Category Archives: Religion

Religion: would I be half-hearted or a die-hard?

In some ways I envy those of my friends who are religious. It must be reassuring to be able to roll up all of life’s mysteries into a simple bundle and label it “God’s work”.

No real need to ponder the meaning of life; the infinite vastness of space is explained by a blind faith that everything is the work of the deity; and death no longer hangs around like a brooding menace accompanying every day, whether it be sad, unremarkable and totally ecstatic. The package takes care of everything, from reassurance to infinite reward, from morality to inspiration.

Some people hide when they see a pair of smartly-dressed Jehovah’s Witnesses making their way to the front door. Not me. I always answer the knock. I relish the opportunity to converse with people who are so utterly convinced by their creed that they are prepared to take their beliefs out into the community and try to convince others that they are right. I suppose I harbour a kind of envy – it must be good to have all those doubts and fears taken care of. And there’s no doubt that religion has acted and continues to act as a contributory agent to a peaceful society, except of course where it drives some to fanaticism. Increasingly, religious festivals are being absorbed into our calendars as important milestones, but as having little more spiritual significance than Valentine’s Day or Bonfire Night. I mean, surely those who wait for hours outside department stores for the start of the Christmas sales aren’t spending too much time contemplating the miracle of the virgin birth?

But I quickly make it clear to the Bible-clutching pair that I am unconvinceable. Although the ‘Big Bang’ is the best explanation I’ve heard for the beginning of this universe, for many years I’ve been content to assume that both time and space had no beginning and will have no end point. Whilst we are accustomed to there being beginnings and endings for everything we encounter in our daily lives, I can’t imagine there ever being a dead end on the superhighway of Time itself.

Image: 9 year WMAP image of background cosmic radiation (2012)

No doubt there are many opaque regions of Newtonian physics, relativity or string theory that I’ll never get to understand, or some aspect of the Higg’s boson that will forever remain a black hole in my apperception of quarks and their like, but as far as I’m concerned there couldn’t possible have been a Grand Beginning. And certainly their idea that there is a Supreme Being who got the ball rolling seems at best misguided.

That said, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other people of strong faith, who devote a significant portion of their lives to actual activities in relation to their religion, seem to me to be acting in a fairly logical fashion. If I believed, I think I’d want, like them, to act on my convictions, in the way – to draw a slightly tongue-in-cheek analogy – supporters of football clubs do. Die-hard football fans go to both home and away matches; they follow the latest news about their club via the media; they discuss developments with their friends and acquaintances; their loyalties may extend to purchasing merchandise and festooning a room in their house with iconic images and memorabilia: in short, they will worship their team with passionate loyalty.

That’s how I would be with religion.

I’m pretty sure I’d go to a place of worship very regularly; I’d want to do whatever I could to spread the word; and I’d lead a life in which all of my thoughts and activities were steeped in the influence and requirements of my religious creed. Otherwise, I’d be like those Manchester United supporters who aren’t really supporters but just say they are to be accepted as part of their peer group …

Indeed, I might well go further. If I truly believed in the power of prayer, for instance, I’d want to see prayer being used pro-actively by government, education and industry as a means of achieving objectives. If I ruled such a religious world, there’d be a programme of experimentation with various approaches to prayer – qualitative and quantitative – to measure the success or otherwise of different strategies. The prayer industry would probably be a key component of the economy.

In the real world that doesn’t happen, of course. While British people get most aerated about Brexit, the honours system and Donald Trump, their attitude towards religion can be described as tepid, at best. And religious belief is in rapid decline in Britain. According to the latest British Attitudes Surveyclick here to view a chart accompanying the September 2017 press release – more than half the population (53%) say they have no religion. In 1983, 40% of the population described themselves as Anglican or Church of England; by 2016, that percentage had fallen to 15%. Only 3% of people aged 18-24 describe themselves as being Anglican or members of the Church of England.

The decline is beginning to look terminal; but, personally, I fear not – I’m sure there will be life after the death of religion.

 


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Image credit: door knocker – by AnemoneProjectors [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team

The detailed, all-sky picture of the infant universe created from nine years of WMAP data. The image reveals 13.77 billion year old temperature fluctuations (shown as color differences) that correspond to the seeds that grew to become the galaxies. The signal from our galaxy was subtracted using the multi-frequency data. This image shows a temperature range of ± 200 microKelvin.

Image credit: Manchester United fan – By Светлана Бекетова (https://www.soccer0010.com/galery/966142.shtml) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Apollo XI and the physics of God

Forty-five years ago this month, Neil Armstrong uttered perhaps the most unforgettable words ever spoken, as he stepped off the ladder of the Lunar Excursion Module and became the first human being to set foot on the Moon.

As he said, it was “… one small step for a man”; though in fact, of course, many thousands, if not millions, of steps had already been taken in the long and winding road that led to Apollo XI‘s landing. So many technological achievements, arguably dating back to the invention of the wheel and beyond, had fuelled that jaw-dropping expedition.

On the one hand, as Armstrong put it, it was as though our species had taken a “giant leap” in its evolutionary journey; on the other hand, the landing can be characterised as simply the product of the cold, level headed application of scientific knowledge, technological advances and computer power.

As an atheist, I’ve always been fascinated by the part played by God in all of this. When John F. Kennedy made his “We choose to go to the moon” speech, he was careful to ask for God’s blessing for the “adventure”. And when the Apollo VIII astronauts entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, December 24th, 1968, they took turns in reading from the book of Genesis.

It seems to me that these statements of faith were probably a lot to do with pandering to assumed public sentiment in the US. (buzz_aldrin_EVA_selfieThough not entirely: it’s interesting that Buzz Aldrin‘s personal communion service on the surface of the Moon was held in secret – see Buzz Aldrin selfie, right, taken during his EVA). But having in mind the experiences of Galileo, Darwin and others throughout history who’d made giant leaps previously, the finance department at NASA knew that offending religious sensibilities via revolutionary discoveries would not necessarily stimulate increased budgets for future missions.

Nonetheless … with all the analytical and computational power at their disposal, I’m surprised that true believers at NASA and other scientific bodies have never sought to establish the physical nature of God. If they’re as convinced of his existence as the statements of the astronauts and certain space scientists suggest, it would surely be worthwhile undertaking some kind of work to buttress their belief with empirical evidence? To my mind, there is a very curious contradiction in the way they can spend so much of their lives rigorously searching after solutions to the most difficult problems in physics, harnessing cutting edge knowledge and equipment to chase down fine details which may produce further giant leaps, whilst at the same time blocking out of their mind any thoughts of questioning the nature of this supposed all-powerful, all-seeing super being.

That’s not to say that there isn’t an extensive body of scientific, metaphysical and/or philosophical literature exploring ideas around the physics of God. For instance, James Redford, in his 2012 book The Physics of God and the Quantum Gravity Theory of Everything, available via links here, seeks to use theories about the ultimate collapse of the universe into a final cosmological singularity – the “Omega Point” – as a proof for the existence of God.

Rather than try to explain the origins of the Big Bang, of which “The Omega Point is a different aspect”, Redford places his trust in a projection of generally-accepted quantum gravity theory into the most distant imaginable future, to describe God as a state of being which will come about following the development of infinite computational resources. (So for “God”, read “Science”; or “If you can’t beat them, join them”). We can all take comfort in knowing that scientists will one day be able to explain absolutely every aspect of the “multiverse”; but, with a nagging worry that, as the state of singularity approaches, scientists may have other things on their minds than increasing computer power (and also that scientific theories themselves evolve), I find very little of value here.

Darwin's_finchesThe truth of the matter is that, just like Darwin’s finches, religious beliefs tend to be modified to respond to changes in their habitat. With each new “giant leap” made by Man, some of the bonds that hold together the DNA of religious beliefs are broken and re-form to adapt to the changing climate of opinion and the social and scientific environment.

For absolutely explicable reasons, many people (some astronauts included) need to hold onto a religious belief as they take their all-too-short, wondrous, worrying ride on and around this planet, as it processes through the inexplicable heavens.

To that extent, the scientific basis for the existence of God is to be found not in physics, but in psychology.

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