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God &mdash Not Dead Just Nowhere To Be Found

When the devastating earthquake struck Haiti in January, Pat Robertson revealed that god was getting even with the Haitians for their pact with the devil 200 years ago. As amusing as his explanation was, it was far more dismaying. His wild claim, which failed to say why the almighty waited so long, was news only because Robertson is a wealthy, well-respected commentator with a vast audience of believers. He's no street corner nut who hears voices; he's someone whose voice lots of people want to listen to.

There is clearly something about disaster that brings glee to religious souls like Robertson, as they always rush to explain the death and destruction in terms that allow them to bask in the certainty of their beliefs. On Haiti, Robertson was quite obscure. He says that Haitians (not sure if he means all of them, or only some) enlisted the devil's help in winning independence from France at the turn of the 19th Century. Perhaps he thinks his claim won't be easy to refute, since few people have a firm grasp of either Haitian history or plate tectonics. Usually the plethora of prophets seize on more contemporary causes for disasters, natural or otherwise. Hurricane Katrina in 2005, was an interesting case. It was a magnet for competing supernatural revelations from various perspectives.

Some of them came from the Arab world, which attributed the disaster to Allah's wrath at the United States for interfering in Muslim affairs. Most came from American Christians who said the hurricane expressed God's anger over sexuality and abortion. Even an Israeli, Avner Boskey, jumped into the fray and said that the hurricane was punishment of America for pressuring Israel to back off their annexations. It becomes clear that one person's lunacy is another's heresy and yet another's cherished faith. I have always been puzzled by the inconsistency and conflict inherent in the babel of faiths. If indeed the faithful of the world have received divine revelations about the true nature of the universe, how can different receivers of revelations come up with such antagonistic beliefs that they have engaged in bloody religious wars? Clearly only one side is right, and only one side is victorious. Either the Crusaders or the Jihadists are correct and eligible for salvation, and the other group wrong and faces damnation. Of course, theologians may well object that this is a childish view of theology, and over the centuries have produced massive tomes arguing away such unsophisticated notions as well as questions about why their gods can allow evil, and indeed how an organized religion can pursue its ends by evil means.

Despite what doctors of theology say, the fact remains that the religious flocks largely remain childish in their beliefs. The Harris Poll and Gallup try to measure religiosity on a regular basis, and in 2008 Harris came up with these numbers about what Americans believe:

The Gallup Poll in 1988 asked an extra, and most interesting question about heaven and hell. Of the people who said on that survey that heaven exists, 77% said they were heading there. On the other hand, of those who believe hell exists, only 6% thought that it was their final destination. Opinion polls may leave a lot to be desired, but unless the pollsters' methodologies are completely bogus, these numbers are so big that they certainly explain why Pat Robertson can make hay saying what he says.

More important than Robertson, however, such naïve attitudes toward the big questions have deeper implications on politics, progress and the well-being of mankind. Throughout history, religiosity has opposed efforts by men to understand the world and succeed better in it, as the clergy sought to impose their own version of reality on mankind. In the 17th Century, Galileo, one of the giants of early modern science, was tried by Catholic inquisitors and held under house arrest for the last 10 years of his life for saying that the earth circled the sun. Today in the United States, fundamentalist Christians had the political power to impede biological research that requires stem cells despite the Constitutional guarantee of a separation of church and state. (I'd like to suggest that the faithful settle for warning labels that tell them which life-saving drugs may lead to eternal damnation.)

If the radical fundamentalists in the U.S. had their way, they would ban the teaching of evolution. Darwin's original observations that succeeding generations of living beings adapt to their environment was breathtaking and awe inspiring. He himself compiled considerable evidence supporting his conclusions while he agonized over the price he might pay for challenging religious orthodoxy. But the investigation into natural selection didn't stop with Darwin 150 years ago. Scientists have piled up massive amounts of data confirming Darwin's insights. There is no rational debate about evolution.

As childish and reactionary as religion often is, it persists in furthering its hold on humanity. Human beings enjoy tremendous benefits and wealth from advances that had at one time been considered blasphemy and heresy like Galileo's astronomy. Yet so many cling to beliefs for which there is not a shred of evidence. It's natural to ask, Where's the payoff?

The easy answer is that belief is comforting for people confronted with existential angst, but this doesn't ring true. I think it's hard to imagine the terror individual human beings in earlier centuries suffered at the thought that they were going to hell. I don't think so many people in the past gave themselves free passes to heaven as they do now. I recently read an account of this fear of damnation in a history of the convict exiles in Australia in the 19th century (The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes, 1986, NYT Review). Long after Britain outlawed the African slave trade, the government continued to transport convicts to Australia for crimes often like theft or forgery that might result in a couple years in prison today. A large part of the rationale was punishment pure and simple, and punishment for double losers, those who committed crimes after transportation, was doubly harsh. Their lives became so intolerable that a substantial number of convicts committed yet more crimes in the hopes that they would be hung and thereby put an end to their torment on earth. Very, very few attempted suicide. Why? Hughes quotes convicts who wrote letters to their families that they would not take their own lives because they were afraid of hell — a suicide was a mortal sin, and therefore would mean eternal punishment.

In recent years, a number of experts in anthropology, biology and other disciplines have been puzzling over the persistence of belief and they have been searching for a concrete explanation.

They have turned to evolution looking for answers. In a 2007 article in the New York Times Magazine, the writer asks, "In short, are we hard-wired to believe in God?" (The Article)

Somewhere in the evolution of humans' unique mental powers, belief was either useful or an accidental by-product of something that was useful, and continues to be part of our makeup. One intriguing argument relies on an optimistic payoff for belief. If survival of a species can be advanced by the willingness of some to sacrifice themselves for the group, then a certain number of individuals will act in a counterintuitive way and give up their lives as good soldiers for reasons of fame or entry into heaven.

My own guess is that explanation for belief follows from the human ability to represent perceptions in a more sophisticated way than other species, and to manipulate them with a more powerful logic that allow us to distinguish carefully between present, past and future, to apply conditionals and put together useful explanations. The idea of human representational power is not a conjecture but is based on a lot of scholarly work. (An excellent three-part series by PBS examined this question in January.) I am suggesting that the unique human ability to create conscious explanations of the world encourages curiosity and invention, and that we have come to rely on these explanations, and even to require them. But because the world is too complex to be comprehended by one person all at once, we all have to accept a large number of conclusions derived consciously by others, conclusions that we personally do not understand. I am suggesting that without this mixture of invention and curiosity on the one hand, and on the acceptance of established methods and conclusions on the other, human beings would never have made any progress at all. This combined tendency allows individuals, probably most of us, to simply accept a set of off-the-shelf truths, without which we could never negotiate our way in the world. Unconstrained curiosity might lead to an inability to act, react and in general function.

Allow me a very simple illustration of what I mean. How many people in the United States can present a rigorous explanation of why they know the earth goes around the sun, and not the other way around? Most people have seen drawings of the solar system since elementary school, and they choose to accept that. I maintain very few people know exactly why we human beings know that the earth circles the sun, but most of us choose to believe it.

Surely, it's easy to see that some people are going to accept bogus explanations from suspect sources. It's clear that a large number of people will fill in the gaps in their own knowledge with various fragments of religious, political and cultural bric-a-brac. And certainly beliefs with centuries-old pedigrees carry some extra weight, no matter what contradictions others can find between those beliefs and reality.

Earlier in recorded history, the sum of useful knowledge, whether the people described it as science, philosophy or religion, was much smaller, and probably a lot more crucial in everyday existence. Consider the prediction of the Nile floods. In ancient Egypt, the calculation of when the flooding would begin was crucial for the farmers, and thus to the survival of society. The task was entrusted to the priests, who folded in the very science-like observations into their theology, thus bolstering their prestige and power in society.

Religion also complements the ubiquitous tribal impulse we human beings have. Humanity is social, and people are partitioned into groups of us and all the rest. Rituals and customs, religious or not, provide an identity. History is littered with the consequences of the distinction between us and them; as a cause of war, this identification can be a matter of life and death. By no means is religion necessary for tribalism, but they do fit neatly together.

I suppose that it is futile for the group of atheist writers who hope to argue religion into the trash heap. I sympathize with them. It would be ridiculous for public schools to teach creationism as valid; it would be the equivalent of teaching astrology and alchemy. Just as it would be shameful to let a partisan political movement impose any laws derived from their superstitions. There is neither any justification for the murder of abortion doctors nor for the attempted murder of a cartoonist for offending someone's belief. But religion is a chameleon that lurks inside a number of basic human traits. No one can argue Jets fans into Giants fans. Nor Catholics into Protestants.

By the same token, no one will ever be able to convince me that Joseph Smith, who founded the Church of Latter Day Saints, for example, was a prophet, while David Berkowitz (a.k.a. the Son of Sam) was not. Substitute your favorite prophet for Smith, the answer will be the same. Substitute Jim Jones (leader of Jonestown) or David Koresh (and the Branch Davidians) , or anyone who hears voices, for Berkowitz, and the answer will still be the same. Having a following, whether for tens of centuries or a mere decade, does not make a prophet real or a superstition fact. The story is that human beings have been liberated from all kinds of prophets in the 17th century when modern science, based on observation and logic, was born. In the 300 years since, some people are still apt to choose superstition and fabrication over explanations that are based on observable facts and that work in the real world.

Posted 3 February 2010

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© 2010 Barry Schiffman