.
For the most part, however, in spite of their earnest sincerity, efforts thus to build “unity” are failures – and understandably so. They look for a common denominator among all contemporary religions. But to find a common denominator between religions that on the one hand, exalt the dignity of man and promote the love of man for man, and, on the other hand, debase man into an everlasting child, a slave of Deity, and a hater of those who “disbelieve” is to find something so empty of content that it has no regenerative power whatever.
Significant unity can be achieved only among religions that accept the maturing of man as the central aim of life. Religions that, in however sanctimoniously disguise a form, encourage the mutual enmities of men cannot be “unified” in any significant sense because they are not in themselves agents of unity. Religions of the sword and the stake and religions that insist on the permanent childlike dependence of man upon an all-powerful and all-commanding Deity have no conception of man as (6) a creature of inherent dignity. They cannot, therefore, induce him to grow into a mature wholeness of life.
“Today as of old the admonition is relevant: ‘Choose ye this day whom ye will serve.’ Either, in religion we serve a belief that encourages man’s growth or we serve a belief that keeps him immature. The two beliefs are basically and forever incompatible.”(6)
Overstreet believed religion as such is not the problem. It is the kind of religion that matters. Today, he noted, we suffer from an ancient and continuing indecision with respect to religious matters. Controversy continues even today over whether religion comes from a word meaning taboo, or from a word, different by one letter, meaning bind together. (7)
If the first derivation is accepted, Overstreet noted, religion is a matter of meticulously not doing what some Power says we must not do. Religion of this sort, he added, emphasizes the relation of subject to ruler, slave to master, dependent and obedient child to parent. It operates through commands given and received; it approves submission; as rewards for good behavior it gives gifts but never an enlarged freedom. Its basic motivation is fear of the taboo and the maker of the taboo. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (8)
Quite different, Overstreet continued, is the conception that religion means to bind together. Religion in the sense of binding together, he stated, invites man to a mature relationship with life – and therefore, in behalf of that relationship, to a mature development of his own potentialities. The religious life in this sense, he continued, is the one in which there is a constant effort to link oneself, in joy and contribution, to all the life-giving movements of one’s world. The religious life, Overstreet concluded, is the maturing life: it is the maturing life deeply and passionately committed to the search for wholeness. (9)
Overstreet has asked us to rescue the concept of religion from the assumption that religion refers only to a belief in a taboo-based higher power which, because of its ambiguities can be construed to mean all things to all men. Instead, Overstreet has asked for a more realistic approach to religion which exemplifies man’s potential for maturational growth, thereby encouraging a spiritual philosophy of binding together in support of the life-giving movements of one’s world. For his own part, Overstreet saw the teachings of Christ as illustrative of such a more mature approach to religion. But if he were to witness the warlike initiatives taken in Christ’s name in recent years, he likely could not have supported them. What is indisputable, however, is that Overstreet has set forth the outlines of a new and more comprehensive religion tailor-made for today’s growing belief in the higher power of nature and its moral imperative of interdependence.
The new religion recognizes that man’s process of psychological maturation is a fundamental part of Nature’s overall process of evolution, a concept that simply cannot be expressed in the simplistic, taboo-oriented terms employed in the sacred texts of God Almighty. References to it tend to be dismissed by most “supernaturally-oriented” believers even though a major theme of their texts deal with the continuing evolution of the thinking of their major prophets. Sooner or later, one might think, their minds must tumble to the fact that their sacred texts are a veritable treasure trove of evidence supporting the theory of evolution.
The three God Almighties, the Jewish god, Yahweh, the Christian god, Christ, and the Muslim god, Allah, have all played leading roles in instigating the current Afghan War, Iraq War and the War on Terrorism. They have survived in part because each has been thought by many to be not only a caring, personal god but one that has lent a degree of certitude to an uncertain world. But absence of care and a high degree of uncertainty brought on by the carnage, cruelty and hopelessness ensuing from the three wars is today causing the idea of God Almighty to founder on the shoals of certitude itself.
How caring is God Almighty? Where is the caring certainty of Yahweh, Christ or Allah in these wars? Have we had any word or indication as to what they think about the cruelty that is going on? No? Why is that if they are as omnipotent, omniscient and caring as we have been led to believe? These are fair questions because the other higher power in the universe, Nature, is much more open and forthcoming in revealing the certainties and cruelties of life. And people for centuries have begun to notice, lately in large numbers. Hence the evolutionary breakthrough to a belief in a more realistic higher power to which mankind can relate.
Perhaps the greatest problem with the three supernatural God Almighties is that the certitude they have planted in the minds of their followers is what stands in the way of any reasoned reconciliation. These three religions have been fighting for millennia and will continue to do so endlessly for as long as they continue to hold to the certitude of their beliefs.
What is needed is not an absolute “supernatural” God Almighty to bring certitude to an uncertain world. What is needed today is a vision of a single higher power that exemplifies the uncertainty of the universe in which we live and which helps man live peacefully, productively and spiritually within that uncertainty. That is what the evolutionary breakthrough to the higher power of Nature and the new religion of Naturalism is all about.
1. Christopher Hitchens. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Warner Books, New York, 2007.
2. Walter Bagehot in Physics and Politics, Beacon Press, 1956. Pages 19-20, 39.
3. Ibid, page 42.
4. Harry Emerson Fosdick in A Guide to Understanding the Bible, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1938, pages 53-54.
5. Karen Armstrong in The Great Transformation, Anchor Books, 2007.
6. Harry Overstreet in The Mature Mind, W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., New York, 1949, pages 270-71.
7. Ibid., page 266
8. See the Christian Bible, Proverbs 1:7
9. Harry Overstreet in The Mature Mind, 9 W. W. Norton, New York. 1949, pages 267-68.
Kenneth Keith Krogh
7406 Spring Village Drive
Alexandria, VA 22150