Sunday, April 1, 2007

God Is Not Dead Yet

Update: this was originally published on 10-8-2006, but I have added some new relevant thoughts.

Lubos has some links to some very interesting video discussions of science and religion. These ideas are probably the two that are closest to my heart and mind, and I've spent a disproportionately large amount of my time thinking about them. I wish I could say that the results of all that thinking are commensurate with the effort put into it. ;-) I'm still processing the content of those videos, but I'd like to jot down some initial thoughts.

I agree with Steven Weinberg's dislike of the characterization of God by the Old Testament religions, and by extension the New Testament- though Jesus's God was a "kinder, gentler" God, it still deeply troubles me that a "Father" would "sacrifice" his Son. But I'll get into that more later.

I'm not interested in an angry, jealous, or otherwise human-like God (and the imagery of a Heavenly "Father" doesn't suffice either). And Weinberg is correct in saying that religions built around that kind of God are harmful. Dawkins speaks a little about the issue of good vs. evil and whether there are some external forces ("spirits") that produce good and evil. I'm of the mind that there is a nature of duality (creation and destruction) to the Universe and that it's kind of a normal progression for people to assign "values" to results of these somewhat 'opposite' (though dependent) forces due to their perspective (like, if something good or bad for them).

Dawkins speaks about the use of language, and I tend to agree with his point that the words we use to define things often limit or misrepresent them. He speaks of individuals having "mystical wonder" and "transcendent, mystical experiences" that can be considered "scientific" as well as "religious". In my own transcendent, mystical experiences I've felt "connected" (as opposed to the idea that we are "detached" from some greater "domain" or God, and that is another issue I have with Christianity - the teaching that we are separated from God by "original sin") to the greater Whole while trying not to make value judgments on myself and everything else in that Whole. These experiences are almost always in response to some observance of Nature and not in the process of some religious ritual. I do want to talk about the meaning and purpose of ritual at some point though.

Is "faith" a bad thing? It seems like faith has gotten a bad reputation among scientists. The dictionary says:

1 a: allegiance to duty or a person: LOYALTY b (1): fidelity to one's promises (2): sincerity of intentions
2 a (1): belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2): belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b (1): firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2): complete trust
3: something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially: a system of religious beliefs

Only a small part of that definition specifies "belief without proof" (which is where religion seems to fit). Most of it implies a loyalty and trust in something other than the self. Certainly, I would hope that most scientists have faith in science and the scientific method. This does not have to imply adherence to the "unproven" but more of a belief that the unknown can become known. And from what bits I've studied of religion in a larger sense, many religions don't necessarily require rigid belief in the face of opposing evidence. That's mostly limited to the angry, jealous God that many of us dislike. ;-)

The issue of American Patriotism and Religion was briefly discussed in the Weinberg interview. It seems fairly obvious that since the European settlement of America was primarily motivated by the desire for religious "freedom", our 'national character' and/or culture would be strongly influenced by religion. It is not a misrepresentation to say that the foundation of America is inextricably linked to religion, religious practices, and disagreement about religion and religious practices. For some of us perhaps this religious feeling has evolved from attachment to God to attachment to Country. Perhaps Weinberg would find that disturbing, but it's important to acknowledge that many people deeply need to attach to something because it gives them the strength to keep going when life gets difficult. (Think of the famous "Footprints" poem.)

Now back to the New Testament God vs. the Old Testament God. I'm no bible scholar, but it seems that the distinction is a major point of contention among religious groups. Jesus's teachings about God were rather revolutionary but he still had to defer to the God of his Jewish upbringing. He spoke of God's love which wasn't as important in the Old Testament.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.

John 3:16 (King James Version)

That is the first Bible verse my grandmother made me memorize and (very painfully for a shy child) recite in front of her church. Even as a small child I wondered why God would give his only son to save everyone else. It didn't make sense. I understand the concept of sacrifice, but I've never understood a parent sacrificing a child. A parent sacrificing him/herself? Yes, and I think that's probably part of the rise the Trinity - meaning that since God is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all together then He really just sacrificed Himself, but that argument isn't really any more satisfying.

Maybe the child sacrifice is a relic of that culture's times. Maybe to the people back then the idea that a God would sacrifice his own flesh and blood was very impressive. But in today's world when children are sacrificed every day for many unholy reasons it just smacks of wrongness.

I do think that many of Jesus's teachings and ideas have been distorted. He did emphasize love and forgiveness and those were revolutionary ideas at his time. It's not too hard for me to apply much of what he said to the world I know by observation, though my ideas on that often differ a lot from the 'orthodox' views. And I don't think that my interpretations dilute or "liberalize" Jesus's message, only the messages of other people's interpretations. ;-) But honestly, I don't really worry too much about that. My 'relationship with the Divine' is between me and the Universe and no one else has the right tell me it's wrong. (Just like so many other things in life.) And that is Religious Freedom.

And about that being "separate" from God or The Fall from Paradise because of Original Sin. Well, I think I should probably save that for another time because there is a lot to say, and I'm still formulating how I want to say it.

Anyway, God is not dead yet. And as the wise men in those videos implied, even if we do ever learn all the "how" of the Universe we will probably never learn exactly "why". And by cloaking Himself in that one word God is still alive and kicking.

And that's this Sunday's Sermonette. ;-)

Addendum: In the months since this post it has become even more clear that a faithless and atheist, or completely secular, society is dysfunctional and prone to the same kind of descent into chaos as an overly religious society. Intolerance is a virus or cancer that spreads and infects all aspects of life and society. If you allow it to infect one part of society it will inevitably spread to the others, eventually leading to the crippling or death of that society.

If you allow science and scientists to attack and disrespect the need of most people to have faith in something larger than themselves you are basically damaging the foundation of a free society. We are seeing this happen everywhere. Religion and God are ridiculed, criticized, and otherwise intolerated in an alarmingly increasing rate. Look around you and tell me this: Is our society getting better without faith, God, or religion? It sure doesn't look that way to me.

But science isn't the villain here. Science is also infected by intolerance and faithlessness. What so few realize is that their faith in science is pretty much indistinguishable from a faith in God, when you boil it down because both rely on the belief that this 'thing' will provide the answers. But I don't really want to go into that at the moment. You can read all about it on Lubos Motl's blog and how he is trying to fight that intolerance and faithlessness that has infected science.

Allow me to tell you why this lack of faith is damaging the world. Or really, allow me to ask you some questions and you can think for yourself. Extend these questions to their logical ends.

How can we expect most people have faith in each other if they don't have faith in something larger than themselves? (hint: if one can't have faith in a larger, greater thing then he/she is probably not likely to have faith in equal or lesser things)

If there is no faith and trust then how are people supposed to function in cooperative and benevolent ways? (hint: one isn't likely to trust anyone who cannot demonstrate having trust themselves)

Freedom absolutely depends upon tolerance. Even when you know or think you are right and everyone else is wrong you must have tolerance for their needs to hold onto or attach to what makes them happy, whether that is believing in God or pink fairies or aliens from an adjacent universe or unseen eleven dimensional constructs. You can tell them why you think you are right and they are wrong, but you still have to respect that they are allowed not to believe you. At this point in the world NO ONE can say for 100% certainty that God does not exist. And thank God for that because if that day ever comes it will truly mark the end of humanity and love (perhaps the most irrational thing that exists).

And I ain't April foolin'.

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