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July 13, 2009

Why people believe in god-7: God the moody

For the last post in this series, I want to look at the way god has been characterized through history.

It is a popular belief, especially among Christians, that humans have been created in god's image. Actually, it is the other way around. Humans create god to meet their needs, and as their needs change, then so does their image of god.

Robert Wright has published a new book called The Evolution of God (2009) that I look forward to reading that traces the origins of monotheistic religions. In an interview, he discusses the main ideas. Basically, he sees the Bible and other religious books originating as political documents meant to serve immediate political needs, which explains why god seems so moody, casually committing genocide one day and calling for love and forgiveness the next.

My basic premise is that when a religious group sees itself as having something to gain through peaceful interaction with another group of people, including a different religion, it will find a basis for tolerance in its scriptures and religion. When groups see each other as being in a non-zero sum relationship -- there's a possibility of a win-win outcome if they play their cards right, or a lose-lose outcome if they don't -- then they tend to warm up to one another. By contrast, if people see themselves in a zero-sum relationship with another group of people -- they can only win if the other group loses -- that brings out the intolerance and the dark side of religion.

The western monotheistic tradition began in Judaism but not the way the Bible says. In fact, there is almost no evidence for all the stories about Abraham, the captivity in Egypt, Moses, the exodus, the ten commandments, Kind David, King Solomon, etc. The Jews began as a polytheistic indigenous grouping, just like all the other polytheistic indigenous groupings that occupied the land that we now call the Middle East.

The events in the Bible only start to resemble real history around 650 BCE. In 722 BCE, we know that the polytheistic indigenous people living the northern region known as Israel were captured by the Assyrians. The ruler of the southern region of Judah, King Josiah (649-609 BCE), used the demise of the northern kingdom for his own propaganda purposes against his political rivals, arguing that Israel's capture was due to their infidelity to god. Using the time-honored tradition of assigning supernatural agency to natural or political phenomena. King Josiah created monotheism as a political act, saying that his god was the true god and that people should appease the true god by killing off those who worshipped rival gods, and by killing off their leaders as well. He was thus able to consolidate power over his rivals, and in the process monotheism came into being.

As part of this process, it was during this time that one of Josiah's priests conveniently 'discovered' in the temple some hitherto unknown 'holy' books. And surprise, surprise, this book provided support for all of Josiah's claims to his god's exclusivity and forbade people from worshipping rival gods.

This document, now considered to be that which makes up the bulk of the book Deuteronomy, was then added to over the next 300 years to become the religious book of the Jews called the Torah, the core of the Old Testament, containing the Abraham and Moses stories which are, of course, almost entirely fiction. Thus began the creation of a single narrative that sought to retroactively create a past, justify the present, and to lay the groundwork for a new social order in the future. That is how Judaism really came about.

A possible reason why the advent of monotheism led to the current Bible is given by Daniel Lazare in his March 2002 Harper's magazine article False Testament: "A single, all-powerful god required a single set of sacred texts, and the process of composition and codification that led to what we now know as the Bible began under King Josiah and continued well into the Christian era." (See part 5 of my series on The Bible as History. The whole series describes the fictional origins of what many religious people believe to be history.)

There can be no question that the top religious leaders and theologians and other religious scholars know all this, though lower level priests and rabbis and imams may not. Ordinary religious people are carefully shielded from the true knowledge of how their holy books came about, because the religious authorities risk losing their sinecures if people realized that even the commonly accepted ages of the books, let alone their claims to divine origin, are false, as are their favorite stories about their religious heroes. So religious leaders suppress the truth and perpetuate fiction about how the books came about in order to give divine credibility to what are essentially political tracts.

Priests know that people will hold on to religious beliefs unless they find themselves in an intellectually untenable position. And since in our society religion is a protected belief system, priests know that ordinary believers will rarely encounter views that force them to confront the contradictions inherent in believing in a god.

This is why the 'new atheist' campaign (of which I am proud to be a part) to publicly voice critiques of religion is to be welcomed and why we resist calls for us to not disparage religious beliefs or religious books because we might upset 'good' religious moderates. The true history of religions and their holy books must be brought out into the light if we are ever going to get rid of the pernicious effects of religion.

POST SCRIPT: Betty Bowers on prayer

America's Best Christian explains the prayer concept.

July 10, 2009

Why people believe in god-6: The persistence of belief

Why is it that so many adults in the modern age, with full reasoning powers and all the knowledge that science and technology has made available to them, still cling to the superstitious religious beliefs of their childhood, so much so that they feel the need to even brainwash their own children? Why is it that for most adults, childish beliefs in god do not disappear in adulthood, along with their beliefs in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny?

The case of Charles Darwin is again illustrative. In his autobiography, he says that:

I was very unwilling to give up my belief…But I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would be sufficient to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And that is a damnable doctrine. (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Nora Barlow (ed), p. 72, my italics)

Note Darwin's revealing use of the phrase that he became unable to 'invent evidence' that would be sufficient to convince him, even if he gave his imagination 'free scope' to do so. This is what people do: they decide what they want to believe and then invent evidence to support the belief.

What most people lack is the intellectual rigor that was the hallmark of Darwin's way of thinking and which made him eventually realize that his belief was based on his own inventions and not reality. If there is one clear image that emerges from the study of Darwin's life and study of the natural world, it is that he was always looking for higher levels of synthesis, probing his own theories and beliefs for weaknesses, and not ignoring counter-evidence. There can be no doubt that such a critical attitude applied to religion will inevitably lead to disbelief. But most people are not like that, especially when it comes to religious beliefs, and hence they do not reach the stage where they realize that the evidence they invent just cannot do the job required of it. They seize upon any thing that even vaguely provides a justification for whatever they want to believe and leave it at that. Furthermore (as Norm suggested in a comment in response to the previous posting in this series) children do not receive any validation from the adults around them that their skepticism about god is warranted, the way they do when they start to question Santa Claus

Darwin's increasing skepticism about god seems like a natural progression of beliefs as one matures into adulthood, but it seems to be much rarer than it should be. There could be many reasons for the persistence of beliefs in god into adulthood.

  • One is that these beliefs meet certain deep psychological needs. Some people must be receiving some comfort in believing in the existence of even a distant and inert entity like the deist god Deigod. Such people must desperately want an external meaning and purpose to life, and think that only one imposed by god, however otherwise passive, is of any value.

  • For others, the persistence of belief may be due to the fear of death. The idea that on dying we simply cease to exist may imply to them that our lives do not matter. They find this intolerable and seek a way out by clinging to the idea of an indestructible and immortal soul. This naturally leads to the idea of god and/or reincarnation. As Sigmund Freud said, "The religious impulse is ineradicable until or unless the human species can conquer its fear of death."

  • For yet others, it may be just missing loved ones that leads to wishful thinking, hoping that after our physical death we meet them again in the afterlife.

  • Others may continue to persuade themselves that they believe because they are risk-averse and do not want to offend god (if he should exist) by allowing their disbelieving thoughts to come to the surface. Why take the chance? This is the famous, but silly, Pascal's wager idea. Of course, the idea that an omniscient god would not know they had doubts seems preposterous but if one is religious, one learns not to ask such questions.

  • For others, belief may arise for more prosaic and practical reasons. Religion and religious practices such as going to church may form an important part of their sense of identity and social relationships and sense of belonging. They may not want to disrupt relationships with family and friends and the larger community by dropping out of that world.

  • I suspect that most people believe because they were taught to believe as children and simple mental inertia prevents them from changing as they get older. The economist John Maynard Keynes said that, "The difficulty lies not in new ideas but in escaping from old ones." Research in education suggests that students tenaciously cling on to their existing knowledge using ad-hoc justifications despite the best efforts of their teachers to teach them new things. They only give up their beliefs if they have no choice because the contradictions with evidence are too stark to ignore. For most people, their religious beliefs are vague and flexible enough that they can deal with contradictions using ad-hoc explanations invented to solve the immediate problem, without any concern for overall coherence or problems with internal consistency.

A religious friend of mine recently went through a rapid-fire series of misfortunes, including losing his job and having his mother die. In between, he had a small stroke of good fortune. He immediately attributed the last thing as a sign of god's benevolence, to god looking out for him in order to give him some comfort during his time of trouble. It did not seem to occur to him that by that reasoning, god was also responsible for all his bad fortune.

If you are a religious, it is almost reflexive behavior to turn around whatever happens to make it seem like god is looking after you. As an example of this kind of thinking, here is a joke that was sent to me:

There was a little old lady, who every morning stepped onto her front porch, raised her arms to the sky, and shouted: 'Praise the Lord!'

One day an atheist moved into the house next door. He became irritated at the little old lady. Every morning he'd step onto his front porch after her and yell: 'There is no Lord!'

Time passed with the two of them carrying on this way every day.

One morning, in the middle of winter, the little old lady stepped onto her front porch and shouted: 'Praise the Lord! Please Lord, I have no food and I am starving, provide for me, oh Lord!

The next morning she stepped out onto her porch and there were two huge bags of groceries sitting there.

'Praise the Lord!' she cried out. 'He has provided groceries for me!'

The atheist neighbor jumped out of the hedges and shouted: 'There is no Lord; I bought those groceries!!'

The little old lady threw her arms into the air and shouted: 'Praise the Lord! He has provided me with groceries and made the Devil pay for them!'

We should not be surprised by this kind of delusional thinking because it is typical of religious believers. They have been conditioned to think that when tragedy strikes them, god is testing their faith and will eventually reward them if they remain faithful, and if good fortune comes, god is rewarding them now. It's a no-lose proposition for religion, guaranteeing job security for the religious establishment that propagates it.

This is why you cannot really hope to persuade the true believer of the folly of religion by using reason to mount a frontal assault. Their beliefs have to collapse from within, slowly disintegrating because seeds of doubt get lodged in the cracks and start spreading, until one day they suddenly realize that everything makes sense if they abandon belief in god, and the whole religious edifice collapses.

POST SCRIPT: The weird story of Job

Nothing illustrates the ability of religious people to delude themselves into seeing even the most appalling behavior of god as something good than the story of Job. God mercilessly tortures an innocent person more or less for the fun of it, even murdering all his children, and yet this story is seen as a glorification of god and Job.

July 08, 2009

Why people believe in god-5: The evolutionary origins of belief

Today I want to look at why people believe in god, starting with its origins.

As to why religious beliefs arise in the first place, this is a fascinating and yet open question and any theories are at best speculative. The vast number of gods that have been independently invented in human history (see Machines Like Us for an exhaustive list) suggest that it is quite plausible that there is some propensity to create god beliefs that has nothing to do with the popular perception that religion arose to provide us with a moral code. As Robert Wright argues in his new book The Evolution of God (2009):

People in the modern world, certainly in America, think of religion as being largely about prescribing moral behavior. But religion wasn't originally about that at all. To judge by hunter-gatherer religions, religion was not fundamentally about morality before the invention of agriculture. It was trying to figure out why bad things happen and increasing the frequency with which good things happen. Why do you sometimes get earthquakes, storms, disease and get slaughtered? But then sometimes you get nice weather, abundant game and you get to do the slaughtering. Those were the religious questions in the beginning.

It is possible that a small naturally occurring tendency to assign a causal agent to certain natural events provided a survival advantage that grew over time according to the Darwinian natural selection algorithm. For example, early humans who ascribed thunder and lightning to the anger of some unseen agent and hid in fear in their caves were more likely to survive than those who did not assign agency and wandered about freely in the storm. The natural selection algorithm worked on this advantage so that over the long period of evolutionary time, people have evolved a tendency to believe in causal agents for natural phenomena that make them more easily susceptible to religious-type explanations than to scientific ones, and this tendency would become ingrained and dominant.

It is similar to how we all seem to have a fear of snakes. It seems fairly well established that we have evolved to have an instinctive fear of snakes. Even baby chimpanzees have such a fear, suggesting that this fear developed fairly early in primate development, during the time when the common ancestors of chimpanzees and humans lived.

Once you are susceptible to assigning a mysterious invisible agency to natural phenomena, certain culture-based beliefs can take root. For example, it makes sense to postulate things like a life after death to overcome the fear of death and this, coupled with beliefs about an unseen agency, would lead quite naturally towards a belief in a god-like entity that rules the afterlife.

It is easier to understand why these beliefs, once originated, continue to be perpetuated. While childhood indoctrination by parents and priests and society at large is undoubtedly a major factor in perpetuating religious beliefs, the more interesting question is why children are so susceptible to this particular kind of brainwashing.

There seems to be a clear survival advantage for young children to believe unquestioningly what their parents and other adults tell them. Those children who unquestioningly heeded warnings not to touch fire or to eat poisonous plants or try and play with lions or wade into crocodile infested rivers were more likely to survive than those who rebelled and ignored the warnings of adults. So the propensity of children to believe authoritative adults could easily have evolved to become hardwired in the brain.

The combination of assigning agency to natural phenomena and believing adults makes it easy to understand how religion originated and is perpetuated and why children are so easily indoctrinated into religious beliefs, because they do not distinguish between those adult edicts that are truly beneficial ("Don't pick up snakes") with those that are nonsensical ("If you pray silently to god he can hear your thoughts and will answer your requests" or "If you get together with others and pray for rain, it will rain.")

But what is really interesting is why people still cling on to these beliefs long after they reach adulthood. After all, as we age we develop reasoning capacities that enable us to subject ideas to close scrutiny. As a consequence, there are a lot of childish beliefs we give up as we grow up, like Santa Claus. Children soon figure out for themselves that it is highly implausible for one man to fly around the entire world in one night to deliver toys, going up and down chimneys.

Why isn’t belief in god one of the beliefs we discard, since it has as much evidence in support as Santa Claus?

Next: Why religious beliefs persist.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart on Mark Sanford

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
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Political HumorJason Jones in Iran

July 06, 2009

Why people believe in god-4: Darwin's problem

In a previous post, I tried to pin down what people actually believe when they say they believe in god. Today I want to look at what goes into religious belief, using Charles Darwin's own journey as an example.

Charles Darwin was encouraged by his father, a successful doctor, to study medicine and was duly sent off in 1825 to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, a leading place for such studies at that time. But Darwin found that he hated the study of medicine, especially the horrors of surgery in those pre-anesthesia days. When his father realized that this was not the field for him, he suggested in 1828 that he matriculate at Cambridge University, get a degree, and then become a clergyman. To get into Oxford or Cambridge University at that time one had to be a member of the Church of England (i.e., an Anglican), the rule being abolished by an act of parliament only later in 1871. Although Darwin had been baptized in the Church of England, his family tradition was nonconformist Unitarians and his father and grandfather were freethinkers.

Darwin felt that he should make a good faith attempt to see if he could honestly accept the doctrines of the Anglican church. In his autobiography Darwin says that he "had scruples about declaring my belief in all the dogmas of the Church of England; though otherwise I liked the thought of being a country clergyman. Accordingly I read with care Pearson on the Creed and a few other books on divinity; and as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our Creed must be fully accepted. It never struck me how illogical it was to say that I believed in what I could not understand and what is in fact unintelligible." (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Nora Barlow (ed), p. 49, my italics.)

I think that the key phrase here is "persuaded myself". I think most religious people deep down suspect that their belief in a god makes no sense, or at least know that they really don't understand the things they are being asked to believe, but they are willing to persuade themselves, as Darwin did, to go along with the charade. The key question is "Why?" Why go to all that trouble to overrule an instinctive skepticism that arises from their natural logic and reasoning powers? Why does it never strike them, as it never struck Darwin until he was much older, how illogical it is to say that they believe in what they cannot understand and what is in fact unintelligible?

But there were limits to even Darwin's youthful credulity. Even when he was a believer in the literal truth of the Bible, Darwin could not bring himself to actually rejoice in the contradictions, to make the ridiculous claim that some apologists do, that because the doctrines of religion seem nonsensical, that accepting them is somehow a sign of intellectual superiority, that it indicates that one somehow understands and appreciates deep mysteries. As he said, "I might have said with entire truth that I had no wish to dispute any dogma; but I never was such a fool as to feel and say "credo quia incredibile." ["I believe because it is incredible."] (Barlow, p. 49)

As we all know, Darwin ended up being an unbeliever. He shied away from the label of atheist and called himself an agnostic, the former term being a little too strong for someone who hated confrontations, though it is hard to tell the difference in his case since he said quite clearly in his autobiography that although his disbelief crept over him at a very slow rate, it "was at last complete" and that he "never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct." (Barlow, p. 72)

It seems pretty clear that most adults have no actual reasons to believe in god. They have not in their lives seen god or heard god or witnessed any acts that can be unequivocally ascribed to god. Those who claim to have witnessed miracles tend to ignore plausible alternative explanations. But they lack Darwin's instinct to follow his thinking to its logical conclusion that there is no god.

Those who actually claim to have seen god or had god speak to them are presumed to be delusional and in need of psychiatric help or frauds of the sort who try to sell pieces of toast with Jesus's image on it on eBay. The latest story that I heard of was someone who claimed that a rock fall suddenly revealed a 'hand of god' in a rock formation behind his home and he (naturally) has put it up for sale on eBay.

So why do people believe in god? This really consists of two related questions: Why did such beliefs arise in the first place? And why do those beliefs persist in the absence of any evidence in support of them?

I'll examine these questions in the next post in this series.

POST SCRIPT: David Attenborough talks about god

The noted nature documentary filmmaker has made many people aware of the wonder of nature. He talks about why he does not believe in god. (Thanks to Machines Like Us.)

July 01, 2009

Why people believe in god-3: What do religious people actually believe?

Apologists for 'moderate' religion always start by saying that they accept science, and begin with arguments for god that seem to be superficially compatible with science, but ultimately end up saying they believe in absurdities that violate almost every major scientific principle, such as virgin births or that people can actually come back from the dead. However sophisticated religious apologists may argue intellectually, they seem to need the same emotional crutch of magical thinking as much as any religious fundamentalist, and desperately want to believe that there is this invisible entity who is looking out for them personally. Religious scientists like Francis Collins, Kenneth Miller, John Lennox, and John Polkinghorne all start out arguing on a high intellectual plane, but they end up making almost the very same assertions of belief of the average churchgoer in the pew on any given Sunday.

So what do religious people actually believe? There are no simple answers. In his book God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (2007, p. 12), Victor J. Stenger tries to pin down the philosophical foundations of people's belief in god. But I am interested in more practical questions.

The vague "Do you believe in god" type questions that are usually asked of believers are useless because it is not clear what people believe even if they say yes. Is it the deist god Deigod or Gosh or the full-blooded, omnipotent, omniscient, miracle working Supergod or (as is most likely) some personally concocted hybrid?

So here are some questions that would help make the discussions more fruitful. I wish that the polling agencies would ask questions like these as this gives a much better picture of what people actually believe.

  1. Is god a (a) material or (b) non-material entity? (i.e., is god made up of the same kind of stuff like protons, electrons, etc. with properties like mass, charge, spin, etc. that every other thing in the universe is made up of, or is he made of something that is non-material?)
  2. Does god exist everywhere in space?
  3. Is god a sentient being like us, with thoughts and feelings?
  4. Can god change the past?
  5. Does god know the future?
  6. Does god know absolutely everything that happens every moment, including every thought of every being?
  7. Can god intervene in events whenever and wherever, to violate natural laws and change their course (i.e. perform miracles)?
  8. Do you believe that you have a soul or spirit that will continue to exist in some form (perhaps reincarnated) even after you are dead?

My experience suggests that most religious people would answer the above questions as follows: 1: (b), 2: yes, 3: yes, 4: no, 5: yes, 6: yes, 7: yes, 8: yes

I also have bonus questions for those who call themselves Christians:

  1. Do you believe Jesus was totally human when he lived on the Earth, with a fully human body, with no powers or abilities not possessed by any other human?
  2. Do you believe that Jesus really died on the cross, with his body experiencing the same changes after death that any human body does?
  3. Do you believe that the same physical body then came back to life?
  4. If the answer to question #3 is 'yes', where is that physical body now?

I suspect that most Christians will answer: 1: yes, 2: yes, 3: yes, 4: heaven.

Of course, all these answers lead to all manner of severe contradictions, either because they are internally inconsistent or they violate basic scientific principles. For example, the idea that god took a fully human form in the shape of Jesus is central to Christian dogma. Otherwise what was the point of the whole exercise? But if Jesus is totally human, how could he perform his miracles? It is to evade this type of contradiction that religious language and concepts like 'kenosis' or the doctrine that Jesus is fully god and fully human are introduced, which make no consistent logical sense but can be interpreted in any way that the situation requires.

As for the second question, we know that our bodies undergo irreversible decay rapidly after death, which is why organ removal for donations must be done immediately. So if Jesus was totally human and his body decayed for three days, how did he recover the use of his organs when his body was resurrected?

There really is no way to escape these contradictions without resorting to saying that Jesus is at least on occasion Supergod.

More sophisticated religious believers know this is a problem and will try to avoid answering the questions I posed, likely retreating to an extreme form of religion-speak suggesting that we do not, and perhaps cannot, know the answers to such questions because god is so deeply mysterious that any attempt to understand his nature in any concrete way is doomed to failure. This non-answer enables them to avoid having to publicly acknowledge any contradictions while privately assigning any properties they want to god that gives them emotional satisfaction. Or they will give the answers I provided and wave away any contradictions by invoking the 'mysterious ways clause' that allows god to circumvent any contradictions in ways that we cannot know.

I know that some readers of this blog are religious. I hope they will take a stab at answering those questions so that we can get a grip on what exactly we are talking about.

POST SCRIPT: Hey, I never promised you a rose garden

God makes Jesus an offer that he thinks of refusing.

Why people believe in god-2: When good physicists get theology

All believers in an even minimally activist god face the challenge of explaining why there seems to be no evidence for his actions, and why the world seems to be understandable and explicable without postulating his existence. They cannot face up to the fact that the logical conclusion is that there is no god, and this is where the vague and cloudy language of theology comes in, trying to mask this fundamental problem.

Physicist John Polkinghorne in his book Faith, Science, and Understanding (2000) pulls the same trick as chemist Francis Collins, biologist Kenneth Miller, and mathematician John Lennox, arguing first for the possibility of a deist god (whom I have called Deigod), and then asserting without argument that this makes it rational to believe in Supergod. But Polkinghorne has a weapon that the other two don't have. He has studied theology formally and so can dress up the same weak arguments in obscurantist language.

Polkinghorne is a highly able and respected particle physicist. He was a former professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge University and is a Fellow of the Royal Society who, at the age of around fifty, gave up physics and became an ordained priest in the British Anglican Church. So he has studied both physics and theology in considerable depth. In his book he invokes the usual staple of the anthropic principle as an argument for god, which essentially suggests that the universe seems to be exquisitely fine tuned in order to allow for human life to emerge and that this suggests that it must have been designed. It is a popular argument amongst religious scientists. As Polkinghorne puts it:

The wonderful order of the world is perceived…as being a reflection of the Mind of the Creator, and the universe's finely tuned aptness to the evolution of life is perceived as an expression of the Creator's fruitful intent. (p. 22)

Another physicist Victor Stenger in his book God: The Failed Hypothesis has effectively demolished that anthropic argument. But that has not stopped it from being regularly advanced because it has proved very lucrative, especially recently for physicists, with the annual Templeton prize essentially rewarding those who concoct new ways to try and make science and religion compatible, and being repeatedly given to physicists who invoke variations of the anthropic principle.

Some new atheists argue that the Templeton Foundation exists essentially for this sole purpose, to use its wealth to co-opt scientists and journalists to keep on forever discussing the issue of how to find ways of reconciling science with god, thus perpetuating the idea that such a reconciliation is even conceivable. They suggest that we should fight back against the pernicious influence of the Templeton organization by not going along with this strategy and by boycotting these 'dialogues'.

Polkinghorne also goes in to some depth about how the uncertainty principle and chaos and complexity theory, all of which introduce elements of unpredictability into the world, and thus can be postulated as the vehicles of god's action that escape detection. He also invokes consciousness as a deep mystery that is inexplicable without reference to god. All this is to establish the possibility of existence of Gosh (the God Of the Scientific Holes).

But then he too makes the great unexplained leap to assert the existence of Supergod, and says that he actually believes that Jesus rose from the dead and performed the miracles claimed in the Bible, without making any attempt at all to explain what, if anything, the uncertainty principle or chaos or complexity theory has to do with such miraculous, macro-level science-defying events. All of these people think that allowing for the logical possibility of any god at all allows for the existence the particular god they want to believe in.

While I have criticized the books by religious scientists like chemist Francis Collins book and biologist Kenneth Miller for the faults in their reasoning, at least they both write clearly about their religious beliefs, without using the usual impenetrable theological jargon. Physicist John Polkinghorne, on the other hand, while he writes well when explaining physics, because he is also a theologian has the unfortunate ability to revert to the usual theological linguistic obscurity when discussing how god works. Here is a passage from his book:

God's act of creation would not only have involved a divine kenosis of omnipotence, resulting from allowing a creaturely other truly to be itself, but also a divine kenosis of omniscience, arising from allowing the future to be truly open. (p. 150)

The meaning of the above passage was initially incomprehensible to me but I thought that it may be due to the fact that I was unfamiliar with the work 'kenosis', which is the kind of neologism that sprouts all over the place in theology. So I looked up the word in the dictionary and it means "the relinquishment of divine attributes by Jesus Christ in becoming human." So I think that what he is saying is that when God chose to appear in the human form of Jesus, he gave up the powers of omnipotence and omniscience. But why not simply say so? What is the need for things like the "creaturely other truly to be itself"?

If he did speak more straightforwardly and people understood what he was saying, then some obvious questions would arise in their minds. People might ask how Jesus, if he was not omnipotent, could bring Lazarus back from the dead or walk on water or transform water into wine, and all the other tricks claimed for him. Or how, if he was not omniscient, he could know in advance that Peter would deny knowing him. Polkinghorne cannot help speaking obliquely because, to paraphrase taking a cue from George Orwell, religious speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible, designed to make lies sound truthful, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Reading this kind of passage in Polkinghorne's book brought back memories from the time when I used to indulge in this kind of metaphysical talk as part of my religious training. It is possible to convince oneself that this kind of thing makes sense, as long as one keeps it on a high abstract plane and do not demand concrete examples of what is being said. And of course, one has to want to believe that there is some sense to believing in god.

POST SCRIPT: Jesus the Supergod

Maybe Jesus didn't fully invoke the 'divine kenosis of omnipotence' and become a 'creaturely other truly being itself'.

June 29, 2009

Why people believe in god-1: The fog of theological language

As regular readers of this blog know, I am an atheist. I hope it is clear what I believe: I believe that the material world governed by natural laws is all that exists, and I reject all things supernatural, which includes the soul, ghosts and spirits, the afterlife, reincarnation, any form of spiritualism, and so on. In the process, I have argued strongly that there is absolutely no reason to believe that god exists and that to do so is irrational, driven either by childhood indoctrination, psychological need, or both.

I occasionally get some criticism that my arguments are based on a naïve view of god and that it is quite possible to have a sophisticated belief in god that is rational. The names of Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine and other religious luminaries are usually dropped into the discussion with the suggestion that unless I am totally familiar with their works, I am not in a position to argue against the existence of god.

I do not find this convincing because the statements of belief of such religious luminaries are often vague, allowing for shifting around. In his classic 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell explains why so much of political writing is vague and cloudy: "[P]olitical speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible…Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and…to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." Theology is also the attempt to justify the unjustifiable and this naturally leads to convoluted language whose meaning and implications are hard to pin down. You can replace the word 'political' with 'theological' in the Orwell passage and you would get a good description of the writings of religious apologists.

The only god that is logically plausible to believe in is a god who does absolutely nothing at all. If you are a deist and believe in a god who created the entire universe and its laws at the beginning of time (say as part of the Big Bang) and then did nothing else after that, then you are in a logically unassailable position, at least until a plausible theory of the origins of the universe comes along.

But I suspect that only a very few religious intellectuals would find such a deist god (let me call this Deigod) satisfying. Most religious believers want more from their god than that, resorting to this extreme version of god only when they are debating atheists, because such a deist god is the only model of god that is free from the obligation of providing evidence for its existence. Postulating any god that is more activist than that immediately raises the problem of why such actions leave no traces.

Some seek to find ways for god to act in a few situations without being detected by trying to exploit certain features of current science, such as the uncertainty principle or chaos theory. This allows them to insert god into these breaches in classical determinism, claiming (without explaining how) that this enables god to act in any way he likes while remaining undetectable. Let me call this god the God Of the Scientific Holes (or Gosh).

Others of a more fundamentalist bent want a deeply personal god, who has thoughts and feelings and emotions, who listens to their individual prayers, and will even answer them by actually suspending the laws of nature. These people have effectively abandoned science and rationality. They want a big brother, a father figure, a protector. Let me call this version of god Supergod.

The problem with arguing with believers in god is that they rarely specify at the outset the properties they ascribe to their god. Part of the difficulty that atheists have in discussing this topic with believers is this shifting target about what their god is like. When arguing with atheists they sometimes use Deigod, at other times they invoke Gosh, but almost inevitably end up trying to sneak in a belief in the usual run-of-the-mill, miracle-working Supergod.

For example, biologist Francis Collins in his book The Language of God and mathematician John Lennox both start out by arguing for the existence of Gosh, and then flatly state, without evidence or argument, that they believe in a god who caused Jesus to rise from the dead. Biologist Kenneth Miller in his book Finding Darwin's God also tries to use the uncertainty principle to create a loophole for god's actions that enable him to be a practicing Roman Catholic, in which church the doctrines are essentially those of a Supergod.

To their credit, both Collins and Miller write about their religious beliefs with the same clarity that characterizes their scientific writings, so it is fairly easy to determine what they believe. Unfortunately for them, this very clarity also exposes all the logical flaws in their reasoning.

Once theologians enter the conversation though, the waters get decidedly murky, as the next post will show.

POST SCRIPT: Need a god? Take you pick!

Norm Nason, the editor of that excellent website Machines Like Us, has done an exhaustive study and come up with an alphabetized list of the vast number of gods that have been invented over time.

As he says:

While today's dominant religions fixate on (and wage wars over) a few prominent deities, we would be wise to remember that billions of people from past centuries believed in—and devoted their lives—to entirely different gods. When civilizations lost their dominance, collapsed and were eventually overshadowed by others, so the gods they worshipped died out, and lost their relevance. If these deities are remembered in the present at all, they are thought only to be quaint relics of a distant, more primitive people.

This fact, perhaps more than any other, demonstrates that gods are human inventions, and live only so long as groups bound by common belief survive. Gods live solely in the minds of men and women, and are conjured up to serve very human personal and political needs.