onsdag 29 oktober 2008

God probably does not exist

So goes the notorious poster which has aroused lots of attention.

I was convinced God did not exist. Till I met him. This was worrying. I thought at first I was having some kind of mental breakdown or suffering from delusional symptoms. But strangely I felt perfectly OK, better than ever before, and well disposed towards the world and everyone and everything in it. Then I met others who had had the same experience, and they all seemed more than averagely balanced, sensible and pleasant and generous individuals, well able to cope with their lives and the ups-and-downs they encountered.

This is a widely reported experience, which has nothing to do with indoctrination or brainwashing. If I and they were all suffering from delusions, then whatever those delusions were could not be be regarded as a pathological condition. A benign condition, perhaps. So to my astonishment, starting from my atheistic position, God turned out to be not a spaghetti eating monster in the sky, but a external reality that can be found at the core of the individual's being. Being a determined atheist simply restricts the individual's access to that reality.

So perhaps the poster should have read "God probably does not exist, but don't worry if you happen to meet him"

There have been masses of comments on the subject in the Guardian's "Comment is Free". Having read through these, I am left wondering how many of the contributors are sufficiently conversant with science to have taken the study of one of the hard sciences (chemistry, physics, maths, engineering, biology or other closely related disciplines) to degree level or higher. Not very many, I suspect, to judge by the quality of the argument. The quality of the arguments against God isn't up to much either - in fact my parish priest can put up a better case for atheism.

As regards evolution, people have been sent to the gallows on far less evidence than there is to support it. Creationism is nothing more than a silly aberration based on a misguided reading of ancient texts. Religious extremism and terrorism appear to be embedded in one particular religion since they are authorised in its foundational texts. People in authority in other religions have often abused their powers and covered up abuses by those under them, but such abuses have always been in breach of the codes of practice or laws of those religions. The religions themselves cannot be blamed when their claimed adherents breach the rules.

Those who have been suggesting that religion is about belief in a "pixie in the sky" are setting up a classic straw man. The "pixie in the sky" is a straw man because mature religious faith is about a connection with something that is accessed interiorly to the person. If you don't like that idea, there remains the need for a language that can be used as a shorthand for attempting to describe a widespread set of subjective experiences. That those experiences are subjective does not make them unreal or delusional, which is what those who use the term "pixie in the sky" are trying to suggest, whilst not having experienced what is being talked about. It is an arrogant supposition and discourse is futile since it is taking place across a gulf of incomprehension.

The atheist party seeks for proof in reality. But the brain constructs reality out of what people know and expect. Familiar examples of the same thing are the apparent hyper-reality of impressionistic and pixellated pictures, the difficulty of understanding a spoken foreign language when one can already read it quite well, and closer to home, the ability to pick out a conversation in a room where a lot of people are talking, a skill which consumes a large amount of mental processing power.

Science, they believe, is real and solid, in contrast to religion which is abstract. But "abstraction" is precisely what science is about. From the mass of data about the physical world are abstracted apparent regularities from which can be derived laws and provisional theories which describe and account for the behaviour of the entities under consideration, and which can also be used to predict what will happen in tightly specified circumstances.

But the laws of science are only a proxy for reality, limited by the notational systems available at the time.

The terms used by religion are also a notational system used to describe mental or "spiritual" phenomena. The problem seems to be that a lot of people are taking the metaphoric or analogic descriptions literally and others are assuming that they are meant to be taken literally. Hence the references to pixies in the sky.

The different world religions are not equal or merely different ways of saying the same thing, but the convergences between them suggests that they are describing some kinds of mental phenomena which are, and always have been, a widespread human experience. This is not in itself an external reality, but there have been attempts using PET and MRI imaging techniques to study the patterns of brain activity associated, for instance, with meditational states. That is surely objective evidence enough to support the claim that religions are at the very least attempting to interpret real physical occurences. Patterns of neural activity in themselves prove nothing but are subjectively meaningless in the absence of an interpretative framework such as that which religions attempt to provide, and which do in fact point to an external reality.

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