Can a piece of writing get stuck in your head the way a song can? This one has. It's from Ebon Musings, the sibling site to Daylight Atheism, and the two of them are my new favorite atheist blog, with a well-written, well-reasoned, impressively large body of atheist writing. This piece has been on my mind ever since I read it, and I wanted to point y'all to it and talk about it a little.
The piece, One More Burning Bush, is a compellingly detailed argument for why it makes no sense for God to keep himself hidden from sight. But the part that's really stuck in my head is the opening section, "The Incredible Shrinking Deity," in which he points out that the claims made for God's miraculous deeds have, over the centuries and millennia, been gradually but inexorably shrinking. To quote:
"Where the Bible tells us God once shaped worlds out of the void and parted great seas with the power of his word, today his most impressive acts seem to be shaping sticky buns into the likenesses of saints and conferring vaguely-defined warm feelings on his believers' hearts when they attend church."
"There is a distinct pattern here, and it can best be summed up as this: Throughout history, God has been shrinking. The time when the world was small and God was in control is always in the far distant, half-remembered past. The closer we approach to the present, the less common miracles are and the less accessible he becomes, until the present day when divine activity has dwindled until it is indistinguishable from the nonexistent."
And one more time:
"This pattern is not limited to the Judeo-Christian religions, either. Almost every belief system around the world tells a similar story: a past golden age where the gods were apparent and miracles were abundant, followed by a steady decline of such occurrences until arriving at a thoroughly ordinary, natural present. The kind of events that the Bible and other holy books describe simply do not happen in the world today; the frequency of miracle claims seems to decline almost in direct proportion to our ability to test them." (Emphasis added.)
The reason this jumped out at me so strongly and has been stuck in my head so relentlessly is that it gets at, from a completely different angle, what I was getting at in my piece The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely (one of my better pieces, if I do say so myself, and one of the central foundations of my own atheist thought). The gist of that piece is that, when you look at the history of the world, you see a startlingly consistent pattern: supernatural explanations of phenomena have been effectively replaced by natural ones by the thousands, while natural explanations of phenomena have been effectively replaced by supernatural ones exactly never. (And therefore, with any given phenomenon that's currently unexplained, the chances that the explanation will eventually turn out to be a natural one are several orders of magnitude more likely than it turning out to be supernatural or divine.)
And while I hadn't thought about it this way before now, Ebon Musings is exactly right. As our understanding of the natural, physical world has increased -- and our ability to test theories and claims has improved -- the domain of God's miracles (or other supernatural/metaphysical explanations) has consistently shifted, away from the phenomena that are now understood as physical cause and effect, and onto the increasingly shrinking area of phenomena that we still don't understand.
Which is a pretty compelling pattern. "Okay, we don't need God to explain floods, but we still need him to explain sickness and health." "Okay, we don't need God to explain sickness and health, but we still need him to explain consciousness." Whatever it is that we don't understand at the moment, that's what gets called God or the supernatural.
And given the consistency of this pattern, that just doesn't make sense to me. Yes, there's a lot about the world we don't understand. But I don't see why we need to fill in the empty parts of the coloring book with a blue crayon and call it God, or the soul, or metaphysical energy. Throughout history, we consistently and overwhelmingly have had to replace the blue crayon of the supernatural or divine with other, more accurate colors -- and as the current evolution debates are demonstrating, scraping the blue crayon out of people's minds is a stubbornly difficult task that wastes time and energy better spent elsewhere. The blue crayon is worn down to a nub, and it's never proven to be the right color, and I don't see why we keep reaching for it every time we see an empty space in the coloring book. I don't see why we can't leave the empty parts of the coloring book empty, until we know how to fill them in.