I’m trying to write a thoughtful blog here, and it’s annoying that I have to preface this whole thing with a disclaimer, but here you go:
I’m sure that I’ll have many people who look at the title of this entry and go yammer on about their own opinions in the comments without reading any further. Don’t even bother.
I can predict some of them already, based on repeated trends I’ve seen from Facebook pages and blogs I read on these two supposedly opposing subjects.
From militant atheists: Christians are feebleminded and/or not sane. Trololololo!
From Christians: There are things that I personally do not understand, therefore it’s God! Here’s a quote from the Bible that I have taken out of context.
From either: I’ve noticed a subtle disconnect between two sentences you’ve written. Therefore you are a hypocrite.
Bonus points for misspellings, profanity, personal insults, and emoticons.
COMMENTS LIKE THESE ARE WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS.
Oh, and fair warning: I’ll be using masculine pronouns to refer to God, not because I believe them to be accurate, but because that’s the convention and I’ll confuse fewer readers that way. (Haha, fewer of my approximately five readers, one of whom is my mother.)
This is not a shouting match about who has read and can parrot back the most secondary sources. This is my own personal experience, and that’s all I have to give. However, I know more about the history of Christianity AND about science than most Americans, and although I’m willing to give recommended readings if asked, I’m not going to include citations here because I don’t feel like digging out all the books. My grandmother, father, and husband are all medical professionals; my mother is a historian. I have more higher education than most people on the planet, working toward a doctorate in a social science. I am also a pretty enthusiastic Christian, married to an Atheist, and I don’t consider my faith and my love for science to be in any way contradictory. I am not trying to convince anybody in this blog entry, but I’m not stupid and this is what works for me.
In the past few months, I have had two friends ask me how I reconcile the two “opposing sides” of science and faith. The short answer is that I didn’t know until junior high at the earliest that anybody considered them to be in conflict, and I still don’t really get it.
This blog post is the long answer.
It’s all about ego.
One of the hallmarks of a person who practices critical thinking is the ability to change your mind when you receive new information. My concepts of myself and my faith are not attached to having the absolute most correct answer at any given moment. It won’t hurt my ego (more than temporarily, anyway) if new information contradicts what I previously believed, and I am perfectly comfortable not knowing everything. I try to live my life in such a way that, even if I get to the Pearly Gates and find out I should have been worshipping the Lizard Queen or something this whole time, I’ll still be at peace with myself and with how my life has affected the world around me.
The Evolution Thing
I’ll use the never-ending disagreement about the origins of our species as an example, because everybody knows something about that one.
I used to believe the fallacy that God was in the details I couldn’t understand. I carefully tucked away a quote about how a watch implies the existence of a watchmaker, and I devoured books and articles using scientific-sounding terminology and elementary statistics to “prove” that some details of evolution were false and could only be explained by spontaneous creation. I enjoyed my fair share of Lee Strobel and Rupert Sheldrake. After I took a biology class as an undergrad and learned what the actual, empirical, real-world evidence showed about evolution, I adjusted my opinion. I realized then that I was defining my God in an unsustainable way. Francis Collins (and he may have borrowed the term; I don’t remember) calls this “God of the Gaps” thinking.
If God is just another word for something you don’t understand, then new information is threatening to how you see the universe and your place in it, rather than inspiring increased awe at its complexity. People used to not understand about comets or gravity, so they assumed it was God. They thought the sun went around the Earth and that God meant it to be that way. Even a dyed-in-the-wool Christian today would recognize that God survived even major revelations like these. God can handle it when humans learn more about their own evolution. God is too big to fit into your ignorance.
Now comes the part where I quote me some Gospel:
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
– Matthew 22:36-40
Note here that we are called as believers to love God with all our MINDS. Do you see anywhere here where it says to stop learning because God finds new information threatening? Absolutely not! If you can keep your ego out of it, this is much easier to receive.
My personal belief is probably more similar to Stephen Jay Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria”: Science gives us the “how;” religion (for those who choose it) gives us the “why.” I also don’t believe that God routinely messes around with the laws of nature, because God invented them in the first place. (It’s akin to the Deism of the Enlightenment in that way.) I’m more of a Holy Spirit sort of believer, where my conception of the Divine is as the spark that makes things alive, as a presence outside of the physical world that can move people in spirit. I do not pray for physical miracles, but rather for psychological things like changes of heart, sufficient attentiveness, mind-body connection, mental clarity, that sort of thing, because that’s the domain where I think God typically hangs out.
The Predestination Thing
“Everything happens for a reason.” In addition to being a terrible thing to say to somebody who is suffering from a tragedy, this would make God a real jerk. A common theme I hear when talking to friends who have lost their faith is that God failed to prevent a bad thing from happening. This is also a frequent source of insults that Atheists like to throw around: “If God is so good, and also omnipotent, why is there suffering?”
If storytelling was good enough for… well, for every religious leader and teacher ever… then it’s good enough for me! Here are some examples to illustrate my point:
In my favorite book of all time (which will probably get its own blog entry later), The Once and Future King by T. H. White, there is a parable about two angels who are traveling. One is an experienced angel and the other is an angel in training. They come upon a poor farming couple who are very generous and offer to let them stay the night. During the night, their cow- their source of income- dies. Then the angels go to a rich family’s house, and the family is rude and lets them sleep there, but not inside the house. There is a broken wall on the property, which the senior angel repairs. The younger angel gets mad that the older angel would allow such injustice, with results so disproportionate to the merits of the two families. The older angel replies that, when they were staying with the poor family, the Angel of Death had come for the wife. Seeing how much the couple loved each other, the senior angel had Death take the cow instead. Then, when they were staying with the snobby rich family, the senior angel fixed the broken wall to conceal a secret treasure buried inside it. The point is that, even though you may not get the results you want, God can still be there, unseen.
One of my other favorite books of all time is The Plague by Albert Camus. The population of a plague-devastated city tries to cope with their quarantine and wrap their heads around the effects of the disease on their loved ones. Children and good people die in horrible ways. An influential priest says that it is a punishment from God, and then the plague kills him. The Existentialist, or more precisely, the Absurdist in me really appreciates this story.
Both of these stories appeal to me (especially “The Plague”) because I don’t believe God is in the business of tinkering. More like nudging, which people can choose to ignore. I also believe with some certainty that the natural world does not give a crap about any of us. God might have created the idea of energy or light or self-replicating cells, but that doesn’t mean that storms and diseases are guided by a consciousness, let alone a consciousness whose purpose is to hand out rewards and punishments. I do believe that living things are holy and precious, but they exist that way on their own, not in orbit around humans. There are little sparks of the Divine all around us, just doing their thing. Annoyingly smiley people like to say, “Just believe, and wonderful things will happen!” No. Wonderful things are already happening. Our job is to notice them.
My main point here is that God gave us free will and consciousness so that we would use it, not just so we would sit back placidly and wait for miracles, and then blame God when those miracles don’t materialize. Free will kicks in when you decide how to move forward, and God is there, quietly waiting to hold your hand. I envision God more as a loving, animating force than as a BFF who intervenes on behalf of the most prayerful football team.
For years, I had a Time Magazine editorial taped to my wall, entitled, “God is not on my side. Or yours.” That pretty much sums it up.
Imagined comment: “I am an Atheist and the burden of proof is on you! CHECKMATE!”
This sentiment and its brethren would confine the entirety of human experience to spreadsheets. I bet you think literature and music are wastes of time, too! Just as countries whose citizens live in misery and servitude can be held up as worldwide examples of development because they have high GDPs (recommended reading: do a search for “Capabilities Approach”), the facts that we know how to measure right now are not going to provide you with satisfaction. Do people fall in love just because of oxytocin? Do people laugh just because of endorphins?
I believe that, since God exists outside the physical world, his existence cannot be proven, nor should it be. Human beings have felt compelled to communicate their feelings with each other and create works of art for tens of thousands of years. There is a sense of awe and yearning and connection that is pretty universal in our species and gets fulfilled in different ways depending on the surrounding culture. And, based on how some other species treat their dead, humans might not even be alone in this!
(Just as a side note, I know Richard Dawkins has published things about similar topics, but I find him to be more abrasive than convincing.)
Some of the most amazing and life-changing experiences I’ve had were not attributable to physical stimuli. I know that on the surface this looks like a “God of the Gaps” fallacy, but equally shortsighted is the assertion that those “gaps” in understanding don’t exist in the first place.
I’m not going to address all possible arguments here because this thing is already really long. The bottom line is: if God is acting like God, you’re never going to trick him into appearing in a test tube. But, for all you know, he’s been whispering to you in the background, unnoticed.
Very short answers to questions that I might elaborate on later
A: Probably, but not as often as people claim. Brains can be weird.
Q: Why Christianity in particular?
A: 1) The culture I was raised in, and, 2) even if he turns out not to be God in the Flesh, Jesus was still a revolutionary teacher with some radical lessons about how to treat people.
There needs to be more respect in general around here. Science and religion are all part of the same system. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, and don’t dismiss the bits of truth in someone else’s entire worldview just because the person’s behavior rubs you the wrong way.
I’ll close with another Bible quote, this time from the Book of Job. (Fun fact: The part about God and the Devil betting on Job’s piety was added later so the story would make more sense.)
“Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”
– Job 1:21
Thank you for reading.
© The Participle Dangler, 2013