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Clay Farris Naff

Clay Farris Naff

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How Science Can Liberate God from Old-Time Religion

Posted: 11/26/10 09:28 PM ET

Let's get one thing straight from the get-go: God is real. The evidence, as I will show in this column, is overwhelming. The rest is all detail.

Those pesky details, however, prove to be important beyond all measure. It's the details that inspire people, give them hope, and incite them to fight to the death. If you ask a believer about who God is and what He wants, the typical response will be to cite scripture -- the Bible, the Quran, the Book of Mormon, or whatever.

That, however, in no way determines the answers. Scriptures are magic mirrors: when people look into them they see whatever they want and turn a blind eye to whatever inconveniences them. Take Leviticus. That testy Old Testament book contains one of the religious right's favorite condemnations of homosexuality. It actually proclaims the death penalty for any man who "lies with a man as he lies with a woman." Of course, the very same book proclaims eating any seafood that lacks fins and scales an abomination. Yet, how often do you see Westboro Baptist picketing Red Lobster?

In the past, the good that religion did as an organizing force in society might have
outweighed the evils it inspired.Take the Torah. Seen in the context of their times, most of the hundreds of rules in the Pentateuch aimed to maintain peace and justice among the Israelites. That, and to keep the priests fat and happy. Sticking with Leviticus:

The LORD said to Moses: If anyone sins and is unfaithful to the LORD ... or if they cheat their neighbor, or if they find lost property and lie about it, or if they swear falsely about any such sin that people may commit ... They must make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the owner on the day they present their guilt offering. And as a penalty they must bring to the priest, that is, to the LORD, their guilt offering, a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value. In this way the priest will make atonement for them before the LORD, and they will be forgiven for any of the things they did that made them guilty.

I have to admit that those "sacrifices unto the LORD" always make me chuckle. They just happen to suit the priests so much better than the Almighty. I can just hear ancient Homer Cohen: "Mmmmm. Unblemished ram!"

In fairness, though, we should keep this in perspective. Compared with modern legal fees, one high-quality ruminant might not seem too high a price to pay for settling a feud.

These days our incessant battles over God have spilled outside the law of priests and scriptures and onto the global stage. They threaten all of civilization. The danger arises not only from the madness of Islamist "holy warriors," but from the mad fatalism that religion inspires in the face of imminent, self-inflicted catastrophe from overpopulation, resource depletion and human-induced climate change. Here's former Congressman and Majority Leader Dick Armey in testimony before a Senate hearing:

Let me say, I take it as an article of faith if the lord God almighty made the heavens and the Earth, and he made them to his satisfaction and it is quite pretentious of we little weaklings here on earth to think that we are going to destroy God's creation.

This kind of "thinking" apparently resonates with many voters. It's easy to shrug off responsibility when you figure God is in the driver's seat. Hey, sit back, relax and enjoy the scenery!

But what if God's grant of free will to humanity includes full responsibility for what happens next? What if the evidence suggests that God isn't even aboard the bus?

Maybe it's high time we make use of the most reliable knowledge-producing tool ever devised to give us a shared, evidence-based understanding of what is expected of us. Maybe it's time we apply science to God.

OK, you say, but of what use is science in understanding God? Well, it's true that science cannot produce any evidence for a deity out there in cosmos or beyond, but it can tell us a great deal about what God is not, down here where we actually live out our lives. Indeed, science can do more than provide negative knowledge about God. It can elevate faith above doctrine. And that may prove to be a lifesaving move in the decades to come.

But hold on a sec. As a highly intelligent Huffington Post reader, you will no doubt have spotted a paradox. If science cannot give positive evidence for the existence of God, and I claim to rely on science for knowledge, then how could I open this essay by affirming the existence of God?

That's easy. God manifestly exists as an idea in the minds of believers. God may or may not be more than that, but no one can deny the existence and power of God the Idea. The evidence is overwhelming. And frightening. God the Idea is evidently capable of inspiring anything, from the ennobling nonviolence of Martin Luther King Jr. to the murderous, hateful and sadistic terrorism of al Qaeda.

The rest, science shows, is left up to Nature. There is no room here to catalog all of the evidence against supernatural intervention in the world. I could show that doing nothing is as effective as prayer at at ending droughts. I could show you that lightning strikes golfers more often than convicted criminals, but knowing that bankers like to golf, you might draw an unintended conclusion.

So, instead, let us take infant mortality as a proxy. After all, there is general agreement that God loves babies, and various religions claim that God favors people who adhere to their particular brand of faith.

If true, we could hypothesize that infant mortality should inversely correlate with religiosity. We might even be able to figure out which religion is right. So, what does the data tell us?

Uh oh. The country with the highest death rate among babies is Angola, whose populace, the Encyclopedia Brittanica tells us, "is overwhelmingly Christian." Coming in a close second is Afghanistan, whose population is virtually all Muslim.

The top 10 countries with the lowest infant mortality rates include some of the least religious. To the extent that they are religious, they encompass all the world's major religions. According to The World Factbook from the CIA, the countries with the lowest infant mortality rates are: Spain, France, Iceland, Macau, Hong Kong, Japan, Sweden, Bermuda, Singapore and in the no. 1 position that international den of gambling and tax evasion, Monaco.

The United States, by the way, currently ranks 47th, worst of all the major industrialized nations, and two spots behind officially atheist Cuba.

What all of this tells is not that atheism is right, but that if there is a God, he doesn't save the lives of babies in any preferential way. In fact, there is no systematic evidence that he saves babies, adults, beloved pets or stamps. God is in the world, but all the evidence suggests that He's present only in the minds and deeds of believers. Anything more than that is a matter of faith. As well it should be.

Faith, however, cannot be an excuse to shrug off all responsibility for the world, or to anoint oneself with a mission from God to do harm to others. If a peaceful global civilization is to emerge from the present turmoil, believers of all faiths will have to render unto science the things that are science's -- namely, an understanding of how the natural world works and what we have to do to maintain our precarious place in it.

In reconceptualizing faith, you can liberate God from the ancient traps of theology. I'm sure He'd appreciate it if people would quit believing he did some of the terrible things that are attributed to him in ancient scriptures. Not to mention all those silly rules about cloven hoofs, sexual orientation and shellfish. So, treat yourself to a lobster. Then, remake your religion and save the world.

 
 
 

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