Religion and the natural world

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too? – Douglas Adams

This is the third of six parts of my critique of religious belief.

Thus far I have presented arguments against some common reasons for religious belief. But suppose a good reason for belief can be found, can this belief be reconciled with the natural world we live in? What kind of god would fit into this world?

To consider these questions, I proceed with a look at the compatibility between god as a supernatural entity, and the natural world. If God interacts with humans and influences their affairs, these interactions should be detectable or measurable in some way. As it happens, no events concerned with human activity occur today that cannot reasonably be explained by the laws of nature. Furthermore, no biblical miracles have ever been verified. Faith healing and the answering of prayers thus seem to be the only obvious widespread “miracles” that could feasibly be tested today. However, no faith healing has been verified by independent medical professionals. Nor has anyone been able to verify that prayer is productive. Indeed, most religious people look down on the scientific testing of the efficacy of prayer and the existence of real faith healing (although if evidence were found to support these phenomena, I have little doubt that the same people would enthusiastically endorse it). Religions, as I suggested above, ask us to accept these things on faith (take, for example, the following verse from Proverbs 3 that specifically discourages critical thinking: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.”) If religious claims were true, there would surely be scientific evidence to support them, and what better way to convince the unbeliever than to present him with hard scientific evidence? It is thus suspicious indeed that many religions (such as Islam and Christianity) actively suppress critical examination of their beliefs. Examples include the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books, which was maintained until 1966; the banning of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses; the recent appeal by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone for Catholics to avoid Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code; and the United Nation’s resolution banning the defamation of religion. Such suppression smacks of insecurity. And insecurity, if it is there, implies that even believers have an inkling of how weak the rational justification for their supernatural claims is.

The few available scientific studies on religious practice provide no evidence for a deity’s influence in society. For example, a recent study [1] suggests that prayer may, if anything, have a potentially negative influence: ill people who know they are being prayed for actually fare worse than ill people who don’t know they are being prayed for, or those who aren’t prayed for at all. It appears that the people who know they are being prayed for worry about the prayers working, and this anxiety results in a delayed return to health. (Of course, believers attempt to explain results such as these by suggesting that God answers or refuses prayer requests according to his inscrutable master plan. As discussed already, believers who do this are, perhaps unconsciously, compromising their moral and intellectual integrity so as not to threaten the beliefs that they have become personally invested in.)

Perhaps God does not interact with us in the material world, but in some other realm outside it. We thus have a god who communicates with us in our minds only, at some nonphysical level of consciousness perhaps. However, claims of personal communication with God do not constitute reliable evidence, as pointed out in previous parts of this essay. Furthermore, research into the human brain points toward the monist idea of a material brain giving rise to consciousness, emotions,  sense of morality, etc. (a phenomenon known as emergence) and eschews the dualist concept of a spirit dwelling in the body. The monist view is supported by our ever-increasing ability to map brain activity to thought processes using techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging. Furthermore, the obvious  influence on our emotions of narcotic drugs (such as ecstasy) and naturally occurring chemicals (such as dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin), together with clear correlations between damage in specific parts of the brain and associated cognitive abilities, indicate that emotions and thought processes are controlled by physical and chemical processes and so cannot be explained by an independent non-material entity such as a soul. A recent study has even demonstrated that our ability to make moral judgments can be affected by the physical state of our brain. Researchers applied magnetic fields to the area of the brain thought to control aspects of moral judgment (the right temporoparietal junction). They found that volunteers exposed to the field regarded certain acts as more morally permissible than did a group of control volunteers not exposed to the field.

The idea of a soul that functions independently from the body becomes less credible the more closely it is examined. Is God, as the Catholic church suggests, really on hand at every baby’s conception in order to magically insert a new soul into the egg the moment it is fertilized? Or is the soul passed on from an adult into his or her individual sperm or egg cells, in which case millions of new souls are created daily through normal sperm production in the testes (and later callously destroyed through the death of ejaculated sperm that don’t meet an egg)? If souls are in both sperm and eggs, how do the two souls that meet during fertilization turn into one soul? If a soul is instead inserted after fertilization, does it happen immediately, or at some later stage in the development of the fetus? If it happens immediately, and the egg later splits to form monozygotic twins, must the soul also split in half? These questions are as nonsensical as they sound, and if stubborn religious dogmatism (or perhaps the ignorance of science) were not accounted for, it would be surprising indeed to see the concept of the soul survive the discovery of the mechanism of sexual reproduction.

Even among more sensible believers, questions such as “at what moment does life start?” still arise. Even a cursory look at sexual reproduction shows that there is not, in fact, a special moment at which life starts. The sperm and egg are both alive, and their union simply combines two living cells into one. Life is inherited, it is never begun anew. Indeed, a “new” life is only new in the conceptual sense that it takes on an independent physical and genetic identity from it parents. Questions about the first appearance of life on earth billions of years ago are so profound precisely because this is the only time at which life truly began, instead of being handed down from one generation to the next.

In the next few decades, the dualist outlook will likely start looking ever less credible due to advances in scientific research, possibly including the following:

1. Creation of life. Primitive monocellular life is likely to be manufactured from scratch in the lab. Key preliminary steps toward this goal have already been achieved (see, for example, this story on synthetic cells).

2. Simulation of consciousness. It is likely that an artificial brain capable of appearing fully human (i.e., fully conscious and with a wide emotional repertoire) will be constructed.

3. Explanation of the origin of the universe. Experiments at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland are likely to produce important discoveries that will further our understanding of the Big Bang. This is the advancement I have the least confidence in: cosmologists are currently grappling with some very big problems.

The accomplishment of any of these things will have as important an effect on religious belief as evolution did, if not more so. They will show that God is not a requirement for the most fundamental task with which he is most commonly attributed, namely creation (of the universe and of life). They will also show that our full gambit of emotions, including feelings of spirituality and religiosity, etc., are indeed products of extremely sophisticated neuronal circuitry and chemistry and, as a result, are unlikely to be due to the existence of a soul capable of communing with a god. The religious approach balks at the possibility that we do not have souls. Philosophically, I find the issue largely irrelevant: if we are capable of experiencing complex emotions and of developing intimate and fulfilling relationships, does it really matter on which platform such behavior rests? Scientifically, the issue is indeed interesting, and it can be pursued without fear of jeopardizing our social and emotional faculties, since these have inherent value independent of origin.

In summary, there is little space for gods to exist in today’s world. As time passes, more of the fundamental questions about ourselves and our environment are found to have logical, rational answers, and supernatural phenomena seem ever more unlikely. Remarkably, no scientific question regarding the nature of life, our world, or the universe, has ever been satisfactorily answered with a religious explanation. The impotence of supernatural ideas in modern life is reflected in believers’ use of faith as a means of quashing doubt. The practice of Christian worship encourages repeated affirmation of one’s faith in God. In more traditional settings, this often takes the form of a liturgy such as the Nicene creed, which lays down in some detail the beliefs required of Christians, spoken in the first voice with sentences beginning “I believe”. It strikes me as odd that such constant affirmation is necessary. Christianity espouses a powerful, omniscient, omnipresent god, yet if such a god exists, his presence and influence should be patently obvious, and faith in god should be easy (even if following his commands is not). Doubt, the continual bugbear of believers, should never arise. If we look at other powerful, omnipresent phenomena, we can see how strange the repeated public affirmation of their existence would be. Take, for example, the mundane but omnipresent phenomenon of gravity. Gravitational attraction is patently obvious to every human on earth. One has only to get out of bed in the morning to observe its effects. This makes absurd the idea of publicly and repeatedly affirming one’s faith in it. Similarly, if the immensely powerful Christian god were present and active in believers’ day-to-day lives, surely it would be so obvious that repeated affirmations of faith would seem absurd? Surely doubt would never arise? Instead, doubt is ever present, and regular affirmation of faith is deemed important, suggesting that both the presence and benevolence of God are anything but obvious.

Furthermore, vehicles for faith affirmation, such as weekly worship services and other meetings, help to make the entire edifice of theology seem real and relevant. Without the grandeur of old cathedrals, the solidarity of a confident and exuberant congregation, and the authority of a fervent preacher, all that is left is one’s silent thoughts, and how to interpret them as God’s voice: hardly a convincing manifestation of the omnipotent god of the Bible.

Next part of this essay.

Previous part of this essay.

Introduction to this essay.

[1]  Benson, H. et al. (2006), Study of the therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients, American Heart Journal, 151: 4, 934-942.

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