And if so, does that something have to be God?
Or indeed, anything supernatural?
There's a curious argument that gets made a lot by theists. It's often called the "God-shaped hole in our hearts" argument, and it goes something like this: "Human beings have a strong emotional yearning for something more: something outside our ordinary experience. The fact that we yearn for it shows that it must be there. God has put a God-shaped hole in our hearts: a restless yearning that we long to fill with spiritual experience."
Or, boiled down more succinctly, "Human beings want there to be a God. Therefore, there is a God."
(Karen Armstrong refers to this argument in her "In search of an ultimate concern" piece that I recently fisked, and Ebonmuse recently wrote about it on his Daylight Atheism blog, citing a study showing that believers are no more happy or content than atheists. Which is why I'm thinking about it.)
So today, I want to look at some of the more obvious, practical problems with this argument. And then, I want to look at a different flaw: one that's more subtle, but one I think is far more fundamental.
said this before, and I'm sure I'll say it again: When we really, really want something to be true? That shouldn't be seen as evidence for why it is true. Quite the contrary. When we really, really want something to be true, that's when we have to be extra careful, extra suspicious of our motivations, extra cautious about our thought processes. That's when rationalization, and confirmation bias, and all those other mental processes that support us in believing what we already believe, seriously kick into high gear.
That's exactly why the scientific method has so many rigorous cross-checks. Science is full of stubborn bastards who crave recognition and would love nothing more than to prove their theory correct. Hence, double-blinding, and placebo controls, and peer review, and publishing not just results but methodology, and replicating experiments, and all that good stuff. A rigorous application of the scientific method doesn't guarantee that personal bias won't affect results... but it's the best method we have for minimizing bias and filtering it out in the long run. That's the whole point.
But back to religion, and the yearning for God. Someone (I can't remember who now) recently pointed out that the "no atheists in foxholes" argument, even if it were true (which it's not), isn't an argument for God's existence. It's actually a strong argument against it. It's an argument for God as wishful thinking; for God as a sign of desperation in desperate times. If what it takes for atheists to convert is being faced with imminent death and the profound wish for that death to not be real... how is that an argument for God being anything other than a figment of our imagination?
And now, we come to my main point: the profound, fundamental flaw in the "we yearn for something more, therefore God exists" argument.
It's this: There is a far better, far more obvious answer to the question, "Why do people yearn for something more, something larger, something outside our everyday experience"?
That answer: People are restless.
We're wired that way by evolution.
And those impulses aren't limited to survival. Like so many of our evolutionary strategies, they're deeply rooted in our psychology, and they spill out into every area of our experience: into art, science, friendship and love, philosophy.
Yearning is our evolutionary niche.
But that still doesn't make it real.
Augustine was mistaken. Our hearts are not restless until we find our rest in God. Our hearts are restless, period. We don't have a God-shaped hole in our hearts. We have a hole-shaped hole in our hearts. And if the study cited on Daylight Atheism is correct, the hearts of atheists are no more restless or empty than the hearts of believers. We have simply chosen to focus our yearnings on this world, the one we can see and hear and touch... the one we know exists.
There's plenty to yearn for right here.