(Note: This is a rehash of a much earlier blog post.)
I discovered physics at a relatively young age and fondly remember reading every book I could find on the subject at the local library; quantum physics, higher dimensions, multiple worlds: this stuff fascinated me to an extent I still can’t fully communicate. I will admit that I didn’t understand the vast majority of what I read; although, at the time understanding wasn’t the point. Instead, I was simply enamoured with the idea of a deeper truth to the universe. The very idea that the world was understandable and that some people held access to it was appealing. I wished more than anything else to be one of those people someday.
I entered my undergraduate degree with the goal of becoming a physicist, but I didn’t make it very far. I got to third year before finally failing a course and giving up. I can see now that that I didn’t really fit into the physics world for two primary reasons. The first was that I misunderstood what physics was about. I thought it would be an opportunity to explore and understand the deeper realities of our world, but instead I found myself involved with a community interested only in creating rigorous mathematical models, concocting experiments to test those models, and modifying the models based on the experimental feedback. The entire undergraduate degree being nothing more than a desperate attempt to catch the student up on on hundreds of years of mathematical models. No explanation about why these models are important beyond ‘it accurately predict the outcome of experiments’ was offered or required.
This is not a point of criticism. I accept that teaching is hard and I have no interest in starting a conversation on how to do it better as it really was the second problem that prevented me from working through the first. The year was 2008 and a man by the name of Christopher Hitchens had only the previous year published an influential book by the name of “God is not great”. That book, along with others published around that time, created a movement I would come to know as ‘new atheism’ that was founded on the idea that humans must evolve beyond the need for religion in order to progress. These ideas circulated wildly among the undergraduate physics society during my degree, and created a problem for me specifically because I was still working through my own beliefs as a person who identified as an Evangelical Christian.
My father would later describe the church I attended growing up as a, “church people came to when they were fed up with their other churches”. Because of this it is difficult to categorize the exact theology I was taught. I was exposed to a wide variety of theologies and they all competed equally for my attention. I remember honest conversation about the nature of God, the question of evil, and actual struggles to understand the tragedies that the bible chronicles. Likewise I also remember being brought into a dark room solemnly taught the ‘truth’ of revelation while having the entire timeline of the apocalypse laid out before me. I had conversations about determinism, creation, eschatology and the many different ways Christians around the world express their belief. Even though I was introduced to much fundamentalist doctrine, I never became a fundamentalist, and indeed never viewed my religion as set in stone, unchanging, or inerrant in any way. If anything, this variety of Christian religious experiences only reinforced in me the idea that God is mysterious; that humans are flawed beings trying in vain to express something that they can’t fully comprehend. I wasn’t blind to the evils in my religion; there were plenty of false prophets, hypocrites, and manipulators. Yet, those too only demonstrated what I now believe to be the bible’s strongest and most consistent message: that whenever humans believed themselves to be closest to God they were instead farthest from him. I was well aware of the crimes of the church, and had already spent most of my life passively taking in conversations about the relationship between these crimes, humanity, and religion as a whole. So it was a little jarring being thrust into a social scene who, having had none of these conversations, viewed religion as at best ridiculous and at worst an intellectual disease from which humanity needed saving.
So what was the replacement supposed to be? Well it was science of course, and in the physics world science is just another word for mathematics. Over the course of three years in an undergraduate physics degree I took five courses in calculus, two courses in linear algebra, two courses in complex numbers, and several others I don’t care to list out. The physics courses made even less sense because they were also mathematical courses; they just didn’t begin with a list of axioms and were therefore more confused about what transformations were valid and which were not. We had one token experimental course where we actually ran some of the experiments that physics claimed as its source of truth, but the labs we used were so underfunded and the technicians, us, were so poorly trained that our data never aligned with accepted theory. The reports were always a desperate attempt derive a plausible sounding narrative out of the random data our experiments generated. All in an attempt to impress whoever marked our work.
The worst part for me was that everything seemed so familiar. A preacher in front of the congregation giving long lectures justifying a conclusion I didn’t understand out of a data source I couldn’t understand. The only difference being that lecturers had whiteboards and preachers had pulpits. These people seemed just as certain in the inerrancy of mathematics to speak truth about the universe, as my religious friends were in the inerrancy of the bible to do the same. So when I saw my peers talking about the ‘obviousness’ of the nonexistence of God, I couldn’t help but compare them to the other side who talked about the ‘obviousness’ of his existence. It was a debate between people who were so certain that they themselves were correct that they couldn’t possible see the world through each others eyes. Indeed, their certainty required that they never try.
Reading Hitchens today only reinforced my suspicions back then. ‘God is not great’ is a damning catalogue of religions many crimes, but its argument against religion relies heavily on the readers predisposition to hate religion. He describes in great deal how religion has been, and continues to be, a contributor to warfare, a tool of political control, and a shield protecting histories most disgusting criminals. Yet, the conclusion implied in the books subtitle “how religion ruins everything” that we would be better off without religion isn’t really argued so much as assumed. For example when describing the barbaric practice of female circumcision Hitchens points out that, “No society would tolerate such an insult to its womanhood and therefore to its survival if the foul practice was not holy and sanctified.” Here the subtext is obvious, if religion couldn’t be used as a justification for this horrific attack on women, then the act wouldn’t have happened. He doesn’t go into detail, but the whole statement hinges on a deeply evolutionary argument. Women are necessary for our species to reproduce, so therefore an attack on women is in essence an attack on our ability to reproduce. This behaviour cannot come from an evolutionary standpoint and is therefore not natural. So such an attack can only be possible if something else, something evil, was overriding our fundamentally good nature.
But is this really true? Does removing the justification for a horrific act suddenly prevent the act itself? Unfortunately, Hitchens makes an assumption here that is prevalent in western philosophy; that humans are rational animals. In this context rationality means that we are always acting in such a way as to maximize some internal good. We have an internal model of how we think the world works, we use that model to weigh actions, and then we act on the results. If humans worked this way then yes it would be logical to conclude that getting rid of an incorrect model would force us to seek out a better model, and by extension act better. However, what if the opposite is true? What if our nature is not rational and we instead act first and only search for justification later. If this were the case then getting rid of religion accomplishes nothing. The act would still happen and the culprit would simply corrupt something else to act as justification for the action. This is a point that Hichens all but concedes when he tries to explain away the horrors of the ‘secular’ totalitarian government in Soviet Russia, “Communist absolutists did not so much negate religion, in societies that they well understood were saturated with faith and superstition, as seek to replace it.”
What about culture? The line between religion, culture, and ethnicity is something Hitchens never even bothers to address. If we accept that religion is evil then how do we excise it without stripping away a peoples’ cultural identity? While discussing the ethnic and religious violence in Yugoslavia he comments that, “Elsewhere in Bosnia-Herzegovina, especially along the river Drina, whole towns were pillaged and massacred in what the Serbs themselves termed “ethnic cleansing.” In point of fact, “religious cleansing” would have been nearer the mark.” The distinction between ethnic and religious is of fundamental importance to his argument and yet he fails to elaborate beyond this snide remark. Yet, just as easily as Hitchen’s can turn the word ethnic into religious the opposite is also true. When discussing Martin Luther King he says that, “the examples King gave from the books of Moses were, fortunately for all of us, metaphors and allegories. His most imperative preaching was that of nonviolence. In his version of the story, there are no savage punishments and genocidal bloodlettings. Nor are there cruel commandments about the stoning of children and the burning of witches…. If the population had been raised from its mother’s knee to hear the story of Xenophon’s Anabasis, and the long wearying dangerous journey of the Greeks to their triumphant view of the sea, that allegory might have done just as well. As it was, though, the “Good Book” was the only point of reference that everybody had in common.”
Hitchens has already concluded that religion is evil, and so the very fact that King ignored the problematic parts of the passage somehow saves him from being ‘religious’. Instead, any goodness that originated from King must have came from something else. In this case that something else is language and folktales, an important component of what we would call ‘ethnicity’. The people King was talking to were ethnically Christian. The bible is something they all knew, and when King attached his ideas to something his audience understood he had a better chance of getting those ideas across. In essence, King’s message wasn’t important because of its religious affiliation, it was important because of its ethnic affiliation.
This type of slipper definition is precisely what stood out to me in undergrad, even though I didn’t have the vocabulary to express it at the time. These definitions begin with an absolute statement, “Religion ruins everything”, and when faced with a situation where religion is not ruining everything they must immediately explain why the religion is in fact not a religion. Once again, this is all too familiar because this style of argument is the very glue that holds fundamentalist Christianity together. This is the logic that creates what Hitchens is so desperately trying to destroy.
Evangelicalism specifically focuses on the gospel of the ‘good news’. It is important that a Christian spread the good news of Christ because we are actively making the lives of those who hear it better. Books like, “Run Baby Run” by Nicky Cruz reinforce this message by painting the secular world as dark and grim. That world is full of gangs, drugs, unfulfilling sex, and the most extreme and grotesque forms of violence. The way out of this world is through the message of Jesus Christ. Likewise, by definition none of these things can exist within the Evangelical church as Christians leading better lives is core to the doctrine. We are then stuck in a situation where there is a fundamental disagreement about who gets to be religious. Hitchens arguing that good Christians are actually humanists, and Evangelicals arguing that bad Christians aren’t actually Christian. Of course, nobody agrees on what is good and what is bad and so nothing is ever decided. Both sides are in effect the same. The argument is simply western thought fighting over its own details. Concepts important to this discussion, such as the distinction between religion and ethnicity or whether God exists in a literal sense, just don’t mean as much in any other context.
All of this leads one way or another to a kind of negative morality. A position where we are focused entirely on the eradication of evil in order to allow good to flourish. If religion ruins everything then by getting rid of it we allow ourselves to return to the rational state it removed us from. If God is good and has rescued us from our sins, then we must destroy these sins so that it can’t capture us again. In both cases any violence that erupts is a necessary evil that transitions us into a better world. Another important idea in western thought is the inevitable triumph of good over evil. The trope of ‘saving the world’ in one heroic act of justified violence powers a majority of our popular media. The good guy always defeats the villain. The problem though is that the fight between ‘good and evil’ never ends. Once the evil bad is destroyed there is always an eviler bad to follow. Sooner or later the ‘war to end all wars’ simply becomes the ‘previous war to end all wars’. There has never been any scientific evidence that goodness is inevitable.
Atheism was never an alternative to my own religion. At the time it was obvious to me that jumping from one to the other only replaced one idol with another. I was taught that Christ and his word are truth, and Hitchens believes that science is truth. Yet, what truth was to both didn’t differ, it was a system founded on a single inerrant principle that denied the existence of anything not demonstrable through that system. Yet, here I was seeing both systems and finding both to be equally fascinating and equally flawed. I do not disagree with those who question religion. God doesn’t have to exist, science is a better explanation as to how we got here, and holding a thousands year old document as a source of inerrant truth is hard to defend. Yet, it wasn’t any triumph of human rationality that got me to doubt my own religious convictions, instead it was the idea of negative morality. Why was it that a religion founded on the ‘good news’ of Christ rescuing us from our own corruption was so focused on categorizing said corruption? If God is so powerful, why are we so afraid of evil? Why must the fear of hell power more of my decisions than the love of God? If someone is happy and content with their lives, why must I conclude that they are faking it if they aren’t ashamed of what I am personally labelling as their sin? And the same argument works against people like Hitchens. Why is he so focused on destroying something that he argues does not exist? Why must he continue to believe that religion holds no value when there are clearly billions of people worldwide who are continually attracted to it?
What does it mean for a belief to be true? For that matter what does it even mean for anything to be true? Looking back on all those physics books I read as a child I cannot deny that what drew me to them is the promise of objective reality. There was something out there, independent of me, it had structure, it had order, and it was beautiful. Back then, as today, I believed in objective reality, in an objective truth. I believed that truth wasn’t a personal matter, it wasn’t unique to me and didn’t change from person to person. I believed this because it had to be true in order for my own experiences to make sense. If I were somehow capable of making something true for myself then the world would be a fundamentally different place: it would be one where I understood why the people around me reacted to me the way that they did.
One thing both physics and religion had in common was that they both, at least in their teachings, actively encouraged me to seek truth on my own. The preachers implored me to read the bible and pray to God for wisdom, while the scientists encouraged experimentation as those were repeatable and not beholden to the whims of an individual. What does one do when their personal truth is suspect, but the alternatives are no better? How does one rectify a belief in an objective absolute truth with the realization that my own understanding of that objective reality is clouded by the things that I believe?
Well, I didn’t have an answer back then, and I won’t pretend to have one now. However, the journey I’ve been on since deciding I wanted to find out has been an adventure and I’d like to share it with anybody willing to listen.