Debates
Fairfield Arts Council Gallery,
Connecticut

with:
Father Allen
Rabbi Lieken
Barbara Griffiths

moderated by curator
Laura Einstein

This exhibition was comprised of oil paintings and ink drawings. The series of large oil paintings is a continuing project.

Introduction
Throughout the two debates Father Allen and Rabbi Lieken didn’t present any proof that God exists, so this transcription just gives a summary of their justifications for religion. My evidence that God does not exist is given in full. For the website, I have replaced the interesting and amusing bits with boring facts.

During one debate Rabbi Lieken scored a point with an account of the crimes of scientists, and had I been faster on my feet I would have replied that though both science and religion commit atrocities, the Scientific Method (by definition) is self-critical and self-correcting, and Faith (by definition) is not. Startlingly, both priest and rabbi seem to be saying that we should believe in religion not because it’s true but because it’s comforting. This indefensible position may seem more sympathetic than the annoying logical smartypants atheist argument. Their case is poignantly made in Father Allen’s last sentence, as it moves from ‘you’ to ‘we’ to ‘I.’

Debates
(continued)
Father Allen:
Some years ago I asked the Mayor of a kibbutz, “What about religion?” He said, “My grandmother was a founder of this kibbutz. She came from Russia in the 20’s, and she had no religious fervor and was clearly a secular Jew. She’s in her 90’s now, and goes to the synagogue every day.” He said, “It’s amazing how when people get older they suddenly get religion,” and I said, “That’s interesting, because it’s the same in my religion too.”

You’re looking for something, and it’s all very well to say “There’s no meaning to life,” but eventually we start asking, and I suspect more and more as we get older, wondering if I’ll ever be reunited with those people who I loved and are no longer with me, what is going to happen as I begin to see the sunset of my own life.

Rabbi Lieken:
I once failed to persuade a widow that God exists, and I asked my professor, “What should I have said?” And the answer was, “You should have asked her what God she doesn’t believe in.” Because obviously she wanted to believe in God, she wanted there to be a higher purpose, she wanted some sort of comfort. The core idea that we struggle with as human beings is that there might not be any meaning, that life is finite, and that’s troubling. And the question is, what do we do as an answer? In many ways, that’s what religion has done, in some cases in a negative way, in some cases in a positive way. The question we have to ask ourselves is — is that wrong? Is it wrong for people to have an idea of God, even though it might seem irrational? God is not the only irrational human idea, there are many irrational beliefs which we hold even when we look at art, or go and see a film, for the time we’re sitting in that film, watching it, we believe in who those characters are pretending to be. We believe that that image and the emotion coming from it are true emotions. And in many respects I believe there’s a place for rationalism in our world, and I think that at times there’s also a place when to be irrational might not be all that bad.
Debates
(continued)
Barbara Griffiths:
My position is this — there is no God, and life has no purpose or meaning. It’s a matter of opinion whether religion is, on the whole, a good or a bad thing, but there are fifteen religious wars going on in the world at this moment, and we’d do well to try to understand how it operates. I’m going to talk about the various ways our brains work which make them susceptible to religious belief. In the last twenty years huge strides have been made in neuro-science, anthropology, primatology, game theory and evolutionary psychology; but while science has revealed much about our universe and ourselves, nothing supernatural has been validated.

‘Ockham’s razor’ suggests that that if there’s a simple, obvious explanation supported by evidence, it’s probably the right one, so don’t add unnecessary theories. Here’s an example; the anthropologist Evans-Pritchard was staying with the Zande people of the Sudan, when the roof of a mud hut fell down and killed one of them. The Zande people wept, and cried “Why did an evil spirit kill our friend?” The professor said “But it wasn’t an evil spirit, the roof fell down because termites ate the supports!” And the Zande people replied, “Of course, we knew that — the point is, why did it fall on that particular person at that particular time?” And that’s what this debate is about; do things happen for a supernatural reason, or is it just the termites? And when events have natural causes, do we have any excuse to believe in the invisible, the unprovable and the unnecessary?

From termites to ants. The sociobiologist E.O. Wilson says that the evolutionary success of social creatures like ants and humans has been driven by cooperative behavior within groups and conflict with other groups. Now look at the Old Testament, a perfect description of a tribe trying to get along together while fighting other tribes. A society bonded by religion might well have more ‘goodness’ within it, but it’s the ‘badness’ to those outside that’s the problem, as my husband knows only too well, having survived the World Trade Centre attack.

But belief in religion prevails because our brains have biases which encourage it. For instance, the brain categorizes objects and their properties so that it needn’t be in a constant state of analysis. This means that any category violation, like a cat who barks, makes the brain pay attention. A religion with a god who walks on water definitely has a better chance than one with some guy going round telling people how to behave. Successful gods the world over have one or two magical oddities, but not more — enough for stimulation without complication — and these concepts easily become memes which are passed down and embedded in a society. →

Debates
(continued)
Another brain bias is the tendency to vanity and self-deception. This has evolved because if we sincerely believe our own hype, we’re less likely to have ‘behavioral leakage’ which might harm our chances of success. And vanity loves religion because it tells us that we’re not merely animals, fighting, excreting, copulating and then dying! The defense against my suggestion that we are just animals usually goes — “Well then, how do you account for the transcendent human values, what about morality and altruism?”

These are not exclusive to humans — we share them in varying degrees with other social creatures, because morality is mainly the evolved equilibrium which helps us all get along together. The workings of group dynamics and reciprocity were unraveled by Game Theory computer modeling in the eighties, and lately it’s been found that altruism comes not only from evolved patterns of reciprocity, but from mirror neurons in the brain which give empathy. Brain chemistry also rewards any act of generosity with a boost in dopamine levels. Recent research suggests that the capacity to behave morally is built into the brain in the same way as the capacity for language, with a universal grammar shared by both believers and atheists — proving that morality exists outside religion. It varies within parameters which reflect local conditions and culture, because it’s a circle which fluctuates according to circumstances. In the Old Testament the circle’s very small because times were hard, while it expands throughout the New Testament.

The brain biases which encourage social bonding also support religion, because any unified group has a better chance of survival. That’s why we share the beliefs of our neighbors in what’s called ‘quorum sensing.’ We’re programmed to believe what our parents tell us and to seek evidence supporting our beliefs in ‘subjective validation.’ ‘Agency,’ the instinct which used to warn us that a log might be a crocodile, makes us see pattern and spiritual meaning everywhere. We believe in the soul because there are two separate brain modules to process personality and things; this is why we think mind & body are not connected.

Our emotions come from hormones; vasopressin and oxytocin make us love, seratonin gives us spirituality & meaning. Emotions are physical, and have evolved to help us survive. Love encourages pair-bonding and the raising of children, fear makes us careful, pleasure and beauty reward us. Like any troop of baboons, we have a tribal process which makes identity and solidarity for the group, with a hierarchy of status for individual competition. One example of such a group is The Arts. Although the hierarchy of artistic judgment seems monumentally solid it’s just a cultural construct, and if most people prefer Barry Manilow to Bach, then we might conclude that Barry is the better composer. There is no external grand arbiter. Some people mark their social territory by means of possessions, but here too, human artifacts have no meaning outside humanity and all value is added by us. It’s all in our heads, and the external world has no purpose or meaning. Rabbi Lieken’s analogy of religion and movies also applies to life — as he said, “for the time we’re sitting in that film, watching it, we believe in who those characters are pretending to be.” →

Debates
(continued)
In the Tsunami of 2004 a supermodel survived, clinging to the top of a tree. She said “God has saved me for a purpose.” Now, isn’t that vanity, when a quarter of a million people had just died? It might have been a pig, or a bicycle, or anything on top of that tree. The same principle applies to our little world, spinning round in a vast dead universe. It isn’t that we’re singled out and special, we’re just a statistical accident. And all of us alive at this moment, with billions of dead people who came before us, and billions of people yet to be born in front of us, here we are in the middle of eternity! Does that make us special? No. We’re just here because we’re here. The simple fact that we are here to give witness to ourselves gives us this illusion of specialness. (The Anthropic Principle).

But there is perhaps one ghost in the machine, and that’s the pressure of social cooperation, regulated through language. Have you ever considered the vocabulary which makes you behave in ways you’d rather not? The more positive the word — ‘good, brave, hero, saint’ — the less it’s in your interest. If you’re being ‘selfish,’ you’re doing exactly what you want, but if you’re about to be a ‘hero’ beware! Religion works because it coerces individual self-sacrifice while at the same time exalting the individual. A society’s challenge is to balance the needs of one with the needs of many, and religion is a cultural mechanism which tackles this, using language and custom.

If it’s the case that these have evolved to combat individual self-interest, then we could name this coercion ‘God.’ It’s probable that Jesus only said 18% of the words attributed to him, but it doesn’t matter because he’s elected by the group to represent its ‘values.’ He’s an imaginary figure who personifies the cooperative behavior which will help us succeed. God is Us.

To sum up — I’m saying that life has no purpose and no meaning, except for the meaning we attach to it. We’ll always weave stories which enhance our lives, which give us purpose and help us thrive, and that’s fine. But if supernatural phenomena are disproved, the question changes from ‘Do we believe in God?’ to ‘Should we believe in God?’ On the personal level we can enjoy our own self-deception with irony — for instance, I know my opinions are correct, and I look young for my age. But on the group level, it’s a puzzle to decide just how many feel-good myths we can discard. We’re smart enough to understand that our ways of thinking are adaptive, but not smart enough to know the consequences of abandoning them.

However we answer these questions, the bottom line is this; the purpose of our lives is to raise our children and look out for one another. And might it not be enough for us that we have babies and dogs and art and music and nature and joy and passion and laughter and family and friends? Surely those should be enough for anyone.