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We want to talk to you about God

A few minutes ago (it's just after 11:00 am on this Wednesday morning, April 18, 2012), I had two very nice ladies come to the door to talk to me about god, the bible, and our place in the universe. They asked me how I was marking this time after the celebration of the lord's resurrection. I explained that I was an atheist and we proceeded to chat for about 10 minutes as they tried to convince me that the universe must have a designer, etc. They asked me how long I had been an atheist and what caused me to abandon my belief in god and his son. I assured them that I simply did not believe that there is such a being as god, or gods for that matter, and that religion was a colossal waste of time.

How then did all this come about, they asked, gesturing to the world around us. I gave a two minute history of the creation of the universe at the time of the Big Bang, the subsequent creation of heavier elements in the death of stars billions of years ago, the eventual collapse of particles into our planet, and the slow, four and a half billion year evolutionary road to us having this discussion.

The older woman, a well spoken elderly lady, had all the classic creationist arguments to science down pat; all wrong, but consistent on message. She tried her best to insert god into the 'gaps' of our scientific knowledge; always a bad idea since the gaps are always getting filled as we know more and more about our world and the laws that govern our universe.

"Don't you feel that there has to be a designer?"

No, I don't. Evolution is a fact.

"So you believe that we came from monkeys."

No, of course not. Monkeys and humans are descended from a common ancestor.

"But evolution says that things get better."

It doesn't necessarily get better. Not all evolutionary changes are good. Good or bad doesn't enter into it and no designer is required for the process to take place.

"You accept that a car is created." Of course. "But if you just leave a car alone, it doesn't evolve. It just decays and rusts and that isn't good."

It isn't bad either. When that tree over there dies, it decays, goes back into the soil and provides nutrients for the life that grows from it.

"So you don't believe in good or evil then?" she asked.

I have no trouble with the concept of good and evil, I explained.

"Then how do you explain the good that people do if it's isn't inspired by god?"

People will be good with or without god. People will be bad in the same way, but they can do terrible things in the name of a god in which they truly believe. Religion, in that way, is responsible for more death, destruction, and horror, than any other force or concept in human history.

At this point, the younger of the two, a middle aged woman who is probably close to my own age, starts flipping through the bible she is holding. The answers aren't there, I assured her. And yes, I had read it. All of it.

"Then you missed a lot of it," she said. "How do you explain the wisdom of the words."

She tried to explain that the answers were in that book she was holding, as 'directed' by god. I explained the fallacy of that belief. It's just a book, I told her, cobbled together over centuries by a variety of people and from a number of different faiths. It only looks like a single volume in that it's pressed between two covers. Much of it is fiction and the parts that aren't are innacurate at best. It's worthless as a guide for life in today's world.  I think I hurt her feelings. She said that I was insulting her. I assured her that no insult was intended, that it was just a book, and that she was free to make fun of or insult any of the hundreds of books in my house. 

We ended with the younger woman asking if there was some reason, some badness in my childhood, that made me 'hate god'. I explained that time, education, and experience had all gone to assure me there simply was no reason for believing in such a being. 

The younger explained that they were here trying to make the world a better place, and here was I was attacking their belief, angry at their being here. "If you don't want to talk to us," she began. If I hadn't wanted to talk to you, I would have sent you on your way as soon as I had noticed the book you were holding. They were very nice, I assured them, and I enjoyed the discussion.

The elderly woman, however, was unflappable, and did her best to address and counter all my arguments as I offered them. It didn't work. In the end, we wished each other a lovely day and they went on their ways.

Times like this, I wish I could hear the discussion that followed our parting.

Intelligent Design's Inferiority Complex

Bad ideas never die. Not without a fight. Like a disease causing bacteria or virus, they are occasionally defeated by Herculean measures, sometimes requiring that the host suffer extensive (but hopefully not fatal) damage or pain in an effort to rid the body of the invader. Sadly, as anyone who has battled serious illness, such as a cancer, the disease does occasionally return to battle anew. Even when the enemy has been defeated, you can never take for granted that it has been permanently eradicated.

So it is with Intelligent Design, or ID. In case you've been away in some place far more enlightened than this little blue-green planet of ours, Intelligent Design is an attempt by the superstitious and fearful to make the creation myth sound more scientific, thereby giving the old fable a sheen of reason.

You have to feel a special kind of pity, or sadness, for the proponents of intelligent design. Somewhere deep inside, they understand that their creation myths are, in today's world, nothing more than childish stories meant for a less enlightened age. So they try to wrap their fables and fairy tales in the scientific equivalent of the Emperor's new clothes. Nothing to see from a scientific perspective but Intelligent Design certainly sounds better than trying to pretend that the universe was created in six days and that a talking snake got the first man and woman thrown out of their all expenses paid five star resort. 

Burdened as they are with a huge weight of low self-esteem, courtesy of their religion, they look for a way to make their faith appear somewhat more modern and relevant in a world where science boldly explores and uncovers age-old mysteries, shedding light into the dark corners of ignorance. Religion, the offspring of ignorance, recoils like a vampyre exposed to sunlight. Intelligent Design seeks to protect this mystic child by suggesting that its existence is entirely compatible with science. 

Intelligent Design says, "science doesn't have all the answers" which is absolutely true. They point to the gaps in our knowledge of life, the universe, and everything, then ask, "how does your science explain these gaps?" They, of course, have an answer, but they don't call him God. That would be playing their hand too early. Instead they propose an "intelligence" that, here and there, tweaked and directed the universe, setting about the engine of creation that gave rise to us. If they can convince you that this intelligence is likely, they might suggest that you give him a name. Like God. Just as a placeholder, mind you.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest to you that the people advocating ID are probably less than honest, even with themselves. Some are, so they say, willing to talk about the Big Bang with the idea that God himself started the whole process, with the endgame being us, of course. What if he just started the universe knowing that someday, we would show up? That would be acceptable as well to a few in the ID crowd. But take note, it's always about them. About us.

Let's pretend for a moment that the universe was in fact created by some intelligence way back even before the Triassic was fashionable. Before the Earth and even our sun was a glimmer in the Milky Way's eye. This intelligence does its work and BANG, the universe is born. Fast forward 14 billion(ish) years and here we are. Do we then accept that this multi-billion year intelligence is somehow worthy of our worship?

Pretend again that this intelligence works for some other intelligence. Is this an acceptable stand-in for God? Do we worship him? Now pretend that this intelligence works for the equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider project and that, in the course of his work, creates a number of universes that blink into existence for a split second, tantalizingly close enough for this intelligence to measure. Then, through the strange nuances of the quantum, these universes retire to their own version of space time, beginning the cycle of creation, birth, death, and evolution, for billions of years until some other intelligence starts to wonder where they came from. Is this technician God? Do we worship him?

The short anwser is no. For a god to be worthy of worship, he has to care about you, and perhaps more importantly, you specifically. It's never about God. It's about the person who feels less than fulfilled if he or she can't imagine some universe and time-spanning being caring deeply about their lowly position in the vastness of space-time.

Belief in God or Intelligent Design, is a rather sad but socially acceptable and supported form of low self-esteem. It's a sanctioned inferiority complex.

Except that you shouldn't feel down. You and I are the products of billions of years of cosmic evolution. In a very real sense, it's even more miraculous to think that you and I are here to discuss these ideas without the need for some father figure in the sky who created us. We have our own mothers and fathers and they had theirs. Life, along with the power to question its origins, is glorious enough without making up stories about a non-existent creator.

And if there was some lab technician in some other universe many billions of years ago who was responsible for getting things going. I'm thankful for your crazy experiment.

But I won't worship you.

We will restore science to its rightful place . . .

Allow me to once more use that word, historic. Yesterday was indeed an historic day as Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States of America. Watching from Canada, where there was never much love for Dubya and his policies, there is much hope for the future under the new President. And a great deal more cautious optimism. During the noontime celebrations, I was busy feeding my son his lunch, so I caught the show later that evening. Even distanced by the sound bites and analysis of the nightly news, it was still powerful to watch. Obama said many things to many people, each person taking away what they felt was important to them. Here is part of what I took away; what drives my hope that real, positive change may well be upon us.

“Our health care is too costly and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

“We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its costs. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.

I've often said that too much technology isn't the problem. The problem is too little, insufficiently mature, technology. For this world to survive, for us, the human race, to survive, curiosity and science needs to grow and to thrive. Sadly, curiosity and science have been under sustained attack by ignorance, superstition, and that fear that accompanies both.

As Edmund Leach said in his 1968 book, "Runaway World",

Men have become like gods. Isn't it about time that we understood our divinity? Science offers us total mastery over our environment and over our destiny, yet instead of rejoicing we feel deeply afraid. Why should this be? How might these fears be resolved?

The answer to those last two questions is this. Embrace curiosity and science. Learn. Bury those twin demons of ignorance and superstition. Rejoice in every new understanding, and each new discovery. Reach forward into the future with bold optimism and with unrestrained hope.

Obama's words regarding science give me a new hope. In our society, much direction comes from those in positions of power and whatever you may think of this, there is perhaps no higher office on this planet than that of the President of the United States. As George W. Bush so ineptly demonstrated, one person in that position of power, can do an incredible amount of damage. Perhaps the right person can do an incredible amount of good.

Is Barack Obama the right person? I won't claim to have loved every word of Barack Obama's inauguration speech. I didn't. But as I said when I began this post, every person will have walked away with some part of that speech; some part that spoke to them; something that touched them.

Science is the vanguard of human achievement. It is our future. I sincerely hope that the President truly understands that.

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There is no such thing as “Islamophobia.” This is a term of propaganda designed to protect Islam from the forces of secularism by conflating all criticism of it with racism and xenophobia.

Sam Harris