I’ve been on a philosophy binge lately, spending hours on YouTube watching debates by noted intellectuals, scientists and philosophers, namely Sam Harris, Michael Shermer and Deepak Chopra. It is quite amazing what you can find on YouTube if you try; you rarely find such meaningful discourse on TV. But in watching these debates, I find myself torn between the two sides of my brain, the one side which is purely logical, and the other which is more spiritual. The reasoning part of me agrees with the atheists most of the time, but the part of me that looks for God cheers whenever the Deepak Chopras of the world make a valid point. Unlike Dawkins or Hitchens, Sam Harris concedes there is value in “spirituality”; he recognizes that religious experience is an integral part of the human experience and cannot be dismissed entirely. I made a similar point in my post, Why I Do Not Call Myself an Atheist. But make no mistake, Harris is out to destroy faith. He even rails against religious moderates, making the case that moderates give room for fundamentalists and fanatics to operate. And this is where we part ways, because I do not see how Harris expects to win this battle. Ninety-percent of the planet is religious in some way, and if Harris thinks all these people can be convinced otherwise, if he imagines a time when grandmothers will know more about Newton’s Laws than the myths of our forefathers, he is sadly misguided. There will indeed come a day when we set religious texts on the mantle of literature, but that day will not be coming during our lifetimes.
If you look at the God vs. Science debate as a whole, science wins with regards to reason and evidence, but loses to general public opinion, because, as science itself has proven, people follow their hearts more than their heads. To me, it seems, there are two games being played. When self-appointed gurus like Deepak Chopra are called upon to defend spirituality, they always make the mistake of couching their rhetoric in scientific terms. Essentially, they are playing science’ game, and where reason and evidence are the only currency, scientists will always win. Rather than invoke quantum theory, Chopra should focus on the Sufis and Kabbalists and mystics of antiquity. A literal, empirical description of the universe falls under the domain of science, but how that description should make us feel, and what it means to us and our place in the universe, is something science cannot, nor should not, try to answer. Science deals with what is, not what should be. It is poorly equipped to handle the artistic, creative, imaginative side of the human mind.
Sam Harris makes a passionate plea for a better basis of morality, and with regards to the failings of Christianity and Islam, I am in full agreement. We obviously should not be executing homosexuals or stoning adulterers, but making a case against God by focusing on the atrocities committed in his name is as disingenuous as people attacking atheists for the crimes of Stalin or Pol Pot or Josef Mengele. Atheism did not cause the deaths of millions in communist nations, but neither did it help to prevent it. On the other hand, even Sam Harris has to concede that Jainism is a religion of non-violence, so where would the harm be if the entire world was made up of Jains? People can be good without superstitious beliefs, but removing God from our lives makes us no more moral than Christianity or Islam. There is nothing intrinsic in science or in atheism favoring morality. Science is objective, while morality is subjective. Granted, Harris argues that objective observations speak to the subjective nature of morality; we can, for instance, measure the pain felt by another human being or animal; we can even seek the root causes of evil on a chemical level in the brain, but what we cannot do scientifically is decide what actions we should make upon gathering the data. Science can help us make better, more informed decisions, but the ultimate decision is always subjective. We can determine, for instance, that confining a baby cow to a pen will cause the cow to suffer, but there is no mathematical formula to prove that the right action is to free the cow to open pastures. Yes, animals suffer, but why should it matter to us? Why should any action matter at all, if we are nothing but a network of atomic processes? This is where science stumbles, because questions of emotion, of purpose and meaning, are domains of art and music and literature, and yes, religion.
The ultimate question for modern spiritualists is Who is God? Most people can agree that God is not the way fundamentalists view him. He isn’t Jesus and he isn’t an Anglo Saxon man with a long white beard sitting on a cloud. But I’ll take it further and say that God is neither a benign energy field looking out for us, nor a remote Deist conception who merely created the world. God is neither sentient nor even a “being”. At this point, atheists contend, God must be nothing at all. But I disagree.
One of the most profound things I have ever heard came from my mother, who was never educated past elementary school and is barely literate. I was talking to her about trees. I brought up the question of why we should feel for them, since they have no emotions. Her response was, “It doesn’t matter. We have the feelings for them.” In other words, we can imbue, or impart, emotion onto an otherwise unfeeling object. Bravo, Mom. The same principle applies to God. God is not something “out there”, to be found with some scientific instrument; he is in us; he is an expression of our emotions, our hopes and dreams and yes, our idea of love. God is fictional, like Superman, but just like Superman he is more real and more important to our everyday lives than most physical things are. This is why atheists lose the public debate. When a physicist talks about quantum theory, he may just as well be talking about ghosts. For most people, quantum mechanics is either too difficult to imagine or too far removed from everyday experience. Whether subatomic particles pop in and out of existence is entirely irrelevant to a mother fretting over a sick child. God, whether imagined or real, matters more.
Ultimately, people like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are left scratching their heads, wondering why the battle against religion isn’t going so well, because they have nothing with which to fill the God shaped hole in human consciousness.
Jainism is the world’s most peaceful, non-violent religion. Among them are the skyclad monks, a sect of practicing nudists! Coincidence? I think not.