What's God Got To Do With It?
Life is the lucky little exception. In all the vastness of the universe, it is not known to exist anywhere except on this rather odd planet. Elsewhere in the solar system, we find dead worlds, plus a chance of some marginal microbes on Mars. The universe can produce just the right conditions for life, just as an honest deal in Poker may give a Royal Flush to four different players. But such events are really rather rare.
Human intelligence is a second lucky little exception, cropping up after hundreds of millions of years of "natural selection" that showed no signs of going anywhere. Victorian science selectively looked at the world and found a grand road leading to the Victorian English Gentleman, assumed to be the high point of creation. But this was a massive distortion of what actually existed. Modern science using the most recent DNA studies divides life up in to three main branches, two of which consist only of bacteria. The third branch includes amoebae, slime moulds, seaweeds, fungi and the entire familiar plant and animal kingdoms. This line of development seems to have cropped up when the Earth had already supported life for more than a thousand million years. And there is no known reason why it had to happen or was meant to happen.
Such is the universe that science has uncovered for us—much against the original opinions of the scientists who discovered the relevant facts. It must be the basis for any serious and useful philosophy. And reading Peter Brooke's Defence of the Equity of God (Heresiarch No. 3), I found myself asking 'what on earth has this got to do with the world as we actually find it?' We know with certainty that Planet Earth has developed by natural processes out of something very different, a jumble of rocks and gas that took hundreds of millions of years to settle down. And that the span of civilised human existence is very tiny amidst the vast depths of space and time. A dust-mote in a universe that is also quite immature by its own unimaginably vast slow processes of development.
Mark Twain put the point very clearly :— "If the Eiffel Tower were now representing the world's age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle-knob at its summit would represent man's share on that age; and anybody would perceive that that skin was what the tower was built for." (Cited by Stephen Jay Gould in The Flamingo's Smile.) But the Eiffel Tower is at least a special building, distinct from millions of other buildings throughout the world. The sun that shines on our world is just one of some hundred thousand million similar stars in the galaxy, itself quite ordinary amidst a vast number of similar galaxies.
So what's God got to do with it? It is not so unreasonable to assume that the Grand Pattern of the Universe was begun or designed by some Superior Being. Such a view is as good as any other explanation. But why assume a link between that Being and the social complexities of human religion?
Up until a few hundred years ago, the world was assumed to be 'hand built by God'. This, at least, was the view of theologians within the Judaic / Christian / Islamic tradition. The Hindu / Buddhist tradition is in some ways more rational, usually assuming that the visible world is not under anyone's direct control. But up until the development of modern science, Christians took the universe to be an orderly household in which all of the furniture had been arranged by God. A place for everything and everything in its place, except in as far as it had been disordered by a Satanic rebellion against Divine Authority.
Some theologians have been boasting that cosmologists baffled by the Beginning of Time are pushing onto territory that the theologians already know well. What do they know? Theologians have opinions, certainly. In the Latin Christian tradition, they had an entire schema for the Heavens. Only it was wrong, utterly and completely wrong. Beginning with Galileo, astronomers drove the theologians out of Heaven, upsetting established opinions and discovering wonders that no religious thinker had been able to dream up. Is any work of religious art as remarkable as the dramatic pictures of new-born stars in the Eagle Nebula, or the brilliance of many a glowing cloud in space? Or the brightness of Jupiter's multi-coloured weather and the strange diversity of its many moons?
We know now that the Earth arose slowly, by well-understood natural processes, several billion years ago. Also that the universe is at least twice as old as the Earth, and very probably older. All that we observe can be very neatly explained by a cosmological Big Bang, which is normally taken to be the beginning of time as well as space. The more conventional versions of this theory—an Einstein / de Sitter model of space-time with an early era of Inflation—had seemed to be in trouble recently, with some stars appearing to be older than the universe. But estimates of both the age of stars and the age of the universe rest on some very difficult and indirect calculations. The universe may in fact be old enough, or the anomalous stars may be younger than they appear.
Even a clearly demonstrated age anomaly would not discredit the Big Bang. It would just imply that an Einstein / de Sitter model of space-time with an early era of Inflation is not the whole truth. It would compel cosmologists to devise a modified picture of the Big Bang, with either another space-time model or some obscure or unknown force producing subtle differences in galactic evolution.
In the 19th century, Lord Kelvin reckoned the age of the Earth by calculating how long it would have taken to have cooled to its present state, with a cool solid crust but molten rock far underground. He reckoned a maximum of a hundred million years, which was accepted by most defenders of the scientific world view. Engels in The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man cites the work of Kelvin. Using the man's original name of Sir William Thomson, Engels cites him as evidence for the vast age of the Earth compared to human society. Kelvin's work was indeed incompatible with what Christians had believed on the basis of the Bible. Yet many geologists and biologists felt that a mere 100,000,000 years was not nearly long enough for all of the changes revealed by rocks and fossils. They could find no fault in Kelvin's work, nor could they suggest how the sun could have shone for so long by material means. But they still felt that the world must be very much older than Kelvin had made it.
This 19th century dilemma in the materialist world view was resolved by the discovery of radioactive decay, especially in Uranium. Uranium was present in the original gas and dust from which the Earth formed. And it has been keeping rocks hot and molten as it slowly decays into lead. Lord Kelvin's entirely valid calculation produced an historic anomaly, only because 19th century science did not know everything
It is recorded that when the correct solution was due to be publicly announced, the person responsible avoided any possible nastiness that might arise from branding as wrong the work of the famous and influential Lord Kelvin. He pointed out that Kelvin's original work had included the qualification that the hundred million years assumed that no unknown forces were operating. You could say the speaker was being diplomatic. But it is equally true that Kelvin was a great scientist who never forgot that some unknown force might be intruding on his calculations. Yet being a physicist rather than a mystic, he felt justified in leaving out unknown forces when making his detailed estimates. He never claimed some exact and detailed knowledge of the unknown so as to get some desirable answer.
Hobbes in Leviathan condemns "false and senseless Tenets; which make those men that take their instruction from the authority of books, and not from their own meditation, to be as much below the condition of ignorant men, as men endued with true Science are above it. For between true Science and erroneous Doctrines, Ignorance is in the middle". (Chapter 4, Of Man.) The point is made much more neatly by the American saying "It isn't ignorance that makes you a fool, it's what you know that ain't so". That Hobbes himself ignored the merits of honest ignorance when he tried to elaborate politics on geometrical lines does not destroy the basic principle. To say "I do not know" is wiser than to assert some doctrine that will almost certainly turn out to be wrong. And even the best sorts of knowledge must be qualified by the ever-present possibility of some large unknown factor.
Kelvin had made the Earth too young. In our own century, there were problems of an opposite sort. Radioactivity indicated an age for the Earth that was greater than the estimated age of the universe (at least for as long as an Einstein - de Sitter model of space-time is assumed). Other scientific ideas for the origin of the universe flourished for a while, until it became clear that a basic error had been made in estimating the distance of the Andromeda Nebula. Andromeda turned out to be a much larger and more distant galaxy than had been originally estimated, which meant that the universe as a whole was definitely much older than Planet Earth.
If you consider the problem of telling the ages of pieces of nondescript rock or measuring the distance to an apparently unchanging star, the wonder is not that measurements sometimes disagree. The true miracle of science is that a few hundred years of research has yielded some reasonably solid knowledge of billions of years past history. Existing difficulties may well be resolved quite soon, perhaps by some scientific breakthrough, or perhaps just by more accurate observations and assumptions. The New Scientist for 2nd September 1995 reports the latest measurements based on studies of a very distant supernova. It seems that the universe may indeed be 20 billion years old, comfortably older than any known star. There is perhaps no need to rewrite the Law of Gravity or go through any of the other contortions that some cosmologists were pondering.
The questions that puzzled metaphysicians for centuries have been resolved by scientific cosmology over the last few decades. Back in the 1950s, the old question of 'creation' versus 'eternity' came to a head in the dispute between Fred Hoyle's Steady State theory and George Gamow's rival notion of the Big Bang. In metaphysical terms, the question was unanswerable. No philosopher ever came up with a proof that satisfied a properly sceptical mind. But new astronomical discoveries flooded in, some in line with specific 'Big Bang' predictions, many others quite incompatible with an eternal changeless Steady State. Not only is the Earth less than eternal, so is the universe as we known it. And yet both are very very old.
Christian theology and Pagan Greek Philosophy both turned out to have held wildly inaccurate opinions on these testable matters. Christians believed in a very young Earth, hand-built by God. Pagan Greeks doubted if there had ever been a true beginning. And the failure of these creeds on testable matters must cast doubt on their reliability on the invisible and the unknown.
Unlike some who call themselves "rationalists", I find no need to deny the possibility of unknown forces. Just as Lord Kelvin was wise to allow for the possibility of some additional heating or cooling force, we today should not assume that modern physicists know it all. There is a widespread suspicion that there is at least one piece missing from the baffling jigsaw of subatomic physics. With certainty, no one has yet found the correct way to fit together Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Beyond this, there is the possibility of something metanatural, a not-entirely-incomprehensible version of what was earlier seen as supernatural. It is best to keep it as that, an unknown possibility that should not be contaminated with false and speculative doctrines.
It is a good idea to keep an open mind. The trouble with an open mind is that people will keep coming along and trying to put things in it. Most specific claims to knowledge outside of the scientific framework do not meet the most simple tests of verifiability. As well as producing the first useful description of the actual operation of Gravity, Sir Isaac Newton also tried to uncover secrets that he believed to be held in the prophetic and visionary parts of the Bible. He even came up with a definite date for the Last Judgment—1867!
Nostradamus is said to have had an uncanny knack for predicting future events. But I have not yet heard of a single successful forecast based on Nostradamus. Only absurdities like a confident prediction of the re-election of George Bush back in 1992. Likewise there was a fellow during World War Two who found coincidences among the birthdays of the main war-leaders that were startling enough to induce him to forecast the date that the war would end. Only it was the wrong date, a day when nothing special happened.
The collapse of the USSR was not found written in the stars by anyone, not before the event. The same is true of the Gulf War, the Royal Divorce and many other startling events which a useful astrology would be expected to warn us of. On a more metanatural level, I saw a television program in which the leader of a 1960s flying saucer cult explained that the election of Harold Wilson in 1964 represented a clandestine takeover by wise and benevolent space-creatures. This does not say much for extraterrestrial intelligence!
Mystical beliefs may do no harm, but this varies. A sensible recognition of the possibility of the "numinous" is fair enough. But most people leap unwisely from this open-mindedness to an uncritical belief in one or other of the rival Absolute Truths. Truths that have never yet gone beyond the obvious, and which wildly contradict each other on most of the central moral and ethical matters.
Consider the matter of sex. The various alternatives—monogamous marriage, male-dominated polygamy, polyandry, bisexual hedonism, strictly heterosexual hedonism, mystical homosexual love-bonds, loving but asexual unions between persons of either sex, celibacy with gender disregarded, strict and celibate separation of the sexes—all of these have had their advocates. Each is also tolerated by other creeds and abominated by yet others.
Protestant churches usually play down the ambition of becoming a eunuch for the sake of God, even though the Gospels state very clearly that this was part of the ideals of Jesus and the early uncorrupted Church. "Hot Gospellers" in the American tradition show an understandable caution about pushing those bits of the Gospel that do not match up to their audiences' home lives, where married love is seen as the only decent and holy option.
The Manichaeans were deeply opposed to "family values". They objected to any sexual activity that might result in the production of children, since this would mean trapping more pure souls in the domain of the evil "demiurgos". From a materialist viewpoint, one might expect that such a creed would lose out to rival creeds that encouraged their followers to breed—and Manichaeanism did tend to collapse suddenly after some initial success. Whereas a creed that makes people guilty and unhappy while still propagating the population can be expected to roll on solidly for centuries. And this is just what we see in the real and visible world. What's God got to do with it?
On the basis of what the Old Testament actually says, a man would be breaking God's Law by committing adultery. But he would be quite entitled to own a slave-girl or two, as Abraham and Jacob did. Such a liberty for the dominant men would reduce adulterous temptations and make a harsh defence of marriage acceptable. Tough on the women, of course. Especially since slave-girls did not choose their masters, nor women their husbands. But the whole of the Bible is written on an assumption of male dominance and superiority which hardly anyone will defend these days.
If Christianity can run into absurdities, other belief-systems can be much worse. Thus the original Celtic ceremonials for raising up a new king involved the aspirant having sex with a mare. The poor animal would then be killed and boiled, and the new king would publicly bathe in the resultant horse-broth. When one looks at the reality of pre-Christian Europe, sordid and cruel and often very silly, one is not so very sorry that it was wiped off the map. If I regret anything from the European past, it is the extinction of the fairly moderate and sensible Celtic Christian Church by the rival Latin tradition, less spiritual and generous but much more organised and manipulative. Celtic Christianity was much less screwed up on sexual matters than Catholicism, which has itself become more extreme and demanding up until its loss of authority in the last few decades. What's God got to do with it?
If sex raises problems, violence and warfare are hardly less contentious among the various claimants to a Message From God. There can be massive contradictions even within a single religion. Buddhism is commonly regarded as admirably peaceful, yet Zen Buddhism was part of the pitiless and stoical samurai creed. Likewise Christianity was for a long time prone to condemn all warfare, but flipped over to a mad aggressive imperialism in the Crusades. Islam has in principle a rational and consistent notion of Holy War. Yet the Crusaders lasted for as long as they did, because rival Muslim rulers were happy to use aggressive Christian strangers to pull down dangerous Muslim neighbours. Only when Saladin had crushed or overawed all of his Muslim neighbours was it possible for Islam to recapture Jerusalem.
Rules on acceptable and forbidden food are also an irrational mess. Hinduism in its very early form was a bloodthirsty creed of animal sacrifice and meat-eating. It then reversed itself and found something sacred in all animals, especially the cow. Muslims by contrast will happily eat beef but reject pork, though their food rules are far more simple than those of the Jews, which also differ markedly between different Jewish authorities. (When East European immigrant Jews were being welcomed at a banquet by their assimilated American co-religionists, they were scandalised to find prawns on the menu. As sea-creatures without scales, prawns are perhaps non-Kosher, but also perhaps not.)
Christians have mostly been enthusiastic meat-eaters. It was a lamb that was the main course at the Last Supper, after all. Later Christians decided that one was only supposed to eat fish on Friday (and I have no idea how this odd notion got into Christian practice). More recently Buddhist influences have been spreading in the West, and there is a gradual growth in vegetarianism. Some Buddhists will also ban honey, on the grounds that it involves the exploitation of animals. Yet the mostly-Buddhist Japanese retain an enthusiasm for whale meat, since this particular form of red meat is classed as "fish". What's God got to do with it?
A God who had caused the world to come into being and eventually produce humans might then have decided to hand down some wise advice as to how humans should live. But such a Being might have been expected to have handed down something rational, some single reasonable guide as to how we should live. What we find is that all of the supposed "divine revelations" contradict each other. And science reveals a world that made itself, in a universe that was more or less favourable to such happenings.
The universe as we know it had a definite beginning in time. Almost all scientists now accept the Big Bang as a proven fact. Even Hoyle's modified updated version of the Steady State theory says that a great Creation Event created our galaxy and a few billion others (but some very distant quasars are seen as signs of other Creation Events in an eternal universe). Not many people accept this, though it could be true. I would have no trouble adjusting if some new facts were to unexpectedly vindicate this or one of the other nonstandard cosmologies. But the standard Big Bang still looks much more likely. For certain, all serious cosmologies say that everything that has even the remotest connection to our lives must have begun at a very definite point in time.
The universe as we know it is widely supposed to have been generated by some unknown metauniverse—though Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time argues for a self-sufficient universe that simply is. Those who do believe in a metauniverse make no claim to know in any detail how the Big Bang could have happened. Perhaps we will know one day. At the start of the 20th century, we had no notion of the universe's early history. Back in 1800, the seventh of the nine planets in our solar system had only just been discovered—an event celebrated by Keats with the lines
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies When a new planet swims into his view...
This connection (from Keats's remarks on an edition of Homer) has been largely missed both by astronomers and poets, though the Penguin edition does correctly note it. Back then, we had no idea that our sun was part of a spiral galaxy, though there were some guesses based on the visible fact of the Milky Way in our skies. In 1600, no one had any inkling of what Newton would soon be discovering. In 1400, the very notion that the Earth might go round the sun was a half-forgotten Greek idea, known only because Aristotle mentioned it as one of the strange ideas held by people less wise than Aristotle. So by the year 2200 the Big Bang and the Metauniverse (or whatever) will probably no longer be so mysterious.
If you like, you can believe in a Being who arranged for a Big Bang that would give rise to our universe, with our present-day world as one very minor product after some 20 billion years of churning. It's possible. But such a view implies an abstract distant remote Patternmaker. God, but not as we know Him. Something closer to the original Hindu / Buddhist notion of a distant non-interventionist Supreme Spiritual Power. Something utterly unlike the close domineering and demanding God of the Judaic / Christian / Islamic tradition. That whole dogmatic monotheistic tradition now looks like a completely human notion, a drastic historical error. Its main merit is that it allowed a secular and scientific tradition to emerge. When it comes to meeting human needs or supporting "spiritual quests", dogmatic monotheism has proved to be expensive and of doubtful benefit.
A Patternmaker—a Being that arranged for a universe that would evolve itself in interesting complex ways—would perhaps be admirable, but not really lovable. The abstract Patternmaker or 'God' of physicists like Hawking, a God who is not responsible for 'Acts of God', is not God in any meaningful sense of the term. Definitely not the God of dogmatic monotheism.
Gods were first conceived of as Superior Beings with finite powers and less-than-complete knowledge. Beings with whom a mere human could have some sort of social relationship. They could be fed, bribed, annoyed, won over with flattery. Gods were much like humans, only more powerful. This idea was carried on when all of the Gods were merged into one, producing a grand fine abstract vision in which God was both Almighty and Personal. But a Patternmaker, a Being who would construct a universe that then evolves naturally in arbitrary and not always beautiful patterns, such an entity is obviously not a Being with whom a mere human could hope to strike up any sort of meaningful social relationship.
You can of course arbitrarily construct a set of logical connections between the observed facts of a long slow development and the traditional theology of a close interventionist God in a world 'hand built by God'. You essentially say that for reasons unknown, God wanted it all to happen "naturally". This idea is logically possible. Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit with considerable scientific knowledge and an unorthodox mind, developed such a creed as well as anyone could in The Phenomenon of Man. But it is still blatantly unlikely. It tells you nothing more than that Teilhard found it psychologically necessary to reconcile what he was taught by theologians and by scientists. His best efforts produced a vision of the world at variance with every single central assumption that Christian theologians had developed over the centuries. It rejected the ideas they asserted to be Absolute Truths, before they came up against clear evidence for a very different sort of universe.
The universe is self-organising. Clouds of gas and dust naturally concentrate into stars—we can see them doing it in the Orion Nebula, among other places. The swirl of matter that gives rise to a star also leaves behind a few small remnants that we call planets. And after a very long time, life may evolve on some of the debris of star-birth, though the failure so far to find life on Mars suggests it either doesn't happen often or else often gets nowhere. And however rare or common the accidents of life and of intelligent beings, it all seems to happen blindly, accidentally, with no sign of the 'hand of God' speeding things up.
Should this worry us? It seems to me that a Creator-God would have a moral obligation either to run the world or to leave it alone. But as Epicurus showed, it is absurd to suppose that the world as we know it is being run by a benevolent and all-powerful God. And the observed fact of a universe where everything is explicable by natural law is evidence for no God at all. Either that or a very passive impartial Creator-God who lets the world work itself out according to natural law and human free will.
A Patternmaker who starts off the Universe and then lets it run free is quite plausible and raises no great ethical or moral problems. If an earthquake kills thousands of inoffensive people, that is a consequence of natural laws which we can either endure or protect ourselves from. If a drunk driver kills an innocent child, that has nothing to do with God and everything to do with human folly. A Creator-God or Patternmaker who left the world alone would be perfectly reasonable, perhaps lovable, quite possibly present as a moral example that all might aspire to and use to orientate themselves in a complex universe.
A Patternmaker who starts off the Universe and then lets it run free would also provide no support for priests. Such a Being would offer no logical reason for prayer. If someone were to come up with a wholly convincing theory for the origin of the universe that required the existence of a Creator, this would still mean that theologians were probably wasting their time.
Naturally, such a conclusion is an unpopular destination for the various religious questers or thinkers. Yet it is far and away the simplest notion, rivalled only by the equally simple and logical notion of a universe generated from some metauniverse by processes that are natural to that unknown metauniverse.
Some of the best scientists do believe in God. But their God is very much a Patternmaker, not the sort of conventional God with whom a social relationship can be sought. A God who is not responsible for the Acts of God, whether understood in a religious or a legalistic fashion. Such a Being is the vision of Albert Einstein and of Stephen Hawking. A God who perhaps gives meaning and beauty to the world. But also a God whose wrath need not be feared and whose help in any material sense can not be expected. So when tragic and unnecessary things happen in the world, what's God got to do with it?
The current National Lottery wins mild support from many and fanatical devotion from a few. The Cosmic Lottery offered by most popular religions offers truly unlimited rewards for participants, as well as unlimited penalties for those who break the rules or refuse to play the game. It is not at all a noble vision, though some very fine and noble minds have been caught up with it and become obsessed by it. But it is a social pattern that one would expect to grow and flourish from the human predicament in a puzzling and a dangerous world. Indeed, it would have needed the Hand of God to prevent such a vision of God from spreading throughout the world. And history shows that it is just the dubious Cosmic-Lottery understanding of God that has spread and become the basis for popular religion everywhere.
After all of the horrors and disasters produced by rival religions, all of the human happiness and knowledge produced by secular culture, the Cosmic Lottery has lost much of its force and its popularity. Few priests or preachers would nowadays tell most of their audience that they were likely to go to Hell after death—not when the audience is free to go elsewhere while still alive. Most of the flourishing sects and cults offer a guaranteed prize of eternal bliss to almost every participant, even where most of the rest of humanity are consigned to hell-fire.
The USA is sometimes referred to as a deeply religious country, on account of the high Church attendance. But this is more to do with marketing than devotion. Just as Hollywood caters to almost every possible taste in entertainment, so the competitive selling of religion has guaranteed that everyone will find some welcoming religious community as a refuge from the emptiness of mainstream US culture. You have Catholics who will obey neither the Pope nor ancient tradition. Yet they hold out better than the Protestants, whose creed has become trivial, mere Mickey-Mouse Puritanism.
Newer brands of Absolute Truth have also found their place. Gentle new-age beliefs as expressed in the Hollywood film Ghost suggest a pleasant afterlife for shallow greedy little Yuppies, an enjoyable future for almost everyone except a few nasty criminal types. Other creeds are harsher, debased enough to take great delight in thinking that no one at all outside their own little group will escape damnation. And a few clever or sensitive characters are still caught up in the ancient mental traps produced by popular religions. But what's God got to do with it?
Moral standards are carefully rigged to suit the audience—harsh where they want it to be harsh, but very lax wherever you might find yourself unpopular. Just as most prostitutes offer cuddles and compliments, but a few offer insults and whips—both sorts get customers. Religion over the last few centuries has clearly been shaped by market forces, in just the ignoble way that Blaise Pascal complained about in his Provincial Letters. Pascal had a fine noble devout vision, but the Church Hierarchy chose to endorse the 'Jesuitry' he was protesting at. When Pascal remained popular after his death, they also found ways to fit him in, of course. What's God got to do with it?
If you operate among gun-carrying free-marketeer tax-hating characters who favour the middle-class family, you play down the fact that Jesus Christ favoured a complete abstention from sex, had an uneasy relationship with his own family, commanded complete pacifism, rejected the very limited commercialism of the Roman Empire and required that one 'render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's.' That's how truly "fundamentalist" America's most widespread and intense Christian tradition actually is. What's God got to do with it?
The "Jewish / Christian / Muslim view" of a God who "torments the world because He loves it" reached its logical culmination with the Marquis de Sade, an attempt to become God-like through arbitrary torment of various helpless innocents. Though there was a gap between theory and practice: de Sade seems never to have actually killed or seriously injured anyone. At least there was never any contemporary accusation of such things, though he did get into trouble over several very nasty and bizarre sexual assaults. De Sade was nothing very special, not in an age when judicial torture was routine and where wives, children and servants were routinely whipped, often with great savagery, not uncommonly beaten to death. De Sade in his confused predicament was merely one of the more extreme products of the excessive stresses of West European Christianity, stresses that were only resolved when religion was stripped of most of its social power. What's God got to do with it?
The ancient Israelites were a small people in a harsh competitive land. They were not the only tribe to carry out tribal massacres of all possible rivals. Ambitious empires like Assyria did much worse. But the world in which the Biblical world view took shape was harsh and savage to a degree that is barely comprehensable today. And the "Holy Scriptures" clearly reflect their origins.
Taking Jehovah or Yahweh as the personification of a small people's wish to survive gives a connecting logic to their own record of their own deeds. Actions that would be profoundly bizarre or irrational for the Creator are quite logical when viewed as a personification of a people's will to survive. Yahweh in the beginning was probably not much different from "Fortuna Roma", the Luck of Rome that was the most serious part of Late-Pagan Roman belief. What's God got to do with it?
I have spoken of the problems of the the Judeo / Christian / Islamic tradition. But it is Christianity that has the worst problem. The version of Christianity that the Emperor Constantine put in charge of the Roman Empire was a peculiar Christian / Pagan hybrid. Plato and St Paul make extremely strange bed-fellows. Some very ingenious and learned minds spent the next few centuries trying to make some sense of the resultant mess. But they failed. Sensible notions like having Jesus as a mortal man with a very special relationship with God got squeezed out and rejected as heresies. The traditional creed is a messy mass of incompatible ideas.
Most religions have a rational 'passing mark', a sensible minimum standard that the ordinary serious believer can achieve. All of them also have additional grades of obligation that may be attempted by those seeking 'higher spiritual honours'. But, outside of the Latin Christian tradition and its Protestant offshoot, they do not torture the ordinary believer with unreasonable and impossible standards of conduct that God supposedly demands of them.
Just as the fox with no tail tried to persuade the other foxes that it had thereby become a superior fox, you get plenty of people arguing that torturing the ordinary believer with unreasonable demands is somehow a Good Thing. I flatly reject this notion. When it comes to achieving 'higher spiritual honours', other religious traditions have mostly done better. They have mostly viewed West European culture as powerful and knowledgeable but spiritually debased. And an increasing number of people from a West European background have come to share and accept this view.
Christianity by its obsession with punishment reveals that it was not all that exalted a creed, not even in its beginnings. The success of civilisation in Western Europe was based on the fact that its best minds could not stay confined within the bounds of conventional religion, as happened elsewhere. Gentler and more reasonable creeds kept their potential rebels confined within a comfortable warm blanket of nice ideas. The unreasonable and cruel nature of the Catholic and Protestant versions of Christianity forced the best thinkers to an heroic rejection of all previous tradition. A breakthrough to a deeper truth.
I took the title of this article from the song What's Love got to do with it?, as sung by Tina Turner. Since some people say that God is Love, the connection seemed natural enough to me. Tina Turner is of course a convert to Buddhism—I'm not sure quite which variety of Buddhism, and it perhaps does not matter. (A similar title—What has God got to do with it—is also used by an article in a recent survey of astronomy by The Independent. I had already got this article into more or less its final form by that stage, and what appeared in The Independent covered ground that I had already seen well discussed in magazines like New Scientist. It had no influence on me. But I must acknowledge prior publication.)
Buddhism contains quite as much diversity as Christianity—people from other cultural traditions are often quite surprised to learn that not all Christians obey the Pope, for instance. Buddhism can range from gross superstition through intense spirituality and into virtual atheism. The strict believers are the ultimate drop-outs, hoping to drop out of the universe altogether. I do not sentimentalise "Eastern Wisdom". But as I understand it, saying 'What's God got to do with it' would be a perfectly sensible question within the Hindu / Buddhist tradition, though it is quite alien and incompatible to the Judeo / Christian / Islamic framework.
In as far as great things were achieved by the Latin Christian tradition and its Protestant offshoot, this was precisely because it lost control of the best minds of its culture. The cleverest and most original thinkers stopped taking religion seriously. Or else reasoned themselves into unorthodox Christian world-views that would be utterly unacceptable to the ordinary believer. For instance Mr Enoch Powell's recent translation of the Gospel of Matthew brands large parts of the traditional text as false and invented. For Powell, the original teachings of Jesus are identical with the later Greek and Roman Christian traditions. Anything that seems to suggest that Joshua son of Mariam was a rather typical irregular Jewish teacher in the final days of Jewish Palestine is branded by Powell as a falsification. This of course would get rid of most of what had made Christianity meaningful across the centuries, most notably the Crucifixion.
The dogmatic monotheism of the ancient Israelites has proven to be a productive creed. It has so far spawned five major offspring—Rabbinical Judaism being a somewhat different religion from what was practised when the Jews still had their Temple with all of its cults of blood sacrifice. Both Christianity and Islam have been world-shaking creeds. A fourth offshoot, the T'ai P'ing rebellion in 19th century China, very nearly created yet another major world religion. The self-styled "younger brother of Christ" came very close to overthrowing traditional Chinese Paganism and bringing China into the modern world on a radically different basis. In the event, European Christians aided the Chinese Pagans against the new Christian-inspired creed. It was rejected as an error after its military defeat, and as far as I known it is extinct. As for conventional Christianity, the creed of the oppressive foreign invader never did get very far in an alien civilisation where Christian values seemed like a mix of the crazy and the disgusting. China was in fact modernised by yet another offshoot, the world-spanning philosophy of Marxism.
Peter Brooke takes a common and conventional view in writing off Communism as a failure, a creed that only brought misery. For certain, Khrushchev and Brezhnev did great damage by keeping alive Stalin's socialist version of the Tsarist Empire for several decades after all of the other colonial empires had been abandoned. But the world in 1995 is much closer to the original vision of the 1917 Bolsheviks than it is to the intentions of any of the other governments or religious authorities that existed in 1917.
The Communist creed managed to move the whole world a great distance towards its own goals, and away from those of religion as it was understood in 1917. Who else back then combined a strong commitment to racial and sexual equality? A cherishing of popular culture as distinct from that of a remote elite? A demand for the erosion of entrenched class privileges? A call for sexual freedom through easily available contraception and abortion?
If Moscow gradually fell away from its first ideals, the ruling class in the rest of the world found it necessary to match the best that Communism was offering. In crude power-political terms, the Third International could be said to have failed. In terms of actually shaping the world, it has won a conditional victory.
In a wider context, the end of the "Leninist Deviation" is not entirely bad news for socialism. These past couple of decades have been a bad patch, undoubtedly. But the first two centuries of socialism have achieved rather more than the first two centuries of Islam, and very much more than the first two centuries of Christianity or any other creed.
The world in 1995 is much closer to the original vision of the 1917 Bolsheviks than it is to the intentions of any of the other governments of 1917. But it is even closer to the broadly socialist or social-democratic viewpoint of that era. Leninism was a creed that developed in reaction to rival ruling classes who in 1914-18 managed to torture the world without showing much sign that they loved it. Conventional religious authorities were very happy to garb Caesar with the assurance of God's Approval, and thus accelerated their loss of moral authority.
When it comes to the actual political conduct of all of the major religions, one must again ask 'What's God got to do with it?'. Those people who postured as the 'Voice of God' showed very little real faith in God, when it came to the point. The Vatican in World War Two was no more inclined to take a serious moral stand against Hitler than Switzerland was. Stalin is reported to have asked 'how many divisions has the Pope?' The actual conduct of Vatican politics indicates that they took a similar view of their real power and role in the world. Though they would hardly have said 'what's God got to do with it?' this was the exact spirit in which they approached matters of power politics. When they had a chance to take an heroic moral stand—a stand that would have strengthened them enormously in the long run—they behaved no better than most of the secular powers that found themselves swallowed up by the Third Reich. Looking at the actual conduct of the leaders of Catholicism, and of the leaders of most of the other Churches, what has God got to do with it?
Socialism is a secular creed. It can accommodate those who are serious about their religion—those who do not see any need to invoke the aid of Caesar in the defence of God's interest. The Christian Socialist tradition is very worthy and has done some good work. But I can not take it very seriously at an intellectual level. Plato and St Paul still make extremely strange bed-fellows even when one puts Christianity in a socialist context, which is probably the closest modern equivalent of the original creed. Christianity shows all the signs of being a theoretical hodgepodge, the result of an historic compromise between some Bishops and some Roman generals in the declining days of the Roman Empire. What's God got to do with it?