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Article No. 109

The God syndrome

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A syndrome is defined as a concurrence of several current symptoms in a disease, or as a set of concurrent things. I use it in the sense that it seems in history that when we cannot explain something we use the idea of God. I want to explore this idea and suggest that perhaps it provides us with an explanation of why it seems that religion goes out of date as discoveries of a scientific nature are made.

The God syndrome - a method some humans have used for dealing with mystery - is apparent throughout history and it is interesting to think of a few examples.

It seems that when we reach the edge of our understanding we use the God idea as our explanation of what we don’t understand. Then, when a more scientific explanation is finally forthcoming, we jettison the idea of God being involved in that explanation and accept that human reason and investigation have solved the mystery. Often we go on to then jettison the idea of God altogether and say that the concept of God is just myth and obsolete.

Lets look at a few examples.

The first one - and the most famous of all perhaps - is the example of evolution. This is a theory. It cannot be ‘proved’ but more and more evidence is mounting for it’s verification.

When it was first put forward it was by a man who had Christian belief. Yet with a few years Christians were seeing evolution as an attack of the idea that God created the world as set out in the first Chapter of the bible. The battle was joined and famous public debates were held. One outcome of this example of the onward march of science was that many people lost their faith. Why? Because they thought that now that there was a credible ‘explanation’ of how human beings came to be on this planet and that therefore this ‘proved’ that there was no God.

The mystery surrounding human beings on this planet was, apparently, gone. Vanished into thin air, once it was explained that they had evolved. Human beings felt they no longer had the need for the concept of God once they had what they considered that there was a reasonable explanation.

The legacy of that particular conflict between religion and science is that there is still much argument and passionate debate - mainly in the United States but also elsewhere in the world - on the subject. Today the argument is said to be about ‘Intelligent Design’ - but it seems this is often an argument produced by believers in God who don’t want to accept that there is a scientific reason for what they took to be the activity of God.

Much of the conflict between scientists and Christian believers in God is because of the danger to their beliefs the latter see in the explanations provided by scientists. Some Christians feel threatened in their belief system when, instead of believing in God as the explanation for something, it turns out to have a perfectly understandable ‘natural’ cause. The new knowledge that comes via science destroys the faith of some Christians because they are holding onto outdated views as if they are part of the core gospel.

Lets take another example before looking more closely at the opposition of Christians to the advancement of knowledge in this way.

Turning to the field of cosmology one can see immediately why it was difficult for people to accept that the earth went round the sun rather than the other way round. Their pattern of belief required that man was at the centre of things, and that God had so arranged matters. To have to change the idea that the earth was not at the centre meant one had to throw all one’s associated beliefs into the melting pot. If the earth was not central, then perhaps man was not central either! If the movement of the earth (and sun) could be ‘explained’ by science - then we no longer needed to say that God managed it all. Instead it all seemed mechanical. It seemed to work of its own accord. Instead of God having to manage everything, the world and universe functioned in an impersonal - even mechanistic - way, without God’s interference. God, if he existed at all, was an absentee landlord.

It seems that this process is happening all the time for human beings. When we don’t understand something we have a sense of awe and wonder about it. Mankind looked up at the stars and felt part of something infinitely bigger than themselves. Then they are told that the scientists have identified and classified all those stars and that the scientists understand how they were created and even the course they will take through the heavens. And suddenly the person feels that the wonder is gone. All is explained. The mystery has evaporated into thin air. They turn away with a feeling of understanding better and therefore being more in control. We have got the star thing taped, they think.

The God syndrome - where we explain the unexplainable by ascribing it to a creator - has been in use ever since man started out on this planet. It is at the back of all religions, from the earliest to the latest. Religions are clearly a function of man’s attempt to assign an explanation to what he cannot explain. The explanation is like ‘kicking into touch’ in football. You cannot get any further in understanding at the present time, so you explain what you cannot understand by calling on a mysterious creator - God.

This god syndrome happens in all areas of human knowledge. One of the latest areas is the mind and brain. As yet we still have a lot to understand about the mind and brain. So we explain it by saying that God created us and leave it at that. But scientists are hard at work and eventually they will ‘explain’ mind and brain, soul and body. Will that show there is no God?

The fact that humans employ this God syndrome,  whereby a process is identified and ‘understood’,  is then taken by many as a reason why one should cease to believe in God. Some say ‘now that we understand how life evolved on earth…’ or ‘now we understand how the universe was created after the Big Bang…’ or ‘now that we recognise the way the human brain works in these matters…’ - the inference being that we can forgo the idea that it was a God who was in charge and that we should just accept what we now understand as a fact of life. We don’t have to bring God into the picture. We can dismiss him from our minds.

There are two problems, however, with this approach. Both are important, and neither can be rejected out of hand.

The first is that all our new knowledge, as we acquire it, is only partial and, therefore, temporary. What do I mean by that? Well, merely that it stands as an explanation until the next step in our understanding is achieved. Just because we now know something about black holes and the possible wave effect of two of them colliding does not mean that we have any final explanation. Just because we now recognise that the human brain always seeks explanations for what it does not understand, and posits a creator God when it is stumped for an explanation, does not mean that all the mysteries of the brain and mind are cracked. Far from it. Indeed, it is always the case that fresh understanding only leads us into further questions and a greater need to understand. Fresh knowledge merely means we have a better grasp of the way things work around us and in us.

The second reason why we should not reject the religious approach when we solve some more of the mysterious problems surrounding us is quite simple. All our explanations of how things work fail to explain the ultimate reason for our existence.

Does the fact that your mother and father’s sperm joined together explain you, in all your mystery and potential? It may explain how it came about that you were born. But it cannot explain why you are here on this planet.

To explain how it is that the earth was formed and is now a part of the Solar System does not give us any possible hint of why this planet is flying round the sun at this incredible speed.

The fact that science seems on an increasingly fast march forward in trying to understand and explain everything has led some to think that we can now dispose of the idea of God. After all, we have explained and understood so much, it cannot be long, they think. before we understand everything. Then there will be no need to posit a God who is in charge of what we cannot yet understand.

Well, the bad news is that there are always going to be aspects we will not understand. It may need the human brain to evolve before we can get on the next level of understanding. We are on an escalator of understanding and will never quite reach the top. But there is some good news too - that Being to whom we assign the role of the guardian of the mysteries we cannot yet fathom is also the God who loves and cares for us. That is the insight of the Christian religion. The peak of our religion was when Christ came and revealed to us what God was like and what he was about.

Ah, you say, but is that not somewhat arrogant? Are not all religions attempting to explain the unexplainable? Are not all paths leading to the same creator-being? How can you possibly claim that Christianity is better than the others?

I am, of course, making no such claim in this article. Not that I believe that they are all on a par. I personally believe that Christianity, despite it’s terrible record in some areas and at some times, has actually produced a civilisation that is an improvement to those that have gone before. But I may be wrong on that and there would be some who would want to start listing the evils stemming from our civilisation. I don’t want to get into that argument now. Instead I am trying to say something very simple: that humankind needs a creator God - not just to stand in as an explanation when we feel ourselves puzzled by the universe we live in - but also because no scientific explanation in the world is ever going to explain the why of life. It will go on exploring the how and the when and the where. But science, faced with the question ’Why?’ is silent.

Why is it that only religion can give an way forward as regards the ‘why’ of life? Because we are made by God for a purpose and that purpose entails our coming to the realisation that we are formed for and need a right relationship with God. Jesus Christ is the best explanation I have ever heard as to why we need God. More than that - he explains to us exactly how we should go about starting to make that contact: he said ‘when you pray say ‘Our Father’’.

Following the Christian Way is not that difficult, actually! It can be done by the ignorant as well as the intellectual. It can be done by the young as well as the old. It can be accessed by the vigorous and the sick. It can be enjoyed by all sorts of personality - each finding the truth of the relationship in their own experience. And the colour of your skin is totally irrelevant.

Are we not all looking for the place where we may find peace in our hearts? Science cannot begin to give us that. We all look for a deeper purpose in life than pleasure and financial security. We sense something deeper than the seeming show of things around us all the time. There are no answers to the why of life except in religion. The Christian religion, despite all its failures and faults, is the place where the answer to that question is to be found. And the key to the answer is to be found in a new relationship - a personal relationship with Christ. How on earth do I get that? Each of us gets it by opening up our heart to him - read the New Testament if you want to know the route we all must travel to reach the God who created us. Perhaps it is more true to say that God reaches out for us, rather than we reach out for him -for he wants to reach us even more than we want to reach him. He is already knocking at the door of your heart. No need to search the stars or the far corners of the earth. He is next to you and only awaits an invitation to enter.

Tony Cross

February 2006

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