This post will not be about the history and/or literature of earliest Christianity per se, but on a more explicitly religious issue. In fact, the religious issue.
Let me preface it by stating two rather obvious things about myself, specifically what I am not. At least the first is obvious to me, and the second is, I’m sure, obvious to everyone who will be reading this.
The first is, I am not a missionary for my particular religious views. I have no particular difficulty with people who *do* want to convert others to their perspectives, but it’s not something I’m much interested in doing myself. I’m an atheist, and if you yourself choose not to be, more power to you! About the only thing I’m seriously missionary about are ideas, views, policies, social agendas, and political figures intent on helping people rather than hurting them (and not just a certain slice of my fellow American citizens). I see all kinds of religious fundamentalism as hurtful rather than helpful, so I oppose them. I also see lots of social and political views, policies, and advocates in that same light – but I try not to get into that much on the blog.
Second is, I am not a scientist. Didn’t see that one coming, huh? But it’s what this post is about. In school I was always pretty good at math, at the low levels I did it. But I never had an interest or ability in any of the sciences. I don’t know why. My neurons don’t seem to work that way. And now I’m at a stage in life where I’m thinking that’s too bad.
One of my keenest interests since I was a teenager has been trying to understand what we might call, in rather, uh, general terms, ultimate reality. On one level, that’s very much why I became so unusually religious. I thought I had found a doorway to the truth and I pursued it vigorously. For decades. It is also why I have always been so passionate about literature (especially 19th century novels); it can help me uncover the “truth.” And some aspects of philosophy (many aspects I can’t handle; but I’ve long been heavily influenced by many of the ancients Plato; Epicurus and Lucretius; Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius; and so on).
But mainly it was religion. I wanted to know the truth about the world, and I believed understanding deeper reality was a matter of understanding the ways of God, as revealed in the Bible, as revealed in nature, as revealed in revelation of all kind.
And now, as I approach 65, I believe I have been barking up the wrong tree.
Some years ago, when I started a meditation practice, I became very interested in the human body as a phenomenon. Despite having no mind for science, I got interested in understanding the basics (the VERY basics) about anatomy. That got me increasingly interested in questions about how humans came about. Evolution, certainly (which I’ve subscribed to since I was roughly 22), but also consciousness. How do we explain it? And life itself.
I rarely read non-fiction in my spare time, since that’s what I do for a living and as a rule I don’t find it relaxing. But I decided to start reading up and thinking about astronomy and physics and … and whatever struck my fancy in the realm of science. I had become a complete materialist many years ago, without understanding the science about it. Suddenly reading some popular level works that explain the science to humanists like me has started to open my eyes and blow my mind.
I started slow (Bill Bryson! The Body; and A Short History of Nearly Everything); I began watching Youtube anatomy videos (among many others, John Campbell: fantastic!); I graduated to some serious physics written at a level I could still grasp, Brian Greene, Until the End of Time. Now I’m obsessed with Sean Carroll, The Big Picture. I have to take it all slowly, because my mind really doesn’t (still) work along these lines. But these last two (both of whom, btw, were recommended by blog members!) are completely altering how I understand the world, the beginning of it all, what it means to be human, and as a result the meaning of life. In a sense it is confirming what I’ve thought without knowing so much why I thought it; it is giving the rationale, established by math and experimentation.
Some of you are scientists, and this is the kind of thing you were thinking when you were 18. When I was 18 I was thinking about the book of Genesis. Big difference.
I bring all this up – without getting into the details – mainly because I am so very frustrated by people who are opposed to science and experts in science, who think that scientists simply have one opinion that is no better than any other opinion. Anything that doesn’t seem obvious to them is discounted simply because it isn’t obvious, or is in fact counter-intuitive.
I think what frustrates me the most is that some people think they can pose an unanswerable question to prove that scientific explanations of the universe are highly problematic and therefore unacceptable, or not as helpful as explanations given in their millennia-old religious tradition. For example, if the entire universe is made up of matter and forces (we’re all a bunch of particles affected by gravity, electro-magnetism, and on on), then how to you explain the emergence of sentient beings, let alone massively conscious ones? Well, who knows? Or, if you think there was a Big Bang, then here’s one for you: what started the Big Bang? Huh? It must have been God! There’s no other answer!
But the fact that a religious answer answers the question doesn’t mean it’s the right answer. I could say the Big Bang wasn’t started by the Christian God but by the preincarnate form of my great uncle on my mother’s side or by an amoeba who now lives happily on the planet Zoas. Those responses too would answer the question, but they would naturally lead to a few questions of its own. As does the hypothesis about God. Having an answer per se is not the way to know if your view is right.
And today a comparison hit me. I don’t know if it’s any good or not. But this is it.
In ancient cultures the idea that the earth could be part of a system of planets revolving around a star would have made ZERO sense. When someone eventually came up with the idea of a solar system, a natural response would have been: “That makes NO SENSE. How can you explain it? Round planets in space?? What’s holding them there?” The person who propounded the idea would have to say, “I don’t know. For us that seems fair enough. So what would we, now, think of the respondents who then said, “Then it can’t be right! BUT I can explain it because we have always known that the earth is the center of all things, because God created it that way”?
Or – there are a million examples – in the ancient world most people thought that if lightning struck, it was a god hurling a thunderbolt. When someone came up with the view that lightning was a natural event that could be could be caused by climatic conditions, and was asked “How is that possible?” he would have had to say “I don’t know.” How would we respond to those who replied – SEE, that shows it must have been hurled down by God!
Most people accept basic views of science that coincide well enough with how they see the world, involving such things as electrons and protons, gravity and nuclear forces, even if they don’t understand really what they are or how they work. But when it comes to things contrary to their religious views, they say that it can’t be that way. And their self-assuring argument is, You Don’t Have an Explanation for it, so it Can’t Be Right.
It just isn’t a satisfying response. I’m not saying the science has to be right. And yes, scientists disagree on lots and lots of things. (So do creationists, by the way: disagreements with others doesn’t mean you’re wrong. Other things mean you’re wrong.) And yes I know there are scientists, some prominent ones, who continue to believe in God and are in fact committed Christians.
But none of that bothers me in the least. What bothers me is what *I myself* am supposed to think. I hope that bothers you too. (Not what I think but what you do.) But it does seem to me that not knowing an answer for why something happened that appears to have happened is not a good reason for thinking it did not happen.
And if the overwhelming view among the professional scientists is that there was a Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago and that the world is made up of particles and forces, and that everything in the world – including life itself — can be explained on the basis of those particles and forces, with nothing else needed, including any external influence of any kind, that should give anyone with religious commitments pause. I said “if” it is the overwhelming view. But in fact it is the scientific view. In that light, what is the rationale for believing there is also a God outside of it all?
I told you this post would be about the religious issue! I welcome your views!