The Truth about What we Believe

Stanley Fish wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times entitled God Talk, one paragraph of which I commented on in my blog The American Myth and Its God.   Fish’s opinion piece brought out a fair number of atheist critics who contrasted science, knowledge and reason to religion, opinion and faith.   Fish in turn responded with a second piece, God Talk Part 2 in which he notes :

According to recent surveys, somewhere between 79 and 92 percent of Americans believe in God. But if the responses to my column on Terry Eagleton’s “Faith, Reason and Revolution” constitute a representative sample, 95 percent of Times readers don’t. What they do believe, apparently, is that religion is a fairy tale, hogwash, balderdash, nonsense and a device for rationalizing horrible deeds.

It is interesting to note in a study of evolutionary biologists of about 150 who responded to a survey almost 80% identified themselves as atheists.   They certainly would have sided with Fish’s critics, but would still be in the minority in America.    Fish is also sometimes criticized by more traditional/conservative believers as his arguments aren’t always comforting to them either.   But Fish found a defender in Paul Campos who authored the opinion piece   The Atheist’s Dilemma.

Fish and Campos both made me think about my own spiritual sojourn.  For certainly at one time I considered myself an atheist and really did think that the only way to a better world was for everyone to be honest about everything, and if we were all honest everyone would have to admit they had never had an experience of God.    What I thought was an obvious and easy solution to all the debates about religion, turned out to be no basis for the discussion at all because some could not say they had never experienced God, or the divine, or angels, spirits or ghosts, because in fact they believed they had. 

Our sense of truth is shaped by what we believe.  This is as true for scientists as believers.  We are constantly trying to make sense of the universe around us and we make certain assumptions which shape what we think is true.  For example, no “miracle” will ever convince an atheist there is a God.  For if one does not believe God exists, one is not going to consider God as an explanation for what one sees.   Depending on what one believes one might see in any event an accident, a miracle, a random event, a cause – effect relationship, a mystery, nature at work, human error, luck or the hand of God.  

Countless witnesses of tragedies and traumas offer person testimony which is not an “objective” account of what happened but is an account filtered through their own ideas of what is true and how the universe works.  (Years ago I read a sci-fi novel – by Robert Heinlein?- in which there were people who were neutral/objective observers and had an ability to record in their minds events they observed almost camera like without interpreting them).   I remember reading once a claim made that the best observers of plane crashes were children who simply reported what they saw, while the reports of those with more aviation experience was often tainted by their own trying to make sense of what they saw and so often included ideas of “what must have happened”  rather than what actually happened.

Those who feel they rely only on proof for what they believe are not likely to be attracted to religion or faith in God, as they will never see proof.   (I one time head someone say to those claiming to accept things only on proof: do you think the sun is 93 million miles from earth?  Have you ever measured that yourself?  So then you do accept on faith the witness and testimony of others!)    There are many things we do accept on faith and we don’t personally prove everything science claims.  Science would still say, yes, but you could at least prove our claims if you had the scientific knowledge of how to conduct the experiments.  Yes, but if you don’t, and most of us don’t, we accept a lot of what science says on faith – we accept the testimony of the witnesses to the experiments.  (That by the way is what we Christians do as well).

sudokuSome years ago I began doing the addictive Sudoku puzzles.    Because there are a limited number of squares to fill (81) and since you know what has to go in each square (a number from 1 to 9) and there are established rules as  to how the numbers must be placed, one can assume that the puzzle is solvable by logic, and in fact it is.   However,  one can approach the puzzle “feeling lucky” and think it will be solved easily, or one can look at the rating of the puzzle and be challenged or discouraged by the level of difficulty.    Sudoku players develop various strategies for how to solve the puzzle, and because of the nature of the game there really are only so many strategies to follow and one can exhaust one’s strategies and get “stuck” on a puzzle where no amount of logic seems to resolve the puzzle.  Then one can try guessing (or relying on one’s feeling about a particular number) – just putting in a number and see if it solves the puzzle or not.  This guessing however is not completely random for it is also based on logic – the rules of the puzzle already limit the number of possibilities.   So even when you think you aren’t following logic but just trying numbers at random, you already know what the numbers are you can use, so you are relying on logic.

I mention Sudoku because I think it is a small model of how we approach life and whether we think we are looking at the world through eyes of faith or reason, science or religion, skill or luck, design or randomness.  Our ability to see is limited by the assumptions we make.  Even scientists, medical researchers, police investigators sometimes miss a clue or misunderstand the results of an experiment because they don’t know what they are looking at.  And then when the right frame of reference is given to them, they suddenly understand clearly what was right in front of their eyes.  This I think is how believers see the world differently from non-believers – it is not a matter of proof, it is the frame of reference. 

I eventually abandoned my atheism because I could not make sense out of what I was seeing in the world.  Something was missing; I could not find meaning in my life.   But if I did not have the frame of reference of meaning and seeking something more than scientific fact (I started college as a chemistry major), I might have been quite content in science because there too I was seeking truth.  It is just that I do not believe that reducing a human being to his or her exact chemical composition – no matter how exactly true those facts may be – really explains what it is to be human.