Essays, Philosophy, Religion, Science.

What to believe?

-Oregon Scribbler,

Oregon Scribbler.

Confusion is the only rational outcome of the questions raised by religion. How can one be certain that God exists or certain that God does not exist, or if God exists, what form God takes? To insist that any religion has the unequivocal answers to these questions is to be blinded by the fear of uncertainty and the fear of death.

That is not to say that the religious impulse is a false one. What is the purpose of life? How do we live a good life, a meaningful life, a fulfilled life? These questions are timeless and universal. The mere existence of these thoughts in all human beings is a strong argument for the existence of a larger force outside of ourselves. Why do humans by and large agree that a life should be lived according to nearly universal precepts: Do unto others, don’t murder, don’t steal, and don’t lie?

No matter that humans routinely ignore these precepts, regularly serve themselves at the expense of others, and can rationalize just about any bestial behavior towards other humans, the conscience of humans continues to remind them of how they should behave. None of these all too human patterns of thought provide direct proof of the existence of God, but they are to me indicators of a common yearning to understand the origins of a universal world view that is at odds with the basic animalistic nature of mankind.

Individuals do not require a structured religion to think about these questions, to come to some conclusions about these questions, or to act in service of the great ideals. Some of the most charitable and selfless people do not belong to an organized religion, or necessarily have any belief in God. Some of the most vicious and foul people who have ever lived have performed their monstrous acts under the canopy of organized religion, and led legions of willing co-religionists to help them do so. And the reverse is equally true. To me it is a fairly simple point.

All but sociopaths have a conscience, and know when they are living a good life, or when they are behaving poorly towards others. Each individual on this earth makes choices regarding their own behavior, and each is equally responsible for the choices they make regardless of their religious orientation. Organized religion or science are merely adjuncts to these basic truths, merely ways of trying to come to a more common understanding about the underlying mysteries of life, and to help codify the best ways to for humans to exist and to co-exist.

Organized religions too often seem self-interested, self-important, over-controlling, closed, ungodly, and . . . unreligious. Organized religion can be a formidable force for good and the alleviation of suffering, but the good often seems to occur in spite of the narrow, fearful, tribal and hateful manifestations of the rigid orthodoxies that seem ever present in even Buddhism, for God’s sake, pun intended.

Yet religion is not a necessary precursor for morality or charity, as similar good occurs outside the purview of religious organizations and motivations, and can be found in the earliest historical writings, pre-dating the major religions of today. The best charity evidenced by religious denominations comes just as often from individuals, mendicant sub-organizations, the odd congregation, etc. as it does from the hierarchical denominations, which, like all human organizations, too often seem more interested in their own accumulation and exercise of power rather than in the belief systems which they are supposed to represent. That in Western civilization religion has, for most of its history, been predominantly something required by the state (Roman pantheism, Christianity) speaks very loudly to this point.

My father’s family line emanates from the Russian Mennonites, for example, whose communities were a state unto themselves, and if a member of that community were reckless enough to question some part of the Mennonite belief system, they could find themselves exiled within the community (shunned) or from the community. That is the history of religion writ small, and in that particular instance, more benignly than those who suffered much more violently for their lack of orthodoxy.

-CC BY 3.0, The Photographer

Attrib: The Photographer, CC BY 3.0. Click to view enlarged picture

From the earliest written myths, capturing the even older oral myths, humans have sought explanations for the events and phenomena of the world, and those which begged pragmatic understanding were assigned to various gods; explaining the unknown via this mode of thinking has persisted, even as much has been learned about the world methodologically by observing, thinking, building and employing measuring instruments, and through the construction of predictive models, which evolved from natural philosophy via the nascent scientific method into what we now universally label as science. Science for me is a wonderful pursuit, representing the most effective method for coming to the best, yet always limited, understanding of ourselves and the world we live in.

In the past few centuries, reason has come more to the fore, and rationality has led to a greater understanding of how our world operates, and given rise to secular structures that allow more freedom to more people than historically the rigidities of organized religion provided. But for all of the progress science and secularism have generated, they haven’t solved all of the mysteries of life any more that religion has. Science struggles just as much as religion in providing explanations for the big questions, ultimately questions of mind and soul. Cruelty and selfishness continues to emanate out of the more “enlightened” and open ideals and political structures even after they have been teased away from organized religion. Science provides little if any useful or meaningful explanations for the great questions of existence, although there are more than a few “priests” to be found among the scientific elite who promulgate a kind of religion of their own, insisting that all questions have been or will be answered by science.

For many of the puzzles of physics, chemistry and biology, science offers models that provide accurate predictions of expected behavior, to include a strong understanding of many physical phenomena, and some reasonable understanding of the evolution of living organisms and of the constitution of the cosmos. But on the questions of the origin of life and of the universe science offers no serious or realistic explanations, rather vaporous scientific parlor talk. Any careful look at the field of abiogenesis (origin of life theories) finds . . . next to nothing. That each discussion I have read opens with Stanley Miller’s pre-biotic soup experiments in the 1950’s, experiments based on the idea of a highly reducing atmosphere early in earth’s history, such reducing atmosphere being today regarded as unlikely, speaks to the paucity of evidence and theoretical incoherence in the field.

Note that one would expect that the problem of determining the origin of life would be extraordinarily difficult, due to many factors, the predominant ones being the time frame (billions of years) wherein most of any historical evidence would have disappeared, and the known complexity of life, which problem even some scientists think makes the evolution of life on earth highly improbable (many scientists think that the current estimated age of the earth provides not enough time for life to have evolved from nothing to its current level of complexity). So to continue to blithely reference the nebulous pre-biotic soup as the goop out of which complex organisms arose is little more than just another creation myth.

Certainly science should continue to pursue an effective theory of abiogenesis, but shouldn’t overreach in its conclusions of what is currently understood, as for example biology teachers have been wont to do, in necessarily defending the need to teach evolution in schools in the face of irrational religious believers who try to remove biological evolution from public school curricula, and insist in their own turn on teaching creation myths in the form of gauzy theories of abiogenesis.

Similarly, origin of the universe theories have very little to go on, factually or theoretically, and help to demonstrate the limits of science, particularly in looking for answers to the big questions of why we exist, which question is at root the reason for our search for how we came to exist. Perhaps it could be said that there are too many degrees of freedom in the scientific origin theories precisely because there are too few facts to constrain them, which is another way of saying there is not much there, and beyond providing some interesting evening conversations or, more to the point, providing a basis for further rigorous exploration, currently bring little more understanding than the creation myths they are intended to supplant.

As for the questions of mind and soul, science has made real progress in teasing out more and more understanding of how the brain functions, but has only scratched the surface in looking for explanations of how thought actually occurs, whence arises volition, and so on. The search for more scientific explanations of free will, character, and soul has really just begun, and faces a very steep uphill climb. Heretofore it certainly has not produced a more meaningful explanation of these questions than the vast attempts by religion to do so, or by the various religious explanations for our humanness. Again, the pursuit of better scientific understanding here is to be commended, but caution as to the interpretation of the so far weak results is the most intellectually honest response. (See my review of Robinson’s Absence of Mind for a more detailed discussion of the exaggeration of some scientists regarding progress in this area, and the overreaction of the religious in response.)


Creation of Man, Michelangelo, detail, Sistine Chapel. PD-US. Click to view enlarged picture

-PD-USGOV, NASA Astrobiology Institute

Abiogenesis - production of amino acids from inorganic precursors in simulated early earth environment.. Attrib: NASA Astrobiology Institute, PD-USGOV.

All of which comes back to a basic question: Does God exist? If God exists, what form does he take? Science does not constrain us in our quest for the reasons for our existence, as it provides no more obvious answers than do the faith-based belief systems that comprise our religions; even if you take the confections that comprise today’s scientific origin theories at face value, there is more than enough room in them to allow for a God that created the universe and the life within that universe, and so there is plenty of room for peaceful co-existence between religious and scientific ideas: The beauty of all of this is there is really no reason to fight about it

As regards the form God takes, who really knows? Nobody. Nobody knows the answers! I repeat, nobody knows the answers!! Every time someone says that they believe that their God is the only God, they should have the sense to also say, even if only to themselves, that they believe this based on faith alone, and have the sense to recognize at that point that they could be wrong, wrong enough at least to restrain themselves, not to insist to those who don’t share their beliefs that they alone are right, that the rest of the world is wrong. At the same time, those who believe that no God exists should also recognize the same thing: That they don’t know either. I am very open to the idea of God, and believe that some kind of God exists, but am resistant to the idea that the organized religions have figured out God, particularly since the general concept of God is of one vastly more powerful and knowledgeable than we are: How is it that organized religions think that they know the unknowable? Additionally and ironically, none of the organized religions can agree on just who or what God is or what God requires of us, even within specific organized religions themselves.

If more appropriate weight were put on the obvious shortcomings of blind faith (“We don’t really know of what we speak, we just have decided to believe it”) by those who have joined an organized religion; if more appropriate weight were put on the obvious limits of scientific knowledge by those who insist that science has all of the answers; this mutual humility would go a long way towards comity, amity, those states of being that arise out of mutual respect, and a better understanding of what indeed can be understood, a more careful acknowledgement of what we don’t know and what is still to be understood.

I am an eager audience for the latest understanding that science can provide and appreciative of the idea that the methods of science provide the most efficient means for rational discovery, but deeply skeptical of the overreach of scientists who have lost their perspective and insist on promoting untestable models as established facts, particularly in theories of origins (Multiverses, anyone? Directed panspermia, anyone? Anyone?) Untested models are a starting point in science, not a demonstration of fact.

The best tradition of science is to me represented by attitudes such as those of Bernard Lovell, a British astrophysicist, who said: "I am no more surprised or distressed at the limitation of science when faced with this great problem of creation than I am at the limitation of the spectroscope in describing the radiance of a sunset or at the theory of counterpoint in describing the beauty of a fugue."(Bernard Lovell, The Origin of the Universe 2, 1958 Reith Lectures) 

At the same time, I am sympathetic towards the best instincts of the religious in their search for the meaning of life, and respectful of their beliefs insofar as they do not impinge on the beliefs and rights of others. I continue to move along the edges of the Christian community into which I was born, always hopeful that their best instincts come to fore, watchful that their worst instincts, as has been true too often in the past, do not serve to limit other’s rights or freedoms, do not destroy lives, do not become the law of the land.



1. Here is Einstein’s famous quote on religion with more context: "Now, even though the realms of religion and science in themselves are clearly marked off from each other, nevertheless there exist between the two strong reciprocal relationships and dependencies. Though religion may be that which determines the goal, it has, nevertheless, learned from science, in the broadest sense, what means will contribute to the attainment of the goals it has set up. But science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."(A. Einstein, from the 1941 Symposium on Science, Philosophy, and Religion) 

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