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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 03/02/01 -- Vol. 19, No. 35
Table of Contents
Chair/Librarian: Mark Leeper, 732-817-5619, firstname.lastname@example.org Factotum: Evelyn Leeper, 732-332-6218, email@example.com Distinguished Heinlein Apologist: Rob Mitchell, firstname.lastname@example.org HO Chair Emeritus: John Jetzt, email@example.com HO Librarian Emeritus: Nick Sauer, firstname.lastname@example.org Back issues at http://www.geocities.com/evelynleeper. All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.
I was reading an article about Lewis Wolpert and some of the challenging ideas he as about one of my favorite topics. That topic is the existence of God. While the film CONTACT exaggerated the numbers to say that 95% of humanity believes in a Supreme Being, I could easily believe that it is a majority of those living today. This has to be the most popularly believed fantastical idea. I say that the idea is fantastical rather than fantasy because I do not have any good evidence to say it is fantasy. I know people who are devout atheists as well as people who are devout believers. Both types of people are people who jumped to a conclusion based on what I consider to be insufficient evidence. In fact jumping to believing in God based on insufficient evidence is usually considered to be a religious virtue called Faith. The atheists I know do not actually say that their disbelief is a virtue beyond saying that it demonstrates that they have the courage of their convictions. Frankly, I do not want to jump to any more conclusions than I have to based on insufficient evidence. That makes me an agnostic. I cannot say I am a proud agnostic, but I am a fervent one. But it is not fervent in the sense of religious fervency. I do not believe that I am in the right camp and everybody else is in the wrong camp. The fact is that I really deep-down think that everybody is an agnostic and some people just do not realize that is what they are. Agnostic means one who does not know and it is a proposition that nobody has knowledge about.
The question however arises if nobody knows whether God exists or not, why do so many people believe in God. (For simplicity sake I will refer to God in the singular, though I am not intentionally leaving out polytheistic religions. I really mean God or gods.) Where does this belief come from and why is the belief so pervasive. In a sense a religion is a lot like a computer virus. Both a religion and a computer virus are self-replicating patterns of ideas. Just as it is the function of a computer virus to replicate itself and spread to other processors, it is the function of a religion to replicate itself and spread to other minds. Different computer viruses carry different payloads. In addition to just spreading themselves, they change the processing of the computers to which they spread. Some computer viruses just spread greetings or a message to other computers, some work more deeply. Some religions carry a positive payload of moral rules with them, some do not. I get rather impatient with religions that do not try to impart some sort of morality similar to my sort of morality. If a religion teaches only that one should believe in God or Jesus or whatever and come together socially for singing once a week, that religion is a parasite on the human intellect. It uses up mental resources and it does not give anything back. If a religion is going to waste all this mental power, it at least should do something more socially useful than to just perpetuate itself.
By far the most popular theory of the origin of a belief in God is the combination of revelation and word-of-mouth. That is that there was a point in ancient times when God revealed Himself to humans. Anybody could look at Him and say, "Oh, of course. That's God." But not everybody could be there at that place and time so the word spread by people telling other people. Some add to the story that God wanted people to get the story right so He inspired people not just to write it down, but personally made sure they got every word right. This was how most religions have got got their own sacred texts. A lot of them add that those sacred texts in other religions are the product of delusion.
My own theory of the origin of religious belief is embodied in the phrase "Our Father who art in Heaven." God really is a parent figure. In the first days of your existence you are learning about the world as fast as you are ever going to be learning. One of the things you probably learn is that there is something big out there that takes care of you. It feeds you when you call to it. It comforts you. It takes care of you. Still later it punishes you when you do wrong and it rewards you when you do what it wants. Later you come to understand what parents are and what your relationship to them is and you dissociate them this concept of the big thing that cares for you. But those first impressions stay with you and you just create for yourself a giant invisible parent in heaven.
All of this brings me to Lewis Wolpert. Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London. He writes a column on science and philosophy for The Independent and his writings have been the basis for a series of programs on the BBC. In an article at the daunting URL http://www.telegraph.co.uk/et?ac=000166941319210&rtmo=VDwS8qkK&atmo=99999999&pg=/et/01/1/25/ecfbelif25.html Wolpert talks about his beliefs. What Wolpert believes is that humans are a species that believes in causality. There is a genetic basis for this belief, Wolpert believes, but that is not important for this discussion. That is just about how the belief gets there. We believe that things that happen have causes that keeps us alive. And we formulate theories for what the causes are. And this theorizing is actually a survival trait. It is not just that we frequently come up with the right causes, but even that we frequently come up with the wrong causes. It is frequently better to have a bad theory than no theory at all. Suppose you are a primitive man. One day as you are crossing a field, a storm comes up and you are nearly hit by lightning. In fact the guy who was walking next to you is now lying dead and smoking on the ground. Pretty scary stuff. How do you react? Well if to you it is just a chance happening, this is a really frightening world. No matter what you do lightning can reach out and kill you. How do you live like that knowing that death can come at any moment and turn you into a fritter. There is a good chance you crawl into you cave and never come out. But the guy in the next cave thinks he knows. He prays to Bajawa, the rock in the middle of the field. He lays some fruit at the foot of Bajawa every day. And he is still around and happy. Suddenly Bajawa has two worshipers not just one. It may be wacky to think that the rock protects people, but it is better it get on with your life with false protection than to give up on living because you have no protection at all.
Wolpert thinks that we dispell deeply held beliefs, even very strange ones, only at our own peril. People with strong beliefs are more healthy and do better under adverse conditions. And with mystical beliefs the less one understands them, the more powerful they are and the more one can explain with them. So there is real survival value in believing in a mystical and unfathomable god. A wrong model of the universe is no worse than having no model at all. [-mrl]
Quote of the Week:
It is easier to fight for one's principles than to live up to them. -- Anonymous