22 September 2010

What use is God?

Eminent physicist Prof Stephen Hawking recently made the bold statement that "science makes God unnecessary." This is a bold statement, and I think, intended to be so.  Since what I surmise Prof Hawking means is that we don't need God to explain the origin of the universe, I'm even liable to agree with him.  The problem is that this statement, taken, as we should never take statements, in vacuo, seems to suggest that the only purpose that God serves is to explain what cannot be, or what has not been, explained by science.

I've seen this kind of argument before, though, in moral form.  "Because people are perfectly capable of being good without God looking over their shoulders", the argument goes,  "we don't need God at all."  This presumes that the only function of a life of faith is to prevent us from being horrible people.  I have to admit, I choose to not lie, break promises, rob liquor stores or kill my neighbours not because of some big bad God who's going to kick my arse at the end of time.  And I don't imagine that my atheist friends are off on multi-state murder sprees because they're not afraid of going to hell.

Similarly, it is sometimes claimed that the purpose of religion is to bind together primitive cultures or to comfort us in times of difficulty.  Certainly religion can serve all of these purposes:  it can give us explanations of phenomena that science does not, it can encourage us to be virtuous, it can give people with no natural commonality a sense of belonging, and it can assuage our fears in times of need.  However, I stand with my atheist colleagues when they say that in the modern world there are other mechanisms that take care of these important social needs much better than relgion does for the thinking human being.  Where I part ways with many of them is the conclusion that this is what faith is in toto.

Atheist colleagues and friends often tell me that they don't experience a void in their lives that they need God to fill, and I believe them.  I don't think that God fills some lack in my life either.  For me, my experience of the divine opens up possibilities for my flourishing;  it doesn't close them off.  My life is richer for the presence of God in it.  God doesn't just answer my questions about the universe and give me an imaginary friend to talk to when things get tough.  My faith doesn't teach me right and wrong or provide me with a reason to cherish and respect my fellow living things that I wouldn't otherwise have.  My faith opens up my experience of the world and colours it with a richness and depth that is hard to put into words.  My faith affords me a profundity of life that comes only with the recognition of the vastness, majesty and beauty of the world.  My faith allows me to stand in the presence of the holy and the magnificent without seeking to dominate, control or have mastery over it.

For too many people, religion is a crutch on which they lean, or a surrogate for living their lives to the greatest extent of their own potential.  Insofar as this is true, and insofar as religion becomes an excuse to cut off the possibilities of my own and others' lives, it is a bane and a danger.  I say, however, that to dismiss faith as if this were the sum total of its possibilities represents a failure:  a failure of understanding, a failure of charity, and a failure of imagination.

Prof Hawking has driven science forward into new and wonderful realms, and every thinking person owes him a great debt of gratitude.  I have no doubt that there are more great insights to come from the man who once held the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics, but there are more things in heaven and earth, Stephen, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.  And my world bristles with life because of them.

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