Printer Friendly

The many faces of faith.

For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.

Robert Jastrow, astrophysicist (1)

Ever since I can remember, I have wondered why some people experience faith easily while others cannot--why some people are compelled to question and others seek only to accept. I was brought up by an atheist mother. Although ethnically Jewish, she did not believe in God (or at least the Judeo-Christian version), yet she claimed to have a strong faith. Born and raised in Czarist Russia, she identified strongly with the Communist Revolution. She would point out that, while Karl Marx had said that religion was the opium of the masses, the Communist Manifesto could have been written by Jesus Christ and his apostles. "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one's need" (Acts 2:44-45). (2) Interestingly enough, Fr. Robert Barton, the noted Catholic evangelist, in his book, The Strangest Way, pointed out the connection between the Thomistic analysis of avarice and Marx's reading of the alienating effects of capitalism. (3)

Even as the Soviet Union was imploding and Communist China was adopting the ways of capitalism to survive, my mother held to her faith that communism was what both Jesus and the Hebrew Bible prophets were talking about when they railed against the materialism of their day. "Communism's apparent failure was due to the sinfulness of society's leaders," she would say. While I would mount what I thought were rational arguments to the effect that communism was fatally flawed and doomed to fail, not because of the "sinfulness" of its leaders but because it simply was incompatible with human nature, she would argue that some day, perhaps in the distant future, communism would rise again out of a spiritual and moral necessity. Given the apparent greed, recklessness, and "sinfulness" of today's Wall Street that led to the current economic malaise, perhaps there is a grain of truth in her apocalyptic vision.

My mother took her faith with her to her grave. While clearly this was not religious faith, it was faith, nonetheless. I continue to be haunted by the dilemma of why some people can have faith and others cannot. This essay is an attempt to deal with that dilemma and to consider the possibility of an ecumenical dialogue on faith between atheists and believers. "He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us" (Acts 17:26-27). "This is the covenant I will establish with them after those days, says the Lord: 'I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them upon their minds'" (Heb. 10:16).

Are some of us programmed for God? Is this "programming" hard-wired into our brains? Is the hard-wiring a result of genetic processes? Is this programming a result of parental upbringing, of psychological and cultural influences, of emotional needs? Is it that God reveals Godself to some of us? Did God create our brains, or did our brains create God? Why do some people not believe in God? Are they wired differently? Are they simply the products of different psychosocial and cultural influences?

Ironically, both believers and atheists have faith. The believer has faith in God. The atheist has faith in the absence of God. Neither really knows. The agnostic, unlike the believer and the atheist, lacks the capacity for faith. The agnostic either knows or does not know, and in the case of God, he or she does not know. The questions really are how and why the atheist and the believer come by their respective faiths and how and why the agnostic comes to lack the capacity for faith.

This issue was of some concern to the Gospel writers, especially John, who in writing about "doubting Thomas" addressed the problem believers had with agnostics:

Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples said to him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe." Now a week later his disciples were again inside and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, although the doors were locked, and stood in their midst and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe." Thomas answered and said to him, "My Lord and my God!" (Jn. 20:24-28)

In the end, Thomas came to "believe"--but only because Jesus showed him proof, after which Jesus said: "Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed" (Jn. 20:29). The agnostic, who lacks the capacity for faith and can relate only to knowledge, is given knowledge so he or she can "believe," but the Gospel writer makes sure to indicate that the true believer who does not need knowledge in order to believe is blessed. That the atheist has the capacity for faith is elegantly illustrated by Michael Shermer in his account of a conference sponsored by the Extropy Institute:
   Founded in 1988, what is perhaps most striking about these
   "extropians" is the quasi-religious nature of their beliefs,
   including an almost faithlike devotion to science as a higher
   power. Scientism is their religion, technocracy their politics,
   progress their god. They hold an unmitigated confidence that,
   because science has solved problems in the past, it will solve all
   problems in the future, including the biggest one of all: death.
   For extropians, the vision of a paradisiacal future of longevity,
   intelligence, health, and wealth, delivered on the wings of
   scientific imagination, generates a loyal commitment (a type of
   faith) to a method, a body of knowledge, and a hope for a better
   tomorrow. Given their commitment despite their secular world view,
   perhaps faith is partly hard-wired in us all. (4)

Is there evidence that, indeed, some of us are genetically programed for faith? An answer may be forthcoming from neurology.

On July 5 20, 1998, Newsweek published a cover story proclaiming "Science Finds God." The idea took off after a presentation on "The Neural Basis of Religious Experience" by University of California neuroscientist Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran in October, 1997, at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. One reporter is quoted as saying that "scientists have discovered the God module." Nancey Murphy, of Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, CA), added, "If we recognize the brain does all the things that we attributed to the soul, then God must have some way of interacting with human brains." (6) Ramachandran seemed to be implying that his research may indicate that the neural substrate for religious experience may partially involve circuitry in the temporal lobes, which is enhanced in some people. In other words, it seems that the temporal lobes of human beings are naturally hard-wired for religious experience, and an individual's potential for religious experience may depend on the genetic programming of his or her temporal lobe circuitry. Since some people with temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) not only have a cosmic spiritual experience during their seizures but also maintain a strong religious belief between seizures during normal functioning, what we may be seeing is a disease-induced exaggeration of a capacity that we may all have to a greater or lesser degree. (7)

People with epilepsy intuitively believe this. Alfred Lord Tennyson, in describing his spiritual experience during a temporal lobe seizure, wrote that "all at once, ... out of the intensity of the consciousness of individuality, the individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being; and this not a confused state, but the clearest of the clearest, the surest of the surest ... utterly beyond words." (8) It is a small step for a person having such an experience to see it as a connection to the divine.

Some neurologists seeking a scientific explanation for faith speculate that the capacity for faith may be programmed into the brain's circuitry through evolution to facilitate altruism and cooperation between individuals and to bring order and stability to society. Another hypothesis expressed by Michael Persinger (Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario) to explain religious faith is that the "'sense of self' is maintained by the left hemisphere temporal lobe. Under normal brain functioning," the corresponding right hemisphere complements the left. 'When these two systems become uncoordinated, the left hemisphere interprets the uncoordinated activity as 'another self' or a 'sensed presence'" that might be seen as angels, demons, aliens, or even God. (9) The implication of such secular theories is that aberrations of neural balance create an illusory sense of the divine.

Neurological abnormalities may have played a major role in the founding of two major Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Islam, according to atheists. They are, of course, referring to St. Paul and the prophet Muhammad.

In ancient Ireland, epilepsy was known as "Saint Paul's disease." For centuries the assumption was that Paul suffered from epilepsy. The reason for this widely held assumption was his experience on the road to Damascus as described in the Acts of the Apostles in the Christian Scriptures. Paul, or Saul as he was known before converting to Christianity, is reported to have had a fit that resembled an epileptic seizure: "a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him: 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?' ... Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing ... For three days he was unable to see, and he neither ate nor drank" (Acts 9:3b, 4, 8a, 9).

That Saul was suddenly smitten and fell to the ground, that he saw a flash of light and heard a voice, that he lay motionless on the ground but then was able to get up, and that he had a temporary period of blindness--all point to the possibility of a temporal lobe seizure. Temporary blindness lasting from several hours to several days in the post-ictal period has been reported in the medical literature. Visual and auditory hallucinations have also been reported, occurring immediately preceding the seizure and immediately afterwards.

For the atheist, who believes in the nonexistence of God, this centuries-old assumption provides an opportunity to debunk Christianity. Adding a bit of pop psychology to neurology, the explanation goes something like this. Paul, a Roman citizen and a devout Jew, saw his mission as suppressing a dissident offshoot of Judaism that threatened both the Jewish establishment and the Roman administration. He was described as well-educated, driven, and obsessive in pursuing his goals. He presumably went to the trouble of obtaining permission from the Roman government to hunt down "cells" of "Jesus people" who escaped into what is now Syria. On the road to Damascus, he had an epileptic seizure that caused a hallucinatory experience in which he heard the voice of Jesus questioning his goals and motives. He also found that he was blinded. He was both terrified and guilt-ridden, for he likely assumed that this was punishment for his "McCarthy-like" persecution of the Christians and that God had condemned him for that. After he recovered, he transfered his obsessive zeal from persecuting Christians to advocating for them and thereby spent the rest of his life atoning for his sins. His brilliant, driven, untiring crusade to evangelize not only Jews but to extend his evangelism to gentiles as well became the single most important factor in the rise of Christianity.

Dr. D. Landsborough, a neurologist, in a comprehensive review in which he analyzed 2 Cor. 12:1-9; Gal. 4:13-14; Acts 9:1-19, 16:9, 18: 9, 22:6-13, 22:17- 21, and 26:14 from a neurological perspective, concluded that Paul was subject to episodes of TLE and/or partial complex seizures, some of which progressed to generalized convulsions. He believed that the ecstatic vision described in 2 Cor. 12:1-9 resembles the pleasurable aura of TLE. Of the other "visions" mentioned in Paul's own writings and in the book of Acts, "some were probably ictal, others were instances of spiritual conviction and that he may have had an attack of TLE on the road to Damascus, followed by post-ictal blindness--which took place while he was undergoing a profound spiritual change, his conversion to the Christian faith." (10)

John Dominic Crossan, a former Catholic priest and incorrigible Irish gadfly, suggested as an alternative explanation that Paul had malaria:
   The major negative gift of Tarsus was malaria ... Think for a
   moment, however, about that Cilician plain locked between the
   mountains and the sea. Think of its rich fertility and agricultural
   prosperity fed by three rivers that annually drained the melting
   snows of the Taurus range. Despite the best Roman drainage
   engineering, that environment also meant marshes, mosquitoes, and
   malaria. (11)

The implication is that Paul's "visions" of Christ were caused by delirious episodes due to malaria. Furthermore, following William Ramsey, it is suggested that Paul's "stake [thorn] in the flesh" (2 Cor. 2:7) refers to the peculiar headache that accompanies the paroxysms of chronic malarial fever. (12)

How can such neurological speculations be reconciled with Christian faith? For the believer a vision is not a hallucination. Visual hallucinations can be due to epilepsy, but Paul's vision in which he conversed with Jesus on the road to Damascus as recorded in Acts is too elaborate for a hallucination due to TLE. Moreover, for the believer, visions can be God's indirect way of communicating with us. Just as in the Hebrew Bible, the Gospels, and the Qur'an, God communicated with Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad in strange and mysterious ways, so God may have chosen to reveal Godself to Paul in a vision, even granting the extremely unlikely mechanism of an epileptic seizure or a delirium brought on by malaria. That is, in fact, what Paul believed (2 Cor. 12:1-9; Gal. 4:13-14).

Like Paul, Muhammad was also subject to the atheist's debunking. Looking for ways to discredit his claim to be God's Prophet and Messenger to humankind, that the Qur'an was not of his own making, and that what he preached (Islam) was divinely and not humanly inspired, atheists (as well as proponents of non-Islamic religions) sought to show that his "visions" were also manifestations of epileptic seizures or the hallucinations and delusions of a transient psychotic disorder. According to the hadith Muhammad suffered from a long-lasting disease, which he treated by means of bleeding. Dr. Koenraad Elst claimed that there is data to suggest that, as a three-year-old, Muhammad was found lying on the ground, pale and in shock, complaining to his foster parents that two white-clad men had opened his belly, looking for something. His foster mother Halima even considered returning him to his real mother, not wanting to bear the responsibility if something was wrong with the boy.
   When he became a young man ..., these strange traits were not in
   evidence, but as he entered middle age, they returned.... His wife
   Khadija thought he had "the evil eye." ... [S]he sent him to
   exorcists for treatment.... When the prophetic trances became
   really serious, involving the vision of archangel Gabriel, Khadija
   took him to the Christian godman, Waraga ibn Naufel, who certified
   the genuineness of Mohammed's visions [as true revelations from
   heaven.] (13)

According to Elst, from that point on, Khadija became a believer, and their relationship took on the character of a "folie a deux." (14)

Others have described his visions as seizure-like. They allege that when the visions came Muhammad would fall to the ground in a convulsion or swoon, perspiration covering his brow. They were sometimes reported by him as like the ringing of a bell, a frequent occurrence in epileptic fits, the debunkers opine. They dispute Muhammad's claim that the entire text of the Qur'an existed in heaven and that one fragment at a time was communicated to him, usually by Gabriel. Asked how he could remember these divine discourses, Muhammad explained that the archangel made him repeat every word. To this his critics counter that, while Muhammad was never taught how to read or write and was basically a merchant, he possessed a brilliant intelligence along with a strong spiritual and moral character. Therefore, Muhammad, himself, was eminently capable of producing the beauty and sophistication embodied in the Qur'an. He simply dictated his "vision- induced" ideas to close followers who could read and write, and they transcribed them in writing.

To Muslin believers, such blatant speculations are yet another example of the length to which atheists will go to try to discredit Islam. To them, it is profoundly offensive.

Aside from their characterizations of Paul and Muhammad, some atheists believe that the handful of fanatic religious leaders throughout history who have reported hearing, seeing, and even communicating with God and other supernatural entities can perhaps be accounted for by temporal lobe enhancement or anomalies. The charisma that they then project makes followers of vast numbers of people who do not possess these qualities. Polemics such as these against major religious figures are more noteworthy for what they say about the polemicists, who seem to have an axe to grind, than the polemics themselves.

However, when we ask modern scientists and philosophers who are not affiliated with a specific religious persuasion and who do not seem to have an axe to grind, we find a curious mixture of theists, agnostics, and atheists. David McCarthy in presenting his views at an Eranos Symposium noted that "[i]f we are merely products of our genes and environment" and if "[a]ll is explainable by physical forces and probabilities ... [then] we can accept neither blame nor credit for any of it. None of us can live as though this is true and yet it is the logical outcome of a reduction of all things to the material and a denial of the possibility of the spirit." (15)

Bruce Tate, presenting his views at the same symposium, indicated unequivocally that there is no meaning or purpose behind what happens in the universe. He said that this notion of purpose to the universe was at best a historical artifact, "A concept left over from an ancient version of [hu]mankind's existence. The concept of meaning or purpose to the universe is much like the appendix in modern humans['] digestive tract. It is a useless, even troublesome appendage that only had value in a previous form of life." He further elaborated:
   The perceived universe is frequently mistaken to be one and the
   same as the "real" universe.... [For example,] [n]aive realists
   think they are sitting and making contact with a physical object
   (the chair under their rear ends). What is happening ... is the
   electrons from the chair are repelling the electrons from your rear
   end and it gives an illusion of contact....

   The trouble is that our brains can manipulate this naive universe
   at will. We can make it disappear by going to sleep. We can make
   all of creation beautiful by [experiencing love].

He concluded that this universe does have purpose and meaning in it, but this universe is not real, and, therefore, "[t]here is no meaning or purpose in the real universe." (16)

We also get surprising answers from world-renowned scientists and cosmologists. Edward Kolb of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory concluded: "It turns out that 'constants of nature,' such as the strength of gravity, have exactly the values that allow stars and planets to form ... The universe, it seems, is free-tuned to let life and consciousness flower." Science, he concluded, may never be able to tell us why this should be. (17) In a similar vein, Albert Einstein wrote that "the harmony of natural law ... reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection." (18) While Einstein was supposedly not religious, his comment seems to be a veiled reference to the existence of God.

Yet, the notion that people believe in God because of genetic predisposition, parental upbringing, cultural influences, and historical momentum is common among committed atheists. They claim that our brains created God out of an emotional need, a fear of death, a hope for immortality, an explanation for evil and suffering, and a foundation for morality. The evidence for genetic predisposition comes from the "Minnesota twins" study directed by Thomas J. Bouchard, Jr. Studying fifty-three pairs of identical twins and thirty-one pairs of fraternal twins who were reared apart, the researchers found the correlation between identical twins for religiosity was significantly higher than that for fraternal twins, suggesting that faith was, at least in part, genetically determined. (19)

According to a 1998 survey by Frank Sulloway and Michael Shermer, "the three strongest predictors of religiosity and belief in God are being raised religiously, gender (women are more religious than men), and parents' religiosity." They also found that political belief was a factor in determining religious belief,
   with conservatives being more religious and liberals less so....
   Why? Probably because most religions represent the status quo, and
   what conservatives wish most to conserve is the status quo. Thus,
   the liberal, radical thing to do is to change one's religious
   attitudes--which usually means either becoming less religious or
   adopting marginalized religious beliefs, as in the counterculture's
   embracing of fringe cults in the 1960s and 1970s and the adoption
   of New Age spiritual movements in the 1980s and 1990s. (20)

On March 6, 1927, Bertrand Russell delivered a famous lecture to the National Secular Society in London, subsequently published as "Why I Am Not a Christian." One of his points to justify his atheism was the debunking of the First Cause Argument put forth by the Catholic Church. The argument is that everything we see in this world has a cause, and as you go further and further back in the chain of causes you must come to a First Cause, and to that First Cause you give the name of "God." Russell's rebuttal to this argument is as follows. Quoting a sentence from John Stuart Mill's Autobiography, "My father taught me that the question 'Who made me?' cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question 'Who made God?'" Russell stated, "That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world [or presumably the universe] as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument." He concluded that the idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination. (21)

In 1927 the prevailing scientific view of the universe was that, indeed, it did not have a beginning. Only several decades later did science "recant" and acknowledge that the emerging evidence pointed to the "Big Bang" and that the universe did, indeed, have a beginning. Ironically, one of the originators of the "Big Bang" theory was a Catholic priest, Fr. Georges Lemaitre. If science could maintain that the universe was eternal without beginning or end--implying that the concept of an eternal existence was within the scope of scientific "imagination," since the eternal existence of the universe was discredited--why could not the concept of God as having eternal existence take its place?

The atheistic notion that religious belief is simply a product of genetic predisposition, parental upbringing, cultural influences, historical momentum, fear of the mysterious, fear of death, and the wish to have a kind of divine father figure to stand by you in all your troubles and comfort you does not account for all of religious belief. While these factors may be statistically correlated with religious belief, they do not explain religious belief in persons who do not fall into any of the above categories. There are a significant number of these people. How does one explain their religious belief?

C. S. Lewis is a case in point. In his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he indicated that he was comfortable, even contented, as an atheist, but small happenings and little intimations began to undermine his materialistic worldview. Though he was trying to follow moral law, he was hardly seeking God. However, at a certain point he became alarmed that God seemed to be pursuing him. He describes that in a chapter called "Check." The next was titled "Checkmate," in which he surrendered to his divine "opponent." He concluded that faith is ultimately a gift from God. There are those who receive such a gift and those who do not. It is not so much our reaching up to God as God's reaching down to us. (22) This is a point made by many theologians, including by Barron in The Strangest Way. (23)

Still another favorite tactic of atheists in their zeal to debunk religion is to transform religious figures into power-seeking mass-movement leaders with a political agenda. A striking example of this approach is exemplified by Jay Haley in his essay, "The Power Tactics of Jesus Christ." (24)

He suggested that Jesus' greatest innovation was the idea of striking for power by organizing the poor and the powerless, a tactic previously not known. His implication is that this legacy was copied by Lenin and Trotsky in Russia, Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, Mao Tse-tung and Ho Chi Minh in Asia, Castro in Cuba, and most recently Osama bin Laden in the Middle East. To bolster his argument Haley offered the following "evidence":
   First of all, the population was discontented. Not only was there
   an excessive weight of poverty and oppression but Roman taxation
   removed essentials as well as the surpluses from this defeated
   country. The people also faced a priestly hierarchy made up of
   families which were exploitive and were maintained in power by the
   occupying Roman colonists. As in Russia where the Bolsheviks built
   upon hunger and military defeat, and in Germany where the Nazis
   made use of defeat and despair, the populace had little to lose by
   any change. (25)

      Jesus also lived at a time when the power structure was not
   unified but divided. The geographical division after the death of
   Herod had left conflict and resentment, the wealthy class and the
   priests had their differences, the priestly hierarchy was in
   internal conflict, and the Romans were sufficiently hated to make a
   cleavage between the governor and the populace. (26)

The culture he inherited provided Jesus with a special opportunity to be an authority and to grab power by mobilizing the disgruntled poverty-stricken masses, Haley asserted, continuing:
   Throughout his public life Jesus managed to call attention to
   himself as an authority who was presenting new ideas. At the same
   time, he defined what he said as proper orthodoxy. He achieved this
   feat in two ways: first, he insisted that he was not suggesting a
   change and then he called for a change, and second he insisted that
   the ideas he was presenting were not deviations from the
   established religion but a more true expression of the ideas of
   that religion. Both of these tactics are typically used by leaders

   of mass movements who must, for strategic reasons, define what they
   do as orthodox while making the changes necessary to establish a
   power position. For example, Lenin supported the principle of
   majority role, but he insisted that the minority was really the
   majority. Similarly, he argued that permitting only a single
   political party was a truer expression of democracy because that
   party represented the proletarian majority (even though it was a
   minority). (27)

A logical extension of Haley's reasoning would apply to today's radical Muslims and their strategy of using suicide bombers to increase their power base. The Qur'an would seem to forbid this tactic. "And do not kill yourself, for God is indeed merciful to you," the Qur'an commands. As Stevenson Swanson pointed out in an article in the Chicago Tribune in 2004, "A widely accepted belief in Islam holds that those who commit suicide will spend eternity in hell." (28) So, how do radical Muslim terrorist leaders manage to call for change and at the same time define what they are promoting as proper orthodoxy? They argue "that suicide bombers are really martyrs dying in service of their faith" and point to what the Qur'an says "about what awaits martyrs in the afterlife: 'Think not of those who are slain in the cause of God as dead. Nay, they live in the presence of the Lord and are granted gifts from him.'" The Qur'an "spells out some specific rewards--abundant fruit and wine, served by beautiful, dark-eyed virgins called houris." (29)

To demonstrate that Jesus was the first known innovator of this strategy, Haley quoted from scripture to illustrate first that Jesus insisted that he was not suggesting a change:

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy but to fulfil.... whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:17, 19) (30)

But, to illustrate that Jesus was in fact calling for a change, he quoted:

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment ... (Matt. 5:21, 22) ...

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shall not commit adultery: But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. (Matt. 5:27, 28)

It hath been said, whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: but I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery. (Matt. 5:31, 32) (31)

So, according to Haley, Jesus changes the law by defining anger as criminal, by claiming that people should be punished for their thoughts as well as their deeds, and by insisting that the law of divorce should be revised.

Finally, Haley went over the top when he opined that Jesus' execution was the result of a miscalculation on his part. He implied that Jesus wanted to be arrested--very much like Martin Luther King, Jr., or Jesse Jackson--to publicize his agenda but that he did not expect that this would result in his execution. "Who could have guessed the Sanhedrin would condemn him without evidence, that Pilate would happen to ask the crowd for a decision, and that the crowd he had never wronged would ask for his death? Even a master tactician cannot take into account all the possibilities, including chance occurrences." (32) This appears to be yet another atheist screed--but with an interesting twist.

On March 24, 2004, a headline in the New York Times declared: "Atheist Presents Case for Taking God from the Pledge." The article stated, "Michael A. Newdow ... who makes his living as an emergency room doctor ... [gave a] spell-binding performance" before the Supreme Court. (33) Anne Gearan of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, "Not long alter the Supreme Court came to order Wednesday with the invocation 'God save the United States and this honorable court,' the justices were deep in a wrenching argument over whether millions of public school children may continue pledging allegiance to one nation 'under God."' (34)

What was "spellbinding" about Newdow's appearance before the court was not so much the legal cogency of his argument but, rather, the almost evangelistic style of his presentation. This was a man who was defending his atheistic faith much as a religious Christian or Muslim would defend theirs if they felt their faith were under attack. The Justices and Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson gently pointed out that historically the founding fathers of our country were theists and that the placing of God prominently in our currency and in legal invocations stemmed from political as well as religious concerns. The founding fathers' issue was that, prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the framing of the Constitution, countries were governed by kings. Indeed, the American Revolution was a rightful protest against government by a king who was not living up to the unalienable principles given to the people by God. Therefore, the principles under which a country should be governed are God-given, and the people, not a king, are the rightful interpreters of these God-given principles--hence, one nation under God.

The phrase "under God," however, did not appear in the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954, when Congress inserted it to distinguish the religious tradition of the United States from the secular policies of the Soviet Union. The phrase "under God" in the pledge is meant to pay respect to the tradition established by our founding fathers. Those who believe in God can choose to take it literally; those who believe in the nonexistence of God can choose to regard it as a historical tradition. A far more important point is that we have a government of and by the people based on moral principles originally articulated by religious entities, not by an authoritarian ruler or an authoritarian party that allows no political opposition. So, why can Newdow not accept that point? Why cannot he explain to his daughter that, while some people believe in God and others believe in the nonexistence of God, all can have a say in the government? Why cannot he explain that mentioning God in the pledge is done out of respect for our historical tradition and is not a religious mandate?

The atheists in the audience erupted into applause when Newdow stated that an atheist could not get elected to public office. There was a time when a Jew or a Catholic could not get elected to public office, let alone an African American. If a Catholic can be elected president and a Jew can run for Vice President, it may only be a matter of time before an atheist can be elected to national office. For the first time in American history an African American president, referring to religious diversity in his inaugural address, included atheism.

That God has many faces is beautifully illustrated by the fable of the Blind Men and the Elephant as taken from Fifty Famous Stories Retold by James Baldwin:
   There were once six blind men who stood by the road-side ... [who]
   had often heard of el-e-phants, but they had never seen one; for,
   being blind, how could they?

   It so happened one morning that an el-e-phant was driven down the
   road where they stood. When they were told that the great beast was
   before them, they asked the driver to let him stop so they might
   see him.

   Of course they could not see him with their eyes; but they thought
   that by touching him they could learn just what kind of animal he

   The first one happened to put his hand on the elephant's side.
   "Well, well!" he said, "Now I know all about this beast. He is
   ex-act-ly like a wall."

   The second felt only of the elephant's tusk. "My brother," he said
   "you are mistaken. He is not at all like a wall. He is more like a
   spear than anything else."

   The third happened to take hold of the elephant's trunk. "Both of
   you are wrong," he said. "Anybody who knows anything can see that
   this elephant is like a snake."

   The fourth reached out his arms, and grasped one of the elephant's
   legs. "Oh, how blind you are!" he said. "It is very plain to me
   that he is round and tall like a tree."

   The fifth was a very tall man, and he chanced to take hold of the
   elephant's ear. "The blind-est man ought to know that this beast is
   not like any of the things that you name, "he said. "He is
   ex-act-ly like a huge fan."

   The sixth was very blind indeed, and it was some time before he
   could find the elephant at all. At last he seized the animal's
   tail. "O foolish fellows!" he cried. "You surely have lost your
   senses. This elephant is not like a wall, or a spear, or a snake,
   or a tree; neither is he like a fan. But any man with a par-ti-cle
   of sense can see he is exactly like a rope."

   Then the elephant moved on, and the six blind men sat by the
   roadside all day, and quar-reled about him. Each believed that he
   knew just how the animal looked; and each called the others hard
   names because they did not agree with him.... (35)

The moral of the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant is twofold. First, even though the blind men are denied knowing what the elephant is really like, the elephant exists, and, by analogy, so does God. Second, since no one can see the face of God, we can never truly know what God is really like any more than the blind men can know what the elephant is really like. In other words, with respect to the nature of God, all religions have elements of truth, but none has the whole truth. That is a mystery that will forever elude humankind. Therefore, the contentious rivalry between and among religions is as fruitless as the arguments of the blind men in the fable.

Faith (including atheism) ranges from belief in the literal truth of the Torah, the Gospels, or the Qur'an to believing that there are many levels of metaphorical truth in the scriptures to various concepts of a creator or creative force to the atheist's belief that "we are merely products of our genes and environment" and that what we are "is explainable by physical forces and probabilities." (36)

"Seek and you will find" (Mt. 7:7; Lk. 11:9). The quest for faith is a daunting task for the agnostic who seemingly is programmed by genetics and early developmental influences to question. The agnostic relies on knowledge, so for her or him the existence of God seems unknown and unknowable. Unlike the "doubting Thomas" of the Gospels, the agnostic will not be offered proof. The modern agnostic can only examine the possibilities. The first inclination might be to look to the cosmologists who study the origin of the universe with scientific rigor.

When astronomer Fred Hoyle calculated the likelihood that carbon would have precisely the required resonance by chance, he said that his atheism was greatly shaken, adding: "A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics." (37) Stephen Hawking cited the ratio between the masses of the proton and electron as one of the many fundamental numbers in nature: "The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life." (38)

Yet, Hawking, who now claims to be an atheist, felt the need to distance himself from the obvious implication of that statement. As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing. "Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going." 39 The question remains as to who or what created the laws that allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing.

Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson wrote, "The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I fred that the universe in some sense must have known that we were coming." (40) NASA astronomer John O'Keefe said, "It is my view that these circumstances indicate that the Universe was created for man to live in." (41) Thomas Nagel, an agnostic, pointed out that the appearance of living organisms that have eventually given rise to consciousness, perception, mind, and reason suggests the probability of a nonmaterialistic natural order in the universe. (42)

These views, arrived at by modern scientists and philosophers studying probabilities with scientific and philosophic methods, were intuitively grasped (as were so many modern scientific notions) by the ancient Israelites. "For thus says the LORD, The creator of the heavens, who is God, The designer and maker of the earth who established it, Not as an empty waste did he create it, but designing it to be lived in: I am the LORD, and there is no other" (Is. 45:18). Since all human belief and understanding is cloaked in metaphor, how much difference is there between the metaphors of scripture and the metaphors of modern cosmology? Both seem to point to a creator God according to particle physicist Stephen Barr in his book, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith. (43)

Underlying the peculiar world of quantum mechanics is the notion that, under certain circumstances, matter can exist in more than one state and more than one position in space at the same time. That situation defies our sense of reality. In the macroscopic world in which we all live, things are in one state or one place at a time. In the famous "thought experiment" of Erwin Schrodinger known as "Schrodinger's Cat," quantum mechanics dictated that the cat must be in a super- positition of being both dead and alive. (44) Is it too much of a stretch for believers to think that, in some quantum-like reality, beyond the limits of our conceptual capacity, life and death and a spiritual and material existence could conceivably co- exist? Would that not suggest the existence of a nonmaterial God and, as Christians would have it, the incarnation and resurrection of Christ?

Finally, could there be a dialogical encounter between two seemingly irreconcilable faiths--believers and atheists--that would lead to a kind of reconciliation? That, surely, would be the goal of ecumenism. The dialogue could begin with "bereshit," the biblical beginning of our universe, which could then be compared with the scientific account that most atheists would embrace. However, the scientific account precludes all knowledge of the pre-creation state, since the intense heat of the "Big Bang" destroyed any evidence that preceded creation. Therefore, in such a dialogue, the agnostic could point out that the atheist's position with respect to the nonexistence of a creator God is also a matter of faith. Faith has many faces, and, regardless of how or why atheists and believers come to their respective faiths, they can either choose to come to peace with the diversity of faith or they can cling to their exclusionary positions. The outcome would depend on the good will of the participants in the dialogue.

(1) Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, 2nd ed. (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co., 1992), p. 107 (in original 1978 edition, on p. 116).

(2) Unless otherwise noted, biblical references are from the New American Bible (Washington, DC: Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, 1986, 1991).

(3) Robert Barton, The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), p. 88.

(4) Michael Shermer, "Why People Believe in God: An Empirical Study on a Deep Question," The Humanist 59 (November/December, 1999): 20.

(5) Sharon Begley, "Science Finds God," Newsweek, July 20, 1998, pp. 44-50.

(6) Shermer, "Why People Believe in God," p. 22.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Richard Maurice Bucke, Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind (Philadelphia: Innes & Sons, 1901), chap. 16, p. 293; available at scious/ccon_djvu.txt.

(9) See Shermer, "Why People Believe in God," p. 22.

(10) D. Landsborough, "St. Paul and Temporal Lobe Epilepsy," Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry 50 (June, 1987): 659-664.

(11) Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul: Reclaimmg the Radical Visionary behind the Church's Conservative Icon (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009), p. 62; emphasis in original.

(12) Ibid., p. 64; citing William Mitchell Ramsey, St. Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1895), p. 61.

(13) Koenraad Elst, "Wali: The Supernatural Basis of Islam"; available at http://koenraadelst.

(14) Ibid.

(15) "Eranos Symposium: Presentations and Questions" (January 21, 2003); see

(16) Ibid.

(17) Edward Kolb, quoted by Sharon Begley, "Science of the Sacred," Newsweek, November 28, 1994, p. 58.

(18) Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions--The World as I See It (New York: Bonanza Books, 1931), p. 40; emphasis in original.

(19) See Thomas J. Bouchard, Jr., and Matt McGue, "Genetic and Environmental Influences on Human Psychological Differences," Journal of Neurobiology 54 (January, 2003): 29-31.

(20) Shermer, "Why People Believe in God," p. 24.

(21) Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects, ed. Paul Edwards (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.; New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), pp. 6-7.

(22) See Clive Staples Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1955), pp. 165-229.

(23) Barton, Strangest Way, p. 98.

(24) Jay Haley, "The Power Tactics of Jesus Christ," in Jay Haley, The Power Tactics of Jesus Christ and Other Essays (New York: Discus Books, Grossman Publishers; Avon Books, Hearst Corp., 1969), pp. 27-68.

(25) Ibid., p. 31.

(26) Ibid., pp. 31-32.

(27) Ibid., pp. 33-34.

(28) Stevenson Swanson, "From Golden Age to an Embattled Faith," Chicago Tribune, February 8, 2004, p. 16.

(29) Ibid.

(30) Haley, "Power Tactics," p. 34.

(31) Ibid., p. 35.

(32) Ibid., p. 64.

(33) Linda Greenhouse, "Atheist Presents Case for Taking God from Pledge," New York Times, March 25, 2004.

(34) Anne Gearan, "Toss 'Under God,' Justices Told," Chicago Sun-Times, March 25, 2004.

(35) "The Blind Men and the Elephant," in James Baldwin, Fifty Famous Stories Retold (New York; Cincinnati, OH; and Chicago: American Book Co., 1896), pp. 130-131.

(36) See note 15, above.

(37) Sir Fred Hoyle, "The Universe: Past and Present Reflections," Engineering and Science 45 (November, 1981): 12.

(38) Steven W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), p. 125.

(39) Steven W. Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam Books, 2010), p. 180.

(40) Freeman J. Dyson, Disturbing the Universe (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 250.

(41) John O'Keefe, "The Theological Impact of the New Cosmology," afterword in Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, new and exp. ed. (New York: Readers Library, Inc. 1992), p. 118.

(42) See Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (New York and Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 17.

(43) See Stephen M. Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), pp. 4-29.

(44) See E. Schrodinger, "Quantisierung als Eigenwertproblem," Annalen der Physik (Leipzig) 80 (July 18, 1926): 437-490.

Eugene P. Trager, M.D. University of Illinois College of Medicine, Chicago, IL; and emeritus, Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, Park Ridge, IL
COPYRIGHT 2013 Journal of Ecumenical Studies
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Trager, Eugene P.
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2013
Previous Article:Varying views of spirit baptism: an analysis of speech-acts toward ecumenical dialogue.
Next Article:The eclipse of The Light of the Word.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters