The great project of modern physics...has repeatedly confirmed the strange fittedness of our universe to human life. If science has discredited certain specific ideas about how God structured the natural world, it has also made the mathematical beauty of physical laws, as well as their seeming calibration for the emergence of life, much clearer to us than they were to people 500 years ago.
...The remarkable advances of neuroscience have only sharpened...the difficulty of figuring out how physical processes alone could create the lived reality of conscious life...So notable is the failure to discover consciousness in our dissected tissue that certain materialists, like Dennett, have fastened onto the idea that both conscious experience and selfhood must be essentially illusions...This idea, no less than the belief in a multiverse of infinite realities, requires a leap of faith. Both seem less parsimonious, less immediately reasonable, than a traditional religious assumption that mind precedes matter, as the mind of God precedes the universe — that the precise calibrations of physical reality and the irreducibility of personal experience are proof that consciousness came first.
..the God hypothesis is constantly vindicated by the comprehensibility of the universe, and the capacity of our reason to unlock its many secrets. Indeed, there’s a quietly theistic assumption to the whole scientific project. As David Bentley Hart puts it in his book “The Experience of God,” “We assume that the human mind can be a true mirror of objective reality because we assume that objective reality is already a mirror of mind.”
...when today’s evolutionary theorists go searching for a reason people believe so readily in spiritual powers and nonhuman minds, they are also making a concession to religion’s plausibility — because most of our evolved impulses and appetites correspond directly to something in reality itself...Of course, religion could be the exception: a desire with no real object, a set of experiences with no correlate outside the mind, sustained by a combination of wishful thinking, the desire of mortal creatures to believe in the imperishable and the inevitability of what debunkers of supernatural fraud sometimes call “residua,” the slice of strange events that lie outside our current scope of explanation.
...the world in 2021, no less than the world in 1521 or 321, presents considerable evidence of an originating intelligence presiding over a law-bound world well made for our minds to understand, and at the same time a panoply of spiritual forces that seem to intervene unpredictably in our existence.
That combination corresponds reasonably well to the cosmology on offer in many major world religions, from Christianity with its creator God who exists outside of space and time and its ministering angels and interceding saints, to Hinduism with its singular divinity finding embodiment in a pantheon of gods. Almost as if the old faiths had a somewhat plausible grasp on reality all along.
But wait, you might say: Given that Hinduism and Christianity are actually pretty different, maybe this attempted spell-breaking doesn’t get us very far. Postulating an uncreated divine intelligence or ultimate reality doesn’t tell us much about what God wants from us. Presupposing an active spiritual realm doesn’t prove that we should all go back to church, especially if these experiences show up cross-culturally, which means they don’t confirm any specific dogma. And you haven’t touched all the important problems with religion — what about the problem of evil? What about the way that institutional faith is used to oppress and shame people? Why not deism instead of theism, or pantheism instead of either?
These are fair questions, but this essay isn’t titled “How to Become a Presbyterian” or “How to Know Which Faith Is True.” The spell-breaking I’m offering here is a beginning, not an end. It creates an obligation without telling you how exactly to fulfill it. It opens onto further arguments, between religious traditions and within them, that aren’t easily resolved.
The difficulties of those ancient arguments — along with the challenge of dealing with religion as it’s actually embodied, in flawed people and institutions — are a big part of what keeps the spell of materialism intact. For finite and suffering creatures, religious belief offers important kinds of hope and consolation. But unbelief has its own comforts: It takes a whole vast zone of ideas and arguments, practices and demands, supernatural perils and metaphysical complexities, and whispers, well, at least you don’t have to spend time thinking about that.
But actually you do. So if you are standing uncertainly on the threshold of whatever faith tradition you feel closest to, you don’t have to heed the inner voice insisting that it’s necessarily more reasonable and sensible and modern to take a step backward. You can recognize instead that reality is probably not as materialism describes it, and take up the obligation of a serious human being preparing for life and death alike — to move forward, to step through.