Saturday, September 05, 2009

From out of the past

Noodling around Google I recently found an old post of my from Slashdot that I had posted on a wiki (that I had almost forgotten), part of a discussion about a Jon Katz /. article. I found it as good as statement as I have made as to why I bother with religious belief, even after all this time.

This was a response to a message that included the statement: atheism is NOT a religion; it is based on logic and reason; religion is based on faith and presumption.

Well, I don't know about atheism being a religion, although it has seemed to be one for some atheists I have known personally. If atheism is not a religion it is most definitely a belief --

a mental attitude of acceptance or assent toward a proposition without the full intellectual knowledge required to guarantee its truth. ...Belief in someone or something is basically different from belief that a proposition is true.


When those of us who are theists (those who believe in a personal supernatural being that intervenes in history -- that covers a lot of territory, religiously -- Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Hindus perhaps, I'm not sure) discuss God, we are not talking about Santa Claus, some magical figure that "defies the laws of physics" as you put it. I think you may misunderstand the word "supernatural" as it applies in this kind of a discussion, as opposed to the Blair Witch Project. "Supernatural" is not magical, weird, or necessarily occult: it comes from the latinate terms meaning above or greater than nature. Or in another way, outside of nature, and therefore, the "laws of physics".

Here's an example from physics. For more than a thousand years, the accepted "laws of physics" were understood to be the body of Greek and Hellenistic theories about observations of the natural world that is often referred to as Aristotelean physics. Based on the experience of phenomena that was available, these theories worked just fine. Much later on, observations from astronomy, coupled with much better mathematical tools, allowed Newton to rework physics completely once again, based on a wider base of experience. Incidentally, the Newtonian theories still work just fine for the phenomena they were intended. Starting in the 19th century, new phenomena such as radioactivity led theorists such as Planck, Maxwell, Einstein, Bohr, Dirac, et. al. to construct brand new "laws of physics", some of which seemed then (and often seem now) nonsense, unless you understand the domain of phenomena they were intended to make sense of. But they are very practical -- the computers that you and I are using depend on a knowledge of quantum mechanics.

To us, God is a person outside the natural world, and is the person who created it. This set of theories or beliefs are what we use to make certain phenomena -- our experence of our own human experience, of values such a truth or beauty or justice, make sense. Can we "prove" the existence of God? Well, to some extent, it is a meaningless question, if you mean can I prove the existence of God the same way I prove the existence of Peoria or Phobos. If God is outside the frame of natural experience in the manner I state above, I can no more "prove" his existence than Einstein could have meaningfully discussed the truth of Special Relativity before such experiments as the Michaelson-Morley demonstration.

In the very same way, you cannot disprove the existence of God either, you can just choose whether or not it makes sense for you to believe that there is a God. The issue is not whether or not religious persons use reason or logic (I would say about the same percentage do as non-religious persons - too few) but the body of experience that religious persons apply logic and reason to in evaluating their beliefs.

Why do I believe? Because when I consider all of my life's experiences, I can make more sense of what I know by believing in God. In making the important decisions of my life, I believe that those decisons made in light of that belief have been good decisions. But comfort has little to do with it. As you move from simple theistic belief to true religion, you move from simple intellectual assent, to a relationship that involves trust, accountability, and cost. I am a Christian, and a Roman Catholic, both by choice. I would be much more comfortable (in some ways) as the agnostic I once was, than having to face up to the responsibilities that result from confronting what I see as the truth.