Religion is a favourite topic of mine. I find pleasure in pointing out the wonderful variety of paradoxes, incoherent constructs, and logical conundrums that tend to reveal themselves quite easily when using religious dogma and doctrine as building blocks for developing one’s thinking. An example is how one can piece together two fundamental Catholic beliefs — (1) God’s infinite capacity for forgiveness and (2) his promise to sentence to eternal damnation those who do not redeem themselves of their sins — to get two conflicting assertions:
(a) If God’s forgiveness is infinite, then Hell should be empty.
(b) If Hell is not empty then there is a limit to God’s forgiveness.
Perhaps it is these philosophical curiosities that “atheists” use to demonstrate to the religious the utter futility in their lifelong commitment to their faith. If so, then they are good selling devices — kind of like those “shoot-the-iPhone” banner ads that promise a prize if you successfully click on the cross-hair while an iPhone dances across it. So if you find yourself nodding even just a little bit while reading Points (a) and (b) above, consider yourself experiencing an Inception moment that brings you a bit closer to joining the growing ranks of “non-believers”.
Not surprising, therefore, that atheists are quite visible today. At least in the corner of the Philippine cyber-community I am most aware of, they seem pretty well-organised. The community Filipino Freethinkers is one (maybe the only) such Filipino community I am aware of (though they count among them “humanists, atheists, agnostics, deists, etc.” — the etcetera bit making what defines them as a community a bit ambiguous). As of this writing, their Facebook page, “Likes” (i.e., Facebook users who opt in to get updates posted on their profile newsfeeds) number more than 3,200.
For me the appeal of atheism, drawing from my own experience tossing it about in my head, would have come from a freedom to grow intellectually and to approach life from a broader range of perspectives. The problem is, atheism seems to be defined more by what one is not rather than what one is. An atheist does not believe in God, is what I keep hearing.
In that sense, I don’t consider myself an “atheist”. There is a lot more to being intellectually free than not believing in God. Being intellectually free is to be open to confronting realities about one’s place in the universe. Religion, in contrast, considers the specialness of humanity’s place in the cosmos as the cornerstone of the belief system it prescribes to its flock. The irony there is that the religious are seen to be the “humble” ones while the intellectually free the “arrogant” ones. Strange indeed. As I recall, it was science that pointed out the insignificance of humanity in the face of an immensely vast universe while religion stubbornly insisted upon the special and literal central place humanity held in the cosmos.
To be intellectually free then is to understand what it really means to be humble.
The concept of “God” as religion pitches it, as such, does not give enough meaning to the true nature of our humbleness in the cosmic scheme of things. God is an old man with a long white beard who speaks in a thunderous voice. Or a triangle with an eye inside it. Or a finger pointing out from a floating cloud. Or the rays of the sun poking out from a gap in a cloudy sky. Or he may look like Morgan Freeman or George Burns. Or a lamb. Or a calf. Or a naked man hanging from a cross.
Religion attempts to simplify or encapsulate God so that he may fit within the finite capacities of the average human mind — so that considering one’s self “humbled” in “God’s presence” need not be such hard work.
But what science presents as a context to appreciate humility is different. Those who worked hard to understand science have a more real grasp of just how humble and insignificant beings humans are. Modern physics has shown the vastness of reality and the smallness of the subset of it that we perceive with our senses and the illusion of reality that our minds are wired (by millions of years of evolution) to make of it. Science does not simplify reality to fit our human capacities. Science challenges us to expand our human capacities to understand it. Humanity’s greatest minds have done just that — developing the mathematics and intellectual constructs to piece together a picture that reveals reality as something not necessarily structured to make sense to us if we apply conventional thinking to it.
So while science challenges us to step up to understand more as it reveals more, religion hides as much of the truth as possible so that we need work less at understanding less meaning.
Where is God in either world view? If we use the God as defined by organised religion, then I’d answer that question by saying that he does not exist in either — not in science nor in religious faith. That leaves us with a God that we should define ourselves. And that requires a lifetime of hard work.