This post is a follow-up to my previous series on Cosmology, Religion, and Reason. Part one is here. Part two is here. Part three is here.Part four is here. Part five is here. Part six is here. Part seven is here.
Current scientific models give us tremendous insight into how the universe began, how it works, and into the origins of humankind. These models, however, also have significant gaps and cannot explain the root cause of many scientific observations. Why did the Big Bang happen? How and why do the fundamental forces work? How and why do the elementary particles exist? How did consciousness evolve? What is consciousness? We at best have only incomplete answers to these questions.
These gaps and unanswered questions leave room for belief in things that exist beyond the material world. Moreover, the inherent limitations of our senses, our scientific instruments, and our brains leaves open the possibility that there are realities that exist outside the material world with which we are familiar and that we are incapable of perceiving or understanding. But within the realm of our perception and experience, materialism and the scientific method are clearly the superior way of understanding the world. Where claims derived from religious belief and from materialism have clashed, the evidence has almost always overwhelmingly resolved the contradiction against the religious claim. In spite of all of the questions still unanswered by science, the scientific method has time and again conclusively refuted and contradicted many previous cosmological “truths” espoused by the world’s religions. Furthermore, our perceptions, actions, and thoughts all seem to take place in a material world, and no one has provided any credible, conclusive evidence to contradict this.1
Many of the unanswered questions of science are “known unknowns”—they are things that we know we do not know. These known unknowns leave room open for the possibility of belief. But it would be wise to have the epistemological humility to also recognize the possibility of “unknown unknowns”—things that we do not even know that we do not know. Both the strident new atheists and fundamentalist religious believers lack this necessary humility that recognizes the limitations of human knowledge and the possibility of unknown unknowns. The new atheists are more concerned with combating religion and trying to prove their own views right than with finding truth. They lack the wisdom or humility to take into account the known unknowns of science and the possibility of unknown unknowns. They seem incapable of recognizing the possibility that they may be wrong.
On the other side, the certainty espoused by the fervent, dogmatic believers in the major traditional religions does not stand up to a careful examination of their religious claims—from the contradictions in their holy books to the fallibility of the religious feelings that often form the foundation of their belief—their belief is built on a very shaky foundation. If there is a god, he does not seem to communicate in very clear terms. All of the world’s major religions have glaring internal inconsistencies and deviate from our modern superior understandings of how the world works. Believers in different, mutually contradictory belief systems claim the same sorts of spiritual feelings as confirmation of the truth of their beliefs.
So what does this mean? The first possibility is that I am wrong and that there is at least one religion that avoids these problems with consistency, accuracy, and clarity. This would mean that there is a god who communicates clearly with humankind and there exists somewhere a religion or teacher who consistently and accurately understands what god is saying. I think this possibility is unlikely. At least, I have not yet found a religion or religious teacher who shows this to be a possibility. At the other end of the spectrum, the second possibility is that there is no god.
The third possibility is that there is a god, but that we can infer from the lack of any religion that avoids the problems of consistency, accuracy, and clarity that no religious belief system correctly represents the perfect truths of god or describes existence as it really is. This could be because we human beings are not very good at understanding communications from god (and indeed Paul acknowledges this in 1 Corinthians 13:12 (KJV): “For now we see through a glass, darkly”) or because god wants us to figure things our for ourselves and is not going to give us the truth.
Whichever of the three possibilities is right (of course there may be other possibilities I have not yet conceived of; I am always looking for better answers, this is the best I have so far come up with), the rational response is the same: seek wisdom, do good, and labor with hope to make the world better. What does it mean to seek wisdom, do good, and labor with hope? The next three sections of the book go into far more depth on each of these three, but in a nutshell, seeking wisdom means seeking the best, most accurate knowledge and information we have, relying on the scientific method to discover new things, having the epistemic humility to acknowledge the limitations of human knowledge, and having serenity and the depth of emotional maturity to live rightly.
Seeking wisdom means searching for the truth—not just to learn it, but also to figure out how to learn it. It means having the humility to acknowledge human limitations and to accept truth wherever you find it. If there is a true religion or teacher out there that has the truth, then you should seek to find it, and part of seeking wisdom is finding the good aspects from all religions and philosophies. If the reality is that no religion is right and that we humans are not very good at understanding god, you should do what you can to improve your ability to understand him. It is easier to understand those who are similar to you. Seeking wisdom, doing good, and laboring with hope to improve the world will make you more closely approximate the monotheistic god’s omniscience and omnibenevolence, and thus allow you to understand him better. If religions’ problems with consistency, accuracy, and clarity are because god wants us to discover the truth for ourselves or because there is no god, then wisdom is essential to understanding reality and how to live a good life.
Doing good means living morally (I have already talked about it earlier, and discuss it more later on). Laboring with hope is an extension of doing good and means actively working to make the world into a better place for the coming generations. All of the major religions teach that we should behave rightly. If there is a god, we should seek to do his will. If we cannot understand him, or if he wants us to figure things out for ourselves, then having rational, universally applicable moral rules allows us to live how he would like us to live. If there is no god, the premises and reasons for the moral rules we discussed before are still just as valid, and they require that we seek wisdom, do good, and labor with ope. Seeking wisdom, doing good, and laboring with hope to make the world better are the best approaches to finding truth, internalizing it, living morally, and leaving a better world behind after we are gone.
I have discussed three possibilities relative to god’s existence and his relationship to humankind, but I have wrestled for a long time to come to my own conclusion on the issue. I go with with third possibility: there is a god, but we are either not able to understand him very well or he is intentionally withholding communication from us because he wants us to figure things out for ourselves. In arriving at my belief in god, I have two key questions: 1) Does god exist? and 2) Does any religion’s teachings about god accurately describe god? My answer to the first question is yes, god exists. My answer to the second question is no, there is no religion that accurately describes him.
As an empirical question, it is impossible to prove or disprove the existence of god as he is described by the monotheistic faiths (how do you prove or disprove the existence of an invisible, all-powerful, all-knowing being who is present everywhere at once? No one has yet figured out a way to falsify these claims). Further compounding the problem is that every religion’s conception of god, as well as the agnostics’ and atheists’, make many contrasting, unproved, and unprovable assumptions about the nature and the very concept of god. How can we prove the existence of god if our very concept of god is suspect? We cannot meaningfully discuss the question of god’s existence if we do not even have a coherent definition of what god is. Since many different faiths and teachers have put forward contradictory and mutually exclusive purported revelations about god, and because personal feelings are not a trustworthy guide to discerning their truth, the only basis we have for evaluating the truth of any revelation is on the authority of the person making the claim and we therefore have no independent means of determining which claims about god are correct.
Because of these problems, I do not claim to have a good definition of god or to understand who he is. But my theism is still rooted in rationality. Much like William James, my theism is rooted entirely in pragmatic concerns. Just as there is a relationship between well-being and religiosity, there is also a relationship between belief in god and well-being. People who perceive having a close connection to god have lower rates of depression and loneliness and greater rates of self-esteem, self-rated health, and psychological adjustment in response to major life stressors.2 Attachment theorists hypothesize that believers on god can look to him “as a safe haven, a being who offers caring and protection in times of stress” and that this attachment leads believers to “experience greater comfort in stressful situations and greater strength and confidence in everyday life.”3 Indeed, people who “report a closer connection to god experience a number of health-related benefits: less depression and higher self-esteem, less loneliness, greater relational maturity, and greater psychosocial competence.”4 A secure relationship with god is tied to “better self-rated health and better psychological adjustment among people facing a variety of major life stressors.”5 These effects are greater than the effects associated with measures of religiosity or spirituality, and they have not been explained by nonreligious factors.6
People who believed in god who were being treated for depression had greater reductions in depression and self-harm and great improvements in psychological well-being than disbelievers.7 In a 2013 study of ninety-two countries, there was a positive relationship between a person’s happiness (and life satisfaction) and the self-reported level of importance of god in that person’s life, relative to the average level of faith in that person’s country (but the authors found that some of this relationship was explained by a culture’s level of preference for uncertainty avoidance).8 Among stroke victims, spiritual belief was positively correlated with better mental health (but not with better physical health).9
A meta-analysis of studies that examined the relationship between religious involvement and mortality found that greater religious involvement is associated with greater odds of survival.10 People who perceive having a close connection to god have lower rates of depression and loneliness and greater rates of self-esteem, self-rated health, and psychological adjustment in response to major life stressors.11
Based on what we can measure about belief in god, deciding on theism makes the most sense. Observable results show that theists are happier, healthier, and more moral. If the question of god’s existence is fundamentally unprovable, but belief in him brings such positive results, then the rational response (if your goal is to maximize your well-being and moral behavior) is to believe in god. Thus, I choose to believe. But when a religious teaching or claim is internally contradictory, irrational, immoral, or otherwise similarly absurd, then I choose to reject that teaching or claim, or even that teacher, rather than reject belief in god.
My belief in god is a kind of deism. I believe in a god who does not usually actively intervene in the world, he is a being who has set the universe in motion but does not interfere with its natural laws. I believe that he has given (or allowed us to develop) the ability to love and to observe, learn, and reason and to use these things to figure things out for ourselves. Is god personal? impersonal? a physical being? infinite and incomprehensible, existing outside of time and space? Is god the sum total of all that exists in the universe, thus making each of us a part of god? I do not know. I believe in a higher power with whom I can commune and communicate, but who puts me in total control of my actions, who does not act to change the course of my life. I pray to god to express my gratitude and my goals and desires, but I do not pray for miracles. I believe that the outcomes of my life are the result of my actions, natural laws, random chance, and the choices of others, and I believe that bad things happen for the same reasons.
And most importantly, I do not think any less, or any more highly of someone whether that person believes in god or not. The universal inconsistency, inaccuracy, and ambiguity of human institutions and teachers in religion and spiritual matters shows to me that if there is a god, he is not much concerned with whether we believe in him or not or correctly understand him. The most consistent thing we see across the teachings of religions is that we love others and follow the Golden Rule, and from this I believe that this is what god is most concerned with. I am universalist—I believe that most religions have some truth to them, but that none of them have all truth. I believe that god does not care which church you belong to, if you belong to one, or even if you believe in him. I think he cares about whether you are using your capacity for thought and reason to seek wisdom and your capacity to act to do good and work to make the world better. Whether or not you believe in god and whether or not you go to church, so long as you are doing those three things, then I think that god approves of you. On the other hand, based on the benefits of religion and theism, I think it would be rational to try out religion and theism to see what they can do for you, and to see if they help you on your path to wisdom, goodness, and hope.
I admit, my simple belief in god and religion leaves open many questions about life, existence, and the supernatural. Those questions are important, and I do think about them a lot. I have found no good answers, though, nor have I found anyone else who has good answers. The lack of those certain answers, though, is not a reason to reject the good that comes from theism and religion. I think the Buddha’s parable in the Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta is highly relevant:
It is just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends and companions, kinsmen and relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, “I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.” He would say, “I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name and clan name of the man who wounded me . . . until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short. . . until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored. . . until I know his home village, town, or city. . . until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow. . . until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark. . . until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated. . . until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird. . . until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.” He would say, “I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.” The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.12
Our time on this earth is limited. I do not think it makes much sense to reject religion and theism—even if we do not understand what they mean or how they work—if they can help us to act more morally and be healthier and happier. Do not worry so much about first getting the answers to all of life’s questions, there are more important things to focus on first. Instead, worry about removing the arrows of hate, selfishness, hypocrisy, ignorance, foolishness, evil, and despair from your life. The evidence shows that religion and theism can help you do that. And that is good enough.