04/24/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Is God Real? Yes, No, Maybe So

Jim Keck is a minister I admire even when I disagree with him. Since he is a minister and I am a nonreligious agnostic, the surprise may be that we agree at all. But we do. Even when we disagree. Read on, and all will become clear. Maybe.
On a recent snowy Sunday, Rev. Keck rose to courageously tackle the question, "Does God Exist?"
"Yes," he affirmed and promptly sat down. The organ began to play. The congregation rippled with nervous laughter. Keck then resumed his place at the pulpit to go a little further into the matter.
His rhetorical strategy was to assume the answer and move on a different question: what kind of God do we believe in? I can't call it an argument, since he began by saying he knows God exists for reasons beyond the reach of the rational.
As a rationalist, I bridle at being told something is beyond the reach of reason. An emotional reaction, I admit. However, the rationalist in me can acknowledge the limits to reason. (What's the reason for irrational numbers? I give up.)
But is the question of God's existence really beyond the reach of reason? Blaise Pascal thought so. A truly brilliant man, Pascal was both far-seeing scientist and mystical theologian. He was also a deeply troubled, perhaps mentally ill human being. Since he lived in the 17th century, we'll never know. But, apart from his scientific accomplishments, he left us with Pascal's Wager, a supposedly pragmatic argument for theism (which I have debunked elsewhere), and the memorable phrase, "The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing." Pascal believed that God is infinite and so beyond the ken of rational man (or woman).
That is what I took Rev. Keck to be saying. Such knowledge of God as we have, he asserted, comes from the heart and not the head. Perhaps. But the assertion is worth testing before accepting. Here are two hypotheses: God is an infinite being known from within, via direct mystical knowledge that is beyond the reach of reason. Alternatively, God is a cultural concept implanted in the mind, usually at an early age, along with a set of claims disposed to make God-belief unchallengeable.
If the former is true, we might predict that people would discover approximately the same phenomenon when they go exploring from within. If, as when we see the moon in the night sky, we were all observing the same thing, we might interpret it somewhat differently -- some of us might see a "Man in the Moon" and some might see a rabbit, but we'd all agree that we see a bright disk that waxes and wanes throughout the course of a month.
Is this the case with God? Hardly. Just within the Judeo-Christian religion, God has been portrayed as a giant walking the Earth, a bearded man in the sky, a three-personed enigma, and an abstract infinite being who is also immanent. Of course, that's not all, but move beyond this faith tradition, and the variety explodes into millions of gods of every possible description. The case for the second hypothesis? It happens all the time, in madrassas, shuls, and Sunday schools.
So, let me return to where Keck ended: what kind of God we believe in makes all the difference. I agree. That is why I am obliged to answer the question of God's existence three times over.
Is God real? Yes. As a culturally generated metaphysical entity, God is real. If that sounds flimsy, consider: money is real in exactly the same sense. Oh, sure, there are bills and coins that represent money (just as there are icons that represent God), but these are not the thing itself. The vast majority of money is a shared belief, noted down in various ways, such as bank statements. So, God is as real as money in the bank. If you reject this category of reality, fine, but would you mind if I help myself to the stuff you decline to believe in?
Is God real? No. If by God you mean an omnipotent, supremely perfect being who controls everything, there is no good reason to believe it. The proposition is both a logical impossibility and an empirically refuted claim. The logical problem with this concept is simple: to be supremely perfect is like being at the North Pole: there is nowhere to go but south. Anything such a God does or creates will necessarily make matters worse, leaving Him less than supremely perfect, or will invalidate the claim that he was previously supremely perfect. Is there an answer to such an argument? Of course! Tons of them. But none, I think, that we are bound to respect for their logical rigor. Rather than get lost in the Philosopher's Funhouse, however, let's shift ground to the reality we know.
It is obvious on even cursory inspection that the world we inhabit is not the work of a supremely perfect Creator. It is riddled with flaws and suboptimal designs. (We wouldn't be wearing shoes if we were perfectly designed for our environment, and we wouldn't be giving money for earthquake relief.) Some theologians think they have found a way around this: blame ourselves. More specifically, Adam and Eve. Everything was just fine, they say, until those two messed things up by eating the apple.
That's great news for those who enjoy self-abasement. Unfortunately, it fails to exonerate God. For, we are assured, He created them. Didn't He know what he was doing? Couldn't he have tinkered with their genes to make them a little more resistant to temptation? You're left believing either that God was not the infallible designer He is claimed to be, or that He is just plain malicious. Either way, the supremely perfect creator idea comes crashing down.
Is God real? Maybe so. If by God we mean a creator who designed and set in motion the Universe we inhabit with the intention that it would give rise to life like us, the answer has to be maybe. So long as we don't get carried away and start claiming magic, perfection, destiny or proof, nothing in science excludes such a possibility. Insert any one of these into the mix, and God becomes a falsifiable scientific hypothesis. On the other hand, leave them out, and God the Creator becomes an intriguing possibility, or if you prefer, a matter of faith.
Is there any reason to believe? I don't just mean the alleged personal or social benefits of belief, but reason arising from the evidence. I think so. And surprisingly enough, it comes from that most despised of scientific theories, evolution.
Our existence is a puzzle. The odds against the Universe allowing for the evolution of life like us appear to be staggering. Among the most widely accepted scientific conjectures to explain our existence is multiple instances of bubble Universes like the one we observe around us, with enough variations that at least one of them can support intelligent, inquiring life. This is generally called the Multiverse conjecture.
There is no foundational scientific explanation for why it happens to be that way (if indeed it does). It might be a quirk of the quantum. It might be a brute fact. A possible explanation is that an intelligent Creator set all such things in motion in order to come up with life such as us.
If you were a Creator intent on such a goal, you might set about it by magic, or by engineering, or by evolution. Many creation stories contain beautiful poetic accounts of creation by magic. It is possible that our Universe was created that way, but if so the mystery is why the Creator took such pains to make it look as if the Universe came about by natural processes combining laws and randomness. The engineering story has the same problem, compounded by many glaring design flaws. (Why all the rubble floating around the solar neighborhood? That's just shoddy workmanship!) Evolution, on the other hand, fits beautifully with what we observe. If you were a Creator and you wanted to be surprised by your creation, you could not do better than to calculate the minimum number of Universes necessary and then turn loose evolution's creative power.
This is not, to be sure, a parsimonious conjecture. Is there any reason, for example, to think a being with the power to do such a thing would be motivated to do it? Again, evolution suggests an answer. The universal value embedded in Darwinian evolution is that life is good. Life is driven to multiply life. Any agent that does not manifest such a disposition disappears from the gene pool. Where does that value originate? I cannot say. Go deeply enough into these questions and at some point you must accept either brute facts, faith, or mystery.
But to my eyes, anyway, there is a beautiful equipoise between impersonal scientific conjectures and the possibility of intentional (though certainly imperfect) natural creation. To me, it amounts to a wonderful universe of possibilities that we may continue to explore, understand, and inscribe with meaning unimpeded by conflicts between religious dogma and science.