Faith and our Emergent Universe
One of common elements of theistic religion is the belief in a beneficent force that is aware of and concerned about individual humans. I assume that people have a wide range of emotions about this force, from fear to awe to comfort. We non-theists lack faith in such a supernatural consciousness and so we are absent of the anxiety or hope of our actions, thoughts, and prayers being weighed on celestial scales.
But Nature is not without its forces, blind to the welfare of humans as they might be. It is possible now to understand the world in a way that is far different than the clockwork materialists of the Enlightenment. Religious Naturalists no longer see the universe as being filled with just a bunch of matter knocking about the proverbial pool table. Rather, we can see an intricate web of subtle processes, a metaphorical river of being and creation.
One of the most profound processes we know about is natural selection. Although it is completely free of intention, natural selection is what made humans and every other living thing possible. That it has no consciousness behind it does not lessen the magnificent power of it; if anything, that makes natural selection just that much more awe inspiring. Adding in a deific designer explains nothing—it merely takes away from its splendor as the driving force behind evolution.
A related process that we are only just beginning to understand is emergence. Stated simply, emergence describes the creation of more complex phenomena out of the interactions between less complex phenomena. We can observe a hierarchy of organization, the ultimate base of which is the soup of elementary particles (quarks, gluons, elections, etc). What is interesting is that at each new level of complexity (from, say, particles to atoms to molecules, and so forth), novel things happen. New, unpredictable properties arise, where laws that exist at one level of complexity do not apply at lower levels. Really, it’s an astounding scientific concept.
We are, of course, continuing to increase our understanding of these forces as our scientific knowledge grows. We no longer need a supernatural consciousness to understand how the Cosmos works or how it’s possible for humans to exist. Nor are we, without gods and spirits, left only with a universe of dead matter to ponder nihilistically. Rather, science paints Nature as a dynamic, evolving set of processes capable of creating novel, increasingly complex phenomena. In other words, the universe isn’t a collection of things so much as one of processes between interacting properties.
It must be admitted, we lose something by a lack of faith in supernatural beings that are concerned with humans. We lack the dream of a blissful life spent with loved ones for all eternity. We lack the hope that comes from praying for a celestial Hand to take away pain and injustice. We lack the pleasure of thinking we are at the center of things, that we are somehow important in the grand scheme, or that a supreme destiny awaits us. We lack the comfort of believing that Someone is looking out for us. We lack the certitude and righteousness that comes from having moral behavior codified in scripture.
We might not need God to explain things anymore, but for many, God’s absence would leave a void that would not be easy to fill. There is no simple replacement for the hope, specialness, and certitude that faith brings, especially for folks who live with hardship or fear. But I maintain that what replacements we do have available to us are far more valuable! Critical thinking, rational optimism, self efficacy, and even the Four Virtues—courage, integrity, beneficence, and openness—might all take more effort than faith but potentially have a far greater return. Unlike faith, those skills and perspectives are not dependent on unreal things. They are built upon natural human capabilities.
A lived Religious Naturalism is not easy. It’s advanced spirituality. We reject the shortcuts of faith in favor of developing a worldview grounded in reality. We feel awe, reverence, and humility in the face of a dynamic, emergent universe that can create a neutron star as well as a Leonardo da Vinci. We recognize our inherent, natural power to experience optimism, compassion, and serenity. We humans have within us all we need to live meaningful, fulfilling, and joyous lives. And to that I say, Amen.