It is particularly fashionable today, as it has been at certain times throughout history, to repudiate belief in God.
“It’s so refreshing, after being told all your life that it is virtuous to be full of faith, spirit and superstition, to read such a resounding trumpet blast for truth instead,” wrote Matt Ridley about the release of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.
As someone who rejected the Catholic faith of my youth, I can certainly agree with atheists who put forward the argument that most organized, fundamentalist religion is to blame for most of the conflict and divisiveness on earth.
Nevertheless, more than an argument against fundamentalism, books such as God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens are believed to represent a kind of modern-day metaphysical machismo. Hitchens, Dawkins and other members of the atheist and rationalist movement are seen as the ultimate hard-man realists, the Clint Eastwoods of the spirit, and theirs the braver position than that of the quiche-eaters among us, who pull our punches in the belief that a more complex paradigm, even if we don’t yet fully understand it, may offer a better approach to the defining our universe and ourselves.
The rationalist’s utter reliance on science to define us seems to me a throwback to the time immediately after the Second World War, when, flushed with our success with the atomic bomb, we still believed that modern technology was capable of supplying us with a solution to all of life’s problems. DuPont’s advertising slogan, Better Living through Chemistry, stood as the mantra of the age.
Modern day voodoo
All these years later, I have a problem with science and secularism as God. First of all, from where I sit, current science – particularly scientific medicine - is anything but rational. After 20 years of studying the medical literature I have concluded that modern medicine is not a science.
For all the science-speak in medicine about painstakingly controlled study and meticulous peer review - for all the attempt to cloak medicine in the weighty mantle of science - a good deal of what we regard as standard medical practice today amounts to little more than 21st century voo-doo.
Medicine’s current understanding of the body, which is essentially as a broken piece of machinery to be repaired, never takes into account the body’s extraordinary potential to operate beyond the empirical.
What are we to make of the 8 per cent of breast cancer that just disappears by spontaneous remission? What are we to make of the fact that the placebo effect works more than two-thirds of the time? How does all of this fit into a rational universe?
The problem of the supernatural
In order to determine whether atheists have a point here, I need a better description of what it is we’re arguing over. Richard Dawkins’s picks his basic quarrel with God as a supernatural being.
I have a problem with this word ‘supernatural’. I am immersed in science of one sort or another every day of my life, and I am a daily witness to the miraculous, more that can only be described as supernatural to our present understanding.
I see good scientific evidence that engaging in strange rituals like tapping parts of the body or staring at a moving target while mouthing affirmations can cure physical and psychological illness. I see large numbers of validated case studies of people are completely aware of their surroundings - and from the vantage point of the ceiling – when they are either comatose or clinically dead.
I see evidence of the holy, the miraculous in the fact that an electron can be both a particle or a wave at the same moment and change depending upon who is looking at it.
The death of the spiritual
As novelist Jeanette Winterson wrote last week in her Saturday London Times column, the problem with the polarization today, between the rational and the fundamentalist, is the death of mysticism, of genuine spiritual content in our lives.
‘. . . the kingdom of this world, as the Bible puts it so beautifully, can be balanced only by the kingdom of God,’ she wrote. ‘This is not literal; it is symbolic. It is how the inner life checks the outward show. It is how conscience bridles impulse, it means recognising that there is much more to human life than the worship beneath the twin towers of money and power.
‘The job of religion is to keep this in our sights. I don’t care if it’s all a construct. I don’t need to believe in a sky-god or any god at all in the described sense. The world “mystery” is at the heart of all religions because we cannot be literal-minded about belief.’
What she is saying is that our beliefs – and from their our morality – come from the embrace of the mystery of existence.
Many readers write in to ask if I think that God is The Field. The answer is I do – in the sense that The Field represents the essential unity of all things - the essential nature of which we can only partially grasp.
The problem in not believing in anything beyond the empirical is ourselves. As human beings we will always only have a crude approximation of the mystery of our existence.
All we have, in the end, is our belief, our sense of the divinity of life, while we continue taking baby steps toward an understanding of the miracle we see before us.
There is only one thing for it, no matter who or what your God. As Annie Dillard once wrote, “Pray without ceasing.”
May you have a miraculous holiday and 2009.