Almost exactly halfway along the Pennine Way is a natural limestone bridge called “God’s Bridge”. This name makes me think about how much the gods have retreated as we discovered the things attributed to them actually have natural causes. And how much better we are to rely on ourselves than on the gods.
From above, the bridge just looks like a fairly ordinary part of the Pennine Way:
But from the stream level you can see that it really is a bridge:
I couldn’t find any information about why it was named “God’s Bridge”. However, I assume it was named back in the time when the entire Earth was considered God’s special creation. The people who named it saw that there was no need to create a bridge, because there was already one there. Hence, it must be God’s bridge.
And I understand this attitude, because it’s exactly what I grew up with. We knew that everything in the natural world had been recently created by God, and its beauty and usefulness was solely due to his creative power. If there was anything that seemed older than the nominal 6,000 years, it had obviously been created with an appearance of age.
However, now we know much more about the natural processes that formed places like this. On this one, Wikipedia says:
The bridge was formed by a process of cave development in the limestone beneath the river bed and is the best example in Britain of a natural bridge formed in this way. (Source)
I see this as part of the inevitable retreat of God. As we discover natural explanations for the things that were formerly explained by the gods, we have less need for gods. While we can’t necessarily prove that every single thing has a natural explanation, we can say that, so far, natural explanations have been much more useful than explanations involving the gods.
Utility does not need a creator
The bridge is useful to us as a bridge. But we can see it has been produced by natural processes without a specific plan for it to be a bridge.
There was no creator god that gave it a purpose: We saw a purpose to it, and we used it. And we’re not the only ones, either. After all, to the fish swimming in the stream below it’s not a bridge, but a cover over the water.
Beauty does not need a creator
Similarly, we see that a bridge like this is nice to look at - but again, it is just the outcome of natural processes. There is no creator god working like an artist to create beauty for his creation to see.
This is shown even better by High Cup Nick, my favourite landmark on the Pennine Way:
It is a glacial valley which is breathtakingly beautiful. But once again we know the natural processes that created it.
I’ve seen glaciers in Switzerland and in New Zealand, and think that they too are beautiful. But they haven’t been created to look beautiful, nor do they have the specific purpose of carving glacial lakes and valleys for future generations to admire. They are just a result of natural processes.
Who created natural laws?
When facing this, some believers decide that the natural laws themselves require a creator. In this new picture, the gods have retreated from directly intervening in the world (as described in the Bible and many other religious texts) to largely just winding up the universe and leaving it to run. And I can understand why this may seem more powerful - I’m sure it requires far more brilliance to make a universe exactly the way you want through natural processes than through direct intervention.
However, I don’t think this leaves much in the way of evidence, and I also don’t see it as very useful. We would interact with the natural laws and processes exactly the same whether are completely natural or whether they were explicitly designed by some creator long ago. God’s Bridge would still have been created by natural processes with no apparent purpose.
The Dream Quest of Vellitt-Boe
These thoughts came back to me earlier this year when I read The Dream Quest of Vellitt-Boe. The story is set in HP Lovecraft’s Dream World (something of a response to The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, one of my favourite Lovecraft stories). It involves a professor’s quest from the Dream World to the Waking World (also known as “our world”). And it struck me that how it described the Dream World with its capricious gods is much closer to the world of the Bible, while how it described the Waking World is much closer to the natural processes we see.
When thinking about natural processes, this quote particularly resonated:
The country grew rough and broke into badlands, great sections of rock shredded and tipped at angles as though they had been dropped when some unknown god’s blind tantrum had ended; but it was no god, only volcanism, glaciers, winds and rains and vast unmeasured, orderly eons of time.
Like with God’s Bridge, we look at the world and expect to see agency. We see things both of beauty and of terror and think “They can’t possibly be natural”. But our best evidence says they are natural, and we can strive to understand them.
I think Vellitt-Boe made it far more clear to me how important it is to us that our world is natural, orderly, and predictable. We observe the laws of the universe, and rely on them not changing. If we see a place yesterday, we expect it to be there today. If we measure pi yesterday, it will still be the same today.
In this story, the Dream World is shifting and temporary, with places coming and going and distances changing. We would have great difficulty working with a place like that. Gods like the God of the Bible say that they can and do change important parts of the universe - but we don’t observe it.
Better without gods
One quote from Vellitt-Boe stayed with me more than any other:
I’ve seen a world without gods, and it is better.
When I walked the Pennine Way, it was only a few months after I had officially quit religion. Standing there at God’s Bridge, I was fairly confident that God did not exist.
But I think that was as far as I got. I might have said “I have seen a world without gods”, but I’m not sure that I thought it a better world. I just thought that that was reality, and I was better accepting that reality rather than following wishful thinking.
However, now I absolutely agree with the sentiment. I see a world around us without gods, and it is better. Much better. It leaves us with the freedom to make our own choices without relying on a cosmic power to get us out of trouble, or fearing what that cosmic power might do when roused.
In Homo Deus, Yuval Harari Noah shows how much we are able to achieve without the gods:
For generation after generation humans have prayed to every god, angel and saint, and have invented countless tools, institutions and social systems but they continued to die in their millions from starvation, epidemics and violence. Many thinkers and prophets concluded that famine, plague and war must be an integral part of God’s cosmic plan or of our imperfect nature, and nothing short of the end of time would free us from them.
Of course, these problems have not been completely solved, but they have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. We don’t need to pray to any god or saint to rescue us from them. We know quite well what needs to be done in order to prevent famine, plague and war – and we usually succeed in doing it. True, there are still notable failures; but when faced with such failures we no longer shrug our shoulders and say, ‘Well, that’s the way things work in our imperfect world’ or ‘God’s will be done’. Rather, when famine, plague or war break out of our control, we feel that somebody must have screwed up, we set up a commission of inquiry, and promise ourselves that next time we’ll do better. And it actually works. Such calamities indeed happen less and less often.
For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined. In the early twenty-first century, the average human is far more likely to die from bingeing at McDonald’s than from drought, Ebola or an al-Qaeda attack.
As humans working together, we have achieved marvels without the help of any god (though, sadly, the gods still end up getting a lot of the credit). From my perspective, we have found that we are all that we have to rely on - but that we are enough.
Better off without God’s intervention
I don’t think it’s just that the world is more predictable and manageable without the gods intervening. It’s also that the interventions of gods are not always positive. Another powerful quote from Vellitt-Boe:
The gods of the dream-realms were vicious, angry, and small. History was filled with tales of their irrational rages and disproportionate vengeances, of cities buried in poisonous ash, of garden-lands laid waste. Annihilation. In her far-travelling days, she had walked in god-blasted wastelands.
That is what gods did: destroy things and people.
I cannot speak about all possible gods, but I can speak about the god I was brought up with. Many Christians think that their god is a God of love, but he is recorded behaving exactly like this. Take for example the case of Sodom & Gomorrah, described as being like “the garden of the Lord”. According to the story, God destroyed the entire area, raining fire and brimstone from heaven and turning it, in Vellitt-Boe’s words, into a “god-blasted wasteland”.
When it comes to destroying things and people, consider some of the actions and motivations recorded for this god:
- He sent plagues to destroy the Egyptian economy, then drowned a pursuing Egyptian army - just to show how powerful he was.
- He killed people for looking inside his magic box, then later just for trying to stop it falling to the ground.
- He got upset when his chosen king ran a census, and killed 70,000 of his chosen people to make sure the count was wrong.
- He thought the solution to people not following his arbitrary standards was to kill his own son (this is usually presented as an act of great love).
And it doesn’t even stop in this life. According to many of this god’s ambassadors, his plan involves torturing those who didn’t meet his arbitrary standards - forever. That is a far more disproportionate vengeance than anything Vellitt-Boe could have thought of. It has also led to some of his acolytes beginning the torture now in the hope of saving him the trouble.
Truly, we are better off without a god like this.
Better off without human gatekeepers
Even when the gods were believed to be directly intervening in the world through natural processes, they still usually spoke through humans or relied on humans to interpret their will. This gave those humans great power over others, which was often abused. There was no good way to know whether the human representative of the gods was truly conveying words from a god, particularly when those words happened to benefit that human - and yet it wasn’t really safe to doubt their messages.
A world without gods is still a world with dramatic power imbalances, but we are better off not writing the permission slip that says “As a representative of the gods we will not question you”.
No need to placate the gods
The gods of the Dream World required frequent blood sacrifice. While our modern gods are less likely to require blood sacrifice (except in symbol), they do require sacrifices. The god and his desires are to be put first, while individuals are meant to put themselves last. And all this in hope of placating these gods so that, if they’re feeling in a very good mood, they might not condemn us to eternal punishment.
However, this isn’t just limited to an individual’s future salvation or damnation. Society at large is meant to placate the gods so that they don’t send disasters on us. For example, recently a notorious former rugby player blamed Australian bushfires on gay marriage and on abortion laws. We are better off in a world without gods who get so upset by laws changing that they will kill people who have nothing to do with those laws.
This isn’t the first time natural disasters have been hailed as the wrath of God, and it almost certainly won’t be the last. And it is all part of an attempt to control: We are told that even people who do not hold a particular religion need to follow the laws of that religion, otherwise they will be responsible for the wrath of that religion’s god on the rest of society. In a world without gods, we are free to make our own decisions about what is right or wrong for us, without hurting others.
And natural disasters are yet another example where the gods have retreated, as we increasingly understand the natural causes behind these disasters. It goes further, though: We are able to make efforts to combat the disasters through technology and human effort, as Australia’s many fire-fighters have been doing. And we are also able to acknowledge the role humans have played in a changing climate making certain classes of natural disaster both more likely and more fierce. All of this is far more useful than hurting our fellow humans by changing a few unrelated laws to placate a capricious god.
When I first encountered God’s Bridge, I saw a story of the retreat of the interventionist gods. But I didn’t realise quite how important that story is. At the time, neither Homo Deus nor The Dream Quest of Vellitt-Boe had even been published, and I’m glad I didn’t read them until I was ready to appreciate their messages better.
The gods have retreated because we’ve discovered that we can explain the world better without them. But also because we’ve discovered that, not only can we do things for ourselves, but we can do them better than the gods ever did.
There is a wonderful, orderly world out there that we can explore and understand. It has a vast and fascinating history, and the orderliness of the world allows us to better understand the past, to better predict the future, and to control and shape the present in ways that improve our lives.
I think that is far more exciting than a god sitting down sometime in the recent past and making things just for us. And it’s also good to know we don’t have to worry about accidentally upsetting a vengeful god in the process.
Rather than having a purpose handed to us by a god (like, I dunno, serving that god?), we get to make our own purpose. We are free to make our own rules and control our own destiny. Sometimes that can be scary, but it’s also exciting.
I have seen a world without gods, and it is better. Much better. Let’s work together to make it even better still.