Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Seeing, contrary to popular wisdom, isn't believing. It's where belief stops, because it isn't needed any more.  --Terry Pratchett, Pyramids 

I've once again found myself in a place where I am confronted by atheists, some of whom I admire, who intelligently defend their belief.  Gene Weingarten, in particular, is most eloquent and even respectful towards people of faith, and his logic is difficult to assail.  The foundation of his belief is that history has inexorably moved towards science and away from magic-- that there has never been an instance of something that science once believed that was later proved to have a mystical cause.

This is true.

However, I think he is mistaken on the purpose of faith, of the draw of religion.  He states that faith is a way for people to cope with the terror of existence; that by inventing an afterlife, they can construct a scaffolding of denial about the ultimate futility of our existence.

I am no philosopher and even less of a theologian.  I have never been a proselytizer because I don't have a dramatic, Road to Damascus story to share.  All I have is my own experience, limited though it may be.

First let me say that I don't think life can be planned.  You can certainly make plans, but by the time you've reached, say, 30, you should be acquainted with the fact that life is what happens to you while you're making other plans.  By the time you're 46, you should have started to make peace with that fact.

Second, a word to the ardent atheists out there:  Take your cue from Gene and maintain some respect for people who do not share your beliefs.  Stating that people of faith value magic over science and referring to us as worshiping sky fairies demeans you far more than it does us.  Setting up straw men and knocking them down is a cheap rhetorical device-- it doesn't sting us because, as Gene has pointed out many times, it's hard to take offense at something that is simply not true.  It just makes you look petulant and adolescent.

Science and faith are not incompatible.  I understand science and am fascinated by it.  I revel in the newest discoveries in physics, medicine, astronomy, biochemistry... you name it.  I have a degree in anthropology and if forensic science had been a career option when I was in college, I likely would have pursued that as a career.

But of course I understand that science has limits.  Science will always have limits.  Any good scientist will tell you that.  There are things in this world that science can't explain, try though it might.  I'm not talking about the mechanism of creation or the evolutionary process-- science has actually done a pretty good job with those, and will continue to reveal more information I'm sure.  But what about art?  Music?  Human interaction?  Why are Van Gogh's paintings so captivating?  Why is Mozart's music so beautiful?  Why do some people prefer Lady Gaga?  Why do I love BikerDude and not any of the other many, wonderful, eligible men that I've met in my life?  

There aren't scientific answers for these questions.

Atheists might think that these observations are irrelevant, but they aren't.  What makes a painting beautiful is just as valid a question as how did the universe begin.  Once you define the important questions as the ones that your belief system can answer, you are no better than the most faith-drenched, devout priest you can imagine and despise.  Framing the question is so important to winning the debate.

I don't have answers.  I can't prove that God exists.  I can say that I have experienced him and his presence-- or her and her presence (gender isn't really an issue with God).  Just because some people use religion to abuse others, justify evil deeds and ostracize those who don't believe as they do does not disprove religion or faith.  Science has also been abused the same ways over the years-- do I really need to remind anyone of phrenology, eugenics and the Tuskegee experiments?  Bad people do bad things with the tools they have-- it doesn't mean that there is anything essentially wrong with the tools.

Atheists ask why hasn't God ever revealed himself in a way that eliminates all doubt?  I don't know, but I suspect it has something to do with faith.  I refer you to the quote at the beginning of this post-- once something has been proven definitively there is no need for faith.

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