Review of “Modern Physics and Ancient Faith,” by Stephen Barr

I recently came across the book Modern Physics and Ancient Faith by Stephen Barr, a professor of physics at the University of Delaware. First published in 2003, the book was reprinted in 2013 by the University of Notre Dame press. I was initially skeptical of this book because reviews and praise for the book seemed to be limited mostly to religious and conservative publications. But after reading it, I have to say that the science in the book is solid, the author is reasonably open-minded, and the paucity of reviews of this book in scientific publications more likely reflects an unthinking prejudice rather than an informed judgment by scientists.

Modern Physics and Ancient Faith is not one of those books that attempts to prove the existence of God scientifically, an impossible task in any event. The book does show that belief in God is reasonable, that faith is not wholly irrational. But the main theme of the book is a critique of “scientific materialism,” a philosophy that emerged out of the scientific findings of the nineteenth century. What is “scientific materialism”? Barr summarizes the viewpoint as follows:

‘The universe more and more appears to be a vast, cold, blind, and pur­poseless machine. For a while it appeared that some things might escape the iron grip of science and its laws —perhaps Life or Mind. But the processes of life are now known to be just chemical reactions, involving the same ele­ments and the same basic physical laws that govern the behavior of all matter. The mind itself is, according to the overwhelming consensus of cognitive scientists, completely explicable as the performance of the biochemical computer called the brain. There is nothing in principle that a mind does which an artificial machine could not do just as well or even better. . . .

‘There is no evidence of a spiritual realm, or that God or souls are real. In fact, even if there did exist anything of a spiritual nature, it could have no influence on the visible world, because the material world is a closed sys­tem of physical cause and effect. Nothing external to it could affect its opera­tions without violating the precise mathematical relationships imposed by the laws of physics. . . .

‘All, therefore, is matter: atoms in ceaseless, aimless motion. In the words of Democritus, everything consists of’atoms and the void.’ Because the ulti­mate reality is matter, there cannot be any cosmic purpose or meaning, for atoms have no purposes or goals. . . .

‘Science has dethroned man. Far from being the center of things, he is now seen to be a very peripheral figure indeed. . . .  The human species is just one branch on an ancient evolutionary tree, and not so very different from some of the other branches—genetically we overlap more than 98 percent with chimpanzees. We are the product not of purpose, but of chance mutations. Bertrand Russell perfectly summed up man’s place in the cosmos when he called him ‘a curious accident in a backwater.” (pp. 19-20)

A great many educated people subscribe to many or most of these principles of scientific materialism. However, as Barr notes, these principles are based largely on scientific findings from the nineteenth century, and there have been a number of major advances in knowledge since then that have cast doubt on the principles of materialism. Barr refers to these newer findings as “plot twists.”

The first plot twist Barr notes is the “Big Bang” theory of the origins of the universe, first proposed in 1927 by Georges Lemaître, a Catholic priest and astronomer. Although taken for granted today, Lemaître’s idea of a universe emerging from a single, tiny point of concentrated energy was initially shocking and disturbing to many scientists. The predominant view of scientists for a number of centuries was that the universe existed eternally, with no beginning and no end. Even Einstein was disturbed by the Big Bang theory and thought it “abominable”; it took many years for him to accept it. I initially was skeptical of Barr’s claim that atheists and materialists were particularly disturbed by and opposed to the Big Bang, but a recent book on theories of the universe’s origins supports Barr’s claim (pp. 25-27).

Now it’s true that the Big Bang in itself doesn’t prove the existence of a creator. And there are many features of the universe which seem to argue against the idea of an omniscient and omnipotent creator, most prominently, the very gradual process of evolution, with its randomness and mass extinctions. Also, Georges Lemaître himself cautioned against any attempts to draw theological conclusions from his scientific work, and argued against the mixing of science and religion. Nevertheless, I don’t think it can be denied that the Big Bang is more compatible with the idea of a creator than the previously dominant theory of the eternal universe.

The second plot twist, according to Barr, is the gradual discovery of a deeper underlying harmony and beauty in the laws of physics, which suggest not blind and impersonal forces but a cosmic designer. Any one particular phenomenon can be explained by an impersonal law or mechanism, notes Barr; but when one looks at the structure of the universe as a whole, the question of a designer is “inescapable.” (Barr, p. 24) In addition, the story of the universe is not one of order emerging out of disorder or chaos, but rather order emerging out of a deeper order, rooted in mathematical structures and physical laws. Barr discusses a number of examples of this harmony and beauty, including symmetrical structures in nature, the growth of crystals, orbital ellipses, and particular mathematical equations that are simple yet also capable of resulting in highly complex orders.

I found this part of Barr’s book to be the least convincing. Symmetry in itself does not strike me as being particularly beautiful, though beautiful things may have symmetry as one of their properties. Furthermore, there are aspects of the universe that are definitely not beautiful, harmonious, or elegant, but rather messy, complicated, and wasteful. Elegance is something rightly valued by scientists, but there is no reason to believe that the underlying structure of nature is always fundamentally elegant, and scientists have sometimes been misguided into coming up with elegant solutions for phenomena that later turned out to be far messier and more complicated in reality. 

The third “plot twist” Barr discusses is, in my view, far more interesting and convincing: the discovery of “anthropic coincidences,” that is, features of the universe that suggest that the emergence of life, including intelligent life, is not an accident but is actually a predictable feature of the universe, built right into the structure. Barr accepts the theory of evolution and acknowledges that random mutations play a large role in the evolution of life (though he is skeptical that natural selection provides a complete explanation for the evolution of life). But Barr also argues that evolution proceeds from the foundation of a cosmic order which seems to be custom-made for the emergence of life. A good number of physical properties of the universe — the strong nuclear force, the creation of new elements through nuclear fusion, the stability of the proton, the strength of the electro-magnetic force, and other properties and processes — seem to be finely tuned to within a very narrow range of precision. Action outside the these strict boundaries of behavior set by the physical laws and constants of the universe would eliminate the possibility of life anywhere in the universe or even cause the universe to self-destruct. Again, these “anthropic coincidences” do not prove the existence of God, but they do seem to indicate that life is not just an accident of the universe, but an outcome built into the universe from the very beginning.

Barr acknowledges the argument of some physicists that the universe could well have different domains with different physical laws, or there could even be a large (or infinite) number of universes (the “multiverse”), each with a slightly different set of laws and constants. In this view, life only seems inevitable because we just happen to exist in a universe that has the right balance of laws and constants, and if the universe did not have this balance, no one would be there to observe that fact! But Barr is rightly skeptical of this argument, noting that it relies merely upon speculation, with no actual empirical evidence of other universes. If belief in God is unscientific because God is unobservable, then belief in an unobservable multiverse is also unscientific.

Barr devotes most of the remaining chapters of his book to refuting the scientific materialist view of humanity. In the materialist view, human beings are nothing more than biological mechanisms, made up of the same atoms that make up the rest of the universe, and therefore as determined and predictable as any other object in the universe. Humans have no soul apart from the body, no mind apart from the brain, and no real free will. Therefore, there is no reason to expect that artificial intelligence in advanced computers will be any different from human minds, aside from being superior. Barr rightly criticizes this view as the fallacy of reductionism, the notion that everything can be explained by reference to the parts that compose it. The problem with this view, as I have pointed out elsewhere, is that when parts join together, the resulting whole may be an entirely new phenomenon, with radically different properties from the parts.

Barr argues that although human beings may be made of materials, humans beings also have a spiritual side, defined as the possession of two crucial attributes: (1) an intellect capable of understanding; and (2) free will. As such, human beings are capable of transcending themselves, that is, go beyond their immediate desires and appetites, “perceive what is objectively true and beautiful,” (p. 168) and to freely choose good or evil.

It is precisely this quality of human beings that makes humans different from material objects, including computers. Barr points out that a computer can manipulate numbers and symbols, and do so much more quickly and efficiently than humans. But, he asks, in what way does a computer actually understand what it is doing? When you use a computer to calculate the sum of all annual profits for Corporation X, does the computer have any idea of what it is really doing? No — it is manipulating numbers and symbols, for the benefit of human beings who actually do have understanding. Likewise, the very notion of moral judgment and blame makes no sense when applied to a computer, because in practice we know that a computer does not have real understanding. In Barr’s words:

We do not really ‘blame’ a computer program for what it does; if anything, we blame its human programmers. We do not condemn a man-eating tiger, in the moral sense, or grow indignant at the typhoid bacillus. And yet we do feel that human beings can ‘deserve’ and that their behavior can be morally judged. We believe this precisely because we believe that human beings can make free choices. (p. 186)

More importantly, as Barr notes, the scientific materialist view of human beings as nothing more than machines is derived from scientific findings in earlier centuries, when scientists became increasingly capable of predicting the motions and actions of objects, large and small. Since human beings were nothing more than collections of material objects known as atoms, it stood to reason that human beings were also nothing more than predictable and determined in their actions. But early twentieth century research into the behavior of subatomic particles, known as “quantum physics,” overturned the view that the behavior of all objects could be predicted on the basis of predetermined laws of behavior. Rather, at the subatomic level, the behavior of objects were probabilistic, not determined; furthermore, the behavior of the particles could not be known until they interacted with an observer!

Today, it is widely acknowledged among scientists that the nineteenth century dream of a completely determined and predictable universe is an illusion, that the behavior of large solar, planetary, and sub-planetary bodies can be predicted to a large extent, but that other phenomenon remain less amenable to such study. Yet the materialist view of human beings as completely determined remains popular among many, including scientists who should know better. Barr rightly criticizes this view, noting that while quantum physics doesn’t prove that humans have free will, it does demolish the notion of complete determinism, and at the very least, creates space for free will.

However, while Barr effectively demolishes the scientific materialist view of human nature, I don’t think he demonstrates that the traditional Judeo-Christian view is entirely correct either. In this view, human beings have a soul that exists, or can exist, separately from the body, and this soul is imparted to human beings by God in a special act of creation. (p. 225) But rather than surmise that there is a separate spirit that possesses the material body and gives it life and understanding and free will, I think it makes more sense to adopt the outlook of theorists of emergence, that the correct combination and organization of parts can lead to the emergence of a whole organism that possesses life and understanding and free will, even if the parts themselves do not possess these qualities.

Another way to look at this issue is to carefully reexamine the whole notion of what “matter” is. Materialists conceive of humans as beings composed of collections of objects called atoms and can’t conceive how this collection of objects can possibly have understanding and free will. But human beings are not just made up of objects — we are beings of matter and energy. Physicists have defined “energy” as the capacity to do work, and if you think of human beings as collections of matter and energy, the attributes of life and understanding and free will no longer seem so mysterious: these attributes are synergistic expressions of a highly complex matter/energy combination.

One could go even further. Physicists have long noted that matter and energy are interchangeable, that matter can be transformed into energy and energy can be transformed into matter. According to the great physicist Werner Heisenberg, “[E]xperiments have shown the complete mutability of matter. All the elementary particles can, at sufficiently high energies, be transmuted into other particles, or they can simply be created from kinetic energy and can be annihilated into energy, for instance into radiation.” (Physics and Philosophy, p. 139.) In fact, the universe in its earliest stages began simply as energy and only gradually transformed some of that energy into matter, so even matter itself can be considered a form of condensed energy rather than a separate and unique entity. So you could think of humans as beings of energy, not just collections of objects — in which case consciousness and free will no longer seem so strange.

Overall, I think Barr’s book is largely convincing in his critique of scientific materialism. He does not provide scientific evidence for the existence of God, but he does make belief in God reasonable, as long as it is not a fundamentalist God. Indeed, any respectable book on science and religion is going to have to reject the notion that the Bible is literally true in all aspects if it is going to be properly scientific. I think Barr does occasionally engage in cherry-picking of evidence from religious thinkers and traditions that make it look as if early Jewish and Christian thinkers were more farsighted in their understanding of the universe than they actually were. But ultimately, judging a religion by its understanding of natural causation is a risky task; when new discoveries are made that overturn the old claims, what does one do? It would be absurd to deny the new discoveries in order to save the religion.

Religious knowledge should be considered primarily a form of transcendent knowledge about the Good, not empirical knowledge about what and how the world is. The Catholic priest-astronomer Georges Lemaître was correct in rejecting attempts by others to use his Big Bang theory as evidence for the merits of Christianity. The best test of a religion is not whether it explains nature, but whether it actually makes human beings and human civilization better.

Einstein’s Judeo-Quaker Pantheism

I recently came across a fascinating website, Einstein: Science and Religion, which I hope you will find time to peruse.  The website, edited by Arnold Lesikar, Professor Emeritus in the  Department of Physics, Astronomy, and Engineering Science at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, contains a collection of Einstein’s various comments on religion, God, and the relationship between science and religion.

Einstein’s views on religion have been frequently publicized and commented on, but it is difficult to get an accurate and comprehensive assessment of Einstein’s actual views on religion because of the tendency of both believers and atheists to cherry-pick particular quotations or to quote out of context. Einstein’s actual views on religion are complex and multifaceted, and one is apt to get the wrong impression by focusing on just one or several of Einstein’s comments.

One should begin by noting that Einstein did not accept the notion of a personal God, an omnipotent superbeing who listens to our prayers and intervenes in the operations of the laws of the universe. Einstein repeatedly rejected this notion of God throughout his life, from his adolescence to old age. He also believed that many, if not most, of the stories in the Bible were untrue.

The God Einstein did believe in was the God of the philosopher Spinoza. Spinoza conceived of God as being nothing more than the natural order underlying this universe — this order was fundamentally an intelligent order, but it was a mistake to conceive of God as having a personality or caring about man. Spinoza’s view was known as pantheism, and Einstein explicitly stated that he was a proponent of Spinoza and of pantheism. Einstein also argued that ethical systems were a purely human concern, with no superhuman authority figure behind them, and there was no afterlife in which humans could be rewarded or punished. In fact, Einstein believed that immortality was undesirable anyway. Finally, Einstein sometimes expressed derogatory views of religious institutions and leaders, believing them responsible for superstition and bigotry among the masses.

However, it should also be noted that Einstein’s skepticism and love of truth was too deep to result in a rigid and dogmatic atheism. Einstein described himself variously as an agnostic or pantheist and disliked the arrogant certainty of atheists. He even refused to definitively reject the idea of a personal God, believing that there were too many mysteries behind the universe to come to any final conclusions about God. He also wrote that he did not want to destroy the idea of a personal God in the minds of the masses, because even a primitive metaphysics was better than no metaphysics at all.

Even while rejecting the notion of a personal God, Einstein described God as a spirit, a spirit with the attribute of thought or intelligence: “[E]very one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe — a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.” In an interview, Einstein expressed a similar view:

If there is any such concept as a God, it is a subtle spirit, not an image of a man that so many have fixed in their minds. In essence, my religion consists of a humble admiration for this illimitable superior spirit that reveals itself in the slight details that we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds.

Distinguishing between the religious feeling of the “naïve man” and the religious feeling of the scientist, Einstein argued:  “[The scientist’s] religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.”

While skeptical and often critical of religious institutions, Einstein also believed that religion played a valuable and necessary role for civilization in creating “superpersonal goals” for human beings, goals above and beyond self-interest, that could not be established by pure reason.  Reason could provide us with the facts of existence, said Einstein, but the question of how we should live our lives necessarily required going beyond reason. According to Einstein:

[T]he scientific method can teach us nothing else beyond how facts are related to, and conditioned by, each other.The aspiration toward such objective knowledge belongs to the highest of which man is capabIe, and you will certainly not suspect me of wishing to belittle the achievements and the heroic efforts of man in this sphere. Yet it is equally clear that knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be. . . . Objective knowledge provides us with powerful instruments for the achievements of certain ends, but the ultimate goal itself and the longing to reach it must come from another source. . . .

To make clear these fundamental ends and valuations, and to set them fast in the emotional life of the individual, seems to me precisely the most important function which religion has to perform in the social life of man. And if one asks whence derives the authority of such fundamental ends, since they cannot be stated and justified merely by reason, one can only answer: they exist in a healthy society as powerful traditions, which act upon the conduct and aspirations and judgments of the individuals; they are there, that is, as something living, without its being necessary to find justification for their existence. They come into being not through demonstration but through revelation, through the medium of powerful personalities. One must not attempt to justify them, but rather to sense their nature simply and clearly.

Einstein even argued that the establishment of moral goals by religious prophets was one of the most important accomplishments of humanity, eclipsing even scientific accomplishment:

Our time is distinguished by wonderful achievements in the fields of scientific understanding and the technical application of those insights. Who would not be cheered by this? But let us not forget that knowledge and skills alone cannot lead humanity to a happy and dignified life. Humanity has every reason to place the proclaimers of high moral standards and values above the discoverers of objective truth. What humanity owes to personalities like Buddha, Moses, and Jesus ranks for me higher than all the achievements of the enquiring and constructive mind.

Einstein’s views of Jesus are particularly intriguing. Einstein never rejected his Jewish identity and refused all attempts by others to convert him to Christianity. Einstein also refused to believe the stories of Jesus’s alleged supernatural powers. But Einstein also believed the historical existence of Jesus was a fact, and Einstein regarded Jesus as one the greatest — if not the greatest — of religious prophets:

As a child, I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene. . . . No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life. How different, for instance, is the impression which we receive from an account of legendary heroes of antiquity like Theseus. Theseus and other heroes of his type lack the authentic vitality of Jesus. . . .No man can deny the fact that Jesus existed, nor that his sayings are beautiful. Even if some them have been said before, no one has expressed them so divinely as he.

Toward the end of his life, Einstein, while remaining Jewish, expressed great admiration for the Christian sect known as the Quakers. Einstein stated that the “Society of Friends,” as the Quakers referred to themselves as, had the “highest moral standards” and their influence was “very beneficial.” Einstein even declared “If I were not a Jew I would be a Quaker.”

Now Einstein’s various pronouncements on religion are scattered in multiple sources, so it is not surprising that people may get the wrong impression from examining just a few quotes. Sometimes stories of Einstein’s religious views are simply made up, implying that Einstein was a traditional believer. Other times, atheists will emphasize Einstein’s rejection of a personal God, while completely overlooking Einstein’s views on the limits of reason, the necessity of religion in providing superpersonal goals, and the value of the religious prophets.

For some people, a religion without a personal God is not a true religion. But historically, a number of major religions do not hold belief in a personal God as central to their belief system, including Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. In addition, many theologians in monotheistic faiths describe God in impersonal terms, or stress that the attributes of God may be represented symbolically as personal, but that God himself cannot be adequately described as a person. The great Jewish theologian Maimonides argued that although God had been described allegorically and imperfectly by the prophets as having the attributes of a personal being, God did not actually have human thoughts and emotions. The twentieth century Christian theologian Paul Tillich argued that God was not “a being” but the “Ground of Being” or the “Power of Being” existing in all things.

However, it is somewhat odd is that while rejecting the notion of a personal God, Einstein saw God as a spirit that seemingly possessed an intelligence far greater than that of human beings. In that, Einstein was similar to Spinoza, who believed God had the attribute of “thought” and that the human mind was but part of the “infinite intellect of God.”  But is not intelligence a quality of personal beings? In everyday life, we don’t think of orbiting planets or stars or rocks or water as possessing intelligence, and even if we attribute intelligence to lower forms of life such as bacteria and plants, we recognize that this sort of intelligence is primitive. If you ask people what concrete, existing things best possess the quality of intelligence, they will point to humans — personal beings! Yet, both Spinoza and Einstein attribute vast, or even infinite, intelligence to God, while denying that God is a personal being!

I am not arguing that Spinoza and Einstein were wrong or somehow deluding themselves when they argued that God was not a personal being. I am simply pointing out how difficult it is to adequately and accurately describe God. I think Spinoza and Einstein were correct in seeking to modify the traditional concept of God as a type of omnipotent superperson with human thoughts and emotions. But at the same time, it can be difficult to describe God in a way that does not use attributes that are commonly thought of as belonging to personal beings. At best, we can use analogies from everyday experience to indirectly describe God, while acknowledging that all analogies fall short.

Ironically, some of the deepest and most contentious issues in science today revolve around the use of certain concepts and analogies in describing physical entities, often on the subatomic level, that we cannot directly observe and that behave in bizarre ways completely outside of our normal experiences. But that is a subject for another day.

Religion as a Source of Evil – Part 2

In a previous post, I critically examined the claim of contemporary atheists that religion, and more broadly a lack of reason, has been a predominant cause of evil in history.  In response, I argued that evil in religion was an expression of deeper causes rooted in human nature, so abolishing religion would not address the fundamental problem of evil.  In addition, I argued that reason itself could not be a solution to evil because reason was too easily used as a tool of self-interest.  However, even after accounting for the deeper causes of evil, there remained a difficult question: what good is religion if it does not actually make human beings better?

This question faced one Christian pastor who was horrified by the easy accommodation of Christian churches in Germany to the Nazi party in the 1930s: Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Bonhoeffer’s response to the tragic development of Christianity in Germany will be examined briefly here.

Contrary to the claims of many atheists, the Christian churches in Germany were not exactly steadfast allies of the Nazis.  Leading Nazis despised Christanity because of its alleged superstitions and it’s compassion for the weak, and in the long term Hitler wanted to abolish Christianity.  However, Hitler knew he could not undertake too many battles at once and he did not want to cause division and turmoil in Germany while he needed national unity.  On the other hand, the Christian churches, while opposed to a number of elements of Nazi doctrine, wanted to survive, and largely agreed with Hitler’s policy of restoring German greatness.  So both sides struck a bargain, in which the Nazis permitted the continued existence of the churches as long as they did not challenge the secular authority of Hitler and the Nazis.  Moreover, a “German Christian” movement arose which attempted to reconcile Christianity and Nazism.

A number of leading Christians rebelled at this corrupt bargain, among them Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the founders of the anti-Nazi Confessing Church.  Bonhoeffer initially attempted peaceful resistance to the Nazis, later fled to the United States, but then returned to Germany in 1939.  Bomhoeffer made contacts with anti-Nazi resisters in German military intelligence, some of whom were involved in various assassination plots against Hitler.  When this underground movement was discovered, Bonhoeffer, already imprisoned by the Nazis, was hanged in April 1945.

In historical retrospect, Bonhoeffer is recognized as being one of the few Christian leaders in Germany who bravely resisted the Nazis and was willing to sacrifice his life for his Christian ideas.  As such Bonhoeffer is an inspiration to many, but it’s impossible to recognize the other side of the Bonhoeffer phenomenon — the fact that he was a definite minority, that most German Christians went along with the Nazis willingly and even participated in some of the Nazis’ greatest crimes.  This problem plagued Bonhoeffer’s conscience and provoked him to write a number of letters and essays espousing a newly reformed Christianity he called “religionless Christianity.”

Fundamental to Bonhoeffer’s argument was a concept he adopted from Karl Barth, that of “religion as idolatry.”  Idolatry, according to Barth and Bonhoeffer, occurs when human beings reject the “infinite qualitative distinction” between the absolute goodness of God and the flawed nature of man, and instead worship a god that is created in the image of man.  Under idolatry, human beings worship themselves, their nations, their political parties, and their churches, claiming that these human organizations speak for God or are carrying out God’s will, even when the greatest of crimes are being committed.  In his posthumously published Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer noted, “. . .my fear and distrust of ‘religiosity’ have become greater than ever here.  The fact that the Israelites never uttered the name of God always makes me think, and I can understand it better as I go on.”

It is important to note that Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” was not  a rejection of faith in God and Christ but a rejection of attempts to claim divine status for ordinary humans and human institutions.  In Bonhoeffer’s view, we don’t need the institutions of religion, which are easily subverted and perverted for evil purposes.  We simply need faith in God, worship, and prayer.  The church itself is secondary and not nearly as important as the individual’s relationship to God.

For Bonhoeffer, “religionless Christianity” was in part an attempt to make the best of a bad situation.  With progress in the sciences and technology making the universe more understandable and life easier to endure, human beings no longer needed God to explain certain mysteries or to cope with suffering.  According to Bonhoeffer, man was “grown up” and could solve many of his problems with technology.  It was no use invoking a “God of the gaps” to account for the remaining problems of humankind, because science could well eventually solve many of those problems as well.

What science and technology could not solve, however, was mankind itself and its tendency to evil, especially when acting in social organizations.  The Nazis excelled with science and technology — they built cutting-edge weapons such as jets and rockets, and their extermination camps were highly efficient in murdering millions at the lowest possible cost.  Man could conquer nature, but how was man to conquer himself?  Christianity in Germany should have been able to address this problem, but the churches only sought self-preservation, and the worship of God was perverted into worship of the German nation and the Fuhrer.  The core meaning of Christianity was lost.  Only the shell of Christianity, in the form of the rituals and the churches, remained.

What was the core meaning of Christianity?  In Bonhoeffer’s view, Christianity was fundamentally about attaining a new life by existing for others and participating in the sufferings of Jesus.  In Bonhoeffer’s words:  “It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life. . . . The ‘religious act’ is always something partial; ‘faith’ is something whole, involving the whole of one’s life.  Jesus calls men, not to a new religion, but to life.”

Bonhoeffer’s view of the future of the Christian Church was quite radical.  In his notes for a book he was writing while in prison, he wrote:

The church is the church only when it exists for others.  To make a start, it should give away all its property to those in need.  The clergy must live solely on the free-will offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling.  The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving.  It must tell men of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others.  In particular, our own church will have to take the field against the vices of hubris, power-worship, envy, and humbug, as the roots of all evil.  It will have to speak of moderation, purity, trust, loyalty, constancy, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty.  It must not under-estimate the importance of human example (which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus and is so important in Paul’s teaching); it is not abstract argument, but example, that gives its word emphasis and power.

Bonhoeffer’s views would probably appeal today to people who reject the label “Christian” and instead call themselves “followers of Jesus.”  These people are unhappy with the narrow-mindedness of many Christian churches and their involvement in politics; many of these “followers of Jesus” do not even go to church.  But they are drawn to Jesus’s teachings and the example of his love and self-sacrifice.

As for myself, I find a lot of merit to Bonhoeffer’s view of “religionless Christianity.”  But I also see several obstacles to its widespread adoption.  For one, Bonhoeffer’s vision does not appeal to those outside the Christian faith.  Bonhoeffer was fairly insistent that the Christian faith was not just another religion, but in fact a replacement for all religions.  God revealed himself in Christ, and that was that.  Second, the question of what God requires of us when we face particular political and social controversies is not going to be clear all the time, or even most of the time.  People of legitimate and honest Christian conscience may find themselves on opposite sides when faced with questions of war, the duties of the citizen to their government, the proper economic policy, the justice of the laws, etc.  At best, Christ provides general guidance, not specific guidance, and even good Christians may find themselves on different sides of an issue because of different views on the specifics of policy.   Finally, the notion of living for others and suffering with Christ is a noble goal, but extremely difficult, if not impossible, for most people.  We rightly honor Bonhoeffer for following Christ in martyrdom, but how many of us are really willing to become martyrs?  Few, I bet.  Still, even if we only emulate Christ partially and imperfectly, I suppose that is better than nothing, and considerably better than emulating the wrong person.


Religion as a Source of Evil

That religious individuals and institutions have committed great evils in the past is a fact not disputed by most intelligent persons with a good understanding of history.  What is disputed is the question of how much evil in history religion has actually been responsible for, and how to weigh that evil against the good that religion has done.

A number of contemporary atheist authors such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens focus intensely, even obsessively, on the evils committed by religion.  The message of their books is that not only is religion mostly evil, but that most of the evils committed by human beings historically can be attributed to religion and, more broadly, to a deficiency of reason.  They point to the role of religion in slavery, massacre, torture, ethnic conflict and genocide, racism, and antisemitism.  In response to the argument that secular regimes under the the Nazis and Communists have also been responsible for these same evils, Harris and Hitchens point to the willing collaboration of religious authorities and institutions with the Nazis.  Both authors also argue that secular dictatorships suffered from a deficiency of reason similar to that of religious faith.  A greater commitment to reason and to evidence as the basis for belief, in their view, would do much to end evils committed by both religious and secular movements and regimes.

There is a good deal of truth to these arguments.  The world would be much improved if superstitions and incorrect beliefs about other human beings, ethnic groups, and societies could be eliminated.  But ultimately Harris and Hitchens do not seem to understand, or even take interest in, the deeper causes of evil in human beings.

The problem with viewing evil as being simply an outcome of irrationality is that it overlooks the powerful tendency of reason itself to be a tool of self-interest and self-aggrandizement.  Human beings commit evil not so much because they are irrational, but because they use reason to pursue and justify their desires.  It is the inherent self-centeredness of human beings that is the source of evil, not the belief systems that enable the pursuit and justification of self-interest.  Individual and group desires for wealth, power, influence, fame, prestige, and the fear of defeat and shame — these are the causes of social conflict, violence, and oppression.

Harris and Hitchens point to Biblical sanctions for slavery, and imply that slavery would not have existed if it were not for religion.  But is it not the case that slavery was ultimately rooted in the human desire for a life of wealth and ease, and that one path to such a life in the pre-industrial era was to force others to work for one’s self?  Is it not also the case that human conflicts over land were (and are) rooted in the same desire for wealth, and that violent conflicts over social organization have been rooted in clashing visions over who is to hold power?  Religion has been implicated in slavery and social conflicts, but religion has not been the main cause.

It is worth quoting James Madison on the perennial problem of oppression and violence:

 As long as the reason of man continues [to be] fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. . . .

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning Government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for preëminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other, than to coöperate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions, and excite their most violent conflicts.  (Federalist, No. 10)

In Madison’s view, religion was but one source of conflict and oppression, which was ultimately rooted in the problem of differing opinions among humans, arising out of human beings’ inevitable fallibility and self-love.

A number of contemporary science experiments have demonstrated the truth of Madison’s insight.  On contentious issues ranging from global warming to gun control, people of greater intelligence tend to be more passionately divided on these issues than people of lesser intelligence, and more likely to interpret evidence in a way that supports the conclusions of the groups to which they belong.  Higher intelligence did not lead to more accurate conclusions but a greater ability to interpret evidence in a way that supported pre-existing beliefs and group preferences.

Sam Harris himself displays tendencies toward extreme intolerance in his book that would make one leery of the simple claim that an enthusiastic commitment to reason would do much to end violence and oppression.  In his book The End of Faith, Harris declares that “[s]ome propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them” (pp. 52-53); he calls for imposing a “benign dictatorship” on backward societies as a means of self-defense (pp. 150-51); and he defends the use of torture on both military prisoners and criminal suspects in certain cases  (p. 197).  Harris even writes dreamily of what might have been if “some great kingdom of Reason emerged at the time of the Crusades and pacified the credulous multitudes of Europe and the Middle East.  We might have had modern democracy and the Internet by the year 1600.” (p. 109)  One can just imagine Sam Harris as the leader of this great “kingdom of Reason,” slaughtering, oppressing, and torturing ignorant, superstitious masses, all for the sake of lasting peace and progress.  Of course, there is nothing new about this dream.  It was the dream of the Jacobins and of the Communists as well, which was a nightmare for all who opposed them.

Edmund Burke, a keen observer of the Jacobin mentality, correctly noted why it was mistaken to believe that abolishing religion would do much to eliminate evil in the world:

 History consists, for the greater part, of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites, which shake the public with the same

‘troublous storms that toss
The private state, and render life unsweet.’

These vices are the causes of those storms. Religion, morals, laws, prerogatives, privileges, liberties, rights of men, are the pretexts. The pretexts are always found in some specious appearance of a real good. You would not secure men from tyranny and sedition by rooting out of the mind the principles to which these fraudulent pretexts apply? If you did, you would root out everything that is valuable in the human breast. As these are the pretexts, so the ordinary actors and instruments in great public evils are kings, priests, magistrates, senates, parliaments, national assemblies, judges, and captains. You would not cure the evil by resolving that there should be no more monarchs, nor ministers of state, nor of the Gospel,—no interpreters of law, no general officers, no public councils. You might change the names: the things in some shape must remain. A certain quantum of power must always exist in the community, in some hands, and under some appellation. Wise men will apply their remedies to vices, not to names,—to the causes of evil, which are permanent, not to the occasional organs by which they act, and the transitory modes in which they appear. Otherwise you will be wise historically, a fool in practice. (Reflections on the Revolution in France)

Nevertheless, even if we accept Burke’s contention that the evils of religion lie in human nature and not in religion itself, there remains one  question:  shouldn’t we expect more of religion?  If religion doesn’t make people better, and simply reflects human nature, then what good is it?

To that question, I have to say that I honestly do not know.  History offers such a superabundance of both the good and ill effects of religious beliefs and institutions that I cannot fairly weigh the evidence.  In addition, widespread atheism is still a relatively new phenomenon in history, so I find it difficult to judge the long-term effects of atheism.  It is true that atheist regimes have committed many atrocities, but it is also the case that atheism is widespread in modern European democracies, and those countries are free of massacre and oppression, and have lower crime rates than the more religious United States.

Perhaps we should consider the views of one Christian who personally witnessed the catastrophic capitulation of Christian churches to the Nazi regime in the 1930s and decided to become a dissenter to the Nazi regime and the German Christian establishment that supported the Nazis.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis in the waning days of World War Two, proposed a newly reformed Christianity that would indeed fulfill the role of making human beings better.  I will critically evaluate Bonhoeffer’s proposal in a future post.

Christopher Hitchens: An Excess of Errors

I recently finished reading the late Christopher Hitchens’ book god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

In some parts, the book is delightful, and I admire the author’s courage.  Although the social penalties for atheism are much less in contemporary democratic societies than in other societies, past and present, there is also personal courage in facing up to the possibility that there is no God and no afterlife, which can be a distressing and demoralizing experience for many.  The author’s main points about the inaccuracy or falsity of religious beliefs about cosmology and history, as well as the persistent use of religion historically to rationalize evil behavior (such as the trading or keeping of slaves) have been made by others, but the author’s arguments are not entirely unoriginal, and I definitely learned some new things.

Having said that, I also need to say this: god is not Great is filled with many errors — in many cases, obvious, egregious errors that should not have gotten past the editor’s desk.  (Do publishing houses even bother editing and fact-checking any more?)  Now, it is not unusual for even great scholarly books to have some errors of fact.  But when the errors are so numerous, and so significant, it can greatly undermine the case the author is making.  Frankly, I think Hitchens understands religion about as well as a fundamentalist understands evolution.  In a few cases, Hitchens does not even understand some basic facts of science.

Let us review the errors.  (Page numbers are from the paperback edition, which appear to be similar to page numbers in the hardcover edition, except for the afterword that was added to the paperback).

p. 5  – “We [atheists] do not believe in heaven or hell, yet no statistic will ever find that without these blandishments and threats we commit more crimes of greed and violence than the faithful.  (In fact, if a proper statistical query could ever be made, I am sure the evidence would be the other way).”  – Actually, according to The Handbook of Crime Correlates (pp. 108-113), while there is some variation in studies, the majority of social science statistical studies have concluded that religious believers are less likely to engage in criminal behavior.  This is by no means a slam-dunk, as a minority of studies point the other way, but I find it remarkable that Hitchens thought that nobody even bothered to study this issue.  Although the Handbook came out after Hitchens’ book was published, the studies cited in the Handbook go back decades.

pp. 7, 63  – Hitchens acknowledges the intelligence and scholarship of theologians such as Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, and Newman, but argues “there are no more of them today and . . . there will be no more of them tomorrow.”  The reason for this, he writes, is that “Faith of that sort — the sort that can stand up at least for a while in a confrontation with reason — is now plainly impossible.”  Actually, there are numerous intelligent and accomplished modern theologians who have incorporated faith and reason into their world views, including Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Karl Barth.  Pope John Paul II pursued graduate study in philosophy and incorporated insights from the philosophy of phenomenology into his doctoral dissertation.  Did Hitchens ever hear of these people and their works?  A quick Google search confirms that Hitchens did know of Niebuhr, which indicates to me that Hitchens was being dishonest.

p. 7 – “Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago: either that or it mutated into an admirable but nebulous humanism, as did, say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brave Lutheran pastor hanged by the Nazis for his refusal to collude with them.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was far from being a nebulous humanist.  In fact, Bonhoeffer’s theological ideas were fairly conservative and Bonhoeffer insisted on the need for total devotion to God and the saving grace of Jesus Christ.  “I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions,” Bonhoeffer once wrote.  Also, Bonhoeffer was not hanged for simply refusing to collude with the Nazis, but for actively opposing the Nazis and conspiring to assassinate Hitler.

pp. 12-13 – “there is a real and serious difference between me and my religious friends, and the real and serious friends are sufficiently honest to admit it.  I would be quite content to go their children’s bar mitzvahs to marvel at their Gothic cathedrals, to “respect” their belief that the Koran was dictated, though exclusively in Arabic, to an illiterate merchant, or to interest myself in Wicca and Hindu and Jain consolations.  And as it happens, I will continue to do this without insisting on the polite reciprocal condition — which is that they in turn leave me alone.  But this, religion is ultimately incapable of doing.”  Let’s leave aside the curious claim that Hitchens has religious friends who all happen to be grossly intolerant (unlucky him).  What is the evidence that religion in general is hopelessly intolerant, including the Jain religion?  Jainism, which Hitchens doesn’t bother discussing in any detail, places nonviolence at the very center of its beliefs.  Jains are so nonviolent that they practice vegetarianism and go to great lengths to avoid killing insects; some Jains even refuse to eat certain plants.  Jainism influenced Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaign, which in turn influenced Martin Luther King Jr.s’ own nonviolence campaign.  Yet somehow those Jains just can’t leave Hitchens alone.  What a bizarre persecution complex.

pp. 25, 68 – Hitchens argues that the ancient works of Aristotle and other Greeks were lost under Christianity because “the Christian authorities had burned some, suppressed others, and closed the schools of philosophy, on the grounds that there could have been no useful reflections on morality before the preaching of Jesus.”  Actually, the works of Aristotle and other Greeks were lost for centuries in Western Europe, primarily because of the collapse of the Roman empire in the west, which negatively affected education, scholarship, libraries, and book-making in general.  In the east, the Byzantine empire, though a Christian state, preserved the works of Aristotle and incorporated Aristotle’s thoughts into Byzantine philosophiesMonasteries in the Byzantine empire played an important role in preserving and copying books of the ancient Greeks.  Attitudes of Christians in Western Europe toward the philosophies of ancient Greece were mixed, with some condemning and suppressing Greek works, and others incorporating Greek works into their scholarship.

pp. 46-47 – “The attitude of religion to medicine, like the attitude of religion to science, is always necessarily problematic and very often necessarily hostile.”  Historically, medicine was not an alternative to prayer and devotion to God but a supplement to it.  The earliest hospitals were established in religious temples devoted to gods of healing.  While medical knowledge was primitive compared to today, even the ancients had some practical knowledge of surgery and anesthesia.  Many modern-day medications, such as aspirin, quinine, and ephedrine, have their roots in plants that the ancients used for healing.  The father of western medicine, Hippocrates, is famously known for his oath to the gods of healing, which calls for adherence to ethical rules in the practice of medicine.  And historically, both Christianity and Islam played major roles in the founding of hospitals and the study of medical science.

p. 68 – “[E]ven the religious will speak with embarrassment of the time when theologians would dispute over futile propositions with fanatical intensity: measuring the length of angels’ wings, for example, or debating how many such mythical creatures could dance on the head of a pin.”  The notion that theologians debated about how many angels danced on the head of a pin was actually an invention of post-medieval satirists who wanted to criticize theology.  Historically, theologians generally held that angels were incorporeal, or purely spiritual beings, and as such did not have “wings.”

p. 144 – While discussing persons who claim to have been visited by extraterrestrials, Hitchens argues, “travel from Alpha Centauri . . . would involve some bending of the laws of physics.”  Actually, Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to our own, a little over 4 light years away.  While I think it is most unlikely that extraterrestrials have visited earth, travel to or from Alpha Centauri would not require any bending of the laws of physics, only some incremental improvements in existing technologies based on the current laws of physics.  The travel would probably take decades, but would not be impossible.  Either Hitchens is arguing that interstellar travel is inherently impossible or he is claiming that advances in technology require “bending” the laws of physics.  Whatever he believed, it doesn’t make sense.

p. 181 – “As far as I am aware, there is no country in the world today where slavery is still practiced where the justification of it is not derived from the Koran.”  Among the countries ranked highest in modern-day slavery are several Islamic counties, but also China, Russia, Thailand, and Haiti.  It would be odd if these countries cited the Koran as a justification for slavery.

p. 192 – Pointing to the Rwandan genocide, Hitchens argues, “At a minimum, this makes it impossible to argue that religion causes people to behave in a more kindly or civilized manner.  The worse the offender, the more devout he turns out to be.”  Among the worst practitioners of genocide in the past hundred years were atheists, including Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, and Pol Pot.  It is not clear whether Hitler was an atheist or a deist, but he was certainly not “devout.”  Finally, the majority of social science studies have shown that those with orthodox religious beliefs are less inclined to commit crime.

p. 232. – Hitchens attempts to argue that atheist totalitarian regimes are actually religious in nature: “[T]he object of perfecting the species — which is the very root and source of the totalitarian impulse — is in essence a religious one.”  Actually, a major point of most religions is that perfection on earth is not possible, that perfection is only found in an other-worldly place called heaven or nirvana.  The communist critique of religion is precisely that it makes people satisfied with their lot on earth, waiting and longing for a world that never comes.

p. 279 – Hitchens makes a reference to “Iran’s progress in thermonuclear fission.”  The correct terminology is “nuclear fission,” not “thermonuclear fission.”  “Thermonuclear” refers to the use of very high temperatures to cause the fusion of atomic nuclei, not fission.  It is possible to use a thermonuclear process involving hydrogen and boron to cause the fission of boron atoms, but this is not what Iran is currently doing.

p. 283 – “The study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and for the eternal ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected.”  After dismissing religious stories as fictional, Hitchens argues that we can obtain ethical guidance from . . . the fictions of literature and poetry.  Never mind that religious texts are also powerful sources of literature and poetry, that Jesus used parables to illustrate ethics, and that Church Fathers often interpreted the myths of the Bible allegorically.  Only secular sources of fiction, in Hitchens’ view, can be used as a guide to ethics.  Why is not clear.

Well, that’s it.  Reading Hitchens’ book was occasionally enjoyable, but more often exhausting.  There’s only so many blatant falsehoods a person can handle without wanting to flee.


Two Types of Religion

Debates about religion in the West tend to center around the three monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  However, it is important to note that these three religions are not necessarily typical or representative of religion in general.

In fact, there are many different types of religion, but for purposes of simplicity I would like to divide the religions of the world into two types: revealed religion and philosophical religion.  These two categories are not exclusive, and many religions overlap both categories, but I think it is a useful conceptual divide.

“Revealed religion” has been defined as a “religion based on the revelation by God to man of ideas that he would not have arrived at by his natural reason alone.”  The three monotheistic religions all belong in this category, though there are philosophers and elements of philosophy in these religions as well.  Most debates about religion and science, or religion and reason, assume that all religions are revealed religions.  However, there is another type of religion: philosophical religion.

Philosophical religion can be defined as a set of religious beliefs that are arrived at primarily through reason and dialogue among philosophers.  The founders of philosophical religion put forth ideas on the basis that these ideas are human creations accessible to all and subject to discussion and debate like any other idea.  These religions are found in the far east, and include Confucianism, Taoism, and Hinduism.  However, there are also philosophical religions in the West, such as Platonism or Stoicism, and there have been numerous philosophers who have constructed philosophical interpretations of the three monotheistic religions as well.

There are a number of crucial distinguishing characteristics that separate revealed religion from philosophical religion.

Revealed religion originates in a single prophet, who claims to have direct communication with God.  Even when historical research indicates multiple people playing a role in founding a revealed religion, as well as the borrowing of concepts from other religions, the tradition and practice of revealed religion generally insists upon the unique role of a prophet who is usually regarded as infallible or close to infallible — Moses, Jesus, or Muhammad.  Revealed religion also insists on the existence of God, often defined as a personal, supreme being who has the qualities of omniscience and omnipotence.  (It may seem obvious to many that all religions are about God, but that is not the case, as will be discussed below.)

Faith is central to revealed religion.  Rational argument and evidence may be used to convince others of the merits of a revealed religion, but ultimately there are too many fundamental beliefs in a revealed religion that are either non-demonstrable or contradictory to evidence from science, history, and archeology.  Faith may be used positively, as an aid to making a decision in the absence of clear evidence, so that one does not sustain loss from despair and a paralysis of will; however, faith may also be used negatively, to deny or ignore findings from other fields of knowledge.

The problems with revealed religion are widely known: these religions are prone to a high degree of superstition and many followers embrace anti-scientific attitudes when the conclusions of science refute or contradict the beliefs of revealed religion.  (This is a tendency, not a rule — for example, many believers in revealed religion do not regard a literal interpretation of the Garden of Eden story as central to their beliefs, and they fully accept the theory of evolution.)  Worse, revealed religions appear to be prone to intolerance, oppression of non-believers and heretics, and bloody religious wars.  It seems most likely that this intolerance is the result of a belief system that sees a single prophet as having a unique, infallible relationship to God, with all other religions being in error because they lack this relationship.

Philosophical religion, by contrast, emerges from a philosopher or philosophers engaging in dialogue.  In the West, this role was played by philosophers in ancient Greece and Rome, before their views were eclipsed by the rise of the revealed religion of Christianity.  In the East, philosophers were much more successful in establishing great religions.  In China, Confucius established a system of beliefs about morals and righteous behavior that influenced an entire empire, while Lao Tzu proposed that a mysterious power known as the “Tao” was the source and driving force behind everything.  In India, Hinduism originated as a diverse collection of beliefs by various philosophers, with some unifying themes, but no single creed.

As might be expected, philosophical religions have tended to be more tolerant and cosmopolitan than revealed religions.  Neither Greek nor Roman philosophers were inclined to kill each other over the finer points of Plato’s conception of God or the various schools of Stoicism, because no one ever claimed to have an infallible relationship with an omnipotent being.  In China, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are not regarded as incompatible, and many Chinese subscribe to elements of two or all three belief systems.  It is rare to ever see a religious war between adherents of philosophical religions.  And although many people automatically equate religion with faith, there is usually little or no role for faith in philosophical religions.

The role of God in philosophical religions is very different from the role of God in revealed religions.  Most philosophers, in east and west, defined God in impersonal terms, or proposed a God that was not omnipotent, or regarded a Creator God as unimportant to their belief system.  For example, Plato proposed that a secondary God known as a “demiurge” was responsible for creating the universe; the demiurge was not omnipotent, and was forced to create a less-than-perfect universe out of the imperfect materials he was given.  The Stoics did not subscribe to a personal God and instead proposed that a divine fire pervaded the universe, acting on matter to bring all things into accordance with reason.  Confucius, while not explicitly rejecting the possibility of God, did not discuss God in any detail, and had no role for divine powers in his teachings.  The Tao of Lao Tzu is regarded as a mysterious power underlying all things, but it is certainly not a personal being.  Finally, the concept of a Creator God is not central to Hinduism; in fact one of the six orthodox schools of Hinduism is explicitly atheistic, and has been for over two thousand years.

There are many virtues to philosophical religion.  While philosophical religion is not immune to the problem of incorrect conceptions and superstition, it does not resist reason and science, nor does it attempt to stamp out challenges to its claims to the same extent as revealed religions.  Philosophical religion is largely tolerant and reasonable.

However, there is also something arid and unsatisfying about many philosophical religions.  The claims of philosophical religion are usually modest, and philosophical religion has cool reason on its side.  But philosophical religion often does not have the emotional and imaginative content of revealed religion, and in these ways it is lacking. The emotional swings and imaginative leaps of revealed religion can be dangerous, but emotion and imagination are also essential to full knowledge and understanding (see here and here).  One cannot properly assign values to things and develop the right course of action without the emotions of love, joy, fear, anger, and sadness.  Without imagination, it is not possible to envision better ways of living.  When confronted with mystery, a leap of faith may be justified, or even required.

Abstractly, I have a great appreciation for philosophical religion, but in practice, I prefer Christianity.  I have the greatest admiration for the love of Christ, and I believe in Christian love as a guide for living.  At the same time, my Christianity is unorthodox and leavened with a generous amount of philosophy.  I question various doctrinal points of Christianity, I believe in evolution, and I don’t believe in miracles that violate the physical laws that have been discovered by science.  I think it would do the world good if revealed religions and philosophical religions recognized and borrowed each other’s virtues.

Omnipotence and Human Freedom

Prayson Daniel writes about Christian author C. S. Lewis’s attempt to deal with the problem of evil here and here.  Lewis, who suffered tragic loss at an early age, became an atheist when young, but later converted to Christianity.  Lewis directly addressed the challenge of the atheists’ argument — why would an omnipotent and benevolent God allow evil to exist? — in his books The Problem of Pain and Mere Christianity.

Central to Lewis’s argument is the notion that the freedom to do good or evil is essential to being human.  If human beings were always compelled to do good, they would not be free, and thus would be unable to attain genuine happiness.

One way to illustrate the necessity of freedom is to imagine a world in which human beings were unable to commit evil — no violence, no stealing, no lying, no cheating, no betrayal.  At first, such a world might appear to be a paradise.  But the price would be this: essentially we would all be nothing but robots.  Without the ability to commit evil, doing good would have no meaning.  We would do good simply because we were programmed or compelled to do nothing but good.  There would be no choices because there would be no alternatives.  Love and altruism would have no meaning because it wouldn’t be freely chosen.

Let us imagine a slightly different world, a world in which freedom is allowed, but God always intervenes to reward the good and punish the guilty.  No good people ever suffer.  Earthquakes, fires, disease, and other natural disasters injure and kill only those who are guilty of evil.  Those who do good are rewarded with good health, riches, and happiness.  This world seems only slightly better than the world in which we are robots.  In this second world, we are mere zoo animals or pets.  We would be trained by our master to expect treats when we behave and punishment when we misbehave.  Again, doing good would have no meaning in this world — we would simply be advancing our self-interest, under constant, inescapable surveillance and threat of punishment.  In some ways, life in this world would be almost as regimented and monotonous as in the world in which we are compelled to do good.

For these reasons, I find the “free will” argument for the existence of evil largely persuasive when it comes to explaining the existence of evil committed by human beings.  I can even see God as having so much respect for our freedom that he would stand aside even in the face of an enormous crime such as genocide.

However, I think that the free will argument is less persuasive when it comes to accounting for evils committed against human beings by natural forces — earthquakes, fires, floods, disease, etc.  Natural forces don’t have free will in the same sense that human beings do, so why doesn’t God intervene when natural forces threaten life?  Granted, it would be asking too much to expect that natural disasters happen only to the guilty.  But the evils resulting from natural forces seem to be too frequent, too immense, and too random to be attributed to the necessity of freedom.  Why does freedom require the occasional suffering and death of even small children?  It’s hard to believe that small children have even had enough time to live in order to exercise their free will in a meaningful way.

Overall, the scale of divine indifference in cases of natural disaster is too great for me to think that it is part of a larger gift of free will.  For this reason, I am inclined to think that there are limits on God’s power to make a perfect world, even if the freedom accorded to human beings is indeed a gift of God.