Thinking about religion and atheism

This post might seem rather out of character for this blog – usually reserved for computing, photography and other gadgets. But for a number of reasons, I’ve been thinking about religion and atheism relentlessly for a number of weeks now. It seems fitting to write something about it on here.

My background

I was born into an Anglican Christian family with two Christian parents. I attended church with my parents practically since birth. After moving to Bristol several years ago, I made the conscious decision as an adult to attend an Anglican church here too. Aside from the usual teenage rebellious “blip”, I haven’t really questioned my faith.

However, I’ve always been interested in science and in 2007 I completed a degree in physics. Of course I’m aware that the Bible gives its own version of the creation, but I regard this as a work of fiction, written to demonstrate certain points. I believe the physics version of the creation: the big bang, astronomy, evolution and all the other things that are taught in schools and universities. But I believe that God was the ultimate creator of the universe, but not necessarily by design.

I don’t for a second think God sat there and made all the animals, in the same way you can imagine a child making animals from Play-Doh. I believe something started off a sequence of events that lead to the creation of the Universe: galaxies, stars, planets and life. I think life evolved as is believed in modern science. Who knows if God planned the route evolution would take beforehand, or whether it’s more like an artist flicking paint randomly at a canvas, with no preconception of how it might turn out. I don’t think it matters.

You could say that I am contradicting myself in subscribing to two apparently opposing theories. But I argue that the Bible is not Christianity and it is possible to believe in God, while also dismissing the Bible as a fictional but useful moral compass. I pick and choose what I accept as true, and what I reject.

I decided for myself as a teenager that God exists, but knowledge of this deity is outside the realms of present scientific knowledge. I also decided to believe that Jesus Christ almost certainly walked the earth, and went about preaching as is reported in the Bible, but that he was a human being – rather than a god or a semi-god. I chose to believe that the Bible is a work of fiction, loosely based on the truth. Reports of miracles are likely to be misreported or exaggerated through word of mouth. The Bible was written to demonstrate points and to guide lifestyle, rather than to provide a 100% accurate historical record.

That all sort of fits together and doesn’t contradict itself too much. I was happy with that set of beliefs until the last few weeks. So what changed?

Philip Pullman

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel ChristBy chance a few months ago, I saw Philip Pullman on BBC Breakfast promoting his new book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Most of the interview focused on the controversy that the book was causing. This immediately made me want it, so with no further consideration I ordered it from Amazon.

I read it eagerly, and I found it entertaining, interesting, and thought-provoking. Unlike some Christians, I didn’t find it in the least bit offensive or blasphemous. I recommend you read it yourself, whatever your opinions on Christianity. The theme of the book is to show how word of mouth can distort the truth unintentionally, and how events can be misinterpreted or misremembered. It demonstrates these points by telling the story of our fictional human character Jesus and how his words and actions can be portrayed as if he were the son of God.

The book got me thinking about the role of Jesus in Christianity but it didn’t cause me any problems. I was already open to the idea that Jesus was a normal person, so Pullman simply helped me to justify that idea to myself. It didn’t diminish my faith in God or cause me to take Christianity less seriously.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the book so much that I bought it for my mum for her birthday.

Richard Dawkins

The God Delusion
After reading Pullman’s book, I had been thinking on-and-off about Christianity, and religion in general. Over the last couple of weeks, Channel 4 has been showing a series of Richard Dawkins documentaries and I watched them with interest. These documentaries covered purely biological topics, and also some religious content. I respect Dawkins as a scientist. He’s an intelligent man, so why not also listen to his thoughts on religion? His documentary “The Root of All Evil” (later retitled “The God Delusion”) proved fascinating. Of course there’s only so much you can cram into 90 minutes, and so I decided to buy his book, also titled “The God Delusion“, for a fuller picture.

Reading his book, I found myself generally nodding and agreeing. I’m no biologist but I was easily able to follow the scientific (and mainly biological) arguments and justifications. He used the same scientific techniques that anyone who has studied science will be familiar with. It’s remarkably hard to find fault in his logic, except occasionally he extrapolates scientific results a little too far, in my opinion. Perhaps the biggest flaw in the book as a whole is that he sets up arguments for God, and then breaks them down. Of course he doesn’t include any such arguments for which he has no disproof.

Some of his rhetoric seems unnecessarily spiteful towards Christians and members of other religions – but I suppose that’s why he has become so infamous, and ultimately how I came to hear about and be interested in his work. Luckily I’m not easily offended; I’m able to laugh at myself and so I find his snipes at various groups of people amusing and entertaining.

I had never really questioned my faith beforehand, nor considered the reasons for choosing to be an atheist – other than an unjustified “I don’t believe in fairy tales”. It was therefore very useful to learn about several arguments against the existence of God, and evidence to support them.

Keith Ward

Why There Almost Certainly Is a GodClearly it makes no sense, and it is not good practice to read literature from only one side of a debate before making a decision – no less an informed one. There is an enormous selection of works on the subject of God’s existence. Some is specifically Christian, while some is not tied to any particular religion, and is a more general look at theism. However, I chose Ward’s book “Why There Almost Certainly Is a God: Doubting Dawkins” as it claimed to be a direct response to the Dawkins book I had ordered. I hoped this would give a clear for-and-against picture of the situation – and of course it was convenient that Amazon recommended it for people who had ordered “The God Delusion”.

This book too is an excellent read: full of interesting ideas and logic that I had not come across before. Scientifically, it was a lot more heavy-going than Dawkins, making use of some fairly advanced scientific concepts. I would recommend the reader has at least an A-level in physics, or is prepared to look up some scientific concepts while reading the book.

While Dawkins uses widely-known scientific concepts, familiar terminology and simple arguments, Ward delves deep into abstract philosophy. Granted I’ve been reading this book before bed every night, but I found myself frequently needing to re-read passages in order to grasp and follow the ideas. I assume someone who knew something (anything?) would be better-equipped than me to follow this book.

You might think, as a Christian, I would be ready to lap up everything Ward says in his arguments for God. Perhaps it was because I wasn’t so readily able to understand his arguments, but to me the book seemed to have the tone of “clutching at straws”. The book seemed a little contrived and I found it quite hard to believe the arguments.

Many of the arguments depend on other truths, most of which are currently unproven theories in the world of physics – for example the idea of the multiverse. It’s hard to take the arguments as seriously as the ones Dawkins puts forward, simply because they rely on concepts that are not well understood by scientists, and are certainly not everyday knowledge.

I’ve never particularly enjoyed abstract ideas: in maths and physics I always preferred classical mechanics and optics to more abstract fields such as quantum mechanics. I think it’s for this reason that I found his book hard to swallow. Sure, the arguments are plausible and may well be proved correct one day, but I think it’s a bit too soon to rely on them for concrete arguments. At some places, I even found myself uttering “bollocks” under my breath.

My conclusion

Perhaps my agreement with Dawkins and my criticism of Ward might lead you believe that I’ve changed my mind about Christianity, or at least about God. But this is not the case.

Belief isn’t something you can necessarily decide upon, in the same way you choose a meal from a restaurant menu. More than two decades of Christian teaching is likely to have left a deeper impression on me than two weeks spent reading two books.

But I don’t think this is the only reason that I still believe.

I’ve thought long and hard about these two books, and about evidence that I’ve come upon in my own life experiences. The most compelling argument (for me, at least) comes from a recent bereavement. About two years ago, my grandfather died. I don’t believe in souls, spirits or ghosts in the way they are commonly portrayed, but all the same I just can’t believe that the essence of my grandad has simply gone. Somehow, he lives on. I reason with myself that he lives on chiefly as memories in the minds of people who knew him. It’s a one way relationship: we can’t contact him, but he still has the power to influence us, either by things he said during his life, or by things we can imagine him saying now. In my opinion, that power is sufficient to believe that he lives on in some capacity.

However, I’m not sure what I think will happen when I die – whether we will again be reunited, or whether everything will just stop.

I believe in everyday miracles. The miracle of nature, the miracle of human intelligence and of science. Some people pray for a miraculous healing from cancer or other illnesses, but I think scientists, doctors and nurses provide a miraculous service in curing vast numbers of people from conditions that would otherwise be fatal.

Of course, it’s important to remember that spirits are different from God, and that in turn God is different from Christianity. And definitely that Christianity as a religion is different from Christianity as a tradition and a culture. But they sort of come as a package.

This might seem a bit of a cop-out for people who were expecting a yes/no answer, but I think that we are not currently in a position to use science to prove or disprove the existence of God. I don’t think that religion conflicts with science, no matter what I’m told by Dawkins or Ward, or anybody else.

I will gladly reconsider my position when new knowledge is discovered, but until that time, I still believe in God, and I’m happy to be a member of the Church of England.

The only change I will make to my lifestyle is to avoid reading such heavy and thought-provoking books before bed. If there is a God, he’s certainly fried my brain 🙂

5 Comments

  1. Simmo
    October 21, 2010
    Reply

    Very, very good post Jon, very compelling read – I’ve often myself wondered what I really think about religion and science, you’ve spurned me on to maybe get myself copies of these books and devote some time to reading them.

  2. Jonathan
    October 21, 2010
    Reply

    Glad you enjoyed it, Simmo. It’s good to open your mind and think about unusual stuff sometimes. Now, back to Linux!

  3. Stu
    November 9, 2010
    Reply

    Excellent post.

    There was an interesting quote on “The Big Silence” on Friday…

    “The God you don’t believe in doesn’t exist”.

    This was in response to a lady who had issues with the ‘standard’ God she’s been taught about, but definitely felt ‘something’ while on a Jesuit retreat. The suggestion is that exactly how you experience God is exactly what God is.

  4. Oliver
    April 23, 2011
    Reply

    Very interesting post Jon. I feel the same way about most of what you’ve said!

  5. John
    December 9, 2012
    Reply

    With all due respect, even Satan believes in God. Man is incapable of choice. The history of our humanity proves that. There is a God, but not of this world. We have made ourselves slaves to the chaotic whims of humanity. Since you are reading such books, read the Bible again. Understand it, don’t read it as a work of fiction. You can no more understand a book by reading chapters 1, 5 and 8 and then claiming you understand the book. It is obvious that as an intellectual you are open to truth, so give Truth the same chance. Reach the entire Bible with a Bible commentary so that you may understand what YOU may learn, not maybe what others are teaching. As you have said, perhaps they are not even teaching Christianity.

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