Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Why don't you pray to Thor for rain?

When you look out at the natural world, what do you see? Whatever you see, and however you interpret it, I think it's very human to seek an explanation for it. People have been coming up with explanations for the natural world for thousands of years, at least since the invention of writing, and probably much earlier than that. If you look at the explanations offered over time you will notice some patterns emerging. Our explanations for things changed over time, just as we humans have changed. I doubt you would find the oldest explanations compelling. Is Thor responsible for storms? We still celebrate Thor's day (Thursday) every week. Should we offer sacrifices to a fertility goddess? Are there any ancient superstitious rituals that are still practised today?

Like us, but better

We know more about the world today than ever before. Many people today look at the complexity in nature and feel that it must be the product of an intelligent being. Perhaps they're right. Or maybe they're just projecting their own creative abilities onto nature and imagining a great architect, or a great engineer, similar to human inventors and artists but with far superior capabilities.

Something that interests me is that people today rarely describe God as a great potter, or a great warrior, unless they're specifically referring to the Bible. We describe the world, and God, in terms we are familiar with. People also tend to invoke God as an explanation for things they don't fully understand, but they speak very differently about things they do understand. For instance, there was a time when people performed elaborate rituals in order to try to influence the weather, believing it was intentionally controlled by spirits or supernatural beings.

However today, although people will still give vague references to God being in control of the weather, and they may still pray for rain or sunshine, they will typically look up the weather forecast and make plans according to that. We teach the hydrologic cycle in school without any mention of supernatural causes and no one ever suggests that such teaching is a challenge to their belief that God controls the weather. They seem happy to accept that science explains the processes that occur in our atmosphere and oceans, regardless of whether any external agent set it all up or not. We can observe and measure these processes, and people seem to generally agree that such observations and measurements can reliably inform us about our world.

Witch Doctor Is Which?

In ancient times, people brought their sick relatives to the village priest, perhaps to make some offering to the gods and ask for mercy so that their relatives might recover. Today we visit the doctor or hospital instead, where we expect to receive medical treatment based on years of study and research. If our doctor offered animal sacrifices and chanted incantations, we might report them and seek a more reputable doctor. People do still make vague references to God being the ultimate source of healing, but they say he does so through human doctors and surgeons, most of whom underwent many years of training in medical school. Given the choice between prayer and a qualified doctor, most of us would choose the doctor. The addition or absence of prayer seems to make no statistically significant difference, other than perhaps helping the person who prayed to feel like they had contributed something.

People have long sought to invoke God as an explanation for the mysterious, but as human knowledge has increased and discoveries have shone more and more light on those mysteries, so the "God" explanation has receded. We (most of us) no longer talk about disease being caused by evil spirits and demons. We know it is caused by germs, and so we wash our hands and take medication to get better. It is somewhat peculiar that people often still praise God when someone recovers from an illness, but they don't blame God for those same people becoming ill in the first place. Yet both are equally natural processes and if God is the explanation for everything in the universe, that must include disease. Some people say disease was caused by Adam and Eve but this cannot be the case because we know ancient humans could not create viruses.

Is there a god?

Today we live in an age of science and discovery. An age of space exploration and particle physics experimentation. An age of deep-sea exploration, and advancements in medicine. Our understanding of the natural world has given us incredible abilities. Our understanding of physics and engineering has enabled us to build planes and cars, and even remote-controlled spacecraft that can explore other planets!

Does all of this increased knowledge mean that God does not exist? Of course not! We simply don't know either way. It depends on what is meant by "God" - since almost no two people will agree on every detail, and many will not agree on much at all. But more than that, our knowledge and understanding, vastly increased though it may be, is limited. We have no way to confirm the existence of anything supernatural. There is no test or measurement that could rule the existence of a god in or out. To date we have made no observation that would either confirm or disconfirm a god, angels, demons, fairies, or witches. Does that mean these beings don't exist? I don't know. I would say that the time to start believing in them is after they've been demonstrated, not before.

What about science?

Whatever your belief, it seems to me that science cannot disprove the existence of any of these supernatural beings, no matter what it discovers about the natural world. As far as science is concerned, it is merely a process for discovering how things work. If God exists, then science is merely showing us the methods he likely used in creating the world. It may be that discoveries from science conflict with ideas in the Bible, but the Bible and the natural world are not the same thing. If you believe the Bible describes the natural world, then that is a hypothesis that can be tested, and I would encourage you to do just that. The flexibility of your interpretation might be the key to reconciling the two. While you're at it, perhaps you should also ask whether the natural world describes the Bible (or the biblical world-view), too. Would a close assessment of the one always lead you to the conclusions of the other? It's worth thinking about.

Speaking of science, many people are disproportionately skeptical of some areas of scientific discovery and research. Often this is because they perceive that the findings from science contradict their prior beliefs. Thus, rather than update their beliefs they instead reject the science or become highly skeptical of it, in order to protect those existing beliefs. They accept the physics involving the speed of light and general relativity, except when it suggests that the light from distant galaxies (that we can see using telescopes) must have travelled for many billions of years to reach us. They accept that fossils represent the remains of animals that once lived on Earth, but do not accept the gradual development of life visible in the various layers of the fossil record. They accept that tree rings can be used to determine the age of trees, but reject the same methods when used to date forests. They accept that radioactive elements decay at known rates, but deny (or perhaps they are not aware) that those rates have been measured to be constant back at least hundreds of thousands of years, by observing distant exploding stars. They accept carbon dating when it is used to verify the antiquity of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but not when used to date fossils. Carbon dating has also been tested and confirmed accurate against tree rings, among other things.

The fact is that our studies of the natural world can teach us a lot about how it works, and it can also tell us about how it worked in the past as well. We trust forensic investigators to solve crimes by piecing together evidence to tell us what likely happened in the past. We can use similar methods to determine what happened in nature, too. DNA comparisons can identify relationships between living humans, and the very same techniques show us that we are more closely related to chimpanzees than we are to dogs and cats, but that we share many genes in common with all of them. In fact we share many genes in common with all living things, including plants. But it's more than just shared genes. Some of those genes contain mistakes which can only be passed on through inheritance. For example, we are unable to synthesise vitamin C due to a broken gene. This is why we get scurvy unless we ingest vitamin C from food. The gene is disabled due to a genetic mutation that occurred in one of our distant ancestors. Chimpanzees also have the same genetic mutation - the gene is broken in exactly the same way - which suggests they also descended from that same ancestor. The vitamin C gene is still intact in other species. There are many more such examples of shared genetic errors between humans and chimpanzees. The conclusions are disliked by some people, but we don't get to choose the facts. I actually think it's fascinating.

But there's a book, written in the iron age...

Many people reject large portions of the natural sciences because of their prior commitment to a particular ancient book. If you are one such person, consider how someone else might use exactly the same arguments in favour of a different book, perhaps from another religion. Even within Christianity, interpretations of the Bible vary wildly between believers such that there is no way to be sure anyone is interpreting it correctly. The original authors are not here to clarify what they meant. Some people believe the holy spirit guides their interpretation, but even those people do not agree with each other, which should make them doubt. None of us are in any privileged position when it comes to interpretation, except perhaps those who have studied the ancient texts in more detail, but even they do not always agree on how to interpret them, especially when it comes to theological matters. Given the flexibility of interpretation, any technique for reconciling science with the Bible could be equally applied to any ancient text with the same results. That's not to say it's wrong, but rather it's a good reason to lower your confidence level if you think your own interpretation is "the right one". Everyone believes that about their own beliefs. We should be willing to entertain a bit (or a lot) of doubt now and then.

It is not clear to me that any of these ancient texts are at all useful in assisting in our understanding of the natural world. Rather, if you measure the acceptance of the natural sciences across various countries and plot the data on the same graph along with the degree of religiosity of those countries, you find that there is a significant inverse relationship. That is, countries that are less religious tend to be more accepting of evolution and vice versa. In any case, there are many well-educated people who are both religious and accept evolution, and they reconcile their beliefs with science in various ways that you might be interested in.

Science is not your enemy

Scientific literacy is important because it will determine our future, both the near future and the future of our children and grandchildren. You don't need to give up your religious beliefs in order to accept science, although statistically it seems to help a lot if you do. I have some ideas about why that is, but it's worth thinking about. Still, no one gives up their religious beliefs overnight, and it's unlikely you will either. What tends to happen is for people to starting thinking more critically about the world, or the Bible, or both. They read books, watch debates, and research many different topics, all of which shine a spotlight on aspects of the religious worldview that doesn't quite line up. Perhaps it's failed prophecies, or mistakes and discrepancies, or archaeology, or forgeries in the NT. These are just some of the reasons people have given for changing their mind about religion. In most cases they did so reluctantly, after months or years of doubt and questioning, and sometimes at great personal cost. Consider your own circumstances before embarking on your own journey of questioning and discovery. I still consider the truth important enough that it's worth it in the long run, but your life is up to you. Just remember that it may be the only one you have.