Let’s try to draw some conclusions. Let’s tie together all of the loose ends, all of the theories, all of the evidence.
Can we come up with one explanation that encompasses everything we have talked about?
I think we can. You might not like it.
The most obvious thing to say is that we cannot prove definitively that God does or does not exist. I have not yet seen a feat of logic that convinces me. Sorry, Aquinas and Dawkins. Your attempts at knockout blow don’t work.
That’s why the title of this series is “God Maybe”. While there is room for doubt there can be no certainty. We might be 99.9% certain of something, but we ought to have the honesty to admit the presence of the remaining 0.1%.
Now for the difficult bit. If you follow a religion right now, there is a very strong possibility that your religion is wrong on some or all of the details.
We know that mankind invents gods. We know that religions evolve, change and sometimes die out. We know that there are 4,200 active religions on this earth. We know that there is no dominant world religion, and that your religion is mostly a postcode lottery based on where you are born.
It is possible that one religion is right and all the others are wrong. That’s the “maybe” part of our title again. But it seems highly unlikely.
When you look at your religion, you are seeing the narrow perspective of your own culture and the teachings of your religion. If you look across all religions, all countries and all times, it becomes harder and harder to accept the idea that any one religion is right.
If there is a God, we almost certainly don’t understand him.
Then again, how could we? If there is a supernatural being with powers far greater than ourselves, how could we possibly hope to understand him? Does an ant understand a skyscraper, or a car or a computer?
So we look for evidence. And it turns out that evidence of the existence of god is hard to find. We have nothing to show conclusively that prayer works. It certainly doesn’t seem to affect the lottery or whether people recover from illness – apart from the placebo effect. Miracles can be explained rationally. Religions’ views of the creation of the world run straight into far better explanations such as evolution.
Except for one thing – the faith elephant in the room. Just about every successful human civilization has believed in gods. Civilizations that never had contact with each other all did the same thing. They invented a deity to pray to. And they kept on praying to that deity – or successor deities – for the majority of the time that mankind has been intelligent enough to bang two rocks together without bashing our fingers.
The pattern is too consistent to be ignored or dismissed as a delusion. Something is happening here. We just don’t know what it is.
Here’s my theory …
Let’s start right back at the dawn of civilization. And, I’m sorry, creationists, but that means the big bang, the formation of stars and evolution.
Homo Sapiens develops a range of skills to make up for our relative physical weaknesses. We grow a bigger brain, we communicate with each other, we invent tools to do things that we can’t do with our bare hands, we try to understand the world around us. We are curious. We ask “why” a lot.
Most of our questions are intensely practical. How do we make fire? Which foods are safe to eat? How do we catch animals? How can we build, make, do?
But some questions are much harder to answer. Why does the weather change? Will my crops grow? Will Winter end? How can we cure the sick? What happens when we die?
This is when man invented gods. Very primitive people invented gods in the shape of animals. As we became more sophisticated, our gods came in human form. What else? Humans are the most powerful creatures on earth, so anything capable of making lightning happen must be a very special kind of human.
Over time, these religions evolved. The bits of the religions that didn’t work were quietly dropped. The bits that did work remained. . It took us a few centuries, but we eventually realised that sacrificing animals or even humans didn’t really achieve anything. So we stopped doing that. Just as we stopped burning witches, barbecuing heretics or preaching hell-fire.
Religions fine-tuned themselves to give their followers what they wanted. The promise of an afterlife. The comfort of prayer. Better designed religions replaced weaker ones.
That’s evolution in action.
Religions became manuals for living well. They taught their followers how to work hard, to follow rules, to avoid dangers, to get on with each other.
Maybe there is a real physical god behind all of this, and each religion is groping its way towards the truth.
Or maybe God is a principle, an idea, a metaphor. God stands for that which is good – the things that we need to do to survive and thrive. That is what god and gods have always stood for.
When we pray we are not really sending an email to an interstellar being. We are talking to ourselves and to the community around us. We are trying to connect with this concept of “good”.
As individuals we ask “What should we do?”…
… and religion answers “this”. We should try to do good.
We might even come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter whether god exists or not. If he doesn’t exist, we should still try to define and reach this concept of goodness. It’s what we need. It’s what we have always needed.
If he does exist, we almost certainly don’t understand him. So we have to do what we think is best. And again, we are trying to define and achieve goodness.
Whether god exists or not, the end point is still the same. Mankind needs to survive and better itself. We do this by trying to work out the right things to do. It doesn’t really matter whether those concepts of goodness come from the pulpit, the bible or from ourselves.
But there’s a problem. For most people, it is much easier to believe in God as a physical being than as a concept. Concepts are hard things to understand. They are nebulous, insubstantial, sometimes even pseudo-intellectual. We like the idea of a white bearded bloke sitting amongst the clouds a hurling down thunderbolts. That’s the sort of idea we can relate to.
Science is also a challenge for many people. Richard Dawkins argues that evolution is a better explanation than creationism, so you shouldn’t believe in God. Okay, okay, so I’m paraphrasing a little, but you get the idea. Scientific evidence can make people of faith uncomfortable. If there was a god, surely we would have found at least one bit of evidence by now?
And that means that we have a strange three way split happening.
1. Some people are reacting to this challenge to religion by reaching for fundamentalism. They deny any challenge to their religion and insist on a literal and unchanging interpretation of religious texts. At best this means that we have some slightly off-beat arguments trying (and failing) to knock a hole in evolution. At worst, we have jihad.
2. Other people react by giving up on God altogether. It was – and is – all a delusion. There is nothing there. We can do what we want.
3. Others work within their religions. They might try to change their religions to match what science is telling us, and what some of their followers want, such as women priests, gay marriage and contraception. Or they might try to find a way to rationalise science through increasingly convoluted interpretations of scripture. Or choose to believe some parts of their religion, but not others.
I wonder if there is a fourth way?
It doesn’t matter whether God exists as an entity. What certainly exists is the concept of goodness. This might be a wholly selfish definition of goodness, as in “what do I or the human race need to do to survive?”. Or it could be a more altruistic type of goodness – doing the right thing.
Maybe we need to put God to one side. We need to stop worrying about what we think he wants to do. We almost certainly don’t understand that. Let’s focus on what goodness means.
It doesn’t matter how we got here. We are here now. And that means we need to make the best of it.
A conclusion? This series is called “God, Maybe” for a very good reason. I think it is the best we can say about the existence of a physical God. Maybe.
But I could equally have called it: God, Maybe – Good, Certainly.