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The God Problem Expressing Faith and Being Reasonable

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Before turning to a close investigation of the ways in which thoughtful people talk about their faith, we need to step back and consider why the God problem actually is a problem. Our contemporary culture sometimes gives us the false impression that believing in God is not problematic at all, especially because so many people do believe and apparently consider it reasonable to believe. For one thing, our culture is highly relativistic, and so it is not uncommon to hear about people who, for instance, are dedicated scientists and devout Christians, and to say to ourselves, well, that's their business. Instead of questioning how they can reconcile these beliefs, we just assume they must have their reasons. Similarly, we hear a politician or athlete saying she is asking God's blessing on America or that he is praying for victory, and we somehow determine that these are just figures of speech. Or we fall back on distinctions we have learned somewhere during our long years of schooling and tell ourselves that facts are different from values or that reason is different from faith. These are ways of talking - and will deserve our attention later on - but they do not satisfy the critics who take a skeptical view of religion. The critics have put forth some trenchant arguments about why it actually should be difficult for intelligent, well-educated people in the United States and elsewhere to believe in God.

Much of the recent concern about religion stems from the view that beliefs about God are irrational. The kind of rationality with which this criticism is concerned is using appropriate means to accomplish one's ends. A rational approach to driving a nail involves using a hammer. A rational way of treating an illness is to call a doctor. Asking God to drive the nail or treat the illness would be irrational because any normal, intelligent person knows there are more effective ways of proceeding. Prayers and other religious incantations do not get the job done, and to think they do is to engage in superstition. In the past, before the advent of scientific medicine, people who held superstitious beliefs could perhaps be excused for these false ways of thinking, critics argue. But in the contemporary world, being superstitious is a sign of stupidity. Thoughtful educated people should know better. Indeed, the whole purpose of modern science and education has been to develop rational ways of pursuing our goals. If we want to increase the yield of our crops, we experiment with hybrid seed varieties, fertilizer, and irrigation; we do not pray like people did centuries ago in hopes that the gods will intervene. This is not to say that thoughtful Americans are always rational about everything they do. We nevertheless strive to find the most effective ways of getting what we want. A person who wants to do well on an exam knows that the rational course of action is to spend time studying. He or she may spend too much time partying. But that is a matter of poor planning and of deflecting one's energies from achieving one's goals. To be irrational would be to assume that partying itself is the correct way to earn good grades. Expecting God to reveal the answers for the exam is similarly irrational. And it strikes us as plain stupid if people think that hexes, magic, and other superstitious activities are going to work.

The criticism that much of what passes for devout faith is irrational has focused especially on prayer. An Internet video entitled "Proving that Prayer is Superstition," which has purportedly reached a far larger audience than Dennett, Dawkins, and company, makes this criticism by pointedly likening prayer to asking a lucky horseshoe for favors. A lucky horseshoe has no effect on the outcome when rolling dice, the video explains. Praying would have no effect on the dice, either. "Belief in prayer is a superstition," the narrator observes, "just like the belief in lucky horseshoes." The video continues, arguing that praying for God to cure cancer is similarly superstitious. "Will God reach down and eliminate all the cancerous cells? If you are a normal, intelligent person, you know what will happen. Nothing. This prayer will have no effect whatsoever."1

Just to be clear, this criticism taken by itself does not constitute an argument against believing in the existence of God. Even the most ardent critics would acknowledge that this is the case. It still might seem rational to believe that God or something God-like exists because there are unknown and perhaps unknowable aspects of the universe. Or it might seem reasonable to believe that God exists because this God offers a person everlasting life in heaven. But those kinds of beliefs have very little to do with the God problem I am describing. God is not a problem only as long as that God steers clear of any active involvement in the world as we know it. The God of an unknowable universe or of life in heaven is a God that can be believed in without imagining that this God intervenes in any way with daily life. That God need not perform miraculous cures, make rain, or assist in winning the lottery. As soon as this God starts messing with the natural order, the God problem comes into play. An educated person will have difficulty believing that God can cause the sun to stand still, virgins to give birth, rain to fall, and diseases to be cured.

A slight variant on the argument that believing in God is an irrational way of achieving one's goals is the idea that God or some other supernatural being is responsible for one's failures. The claim that "the devil made me do it" is one example. Suppose I steal a car, get caught, and at trial explain to the judge that I had been instructed by an evil spirit to commit this felony. The judge might not send me to prison but have me locked up in an insane asylum. At the very least, the court would consider my defense irrational. The same logic applies in less extreme cases. If I am a thoughtful, well-educated person and am having difficulties in my marriage, the rational thing to do is talk to a friend or seek help from a trained therapist, marriage counselor, or psychiatrist, not to visit an exorcist. If my marriage founders, some part of me may decide that it was God's will, but I would have trouble with the thought that I could have prevented it if I had prayed harder or that God was punishing me for something I had done.

Recent critics of religion have gone a step further than earlier critics in demonstrating that belief in God is very likely to be irrational. The irrationality of believing in God, they argue, is not just a matter of bad logic. There are actually good reasons why a person might hold irrational beliefs about God. Many of these reasons have to do with human evolution. For example, something about the way the human brain has evolved disposes us to look for agents as the cause of things. A crop failure prompts us to ask, "Who caused it?" We are also especially inclined to remember stories about strange agents: "It was caused by a turtle with a human head." Over the vast expanse of time during which humans evolved, these stories about strange beings gained special staying power. They evolved, the critics argue, into superstitions about God. So it is quite reasonable that humans believe in God. But it is still irrational. Indeed, now that the reasons for those beliefs are understood, it is even more irrational to hold these beliefs except perhaps as curious relics of the past.2

A related criticism that is much broader than the concern about irrationality is the view that beliefs about God are uninformed. This criticism is less about superstitious notions of how to get what one wants and more about religious belief simply being naÔve. It is concerned with the broader view that an educated person should understand that scriptures were not really divinely inspired, that sacred texts contain errors, and that there are naturalistic explanations for religion itself. People living several centuries ago may have read the biblical story about the world being created in seven days and had little trouble believing that this really happened in that space of time. They may have heard that God created Adam and Eve about 6,000 years ago and figured that was exactly when it happened. A person nowadays with no education might have heard these yarns from a family member and have had no reason to question them. A child could learn the story about Noah's ark in Sunday school and think how nice it was that all the animals were saved from the flood. But educated people should have reasons to question all of this. They might still believe in God, and yet they would surely have doubts about many of the things people claim to believe about God. They would certainly disbelieve that the Bible stories should be taken literally. They might have difficulty praying to a God about whom so much false information has been presented. In short, popular concepts of God would be a problem.

Much of Dawkins' work is devoted to demonstrating that religiously-inclined people are simply uninformed about science and especially about scientific arguments that contradict faith or more easily explain natural phenomena. Many of his ideas are directed more at theologians and other apologists - whom he concludes are "often chronically incapable of distinguishing what is true from what they'd like to be true" - than at ordinary readers. He does an excellent job, though, of poking holes in arguments that might be termed resort-to-authority, such as, well, so-and-so scientist believes in God, or Pascal settled that a long time ago. He also goes a long way toward making atheism respectable by showing that beliefs about God are unnecessary to support moral arguments and that solace and inspiration can be found elsewhere.3

The emphasis on cultural evolution evident in Dawkins and many other critics of religion offers another argument about the difficulties of being well-informed and devoutly religious. In this view, the essence of religion is ritual, which serves as a primitive means of communicating and affirming group loyalty in small, homogenous, local societies, almost like grunts and gestures did before the development of verbal language. But in modern, complex societies these rituals serve less well and indeed are replaced by rational modes of communication. As Jurgen Habermas, one of the leading proponents of this view, observed, "with the development of modern societies, the sacred domain has largely disintegrated, or at least has lost its structure-forming significance."4 Thus, the incompatibility between devotion to God and functioning as a well-informed citizen has less to do with the knowledge or lack thereof of particular individuals and is more the result of a modernizing process that simply renders religion less meaningful and less socially significant.

There are numerous ways in which being informed can lead a well-educated person to have trouble with standard beliefs about God. Scientific information about evolution or about how big Noah's ark would have had to have been to hold representatives of every species is only one. A thinking person knows that cancer sometimes goes into remission from natural causes. The patient who lives to tell a miracle story about answered prayer has to be considered in relation to the patients who prayed and did not live to tell their story. If a friend says getting a cushy new job was a "miracle," it probably takes only a split-second to translate this into something other than an event like somebody being raised from the dead. Being informed means knowing that people kill in the name of God and pray to deities that command human sacrifice. It involves an awareness that the other side is praying to its God for victory and that more than one religion claims to be the only path to divine salvation. If Habermas is right, a thoughtful person would understand that religious rituals are a carry-over from an earlier stage of human evolution and that they work better in isolated contexts than for people with cosmopolitan tastes. If nothing else, participating in religious rituals may seem a waste of time compared with devoting oneself to areas of life requiring more specialized knowledge, such as science or medicine. Believers themselves sometimes argue that too much knowledge is a bad thing and affirm that ignorance is the basis of their faith. They disrespect intellectuals or argue that faith must be blind, meaning that it cannot withstand intelligent scrutiny. To a person who values education and reason, people who embrace this kind of blind faith seem to have fallen recently from the proverbial turnip truck.

Dogmatic religion poses special problems in this regard. An adherent of dogmatic religion may be very well versed in the teachings of his or her faith, and yet be closed minded about everything else. That person is likely to be uninformed about the teachings of other faiths, about the cultural factors that shaped the history of these faiths, or about the arguments of critics. If nothing else, studying the fine points of one's own dogmatic tradition becomes a higher priority than spending time learning about art, music, or science. The opposite is to be open to new ideas. "What we respect," Hitchens writes, in describing the critical view of those he admires, "is free inquiry, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake."5 This is why atheists have often referred to themselves as free thinkers. Dogma requires believing in what a person has been told by a religious leader or in a creed or sacred text. It means defending wisdom from the past, rather than exploring new ideas. It stifles intellectual curiosity.

I am not suggesting that a religious person cannot also be an informed person - and critics of religion generally do not make this argument either. Saying it is impossible to be both is easily refuted by pointing to Isaac Newton, an example of a religious believer who was clearly well-informed, or to the genomics expert, Francis Collins, as a current example, or to many other leaders in their fields who have combined intellectual curiosity and faith. The point is rather that a thoughtful, well-educated person has to figure out a way of being informed and devout. Otherwise, the bias in dogma is toward the view that all important knowledge has been revealed in scripture or can be heard by listening directly to the voice of God instead of exploring widely in other paths of learning. The God problem is not unsolvable, but it is a problem. Newton and Collins had to find ways to pursue higher learning and yet reconcile their faith with what they learned.

A third, rather different set of criticisms is that beliefs about God are anti-democratic and are for this reason ones that educated people should consider problematic. These criticisms stem from the view that democracy requires citizens to be able to defend their beliefs through rational argument and thus be open to the beliefs of others, including a willingness to compromise in service of the common good. Belief in God is said to be anti-democratic because it leads to arguments that cannot be questioned. In simplest terms, believers assert that God told them to do something or that something is right. End of story. No debate, no discussion. And this is especially problematic when people of different faiths come together because each group holds its own unique convictions about truth. These convictions are divinely revealed and inviolate, subject neither to compromise nor to rational explication in terms that other groups can understand.

This argument has had special resonance among political theorists interested in the conditions under which democracy can flourish. Presumably everyone in the United States, Western Europe, Canada, and countries with similar political traditions believes in democracy. A person who has invested considerable time and energy in acquiring information and learning how to apply reason to important decisions will be inclined to think that information and learning are especially appropriate to the workings of a democracy. When a religious leader declares that God wants people to vote for a particular political candidate, or when a politician asserts that God told him or her to run for higher office, thinking people are likely to have questions. They may only doubt that God actually spoke. But they may also wonder if faith should be allowed in the political arena. They might argue that it is fine for a person to hold strange views about God privately, but feel that it is really better if intelligent people use their brains when thinking about difficult social issues.

This criticism is not about the compatibility or incompatibility of religious traditions and democracy. That is an important question, but different from the one at issue here. It usually focuses on specific countries and asks whether Islam and democracy can coexist in, say, Indonesia, or whether Protestants were correct or incorrect in accusing U.S. Catholics of being anti-democratic during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.6 By and large, the prevalence of religion and democracy in many countries, including the United States, would suggest that religion is not inherently anti-democratic. However, the question that critics of religion raise persists. This question, as posed forcefully by political theorist John Rawls, is whether claims about religious truth can be reconciled with the functioning of an effective democracy. They cannot, Rawls argues, because citizens in religiously and culturally pluralistic societies have to agree on freestanding conceptions of justice, rather than ones grounded in different religious traditions. Practically speaking, religion needs to be irrelevant. A person must be able to argue that a particular policy is fair to all and on grounds that all can accept, not because it conforms to the dictates of his or her religion.7

It was this concern about the incompatibility of faith and democracy that prompted John Dewey to argue that religion in America would serve the nation better if it abandoned, of all things, its beliefs in the supernatural. Religion as an institution, Dewey argued, contributed many good things, including charitable behavior and a sense of civic responsibility. But devotion to the supernatural established an alternative loyalty that competed with citizenship. The very experiences of life, and especially those aspects deemed to be sacred, were shaped by the doctrines with which they were interpreted. A Christian Scientist and a Lutheran would inevitably experience life differently and appeal to different versions of divine authority to justify their conceptions of the good.8

Many arguments have been made on the other side to show that faith and democracy are compatible or can be reconciled.9 However, these arguments frequently sidestep the fundamental issue of truth being asserted in the name of divine revelation. These claims can be constitutionally bracketed and the more agreeable aspects of religion, such as teachings about good neighborliness, can be emphasized. But when religion encourages people to believe that they speak for God, religion then becomes, in Richard Rorty's memorable phrase, a conversation stopper.10

Another set of concerns that is not fully expressed by any of the foregoing is the argument that beliefs about God are destructive. This is the idea that religion is actually harmful, either to the individuals who believe in God or to innocent bystanders who do not. It goes beyond the view, for instance, that asking God for help is irrational but unlikely to cause harm.11 It suggests that religion encourages people to do stupid things that are also dangerous, such as not receiving vaccinations. The list of destructive acts condoned by religion is quite long. The Bible tells of God wiping out whole cities and instructing the chosen people to slaughter their enemies, including women, children, and livestock. The biblical prophets call down divine wrath on false teachers. The psalmist cries out for the Lord's vengeance. The relatively milder teachings of the New Testament condone slavery and tell of people stricken dead for seemingly minor offenses.

Concerns about the destructiveness of religion were less frequently heard during the twentieth century, when atheistic communism and near-atheistic fascism slaughtered millions, but they have returned to the front burner since the September 11, 2001, attacks. Religions that in other eras were thought to be benign or even peaceful are now popularly viewed as promoters of violence. Terrorists engage in religiously motivated holy wars. Suicide bombers imagine themselves being rewarded in paradise for their atrocities. Dogma - whether inspired by the Qur'an or a fundamentalist Protestant or a Hindu nationalist - is especially to be feared. A thinking person should be repulsed. "People of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction," Hitchens warns, "and the destruction of all hard-won human attainments."12 The language is extreme, and yet it resonates in a world of religiously-inspired terrorism. Somewhe