As Gayle White, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution wrote recently, forty years ago, the country was on the edge.
In 1966, American presence in Vietnam was escalating, along with the protests against it back home. The civil rights battles were also heating up. Feminists founded the National Organization for Women.
And in the midst of this, during Easter week, the cover of Time Magazine asked, as White wrote, “in blood-red letters on a pitch-black background: Is God Dead?”
The cover story was a teaser for an article on what came to be called the Death of God theology, and one of its leading authors and proponents, a young faculty member in Emory University’s department of religion, Thomas Altizer. This cover story elicited more mail than any other single story in the history of Time (the magazine).
His book The Gospel of Christian Atheism set off a firestorm among traditional Christians and is also credited for perhaps turning around the academic reputation of Emory, from a provincial Southern Methodist school to a first rate national institution.
Altizer was vilified in the months after his book came out, and the national publicity, including an appearance on the Merv Griffin Show, followed by a mob chanting “Kill Him, Kill Him” as he was escorted out a rear door.
Altizer, who is about to publish a memoir titled Living the Death of God, recalls, “I think I became one of the most hated men in America. Murder threats were almost commonplace, savage assaults on me were widely published, and the churches were seemingly possessed by a fury against me.”
His self-described radical theology, drawing upon William Blake and Fredrich Nieitzche, held that God began emptying (himself) at creation and spent (himself) totally through Jesus’ incarnation and death. In his view, Jesus was not resurrected and did not ascend to heaven. Following Jesus’ death on the cross, the transcendent God ceased to exist, leaving only spirit behind. The divine spirit of love, compassion, and justice that humans could access in the church community, if it were to become fully committed to issues of social justice, care, and outreach to the poor and oppressed.
In 1966, I was a senior in high school in Palo Alto, California, and if God was not dead already in the Unitarian Congregation I actually faithfully attended, both on Sunday mornings and the youth group, God was awfully quiet.
I recall actually very little about the word that came down from the sleek modernistic pulpit, remembering much more vividly the gracefully arched piece of wood sculpture that was hung where a cross might have been in a more traditional church. It seems to me that more often or not the sermon focused on those white hot events that were swirling around us in that privileged enclave we lived in: the war, the racially motivated beatings, and bombings and riots.
We had conversations, we organized local marches and rallies, we sent money. We listened to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan about times that were a-changing and masters of war. What faith we had, in any sort of conventional sense, was implicit: it showed in what we chose to do. You might say, in contemporary terms, that social justice was our spiritual practice, that we were incarnating our own holiness.
If God — in conventional conservative Christian terms — was ever dead or even mortally wounded in the Emory theology school where Methodist Bishops unsuccessfully attempted to have Altizer fired 40 years ago, He has been fully revived and placed back in the firmament, if my current crop of first year seminary students are any indications. The Father God who judges and rewards, who is responsible for all actions and outcomes, who has a personal stake in the life of each of his dependent children is so very much alive.
Whatever blip there was in this kind of religious conviction on one campus in the Deep South in 1966, surveys show that more than 95 percent of Americans believe in God, with 82 percent saying that God performs miracles, and more than 70 percent convinced that there is life after death.
Not surprisingly, says geneticist and sometimes theologian Dean Hamer, whose book The God Gene has engendered its own controversy. Hamer writes that he was 13 years old when the famous God is Dead issue of Time was published, and remembers that what stuck with him was another of the predictions in the article, that as the power of science and technology waxed, faith in God — or God as we knew Him as creator and manipulator of all things in the universe — would wane.
Hamer writes that the story made a great impression on him because he was in the midst of what is a not uncommon adolescent spiritual awakening, a period, he says, when he was entranced with gods, rituals, magic, and prayer. Does science disprove religion — he asked — or might it, in the act, reveal some of the mechanisms, by which it works? Will science trump religion — or will it tenaciously survive or even triumph?
Hamer points out in his book that in China, where in 1927 the Peking Man was discovered, a member of the species Homo Erectus, which evolved in Africa more than a million and a half years, deliberate attempts to remove religion from the culture have failed.
In the skeletal remains of the most ancient human ancestors there is evidence of ritual cannibalism and skull preservation, with speculations that these practices were the results of spiritual beliefs — that the brain was the life force of a person and that eating it would transfer that magic or soul power. From these very primitive beliefs in supernaturalism to the more sophisticated belief systems of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, there was a through-line of religion for a half a million years, Hamer notes.
Despite official prohibitions, a new homegrown religious movement, Falun Gong, described as a New Age conglomeration of Taoist and Buddhist beliefs, combined with a breathing discipline and a strict behavioral code, is cropping up.
For Hamer, this is evidence of the endurance of God — to paraphrase Mark Twain, he says, the news of the death of God is premature. On the contrary, God is alive and well.
And for good reason, he theorizes. The varieties of religious experience that have been with us and continue, even robustly, are not just culturally based, he believes — and says he can prove — that they are rooted in our genetic make-up, in specific locations in our DNA.
For someone as scientifically challenged as I am (embarrassingly, as the daughter of a major microbiologist and geneticist), The God Gene was mostly tough going.
I looked to a review of the book in the liberal Christian magazine The Christian Century by Carl Keener, an emeritus professor of biology, to help unravel Hamer’s theories and the studies behind them.
Hamer, who has been doing research at the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health on the genetics of cigarette smoking, has constructed his argument thus: First, despite the catchy title for his book, he has said repeatedly when interviewed that his work does not make the case for the existence of a literal God being, or a particular religion. He is only making the case for brain markers for spirituality, which he defines as the capacity for self-transcendence.
Self-transcendence, from his perspective, includes three elements — self-forgetfulness (being in the flow), transpersonal identification (a sense of being connected to other things, which gives us reverence for life), and mysticism (intuitive insights not explainable by science).
Hamer poses several questions related to these aspects of religious affection or spirituality. He asks, Do you ever get so involved with your work that you forget where you are or what time it is? Have you ever been in the “zone” in terms of work, or sports, or music, and you can do no wrong?
Self-forgetfulness, he says, means having this sort of flow on a regular basis.
Are you concerned about protecting animals and plants from extinction? Do you feel a sense of unity with the things all around you? Would you risk your life to make the world a better place? These are indicators for the level of transpersonal identification in individuals. People who score high in personal orientation inventories for measures of self-actualization can become deeply emotionally attached to other people, animals, trees, flowers, streams, or mountains. They have what we sometimes call a reverence for life.
The third aspect of self-transcendence is mysticism. Hamer asks, Have you often found yourself moved by a fine speech or a piece of poetry, or have felt a connection with other people that cannot be expressed by words? Do you sometimes just know something without it being based in what you can see, hear, touch, smell, or otherwise concretely experience or prove? Are you therefore what is called a highly intuitive person?
Using these definitions and a Temperament and Character Inventory, Hamer analyzed various populations for their relative spirituality, focusing particularly on twins, both identical and fraternal. He then searched for the genes that control the production of the monoamines that are the biochemical mediators of emotions and values.
And, by extension, our spirituality.
As a result of these population studies, Hamer was able to pin down, out of roughly 35,000 genes, a gene called VMAT2 located on chromosome 10 which signals chemicals in the brain that correlate with higher and lower degrees of self-transcendence.
This proves for Hamer that feelings of and capacities for spirituality are a matter of genetically triggered emotions, not intellect, and therefore God is not known intellectually, but felt. Some of the differences among us, he theorizes and goes about at least tentatively proving, is that mystics, rationalists, and hardheaded empiricists (what you see is what there is) among us, as Carl Keener writes, see the world differently partly because of our genetic make-up. There may indeed be a biochemical basis for the spiritual disparities between those who, as he says, lift hands in church services and those who prefer not to. Or who stay away altogether.
My problem with Hamer’s work is actually not with the work itself. While he continually emphasizes that he is not making the case for God or religion, the very title of his book is either deliberately or otherwise misleading. His research does not make a scientific case for any kind of genetic wiring that explains for organized religion and why frequently irrational and violent religious beliefs still flourish.
And by not making this clearer is feeding into what author and philosopher Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, identifies as the bewildering juxtaposition of two facts — one, that our religious traditions that attest to a range of spiritual experiences that are real and significant, and, as he writes, highly worthy of our investigation, both personally and scientifically, and two, many of the beliefs that have grown up around these experiences now threaten to destroy us.
It is these beliefs — not the self-transcendent qualities of spirituality — that Harris identifies as abuses for which religion — past and present — is directly responsible. Our world, he says bluntly, is fast succumbing to the activities of women who would stake the future on beliefs that should not survive an elementary school education. He writes that so many of us are still dying on account of these ancient myths — culturally implanted, not genetically — is as bewildering as it is horrible. The recent, not ancient, conflicts in Palestine, the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Kashmir, Sudan, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia, he says, are merely cases in point. In these places, he reminds us, religion has been the explicit cause of literally millions of deaths in the last ten years.
Give people divergent, irreconcilable, and untestable notions about what happens after death, and then oblige them to live together with limited resources, he writes. The result is just what we see: add weapons of mass destruction to this diabolical clockwork, and what you have, he tells us, is a recipe for the fall of civilization.
It is crucial, therefore, Harris says, to carefully distinguish between religious faith and spirituality. For him, faith is a false conviction in unjustified propositions (such as a certain book was written by God or the Creator of the Universe can hear our thoughts) or spirituality or mysticism, which refers to any process of introspection by which the feeling he calls I is a cognitive illusion. To experience the world without feeling like a separate self in the usual sense.
This definition of spirituality vs. religiosity, rather than being destructive of both individuals and the world, may indeed be our salvation, Harris says. Something that Hamer in his God Gene work also echoes: The fact that spirituality has a genetic component implies that it evolved for a purpose.
Spirituality — self-forgetfulness, a reverence for life, the loss of dualism between I and Thou — leads away from the negative individual emotions such as hatred, envy, and spite, and toward love and compassion. Genuine deeply practiced and evolved spirituality leads us to be grounded in the present, not trapped in the past and in patterns of belief and behavior that are outdated and dangerous.
Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky.
Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too.
Imagine all the people living life in peace.
My vision for our congregations is that they will be places where religious beliefs are always subject to scrutiny — that our tolerance does not extend to those precepts that do harm, that indeed are killing. My vision for our congregations is that they will be places where we embrace the notion that spirituality is real and that supporting each other in our spiritual growth is not just a principle on paper but a core purpose.
You may say I’m dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
May it be so.