Review of Taner Edis’ Ghost in the Universe

Taner Edis’ excellent book The Ghost in the Universe comes to us at a rather unique period for writing about science and religion. Never before have so many books tried to analyze the relationship between theological and scientific views of the world, and never before have so many utterly failed in the attempt. Often, writers distort something essential about both disciplines, and ignore the complexities at the heart of their relationship. Thus, although the bookshelves groan under the weight of volumes contributing to the debate, clear-minded analyses of the fundamental issues are harder than ever to find.

To better understand the achievements of Edis’ book, we should quickly survey some of the competing contributions. We find many theistic writers enlisting bogus paranormal phenomena to prop up arguments for God’s existence, turning a blind eye to scientific evidence disproving those same phenomena. Meanwhile, creationists tirelessly seek gaps in scientific knowledge to fill with theistic explanations. Then we find the academic theologians, who often write in convoluted, abstract styles that defy clear summary. Partially in response to the sins of believers, writers who oppose religion document its various shortcomings, but also reduce it to a collection of false empirical claims and naïve hopes. In doing so, they fail to address the ethical and social functions from which religion draws much of its appeal.

Authors sympathetic to religion seek to avoid the mistakes of religion’s most ardent supporters and passionate detractors, but usually commit distortions of their own. The late Stephen Jay Gould, for instance, redefined “religion” as a docile hybrid of wide-eyed wonder and ethical discourse, ignoring its claims to divinely revealed truth about the empirical world. This definition should lead us to wonder why so many theists insist on rejecting naturalistic explanations of the world, if these explanations cannot undermine religious belief. Following a slightly different strategy, writers such as the outstanding science educator Eugenie Scott reduce science to a provincial system of methodological naturalism, incapable of addressing questions about the existence of God. This view is appealingly nonconfrontational, and assuages fears that science dissolves cherished religious doctrines. Yet, it does not explain why its proponents don’t believe in unicorns, leprechauns or other such conjectural entities, all of which also lie outside the imagined boundaries of science. In fact, it doesn’t help us to understand why many of its proponents, including Scott herself, do not believe in God. Slanted reasoning and wishful thinking dominate at all levels of the debate, leaving the honest inquirer struggling to find informed analysis.

The Ghost in the Universe is an extremely important step in the right direction. The great strength of the book stems from Edis’ mastery of vast quantities of knowledge from different subject areas, and his ability to incorporate this information into solid generalizations. His attention to factual and logical details causes him to resist playing fast and loose with definitions of terms like “science,” “religion” or “God.” Instead, Edis carefully interrogates the assumptions and definitions of most popular discourse about science and religion, and uses historical, scientific and philosophical insights to illuminate every issue he discusses. In fact, the book goes a long way toward explaining why Eugenie Scott and many other scientists no longer believe in God, even if some of these same scientists diplomatically deny casual connections between scientific literacy and non-belief.

Edis begins the book by surveying the failures of traditional theistic arguments, and examining attempts by contemporary theologians to explain the concept of God. He explains the ideas of theists ranging from traditional creationist Henry Morris to academic theologian Richard Swinburne. In the process, he shows that philosophically sophisticated theologians have rightly rejected the simplistic model of God as a “Great Boss in the Sky,” but have been unable to present a logically coherent alternative. In fact, Edis persuasively argues that these theologians have multiplied the conceptual confusions of theism by presenting God as an abstraction with no tangible connection to the real world. For instance, we read that “God is absolute because the divine experience is composed of the totality of all experience” in the work of process theologian Frank T. Miosi, but what can such opaque rhetoric really tell us about God? Heinrich Heine seemed to have this kind of pseudo-discourse in mind when he noted, “in such a style, the truth cannot be told.” Indeed, many academic theologians seem to have lost interest in truth altogether. As we wade through the swamp of double-speak in their discourse, we find nothing solid on which to build a foundation of belief. Neither we nor they seem to understand why this new, bloodless God should even matter. He seems to be a thin wisp of speculation – a Ghost in the Universe.

As Edis argues, traditional creationists like Morris understand the problem of God better than their more “respectable” peers in one important way – they realize that an all-powerful, all-loving Creator would leave tangible evidence of his existence. That is, a world designed by a loving, powerful deity should be distinguishable from a world designed by physical laws alone. It doesn’t make sense to claim God as the “ground of all being,” as obscurantist theologian Paul Tillich did, while also retreating from any real claims about what God is, and how we can know he exists. Thus, Morris cites the Second Law of thermodynamics and other empirical details in an attempt to explain why God is necessary. The attempt fails, because he states and interprets the facts incorrectly, but at least he strives for an intellectually coherent theology. As Edis concludes, “Morris’ basic approach of presenting a religious picture of the world and supporting it with science is correct. There is no doubt the creationists’ God makes a difference.” The God of the philosophers, however, is a conceptual muddle:

We do not know what it means for the unsurpassingly great, wholly unanthropomorphic God of sophisticated theism to exist or not. Devout philosophers still say a God exists and cares about us, but such religiously crucial fact claims have become idle words. We cannot even take a leap of faith against the evidence and accept such a God, for we have no idea what we are supposed to be talking about.

Thus, we come to the modern dilemma of discussing God. If we try to build a case for theism based on scientific facts and explanations, the case invariably fails. If, however, we try to paper over the conceptual problems of theism with tortured abstractions, we end with a model of God that is both irrelevant and incomprehensible.

Things weren’t always this way. At one time, God was more than a hypothetical abstraction, and faith in his providence and design buttressed every major discipline of study. Theology was the queen of the sciences, because it confidently claimed insight into the nature of this benevolent God. The natural theology of the 17th and 18th centuries stood upon the belief that growing scientific knowledge would reveal more evidence of God’s providential design. As Edis observes, John Ray’s popular 1691 book The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation was typical in its faith that everything in nature had its divinely ordained place, and the great chain of living beings embodied God’s plan for creation. For centuries, this belief changed in detail, but not in essence. In Thomas Burnet’s late 17th century work The Sacred Theory of the Earth (not discussed in Edis’ book), the scholar integrated contemporary geological knowledge into a history of the earth grounded in Christian theology. In this book, God mattered, and science and religion were two complementary and necessary approaches to a cohesive worldly philosophy. The origin of the earth, the Great Flood of Genesis, and the assumed final conflagration of the planet were depicted as historical events in the lifespan of creation, all benevolently presided over by Jesus.

Within a couple of centuries, things would change. Scientific knowledge about the natural world progressively eroded the credibility of evidence for God’s handiwork. The Copernican revolution removed earth from the center of the universe, and showed that same materialistic laws governed earth and the most distant stars. Geology showed the earth was much older than most people previously believed, casting serious doubt on the idea that such a vast history could be a planned prelude to mankind’s grand entrance. Darwinian evolution followed up by puncturing arguments from design, revealing the history of life to have nothing to do with predetermined plans and everything to do with survival and contingency. Physics and cosmology have also revealed a universe that is infinitely old, with no need for a Creator. Through these developments, the traditional empirical arguments for God have crumbled.

The rise of objective social sciences research has further damaged the case for theism by removing God from the stage of history. We now see that nations and peoples wage war for complex social and cultural reasons having nothing to do with God’s purposes. Higher Biblical criticism has revealed the Bible to be a collection of legends without solid basis in fact. Similar deflation of sacred versions of history occur when he critically examine the history of Islam or Buddhism. Indeed, one of the merits of Edis’ book is its familiarity with critical histories of other religions, especially Islam. Drawing upon these histories, he shows that stories of miracles and divine revelations have consistently fractured when subjected to rigorous inquiry. Today, these stories are best understood as culturally determined products of human hopes rather than real historical events. This knowledge has understandably crippled our ability to create a meaningful theology. If there were utterly singular and inexplicable events in human history, stories of divine intervention would be more credible. But God is not in the details, after all. As Edis states,

The practice of critical history is also continuous with that of science. As in science, the results of historical inquiry are not predetermined by principles of interpretation. Historians could have ended in supporting the Bible; we could have discovered that Jewish history, for example, follows a pattern of disloyalty and retribution. We could even have found something about a transcendent force behind events, and changed how we do history accordingly. We did not. In the modern world, we had to risk putting sacred history to the test; unless revelation is an objective historical fact, as conservative theologians fear, God itself increasingly becomes a psychological metaphor. And if critical historians had confirmed the claims of our religions theologians would surely be celebrating. Instead, we have found that our history fits the naturalistic world of science. The only purposes shaping the courses of events appear to be our own. If theologians now cry foul, this shows the depth of loyalty to their myth, but no more. We have learned something about how to do history, as well as natural science; theological spin-doctoring under the name of “interpretation” is not part of either.

We may add that the genocides of the twentieth century cast ridicule on the notion that God cares for and protects his children. It stretches credibility to claim knowledge of God’s boundless love and infinite powers while the charred victims of ethnic warfare rot in common graves.

Edis also argues that the existence of God was a plausible hypothesis when it was integrated into a supernatural model of the world. Just as gravity integrates physical evidence as varied as the orbital motion of planets and the acceleration of falling bodies, the notion of God once seemed to unify a whole range of otherworldly phenomena. To the medieval mind, exposed to the threat of plagues and other deadly diseases, the world seemed to be swayed by mystical forces. Demons and witches allegedly caused epidemics and village fires, and worship of particular saints could hypothetically protect humans from the ravages of unseen evils. Many believed that God heard and answered prayers, while others believed in ongoing divine revelations through prophecies or visitations by angels. As long as people remained ignorant of science or human psychology, such anecdotes about supernatural occurrences could convince even the most well-informed members of society. That is no longer the case. Instead of confirming the existence of angels and demons, science reveals them to be products of human imagination (although admittedly, you’d never know this from watching television). If we had good reasons to believe in the existence of the kind of supernatural beings discussed by most major religions, we’d have better reasons to believe in God as well. Likewise, if we could show a significant tendency for prayers to be answered, we’d have reason to believe in a God who listened to and responded to these prayers. No such evidence exists.

This brings us to the present day. As we can see, things could have turned out differently. We could have collected evidence showing that the history presented by one of the world’s religions was essentially correct, divine interventions and all. We could have shown that prayer makes a difference, or confirmed reports of visits by angels or other ethereal beings. Science could have led us to conclude that life has been guided by the hand of divine providence, and the world looks exactly like we’d expect it to if a loving God designed it for our use. Instead, as Richard Dawkins once pointed out, the world looks exactly the way we’d expect it to if there is no God. Why would a beneficent and kindly Creator choose such as messy, wasteful and indirect way to create his cherished human beings – why would He choose the one way that makes it look as if He doesn’t exist? All evidence points to the wholesale falsity of the entire supernatural worldview, and thus undermines potential reasons to believe in God.

Often, contemporary believers congratulate themselves for their open-mindedness, and laugh at the literal thinking of children who believe God is a bearded, kindly old man in the sky. Yet, Edis’ masterful analysis shows that these children correctly intuit something that their parents have trained themselves not to see – a being as important as God should be recognizable in his creation. A God that matters must be more than a linguistic conjuring trick, or a name we impose on our own hopes and fears. Otherwise, religion will have nothing tangible to say about how we should live, or what God might want from his creatures. But if there are no good reasons to believe in God, how can religion have any significance at all in the modern world?

This problem, as Edis recognizes, is a central dilemma of religion. While recognizing that no definitive answer may exist, Edis insightfully discusses some of the functions of religion that do not fully depend on its truth claims. For instance, the sacred texts of many religions offer compelling narratives which, at their best, can promote ethical reflection and a sense of shared experience. Like all good narratives, they can give us the ability to appreciate the complexities of human life, and to give meaning to our experience of the world. This meaning is valuable even when we know the story itself never literally happened.

For instance, Edis describes the sense of wonder that he and many other readers experience through the purely fictional work of authors like J.R.R. Tolkien. Drawing a perceptive analogy with sacred literature, Edis argues that Tolkien’s vast body of mythological lore, resulting partially from his many volumes of unfinished material, negates the possibility of carving a fully coherent worldview out of the great author’s work. Yet, against the claims of fundamentalists seeking simplistic and inflexible understandings of scripture, Edis asserts that this complexity is precisely what makes sacred literature so vitally resonant with human needs. As Edis concludes,

Perhaps we can think of religions the same way. At their best, they are stories we can appreciate regardless of whether they are remotely true, morally uplifting, or practically significant. After all, human hopes and desires are an incoherent mess, so to consistently speak to us, a myth must be able to generate many different, contradicting levels of meaning. So even the strange, disreputable corners of religion – Gnostic visions and mystic cosmologies, demented apocalyptic fantasies, legends of magic and mystery set in ancient times – are wonderful stories.

Edis surely knows that this argument can only be taken so far – when it is all said and done, the religious faithful want to believe that their myths provide meaning as well as disclose deep realities about the purpose of the universe. Sacred stories, as literary critic Daniel Green argues, are like other fictional narratives in their selective recreation of reality, but with the important difference that many readers of sacred texts passionately want the narratives to be true. Still, Edis is probably onto something in his when he argues that the rigidly literal interpretations of fundamentalists are not the only valid ways of interpreting sacred literature. Fundamentalists opposed to the deeper reading of the Bible sometimes argue that religious texts demand to be seen as more than convenient fictions, or they will serve no function for us. Yet, this assertion ignores the fact that stories don’t have to be true to be useful, and are often most useful when they’re not convenient. There’s nothing convenient about the multileveled tragedies of Shakespeare, or the intricate moral universe of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Similarly, it is precisely because some of the Bible is so complex and multifaceted that it serves so well as fodder for ethical reflection. Much of the Bible may not be literally true, but all of it would be considerably less valuable if it were as simplistic as fundamentalists claim it to be.

Thus, while Edis does not consider religion the only or even the best way to engage in moral reflection, he recognizes its usefulness as one possible expression of moral meanings. Religion may be an illusion, but it is at least partially a rational one because of the social functions it serves. Secular humanists often give short shrift to the possible benefits of religion, so Edis’ attention to this facet of theism comes as a welcome contribution. It is this mixture of empathy and clear-minded analysis that finally distinguishes The Ghost in the Universe from most other books about science and religion. No one interested in this subject can ignore this book – it is a masterpiece.

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