Thursday, November 3, 2011

A lack of compelling evidence for belief in God?

belief in GodImage by galactoseintolerant via FlickrThis is the second part of a long essay. Parts one and three and four are also available.

Clearly nonbelievers of all stripes have some reason to care about the God question, as for many of them it is tied up in the larger issues surrounding religion. There is little point in arguing with someone who is convinced of the immanent danger posed by religion and belief in God, but what about those who are in the live and let live camp? Those who emphasize their weak atheism/agnosticism and who do not see religion or belief in God as dangerously delusional? Beyond the effects that the choices and influence of believers have on their lives, isn't it more or less irrelevant? What's the point of believing in God, anyway?

After all, who doesn't want to think of themselves as bold, intelligent, knowledgeable, shrewd, mature, ethical and rational? As standing on the side of oppressed and marginalized while championing social and scientific progress? In Western societies today, your perceived degree of religiosity is connected to this image.

Religiosity can take many forms. But from a popular modern Western perspective, it has to do with how many things associated with monotheistic (especially Abrahamic) religion you indicate an affinity for. That would include things such as the very idea of God, how anthropomorphically God is depicted, belief in angels, Biblical miracles (i.e. contravening the laws of nature rather than just labeling something extraordinary being labeled as  miraculous).

To illustrate the point, which of the following would you most readily suspect of being associated with homophobic or misogynist attitudes? A pantheist, a Buddhist, or a Christian? How about a Wiccan, an atheist, or a Muslim?
If your initial reaction was to gravitate toward the last option in each list, don’t worry. There are many Christians and Muslims who would have the same response.

The lack of compelling evidence to warrant belief in God, then, is not the only factor in play. Nor is evidence itself composed of entirely objective facts and supporting assumptions. Neither is its reception (acceptance or rejection) or its impact.Yet this is often the starting and ending point for much of the discussion and debate on matters pertaining to God and religion.

Take the following examples.

If someone raised in a more fundamentalist variety of Christianity had her belief in God and religion tied up in the notion that certain historical events must be literally true (including the composition and age of the universe) along with acceptance of various social, political or economic ideas, such belief could be threatened or damaged by convincing contradictory evidence.

For example, if such a person was convinced that the reality of God and the truth of the Bible was dependent upon the universe being several thousand instead of several billion years old, and she were to come to accept evidence from geology and physics for this older age, this could shake her faith in God and Christianity.

Similarly, if she was convinced that evolution must be untrue, then ample evidence and strong logic supporting evolution as an extremely sensible and likely thesis explaining the diversity of life on Earth might cause her to question other assumptions in that package of beliefs, such as the proper place and role of women.

On the other hand, if for our hypothetical Christian her faith was primarily about God as an active and compelling mystery, with religion as the socially shared and expressed exploration and celebration of that mystery, then such evidence might simply result in her finding a denomination which was open to the insights of science and which did was more socially progressive.

A common perspective for the contemporary irreligious person (shared by some religious folks as well) is the primacy of matter and energy as they have been conceived of throughout the twentieth century by physicists and chemists. This image is a reductionist picture, in  which matter is reduced to atoms, to subatomic particles, and to still smaller units. These subatomic particles become increasingly hard to describe with precision. Photons act like particles and waves. Still smaller particles have been described in terms of probabilities and spin.

Yet the popular educated perspective nonetheless hovers around the image of particles, whether at or below the atomic level. These in turn composing simple and complex molecules, which come together in some cases to form larger structures. Hence biology reduces to chemistry reduced to physics.

That is not to suggest that there aren’t nonbelievers who favor a more holistic approach, who talk about the idea of emergent phenomena at different levels of organization, but however you slice it, matter is still primary. Awareness, and its more structures/specialized form, consciousness, are secondary. Either they are emergent properties of matter, ephemeral epiphenomena, or simply illusions.

Let us then take another hypothetical person, who holds to some such view as well as nonbelief in God and religion. How might such a person react to the solid logic and strong evidence that awareness, much less consciousness, is either co-equal with or primary to matter and energy as we understand those things?

She might not jump straight into a some traditional variety of monotheism, but perhaps she might reconsider some of the mystical teachings found in all religious and sacred traditions that point toward consciousness underlying all of existence, perhaps exploring nontheistic religions such as Buddhism. If her experience also included some contravention of nature, such as a statue of the Virgin Mary weeping blood, she might be moved further toward something like Catholicism.

This is how we tend to imagine the debate over compelling evidence for belief or disbelief. But how accurate is it? Or more importantly, how complete is it? What about our mechanisms for pre-judging our experiences? Do we not sometimes suffer from selective perception and interpretation?

Our social environment has a significant impact on our degree of credulity toward a given set of ideas, challenging or reinforcing our beliefs and biasing our activities and perceptions. If we are surrounded by objects and activities that are charged in our minds with symbolism that is associated with a certain way of seeing the world, this can sway us. This is especially true if we participate in these activities or are predisposed toward seeing such symbolism favorably.

Consider for example a life spent among tall modern building and sophisticated and powerful technology, hearing about or participating in scientific explorations of the composition of the universe. How much easier is it to accept a strictly secular worldview in such a setting? How much harder might it be otherwise?

Anthropologists suggest that such regular interaction with and participation in a particular social environment can result in a kind of interpretive drift, where we slowly and unconsciously began to undergo a change in how we create and understand our experiences. The social environment includes people as well, our degree and manner of association with them and whether we perceive their dress, manner of speech, occupation, and other social cues to be associated with values that we hold in high esteem, some of which were discussed previously.

So if this idea is correct, the kind of individual we are more likely to find persuasive (which in turn can convince us to associate with the symbolism and activities of their belief/value-system, which in turn can cause your beliefs to drift toward theirs) would have a significant cultural component. Image matters to how we respond.

Consider the general types of popular purveyors of opinion on matters related to God and religion in Western societies:
  • The stern father figure who has the answers and who is willing to scold you for your own good.
  • The fiery doomsayer who doesn't have time for niceties and who is compelled to "tell it like it is".
  • The snarky, sarcastic know-it-all who seems to simplify the issue and make it obvious why people who see things a different way are stupefyingly wrong.
  • The friendly, calm and perfectly reasonable sage who is willing to share some insights with anyone who genuinely wants to listen.
        (None of these are confined to any particular "side" in the God/religion debate.)
Again, presence or absence of compelling evidence sufficient to warrant belief in God is only one of many components influencing belief and disbelief. It isn't trivial but it also isn't the strictly neutral factor that many of us, including myself, like to think that it is.  Yet that tends to be the starting point and ending for discussions of God or religion.

Perhaps it is not such a curious thing then that people can have discussions or debates in which they will agree to certain propositions about the way the universe appears to us, how it feels, how it seems to work, and so on, and come to different conclusions about what this means for the God question.

I suspect that this also has to do with how one defines God, and therefore what differences one would expect to find in a world with God as opposed to a world without God. And people's expectations on this score are primarily if not completely influenced by their experience with and their view of religion.

So far I have kept a common convention in contemporary Western culture which conflates God and religion. So what is the link there? And what can it tell us about why belief in God might possibly matter to a nonbeliever?

[This section of essay suffered from an accidental deletion of 95% of its content and was re-written much later. Hopefully it faithfully represents the initial composition, but there may be some redundancy or inconsistency in tone with the rest of series.]
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