Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Universe without God

       Is that possible—a universe without God?  I suppose so, for there are many who do not believe in God, and who no longer try to explain the disjunction between our alien universe and a caring God.  That is to say, such people have given up the idea of a compassionate God controlling the universe, specifically because the universe is so evidentially hostile to those God is supposed to care about.
       On the other hand, some continue to believe in God, but have given up the idea that God manages the universe, or is even active in the universe for the same reason: the universe is so inhospitable that we are forced to live by our wits, luck, and experimentation without any obvious help from God.  Not even prayer helps such people because the only voice they hear in their heads when they pray is the echo of their own thoughts.
       They continue to believe in God, however, for the simple reason that they cannot explain why there is a world abounding with abundant life, instead of nothing at all.  Their inability to answer that purely technical question is why they believe in God—in some unknown X that gave us the universe and all we see about us, both good and evil.  God technically survives as an unknown X but not as an experienced reality in the physical world, and for that reason also not as a spiritual reality, since they recognize that belief in a spiritual reality may only be a figment of their own imaginations, or the result of undue influence by very persuasive people.
       They no longer know anything about God's character.  They recognize that what they know was only what they had been told, and what they were told contradicts what they experience in the world.  For example, if God is active in the universe how can we explain evil going unchecked?  If God controls the world how can we explain the incompetent management of the divine Weather Desk.  Indiscriminately killing hundreds and thousands through earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc. is simply not competent or compassionate management of the weather.   Other examples of Godly incompetence or malfeasance in the exercise of the divine prerogatives can be cited, but they all inevitably lead to the same conclusion: that God, as generally conceived in Christian faith (i.e., compassionate and caring), must be absent from the world.
       The fact that people can live without relying on God's involvement in the universe raises the question: what is left to Christians who are forced by conscience to surrender the idea that the physical world of matter can be spiritually manipulated through faith in the Christian God and prayer?  The issue can be positively asked in this way: what does Christianity have left to offer the Christian, if God is absent from the universe?  Here, very briefly, is what may be left.
A caring community where joys are jointly celebrated and sorrows commiserated.
A sharing community where members share the same traditions, know the same hymns, speak in the same idiom, and share similar values, the bedrock of which is the welfare and worth of the individual.
A common goal, which is to be "the light of the world" and "the salt of the earth" (Matthew 5:13-14; Gospel of the Savior, 1:4 [Miller, Complete Gospels, 401-10]); that is to say: to transform society by the values of Jesus of Nazareth.
       But spiritual magic, i.e., manipulating the physical world by spiritual means, is no longer an option in the face of modern Science's success in explaining much of what previously belonged to the domain of religion.  Christians must face the vicissitudes of life alone, with only the palliative comfort and encouragement of the community.
       Will that be enough do you suppose, or will Christianity, an ancient blending of religions of East and West, meet the same fate as the Greco-Roman religions?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Are Religion and Science Incompatible?

          Certainly not!  Well, maybe.  Perhaps!  Probably!  In the final analysis it will depend on who you ask, and what Science and Religion are about (I capitalize the words to indicate their status in modern Western culture as iconic institutions).  Science comes from the Latin meaning knowledge (knowing) and Religion also comes from the Latin meaning piety (fear of the gods).  If I were to ask my question in terms of modern Western culture it might be something like this: is Athens (ultimately the original source of the scientific spirit in the West) incompatible with Jerusalem (ultimately the original source of religious piety in the Christian West)?

          Here are two helpful descriptions of Science and Religion I found on the internet.  They are necessarily broad.

Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.

On the other hand, Religion is a set of variously organized beliefs about the relationship between the natural and supernatural aspects of reality and the role of humans in this relationship.

Two other more narrowly framed descriptions from my own experience are these: Science raises questions about everything and answers them by experimentation; Religion provides answers to everything and discourages questions.  I realize that narrow definitions are easily challengeable, but from my experience these latter two catch up the spirit of what Religion and Science seem to be about. Here are several contrasting statements about Religion and Science.

1a On the basis of observable phenomena (viz. the universe is expanding) Science attributes the origin of all things to the "Big Bang," but does not speculate about what preceded it.

1b Religion attributes the source of everything to God before the Big Bang.

2a Religion must affirm a nonphysical spiritual world, because God is intangible Spirit and hence does not "exist" in time and space.

2b Science only investigates aspects of the physical universe.

3a Religion is prone to superstition and spiritual magic.

3b Science undermines any Religion prone to superstition (from the Latin: unreasonable religious belief) and spiritual magic (viz. any manipulation of the physical by spiritual means).

4a Religion demands faith.

4b Science demands experimentation and repeatability.

5a Science proceeds on the basis of natural cause and effect.

5b Religion posits God as the ultimate cause of whatever happens in the universe.

An example of a clash between Science and Religion was occasioned by Charles Darwin's book, The Origin of the Species (1859).  Darwin offered scientific evidence that plant and animal life evolve from lower life forms over time by means of natural selection.  The default explanation for the origin of the species in the Christian West is that God created all things; in short human beings did not evolve from lower life forms.  Darwin offered physical evidence; Christianity cited the Bible in response.  What counts in Science are evidence and a logical argument.  What counts in Religion in the Christian West is obedience to God, in deference to the Bible and church dogma.  Christianity will eventually lose this debate, as it did the debate about the nature of the solar system (click here to read my blog, "Down the Rabbit Hole," April 26, 2014).

          Christianity's belief in a spiritual world will not be engaged by Science, since Science only investigates aspects of the physical world.  Christianity therefore wins this non-debate by default. Christianity's affirmation of the nature of spiritual reality is directly challenged, however, by the spiritual realities of other non-Christian religions. No scientific tests are available by which to prove which description of spiritual reality, if any, is an accurate description of the way things are in the spiritual universe. In the absence of objective evidence available to a neutral third party settling whose view of the spiritual universe is accurate turns out to be "my opinion beats yours." Spiritual realities do not "exist" in the physical world, for by definition they are spirit.  Spiritual realities are mental constructs in the minds of those who hold such beliefs and in sympathetic accounts in religious literature, which originally began as mental constructs in the mind of the author.  In that sense spiritual universes do exist in time and space.

          Are Science and Religion incompatible?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University