A question of faith
by “Tim the Teacher” (full name withheld at author’s request)
Do not question your faith!+ Right?+ Is this not what all religious leaders preach to their followers?+ Have you ever considered why this is so?+ Today I am asking you, for just a few minutes, to examine the fundamental tenets of religious faith.
A religious friend recently told me that there must be a God because otherwise how did life on Earth begin?+ Consider this from a non-religious point of view.+ There is no scientific debate that the accurate answer to that question is that we do not know how life on Earth began.+ The fundamental difference between him and me, however, is that when I reach a point where I encounter a question whose answer I do not know, I say “I don’t know.+ Let’s use the scientific method to further explore that question because the scientific method has proven itself to be a valuable tool in discovering the answers to myriad questions.”+ He posits “God.”+ But does positing God answer the question regarding the beginning of life?+ Of course not.+ It simply adds an additional and unnecessary layer of causation (without any supporting evidence), and then begs the question, “who or what created God?”+If the response to that is that God has just always existed, then why not simply say that the Universe has just always existed?+ Does not the principle of Occam’s Razor advise us to cut off unnecessary assumptions?+ I should add that scientists are working on creating life in laboratories.+ What an extraordinary and fascinating scientific discovery this would be to lay out the chemical processes that change an environment with no life to one with life.+ The criticism that these scientists are “playing God” is nonsensical unless you start with the assumption that God started life.+ But the whole point of the scientific method is that you do not start with certainties.+ You start with doubt.+ In the words of Francis Bacon, “If a man will begin with certainty, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”
But, my friend protested, how could we have become so beautifully complex?+ Surely, we have a designer who is intelligent.+ Again, consider this question from a non-religious point of view.+ Is it possible that there is another explanation for our wonderful, almost inconceivable complexity?+ Absolutely.+ Natural selection and evolution.+ Organisms with more adaptive traits (that stem from genetic variation resulting from genetic drift and mutation) survive and evolve.+ Evolution is no more a “theory” than gravity.+ It is accepted fact that has been corroborated by the scientific method.+ To deny it is to either not understand or not accept that the scientific method distinguishes true hypotheses from false ones.
Fine, my friend says, but what about the Koran (he is Muslim)?+ Let us look at this from a non-religious point of view.+ Well, I say, what about the Bible or any other religious text?+ Why should I choose one of these over any other?+ Or a better question yet is, why should I choose any one at all?+ What independent scientific evidence exists to support my decision?+ As John Allen Paulos said in Irreligion, A Mathematician Explains why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up,+ “What if you’re not persuaded by the argument that God exists because His assertion that He exists and discussion of His various exploits appear in this book about Him that believers say He inspired?”+ Perhaps the most difficult truth for many religious followers to accept is that there simply is no evidence to support that any religious text is the word of a supernatural being who created the Universe.+ But on some level, many religious followers acknowledge that to interpret a religious text literally is indefensible.+ Why not take this gut instinct to its logical conclusion and admit that no text “proves” that God exists?+ The Bible, for instance, does contain historically accurate facts, but is also full of metaphors that most Christians accept are not historical fact.+ Is it that hard to believe, then, that the existence of God is not historical fact?+ Or, at the very least, why not subject that factual question to the same level of intellectual scrutiny with which one would examine any other factual question?+ Is the best answer that it makes one uncomfortable or angry to do so?+ Is this good enough for you?
Well, my friend tells me, you are going to Hell (Islam, like Christianity, teaches that those who do not believe in God go to Hell).+ My initial comment here is that how life or the Universe began is a totally different question from a practical point of view from what happens to us after we die.+ I can conceive of scientific answers to these questions that would be completely unrelated.+ Let us look at what we do know about the latter question.+ When we die, we are unable to communicate, our brain and body cease to function, and we decompose.+ I admit, it’s not as glamorous as the post-death stories outlined by various religions, but there is no debate that it is all we know as a scientific matter of fact about what happens to us after we die (there are a few people who die for a few minutes and are then revived and claim to have seen a light or themselves floating, but it is not clear to me how this proves that any specific religion is correct or that this is anything other the result of brain function, which continues for a short time after death).+ Why would we then hypothesize that we have a consciousness when we die, and furthermore that we meet a supernatural being (who happens to also be the supernatural being that created the Universe), and furthermore that this supernatural being judges us on our actions and thoughts (including whether or not we believe in Him, It or Her), and either sends us to eternal torment or Heaven?+ Is this not wishful thinking?+ If not, what evidence supports it?
On the other hand, from a gambling standpoint, I suppose it does make sense to believe in God.+ After all, if I believe then I go to Heaven, and at worst (if there is no God), then nothing happens.+ If I don’t believe, then at worst I experience eternal torment, and at best (if there is no God) nothing happens.+ Of course, if I believe in the wrong religion (e.g., if I believe in Allah and it turns out that there is some other God waiting to judge me after I die), then I might experience eternal torment, too.+ And of course, there is also the issue that I simply cannot choose to believe anything.+ The fact is that I do not believe in a God, no matter how hard I try or how nice I think it would be.+ If I lie and say I believe, does that get me into Heaven?+ More to the point, if there is a God, would he really ask us to choose our belief system (to the extent that we able) based on this post-mortem gambling?
I invite readers of this editorial to write and read comments.+ I suspect that some of the comments will set forth arguments for the existence of a God.+ Please keep in mind when reading them that if we truly evaluate these arguments as we would any other factual argument, then the burden of proof rests of those arguing for the existence of something, not on those arguing for the nonexistence of something.+ Evaluate the arguments, make an honest assessment, and please do not be afraid to question your faith.