The Fertile Ground between Theism and Atheism

The two concepts, “God” and “Tao,” have much in common and significant differences.  The concepts “Tao” and “Atheism” also have much in common and significant differences.  By examining these commonalities and differences I hope to show that there is a fertile ground between theism and atheism.   In this fertile ground, there are forms of spirituality of great depth that are free from untenable, supernatural beliefs and the mindsets such beliefs engender.  Here we highlight one of those forms, philosophical Taoism, and compare and contrast it with theism and atheism.

God vs. Tao
The concepts “God” and “Tao” are both totalizing concepts, i.e. concepts that embrace all that is.  Both can be thought of as the invisible, unknowable source of the visible, knowable world.  As such, they represent that from which we arise, which sustains us, and to which we ultimately return.  Both represent the ultimate principle of Nature, and also the ultimate principle of our sense of being, our awareness and sense of agency.

It is around the concept of agency, that the two ideas are most divergent.  The theistic concept of “God” generally includes the idea of a being that has agency in much the same way that we think of ourselves as having agency.  If we imagine God as the creator of the world, we imagine him (for convenience I’ll stick with the convention of using the masculine pronoun) creating it in somewhat the same manner as a human architect creates a building.  First he has an idea and from this idea he creates the material world.  For the theist, the world is the realization of God’s idea of the world.  There is a master plan and purportedly we humans fit into that plan in some way.  Specific theist religions specify various ways in which we fit, and how we are to behave in this life based on how we fit.

In addition to being its creator, the theist god is also the source and sustainer of the world’s order.  As governor of the world, his agency is often portrayed as being analogous to a great king or ruler.  Something of the theistic idea of the relationship of God and nature’s order is exemplified in the Greek mythic figure of Helios and his son Phaethon.  In the myth, Helios promises his son any wish and the son chooses to drive the chariot of the sun.  Helios immediate sees his mistake, but cannot break his promise.  Phaethon is unable to master the chariot’s steeds which causes the sun to veer wildly from its course causing all manner of damage.  Zeus has to destroy Phaeton in order to restore the natural course of order.

We can see behind this myth the idea that a powerful governing agent is needed to control Nature, which otherwise tends toward chaos.  Though this myth comes from Greece, the Judeo-Christian God is conceived as having much the same relationship.  Throughout much of the West, there is the idea that Nature tends toward chaos and it takes the active intervention of the deity to keep Nature in order.

As it is in the great cosmos, so it is in the microcosm.  Thus a strong ruler is needed to govern the people, who otherwise tend to rebellion.  Thus parents must be strict in governing the forces of chaos in their children.  And thus we as individuals must actively wrestle with the chaos of the inner demons which threaten to overwhelm us. The general principle is that left alone, things tend to disorder.  A teleological agent, whether divine or human, must actively intervene to maintain order.

Taoism has a diametrically different idea of agency.  The Tao is neither an agent nor a plan.  Nature arises from the Tao and sustains itself spontaneously.  There is no master plan, no governing agent.  For Taoism, Nature left to itself tends toward organization.  The celestial orbs follow their path through the sky and the seasons follow each other in due succession.  And again, what is true for the great cosmos is true for the microcosm.

Left to themselves, the people will find a proper organization for the conduct of their affairs and well-being; thus the ruler should as much as possible rule without interference.  With a due amount of care, nurture and education, a child will naturally grow to be an adult; thus parents should not impose their idea of what the child should grow into, but allow the child to grow to its natural strengths.  Similarly in our own person, rather than trying to become some preconceived ideal of a human, we should seek to become the human we most authentically are.  For the Taoist, this is most readily achieved through the cultivation of inner quietness and passive achievement, rather than the active pursuit of external goals.  Contemplation is the method of this inner quietness and passive achievement.

Taoism presents no theory of how the cosmos achieves organization.  For the Taoist, this is simply a mystery.  From the viewpoint of modern cosmology, we might point to three different aspects of this mystery.  The first is the simple mystery of why there is something rather than nothing.  The second is the mystery of how, in a cosmos ruled by entropy, Nature in the first place obtained such a vast concentration of energy.  The third aspect is why this cosmos, starting as it does from what appears to be a simple thermodynamic event – the Big Bang – evolves into a world of such intricate order.  To put this another way, given the Big Bang, the overwhelming probability is that after a billion years or so there should be nothing but the background radiation.  Yet this universe has not only the background radiation, but an improbable collection of galaxies. And on at least one of them beings who can observe and ponder the mystery of being.

Taoist acceptance of the mystery of the cosmos has a simple honesty to it.  Note that in theism, God’s agency is offered as the answer to the mystery of the cosmos; yet if we interrogate the idea of God, we have to conclude that the presence of a God and his agency is certainly at least as great a mystery as the appearance of an organized cosmos.  God is inexplicable. Thus theism uses one inexplicable, God, to explain another inexplicable, the presence of a highly organized cosmos.  Why multiply inexplicables?  Why not simply accept the primary mystery, and let it rest at that?

Taoism’s positing of a cosmos that organizes itself, as opposed to a cosmos organized by an agent, presents a rather radical alternative to theism and the traditions based on it.  Before going further, I would like to take a brief detour to explore some Western ideas that provide a naturalistic justification to the idea of a “self-organizing” universe.

Spontaneous Self Organization
The idea that good things can come about spontaneously has much in common with a modern idea that is termed “self-organization.”  To the best of my knowledge, the first appearance of this idea in Western thought is in Adam Smith’s idea of the invisible hand of the markets.  For Smith, markets need neither a plan nor external governance; they can arise spontaneously and function as a well-organized system merely from the desire of humans to maximize their own gain.

While Smith’s idea of the hidden hand of the markets marks a kind of introduction to the idea of self-organization in the West, it is in Darwin’s idea of evolution by natural selection that we find the idea in a more full blown form.  The Reverend Paley gave voice to the predominant teleological idea of his (pre-Darwinian) times when he argued that the complex structures and organizations of living things and the remarkable adaptations of plants and animals required an intelligent designer.  Darwin demonstrated that living things could adapt and organize on their own without any central plan or external interference.  This idea, along with Smith’s, was a truly radical innovation for the West, and has still not really penetrated to the core of Western culture.

The basic principle of self-organization is that organization can arise without a pre-existing plan or central agent.  The cosmos self-organizes because matter is attracted to other matter (by gravity) and both attracted and repelled by other forces, such as electromagnetic energy.  Living organisms self-organize within an ecosystem, because they desire to eat and not be eaten.  Human cultures and institutions self-organize out of the desire of humans to interact with some of their fellows and to not interact with others.   In all cases it is the relationships of the various elements and the strength of the attraction and repulsion motivating these relationships that lead to self-organization. Neutral things do not self-organize.

That we live in a highly organized cosmos is based on the fact that the fundamental parameters that comprise the laws of nature have the precise values that they do.  Cosmologist have shown that of all the possible values of these fundamental parameters, only an astronomically tiny subset of them can lead to any form of enduring organization.  That the parameters of this universe do lead to an organized universe has been called the “the mystery of the fine-tuning of the parameters.”  I do not think it a reach to state that here, when the cosmologists speak of this “fine tuning,” they are referring to the same mystery contemplated by the Taoist, though with much greater detail and no spiritual implications.

One last point, before ending this brief description of self-organization.  If we try to present a typology of organization, it would seem there are at least two main types: self-organization and organization based on a central plan.  Interestingly, there is no English word to denote this second type of organization, but I will call it “algorithmic organization,” because a central plan can be thought of as a kind of algorithm.  Within this typology, we might note that there are at least two different types of algorithmic organization.  I will call these the organic and the synthetic.  By organic I mean that the plan is immanent within the set of elements that are being organized.  The way the structure of a living cell develops from the “plan” carried by its genes is the good example.  By synthetic I mean that the plan is external to the elements being organized.  A building based on a blueprint is an example.  It should be noted that all three types of organization – self organization and organic and synthetic algorithmic organization — can be present in a single phenomenon, such as a natural garden.

Tao vs. Atheism
There are many forms of atheism and attempts to generalize about atheistic belief undoubtedly will not apply to all of them. For the purposes here I use the word “atheist” to refer not only to those who reject all forms of the notion of God but also the efficacy and meaningfulness of any form of religion or spirituality.

While atheism rejects the notion of a cosmic agency, often atheists celebrate the triumphs of human agency in its effort to create a better world.  Typically for an atheist better means a world where people are happier and have more pleasure and less pain.  Such pleasure is often associated with a material cause; improving material conditions is seen as the best way to increase human well-being.  Many atheists place great faith in technology to produce such improvements in our material condition, and at its extreme it generates a kind of technological utopianism.

Philosophical Taoism is similar to atheism in its rejection of a cosmic agent that creates, governs, and cares about the Universe.  But it differs from atheism in its attitude toward human agency and dependence on material conditions to improve human well-being.  Taoism is a form of spirituality and all meaningful forms of spirituality are based on the notion of cultivating our inner resources.  This cultivation of inner resources leads both to liberation from external conditions and a sense of well-being based on that liberation.  Taoism neither rejects technology nor celebrates it – Taoism accepts the world as it is, and technology is simply part of the world as it is.

Further, all the major forms of spirituality call for the diminishment of the human ego.  In theism, this is turning one’s life over to God.  In Taoism it is bringing one’s life into complete harmony, even absorption, with the Tao, the way of Nature.  These two are different, but in relationship to an atheism that puts its faith in human agency and technological progress, the theist and Taoist view are relatively similar.

In regards to their view of the individual’s relationship to this spiritual other, perhaps the difference between Taoism and atheism can be best clarified through their potential approach to something like the twelve step program of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Step three of the twelve steps is “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”    For the purposes of this step both God and Tao can represent a “higher power” to which we can turn over our will and our lives.  This is a recognition that there are limits to human agency and that there are “forces” beyond the ego that can lead to spiritual transformation.  The theist sees this “force” as at least partially an external deity.  Taoism simply accepts it as part of the mystery.  The important thing for the Taoist is the efficacy of this presence, not the how or why of it.  Many atheists, on the other hand, express antagonism to this idea of turning one’s life over to a higher power. Some have attempted to develop alternative forms of substance abuse treatment that emphasize the individual’s will power as the means to a cure.

There are many other similarities and differences between theism, Taoism and atheism, but we need not go into them here.

The Fertile Ground
In logic “A” and “not-A” contain all cases.  Thus one might be inclined to think that theism and a-theism similarly include all cases.  But language tricks us here.  The terms “theism” and “atheism,” both in their denotation and connotation, do not contain all cases: between theism and atheism there is a large and fertile ground, a ground that for lack of a better term I’ll call “pantheism.”  Taoism is one form of pantheism, but there are many others.

Many people, when their sense of rationality and meaningfulness cause them to reject theism, jump to its opposite, atheism.  Here, in summary, I would like to simply suggest that before making such a leap, one might profit by exploring the fertile ground that lies between theism and atheism.


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2 thoughts on “The Fertile Ground between Theism and Atheism”

  1. Well-put. I especially like the way you draw a contrast between an agent-ordered cosmos and a self-ordering cosmos. That was quite illuminating for me.

    I liked the comparison of Taoist and scientific mystery too. The third scientific mystery I might rephrase to something like: why the laws of nature are as they are. Because we do have some fairly reasonable ideas of why more than just background radiation followed the big bang: given certain laws of nature like gravity, matter can’t help but clump together (as you point out later). But the question of why those laws are as they are remains a mystery.

    As for the central argument that atheists put a bit too much stock in human agency and might do well with a bit more humility, I hesitantly agree. That is certainly the over-riding impression that tends to come across in the media. But I hesitate because I wonder if there are more atheists of a humble stripe than we tend to hear about. Atheists tend to like technology and science, and science has a kind of humility built into it: a fundamental understanding that all supposed facts are just conjectures with a certain probability of truth, and which are liable to be overturned eventually by new evidence. This is a kind of turning oneself over to a “higher power”, i.e. submitting to the inevitability of error and the limits of human understanding. This aspect of science tends to get lost in the noise of popular perceptionm though. I’ve written about it as science’s power to “unexplain” as well as explain. It’s a message that needs to gain more currency.

  2. I too find the contrast in the sources of order to be helpful. Fertile middle ground in today’s religious climate is valuable.

    About the “mystery of the fine-tuned universe” that supposedly accounts for not only cosmic organization but life itself, the concept has never made sense to me. It doesn’t seem believable that the universe came about for the purpose of generating various forms of organization, culminating in life itself. It’s also quite a self-congratulatory point of view. And while it bears similarities to Taoism, as you point out, it has also been used as a “God of the gaps” argument.

    Wikipedia has basic coverage of the criticisms of the “fine-tuned universe” along with related ideas such as the anthropic principle and hind-sight bias. The basic problem is that the concept reverses cause and effect. It suggests that a “fine-tuner” of some kind, divine or natural, tuned the universe to turn out as it has. (Stephen Jay Gould thought the idea was like arguing that ages ago sausages were made long and narrow so they could fit into the modern hotdog bun.) It seems to me simpler and more reasonable to think that the reverse is the case, that the universe arose with its particular forms of organization that eventually (but not inevitably) included a replicating creature with consciousness.



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