Recently I watched a debate on YouTube titled "Does the Universe have a Purpose?" This debate, which was held in Puebla Mexico, pitted three prominent atheists against three prominent theists, and to accentuate the contentiousness of the topic each individual was invited in to the middle of a boxing ring to argue their positions, where they could land verbal punches against their opponents.
Over the last several years, in the wake of 9/11, debates between religion and science -- faith and reason -- have become very popular and very combative. But these kinds of debates are by no means a new phenomenon. CommonSenseAtheism.com lists 564 such debates dating back to 1948, although these debates date from well before then. 2,400 years ago Plato wrote, "Atheism is a disease of the soul before it becomes an error of understanding," and 300 years later the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger proclaimed, "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful."
And the debate continues unresolved. One need only look at a series of blogs here on the Huffington Post, along with the many strongly worded comments, to see that we are no closer to coming to a conclusion than were Plato and Seneca.
The two main topics of these debates are the nature of religion and the existence of God. It is crucial, though, that these two topics be examined separately. It is possible to constructively debate the merits or problems with religion. We can all concede that people have acted wickedly in the name of religion, that dogmatic, fundamentalist religion has caused much suffering, and that the refusal to accept the findings of science which are in conflict with one's doctrine is a foolish and small-minded position. To simply dismiss all religion, however, is not a rational or informed position, because we can also concede that religion has brought much good to the world, that most believers are not literalists, that religion itself is a very diverse and complex institution, and that insecurity, ideology and greed for power, not religion, have been the causes of most wars (and that to call Communism, Fascism, Nationalism and Nazism "religions" is to so distort the definition as to make it useless and unintelligible).
When the debate moves on to question of the existence of God, though, the dialogue hits a brick wall. The atheist side typically presents the position that belief in God is an immature science and that God is a provable or disprovable hypothesis for why things are the way they are, which, they argue, can be easily disproved: Evolution eliminates the need for a creator, double blind tests prove that prayer doesn't work, psychology has demonstrated that human beings often mistake random pattern for meaningful purpose, observation shows that we are an insignificant spot in the midst of a vast chaotic universe, and the death of a single innocent child makes the belief in a benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient God absurd, or even offensive.
The theist side then responds with arguments to rebut these points: The universe is too fine-tuned to be an accident, without a loving God there are no objective standards or source of values, and the very fact that we can comprehend the workings of physicality with our minds demonstrates the existence of a purposeful creator. Atheists then counter that there is absolutely no objective, quantifiable proof that God exists, that religion is ignorant of, uninterested in or dismissive of modern science, and that to believe in something without proof is inherently dangerous, especially when one thinks that he is acting on divine authority. The theist responds, and so on.
The debate about the existence of God hits a brick wall because there is an essential misunderstanding about the nature of God: None of the proofs that atheists are looking for, or any counter argument from the theists, would be adequate proof. In the Peubla debate, Michael Shermer said that he'd find convincing proof, "if you could have God grow new limbs on amputees from the Iraq war, Christian soldiers, praying for them to be healed. This has not happened even once. Apparently God can not do even what amphibians can do." But even if this did happen, it would not prove the existence of God but would instead prove that there is some kind of regenerative force or energy that responds to the right kind of conscious thought. Likewise, a glowing presence and booming voice appearing on the White House lawn proclaiming "I am the Lord your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage" as the waters of the Potomac part, would prove that there is an entity with powerful technology, and would be no more a proof of God than an airplane to a cave man. And irrefutable proof that Moses really did write the first five books of the Bible, that Jesus died and was resurrected, or that an unearthly being appeared to Muhammad and Joseph Smith to dictate new texts, would support some of the claims of religions but does not prove that there is a purposeful, loving Creator and Sustainer.
The truth is that nothing -- no thing -- can prove the existence of God.
The attempt to prove the existence of God through the scientific method of hypothesis, controlled experimentation, observation and documentable repeatable results is somewhat akin to trying to discover the cause of a person's response to a deeply moving work of art. We can examine the painting, analyze the composition of the canvas and pigment, study the arrangement of shapes and colors, discover the historical context of the work and the biography of the artists, or even conduct psychological experiments and CT scans, but none of this will do anything to explain, understand and share in the person's aesthetic experience. This person may try to explain her experience, but she will ultimately fail to convince someone who only sees pigment on canvas, and who may conclude that her experience is delusional, and that the study of aesthetics is a waste of time. To the person who was so deeply impacted by the painting, though, such an assertion completely misses the point, and does nothing to convince her that her experience is not real, and that she was not touched and expanded by her encounter.
In this way, arguments and experiments can not prove the existence of God because God is not an hypothesis. For human beings, God is the experience of a transformative relationship with creation itself, in which we know that the Universe is inherently meaningful, that we were created for a staggering purpose that will unfold over eons, that love and gratitude are the essential actual materials of our lives and that we are holy beings.
The experience of a relationship with God is not one of religious doctrine, does not come from statistics, experiments or argument, and is certainly not in conflict with science and reason in any way. It is also not about righteous certainty or judgment. The experience of God expands the possibilities for our lives and increases the feeling of mystery and intellectual curiosity about the world. Reason and observation are crucial elements in faith. Faith and reason are not mutually exclusive and are no more in conflict than civil engineering and poetry.
As a rabbi and person of faith, I have no interest in proving the existence of God and certainly do not want to convert anyone to my religion or way of thinking. What I am passionate about, though, is helping bring others to an experience and relationship with God because I know that such a relationship can create powerful positive personal and communal transformation. One brings another to the experience of God not through philosophical or material proof, but through living the example of gratitude, purpose, compassion and love.
No doubt the debates about the existence of God will continue, and we can enjoy the spectacle, but I suspect that no amount of clever verbal exchange will do anything to convince anyone either way.