I hate the term “sceptic”. It is so negative. To me, it invokes the same emotions and images as terms like “miserly” or “recalcitrant”. When I hear the term “sceptic” I have a mental image of someone who has a blinkered view of the world…someone who refuses to see anything outside their own world view. This, of course, is only my view of the term “sceptic”, but I have seen other people use the term “sceptic” to mean just that in online debates.
I prefer to call myself a scientist. Not literally. I don’t have a degree in science or anything like that. But philosophically. I have always searched for the truth, and to me the truth has always been based on scientific discovery and exploration. Can science explain everything we experience? At present, no…but I firmly believe that it will eventually.
Belief in the supernatural phenomena, such as ghosts, is a good example of something that hasn’t been fully explained yet, but that I think will eventually have a scientific explanation. There’s no doubt that many people have experienced phenomena that they describe as being a “ghost”. Some people have seen ghosts, other people have felt a “presence” in a room. Many of these experiences can already be explained by science. There is, of course, the well documented phenomenon of “sleep paralysis” where you can wake up only to find that you are still experiencing the normal paralysis experienced during REM sleep. Sleep paralysis can also be accompanied by vivid hallucinations and the sensation of a heavy weight either sitting on your chest or in the bed beside you. These are real experiences, but not of the supernatural.
Recent studies also show that some people who experience ghostly phenomenon may in fact be experiencing something that appears to be part of the normal operation of the brain. It is well established that magnetic pulses of 1 or 2 teslas can stimulate neurons in the brain, and other studies have shown that some people report mystical sensations when complex magnetic fields are applied to their brains. Is this an explanation to all ghostly apparitions? Probably not. But if ghosts are tangible objects, it should be easy to record them using the multitude of recording devices available nowadays. The fact that we are not already seeing undeniable images of ghosts all over the internet, to me, makes it more likely that our experiences of ghosts are neurological, not physical. And some current science seems to back this…
To me, it’s not a question of whether ghosts are real or not, it’s more about why people experience the phenomenon of ghostly visitations. The sceptic in me says “ghosts aren’t real” because, from what I understand, there’s no law of physics that could allow the existence of ghosts. The scientist in me asks “why do people see ghosts?” because there’s no doubt that many people experience ghostly visitations. To me, that is the difference between sceptic and scientist. I not going to deny that people see ghosts, because it’s obvious that they do, but I will turn to science to find an explanation of what causes people to see ghosts.
Which brings me to faith. I am an atheist. I do not believe in a god or gods. I do not believe this universe was created by an omnipotent being of some kind. Although science has not yet found an explanation for everything, science does tell us that the universe may not need a creator, because not only do subatomic particles pop in and out of existence all the time, we also know that the same may be possible for universes. We know that it is theoretically possible for a universe to essentially create itself from nothing, and that this has likely happened a multitude of times…possibly an infinite amount of times. It is possible that our universe is not the only universe that has ever existed, or will ever exist, and even though our universe has a limited and finite existence, it’s possible that the “multiverse” has itself existed forever and will exist forever. This is what I choose to believe because that’s what scientists think is the most likely explanation for our existence.
On the other hand, most people still believe in a creator of some kind. The “sceptic” in me denies the existence of God because I’ve yet to see any scientific proof that one exists. I’m not going to believe in God simply because someone else does, especially if their belief is only based on “faith”. The scientist in me instead asks the question “if there is no proof of a creator, why do so many people believe there is one?” Perhaps the same magnetic field induced neurological process that cause some people to sense “ghosts” also causes people to sense a “creator”. Perhaps it’s just hard-wired into our brains? There’s no doubt that humans are great at anthropomorphising inanimate objects, whether it be a child’s dolly, or an adult screaming at their laptop to “stop crashing, you bastard“. We all do it. It could also be a manifestation of our love of ritual and music. Or maybe I’m wrong and God actually exists, but has yet to be, or cannot be, measured or observed scientifically. Whatever it is, there is no doubt that people who believe in God believe in something incredibly tangible and real to them. I believe this belief comes from within them…religious people believe it comes from an external being.
Both points of view are valid…the difference is perspective…and this is where the conflict between science and faith exists. I cannot experience the point of view of a religious person. To them, God is real and I have to respect that belief. At the same time, religious people must also accept that I do not see the world in the same way as they do. Where a religious person sees the hand of God, I may see the wonder of science, and vice versa. How is it ever possible to reconcile these disparate views of the world when they are so different?
Some people try to invoke God into scientific theory, like proponents of “intelligent design”. I think this kind of thinking is flawed because science deals with the measurable and the observable. God, if real, may not be measurable and observable. Natural selection is an observable and measurable artefact of science. Intelligent Design is theology. I’m prepared to respect your view that natural selection may be God’s method of creation, but I will not accept your view that natural selection must have some divine element to it.
Of course, the divide between faith and science is not helped by some aspects of faith that just don’t measure up to how we know the world works. It’s difficult for me to relate to someone who thinks the story of Noah’s flood is literal when the geologic evidence tells me there has never been a global flood, not to mention the logical implausibility of being able to fit pairs of every animal into a wooden ship. As a record of history it just doesn’t make any sense to my inner sceptic. To my inner scientist, the story of Noah’s Ark being written as a parable about why people should be good and not bad, rather than literal history, makes much more sense. Also, given the abundance of “flood” mythology of many early cultures, it could be that the story of the ark is actually based on a real event such as the flooding of the Mediterranean Sea which may have happened within human memory.
And then there’s the New Testament. I believe in a historical Jesus. Although there is no direct evidence for the biblical Jesus being an actual person, I still think it’s more than likely that the Jesus depicted in The Bible is derived from a real person. Whether he said all the things he’s been credited with, I can’t say. It’s not important. To me, it’s the words themselves – the teachings of the Gospel - that are important, not who said them or who actually wrote them. What I don’t accept is that my historical Jesus was divine in any way. He never walked on water. He never cured people with his touch, or raised the dead. He certainly wasn’t resurrected. At least, that’s what the sceptic in me thinks.
The scientist in me then asks, why is the New Testament written the way it is. Historical records tell me that the Bible is a construct of the time it was written in. It was the norm for the “spin doctors” of the day to include miracles and other messianic references to support the claim of their political leaders. Simon of Peraea, a former slave of Herod the Great who rebelled and was killed by the Romans in 4 BC, was later proclaimed as the “messiah”. Athronges, the leader of the Jews during the insurrection under Herod’s son Archelaus, also proclaimed himself as the messiah.
Not only that, the modern Bible is a revision of a revision of a revision etc etc. The Bible we read today is not the same Bible used by the early Christians who were persecuted by the Romans. And that Bible is not the same as some older texts found in things like the Dead Sea Scrolls. So which truth is correct? And should my historical perspective of the Bible being a loose collection of ancient texts invalidate a person’s religious beliefs?
That is a difficult question. From my perspective, what we’re talking about here is religion, not faith. To me, faith is your personal belief in God – religion is your personal belief in the human interpretation of God. But if your faith tells you that a religious text is literally real, despite what the science tells me, does it matter what I think? Perhaps not, unless your literal interpretation of a religious text means that you believe homosexuality is wrong, or that it’s wrong to have pre-marital sex, or eat bacon. And doubly wrong if you expect me to change my behaviour based on how you think a religious text expects me to behave.
What does worry me the most about faith-based belief versus scientific-based belief is when that kind of unquestioning belief spills over into secular issues. I think the anti-vax crusaders are a good example. I’m not saying that there is a link between anti-vaxers and religion – there’s not – but there is a commonality to how they choose to see the world with some religious extremists. Anti-vaxers continue to believe that vaccinations cause autism and other issues despite all the evidence telling them they are wrong. Religious extremists can be the same. It’s difficult to respect someone’s religious beliefs when they tell me that the world is only 6000 years old, when all the scientific evidence tells me it is billions of years old.
Religion has a lot of things going for it. The community spirit of fellow Christians, for example, is a beautiful thing to behold when it is loving and generous. But it can also be evil and spiteful when taken to extremes, like the Westboro Baptist Church. The teachings of religious figures like Jesus and Buddha can be a very valuable source of wisdom and guidance regardless of whether you believe they were divine or not. But despite all that, atheists will always find it difficult to truly respect people with religious beliefs because we have a basic distrust of any faith-based belief. As real as your faith is to you, or as sure as your belief in science is, it’s not realistic to expect everyone to believe what you believe just because you feel it to be true. Not everyone sees the world in the same way.
Faith is a very personal thing. I will respect your faith to a point, but when your faith in something is so rigid that it ignores scientific truths, then you will lose my respect. Maybe some things are too big to ever know the truth. Maybe science will never have a “theory of everything”. My faith in science may be no more or less valid than your faith in a God, but I hope that if evidence for a creator was ever uncovered that I would be prepared to change my world view. On the other hand, I hope people of faith are also prepared to accept scientific facts and adjust their faith accordingly.
Do you have an unquestioning faith in God? Or is your belief in science also unquestioning? How do you reconcile the two?
Image: John Reid via Wikimedia.
John James has written 203 posts.
JJ is a blogger who is bored with traditional opinion blogging. He is a co-founder and editor at KiKi & Tea. He also represents the grumpy middle-aged man demographic on KiKi & Tea. He is a writer by trade and a frustrated rock star / crime fighter by night, and blogs about music at newmusicrevue.com.
Follow on twitter: @JohnJamesOZ