I suppose you could, with some justification, accuse me of being a troll, given that my post “So I’m a Christian. Shoot me.” generated an entirely predictable set of flames tearing me down for unscientific thinking, and for trying to claim that there is any kind of bias against the religious anywhere on scienceblogs. I continue my trolling here — though, of course, trolling is not the reason I’m doing this. I’m hoping that there are actually some out there who see this as a valid intellectual exchane.
In that post, I lay a few things out which aren’t even the things I thought people might really object to. Indeed, mostly nobody objected to what I wrote– which says something about the redership around here, since a bunch of what I wrote would be offensive to many who are religious. Instead, some objected to to the very fact of me being religious with the usual “stump the deluded godist” questions. Others actually objected to something in what I wrote, not liking my grousing about the anti-religious rehtoric that’s so common around scienceblogs. The view seems to be that since atheists are so persecuted in general American societ,y it’s OK for them to behave like intolerant boors around here. (I should also note that I received some comments in support of what I wrote, and I thank those of you who did that.)
In that post, I make it very clear that religion is no good at explaining the processes of the natural world. Once upon a time, that was a big part of what religion was for. We want to understand, to explain, how the world works. Until ancient Greece, at least Western thought didn’t even attempt to explain it without recourse to theology. In the last few hundred years, science has demonstrated tremendous power in explaining the natural world without recourse to theology– there’s just no competition. We don’t need religion to explain the natural world any more, and indeed it’s clear that religion does a terrible job at that, whereas science has done an impressive job, and there’s no reaspon to suspect that it will stop any time soon
Given that, is there any point to religion any more? For many, the answer is no. However, to some subset of those many, they think that the answer should be no for everybody. When somebody uses language like “The God Hypothesis,” there’s a good chance that they are taking a narrow view of religion as merely a “science substitute.” What I want to argue is that there still remains a point and a purpose to “God” even if there is no point or purpose to “God the Creator.” I would say that indeed the hypothesis of “God the Creator” has not stood up to observational scrutiny, for there is a whole host of other hypotheses that have stood up an awful lot better. While we can’t strictly rule out “God the Creator,” the role of that creation is shrinking into an ever decreasing set of gaps– that I full expect science will one day close. Despite the Discovery Institute’s senseless rambling, there’s no need to invoke any kind of God or Intelligent Designer to explain how humanity arose. We’ve got broad theories that get our Universe from a very early state, that produced our Sun and our Earth. I fully expect that one day we will even have scientific theories that satisfactorily address the creation of our Universe itself.
So if we don’t need God to explain how we came to be, how the world or Universe came to be, or how things work, what good is God?
Let me stick to my own particular religious tradition here, because it’s the one I know best. The church I used to attend in Berkeley (the UCC — one of those denominations that has been doing commitment ceremonies for homosexuals for years) has long been on a kick of “correcting” the masculine language in a lot of the music and writing that has come down through the centuries in our religious tradition. If we’re trying to get away from the patriarchical notion of God as an old man with a white beard, it’s very awkward to have this core prayer starting with “Our Father, who art in heaven.” So how do people usually try to “fix” it? “Our Creator, who art in heaven.”
I have never liked that. The term “Father” encompasses so much more than the donation of some gametes; and, yet, we reduce the role to that by using the term Creator. What’s more, it’s the role that I have come to understand I think is the least important role, and indeed a role that doesn’t entirely fit with our understanding of the modern world.
If you boil down the role of God into a few words, they tend to be Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer. I’m ready to throw out Creator, as I’ve already described. Yes, the fact that our science is currently unable to address how the Universe worked before the Planck Epoch (about 10^-43 seconds after what would be the moment of the classical Big Bang) means that we have some wiggle room to say, well, that’s where God comes in; that’s where he created the Universe by setting the laws of Physics and the initial conditions of the Big Bang. But that makes the same mistake made by earlier, now-discarded understandings about the role of God in our creation– one day, science may and probably will address the early pre-Planck Epoch Universe. Moreover, it’s a very distant and abstract God. Why would we feel the need to have any kind of personal relationship with something like that?
So we are left with Sustainer and Redeemer. Obviously, God does not provide physical sustenance. And, there are many out there who don’t need any kind of overt religion or spirituality for emotional, moral, or other sustenance; there are quite a number of agnostics or atheists who practice no religion, even private personal religion, but who live whole and fulfilled lives. But God can provide emotional or spiritual sustenance, and indeed does for many. Call it a crutch if you must, but many people find the strength to face the challenges in their lives, and find the will to do the things that they believe should be done, via their faith in God or gods. This isn’t delusion; this is how people get through their day. It is real to them. There do not need to be testable hypotheses that say that” if there is a God, then the intervention in the physical world will be detected in such and such a way” for the bolstering that many get from their religion to be very real to them.
(Re: “Redeemer,” let me put that off to the post where I discuss why I myself am a Christian, specifically.)
Many scientists make the arrogant mistake of thinking that the only kind of human knowledge that exists is scientific knowledge. I see this all the time. I saw it a few times in the responses to my previous post. Consider, for example, art. Yes, there is science in understanding how materials combine to make sculptures, or how pigments combine to make colors. Yes, there is science in understanding what it is about human cognition and/or sociological predisposition that leads people to find some kind of art more pleasing than another. But the art itself– the creation of it, the appreciation of it, and the understanding of it’s meaning for what it is itself– that is not science. That can be very creative, it can be very deep, it can require tremendous intelligence, and it can involve scholarship… but it’s not science. This is what people are talking about when they talk about “other ways of knowing” besides just knowing the empirical results of scientific experiments and the additional predictions of theories supported by those experiments.
Richard Dawkins gave an interview to Salon last October in which there was this exchange (the interviewer in bold, Dawkins not):
But it seems to me the big “why” questions are, why are we here? And what is our purpose in life?
It’s not a question that deserves an answer.
Well, I think most people would say those questions are central to the way we think about our lives. Those are the big existential questions, but they are also questions that go beyond science.
If you mean, what is the purpose of the existence of the universe, then I’m saying that is quite simply begging the question. If you happen to be religious, you think that’s a meaningful question. But the mere fact that you can phrase it as an English sentence doesn’t mean it deserves an answer. Those of us who don’t believe in a god will say that is as illegitimate as the question, why are unicorns hollow? It just shouldn’t be put. It’s not a proper question to put. It doesn’t deserve an answer.
Here, Dawkins is showing exactly that arrogant and mistaken tendency of the scientist to assume that the only valid thought is that thought susceptable to the scientific method. Sure, “what is the purpose of existence” is not a meaningful scientific question. But it is a question whose answer can and will influence how we live our lives. The question “what should I do with myself today,” if thought about carefully enough, impinges upon the question “what is the purpose of my life.” Since science does not provide an answer, people look elsewhere. Some look to philosophy. Some don’t think about it too hard. Some deliberately and consciously create their own purpose. Some turn to religion. The point is that this is an extremely meaningful and important question; whether or not it can be answered, the attempt to answer it is absolutely crucial. And yet, Dawkins writes it off as a question that doesn’t deserve an answer. This is where he, and all of those who think that religion is bad because it’s no more than a failed hypothesis, are completely missing the point. This is where those who scoff at the notion of “other ways of knowing” and those who think that only scientific things are relevant to humanity are missing out on a large part of what it means to be a thinking creature.
This is the point and purpose of religion in a scientific age. Not for everybody, certainly. Not for you, perhaps. But for many, yes, it is, and for many, it does a great job at that. Yes, it does a whole lot of evil as well. However, listing religion’s evil results as a means of condemnation is no more useful than listing “firearms; gunpowder; nuclear weapons; ozone depleting chemicals; global warming producing industrial processes” and a myriad of other things as a condemnation of science, technology and progress.
Given all of that– if you are an atheist, then to you, God does not exist, because you have no need of it in your life, and because none of us have any need of it to explain how the natural world works. For somebody else, God is real because his faith gives him emotional support. Is this other person deluded? Only if he uses that faith to claim things that are wrong– for instance, that the world is only 6,000 years old. Is he just believing in a fairy story because it’s comforting to him? No. Theology is deeper than that. God does not have to be real for you for God to be real. It sounds illogical, but we’re not talking science here. We are talking a layer of reality that is crucial for many, irrelevant to others, and orthogonal to the natural world except via the affects is has as a result of the actions of the faithful.
In my own view, that which we call “God” is an integral property of sentient existence. Without thinking and caring people, there would be no God. In my view, God did not create the Universe; the Universe just is, but God is something different. Have I thrown away scientific thinking in this area of my life? No– because it was never there in the first place. Yes, you can apply the scientific method to predictions of religion, but there is more to human cognition than purely scientific thinking, as I’ve argued above.
Do I expect any of this to convert any atheist? Absolutely not. You’re happy without religion, and more power to you. I don’t want you to be converted. What I would like is for you to be able to accept the notion that there are those who are religious who may still not only be good scientists, but also aren’t deluded idiots even in that aspect of our lives. I would also like for the religious to understand that atheists aren’t all evil, amoral, and damned. Alas, while there are plenty of atheists (called “Neville Chamberlain” atheists around here) perfectly willing to accept those of us who aren’t atheists, and while there are plenty of religious perfectly willing to accept the morality and goodness of atheists, the majority in both camps seem to be more hard-line. And I don’t really expect my scribblings to convince anybody of anything. (I do expect to be flamed and generally called dishonest, deluded, magically thinking, and be attacked with a bunch of trolling straw-man attacks from the legions around here who despise the religious. The comments here are an Internet forum; people just can’t hold off from that sort of thing on Internet fora.)
The one thing I really do hope I can accomplish by scribbling all of this is to let people who are uncertain or who are on the fence realize that you can fully accept all of the implications of modern scientific knowledge without having to completely throw out your religious faith. I think that is a tremendously important message, because so many people have religious faith. We don’t need to ask them to throw it out, or even to make fun of them for not throwing it out, in order to accept modern science–but I do think we need as many people as possible to accept modern science. I hope I can serve as an example of somebody who accepts modern science but is able to maintain some form of religious faith.