06 October 2009

On the Nature of God

Since I haven't really had either the time or the will to sit down and right a proper blog post this past week and since Yahoo is closing down their Geocities site in a few weeks, I thought I'd repost a couple of old essays that I had on my site over there. This particular one was adapted from an e-mail exchange I had over a decade ago with someone who couldn't wrap their heads around the idea of atheism. I'd probably write it a little differently today, but my basic premise and belief is unchanged.

In other news, my Raffle for Marriage Equality has so far raised $770 for the No on 1 campaign. A couple of people have pointed out that the date for that entry is set in the future, and that's intentional in order to keep it at the top of the blog until Election Day, which will be the final day to enter. If you haven't entered yet, please consider making a donation to No on 1, which is your ticket to doing so.

On the Nature of God

While I don't have a problem with creation stories being taught, per se, I have a HUGE problem with the idea of them being taught in the context of a science course. Fundamentalists have created a whole pseudoscience around the defense and rationalization of their "theory", but there is not one iota of real scientific evidence to support their claim. Simply put, creationism does not meet a single criterion that would make it a legitimate scientific theory. It doesn't even meet the definition of a hypothesis, which is basically that there are observations that suggest that the thought may be plausible and ultimately testable. After all, how can you measure a miracle, which is by definition outside the bounds of the empirical?

Stephen Jay Gould addressed this issue very eloquently in his book Rocks of Ages, which I highly recommend. He coins the term "Non-Overlapping Magisteria", or NOMA, to describe the realms of religion and science and to define the terms under which they should be separate from one another. He rightly points out that the purpose of religion is not to define or describe the how of our existence (which is the aim of science), so much as the why. Religion's job is to answer questions of the metaphysical realm, which cannot be ultimately decided by empirical observation and scientific process, while science must function in the realm of the observable and quantifiable.

Because each magisterium encompasses a very different realm of inquiry from the other, there is no reason that they cannot peacefully coexist, and they in fact do, as there are many scientists who are also people of faith, and vice versa.

The problem in this case (And Gould does cite improprieties in both directions.) is that religious fundamentalists (primarily Christians in this country) have decided to try to inject their literalist view of creation into a realm in which it does not belong. Gould points out the irony, however, that there are actually two creation stories in the Bible. Genesis 1 & 2 each have a different account, with the order of creation different for each. Which would they teach, or would they try to teach the synthesized version that's typically recited (In the 7 day creation story, Eve is actually created separately from Adam - "And He created both man and woman in his own image." - and not from Adam's rib, which is in Genesis 2, where the order of creation is very different, Adam being created from clay before just about anything else. Try setting this in front of a biblical literalist and see if their head starts to spin. )?

I think a class called "Creation Stories" would make for a very interesting one and if approached properly (with stories from a representative cross-section of the world's cultures), would raise some fascinating questions about how we view ourselves and our place in the world - not to mention give us insight in to the fundamental psychology of religion, which has always fascinated me. I would even gladly defend its inclusion in a public school curriculum as a humanities course, but to try to pass it off as science does a grave disservice to our children and our community and is just plain wrong.


That's a legitimate question. In Buddhist teaching (my religious lifestyle choice), our perceived reality is just that - a perception and not real unto itself - but that doesn't negate the existence of laws that function within the perceived reality and that govern the order of that perception. One of the main attractions Buddhism held and holds for me is that it takes the most empirical approach possible to religious inquiry and in doing so has an innate recognition of what Gould calls NOMA.

Although there are various mythologies that have found their way into Buddhist tradition, there exists no singular belief in a Creator or a Creation (Buddha is not God). Everything is ultimately energy, which has no beginning or end.

As far as the known universe, though, the Big Bang Theory is the one best supported by the available information, and natural selection is the most cogent explanation for the origin of species. One of the reasons I like Gould so much is that he is both an eloquent defender and an excellent teacher of Darwinian theory. He writes a monthly column for Natural History magazine and has published several collections of his essays, and he always makes for a fascinating read.

Fundamentalist Christians are terrified to think that life (particularly human life) on Earth may have arisen entirely by chance. My feeling is quite the contrary. It makes our time here all the more precious and the beauty around us all the more wondrous. It also puts us firmly in our place - as a strand in the web, rather than the top of the pyramid.


If you reread Gen. 2, you'll see that the order differs significantly from Gen. 1. In Gen. 1, man & woman were created on the 6th day - AFTER, the plants, animals, etc. In Gen. 2, however, it says "when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up" (RSV), God created man "of the dust of the ground". Only then did he create the Garden of Eden as a place to put Adam. Then God created the beasts to find Adam a helper, and Eve was made from Adam's rib AFTER they couldn't find him a likely companion among the animals (We won't even get into THAT one!). There's no real way to resolve that within the context of a literal interpretation.

As for myself and the Big Bang, current theory points to a sort of pulsation of the universe. Prior to the Big Bang, there was another universe that expanded until it began contracting upon itself and finally collapsed and then rebounded outward at the Big Bang to form the current universe, which will eventually collapse and another universe will form. Call it the breathing pattern of God, if you'd like.

I think we, as a species, have a hard time really understanding the concept of infinity, which is why we try to define a Creation event (At the tender age of 18, I had a very brief flash of understanding - what Japanese Zen Buddhists call a satori, I learned several years later. It was at once fascinating and terrifying, and it's a moment I'd love to recapture. And no, there were no mind-altering substances involved. ). Buddhism teaches that there are some things that are unknowable and unexplainable in the context of our perceived reality. The only way for us to know the answer, then, is to open ourselves up to the experience of infinity (which is something distinct from having faith that it exists), which is the gateway to Nirvana and Buddhahood.


That's what I meant when I said most people have a hard time understanding, or accepting, infinity. I think that's one of the reasons creation stories came into being in the first place. We tend to be limited by the realm of our senses, and because we generally only know finite existence, we have a tendency to define everything within that context. Of course, it still begs the question - who created God (and who created God's Creator, etc.)?

For me, finding an ultimate answer isn't necessarily as important as the search. The problem with faith, in my opinion, is that it's often (usually?) a way of avoiding the very questions we need to be asking of ourselves, not to mention the fact that it's just plain bad logic.


Lisa/knitnzu said...

Did you see that Chris over at Stumbling over Chaos linked to your raffle? Let me know if you get an influx of support... am thinking of offering up that linen stitch scarf in the same way.

Anonymous said...

Excellent essay. I think I must be a Buddhist, too -- the energy thing fits with my view of the universe.