Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Church of the Metaphorical God

Now isn't this is a church you would love to join? I certainly would. Yes, up to now it is a figment of my imagination but I think that this is a church that could one day save the world. Why? For one thing , I think metaphors are great . So for me, a metaphorical God would be just awesome. Every major religion today knows how powerful figurative language can be. Jesus was a master of the craft, he spoke in parables for God's sake. He never actually told us what the kingdom of heaven was, did he? He didn't give coordinates of the location, he didn't say what material the place was made of , he didn't give the chemical composition of the air. He just used simile and metaphor, "The kingdom of God is like"............ and then he went on to give stories of a lost coin or a prodigal son. What greater evidence do we need to show us that we need to put more effort into getting to know God metaphorically?

Don't for a moment think that metaphors are only for the metaphysical. Many of you may have realised by now that I love to use metaphors in my writing. Sometimes I see them as the frame for the painting, other times as the extra harmony note that adds to the richness of the piece. Where would great works of poetry be without metaphor? How would we hear of love stories and personal triumphs, sporting heroics and natural beauty without the use of the figurative?

Many may not realise, but even in the world of science metaphors persist. Often the concepts in science are so complex that we have to resort to simplified models in order to make sense of what we discover. When we speak of light travelling in waves , it makes it easy for us to understand because we all, at least those of us lucky enough to be born in the Caribbean, have seen waves crashing against the shore. In reality waves that define the travel of light don't move like water waves at all, but still this model is a convenient way to start thinking about it.

In chemistry it's similar. When I was doing my CXCs at 16 I was told that in the atom, electrons orbited a central nucleus much like how planets orbited the sun. I remember drawing all those circles with the electrons represented by 'Xs' along the curve. After mastering and embracing the concept I reached sixth form only to be informed that the model was not " strictly speaking " true. Electrons were in quantised energy levels and occupied orbitals with opposing spins and it was all a matter of wave functions. My eyes glazed over. At first I wondered why we weren't told "the truth" earlier. Couldn't we handle it? Then I accepted that it was probably better to do things that way get a handle on the simple even if not real and then "graduate" to the truth.

So, I have a great respect for metaphor and the benefits it can offer. The universe is a complicated place and it helps to break it down in terms we can understand even if it means we lose a bit of its essence. When we seek to simplify things figuratively we humans inevitably end up using anthropomorphisms; assigning human qualities to inanimate objects. At school I read of angry seas and smiling sunsets. In today's technological age I constantly hear about computers and printers that "play the fool."My friends tell me when they get to work late that their vehicle," she just didn't want to move this morning."

Yet, when it comes to Christians, their relationship with the metaphorical is a bit strange. Many of them readily accept the fact that the bible contains metaphor while at the same time holding on to the notion that every word of the book is literally true. I have heard the apologetic that God does use figurative language in the way that we say " raining cats and dogs." There are others who will admit that there is metaphor in the bible that goes far beyond obvious ones like parables. Many will assert that the entire Genesis story, for example, is allegory. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel , Noah's flood, Tower of Babel, none of that is literal. Then of course there is another group which take the position that it's all literal until they are cornered in a debate. For them a metaphor is a "get out of jail free" card. "I see that this makes no sense as it is read , so it must be metaphor," is how they reason

The interesting thing is that regardless of how much the believer wants to concede as a metaphor, the one thing that is never considered metaphor is God himself. I don't know why they are so adamant on that point , because that's where they get into problems. He is the all powerful king, the all knowing sage, all loving parent, faithful best friend and even husband and lover. The consequence of all this is that glaring contradictions appear in the resulting deity. Atheists regularly point out that all the omnis just don't fit. An all knowing God could never change his mind or even make a decision and so couldn't be all powerful. The honest believers have to admit that the logic just doesn't add up and this means they have to sacrifice reason for their faith to take root.

Well, it doesn't have to be that way for any believer of any faith, not if they join me in the "Church of the Metaphorical God." In this church, God can have any qualities you wish to give him or her. For here God is purely a model to express something in nature that is too complex to express using its actual characteristics. It is the embodiment of that thing which is intangible.That interaction between the wonder of nature, the synergy between species and the desire of the human spirit. Perhaps this church will be similar to the Unitarian Universalists, but we would go one step further by pushing the congregation to leave God squarely in the realm of the figurative. Any description of God would be welcomed once it was helpful to view it that way in a particular context. Contradictions would not need to be resolved as logic can never penetrate a " faith" based purely on metaphor. My message to the congregation would be to" Find God in your own imagery,"because in my mind any God concept or idea is something that can be cherished and embraced. Indeed, it is only when churches start to talk about a real God that things start to really fall apart.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The world can't serve two masters: The question of science and religion

There has been much talk within the last week or two about Stephen Hawking's latest book " The Grand Design" and his assertion that it is "not necessary to invoke God to explain the origins of the universe." Predictably the religious have come out with their swords to attack. I even heard a person on a religious "call in" claim that the media were only pandering to Hawking out of pity for his disability. How low can you go? We all know that if Hawking had declared that there must be an intelligence at the beginning of all this, people of faith would consider that a "slam dunk" for God's existence,citing Hawking's immense stature in the realm of theoretical physics. As far as the disability comment is concerned, we all know that it has often been those born with limbs missing or suffering from sight or speech impediments that have been used to spread the gospel of Christ through their motivational speeches. I wonder if we can also call that cheap pandering.

The whole argument comes from the common belief that religion and science are not enemies and can happily coexist without conflict. It's all part of that whole "faith and works" idea that we often hear. Indeed even many atheists subscribe to the idea that science is not qualified to make statements on issues in the faith domain. I would have subscribed to the NOMA ( Non overlapping magesteria) up to a few years ago. However, as I delved more into the crux of these arguments I began to see that there is indeed a huge conflict between science and religion and that, perhaps more than anything else, led me to being an atheist today. Yes, once you realise science and religion are on opposite sides, you don't have to think long about where to place your bet. Only the deist God, the one who sets off the " big bang" and runs away, might be able to escape the long arm of science, but he is powerless and doesn't even merit consideration.

In thinking about this age old debate , I reflected on a friend of mine who was recounting her family's escape from a very serious car accident. She started by saying that there were a number of reasons why she survived. "First and foremost it was God," she remarked. However, once she had stated that point she went on to explain in considerable detail the the road conditions, the fact that it was raining and that there had been an oil spill minutes earlier. She mentioned the speed that the vehicle was going at and the angle of the bend in the road. She then went on to relate how only minutes earlier she had ensured that the boy's in the back were wearing their seatbelts. She spoke of the fact that the SUV she was driving was large and heavy, so that though the car flipped there was much protection available. She mentioned that the vehicle ended up off the road on a field where escape was easy and there was no threat of collision with other vehicles. She added that a policeman was driving by around the same time and was able to help. I remember hearing all this and wondering where the divine came in, in this whole scenario. She had basically a total explanation for everything in naturalistic terms. Rain falling, oil spills, heavy vehicle, seatbelts, policeman driving by. None of these things needed a God to explain them. As Stephen Hawking would say, God was "not necessary." Yet, in her mind it was God in combination with these other things that saved her life.

The fact is, that it is not as if God was used to fill in the aspects of the accident she couldn't explain. This was not " God of the Gaps" this was more of God "the additional layer."It was somewhat like putting more paper on a wrapped Christmas gift and claiming that the item was unwrapped until the second layer went on. The second piece of Christmas paper may make the gift prettier but it is not needed to complete the task.

There are of course many people of faith who would argue that though none of the events that took place on the day of the accident defied any natural laws, God was responsible for putting things in place. He set up things in the way they were, ensured the accident happened where there were people that could find you or had the foresight to make sure that you purchased the right type of vehicle to save you in the accident you would ultimately be involved in. But this raises some more difficulties, there is a natural causal chain of events that could be used to explain why things were the way they were that day. Rain for example, can be explained by condensation which is linked to humidity, temperature of the oceans and much more. This causal chain can if taken far enough go right back to the "big bang" itself. So too everything else, a person just doesn't "appear" on the scene of an accident. A long series of events can be traced to them being there. Maybe the policeman was going to work, which was a result of being offered that job, which was a consequence of applying for the job, which was influenced by having certain qualifications, which links to school he went to, advice he got and so on. Then the very existence of a person depends on parents getting together which depends on grandparents and this also reaches back to the first living organism and again ultimately to the "big bang" itself, which is an event occurring in nature. To say God set up the scenario is to reject that natural causal chain. To reject the natural causal chain is to reject the assumptions that science is based on. Even if at this moment not every piece of the chain, especially the first link, is fully understood, science assumes that such an unbroken chain exists and so far that has proven to be a valid assumption.

Still, they are many that say that God is just so good that he can get his will to be done even though so many of the actions appear to have a random basis. God after all has an intelligence far greater than ours and he can make it look like he's not here when indeed he is. Why he would want to do that is another mystery and the subject for another discussion, but even if we accept this premise, it leads to some disturbing implications. Apart from the natural laws in the universe such as gravity and electromagnetism, there are statistical laws that also suggest that there is no divine hand at work. For example, actuarial scientists can calculate to a high degree of accuracy how many accidents will occur in a given place in a year and even how many are likely be fatalities. They do this having collected data over a long period and analysing all the evidence. It's completely based in science.

The thing is that in many of the accidents that have been used to make predictions, the persons involved consider that God saved them. If this is true, actuarial science is just an illusion. God would just be rigging it all. It would mean that for every person God intervenes to save he would have to "kill" someone who would not have died in "natural" circumstances. God would have to "put back in what he took out" in order to not skew the probabilities. Not a very edifying thought to think you may have to die to pay for somebody else's miracle. But,that's what would have to be happening if God acts without affecting the stats.

Of course the far more plausible scenario is that the universe appears random because it is and God doesn't look like he's here because he's not. There's just absolutely no evidence that the scientific method itself is in crisis, or that its predictive power in any sphere is weakening. That's not to say that it never will. The day we find the natural causal chain assumption to be not valid is the day we can start looking for non natural causes, an outside intelligence, a being which could justifiably be called a God. Nature if having any influence in this kind of world would become purely a tool at God's disposal, it would have no power of its own. That's right, however you look at it, it's either God or nature. The world just cannot serve two masters.

Many have told me that in spite of all I say there is still room for joint leadership. Yes, it's nature most of the time controlling things, but God intervenes on rare occasions for a "miracle", interrupting normal service like a "break in transmission" during the 7:00 news. I have pondered on this long and hard and I just cannot see how God can interact with nature without leaving some indication that he was or is here. There would have to be some type of fingerprint no matter how faint. As a child it always amazed me that I could go to a pond where the water was still and by just dipping my finger in for a few seconds I could create ripples many many yards away. If I passed even fifteen minutes later I could still observe a slight vibration on the water surface. Yet somehow God, the all powerful, waves his mighty hand and we can't detect any bit of his handiwork even with the most powerful microscope we have. Well, the theist will say that's because the atheist doesn't understand the nature of God. They say, "God is outside time and a space, not made of matter, in fact God is immaterial."

Aha, God is immaterial !

That's what Hawking and many others of us have been saying for years. Maybe we can all agree after all.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

When is the right time to criticize?

It's been a really tough week for all Barbadians. Last Friday six young women perished in a fire set during a robbery attempt in Tudor Street in the capital city, Bridgetown. Make no mistake, for a country as small as Barbados, the loss of six young lives at one time is a tragedy of massive proportions. Everyone will at least know someone that knew one of the victims. I stand alongside the citizens of my country in condemning this heinous crime and my heart goes out to all the families who have lost loved ones. The outrage has led to people calling for the "gallows to swing" for the two young men that were thought to have been involved. Anger has also led to a 'blame game' that has extended to everybody from fire fighters and police to store owners and architects.

Of course there is one fellow who has as usual escaped blame all together. You guessed it, the one and only almighty God. Curiously, this is even though the words being uttered from so many lips after this tragedy was
"God is in control." Strange thing that, if it was the CEO, the prime minister, the headmaster in control and did nothing while subordinates in their organisations acted improperly , they would have to answer some serious questions.

Well, God's control in this case is just a reminder that he is there for us and will get us through the situation. We must remember him at these times and pray to him to give us comfort. This type of message is not unusual in times of tragedy and I daresay it does often help to soothe the fresh open wounds. I think this way of thinking at these times is also a way to keep faith strong at the time when it is facing its most severe of tests. It is a way of telling society that we are not going to tolerate any non religious views at this time. Effectively, if you can't say something to edify or glorify, ie something proclaiming God, keep your mouth shut. In other words, we don't want to hear from the atheists. Now is not the time for you to be criticizing our beliefs. If you do we will consider you to be unpatriotic, uncaring and selfish.

This is basically what came through to me as I saw the announcement, in the Barbados Advocate newspaper today, shown in the photo, where the government has determined that there will be three minutes of prayer by everybody at noon Friday. Everything will come to a halt, even speech it says and , "Barbados will pause and pray." Doesn't sound like a voluntary thing . So if, like me, you have no God to talk to, you have to find one quick. I hope the flying spaghetti monster is available at short notice.

But seriously, in these situations atheists are forced to shrink away to the back of the room and let the men and women of the cloth have their way with the afflicted. For how could atheists be so insensitive to illustrate at this moment the paradox of an all powerful God who allows such suffering? How could we be so mean to point out the futility of prayer to a God who if he exists can't possibly be unaware of anything that we need? How could we be so daft to choose this moment to explain that "thy will be done " means asking God to do the things that he had always planned to do anyway? No, we are told, now is not the right time for engaging in these esoteric philosophical debates, not when people are suffering. The thing is by silencing us at these times they are defanging us at the moment where we can make the most telling incisions into their belief system. For when all is going well, the idea that God is indifferent to our needs is a very hard sell indeed. Just like the best time to illustrate the weakness in a security system is after a break in, it is when the earthquakes, tsunamis, murders and cancers come that the idea of a God that loves us appears to be blatantly absurd. But those are the times when non belief is strictly off the table.

This of course raises the question as to when therefore is the 'right' time to be critical of religious ideas. The truth is that it really is hard to find the right moment. I know that many have tried to bring in the rational response at the happier times where you can't be accused of kicking someone while they are down. For example, if the six ladies had somehow manged to be saved, God would have been credited with the 'miracle.' Atheists might have pointed to well trained firefighters, additional exists, non flammable building materials, or even just plain good fortune, but they would have been told to keep silent in that scenario too. The response would be, "Why are you trying to take people's thankfulness to God away, devaluing their experience and "bursting their bubble" by explaining things it in such unemotional terms?"

So religion really controls both extremes of the 'emotions market .' It holds sway at all the points where we feel life the most, those moments we will invariably never forget. The highs of the baptisms, marriages, graduations and sporting triumphs and the lows of the job losses, divorces illnesses and funerals. So it seems the only time it's ok to criticize religion is in those neutral moments. Yes, those times when things are not too good and not too bad. The days when essentially nothing is happening. The days that sort of just fade into the background at the end of life. Usually this means a few minutes after a philosophy class at university, when you're just hanging out with nothing much to do. It's no wonder that at the end of the day no one really hears the nonbeliever. On the other hand , when is the right time to criticise atheism? Well pretty much any time, 24 hours a day 365 days a year, it's always open season.

On that subject, it also seems to be always the right time to criticize Islam. However, I must admit that when I think of the horror of those six charred bodies lying in a store after last week's inceneration I cannot get worked up about the story of a man who is threatening to burn a few books on his premises.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Answers in the back of the book

It's back to school for millions of kids all over the world. Time to get all the bags, pencil cases and other paraphernalia and of course the various text books. At this time I tend to reminisce on my own school days. I remember a particular day during my first week of class two in primary school. That day we were given a particularly challenging piece of maths homework. As we looked through the questions at the end of the day, one kid exclaimed, " Wait, look the answers here in the back of the book!"

We all stopped dead in our tracks checking our copies to make sure that we all had the same edition. Sure enough, the answers were right there. Suddenly homework had become a ten or fifteen minute affair rather than hours of work. It was truly a 'God send' as far as we were concerned. The next day in class we showed up grinning, we had finished the homework and knew we would all get 100% and teacher, well she would be none the wiser. Of course teacher duly collected the homework and then casually mentioned that we could all have checked our answers as they were given in the back of the book. We went into shock at that moment, how did she know about that? Who spilled the beans? It's amazing when you are eight that you think that in spite of the teacher using a text book for the last 20 years, that YOU would be the first to discover the 'secret.' At that time though we saw it as a clear proof of teacher omniscience.

Suddenly we had no idea what our marks would be. Luckily teacher went easy and gave us all our marks, but we were told that next time we had to show all of our 'working'. That seemed a daunting prospect but we soon learnt how to beat the system. Once we knew the answer we would just manipulate the numbers to get the 'right' result. So the next week we did just that. At primary school there are just four things you can do with numbers, add, multiply divide or subtract that's it. With a little numerical gymnastics you are bound to find the right answer sooner or later. Words of explanation were never needed, we learnt that 'working' did not mean justification of what you did.

As the year went on and we got more confident, quite often we would do the sums only using the answers as a check. There was one day though where the homework assignment really through a 'spanner into the works.' One particular answer in the book had all the students baffled. We had done this type of question many times throughout the term but this time the answer just was not working out. We had answer 24 and the book had answer 34. That morning before class there was a raging argument among us. There were one or two kids who actually had got the book answer, but they had used the numerical gymnastics trick and couldn't explain why they did what they did. But they were quite happy, they had the answer in the book and they couldn't understand what the argument was about. About seven or eight kids recognising that time was running out before class, erased their original responses and copied from the kids with the book answer, smiling at having been saved before the bell. They had the right answer and working that's all teacher was looking for.

However there were still about six students left who were truly in a dilemma. We were not convinced that the methods used to get the 'right' answer were correct. It just didn't make sense to us. Still it was what the book had and the book was the authority. Therefore it must be that we just didn't understand. We weren't getting it, maybe we weren't as smart as we thought. Slowly as the minutes past many of us gave in and decided to go with the book answer, I was one of them. However there was one student who stuck to her guns. Her view was she wanted to understand where she went wrong, she might sacrifice a grade but at least she would learn something and not make the same mistake again . We all looked at her like she was crazy and wondered why she would throw away her marks like that.

Soon the teacher arrived and we went through the homework and we all waited for that fateful question. "By the way", the teacher remarked," the answer in the back of the book was wrong, the right answer is 24." We were all speechless. How could that be? How could the book answer be wrong? Surely people who wrote maths text books knew far more maths than a set of eight year old kids? In all the discussion and argument never did anyone, even the girl who by now had become a hero, consider that the book answer might be incorrect. We all except for the one wise girl lost our marks as a result." Don't assume all the book answers are right," the teacher concluded.

I learnt a lesson that day that went far beyond maths or algebra. A lesson which has stayed with me until today. People continue to show me a book which they say has all the right answers in back, front and middle. A book whose mathematics is perfect and whose old English language can be translated without error. They tell me that the number of available paths is not greater than one by showing me the book says 'the way' and not 'a way.' They tell me the answer of 14 billion I calculated is wrong, 6000 is the absolutely correct answer. But the working they show me has been backward engineered. They show me how they calculate but not why they choose to add certain numbers together or interpret certain writings the way that they do.They also never say why they completely ignore the new maths and science of today or the more recent history books.

So, I remember my former classmate and tell them I will stick to the answers I have spent hours working out. Just like the wise girl said then, it's not because I am sure I am right but because it represents the world as I now understand it. If a teacher can one day show me the step in my calculations where I went wrong I will be happy for the opportunity to increase my understanding. Until then I will carry my 'working' with me and I am prepared to explain my methods and reasoning to anyone.I will not be swayed by a book presented to me that just lists answers 1 to 10 without words of justification. I now know that books even written by the best experts can be wrong. I also know books can lead us to state answers as being absolutely right although it's a complete mystery to us as to how the writer arrived at them. Perhaps most importantly, I know that when everyone else is following the book, a minority of even one can often be right.

My decision to stick with my answers has not gone down too well with many of those in my class. Scores of my colleagues shake their heads at me for throwing away the easy marks. A large portion have even told me I will be severely punished when the teacher comes back. I am assured that I will be given a big 'F' and sent to eternal detention. All the revelations are in the back of the book, they tell me, and I am a fool not to change my answers to fit the text. In spite of all this I am still not convinced that the teacher will show up when the bell rings. It's a shame because that would mean I will never get the chance to hear her tell the class one more time that you should never put all your trust in those textbook answers.