Sunday, May 1, 2011

Faith and Reason: A Crucial Balance (Part 1)

I've had a plethora of theological thoughts brewing around in my brain since my last manifesto. Some of these may surprise people. Some may offend you, although that's not my intention. My goal is to try to uplift people, to provoke thought, and to help you all understand where I'm coming from. This is an especially long essay (21 pages altogether). I've decided to divide it into four different sections, and each section will be featured on a different entry. I recommend reading them in order.

This is the first part.

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The other day I visited the blog of one of my favorite authors, Elna Baker. She’s a Mormon comedienne who wrote a memoir about her college dating experiences. The ever-present “Anonymous” posted a comment to one of her entries, averring that all religious beliefs are preposterous. He left her with a link to

Being a curious person, I visited the site.  I didn’t expect any of the “proofs” of God’s non-existence to be convincing, but the arguments were even more poorly constructed than I’d thought. This normally wouldn’t irk me, except for the fact that I’ve heard this site quoted by many internet debaters (most of whom also don the protective cloak of anonymity). The fact that one uses a weak argument to illustrate a point doesn’t necessarily disprove their claim. It doesn’t mean their premise is false; it only means their argument is. I believe the website’s base claim to be false, but I think its flimsy arguments may mislead some readers.

The first objection I had was the fact that the author of the website only defines God by Judeo-Christian standards. He fails to recognize that one can believe in a god unassociated with any organized religion. As I mentioned in one of my previous notes, “Reasons to Believe,” the fact that a belief is possible does not always entail that it’s valid. However, the author of has a very rigid view of the God he denies. The writer claims that since the Abrahamic god is implausible, no type of god whatsoever could exist. He also assigns his own subjective standard of perfection to God and then denies God’s existence because He doesn’t meet it. The author says that God can’t be real because if He was, He would make sure no one ever got divorced. This is the author’s own personal opinion of what he thinks God should do. An atheist who denies a God based on his own idealistic standards is no wiser than a Christian who claims to know everything about God.

I also take issue with the website’s statement that God cannot exist because He does not solve problems; we solve them ourselves. Isn’t it possible that God works through people, and through processes such as surgeries and scientific discoveries? In my perspective, God does solve problems through humans. Obviously, we wouldn’t be able to take action if He never created us in the first place. (A skeptic could argue that in this case, God is solving problems that He initially caused. I’m not sure how I would argue this point.) Skeptics could also ask why God would choose to work through people instead of acting directly. I suspect that God doesn’t directly reveal Himself to everyone so that we may preserve our free will. After all, if He interacted with us so overtly, we wouldn’t have much of a choice as far as our decisions are concerned. The website acknowledges this argument but counters it by saying that the Bible contains many examples of God directly interacting with humans. It’s a good point, but I think there is a reason why these events are not commonplace anymore. I think it likely that this also serves to preserve free will. The way I see it, we are offered the opportunity to heed the book’s advice or to dismiss it. If God was still making Himself as easy to perceive, we couldn’t act on faith. We would simply act on observation, or obey out of fear.  Some people also might react by taking Him for granted. Even during Biblical times, some people didn’t believe in Him regardless of what they personally experienced.

The website argues that God cannot exist because some prayers are “unanswered.” All are answered, though. Sometimes the answer is “no.” We don’t know why God grants certain requests and denies others, but we can trust His judgment. There are plenty of times in which we believe something will benefit us but it turns out to be detrimental, and vice versa. As humans, we possess limited knowledge. It is also impossible to please everyone. Our prayers can conflict with one another’s. Two people may pray for the same job position, but only one will be hired for it.

Following the previous “proof” that God is nonexistent because some prayers are not granted, also states that God cannot be real because His blessings are unevenly distributed. The wealthy inevitably have more. This is a subjective argument, because it depends on what one considers “blessings.” The writer’s point is only true if you strictly define blessings as monetary wealth and the privileges it affords. (In this case, you would be a “materialist” in both senses of the word.) However, plenty of wealthy people face great hardships. A rich man can suffer from a rocky marriage, estrangement from his children, a drug addiction, or mental illness. If he has a problem with substance abuse, it may only be exacerbated by his wealth because he can afford more drugs. His wealth may lessen the possibility of an intervention, as he would be held accountable to fewer people. It could also strain friendships due to jealousy and feelings of entitlement. A financially comfortable person may wonder who their genuine friends are, as affluence can easily be exploited. As you can see, wealth does not always bring happiness. A poorer man with a sense of purpose and a supportive family is far more privileged than a rich man who lacks those things. There are impoverished people who struggle with additional conflicts, but this can strongly motivate them to succeed. Climbing a mountain from the ground up is far more rewarding than climbing it from the middle. The trek also provides an incentive to maintain progress. The higher you are, the farther you can fall.

The website goes on to say that predestination cannot exist because we label events as “fate” when we can’t calculate the odds. It’s true that we tend to have a limited understanding of odds, but this doesn’t entail that everything must be chalked up to coincidence. If you see a Skywriter message advertising Doritos, you don’t assume that the clouds must have formed it at random. If something highly improbable takes place which resolves a problem or answers a prayer, I’m apt to view the prayer as the catalyst and God as the one who intervened. I’m especially inclined to take this perspective if it happens repeatedly. That being said, I try not to interpret self-fulfilling prophesies as mystical. For example, if I roll dice and say it’s a miracle if they both land on five, I won’t turn them with my fingers until they both land on five and then call it miraculous. I’ll assign natural causes to events before I decide they’re supernatural (though I believe that everything natural is divine at its root, as nothing natural would exist without God). If my toilet won’t flush, I’m not going to assume it’s possessed by a demon. I’ll call a plumber, not an exorcist. If I’m walking down a street and see a light in the distance, I’ll assume it’s an oncoming car before thinking it’s an angel. (I wouldn’t want to approach the light and risk being flattened by said “angel.”)

The “God is imaginary” site makes the popular faux pas of pitting science against religion, declaring that the two are utterly incompatible. It cites evolution as a popular “proof” of God’s nonexistence. As I mentioned in “Reasons to Believe,” evolution is not incompatible with the concept of a deity. After all, it could be divinely guided. The Bible doesn’t explicitly describe how God created the earth, vegetation, or animals. However, it does describe the process of creating humans. Literal Biblical interpretation and fundamentalist Christianity clash with the theory of ape-to-human transition. This doesn’t mean that Christianity is at odds with all evolutionary theories, nor does it mean that Christians reject all science. I think it’s important to remember that scientific theories are subject to change. Fifty years ago the Neanderthals were believed to be the missing link. Darwin once postulated that Africans are less evolved. Thankfully, that claim was refuted long ago. It’s also important to remember that a species’ absence from the Bible doesn’t imply it never existed. After all, the Bible never mentioned dinosaurs. It’s a book about God, not a compilation of every single event that ever took place or a list of every species that ever lived. The book says more about the Creator than His creations.

I don’t feel a knee-jerk distrust of science, but I think some people make the mistake of deifying it. Some regard all scientific theories as indisputable truths, scientists as infallible guardians of those truths, and the study of science itself as a gateway to omniscience and omnipotence. This sounds like a radical perspective, but I’ve heard quite a few people express it. Science itself is not infallible, because it would not exist without people to practice it. Physical laws and matter can exist without people to study and define them. Nonetheless, the scientific method was designed by humans. As a whole, the scientific community strives to spread truth, but this doesn’t mean that individual scientists are immune to errors in judgment or interpretation. It doesn’t mean that no scientist is emotionally invested in his or her theories. If a scientist claims to be completely objective, he is implying that he’s above the basic human instincts to hold biases, to be influenced by peers, and to believe certain things for psychological reasons. It’s hypocritical for a scientist to deny such natural inclinations, since so many assert that we operate mainly on those instincts. In a sense, a scientist who denies it claims to be more than human.

When you read scientific articles, I recommend examining them critically instead of trusting them implicitly because they were written by experts. Check for assumptions and false arguments. You may be surprised by what you find. A few months ago I read an article about the bombardier beetle, an insect with a complex defense mechanism. Its body contains two separate containers, one full of hydroquinone and the other full of hydrogen peroxide. These chemicals both travel through valves, and then combine within the beetle’s hindquarters. This mix becomes caustic when combined with water and enzymes in the hindquarters. It incites an exothermic reaction in which the chemicals boil, and the heat closes the valves to prevent damage to the beetle’s internal organs. The liquid is then converted to a poisonous gas, and the pressure impels it to shoot through the beetle’s rear toward its perceived predator. The author of this article says that bombardier beetles show evidence of evolution because there are closely related breeds sharing some of their signature traits. He reasons that since there are similar breeds, we can see that one could have evolved from the other. I think this is guesswork. The bombardier beetle didn’t necessarily evolve from the other breeds. Beetles can develop into different types, but this is simply variation within a single species. In the end, they’re still beetles.

When we look at variation within species, we should be mindful not to assume that an altered version is further evolved. The Museum of Natural History used to display an exhibit of horse skeletons of different sizes. They were lined up smallest to largest, implying a chronological order. However, the smaller skeletons were not actually older than the larger ones. They didn’t all exist at separate time periods. Even if they had, it wouldn’t necessitate that the larger breeds evolved from the smaller ones.

A few days ago, I read another scientific article that included some presumptions. It was a study of Near-Death Experiences (NDE’s) seeking to prove that they result from the brain’s deprivation of oxygen. The paper included examples of subjects who were given doses of ketamine, which was said to induce NDE’s. It concluded that Near-Death Experiences are chemically induced, rather than spiritually based. The author provided examples of ketamine encounters which shared some common traits of NDE’s, but they did not include all of the typical traits. Three years ago, I had written a school paper in which I argued my case for the spiritual authenticity of NDE’s. I believe these points are relevant:

"Some people believe NDE’s to be hallucinations, and argue that they are produced by locations in the brain. However, these theories have come under close scrutiny and been challenged. Near-death experiences are not hallucinations. Hallucinations are mainly brief, distorted, and bizarre. When a person has a hallucination, they are almost always able to distinguish it from reality later on. NDE’s, on the other hand, are clear, logical, and orderly. They are described as “more than real.” People who have had lucid dreams, hallucinations, and NDE’s have reported that lucid dreams and hallucinations feel much different from a near-death experience. Near-death experiences also make a strong impact on people and inspire them to change their lives in ways which hallucinations and lucid dreams do not. Peoples’ hallucinations differ greatly from one another, whereas NDE’s share striking similarities. It would not make sense for millions of people, most of whom have no history of hallucinations, to all experience the same mass hallucination.

The theory that locations in the brain have been found to produce NDE’s has been challenged as well. While parts of the brain such as the temporal lobes, the frontal lobe attention area, the thalamus, the hypothalamus, and the amygdale may sometimes be activated during an NDE, this doesn't indicate that they alone are the cause of it. Olaf Blanke, a Swiss surgeon, declared that stimulating the right angular gyrus can manufacture an out-of-body experience (OBE). However, he only conducted this experiment on one patient. Her results were quite different from the usual accounts of OBE’s. The patient's perception was distorted and fragmented, and she was only able to view a small portion of her body rather than the entire thing. The argument that NDE’s and OBE’s are produced by different areas of the brain can also be countered by the fact that many NDE’s have taken place while the person was brain dead. Harrowing NDE’s have been reported by people who were clinically dead for several days.

An additional theory claims that certain drugs have been known to produce NDE’s. While ketamine and psilocybin have reportedly triggered encounters which resemble NDE’s more closely than hallucinations, this doesn't undermine the validity of NDE’s. According to Karl Jansen, who has written the most about NDE-like ketamine experiences, “After twelve years of studying ketamine, I now believe that there most definitely is a soul that is independent of experience. It exists when we begin, and may persist when we end. Ketamine is a door to a place we cannot normally get to. It is definitely not evidence that such a place does not exist.”

There have been many cases in which people have reported information after an NDE, and the information was later validated. These cases include a comatose man who had an OBE and was able to accurately describe, in great detail, where the nurse had placed his dentures; a woman who successfully read a five-digit number during an OBE; and a woman named Pam Reynolds who saw a blue shoe on a hospital roof during her out-of-body experience and was able to accurately and vividly describe it. The shoe was found after the incident.

Blind people, including those who have been blind for their entire lives, have been able to see during NDE’s. Dr. Kenneth Ring recounts 21 cases of this occurrence in his book Mindsight: Near-Death and Out-of-Body Experiences in the Blind.

It is worth noting that groups of dying people have shared the same NDE, and atheists have had NDE’s which inspired them to believe in an afterlife.

Additional facts
-Out-of-body experiences have been validated in scientific studies. In 1968, Dr. Charles Tart wrote a report entitled "Psychophysiological Study of Out of the Body Experiences in a Selected Subject." It concerned a woman who successfully read a 5-digit number during an out-of-body experience. This is verifiable evidence of out-of-body perception, and supports veridical perception in NDE’s.
-NDE’s have advanced the field of medical science. After his NDE, Mellen-Thomas Benedict brought back a great deal of scientific information concerning biophotonics, cellular communication, quantum biology, and DNA research. Mellen-Thomas Benedict currently holds six U.S. patents."

As you can see, science and research can certainly lend themselves to faith. I think the word “faith” has been frequently misconstrued to imply a belief without any logical evidence to support it. People only seem to define such “faith” in regards to religion. In every other context, the word is simply used to mean trust. I think there are good reasons for spiritual beliefs. In my opinion, faith with 20/20 vision is much preferable to the “blind” variety.

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