A review in parts of "De Meeste Mensen Deugen" by Rutger Bregman (1): of Gods and Myths

An English review of a Dutch book. Seems strange, yet this book is a bestseller in the Netherlands and is bound for international glory. And that is understandable. It is well-written, sometimes funny, sometimes cavalier, never dull. Many so-called ‘surprising facts’, however, are less than surprising, or even well known.

And it has major flaws that undermine the whole argument of the book, which, I am afraid, few people will recognise, perhaps for lack of interest in the actual content of the book itself. It amuses more than making solid arguments. Let’s have a look and see where this review will take us. This will be a multi-part enterprise as much ground is covered by Bregman. And that deserves a thoroughgoing treatment.

Beforehand I must say that when I read the title of the book and not having openend its pages, it occurred to me that this book needed to be written; by Bregman that is. He needed to write this book to further his ‘program’ of positive news on the state of the planet, humanity and the future of a much better society of utopian design. The rubble of human history and self-understanding needs to be cleared by Bregman and that has proven exactly to be the case in his book. But let’s begin.

And let’s start with God. He makes an appearance, but only briefly and is ushered off stage relatively quickly and effectively, at least so it seems. He first makes his appearance in chapter 3, where Bregman seemingly eliminates the prerogative of being human as God’s image on earth.

Some 10 million years ago we simply weren’t there and, according to Bregman, it would have been impossible, even for God, to predict our coming on stage. Our existence is the result of a blind and unpredictable process called evolution. The main ingredients in a nutshell : (i) suffering, and lots of it, (ii) endless struggle, and (iii) massive amounts of time. Nothing is ‘designed’ or thought out. Suffering, pain and struggle are simply part of life; in fact they shape life. End of story. Well, not quite. God might not exist, but we are not alone. We have each other, according to Bregman.

One aspect that I will return to in a later part of this review is that Bregman implicitly yet clearly embraces the so-called eliminative materialist position. That this position creates a host of unanswerable problems is well known. Worse, it undermines the whole thrust of his argument in his book, and makes it incoherent.

Returning to the subject of God, where does he come from in the first place? Bregman proposes that recent scientific research sheds light on His birth in the form of myths. In a simplified manner, rulers needed a Godhead that could keep an eye on the masses the rulers themselves could not control.

So: human power and control hypostasised in a watchful and potentially vindictive God keeping an eye on humanity 24/7/365. Bregman cites Matthew 10:30: “And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” From now on there was a Ruler that observed you from heaven, fathomed your thoughts, and could even engage with you forcefully, if provoked. And this mythological ‘Godpower’ was used abundantly by the rulers with armies and generals. And this power and control mechanism is with us to this very day.

So, Bregman amuses us with a ‘theory of everything’ one can say about God and religion. But the question is not whether this, that or any other theory about God has (some) empirical merit, but whether or not it is true. Obviously, any theory about God outlined within the compulsory evolutionary architecture always comes out with the same result: God exists merely because humans exist. We gave birth to the Godhead of whatever kind.

If one chooses ex cathedra, as Bregman does, for a closed universe -Sagan’s “The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be”- then of course there can be no room whatsoever for any deity that is not part of that same Cosmos, as the Hebrew Bible clearly envisions: “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens?” (Isaiah 40:12).

Thus Bregman, with kaleidoscopic fanfare, brings a ‘flawless’ circular argument on stage. How perfectly boring, and much rehearsed by many like him. And most if not all seem altogether happy with this tedious and deeply flawed argument.

But, obviously, who cares? We have no need anymore of this ‘puny God’. According to Bregman, he lost his job to the bureaucrat working in mostly atheistic countries with a well developed rule of law, such as Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands. How convenient!

Yet, he seems to forget that the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, as ‘mouths of God’, were emphatically not aligned with power but positively at odds with Kings and rulers trampling the weak and helpless: “Learn to do right; seek justice. Correct the oppressor. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17).

The rule of law, thus, has very old papers of a distinctly theistic character. God as found in the Hebrew bible and the New Testament seems to evade Bregman’s simplistic concoction of mythmaking of a certain kind C.S. Lewis once denoted as “lies breathed through silver”. Myths are not lies but point to truths that expand our Universe beyond the walls of blind evolution that so desperately wants to prohibit the “intrusion of the Other into the Mundane”, as Ernest Gellner once so fruitlessly defended.

More on “De Meeste Mensen Deugen” later …


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