The Consequence of a Consistent God
In spite of the fact that I haven’t written in this blog for several weeks now, this next post is something I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time. The challenge is I was never sure how, or where to start, or what to draw from. This is an important subject to me personally, as a Catholic (indeed as a religious person period) and as a scientist, and I can’t really in good conscience write a science and spirituality blog without addressing this issue, this elephant in the room. (And to be honest, this will likely not be the last time you see me write about this.)
The issue I’m talking about, and the issue I want to discuss, pertains to how I reconcile being a scientist and being religious. This is a legitimate problem that I have to address and check with myself every day. Because there are some ideas that seem a little contradictory. Besides the obvious problem of evolution not aligning with the Hebrew creation mythos of Genesis, there are philosophical issues as well. If I’m a scientist and get my information from empirical observation, how do I justify the existence of God?
Those are the two big issues. The first is scriptural, and the second is philosophical. I’ll take care of the scriptural one first, because that’s a bit easier to deal with. The philosophical one will come next time.
When I was premed at Hamilton College, I had a couple of my fellow students ask me how I could reconcile being both Catholic and being a biology student. How could I believe in both evolution and the word of Scripture? Evolution isn’t the extent of my internal contradictions, either. Coming from a very socially progressive background (my family, my undergraduate education, even my Catholic parish in Brooklyn), I hold some beliefs bordering on universalism. Example: Maybe, just maybe, my faith and my religion isn’t the only way a person can find and experience God. (There. I said it.)
Both my agnostic and atheist liberal friends and my more conservative-leaning religious ones periodically ask me how I justify these beliefs, and also believe in the words written in Scripture. Actually, there’s a very simple answer to that question.
Let me be clear: I believe that Christ died for the sins of humanity so that we can attain salvation (though I admit I’m a little shaky on what it means to be both Son of Man and Son of God). And I think he preached some pretty good ideas (which, unfortunately, too many Christians of today seem to have forgotten).
But I also know and fully understand that the Earth is not 6000 years old, that evolution is a well-documented phenomenon that has a mountain of scientific evidence to support, that we are observing the effects of evolution in real-time today (and if you try to tell me that evolution is a theory and not a law, whereas gravity is a law, then you should look up the difference between a law and a theory, and also that gravity is not, in fact, a law), that climate change is real and caused in large part by human activity, and that our ancestors came from Africa, not a garden with a bad apple tree.
How do I reconcile these two seemingly contradictory beliefs? Let me explain.
God bestowed on humans an uncountable supply of gifts. And the greatest gift God gave us is our ability to reason, to think critically and logically, to see patterns in nature and draw conclusions from those patterns. (For legal reasons, as a Christian, I’m required to say that this is the *second greatest gift God gave humanity, the first being his only begotten Son.) Now, the Hebrew Bible, and in particular Genesis, was codified in and around the fifth century BCE (interestingly, at least 300 years after the first two-thirds or so of the Book of Psalms), vastly preceding any modern ideas of scientific research, the scientific method, and how to conduct empirical studies via experimentation (the modern inductive experimental method largely started in the Islamic World in the Middle Ages). It was commonplace, both in Hebrew traditions and in other parts of ancient Europe and the Middle East, to make scientific declarations of the natural world by sheer conjecture alone. Sometimes, these conjectures were pretty accurate, like Democritus’s theory that all matter was composed of indivisible pieces too small to be seen or handled by humans. (He called these pieces “uncuttables,” or in Greek, “atomos.”) Other times, they weren’t accurate at all, like Hippocrates’s theory that problems in health and temperament with the human body could be caused by having an excess or deficit of one of the four humors.
So Genesis gives a series of conjectures on how the world was created by God, including themes of creation that occurred in other nearby religions at the time (like the Babylonian myth of a great flood). What I know is that we have a pretty good timeline of when the different books of the Bible were written and codified, and we know a bit about how “science” was studied during those period of times, and we know that by and large, we’re much better at science now than we were in 580 BCE.
And, I know that what we observe empirically in the world today directly contradicts a sizable fraction of what was written and believed almost 3000 years ago. Which should not come as a surprise to anyone; I’m sure we believe things today that will be soundly disproven 3000 years from now.
So the way I see it, with all of this information and observation at my fingertips, I have a choice. I can choose to stay in the world of 3000 years ago and believe as my ancestors did, with little to know evidence at their disposal for their scientific research, and thereby choose to reject the gift of logical deduction and empirical observation that God has given me. Or, I can choose to accept that gift and base my understanding of God’s creation on what I myself have observed of it, rather than what my spiritual ancestors of the past three millennia have told me.
If my belief is correct, and God’s greatest gift to humanity is our ability to reason logically and empirically, then there is an immediate conclusion. To be perfectly blunt, for any religious individual, Christian or otherwise, who has a desire to accept God’s gift, the choice I have presented above should not be a choice at all.
And by the way, I have a very good reason for claiming that that should not be a choice. God is meant to be infallible. We believe this. Every religion on this planet has a deeply-rooted philosophical understanding that God is entirely self-consistent. We might not necessarily know WHY we think this, but everyone can agree that if God exists, God does not contradict Godself. So if you observe that viruses and bacteria are becoming more resistant to antibiotics; if you are presented with evidence that the world is warming up; if you and your partner both have red hair, have a child together, and you think that has something to with why your child has red hair; and then, if you have the nerve to say that evolution does not exist and God created the planet as-is 6000 years ago, then you are doing something far worse than rejecting God’s gifts.
You are implying that God is fallible.
(Not to get overly political, but this is a big part of why the former presidential candidate Ben Carson infuriated me so much. A brilliant and accomplished neurosurgeon who believed that evolution was a theory initiated by the Devil? I was honestly offended.)
What all of this means is that as a scientist, parts of Scripture have to make way for my own empirical observations. Not everything written in the Bible is absolute Truth. And I know that that makes a lot of my Christian friends incredibly uncomfortable, but I firmly stand by that claim.
Unfortunately, this sets a slippery precedent for me. What else in the Bible is not true? Well clearly the laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy pertaining to stoning adulterers and homosexuals probably doesn’t apply to today’s world anymore. I’m sure that made sense at the time Leviticus was written, though. (Completely sure… yep, absolutely sure…) But it doesn’t apply to today’s world. However, there are other, more subtle ways that I find myself reading Scripture very selectively, even in the words of Christ written in the Gospels.
Indeed, both Jesus and St. Paul have written that we can only achieve salvation through Christ. But what does it mean to achieve salvation through Christ? Do we have to literally worship Christ and Christ alone? Is worship alone enough? (James 2:14-26 seems to say not.) If I don't know with 100% certainty that Christ is the son of God, is it enough to be a good person? And if my dearest friends find God through some other spiritual beliefs, does God somehow think less of them?
As far as I've considered it, there is no conceivable argument to support that the answer to that question is "yes, God thinks less of them." Every time I meet and discuss with an individual from a different faith, I find the exact same conviction and passion for understanding God that I have in my own heart. Some of my best friends from Penn State, Hamilton, and New York are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu. They all worship the God of the Universe just as much and just as strongly as I do. Who am I to pass judgement on them about the manner in which they worship God? The reality is, any argument in favor of one religion and against another boils down to “Yeah, but I know I’m right, because I know God is right, and if that guy over there follows a different religion then God isn’t really involved with this guy because he’s not right, because I’m right about God being right.”
The upshot of all of this is, if you attempt to defend a religion, any religion, and argue for its sole validity above all others, you will not be able to validate it using evidence from outside that religion. Certainly no religion exists on Earth that I know of whose validity is provable by evidence from outside of that religion. Instead, you will undoubtedly be forced to do so using that very religion to create your central premises and draw your conclusion. Example: If I try to argue that Catholicism is the one true religion, the only way I can do so is by citing the Bible’s word, drawing from my own religion as evidence that that religion is absolute truth. I can’t think of any arguments from outside Catholicism that give evidence to suggest Catholicism is the one true path to God.
(And actually, now that I think about it, a religion that claims it’s right and all others are wrong is really a system of rules that contains a statement of its own consistency. Didn’t Gödel say something about how a system that claims its own consistency is inconsistent?)
This, by the way, is why I have very strong personal reservations about evangelism and missional work. There is a nondenominational Christian group at Penn State that works very honorably in bringing people closer to God through varying degrees of evangelism and missional work, depending on the comfort level of its members. They tried a few different times to recruit me, but I cannot join. My own conscience will not allow it. And I’m glad that they are doing what they believe they need to do, and I’m glad they believe they’ve found God’s calling to them. But it’s not my calling, and it never will be. Every step of my own spiritual journey has been one of self-discovery and self-reflection. If I were to try to evangelize, then I would not be able to find an independent reason to believe that I am right and everyone else is wrong, especially when I meet others who worship differently than me and followed their own different paths of self-discovery. Their convictions are no less strong than mine, and I have no reason to believe that God did not guide them to their path just as God guided me to mine.
For me, these are the consequences of empirical observation. God has given me the same gift as all other humans to think logically and rationally. God also gave me the choice to love and accept and study other paths. I chose mine, and others choose theirs differently. As God is a parent to us all, all parents want only for their children to grow into happy and healthy individuals. We cannot grow if we stay mired in the archaic beliefs of 3000 years ago. We can only grow by seeing this magnificent world that God has created, observing it, observing each other, and coming together to find different ways we can serve and worship God. And yes, that will mean being critical of some things written in our religious texts. Surely some aspects of Scripture, even most of it, contain important and worthwhile lessons that I draw from all the time. But not all.
This is not easy for me to say. Religion and the Church is difficult. It is a constant struggle, a struggle to share God’s love through loving my friends and neighbors. Sharing that love includes accepting our differences and each other. Accepting, not tolerating. It’s easy to sit back and say, “I’m right and everyone else is wrong because God says so, but I’ll still be nice to people and hopefully God will forgive them.” It’s infinitely harder to ask “I’m right for myself, and others are right for themselves as well; how could we both be right, and what does that say about God’s true nature?” It’s infinitely harder to admit that very simple truth: “I don’t know God’s true nature.” But with all of my heart, I believe that we are called to admit this to ourselves and each other. And if we accept God’s gift of empirical observation, and use it to understand God, then we have no choice but to come to this same conclusion: that no single religion encompasses all of God, for such a God would be too small.
As Martin Luther cried out, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.”