Micah Redding — humanity, technology & the future

Why I am a theist

I am a theist.

For most people, that probably collapses into the fact that I'm a Christian. But they are separate things, and I embrace each of them for different reasons.

I embrace Christianity because I am incredibly drawn to Jesus of Nazareth, and his unique outlook on the world. I love the scriptures because he did, and because he shows us where the beauty lies in them.

But I am a theist because I believe in humanity. I believe in possibility, in open-ended potential, in flourishing and learning and growing. And for me, there is no way to believe in these things without being a theist.

I know this goes against many people’s intuitions. A lot of people see theism as a way to assert a closed universe, a hard set of limits around human behavior, and a limited imagination. This is the unfortunate legacy of much of medieval-tinged religion. But the truth is much different, and it doesn’t take a lot of thought to see why.

There are only two possibilities: either reality is limited, or reality is unlimited.

If reality is unlimited, then theism is true. Other beings are out there, other forces larger than we are, living immense lives on incredible scales.

And this would mean that hope is real. If there is no upper limit on reality, then human society can grow and flourish without fearing that one day we will hit a insurmountable wall. Every obstacle we encounter, we can come to with the knowledge that there is something beyond it.

But what about the other possibility?

Think about what it actually means to be an atheist. An atheist may embrace their viewpoint for many commendable reasons. Maybe they value science, rationality, free thought — maybe they simply don’t see any evidence, or haven’t been convinced that anything larger exists. But if they actually hold to atheism as an assertion about reality, then they are asserting that reality is limited, capped at a certain level, and that nothing else exists beyond that.

Consider Richard Dawkins. Most people identify him as one of the “new atheists”, but I count him as a fellow theist. He believes that there are superhuman beings, living immense lives, at levels far beyond our current imaginings. He even suspects that we might be in a universe created by one of these beings1. For historical reasons, he doesn’t like to call these beings “gods”, but they are gods by every definition worth having.

Why does he believe in these creatures? Because he thinks life isn’t limited to what we know on this planet. Reality is big, and the bigger it is, the more we have to consider the existence of entities larger than us.

To be a true atheist then, one would have to believe in a universe smaller than that of Richard Dawkins. One would have to believe that the universe is bounded, not just in light-years, but in possibility. One would have to look at our expanding, twenty-billion-light-year-wide universe, and conclude that not only is this the limit of everything that exists, but that within all this immense reality, there is not a single being more powerful than the one reading this blog.

Atheism must hold to a very limited existence.

The great atheists knew this, and recognized the consequences. Bertrand Russell believed that the universe was limited, and that this meant that everything in reality would eventually die. The stars would be snuffed out, the universe would become cold, all matter would ultimately decay into nothingness.

This meant, he said, that all human life must be built on despair, that everything we care about must vanish, that existence itself is futility.

He was right. Death is the inevitable end of a closed system. If reality is limited, then there is nothing left but despair.

But if reality is not limited, but is in fact unending, then there is hope. The world doesn’t have to die, the things we love about life do not have to vanish forever. If we do not live in a closed system, there is no reason for despair.

I’m not saying any of this to disparage atheism or atheists. I admire the courageous stance of Bertrand Russell, Isaac Asimov, and many others who stood against tradition and irrationality, and created meaningful lives in what they saw as a brutal universe. I admire someone who can face difficult truths and not shrink from them.

But our universe is bigger than the universe they knew about. And every year, it gets a little bigger.

There are only two possibilities. Either reality is limited, or reality is unlimited. So far, every time humans thought they had found the limits of reality, they were wrong.

My guess is they always will be.


  1. See this excerpt from his book. As quoted by Lincoln Cannon

Lincoln Cannon:

Thanks, Micah. I enjoyed this.

Jim Ledford:

A good Sunday morning read. Thanks Micah!

Stephen Wheeley:

An interesting definition of why one should be a theist. But if Dawkin's beliefs fit this definition is he being coy when he asserts he is an atheist, or hypocritical, or does he just have some other standard/ reason for denying the existance of God ? If being a "true atheist" means for Russell that "all human life must be built on despair" then what in the world is the point of living at all ? Knowing how brief our fleshly existance is compared to the life span of the rest of the material universe, how could you possibly think that anything you as an individual accomplishes in your lifetime ( or even all of mankind for all of our species existance ) has any meaning whatsoever ? Why do anything beyond that which benefits your own miserable, vain existance or why even bother at all ? What a joyless conception of life.

D Ellis:

"But if reality is not limited, but is in fact unending, then there is hope. The world doesn’t have to die, the things we love about life do not have to vanish forever. If we do not live in a closed system, there is no reason for despair." Unfortunately, there may be. Ever read Iain M. Bank's SURFACE DETAIL? It deals with the topic of galactic civilizations who have afterlives for uploads....and some of these afterlives include hells for those the society (or whoever is in charge) doesn't approve of. It's an appalling notion. One that makes me inclined to wish the uploading skeptics were right. Unfortunately, I doubt they are. I

D Ellis:

"But if Dawkin's beliefs fit this definition is he being coy when he asserts he is an atheist, or hypocritical, or does he just have some other standard/ reason for denying the existance of God ?" Clearly, Dawkin's doesn't think the idea of highly advanced alien intelligences is equivalent to the religious idea of a God or gods. I think he's probably right. I see little reason to worship an alien no matter how smart (I also see little reason to worship a supernatural entity no matter how smart). "Why do anything beyond that which benefits your own miserable, vain existance or why even bother at all ?" Hopefully, because you value such things as lovekindness for their own sake. Seems like reason enough to me.

Jim Ledford:

Well said Stephen. The key to understanding Dawkins is the dollar, or English pound...he makes big bucks selling books. What would be a money making bonanza for him now is to write rationally about Micah's new type of Theism. Someone.., Anyone, please stoke the spirit of mankind.

Noah D.:

I think a lot of people associate themselves with atheism because they don't want to be associated with religious people and the limited religious view of the Universe. Richard Dawkin and other scientists won't term an advanced hypothetical species as "gods" or the multiverse as "God" because it's misleading and it throws their work over to a religious context they don't find appealing.

micah:

Dawkins isn't being coy. He just mistakenly believes that a "god" is something that can do things like create square circles and other self-contradictory nonsense. Because Dawkins believes in law and rationality, he doesn't think such beings exist. I agree with him on this. And so would the majority of thinking people in the Christian and Jewish traditions, as well as pretty much every theist in the ancient world. The idea he's objecting to is relatively new. And the creatures he *does* believe in would have fit perfectly fine into the Greek and Roman pantheons. So Dawkins is an atheist about a god few of us believe in, and he's a theist about the kinds of gods the majority of people have ever professed.

micah:

Noah, I agree. The problem I have is that I don't want to be associated with a limited view of the universe either (thus, this post). I could be perfectly fine throwing out terms like "god" and so forth, replacing them with some other phrases, but in the end I think that would be disingenuous and misleading in its own way.

D Ellis:

"He just mistakenly believes that a "god" is something that can do things like create square circles and other self-contradictory nonsense." I'm pretty sure Dawkins is aware that omnipotence is generally defined as being able to do anything logically possible. It would be useful to actually quote the thinker you're discussing rather than putting words in his mouth. One is at least somewhat less likely to completely misrepresent his views.

micah:

My apologies - I appear to be misremembering something he said. I certainly do not want to misrepresent anyone's views. The reason he gave in the above-mentioned quote was a little more down to earth: "In what sense, then, would the most advanced SETI aliens not be gods? [...] The crucial difference between gods and god-like extraterrestrials lies not in their properties but in their provenance. Entities that are complex enough to be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process." He appears to think that deities need to have come from nothing, or to have always existed. To me, this definition would seem to exclude most of the gods of ancient polytheism. But perhaps someone has a better take on this than I do.

Stephen Wheeley:

D Ellis. I know of no religion that worships their version of god or gods merely because that "god is smarter" than they are, although it should be a "given" that your God is infinitely wiser than the humans he created. As for "because you value such things as love / kindness for their own sake " . This is the standard reply of secular humanism, which operates on the false assumption that all humans are "basically kind and good" and wrongly believe this "love and kindness " is an inherent trait, ie. we are born that way, or that we have evolved into kind, loving beings over time because it is a trait that is needed to ensure the survival of our species. But any realistic look at either ancient or modern history shows the falseness of this idea, particularly in light of how even those who consider themselves the "most enlightened" , whether secular or religious ( lets use Karl Marx and the Catholic Church during the Inquisition as examples ) give birth to monstrous acts of evil in the name of "human kindness". Those who have faced such evils head on, often dying in the process but in the end always triumphing over them, know that the only true form of love is self sacrificial in nature, and that this form of love can only come from a source far beyond our own abilities and nature. Yes, you may see the occassional "secular saint" throughout history, but they are "the exceptions that prove the rule". A dispassionate look at history will show that the vast majority of great acts of sacrificial love come from those who know the reality of a transcendent God ( no matter what form they are revealed in ). A closer look will show that the highest percentage are those who are true Followers of Christ, the highest example of sacrificial love in human history. Its only because man truly is "created in God's image" that we have any "natural affinity" for loving one another. But without consciously seeking to be "spiritually renewed" by coming to know and obey His Will its almost hopeless to truly "love your neighbor as yourself" in any and all situations, much less to "love your enemies". Just let yourself get into as situation where you or those you love most are threatened and see where your "love and kindness for their own sake" end up, out the window I bet.

Carl Youngblood:

D Ellis, I don't think you're being sufficiently imaginative about the kinds of things that highly advanced intelligences would be capable of. Have you ever witnessed a highly inspiring performance of a play or music or been in the presence of someone who is especially empathetic and loving? Now multiply that by a million and tell me if, in the presence of an advanced intelligence, you might not feel something akin to worship? Advanced intelligences would not be gods merely on the basis of their smartness.

Lincoln Cannon:

Carl, I agree: epistemic prowess would be far less likely to provoke my reverence than would be esthetic prowess.

D Ellis:

"Now multiply that by a million and tell me if, in the presence of an advanced intelligence, you might not feel something akin to worship?" Awe, wonder. Absolutely. But worship is a act as much as an emotion. And I just don't see why advanced minds would want to be worshipped. Having worshippers shouting "Glory to you, O Great Cthulhu!" Seems a bit of an ego trip. And if a truly advanced, enlightened mind wouldn't want worship, why worship it? Which brings up an obvious issue: why assume advanced minds would be paragons of goodness and benevolence rather than sadistic or indifferent or simply mind-shatteringly bizarre. My thinking is basically this: Anything that wants to be worshipped doesn't deserve it. Therefore we shouldn't worship it. Anything that is perfect enough to be an object of worship wouldn't approve of it. Therefore we shouldn't worship it. There's an SF short story I particularly like on the theme of the human impulse to worship aliens. "Radical Acceptance" by David W. Goldman: http://www.davidwgoldman.com/Radical_Acceptance.html

Leonard Reil:

Micah, Enjoyed the whole post, but really liked this comment. I have been told on a number of occasions that I should not use the term "God" for the God(s) I believe in, because doing so is dis-indigenous and misleading. As you well point out, that may be true, but using another term would also be misleading - so it becomes a question of which is more misleading and/or which one is more useful. And like you, I believe Theism is more accurate, even when I don't necessarily want to associated with some people's theism.

Lincoln Cannon:

D Ellis, I'm guessing by the way you're talking about worship that I'd agree with you, if I understood "worship" similarly. For me, worship is emulation like that of a child in relation to its parent. Check out the New God Argument (Google it) for reason to trust in the benevolence of posthumanity.

Carl Youngblood:

Lincoln, I think this distinction between praise and emulation is one that deserves more emphasis. In your past talks about the New God Argument, you've mentioned emulation but haven't drawn attention to the fact that this is essentially worship. I think this would help a lot of non-religious people appreciate the New God Argument more.

Carl Youngblood:

Of course any community wishing to enslave intelligences in a hell of their own making will have to compete with other communities desiring more benevolent futures. I find it much _more_ implausible that such an anachronistic world view would survive that far into the future.

Carl Youngblood:

What Lincoln said. I think your definition of worship is also too narrow. There are times when we are so overcome with admiration and respect that we feel constrained to acknowledge it. That is really all I'm talking about. I'm not talking about paying some sort of superficial obeisance or lip service but true respect and admiration that leads one to strive towards emulation. Any god worth its salt should not need to compel anyone to emulation, but should be so awesome that we do it voluntarily. Those behaviors that are most compelling and lead most towards species flourishing are the ones that should see themselves most widely copied throughout the universe.

D Ellis:

"This is the standard reply of secular humanism, which operates on the false assumption that all humans are "basically kind and good" and wrongly believe this "love and kindness " is an inherent trait, ie. we are born that way, or that we have evolved into kind, loving beings over time because it is a trait that is needed to ensure the survival of our species." You apparently haven't meet enough humanists of the kermudgeonly variety (read some Kurt Vonnegut or Mark Twain). We secularist humanists are fully capable of thinking human beings are generally a bad lot. I tend to this side of the fence myself. The fact that lovingkindness is an intrinsically worthwhile thing doesn't imply that human beings are very good at recognizing or appreciating that fact. We tend to be a morally and spiritually myopic species. I am endorsing a meta-ethical theory (one based on the concept of intrinsic goods). This does not require one hold a particular position on the natural goodness or badness of human nature.

D Ellis:

I'll give the argument a fuller look later but my first impression is that it's going the have the same problem of evil difficulties that traditional theism does.

Stephen Wheeley:

D Ellis. Don't worry about my reading background, I read about everything Vonnegut wrote and most of Twain back in the 60's & 70's and loved both of them. I do have a more optimistic view than they do, however, despite my own dim view of the "average human's" ehical standards. Although most can still show "lovingkindness" quite often , and I do agree that it is "intrinsically worthwhile" . I just think that in many people its "intrinsic depth" is more shallow than they believe it is or even want it to be. Or as you correctly said "We tend to be a morally and spiritually myopic species". Well put. The real problem is that so many of those who consider themselves to be our "moral and spiritual leaders" are just as myopic, if not often more so.

D Ellis:

I hope you're right. But most of you have what seems to me an irrationally optimistic outlook driven more by magical thinking than by reason.

Stephen Wheeley:

D Ellis, When it comes to knowing spiritual truth, ie., knowing ultimate reality, "an over-reliance on reason" is a fatal error. It leads to such morbidly boring philosophers like Immanuel Kant ( a mis-named child if there ever was one ) who struggles for a hundred pages to "prove by reason" an obvious truth Jesus could say in a few sentences. ( Or that even a Zen Master could teach in few words ). Reasoning is for trying to explain a truth/ reality in words to someone that can truly be grasped only when experienced personally.

Carl Youngblood:

D Ellis, I don't necessarily share the views of others who have responded to your posts, so please consider mine in isolation. I don't see any "magical thinking" in what I've said to you. I repeat, I find it much more improbably that a highly advanced intelligence would retain a primitive vindictive view of hell, reward and punishment. I think the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate why a highly advanced civilization would pursue these primitive and unethical concepts as zealously as you seem to be claiming.

D Ellis:

I'd say the burden is on you to present a sound argument for why advanced necessarily implies benevolent. Even if this is usually how it works out and only one in ten thousand civilizations will have created hells, it's still a horrendous outcome. The magical thinking I'm talking about is the projection of one's mythological dreams and ideals onto a reality which has never, ever been anything other than far messier than our myths.

Carl Youngblood:

D Ellis, the fact that you seem to agree with my assertion that such civilizations would be in the minority seems to indicate that my argument makes sense to you. Why would the existence of one such civilization negate the force of all the many others out there who would contend against any such attempts? Furthermore, do you and I not find the moral repugnance and ignorance of any intellect that could imagine such hells and grossly unjust conceptions of justice and morality to be self-evident? If so, then please explain how a highly advanced intelligence would not also find it to be self-evident, or would somehow find the opposite to be true. It is insufficient merely to argue for its possibility. You must explain why it is probable.

Fallon:

This has captured what I have come to believe recently. Thank you for sharing your wonderful thoughts and helping me sort through some of my own! Beautifully written.

The belief that the Universe is infinite is not the definition of theism or even a theistic-exclusive view, it is a well-accepted scientific truth. The difference between this author and Richard Dawkins is that Dawkins believes it is most likely that there is life outside Earth based on evidence but he, unlike theists, does NOT assert to have knowledge that a creator definitely exists. Saying something is likely or plausible is not the same as stating it as fact. And Dawkins flat out denies the claim that anyone on Earth can know with any degree of certainty what life may be beyond this planet, god or otherwise. Faith is what defines theism, not optimism.