I would like to suggest one reason that might help explain the widespread belief in the god of traditional Western theism.
I do not mean to suggest that this is the sole reason or even the primary reason for belief in this particular deity. I mean only to suggest that it may be a reason.
For the purpose at hand, it is important to keep in mind that the god of traditional Western theism is a personal being with whom one may have a relationship; indeed this deity seeks such a relationship. This god is not an impersonal force like love or gravity.
My suggestion then is that people posit such a being, in part, so that they may more easily and more frequently express gratitude. Our language and cultural conventions often make it difficult to express gratitude toward anyone or anything other than a person. Yet it is increasingly clear that the practice of expressing gratitude is essential to our wellbeing.
There is some similarity to the argument from design originally articulated by Thomas Aquinas (and by lesser intellects as well). Aquinas argued that that the level of complexity found in the natural world was best explained by the existence of an extremely powerful god capable of designing it in such a fashion.
The difference, of course, between the argument from design and what I might light-heartedly call the argument from gratitude is that while the former aims to prove the existence of a particular god, the later aims to account for the widespread belief (or delusion) in such a god. Both arguments do cite the complexity and the grandeur of the natural world in coming to their respective conclusions.
So if one rejects belief in the god of Western theism and accepts the argument from gratitude, then how ought one proceed?
I would recommend that we push the limits of our language and remodel cultural conventions so that we may more readily express gratitude to a wider range of subjects than simply human beings and personal deities.
We can send gratitude down into the earth like a taproot and up into the sky as if on wing.
The most obvious class of individuals to whom we may begin expressing gratitude toward would be the full breadth of our animal relations. Consider a few ways that we humans are the beneficiaries of the work being done by other animals (note: this is only the labor that is freely engaged in by other animals as it would be inappropriate to express gratitude for the forced labor of the animal captives who populate slaughterhouse, laboratories, circuses, zoos, and other places of exploitation):
- “Earthworms dramatically alter soil structure, water movement, nutrient dynamics, and plant growth.”
- Bees pollinate a vast number of the plants that humans rely on for food.
- Writing about vultures, biologist David Haskell has said that “[l]ike living prayer flags, their presence delivers a very real ecological blessing to the land” and explains numerous benefits they provide.
- It is possible that human language has roots in birdsong.
With minimal (but highly rewarding) effort, this list of benefits could be extended to almost any desirable length and could exhibit a diversity rivaled only by the tree of life itself. To steal a line from philosopher James Rachels, we have essentially been “created from animals”. There is also the Native American idea that “every animal knows more than you do” and thus allows us to open ourselves to their instruction.
But surely, we can stretch further, cast off additional cultural constraints, and find ever more opportunities for gratitude. It is not simply human beings and other animals to whom we may feel grateful. There is nothing stopping us in feeling grateful toward the many plants who nourish us, a particular tree who provides us with a cool shady space on an otherwise uncomfortably hot day, and even the microbes who call our bodies home and make our lives possible (a recent New York Times articles reports on “our resident microbes”). A previous post (“In Praise of Dead Trees”) listed many reasons for which one may be grateful toward dead trees, fallen logs, and downed wood of all sorts.
If we are especially ambitious, feeling completely unconstrained, and are overflowing with gratitude, we may experiment with expressing gratitude toward recipients beyond the biotic community toward impersonal forces like gravity, the wind, or magnetism. A particularly impressive example can be found in Stephan Harding’s “Dedication to the Elements of the Earth” where he describes the elements as “animate proto-beings, tiny atomic persons. The stuff of life” and asks how such proto-beings should be treated and honored.
The practice of so narrowly limiting to whom we may express gratitude has not been without its harmful consequences. The only alternative that I can see is to change course by expanding the range of subjects to whom we may express gratitude; to look beyond humans and deities. It is unlikely that our experiments will yield uniform results or that there will ever be an ultimate consensus but a general movement towards greater inclusiveness and more frequent opportunities to express gratitude would likely be a healthy change of pace.