I don't think fear is the only basis for a belief in God. I have come to understand that the sense of spiritual connectedness, which comes from a place of seeing the universe through an empathic lens, tends to draw a lot of people towards a belief in God, even those who have discarded traditional church and religion.
While I think empathy is an absolute essential in developing a secular ethics in the world we live in, I have problems seeing through an empathic lens when it comes to nature as such. Nature is pretty insentient, with life living from killing other life. "One big restaurant" as Woody Allen said one of his films.
What I am suggesting requires a much deeper shift in our general understanding of empathy. It is the difference between empathy as a tool of understanding our world (what does the world look like from different points of view?) vs empathy as a tool of judging our world (is this or that point of view for me or against me?). At the centre of this difference is our relationship to our own insides; to our own feelings and way of seeing the world.
When we are growing up our capacity for empathy feeds us with information about how others see and feel about things, including and especially the way they see and feel about us and our value to them. Ideally, we find much of this experience supportive of the development of our healthy sense of self but, even in the best environments, much of it is very painful, damaging and overwhelming. It triggers our fight or flight response and we seek ways of reducing our anxiety. Our key mechanism for reducing anxiety from overwhelming experiences prior to 6 years old is blocking this information from reaching awareness from those experiences and disowning the parts of the self (disowning our lenses) that allow us to see and feel these things.
The ego (I'm using this term in the way NB uses it: see here) doesn't really start to grow in it's separateness and to individuate towards autonomy until 6 or 7 years old. The core of who we are is defined by choices we make before the ego really begins to develop, while existing in and trying to survive a context of dependent connectedness. The very typical outcome is to either damage our empathic development or to damage our separation and individuation process in order to resolve a conflict in our experience of the two sides of the self. Objectivism is a system of thought built around strong separation and individuation development but damaged empathic development, as is seen in the character of its founder, so I would expect what I am saying about seeing through an empathic lens to sound somewhat alien here.
What if we saw ourselves as more than any particular thought or feeling or way of seeing things in any given moment? What if we could see ourselves as highly complex beings with many different sides to us and many different and sometimes paradoxical lenses through which we see the world? What if there was no part of us that we disowned? What if there was no experience so overwhelming that we had to push it away and deny it access to our awareness? What if there was no place inside us that we were scared to go? On the one hand, we wouldn't be scared to stand open and alone, separate to those who do not share our feelings, vision and understanding of the world, without the need for defensiveness against those who disagree. On the other hand, we wouldn't be scared to let others all the way inside us so we could see the world deeply through their eyes and create a shared space, without fear of loosing ourselves.
In nature, I can appreciate and understand the spirit of the lion on a hunt just as I can appreciate and understand the spirit of a wildebeest being hunted. I know the ruthless determination and social collaboration in the pursuit of a goal that will feed myself and my family at the expense of someone else's survival; played in many soccer and hockey tournaments. I know the feeling of fight or flight as adrenalin pumps through my veins while trying to come up with possibilities, strategies and make decisions on the fly, while feeling pursued by a relentless attacker. I once had a relationship with a woman that reached a point where it felt like this almost every day...yow! That's where I learned not to be controlled by fight or flight or the anxiety beneath it. I learned to break my automatic defensive reactions, find inner calm, channel the information into a growth and learning process and to generate new action possibilities to choose from.
The point here is that if there is no place inside yourself that you cannot go, then there is no experience, personal or empathic, that you cannot embrace, grow and learn from. If we push away the dark experiences and anxious feelings, we push away half a world of information. The reality is, when we don't allow the dark side of life all the way inside, all we do is blind ourselves to it and we continue to expose ourselves to the dangers we are blind to. It is healthy to hold a commitment to our awareness and understanding of all that is real more deeply than our fear of what is real.
I illustrated this point to my son one winter when he was 8. He threw some snowballs at me. In a sense of playfulness I tossed some back at him. I noticed that he just closed his eyes and hoped I would miss. I didn't, so he started to get scared and wanted to pull away from the game. Using empathy, I could sense what was going on inside him. I held that sense inside me while automatically projecting in my imagination what I would have done in his shoes to see another possible way of responding. I would have kept my eyes open, hearing the lessons from my past to keep my eye on the ball, and I would have used what I could see to inform my understanding of the moment, my choices and my actions. I encouraged my son to keep his eye on the snowball and try moving out of the way. He went from being hit every time to never being hit.
The same goes for seeing the universe through an empathic lens: whole galaxies vanish in black holes, stars perish, etc.
I get this. One of the darkest experiences we can have as beings who have a conditional existence is the sense of non-existence. I find it interesting how easily we accept all the time prior to our coming into existence without triggering anxiety but our going out of existence, or deep empathy for someone or something else going out of existence, disturbs us. I can see how someone could be so compelled to believe in a continuation of the spirit after death, without the body. While I can empathize with this view, I don't share it. Everything I have come to understand about reality says that the organized flow of energy we call spirit can only maintain it's form within the structure created by the body.
I can relate to a feeling connectedness to the universe since I am part of it (I call this the 'cosmic feeling' which I sometimes get when gazing at the stars) but I also know the feeling of sadness in view of the inevitable suffering which existence also entails.
You get this feeling when you gaze at the stars. I think this is part of what is meant by AR's sense of a benevolent universe. It's a feeling of being connected to a universe that feeds our needs, our existence. It's a sense that the universe is something good rather than something to be feared. There is more to a sense of a benevolent universe though. Can you get this feeling while sitting in a busy food court people watching in the middle of a shopping mall? Both people and stars are part of our universe. For a truly benevolent sense of the universe we need to be able to live openly without fear in both the social and the physical realms.
Yes, there is inevitable suffering and sadness entailed in existence. I pulled my back. Right now it's killing me as I sit here writing but I know how to deal with it and make it temporary. But what if it's not temporary.
My sister has a degenerative bone disease that has her in chronic pain. She has days where she can tolerate it and function and days where she cannot move. Because of the addictive, numbing and awareness lowering effects of the pain killers she was prescribed, she does not use medication. She uses the power of her mind and meditation to coexist with the pain. Through all this she very much has a benevolent sense of life. As NB suggests in the above link, she has learned she is more than any particular thought or feeling. Her definition of self goes deeper than her feeling of pain. She is her "unifying centre of consciousness." She has developed methods of dealing with and controlling how the universe flows through her without blocking the flow. She has learned that the pain and darkness that is resisted is the pain and darkness that controls and consumes her, so she doesn't resist it. She could be bitter but that would only give her a darker universe feeding back to her. At the height of her pain she cocoons and meditates, not allowing her negative to flow into the world around her while finding a level of peace inside. When her pain lowers, she brings thoughtfulness, caring and understanding to the world and people around her, while keeping those who allow darkness to define them out. This is how she creates and maintains her sense of a benevolent universe while living with pain every day.
A key point to note here: creating a benevolent sense of the universe requires being master of one's own insides, allowing the healthy flow of our experience through us, and being the master of who we allow and how we allow others into our inner world. Maintaining a healthy connection to our empathic self requires that we recognize the difference between those who are consumed by a darkness of of spirit and those who define themselves by a benevolence of spirit and making life choices based on this knowledge. Even more so, healthy empathy requires we see the darkness of spirit and the benevolence of spirit in all the people in our lives. We need this knowledge to define the context of our relationships; to define the limits between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. We define the limits of every relationship in our lives. We can do so consciously or unconsciously. This is never more important than when we are raising children but applies to every relationship we have. Doing this consciously with understanding of how our limits shape the way the universe flows back to us is how we shape a benevolent social universe.
We can see ourselves as nodes in an intricate universe-web; both influencing and being influenced by our relationship to the web.
I too often try to look at if from this perspective: everything being connected with everything.
Maybe our descendants in future times will be able 'lift the veil' more and more, with phenomena like e. g. quantum entanglement no longer being a mystery to them.
The time is now. We are in the middle of this process. It's happening all around us if we can just tune into it. And you are quite right, it brings with it information that can provide insights into quantum entanglement. The universe behaves in ways that feel like everything is connected by strings or webs. I love playing with models of a physical universe where this can be understood as possible. It requires going beyond the epistemic limitations defined by the Copenhagen interpretation though. It requires embracing and further developing our intuitive models of causality and the physical universe. Physics in the 20th century did quite a job of invalidating this capacity within us. Einstein tried to fight the invalidation of causality while embracing the invalidation of physically intuitive modelling that died with the Michelson-Morley experiment and the invalidation of ether theory. Einsteins vision of causality was wrong and ether theory, built on the same model of causality as Einstein's model, was wrong. One answer, the Copenhagen interpretation, is that causality is an illusion and intuitive modelling cannot make sense of the quantum universe. Another possibility is that we need to develop a more complex and deeper understanding of causality that can shape a different physical model of the universe from ether theory. The political domination of the Copenhagen interpretation has stopped this from happening but, IMO, it's just a matter of time now that attempts to control the flow of information are overpowered by the free flow of info on internet media. The flow of ideas is now bypassing the stagnancy, resistance and control systems of previously entrenched establishments in many areas.