The answer to my questions about God came in the form of the most wonderful boy I had ever met, and the most loving and accepting set of in-laws that I could ever hope for. I had no reason not to, so I started going to Mass every Saturday, and I loved it! I think that the saints are so cool, and the ceremonies are so inspiring (although I think the Methodists have better hymns).
When we decided to get married, I even started down the road to becoming Catholic. In the end, I couldn’t fool myself, and I had too much respect and affection for both my in-laws and the priest to fake it.
In the end, this is what it comes down to for me: I just can’t believe that there really is a God, no matter how hard I try. I know a lot of social scientists who don’t, and studying extraordinary beliefs (even though we can’t study believing in God, because God is outside of science) might be the reason, I think most of us had doubts before graduate school.
I’ve never been able to believe in things that don’t have tangible effects, and for me, there are no effects enacted by God that can’t be explained by human factors. But, as any good scientist will tell you, God is outside of science, and I fully acknowledge that my non-belief is exactly that: a matter of belief. I would never presume to think that people who do believe in God are stupid or naïve.
I still enjoy going to church, even though I’m not a believer (I hope no one is offended by my presence). I have always liked the singing, which was always the part I enjoyed the most as a child. I like the feeling of community that suffuses the church; I like the quietness and the peace and the light streaming through old stain glass windows. I like the messages of hope and love and compassion and goodness delivered in the sermon. I like holding hands with my husband, and smiling at my family, and wishing them peace.
I like the sentiment, and I appreciate it. I just approach it from a different direction. Similarly, I look forward to the baptisms of my nieces and nephews as celebrations of their new lives; I marvel at how mature they’ve become, and how amazing it is that they’re old enough to receive first communion or confirmation.
In other words, I love my family and respect their beliefs, even though I have not come to hold the exact same ones.
Next week, Brittany will discuss “coming out” as an atheist.
This post makes me miss the old St. Joe family in PC…and I really appreciate Brittany’s POV, honesty, and respect for those of us who are believers . Thanks for doing this series of guest posts, Sarah.
Aristotle considered theology to be the “highest science” and most classical educations follow in his footsteps. I don’t think all or even most scientists agree with the statement that God is outside of science. Science is a quest for knowledge. To exclude God outright is an assumption that may or may not be true, and unfortunately I can not think of a valid scientific experiment to test that assumption.
So, for example, you may hypothesize that sound requires a substance in order to travel, and then create a vacuum to test your hypothesis (and you would be proved correct: sound requires a solid, liquid, or gas in order to travel). But you cannot create a “God-vacuum” and test if life is possible without him/her/it.
But just because we have not yet figured out a way to test the existence of God, does not mean that it is impossible to study the existence of God. The scientific method can be applied in the study of God (and classical logic assumes that ALL science is a subset of theology…in other words, that in studying biology or chemistry, we are studying a small portion of God’s creation, hence we are studying a small portion of theology, just as we may study thermodynamics which is merely a subset of physics).
The thing that is difficult to accept is that the scientific method works to prove that something is true, not that something is false. So, you work to prove that sound requires a solid, liquid or gas to travel. Since we cannot definitely remove God from an experiment, we can only work to prove that God DOES exist, not that He does NOT exists. Does that make sense? Unfortunately, for the determined atheist, using the scientific method to prove something that they do not want to believe is uncomfortable. It just seems as though you are brainwashing yourself!
I did not believe in God for 17 years. I finally, deperately, decided that I MUST believe in God, or else lie to my children or raise them as atheists. I did not want my children to be atheists, unless they so chose that as adults, and I cannot stomach the idea of living a lie. So I studied theology.
And now I am brainwashed.
Unfortunately, I have to disagree. Hypothesis testing can only disprove theories, but it can never “prove” anything. Also, the existence of God *is*, by definition, outside of science. Hypotheses HAVE to be falsifiable to be scientific (else there is no point in testing them), but there isn’t anything that Christians (or people of other religions) will accept as evidence that God doesn’t exist. This is the point of faith.
I’m not sure how to take the last part of your post about lying or raising your kids as atheists. I guess I don’t understand why you would have to raise your kids atheist rather than raising them to 1) be good people, and 2) think for themselves, and letting the cards fall where they may.
I think this site is a good explanation of the scientific method. Using that model, it is impossible to conduct an experiment to prove/disprove the existence of God. However, I CAN conduct an experiment such as, “If I pray for faith every day and attend Mass every Sunday, at the end of a year, I will believe in God and/or be a happier person.” I can then test that hypothesis and find it true or partially true or false. I am changing nothing else in the situation. Yes, my feelings are highly subjective, and I have only my own personal observations to report. Nonetheless, it is a fair test and fits the scientific method. If I believe in God at the end of such an experiment, then naturally, I have proved (to myself which is all that matters) that God exists. (Conversely, I can NOT say “If I do nothing, then nothing will happen and this proves God doesn’t exist.” I have to try to prove something by doing something, even if I am proven wrong. Hypothesis testing does not always disprove theories. “If I drop this apple, it will fall to the ground.” Proves true. “If I drop this apple, it will lift to the sky.” Proves false. More sophisticated: “In zero gravity, if I drop this apple, it will float, provided I place no force upon it.” Proves true.)
I believe that I am raising my children to be good people AND to think for themselves, using an Aristotilian method (as they get old enough to do so). However, little children want to know WHY. Why do we give our money to the poor? Why are we nice to that cranky lady? Why do we go to church on Sunday (my husband was Catholic, so we went)?
Perhaps “because it’s the right thing to do” is good enough for the first 2, but I can’t see attending mass as mandatory for a non-believer. So what would I say? “It’s your father’s thing – go ask him”? Since I feel that is very disrespectful of my husband and his beliefs, I am left with either pretending to believe them too (lying), or stating my beliefs, which influences our children whether we like it or not.
Parents can’t truly raise their child in a belief vacuum and have that child reach maturity and say, “Having open-mindedly considered all the options, I believe that orthodox Judaism is the most logical choice for religion.” Statistically speaking MOST adults have (however nominally) the same faith as their parents. If their parents are mixed in their faith, the kids have a crap shoot in their faith outcome.
In my husband’s case, his Protestant mother converted as a child and he was raised to be Catholic. He is, and his brother and sister are nominal Catholics. In my case, my father didn’t convert until about 4 years ago. I was raised to be Catholic, but knew my dad didn’t believe it (he never breathed a negative word about Catholicism and actively defended the faith when we were kids). Up until MY conversion 10 years ago, my parents’ 5 children were, at best, nominal Catholics, and in my case an unhappy atheist, and in my brother’s case, a hostile anti-religion believer of nothing.
I did not want to do to my children what my parents did to me (and I do blame them in a very matter-of-fact way). I felt that there must be A turth (one truth, not relative truths: like the laws of physics, there surely must be other truths out there). I was determined to find out that truth quickly in order to teach it to my children and spare them 17 years of misery.
You’re 100% right about those being empirical questions. In fact, there have been a lot of studies recently on these very topics! People who are religious (not simply those who attend church, but real believers) tend to live longer and have greater well being. But more relevant to “is there a God?” there have been numerous studies showing no benefit to prayer (e.g., if I pray you will not die of cancer, this doesn’t affect your actual mortality rate). There is also evidence that people project their personal views onto God. The pathway is that the person decides something is moralized (e.g., drinking is bad) and then believes that God/the Bible also says the same thing. These two findings could be considered against God. However, they will likely cause 0 Christians to become atheists, because literally proving God’s existence or not is impossible. This is my point.
A small issue: your idea of testing your own hypothesis on your own subjective beliefs, while technically fitting the scientific method, is not a “fair” test, because it would be an example of confirmation bias (I have a premise, and now I have generated support for it). This is what I teach my students is the entire point of the scientific method. You can’t conduct an experiment like that on yourself, because social behavior and beliefs are HIGHLY influenced by attitudes and schemas and expectations. Although, you will learn what you truly think. If you feel better, you like being Catholic; if you don’t, you’re happier doing something else (or something else happened that made you less happy). In general, too, religious beliefs are very tricky to study, and you can’t experiment on them easily (hard to randomly assign people to religion or not), but there are still opportunities for experimentation (like the projection experiment).
As to your children, of course, you can’t raise them in a vacuum, but certainly you can say that Daddy believes one thing, Mom believes another thing, Uncle Tom thinks a third thing, and that you will love and support them irrespective of what religion if any they decide to follow. I am not certain, and it’s always iffy to read too much into written communication, but it seems like you are trying to justify your decision to yourself more so than me. I don’t disrespect you at all for deciding to convert and raise your children Catholic. One of my favorite people did the same thing. I just wonder why it is that you seem to be saying that you feel that atheism would be a BAD thing to teach your children. Or that you and your husband disagreeing is bad, and that one person has to bow to the beliefs of the other in order to avoid confusing your children.
As to the issue of Mass, that’s of course an issue of your particular parenting philosophies. You could say “we go because we respect your father’s wishes and his religion.” Which would fall into the right thing to do. I guess I’m still hung up on the idea that you influencing your children is a bad thing. Why is atheism bad for kids? Why are atheist beliefs less worthy of discussion? I may be misunderstanding you. I feel like we’re having some trouble in the communication department. Whatever the case may be, I don’t have kids, and my husband has the same beliefs I do, so we likely won’t have this issue (or maybe he’ll go back to the church and we will). I haven’t had to think of it as carefully and as long as you have. Who knows whose way is better? I would imagine that anyone that has thought about these issues as much as you have will raise thoughtful and respectful children, though, regardless of whether you teach them to be Catholic or atheist or Orthodox Jew.
Because I love my children more than I love myself, I take much better care of them than I take care of myself. Although I know that smoking is unhealthful, I smoked. I risked my own health. I stopped when I was pregnant with my oldest and have never started back up again. Not only is it bad for the fetus, it is bad for children to live in smoky homes and it sets a bad example. I would not want my children to smoke as teens or as adults. I want a better life for them and I want them to make better choices.
That is one of many many examples of where I chose what was best for my children above and beyond my personal choices for myself. Breastmilk is best? Breastmilk they got. Staying at home is best? I stayed at home. TV is bad? We didn’t watch it. Classical music is good? We listen to it. And the choices go on.
When it comes to our spiritual beliefs, we are, in a way, gambling with eternity. If there is a God, and I shut him/her/it out of my life and refuse to believe in him/her/it then I am risking eternal damnation. I was ok with this gamble when it was only my immortal soul. So what if I spent eternity without this god who doesn’t exist anyway? I already lived without god, so I didn’t care.
But recognizing the extreme power that a parent has over a little child (which you could not possibly understand until you see how a 2 or 3 year old hangs on your every word), I felt a heavy weight on me. My children would be influenced by my thoughts, whether I wanted them to be or not.
For example, my husband is in the Army. He loves his job and would happily die for his country (except that he knows we would be distraught over such an event). One thing bugs him though. He knows that our boys admire him much and are influenced by his career. It is possible that they will grow up and join the military to be just like dad. It is possible that they will grow up, join the military and die in a war…and my husband will feel it is his fault for influencing them, even though they made that adult decision freely.
So, if I am an atheist, and my children decide, freely, as adults, to be atheists, I am mature enough to accept that I am, in part, responsible for influencing them thusly. If I am wrong, then I have condemned not just myself but my children as well to eternal damnation.
So, supposing that there is in fact a hell, would that be where I would want my children to spend eternity? Fire, brimstone, pitchforks, evil dudes with horns? No, of course not. Therefore, I felt it very imperative to find out the truth.
I’m sorry if I sound as though I am trying to justify my behavior to myself. I am quite happy with my faith and am fortunate to see and feel the hand of God in all that happens in my life. I pray daily to spare my children the difficult trials I had before I converted. I do not look back fondly on who I was or how I behaved before I converted, and I know for certain that I would not be nearly as “good” or well bahaved as I am today without this higher purpose.
I am merely trying to explain what led me to attempt to believe in God. I don’t miss being an atheist, although it certainly would be convenient to use birth control, sleep in on Sundays, not “waste” my time with prayer, and keep my money for myself instead of donating it to charity (all things I do for God and not because I’m deep down a good person).
I am happy that you are at peace with yourself and the universe. I was not happy as an atheist. I did not intend to write as much about my personal history as I did. I merely intended to argue that faith in God is NOT outside the realm of rational thought and certainly to correct you in the notion that God is separate from science. One cannot prove that the world began from nothing any more than one can prove that the world was created by God, so to say that one faith is more rational than the other is illogical.
I’m glad you’re happy with the decisions you made. It’s always interesting to hear from people who converted rather than staying atheist. I know faith is something a lot of people feel like they continue to struggle with. It seems like you may still be struggling, but with your past rather than your present.
God is separate from science, though. I still don’t understand why you are arguing this. Maybe we have different definitions of science. My definition of science is that it’s the study of the world using the scientific method. The scientific method necessitates testable (i.e., falsifiable) hypotheses. If the existence of God were a falsifiable idea, we would have settled this issue one way or another long ago. Ergo, God is outside of science. We can certainly study believers or the various cognitive processes that lead people to believe in the extraordinary, but scientists will never be able to run experiments on the existence of God or not. Can’t test whether something out there exists or not, if the believers can fall back on magical powers and parallel universes and whatever else. Neither believers nor non-believers will ever be able to argue conclusively using the scientific method that there are Gods or not. This is one of the give-aways that it’s outside science. You make exactly this point in your final sentence. You are being inconsistent when you simultaneously assert that God IS part of science, but that one can’t prove anything about there being a creator or not either way. Of course I could be confused by your phrasing.
I didn’t intend to argue that religious people are irrational, because I don’t believe that. You can feel that your beliefs are rational, whatever they are. As long as they’re logically consistent and allow you to maximize your outcomes, they are rational. We could quibble about whether they are in fact logically consistent, but belief in God or not has nothing really to do with logic or rationality, in the sense that rationality and logic say that there’s truly a right answer. People that believe in God think it’s logical and rational to do so; people that don’t believe in God think it’s logical or rational to do so. You’ll have about as much getting someone to admit their belief in God is irrational as you will getting them to believe that the scientific study of human behavior suggests that there aren’t really gods.
One caveat: my expertise is in human behavior and judgment and decision making. I have no expertise as it comes to physical science arguments for or against God. All I know is that what I know of human behavior has me convinced that the divine is a human construction.
I default to Aristotle in persisting that science is, ultimately, the study of God. He was far smarter than I ever hope to be.
It is impossible – right now – to go to the bottom of the ocean or the center of the earth or even to the surface of the moon. But that does not mean that we are unable to study these things and get ever closer. Had man limited himself to only that which was verifiable right now, we would never have progressed beyond caveman days.
I have a BS in civil engineering. I studied science as a part of my core curriculum all through HS and college. I am well acquainted with scientific methodology. Science is a search for knowledge and a search for truth. To find the components of an atom, to learn the truth about the earth revolving around the sun, to try to guess how matter formed into this ball we call earth or the universe: none of this is dry, matter of fact stuff. Sure, perhaps, there are scientists today who focus on practical aspects of science (how do we cure this cancer, how do we make a more fuel efficient car), but if you define science as merely a study in how to make life better for us humans, you are looking at only a tiny bit of what science means.
Scientia (latin for knowledge) is man seeking to understand how it all began and why, which is theology. “Unlocking the keys to the universe” – which is what we seek to do by studying it – can only bring us closer to the One who made it all. (Like studying Picasso makes no sense unless you also study his art…or studying Mozart makes no sense unnless you also study his music.) If there is a God and he created the universe, then studying the universe means you are studying God (hence, theology).
Your premise only makes sense if you believe in God. I don’t, so I don’t say I study God. Also, your logic is flawed. We may not be able to go to the bottom of (some) parts of the ocean, but we know that they’re there.
Defaulting to philosophers doesn’t make your premise true, either. Theology is the study of religion and the philosophy of the universe therein. Also, the only way that I’m studying theology is if the universe was created by some sort of divine being. There is no evidence of that. You have to make the assumption that there is a god to say that science is theology. Which is not the way good science starts (with completely unsupported premises).
I could make a similar argument that you can’t study theology without understanding the underlying psychological and social psychological and sociological and cultural factors that lead people to believe in this god or that god or no god at all.
Science has ALWAYS limited itself to the verifiable. The previous observations make way for the next steps. Straying outside the observable is philosophy, which often eventually is tested and becomes science, but until it is, it is not strictly science, in the sense of being about observable phenomenon. Everything you mention is observable and verifiable and therefore falsifiable. The existence of gods is not and never will be falsifiable.
If we’re going to stack up our credentials, I also have a bachelor’s of science, and a master’s degree (it’s technically a master of arts, although I am a experimental social psychologist with a minor in statistics). I am a PhD candidate in one of the best social science (research) programs in the country. In edition to spending a large part of my time actually conducting experiments (using the scientific method), I took graduate level classes in experimental methodology. I teach college students research methods. Of course, in order to even get into this program, I had to have many, many hours of research as an undergrad, and I too attended high school and took science classes. Advanced placement even.
The issue of science as being the search for truth is actually a debatable topic. Some people have a different philosophy of science. Some people believe that there is no knowable Truth. There’s in fact more than one idea as to the proper way of conducting science and thinking about science. There’s been a lot of ideas since Aristotle, in fact. This is why I asked you what you think science is. Our ideas about science are different. Neither of our philosophies are wrong per se, but you are most certainly incorrect in thinking that we are studying god by conducting experiments on the world or that it is even possible to conduct experiments on god. In your worldview or philosophy of science, you believe that, but you need to understand that just because something is your truth does not mean that it is The Truth for everyone.
I am sorry. It was not my intent to put you on the defense regarding the definition of science or your qualifications thereof. I pointed out my degree only to highlight that I am not a barefoot and pregnant dumb Catholic stay-at-home mom who is homeschooling her children so she can brainwash them about the one true Gawd.
You stated in your original column that “any good scientist will tell you, God is outside of science” and I feel that I am qualified to argue that not every good scientist will tell you that God is outside of science. That is an unsubstantiated statement.
Aristotle is not merely a “philospher.” Aristotle is considered the “first scientist” and the “father of science.” I agree, we have come a long way in 2500 years, but I feel it is appropriate to acknowledge the shoulders of the giants upon which we stand. I could have picked thousands of other scientists over the millenia to quote to back me up, but I picked Aristotle who is outside of the Judeo-Christian worldview. I felt he was an inoffensive source.
It has only been in the last 150 years or so that science has begun to attempt to exclude God. I know very little of science in the Orient, so I exclude their research. However, in the Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian West, it has always been assumed that there was some divine hand in creation.
Science by its very definiation MUST be the search for truth and/or Truth. If I conduct an experiment: if I drop this object, it will fall to the earth, and that happens 1000 times, every single time, I am drawing the conclusion that if I drop it 1 million times, it will fall to the ground every single time. If I drop it a million times, I begin to accept the truth that objects fall to the ground, even if I don’t understand why. Later, we develop more complex theories to figure out why it happens and how it happens and at what rate it happens. That is science and the building of scientific knowledge. Without an intent to discover truths about how the universe works, there is absolutely no point to science. If this math equation will tell me the maximum weight my elevator can hold, it’s a good equation. But if it isn’t sometimes true, then somebody dies and it isn’t worth knowing. Science tries to prove that life is NOT random. Science tries to prove that there are truths.
I think we will have to agree to disagree.
I will say that I think that the phrasing of the original is unfortunate. A clearer phrasing is “proving or disproving the existence of God is outside the abilities of science.” Sure, what you choose to study is informed by your worldview, but I stand by my intended statement that the existence of the divine is unknowable for sure. Definitely poor choice of words on my part, though. I think we can both agree that scientists can (and do) study various aspects of religious belief and religious people (I’ve mentioned many examples in my posts), but no scientists worth their salt are going to waste their time trying to prove or disprove the existence of gods, especially ones who have hypothetically unlimited powers.
There ARE different philosophies of science; you continue to articulate yours. But it’s unfair to say that gods are a part of it when it’s unlikely that you would ever accept research supporting the idea that there aren’t gods. If you know you will refuse to see something right in front of you, then you aren’t being very scientific. Science didn’t lead you to believe in the Roman Catholic version of things, you decided to based on a variety of factors, because there is simply no science that would conclusively lead anyone to any one religion. There will probably never be conclusive support for any one religious worldview. The vast majority of scientists are not out there trying to prove that gods exist. They are testing theories, whether it be for science’s sake, for an applied problem, to justify a world view, to save lives, to make money, to find the “truth,” etc. Science is a process, not some anthropomorphized thing with some inherent purpose. This is where I think that we fundamentally disagree. I ascribe to the idea that science is a process; to my mind, you think of it more as a search for transcendent truth. This also explains why you see God as part of science, because both religion and your view of science are a search for the true purpose of life and the universe. I think that this also explains why I disagree, because science as a process precludes the non-testable.
My point is that in my worldview, it is a mistake to make the assumption that gods exist and start from there. We have to be objective and go where the data take us. Currently, we are moving away (have moved away) from gods as the starting point (although we are studying the characteristics of the people who believe in them). Just because it is new does not make it wrong. As you say, there’s been a lot of progress since Aristotle. I am not diminishing his contributions, and I realize that he’s the “father of science,” but scientific discovery is rather exponential. A large part of the discoveries ever made have been made recently; a great proportion of the scientists who’ve ever existed are alive today (they just aren’t as famous). To use an extremely visible analogy, take technology. For thousands of years, life was the same, but our great grandparents wouldn’t recognize the world today. The newest generation is growing up in an entirely different context than we did. The same trend exists with science more broadly. We can appreciate the steps that came before while still acknowledging that we know way more now and that paradigms have shifted. I don’t believe I’m saying anything that you don’t agree with, though.
It’s been an interesting, enjoyable discussion we’ve been having. Also, for the record, I didn’t ever picture you as a “bumpkin” or an illiterate hick or something like that. I did get just a little defensive after you posted the link to the science fair project website :). Anyway, if I thought you were stupid, I wouldn’t have bothered replying. What would have been the point of that? I think that the nice thing is that we can feel free to disagree, even if we got a little exasperated about getting or respective points across 🙂
I’d love to hear more about how religion has enriched your life, especially because you went from atheist to believer. I would imagine that you would be more cognizant of your pre- and post-conversion mental states/thoughts/behaviors/moods/etc. I’m very interested in how religion helps people (as you may have picked up on from the posts).
Most discussions where the definitions differ tend to go on without conclusion. Theology is faith seeking understanding. The use of reason rather than scientific method is the tool of theology and philosophy is the conceptual context. Because there are different philosophical system of thought it can be hard to reach a mutual understanding. Is it possible to cut through the language and get to the core?
In a Doctorate class a young fundamentalist minister asked the professor if he believed in the salvific expiatory atonement of Jesus Christ. After about 45 minutes of answering we took a break. He asked me if Professor Hooper had answered his question and then if Catholics believed in the salvific expiatory atonement of Jesus Christ. I answered “If you are asking if I believe that Jesus died for my sins, Yes!” His response was why couldn’t professor Hooper have said that. If you use language that is loaded with inferences and technical terms you will get complicated answers.
Brittany is correct that science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. God by definition is wholly other than our experience. Belief in God is reasonable and the use of reason as per Thomas Aquinas’s arguments can lead to a belief in God.
Theology may attempt to use science to find understanding for faith matters but they will never be proofs. There is not a single theology that everyone will accept because different philosophical systems are employed by different christian denominations.
Michelle conviction that with faith no evidence is necessary because God is the evident explanation is what faith is about. God is a reasonable explanation for creation.
Can atheists go to heaven? Yes. Do they have to convert first? No. For atheists and believers alike, life is about the search for truth. We believe we know where that leads, to God who is the ultimate truth.