Since his debut back in May 25, Amanuel Sahle has enriched Awate.com with several eloquent and highly readable articles. In its introductory piece, Awate.com said about him that “he spends most of his time reading on and writing about social and philosophical issues”. What awate.com failed to mention is that he also doubles as a staunch critic of religion. In almost every article he wrote, Amanuel consciously and deliberately challenges us to rethink or reevaluate our views on religion and he does so not offensively or aggressively (I am happy to note) but with a finesse and style that seems to sprout from a mind that has contemplated such issues deeply and for some time. I have also pondered over the issue over the years though mine, unlike his, led me to faith and appreciation of religion.
My goal in this article will be to invite Amanuel to look at the other side of the issue a little less rigidly, a little more humbly, and a little more openly. Humility is of the utmost importance because despite grandiose notions we have of ourselves and despite our best efforts, we (humans) have consistently failed to decode the universe on our own. To date, no scientist or philosopher has been able to prove conclusively that atheism is true or preferable. Even Bertrand Russell, the most vehement critic of religion (particularly of Christianity) had to concede that there is no “conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God”. Nor can theologians prove God’s existence to the satisfaction of atheists. In other words, scientifically we can neither prove nor disprove conclusively the existence of God. A true position of a scientist should therefore be a Spock-like assertion: “insufficient data”.
Not only do we lack the wherewithal to decode ultimate reality scientifically but what we don’t know is also infinitely greater than what we do know. “Nothing is rich but the inexhaustible wealth of nature” Emerson once said about the natural world “she shows us only surfaces, but she is a million fathoms deep”. Compared to the dazzling expanse of the cosmos or universe, we are but a mere speck with an over-sized ego. How beautifully Shakespeare depicts this human vanity when he penned!
“Man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he ’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep”
Yes, we are full of “fantastic tricks” that help us build cities, armies, flying machines and talking machines but like a kid with a new toy, we are also wont to flaunt our knowledge not realizing that we remain “most ignorant” even of what we are “most assured”! Man can walk on the moon yes but despite his intimate knowledge of the inner working of the human body, a trifling ailment like the common cold eludes and teases him endlessly as if to make a mockery of all his achievements not to speak of grand failures in curing the big killers like cancer, diabetes and a host of other incurable diseases man is heir to. It seems that for every advance in science that massages our ego, something like an AIDS virus comes along to deflate it of all air.
That is why sober scientists almost unanimously acknowledge that we have barely scratched the surface in deciphering the universe. Carl Sagan, the famous Astrophysicist and cosmologist, for example wrote about the “limitations of our sense organs” and about how “the universe is intractable, astonishingly immune to any human attempt at full knowledge.” “We cannot on this level” he adds significantly “understand a grain of salt, much less the universe.” Lord Rees, the English cosmologist and astrophysicist agrees saying that “some aspects of reality — a unified theory of physics or a full understanding of consciousness — might elude us simply because they’re beyond human brains, just as surely as Einstein’s ideas would baffle a chimpanzee”.
We must therefore begin our inquiry by first acknowledging our own ignorance and limitations. I hope Amanuel will concede to at least that much because without such a concession, a discussion would be impossible and futile. Assuming then that a more humble and less presumptuous Amanuel has just come aboard, what can we say about his critique of religion? If Amanuel had been content with merely stating his beliefs or if his contention had been that full knowledge of God and reality is beyond reason, I would find little to quarrel with him. Understanding the concept of God or religious faith in its entirety is certainly beyond reason but this is not the same thing as saying, it is against reason. Reason alone cannot fully penetrate the mysterious realm of eternity and infinite being. That is where religion comes in. Religion or faith alone is inadequate to sustain us in the material world. That is where reason or science is needed.
But for Amanuel, religion is not just unscientific or unreasonable in itself but it is also incompatible with reason. “Marconi has invented the radio not by hovering above reason”, he tells us “but by getting down to reason and abiding by its laws” and as if to drive the point home even more for those who may not have gotten the essence of his message, he declares bluntly but eloquently:
“In the world of metaphysics to which religion belongs, reason drops dead out of exhaustion, logic regrets its creation and intelligence groans for release and freedom. Well, while in this mortal world, I prefer to rely more on my reasoning powers than in my believing faculties.”
I too want to rely on my “reasoning powers” but can do so without abandoning my faith. In the above sweepingly categorical statements, Amanuel unjustifiably creates a false dichotomy between reason and faith by constructing an either/or logical syllogism. He is telling us that reason cannot survive an encounter with religious faith (“drops dead”). But to what extent – we need to ask – do his statements accord with the objective world as we know it historically and in real time? In other words, does belief in God or religion really prevent (or has it ever prevented) people from using their “reasoning powers” and vice versa?
No. Of course not! Though I wouldn’t expect a radio to suddenly popup in response to my prayers, I can still pray to God for success in the endeavor while I simultaneously strive to invent that radio using reason. We are talking about religion in general here but the argument is even stronger in the case of Islam in history. If faith really drove away reason, how can we account for Islamic civilization that sprouted out of faith? Islamic civilization not only practically demonstrated that reason and religion can coexist in this world but also that such a union can lead to excellence in science and philosophy. Belief in religion or a supernatural being neither detracts nor adds anything to our reasoning faculties.
Another way to examine the topic is to flip the coin and ask: did those who use reason lose faith in religion? The answer will again be no. Modern monotheism that continues to thrive in the most advanced nations of earth and among highly reputed scientific personalities of our age belies such a dichotomous presupposition. Though as we have said earlier the mysterious realm of religion cannot be fully comprehended by reason alone, many people (including some outstanding intellects in history) have come to some faith in God through reason.
Francis Bacon, who is generally credited with the establishment of the Scientific method, for example believed that “a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.” In a similar vein, William James, the father of modern psychology, maintained that “Faith is one of the forces by which men live and the total absence of it means collapse.” Isaac Newton was a firm believer in God. So was the German physicist Max Planck, founder of Quantum Theory. Francis Collins, current director of NIH is another believing scientist.
Voltaire that Amanuel quoted in one of his articles as having said “even if there is no God, we have to invent Him” believed in God. Amanuel was paraphrasing him of course but the exact quote is: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”. Oddly, fourteen years ago, I used the same quotation by Voltaire to argue the opposite – to prove that Voltaire saw so much value in religion that he felt that even inventing God wouldn’t be so bad but Voltaire himself believed in God as is evident from the following story.
It is related that when Voltaire was on his death bed, a catholic priest came to read him his last rites. Voltaire jokingly requested to see credentials that prove that the priest was indeed a representative of God on earth. The priest was infuriated, cursed him and left. Voltaire then dictated to his secretary one of the most memorable quotes in history as follows.
‘I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies and detesting superstition.’
In a manner analogues to Voltaire’s “if God didn’t exist…” Immanuel Kant (who is considered a watershed character in the transition between the Enlightenment period and modern secularism) postulated that even if we cannot demonstrate the value of religion on the basis of theoretical thought alone, we desperately need to do so on the basis of practical consideration. I do not necessarily agree with his purely utilitarian approach to religion but he makes an important observation that man without religion is like a dog without a leash and as we have seen in the twentieth century, man’s inhumanity to man was at its worst ever when the restraint that religion provided for centuries was suddenly taken away.
Estranged from religions that often taught humility and mutual respect, it didn’t take long for man to progress (degenerate may be a better word) from social Darwinism to Nietzsche’s superman to Hitler. Dubbed the bloodiest ever, the twentieth century (during which atheism thrived) was not just about invention of airplanes and automobiles but also about World Wars, imperialism, colonialism, genocides, anti-Semitism, racism, and a host of other countless evils.
Humanity longs for definite answers not a dry list of theories or a bunch of maybe’s. Science’s ambiguity has led many to ask in consternation: are we all looking to emptiness beyond – a brief sojourn on earth and then dust? Man’s very nature instinctively recoils from such bleak scenario. Reason or science is unable to quench this primordial hunger. Religion on the other hand provides an answer that is both satisfying and nourishing to man’s spiritual quest. Though admittedly unable to prove scientifically its own truth to the satisfaction of all, religion’s accord with human yearning gives it certain plausibility and utility that science lacks. That is why religion has always been popular and that is also why its absence resulted in more chaos.
Reason dies (if it does) not because of a metaphysical assault from above as Amanuel contends but from its own inability to fathom the totality of being. Reason dies because of the profound emptiness that ensues when reason is divorced from faith. Though man has reached great heights materially when faith waned, he soon realized that the pinnacle is lonely when human life is divorced from the fervor, ecstasy and passion that are derived only from spiritual experience.
Religions survived millenniums for this reason and still thrive today all over the world while Communist Russia, the first state that was built upon the altar of atheism would collapse within a single century! Communism is not synonyms to atheism but it represents the first multi-pronged attack on religion that almost seemed to succeed. Communism is not the only materialistic based philosophy that failed in modern times. We have seen similar failures of materialistic philosophy in many other areas including in the areas of psychiatry and psychology. Freud’s wild theories about religion as “universal neurosis” for example have been totally discredited. Today we wonder if he himself was not under some kind of enlightened neurosis.
If atheism could at least make us happier or healthier on this earth, it would score some points. But atheism neither provides heaven on earth nor promises it in the after-life. Religion does. Modern research has shown that the faithful are physically healthier and happier than atheists or agnostics. Time Magazine(1996), for example, notes: “More than 200 studies that touch directly or indirectly on the role of religion have been ferreted out by Levin of Eastern Virginia and Dr. David Larson … Most of these studies offer evidence that religion is good for one’s health.”
Modern research has also shown that the faithful are psychologically healthier. A 2009 study by University of Toronto Scarborough for example showed that religion protects against stress and anxiety. Numerous other studies have shown that religious people are also less prone to high blood pressure, drug abuse, alcoholism, divorce, suicide, mental illnesses, and teenage pregnancy. Even in the areas of marital and sexual satisfaction, religious people fare better than atheists according to some studies. It is this preponderance of overwhelming evidence of the positive effect of religion on overall health and wellbeing that led Dr. Benson to glibly assert that human beings are (or must be) “wired for God”!
Thus neither historically nor empirically can we say that religion is an impediment to the use of reason. Nor can we embrace it for purely utilitarian reasons or for its value to humanity. I therefore respectfully plead with Amanuel not to belittle religion in the name of reason or science. I suggest instead that he take a second look at the grand cosmos with a heart full of awe and wonder. What the universe unfolds is not just a bunch of “nuclear infernos” or “emptiness yonder” or a lifeless celestial body as Amanuel put it but the handiwork of a master designer who knew exactly what He was doing. In the words of Newton: “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.” Shouldn’t we at least be thankful to the Almighty for lovingly and protectively placing us far, far away from those raging infernos?