Dismissing Religion?

Below is a reprint from a post I just did on a Facebook group with some friends of mine.
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I want to base my life on what I believe is the truth. If I really believed that it’s more likely than not that there’s no God, I too would be an agnostic. In a heartbeat. Even as a Christian, I’ve spent years trying to sort out that question. I finally realized that I cannot accept (neither intellectually, intuitively, or emotionally) that there is no purpose and intention behind life. To me, that story doesn’t account for human beings in the fullness of their experience, or even come close. Since science in all its power can never answer questions of meaning, the story science tells is – though really important – ultimately insufficient. And that is all it can ever be. All science can ever do is provide us with the “hows” behind the same questions to which religion gives the “whys.” That’s a hugely important role and I would never want anything to diminish that role (which of course religion has done for a great part of its history). I just hate seeing science set itself up as the giver of the answers that really matter. It’s not. And it can’t be.

Only religion answers the questions people actually deal with day to day – what is the good life and can I have it? If so, how? Why am I here? What am I supposed to do with my life? What do I tell my children about why THEY are here? What will become of me when I die? How do I best live my life right now? When someone hits me, what should I do? There’s this person I find attractive and really want to have sex with her – should I? What do I do with my emptiness and discouragement? How do I deal with my anxiety? What is the best use of my money, given the fact that I am going to die? How do I handle my regrets? I have done a lot of bad things – what am I going to do with all this guilt? The world is going crazy – how can I find peace? Why should I try to “be good,” and what does that look like? Why should I avoid being bad? How do I make some kind of sense of immense tragedy and suffering? Why should I not just live to satisfy all my desires every minute of the day? I could go on for hours. I’m not exaggerating – I could literally go on for hours listing the real questions people struggle with day in and day out, and pointing out how science is either totally insufficient or woefully inadequate to provide meaningful answers to them.

As a pastor and counselor, I work with real people everyday (“real people” meaning normal people who don’t spend their lives dealing with science and intellectual fare) and that’s the stuff they want to know about life. Even those who say they don’t believe in God, like you [name omitted], are hungry for answers to those questions that have some chance of ringing true. The answers provided by science never will. Not because there’s anything wrong with science but because science cannot deal with those issues. It’s not meant to.

Satisfying answers to these questions can only be found if mankind has a spirit and a soul, and if there is someone behind our lives who “intended” them or “meant” them for something. Why? Because they are by definition “spiritual” questions. I realize this is a very, very long way from the Christian god, but to me the conversation begins here. Inquiry then proceeds along the lines of “Which god, if any, has seriously attempted to answer these questions? Which religion, if any, provides answers that can help knit life into an intelligible framework?”

This is why I get extremely irritated over the casual way that religion is often dismissed by secular people. It’s one thing to really think hard on it and come to the conclusion that one simply cannot accept the idea of a god. It’s quite another to dismiss it out of hand and ridicule it, as if science has already provided answers to all the questions that matter and anyone who would even consider religion must be a dolt, or a raving lunatic. Regardless of what conclusions people come up with, religion must be taken with deadly seriousness. Yes, it has been horrendously destructive at times throughout history, which is only evidence of its immense power. But consider that at this very moment scientists are playing with materials that have the power to destroy mankind. They proceed in the name of the “good” that can be done with those materials.

Some of those same scientists (and the people who read their books) would turn around and advocate for the expiration of all religion on the planet because of the damage religion has done. It’s hypocritical. Anyone who thinks for five seconds and isn’t so biased as to be completely incapable of being rational will realize that oftentimes the power of something to destroy is simply the flip side of its power to bring life, which religion has done for billions of people over tens of thousands of years. People who didn’t own slaves, or participate in the Inquisition, or support Hitler, or whatever cultural grievance we may wish to bring, but simply lived quiet lives, informed and grounded by ancient wisdom that has stood the test of time. And then died with a smile on their faces, certain (or at least hopeful) that their life had meant something, had mattered, and would continue. And that therefore their death meant something too. It’s impossible to overestimate how much good religion has done and how it has been found to answer the deepest and most important questions of life over and over again, in every age, across every people group, and against every ruler that has undertaken to stamp it out. Religion remains for one reason and one reason only (hear this now, free marketeers) – it matters, and serves the interests of people. Some are interested in manipulating it and do so – but that is because they are manipulators and would manipulate whatever is available. Many more build lives of peace and kindness and goodness upon it that leave huge legacies for generations to come.

That’s what I appreciate about you, [name omitted]. I have heard and understand your difficulties and objections to theism, but you usually at least try to take religion seriously. That shows that your intelligence goes beyond the surface.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. A request for me to defend some of my comments does not obligate me to do so.

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  • Actuality Junkie

    Response Pt 2

    4." Incidentally, I'd love for you to point me toward exactly which laws of nature the existence of God is a "violation" of, and/or which scientific studies have been done that demonstrate conclusively that there is no God, no spiritual reality, etc."

    Let's be clear about one thing. I said the Christian God violates the physical laws of our universe.

    a. If God were omniscient as described he would be in defiance of both quantum mechanics (by having knowledge of all quanta he would cause them to collapse to a known state), and
    relativity (in order to know everything he would be required to have a preferential frame of reference). Therefore the evidence dictates that God, if such exists, cannot be omniscient.

    b. If God were to alter the fundamental forces of our universe, life would cease to exist. If you change any of the fundamental forces such as gravity, the nuclear forces, or electromagnetism then life becomes an impossibility. There is no room for error in this equation. Therefore God cannot be omnipotent as described.

    “I am not so concerned with whether or not God created the universe, so much as whether he had any say in the matter at all.” ~ Albert Einstein

    c. There is no evidence, none, that a spiritual realm exists. Even dark matter/energy produces some observable, measurable indirect effects. A complete lack of evidence that something exists is not definitive, but it is reasonable. Otherwise you will be trying to convince me Peter Pan is out stealing children.

    d. If you came to me and said that you believed there was a creator, perhaps an intelligent entity, that initiated the Big Bang, and put the laws of physics in motion, then my current understanding of science would not allow me to refute you. This is not to say that in the future either my growing understanding of science, or entirely new scientific discoveries, won't challenge this notion, only that I cannot challenge it at this time. This does not change my view that ALL things are bound by the rules, and it certainly does not allow for the interventionist Christian God. This is also the only reason I grant Agnostics and some Deists any leniency – although I admit to mocking them as frightened fence sitters.

    5. "You cited where I listed the questions that are really important to people and criticized me for not giving a citation to support that those are indeed the important questions of life."

    I did not contest your questions as being basic in human life, I did, and continue to, contest your global statement that they are the questions that matter to everyone. A subtle but important difference.

    6. "The LAST thing I was doing was trying to show how science and faith fit together."

    That has become clear by your various responses. It was not so clear in your blog, as you were describing science and religion as two sides of the same coin. The 'how' and the 'why'. I still stand by my belief that science gives us the 'why'. It has for me at least, and I might add in a very satisfactory way.

    I appreciate the invitation to your church, but will have to pass. I have found there is nothing for me there. I guess we're both conducting our missionary calling… and the water over here is really quite nice 🙂

    And peace be with you.

  • Actuality Junkie

    Dave,

    A response to your three all in one…

    I understand that it was not the intention of your blog to convince an atheist to change their view, but you did intend to present a position you wanted atheists to understand. You attempted to present spirituality as something worthy of consideration in a real and meaningful way to a group, or at least an individual, that does not recognize spirituality. I attempted to demonstrate why what you had presented failed to do so. As you say it is your blog and you can spout off opinions of Peter Pan and faerie dust if that is your desire. I was only passing through on the request of one of your fellow Christians. My original intent was to present my issues to them, and decided it made more sense to question the source (being you). Because of that, my response may have been tainted by my answering both of you simultaneously.

    Before I continue I'm going to take a moment, as you did, to clarify my position. We don't need to be assuming where the other stands if we are going to have a legitimate discussion. First, I do not refer to myself as an atheist because it does not make sense to do so. We are defined by what we believe, and just as you call yourself a Christian in support of your belief in Christ, I call myself a Humanist in support of my beliefs. I am not a theist. I do not see a division between what is nature and what is "beyond" nature. It is my position that all things real can be explained by the unyielding laws that govern our universe. You refer to these at the laws of nature. If it is real there will be evidence of its existence, and a lack of any such evidence is sufficient to deny its existence. If you want to call that a reality defined by science I will accept that. Although I believe it would be more appropriate to call it a reality defined by evidence.

    Moving on…

    1. "Science in fact tells us NONE of these things, and CANNOT and IS NOT MEANT TO tell us these things. The laws of nature say absolutely nothing about the spirit realm."

    The one point we both seem to agree on is that spiritual things cannot be quantified. I hold to the position that this is because they do not exist, and on the other hand you hold to the position that they somehow do. As long as your position depends on factors that cannot be measured or observed, then it appears we may be at an impasse. Regardless I will continue and see what shakes loose.

    2. "You cannot say that the laws of nature make the existence of God impossible without saying it from an a priori conviction since God, in order to exist at all, would HAVE to exist outside of those laws."

    This is an interesting position. As long as your items of spirituality remain spiritual, I guess I have to accept we simply have differing opinions on the value of evidence. It's when they cross into the physical, the natural, that things seem to break down. Creation, raining frogs, parting the red sea, turning water into blood and wine, igniting a water soaked bull, the virgin birth, raising the dead, and so on are all physical events and therefore require physical explanations. Creation alone screams in the face of physical law, once you can explain that one, we'll move on to the rest.

    3. "What if the reality of which I speak could only be known by submitting one's self to that reality?"

    Ok, so if I understand your question correctly, you are taking the position that reality is dictated by our belief? I'm not sure that dog is going to hunt.

    End of Pt. 1

  • Dave Flowers

    Actuality Junkie:

    Thanks for your note and the kind tone of it.

    1. This is my personal blog, not a scholarly article, or one designed to even make an attempt to talk atheists out of their beliefs. I think like 11 people subscribe to my blog, so I hope you can understand the context and why I sometimes don’t “cite” “evidence” or give more “proof.” I’m a guy writing his opinions down.

    2. I’m not going to respond point-by-point to your note because it is based on the premise, “The laws of nature, and science, prove there is no God” (my paraphrase of your basic point). This is not only patently false, but impossible. If there WERE a God, he/she/it would have to be above and beyond the laws of nature and science and therefore outside of what they are able to deal with. If God were INSIDE the laws of nature, he/she/it would be simply one more part OF nature and therefore not God by most people’s definition of God. In saying what you say, you make it clear that you have simply inferred that there is no God. That is your right. However, science has not, and cannot, show such a thing, or else science must deal in things that science itself defines as “not science.” Since you have inferred this (and have every right to do so), and all of your opinions stem from it, it’s pointless to argue with you. You’re starting from a place I fundamentally disagree with. It is not a law of nature that there be laws of nature. You exalt as ultimate what easily might not be.

    3. You say faith and science are incompatible. Someone should tell that to Francis Collins or the 40% of scientists who claim to be theists (I'm pretty sure that's a fairly recent stat).

    4. In order to know the natural world, you must accept its “laws” and submit yourself to them. I would say the same is true of the spiritual world. In order to know it, you must accept its “laws” and submit yourself to them. If you are interested in obtaining knowledge of that realm, rather than standing outside and speculating, it is available in bits and pieces from many of the world’s religions, but of course as a Christian pastor I would say most completely from Christ himself. And not simply learning his teachings intellectually, but determining to put into practice what he said (understood in a reasonable context). When one does what Jesus said to do, and finds that the results are what he said they would be, one comes to know and to trust. This can be ventured upon – tested – by anyone willing to submit to one who knows how to lead them in this way. This is not freakish or cultish – it is just the way learning happens. If you wish to learn anything, you must learn it from someone who knows how to do it.

    5. You have stated there is no God. That is a statement about reality, expressed as an absolute truth claim. What other absolute truth claims about reality are you willing to make? Make a list tonight of all the things you believe to be true about reality that neither you nor anyone else can prove with methods available through science. You might find a few.

    6. You asked about (or perhaps made assumptions about) what I’m teaching in my church, inadvertently giving away that you have no idea! If you’re interested in knowing, my sermons are available on the Internet. Our current series would be instructive, at http://wildwindchurch.com/content.cfm?id=344, probably beginning with the second or third message in the series. Or else our most thorough treatment of the teachings of Jesus himself, at http://www.wildwindchurch.com/content.cfm?id=328. Then you could comb through some of the other 60 or so available messages and see to what extent it matches up with what you think Christianity is. Of course that’s if you are interested in knowing. The knowledge is available if you want it.

    Peace to you.

    dave

  • Actuality Junkie

    Part 2: Your observations.

    You are a pastor. It is rational to believe that by virtue of your position people will come to you with questions. It is also rational to believe, by virtue of your position, that you have already accepted the supernatural, and will lean toward the supernatural as an answer to these questions you are asked. This is not a problem, but it is something we need to recognize before proceeding. If I am wrong with these statements, as is always the possibility with any assumption, please let me know.

    So within your duties as a pastor you have made an observation that people come to you with certain questions. You even list a few of these questions in paragraph two of the article. You believe these are important questions, in fact you identify them as the questions that matter. Although that is a rather strong, and unsubstantiated, value judgment, I'll agree with you for the sake of this discussion.

    From there you present us with a hypothesis saying that only religion can answer these questions. It's here your methodology falls apart and you accept the hypothesis as fact without evidence. In fact not one piece of evidence, not one counter argument, was presented to confirm this statement regarding the value of religion. Therefore I can say at this point the hypothesis has no value.

    At this point I need to digress for a moment. I am a bit disturbed by your description of those asking the questions as disinterested in science or intellectualism. I'm not sure exactly what you mean by that, but it sounds like you are saying they are only interested in easy answers and religion offers that to them, or that they are possibly incapable of understanding a more complex response. Perhaps that is why you do not feel the need to present evidence to support your statements, you have not been required to in the past. Let me be very clear when I say this: If you want to convince an atheist your argument is valid, you had better have some proof.

    After this first bit you present us with a second hypothesis, " Satisfying answers to these questions can only be found if mankind has a spirit and a soul, and if there is someone behind our lives who "intended" them or "meant" them for something."

    Yet again you present us with no evidence to support your statement. You provide no basis from which to believe there is a spirit, a soul, or a being working behind the scenes. All you do is make a broad value statement, and then present it as fact. I'm sorry to tell you this is very bad form. Besides, who are you to determine what answers I, or anyone else, will find as satisfying? Presenting a global statement of that nature, and presenting it as fact without evidence only hurts your argument and demonstrates a failing in your logic.

    Finally, if you are interested, I can demonstrate that science does give us answers to these questions. Here is my question to you before we follow that road: Once those answers are presented, if you cannot accept them, is that a failing of science or of you?

    IN CONCLUSION:
    Dave, you are obviously an intelligent, articulate person, but I believe you are attempting to have your cake and eat it too. You have obviously held your Christian beliefs up to the light of science and found them lacking. Now you are attempting to rationalize how the two will fit together. I'm sorry but they are not compatible. I understand letting go of religion can be scary, after all it is your chosen career, but there is an entire world of reason just waiting for you to explore it.

  • Actuality Junkie

    PART 1:

    A co-worker sent me a link to your blog, asking me to specifically read this article "Dismissing Religion". This is not an unusual occurrence for me as I am an atheist living in the Bible Belt. After reading your article this evening, I decided a response was in order, after all if you don't get feedback from your target audience you can never correct errors.

    First let me say that I appreciate you presenting your case in a polite manner. I will attempt to do the same and apologize in advance if what I say comes across as insulting or belittling – that is certainly not my intention.

    So without further ado…

    ITEM #1: All science can ever do is provide us with the "hows" behind the same questions to which religion gives the "whys." ~ Taken from paragraph one.

    If I didn't know you were a pastor I would assume you were an atheist, or at the very least agnostic. I am shocked to see this idea presented by a pastor. By making this statement you have reduced all religion, including Christianity, to nothing more than fables.

    To illustrate my point let's look at Christianity and the Bible in light of your statement. Science is the 'how' of the universe. Science tells us that the creation story of Genesis did not happen. Basic physical law tells us that an omnipotent God is impossible. General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics tells us that an omniscient God as described in the Bible is impossible. Science tells us that the virgin birth is impossible. So once you allow science to tear away the supernatural details, like God, miracles, angels, demons, Heaven and Hell, all you have left is a bit of questionable history and a few fables. Is that what you do in Church as a pastor, share fables ? I feel pretty safe is guessing the answer is no. That may seem pretty harsh, but I hope you get my point.

  • Bryant

    I don’t usually comment on blogs…I generally prefer to play the role of silent observer, but your introduction to this repost has drug me out of the shadows. Specifically, “I finally realized that I cannot accept (neither intellectually, intuitively, or emotionally) that there is no purpose and intention behind life.” My grandmother and I were just talking about this today, and, though we have our many disagreements (like many people and I), we do agree on that issue. I have always felt that it would be insanity to be here for no reason, but I find that I rediscover that fact in new ways whenever I’m exploring things spiritually.

    I also realize we have a similar pet peeve when it comes to religion vs. science. Dismissing the power of religion, dismissing all the good, and all the answers it provides for people is, well, it isn’t just ignorance, but also bad science. If a scientist were to dismiss results of an experiment because they didn’t fit into his hypothesis, and others found out, that person would lose credibility as a scientist. I will admit, I have been there, and I don’t want to make excuses for my own (hopefully mostly past) close mindedness, but it is the people that use religion to further their own motives (when, if they are truly religious, they should be using religion for God). It is difficult to overcome very negative impressions, but I imagine it happens on both sides. There are bad scientists that would dismiss all evidence that counters their own, and attack religion on incomplete or even entirely false claims, and certainly people who use science to destroy rather than create. It is a shame that so many people in our world can’t seem to be passionate, without being angry.