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Of Theists and Atheists

17 November 2012, 09:51

I have been intrigued by the ongoing debate on News24 between theists and atheists. This debate seems to rank up there with other topics which are of more immediate practical interest, such as the costs of commuting or the exorbitant costs of electricity.  We can choose to cycle to work, use public transport or install a solar system to try and lessen  costs.  But only if our daily actions are such as to incur the wrath of a vengeful God would His existence influence our lives. We would still have to go to work, or spend our leisure time in whichever way we choose.

However, we have to cherish the freedom of expression that we enjoy.  Many of the views expressed in these semi-theological debates on News24 would in another age have resulted in correspondents being hauled in front of an Inquisition and to be  sentenced as heretics to be  burned at the stake. The costs of the Inquisition and related religious conflicts in human lives are not easily established. Catholics tend to downplay these costs, but religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics during the Thirty Years War in Europe is thought to have brought about the death of  about 5 million people. David Plaisted, in a manuscript entitled  “Estimates of the Number Killed by the Papacy in the Middle Ages and later”, argues that the total number of fatalities due to the Inquisition in various parts of Europe and the subsequent religious wars may have resulted in the deaths of as many as  100 million persons.   Even scientific progress was at times hampered by demands that such advances  may not conflict with the scriptures.. Thus Galileo, at the time the foremost scientist in Europe, was placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life, because he proposed that the earth orbits around the sun, which is at the center of the solar system, rather than that the sun orbited about the earth.  Indeed, how could Joshua have asked the Lord  to stop the sun and thus lengthen the day to allow the Israelites to claim victory over the Amorites if the sun were at the center of the solar system?  Galileo, and Copernicus before him, were therefore in conflict with the Scriptures and clearly  at fault. 

It is apparent that religion has, through the centuries, occupied a very important, but at times destructive, niche in the lives and deaths of many. It is no less so in this day and age. Religion divides Christians between Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic, and Christians from Muslims. Various subsets of Muslims seem perpetually at each other’s and promise eternal salvation if  a convert to the cause commits suicide in such a manner that it results in the deaths of many bystanders of a different Islamic persuasion.

Seeking complicity of God in the conduct of human conflict and in the blessing of more innocent activities can be found in many cultures. Perhaps most gruesome was the sacrifice of thousands to Huitzilopochtli by the Aztecs, done by ripping out the hearts of victims in their religious ceremonies.  Legend has it that the practice of sacrifice to elicit divine blessing played a role also in the war waged by Peloponesian Greeks against Troy.  A calm Aegeian Sea was essential in order to sail an army to Troy  and in order to calm the sea Agamemnon sacrificed Iphigenia, his own daughter.  The Gods relented, but Agamemnon’s luck ran out when he returned to Greece 10 years later, with a vengeful wife, Clytemnestra, still lying in wait for  him.  

Human perceptions of God  thus seems, through the centuries, to have spawned many conflicts and did little to persuade humanity to refrain from inhuman conduct.  In fact suicide bombers and  suicide pilots  rely on a warm reception in paradise. Members of the Taliban feel justified to harm women that do not conform to their fundamentalist beliefs concerning the role of  women  in society.                                       

There is, however, another way of looking at God. Not as a person dressed in white sitting on  a throne and with Jesus next to him, i.e. a personalized God, but as the creator of the Universe. And when one then thinks of the scale and size of the Universe,  not only of  numerous stars, but of numerous galaxies, a personalized God becomes very unlikely. Indeed, Einstein completed rejected the idea of such a personalized God.

The manner in which the Universe came into being is at the center of cosmology, as put by Watkins in his book, A Brief History of Time (1988) , that when we know everything about that moment when a singularity exploded to trigger formation of  the Universe a very long time ago, we will begin to understand the mind of God.  (My own wording, but I think it means the same).  In subsequent books, however,  this famous theoretical physicist  seemed to have veered away from  a role that God played in creation of the Universe.

It is, therefore, of interest to take note of what  the most famous of all theoretical physicists, Einstein, thought about God.

“During the youthful period of mankind's spiritual evolution human fantasy created gods in man's own image, who, by the operations of their will were supposed to determine, or at any rate to influence, the phenomenal world. Man sought to alter the disposition of these gods in his own favor by means of magic and prayer. The idea of God in the religions taught at present is a sublimation of that old concept of the gods. Its anthropomorphic character is shown, for instance, by the fact that men appeal to the Divine Being in prayers and plead for the fulfillment of their wishes.”

Einstein aligned himself with the great 17th century philosopher, Spinoza.  Spinoza’s writings are in their wording complicated to follow and requires careful study to fully comprehend.  The most important assertion is perhaps best summarized in the opening paragraph of the Appendix to his Ethics’ which can accessed at http://users.erols.com/nbeach/spinoza.html

In the foregoing I have explained the nature and properties of God. I have shown that he necessarily exists, that he is one: that he is, and acts solely by the necessity of his own nature; that he is the free cause of all things, and how he is so; that all things are in God, and so depend on him, that without him they could neither exist nor be conceived; lastly, that all things are pre-determined by God, not through his free will or absolute fiat, but from the very nature of God or infinite power.

It is evident that some of the foremost intellectuals of the 20th century were and still are ill at ease with the perceptions of  “GOD” as held by organized religious bodies. While Einstein did not deny the existence of  God,  he believed in Spinoza’s God and thought of himself as a deeply religious man, but not in the conventional sense of the word, since he also described himself as being agnostic, presumably in that he did not believe in a personalized God.  Both Spinoza and Einstein were, however, on  occasion considered to be atheists.

How should one then regard  the ongoing debate between theists and atheists, or should we say churchgoers and non-churchgoers, those that belong to organized religious groupings, such as the churches, and those that  fail to find any  solace within these organizations? In this regard the thoughts of Einstein  again seems pertinent:

The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life. To make this a living force and bring it to clear consciousness is perhaps the foremost task of education. The foundation of morality should not be made dependent on myth nor tied to any authority lest doubt about the myth or about the legitimacy of the authority imperil the foundation of sound judgment and action.”

The quotations ascribed  to Einstein can be found at : http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/quotes_einstein.html

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