God is a busy guy. I know He's omnipotent and all that, but still, it's gotta be exhausting to have a to-do list like His. On any given day, you can Google God under the news tab and find all sorts of claims about what the Almighty is up to.
Athletes keep God especially busy. He has to make touchdowns for them, score buzzer-beaters, and win all of the mercurial Serena Williams' matches for her. Sometimes, as we just learned from Mark McGwire, God's work gets really tricky. According to McGwire, all through the '90s God had to neutralize the effects of the steroids McGwire took and then substitute His own magic touch to make the dingers fly.
Meanwhile, this week in London, the Rev. Canon David Parrot kept the Good Lord on the line awhile to bless parishioners' iPhones, laptops, and websites. Even the Lord Mayor of London reportedly held his BlackBerry aloft to receive a blessing.
These represent the playful side of 'the man upstairs,' as McGwire likes to call Him. There is a dark side to God's work. In his Allah robes, He's also been busy directing the faithful in Malaysia to burn churches. In Egypt, He's deeply involved in deadly clashes between Muslims and Copts -- according to both sides. And let's not forget how much time He devotes to managing Sarah Palin's career. Now that Sarah's on Fox, God knows what she'll do in 2012!
What's going on here? Science often produces counter-intuitive results, but Nicholas Epley, professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago, turned out confirmation of the glaringly obvious when he published a research paper showing that people project their beliefs on God. If Sarah Palin thinks she should be Prez, then by golly so does God!
Evolutionary biologist and anthropologist David Sloan Wilson, one of the most insightful people I know on the subject of religion, characterizes this kind of thinking as part of an "adaptive belief system." Even if you're not a believer, it's easy to grasp how this works: if you truly believe that God is on your side, you feel confidence in your every decision, and even as you assert your authority you can attribute it to God and thereby deflect jealousy, argument, and challenge. Power equates with control of resources and choice of mates. Picture yourself in a hunter-gatherer clan. It's not hard to see how genes predisposing a person to feel the power of the Holy Spirit (or its cultural equivalent) would propagate down the generations -- along with genes for the rational losers who have to figure out another way to make a living and found a family.
Let's suppose that David Wilson's right, that belief in a Great Puppetmaster in the Sky who pulls strings for certain lucky people evolved as an adaptive feature of the human personality -- let's call it George W. Bush syndrome -- does that mean we should respect it? Not at all. Wolfing down as much fat and salt as we can also evolved as an adaptive trait, but it's totally dysfunctional now.
By the same token, just because there is a dysfunctional mental trait floating around in our collective gene pool does not mean that all God-beliefs are false. It is possible, indeed, relatively easy to use science to discredit superstitious beliefs about God. To pick a simple example, there was a time when lightning might have plausibly seemed like a weapon wielded by an angry god. Today, however, we know that there are 6,000 lightning strikes per minute. Does God need to enter an anger management program? We also know that there is no discernible moral pattern to lightning strikes or any other natural disaster.
Moreover, if we accept the findings of science -- the laws of quantum contingency and conservation of energy, for example -- they appear to leave no room for supernatural action in the world. Such insights have led many well informed people to declare that atheism is the only intellectually justified postion. But they are wrong.
God is real in at least one sense, and may be real in others as well. Just as I accept the reality of evolution, money, and math, I accept that God is a real mental construct that has powerful effects in the world. (Richard Dawkins would call this a meme.) If you think that is a trivial statement, think again. Immaterial entities such as those I've just mentioned are undeniable, indispensible, and deeply powerful aspects of our world.
Even if God amounts to nothing more, God is no small thing. Yet, it may be that God is indeed more. On this question, I am agnostic. Some people -- usually atheists of the smarty-pants subtype -- claim that it is not possible to be an actual agnostic, that it is just a chickenhearted way of masking atheism. To them I ask, is there any difficulty about being agnostic concerning the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe? Do the people working at SETI have to make their minds one way or the other? Of course not. In just such a way, I am agnostic about the existence of an intelligent creator of our Universe.
What I am certain of is the lack of credible evidence of any supernatural action in our world -- not now, not in the past. If God there be, and if God acts in the world, it is through the minds of believers. And there you have the foundation stones of a rational, science-compatible religion. Much else can be built on this foundation, and I believe that science can guide the architecture, but it doesn't have to. All that is necessary for religion to be rational in the light of science is that it not make assertions that violate the laws and findings of science.
So what is religion anyway? There is no agreed-upon definition. This should not surprise us, and is no reason for contempt. What, after all, is education? There, likewise, we have no single definition, yet that does not leave us helpless to understand the concept. All the same, for our purposes here, we need a working definition. Here is mine: religion is a cultural and institutional response to shared perceptions of ultimate reality. This definition embraces everything from animism to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, to Buddhism to the sacred naturalism of Ursula Goodenough and others.
Can the world's many religions adopt a scientific worldview and yet see beyond to whatever vision of ultimate reality they may hold? God help us if they cannot.
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