Night Owl Mk. II

Return to "Religion" essay

Back to Philosophy page

Please feel free to E-mail me with your own comments on this issue or on anything else included in my Philosophy of Life section. Debate is good!

Please report any problems with this page to the Webmaster!


Boldfaced statements are parts of the original essay (or a subsequent reply) to which the respondent has directed his comments.

Italicized/emphasized comments
prefaced by (R) are those of the respondent and are presented unedited.

My replies appear under the respondent's comments in blue text and are prefaced by my initials (MB).

This is the first of a two-part reply. Select the "Go to next reply" link at the end of this part to read the last part of the reply.

(R) Threw in a quote by Martin Rees because I thought you'd be interested. I'll probably use it later.
(MB) For those who may not know, Sir Martin Rees is Britain's Astronomer Royal and a leading proponent of the multiple-universe, or "multiverse", theory. On to the quote (with my own comments included)...

"If being a scientist teaches me anything, it is that even a single atom is tough to understand. That makes me skeptical of anyone who claims more than an incomplete and metaphorical understanding of any deep aspect of reality..."
(MB) One wonders what Sir Martin means by "any deep aspect of reality". Is this the "Why" of the universe, i.e., the underlying reason (if there is one) for the universe's existence? Sir Martin's skeptical attitude would be justifiable if there actually is any deeper reason for the existence of the universe. If there is none, then there are no deep aspects of reality and no basis for his skepticism.

"...But that doesn't stop me being "religious" in a general sense-I'm very lucky to be a member of King's College, Cambridge, with its world-famous chapel and music, and it would be foolish not to share such experiences. But many scientists react differently. Indeed, this is one respect in which Stephen Hawking and I differ. Although he clams to be an atheist, he talks about "the mind of God," and suchlike in his book. I feel that most scientists become embarrassingly naive and dogmatic when they pronounce on such issues. I've been more diffident in my own book, though I hope I've conveyed something of the universe's wonder and mystery. Martin Rees"
(MB) I think that Sir Martin misses the point of Hawking's use of the phrase "the mind of God". Hawking is not expressing any belief in such a deity, he is using the phrase in the same way that people speak of "Mother Nature". They are metaphoric and concise references to the sum totals of the combined effects and interactions of the laws of physics and nature.
    As an aside, in that same interview from which you quoted, Sir Martin had other things to say about science and religion. Immediately prior to the paragraph you quoted, he says:

"I think the concept of the Multiverse erodes any basis there might have been for the old theological "argument from design" the divine watchmaker argument. However that line of thought isn't taken so seriously now, even by theologians. While science raises problems for certain literal beliefs, I don't think it has any further relevance to one's religious attitudes."
(MB) Here, Sir Martin seems to say that, if a Creator exists, that such an entity isn't omnipotent nor did that deity design and create the Universe with the specific purpose of bringing forth Man.

Belief in God as a personal preference or as a lifestyle choice is neutral. Using that belief as a basis upon which to make other claims about the nature of the universe or about how somebody else should live their life is a different issue. When a person acts upon his personal beliefs in order to affect or influence another person, that's when it is proper to ask for that belief to be supported.
(R) I basically agree with you on this. But let me point out, your essay is a statement of your personal beliefs, which affects and influences those who read it.
(MB) As are all of the things you say in favor of your own beliefs, isn't that right? I offer support for my belief, i.e., that nothing supernatural is required to explain anything in the universe. Is there any support for your belief that God exists and that he created the universe?

Saying "I believe in God" or "Jesus is my Savior" is fine since that's just a harmless statement that implies no other significant beliefs. Saying "I believe in God and you should too", "You must accept Jesus as your Savior", "Anything other than God is the wrong answer", or "My belief in God is just as good as any other belief" is something different. Those statements will require some support before they can be accepted.
(R) Once again, I basically agree. If I say, "I believe in God and am a Christian," that's fine. If I insist others do the same, it's not. I haven't done that anywhere in this discussion.
(MB) You don't directly insist that others believe as you do. However, when you make statements expressing concern for the dire consequences that might befall those who do not believe in your God, you are attempting to apply emotional pressure to others to accept your beliefs. That makes it reasonable to ask for some support of the idea that there are actually any such dire consequences to fear.

(R) However, my basic point remains: there is no proof, no conclusive evidence, whatsoever, on whether or not God exists, and it is just as reasonable and logical to conclude that He does, as it is to conclude He does not.
(MB) Again, that is not correct. This is because there are always demonstrable consequences and effects that will be present if God actually exists. If he doesn't exist, there are none. Until any can be demonstrated, the two positions are not equal and disbelief is the more reasonable and logical of the two.

In this particular instance it happened to be in an office. But, such parties are also often held in civilian restaurants and similar prayers are offered/demanded in that setting as well. My quibble was with the prayer itself and not with the location.
(R) The location isn't what's important, but rather, whether or not the function is associated with the U.S. Government. If it is, prayers which promote a specific religion or denomination are entirely inappropriate. However, at a private function, prayers or other rituals are up to the organizers. This is the key to the definition of "public prayer." If a prayer takes place in a public school, or a college which receives public funding, or an office associated with the government, it is a public prayer, and anyone who doesn't care for it has a definite right to complain and take appropriate action.
(MB) That's not quite correct. The institution itself would have to promote the ceremony and/or deny or discourage any other religious view. The institution would also have to know that a religious ceremony was an integral part of the the event. In the case I made reference to, none of this was the case. It was one particular individual who demanded an interruption in the proceedings for his prayer to be offered. That makes it a "public" prayer. Why couldn't he have prayed in private prior to filling his plate? Instead, he forced his beliefs upon everyone in attendance.

The difference between these prayers and racist/sexist remarks is in their intents. The person offering the prayer is not intentionally intending to harm, insult, belittle, or make fun of anybody.
(R) Absolutely. Which is why the vast majority of people don't mind generic prayers.
(MB) The "vast majority" don't mind prayers because they tend to share similar beliefs. However, simply being in the majority doesn't make one's beliefs or actions acceptable or "right". That is the rationale behind most anti-discrimination laws. Also, there doesn't need to be any "intent to harm" involved. If I put a Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar on my office wall, I'm certainly not intending to disrespect women, but I would still be subject to sexual harassment claims by any female who didn't like it.

Even racist/sexist remarks do not offend most people.
(R) I have to take exception to this. Most people I know are deeply offended by such statements.
(MB) "Deeply offended"? I doubt it. Actually, it seems to depend more upon who else might be around. In small and private groups, people tend to say what's really on their minds. These same people most often toe the line of political correctness in larger groups.

But, the fact that the clear potential for harm exists makes such remarks unacceptable. While most people might believe in a deity in some form, the fact remains that there are those who either do not believe in one or who believe in one in a way that is incompatible with what might be the majority belief. Since religious beliefs are at least as strongly held as any other, this presents a real potential for conflict or offense.
(R) If the prayer is generic, I can't imagine why anyone would be offended, even those with no belief in God.
(MB) When's the last time you heard a truly generic prayer offered? While it's certainly possible to do this, almost all prayers specifically refer to the deity whose favor is being sought. If it is truly generic, it's difficult to see how it could even be called a "prayer".

Put yourself in the situation of finding yourself as the only Christian at a party where the others are all members of, for example, a Satanic cult and they start offering prayers prior to the food being served. Wouldn't you rather that they had observed a moment of silence instead?
(R) If they began their prayer by saying, "Father," or some other neutral salutation, and ended it by saying, "In Your name we pray," I wouldn't even know to whom they were praying. Depending, of course, on what they were asking for.
(MB) Nice evasion of the question. I'll assume that you agree that I have a valid point.
    BTW, "Father" is hardly neutral -- especially when combined with "in your name". That is making reference to a specific deity. Also, consider that many belief systems direct prayers to female deities or to deities who are not "male" or "female" in the human sense of the terms.

Why is it necessary to acknowledge such an obvious thing at all -- much less with a remark invoking the blessing of a particular deity?
(R) Common courtesy???
(MB) Perhaps, although it strains the imagination to think that somebody might feel bad if their sneeze wasn't acknowledged or "blessed" by somebody who might have been within earshot of it.

Actually, there is an answer to that question. Prior to the advent of modern medical knowledge, sick people were thought to have had their bodies invaded by demons. Since sneezing is often a sign of a cold or some other ailment, saying "God bless you" was a superstition that invoked God to drive out the demons and cure the sickness. Even though we know better today, the old superstition remains alive and well and is little more than another imposition of a particular religious belief into everyday life.
(R) Perhaps there are other, more important issues to argue about than the left-over, medieval superstition you relate. No one seriously believes people are sneezing out demons. They're just showing concern for and courtesy to the sneezer.
(MB) OK, what "important issues" might these be and why are they important? Is there some reason why a sneeze requires some specific (and often religion-based) response instead of just being treated the same as any other non-event? Must we retain old superstitions?

BTW, "Gesundheit" literally means "sound health". It is a non-religious way of expressing a wish for someone to get over what ails him. If I feel the need for a remark after hearing a particularly robust sneeze, I usually say "Damn, I hope you didn't get any of that on your shirt!".
(R) I generally reserve remarks like that for someone who belches loudly.
(MB) To which I normally reply, "Only amateurs get it on their shirt!"...

For every winner, there's a loser and the proportionate effect of each balances out.
(R) My point is, who wins and who loses has a major impact on subsequent events, which may in turn have immense significance, far greater than that of the actual sporting event itself. What doesn't make sense about that?
(MB) Do you have any examples of this? I can't think of any event in sports where the outcome will have anything approaching worldwide significance. Even though I write this on Super Bowl Sunday, I'm under no illusions that the outcome will have any real meaning outside of the self-referential world of the American version of pro football.

If everything which happens has a purpose, then all outcomes and their subsequent effects must be predetermined -- which means that God must have some reason for preferring one side over the other.
(R) You touch here on the concepts of free will and pre-destiny, subjects argued by philosophers for centuries. Questions on these issues are fundamental when discussing the existence of God -- I'm surprised you didn't bring them up earlier.
(MB) All things at the proper time, my son...*grin* Remember what I've been saying all along in that a belief in God infers certain consequences? The questions of free will and predestination are two of them.

(R) To put things in perspective, one can easily argue that when the Big Bang occurred, everything which has happened since, indeed everything which will ever happen, was fixed in that single instant. This is the idea behind Asimov's Darwinian pool table.
(MB) The gist of current theory is that the physical laws which govern our universe were established at (or shortly after -- during the first 1x10e-43 second) the moment it came to be. However, since one of those laws is Heisenberg Uncertainty, it is not possible to predict the future of the universe even if one knows its exact state at any point in time.

(R) I'll give you my ideas on these matters, which certainly may be far off the mark:
    If God is all-present, all-powerful, and all-knowing, then He has perfect knowledge of the past, present, and future. Billions of years ago, when the universe began, He knew that I would exist and would make certain choices in my life, some good and some bad. He knew exactly which decisions I would make, in every case. But this doesn't change the fact the choices are mine. I make them, not Him, and I'm responsible for them and for whatever results from them.
(MB) That argument is internally inconsistent. If such a God exists, then anything that exists and anything that happens would be because he has pre-ordained it. Thus, you could never make any real choices. You would simply always react in a predestined way in all circumstances. That means you could not act "good" or "bad" on your own accord. In fact, it means that God created both "good" and "bad" and that he intends his creations to go one way or the other. If so, how could he hold you responsible for acting as you do? After all, you are only doing what he told you to do - much as how a computer responds to the programs written for it. If a computer is executing a program and it crashes, is the computer at fault or does the blame reside with the programmer?

(R) We humans have no knowledge of the future. Even if it cannot be changed, it appears changeable from our frame of reference. The choices we make are our own, and determine, or at least appear to determine, our destinies.
(MB) If God exists, there is one and only one future since it must already have been pre-ordained. Nothing we might do could ever change it.

(R) God might be pictured as an engineer who designed a complex machine, in which every part contributes to the function of the machine. With this in mind, everything which happens has a reason for happening, both the good and the bad. Each event furthers the overall purpose of the universe. My bad choices may have a positive effect, overall. They may lead someone else to make good choices, if nothing else.
(MB) In any machine, all of the parts have one and only one specific, designated function. They make no non-deterministic choices. If the parts are correctly made and assembled, the machine acts exactly as the designer intended. If it doesn't "behave", the designer can disassemble it, but he only place the blame upon himself for the failure of the machine.

(R) Does this mean God prefers some people over others? No, all are equal in the eyes of God -- He simply knows how different individuals turn out. It is still their choices which make the determination.
(MB) Why, then, must we "seek salvation"? If God knows how we'll turn out, nothing we might do will make any difference. If all men are supposed to obey the Ten Commandments, why would God design them in such a way that they could disobey them and then profess surprise or displeasure at their inevitable actions and exact his vengeance upon them?

If he loves all men equally, there should be no inherent preferences. This whole issue also begs the question of why athletes of non-Yahvistic beliefs can beat God-fearing athletes in any sporting event.
(R) There are no inherent preferences. The answer to your question is simple: it furthers the purpose of the universe, whatever it may be.
(MB) That is a completely meaningless assertion. If it was true, that means that there is no reason whatsoever to argue about "right" or "wrong", "moral" or "immoral", or, for that matter, anything else. It would mean that there is no reason to worry about whether or not one believes in God, since any conceivable action simply "furthers the purpose of the universe". It would be just as good to say that there is no purpose at all to the universe.

In that case, you are little different from the guy who walks around talking to Harvey all day. Nobody can prove that Harvey doesn't exist, so he also feels that he can afford to be narrow-minded -- because he "knows" that he's right. That may work for him, but most others will roll their eyes and slowly shake their heads.
(R) I am different from such a person in three ways: 1.) I am real. There is no real person who believes in Harvey.
(MB) Are you absolutely sure of that? Not one person?

(R) 2.) Even if there were, Harvey is fictional by definition and anyone who believes in him is making an error of logic.
(MB) We've already discussed that and you haven't yet answered why it is, by your own definitions, that the character of Harvey is "fictional" while the character of God is not. Neither character's existence is supported by anything in reality.

(R) 3.) Other people share my beliefs. No one would share a single individual's belief in something like Harvey, or any other similar delusion.
(MB) Since your beliefs are "personal preference", as you have said many times, it is highly unlikely that anybody else shares them to any great degree. Oh, others may peripherally agree that "God exists", but ask any of them to describe God, and it's highly unlikely that you will get two identical answers.
    As to whether or not people can share delusional beliefs, one only needs to read the daily newspaper to see examples of such shared delusions. Need I mention that, if God doesn't exist, that belief in such a being qualifies as a delusion?

If an argument is based on nothing more than "Well, such-and-such could have happened or might exist and you can't prove otherwise", there's really very little being said.
(R) People make claims about many things and it is often impossible to prove or disprove such claims. The importance of the claim in question determines whether or not little is being said, not the mere fact it can't be proved or disproved.
(MB) How "important" can a claim be if the object of the claim doesn't actually exist in reality? The only way that any claim of anything's existence can be said to have any importance is if there is any evidence to support it. Since you have already and often admitted that there is no such evidence to support a claim of God's existence, how can such a claim be considered to have any importance? The fact that people will make claims for many things only demonstrates that people are willing to believe in any sort of nonsense for any reason of their own choosing.

You can't prove that it wasn't *me* who created the universe, but would you hold such a claim to be equal to any other creation explanation?
(R) You are a man, a physical being who lives on the Earth. This fact clearly demonstrates (proves) you did not create the universe. Any claim you did would be either an untruth or a delusion.
(MB) How do you know that I am a man? How do you know that I am a purely physical being? How do you know that I didn't originate somewhere else and emigrate to Earth? How do you know that my body isn't just the current physical manifestation of my essence? How do you know that I don't possess extraordinary powers that might allow me to transcend time and space?
    Since you can't prove these things to be wrong or non-existent, your own arguments must force you to accept a claim that I created the universe to be just as good as the counter-claim. Or, would you say that the position I have been supporting is more logical? To wit, unless there's some evidence to support the positive claim that I created the universe, then the negative position is the more logical of the two.

There are an infinite number of things that "could" have happened (especially if one invokes supernatural explanations to resolve or evade problems). Science, on the other hand, provides real explanations not of how something "could have" happened, but of how something "did" happen. Science also provides evidence in support of its explanations.
(R) Yes, but science doesn't provide the answers to the fundamental questions of why things happen.
(MB) "Why" is irrelevant if there is no deity involved. In that case, the answer to "why" is simply the anthropic "because it couldn't have been any other way". Must there be any deeper meaning to the universe? Can't it simply "be"?

Created with Allaire HomeSite 4.0 .......... Last Update: 04 Jun 98

Earthlink Network Home Page