Sunday, 15 May 2005

Does God exist?

Does God exist? I find that question particularly hard to answer because so far nobody seems to have a good, solid definition of who or what God is. Is God the guy who slaughtered the entire human and animal population of the world except for the contents of one large boat, and who killed every first born of Egypt simply because they were born before their siblings? Or is it the loving, caring and forgiving deity described in Jesus’ parables? Surely they can’t be one and the same! Or maybe he’s Zeus who flings lightning as a preferred weapon and enjoys dallying with mortal women, much to Hera’s annoyance and leading to her eventual retribution against the poor human girls who were merely obeying God’s demands. It’s already impossible to disprove the existence of a god who lives somewhere in “heaven” (wherever that is) but is otherwise invisible and undetectable, without the added difficulty of having to choose which of these myriad gods one is supposed to disprove.

On the other hand of course, it should be very easy for any respectable deity to prove his or her own existence. Literature is replete with ancient stories about gods making spectacular appearances, opening up seas, bringing down walls, causing the sun to freeze its journey across the sky, raising people from the dead, dallying with mortal girls who then give birth to superheroes or demigods, and so on. Yet unfortunately that’s the only thing we have to “prove” God’s existence – old stories. It seems that in more recent times the best that God can do is make his face appear in a toasted cheese sandwich (later sold on eBay) and in rainwater stains on a concrete overhead-road support (also in the US). Of course every religion has god stories, and some can be pretty good too. The Odyssey is a fascinating tale of battling against one-eyed giants, sea gods with a personal grudge, monsters on either side of a narrow strait, of courage and loyalty, sex and violence and so on. So why is it that one is expected to believe the stories in one book (say, the Bible) but discount the stories of all other faiths as "mythology"?

Some people point to “miracles” as proof that God listened to, and answered their prayers. The problem here is that believers in every religion can point to similar stories of prayers being answered, not to mention the countless prayers in all religions that seem to fall on deaf or inexistent ears. Even atheists get their wishes fulfilled sometimes despite not having prayed to anyone, and the most interesting thing is that statistically, it doesn’t appear that Christians, or Hindus, or Satanists, or Atheists, have a higher proportion of wishes/prayers come true than any other group - although that depends on how high your expectations are. You can cross your fingers, close your eyes and make a wish to the fairy queen for all the effect it’s going to have. You get many people thanking God for recovering from some illness, easily forgetting the efforts made by medical staff to effect the cure. Students spend countless nights cramming as much data before their exams, but then attribute their passes to God up in the sky. Surely the studying part had something to do with it. According to the gospel of Matthew (16:17-19), one can recognise true believers by their ability to drink deadly poisons and experience no harm at all. Now I'd never dream of asking anyone to prove their faith in this manner, but I'm pretty confident that, if this test were applied, there would be few left alive who claim the title "believer". I think it says much about "the faithful" that they pick and choose which verses to follow or apply, and which to silently ignore or sweep under the carpet. For instance, Catholics tend to be opposed to divorce because they think that Jesus was resolutely against it. Yet in Matt. 5:32, he makes an exception in the case of marital unfaithfulness. Now there's something you rarely hear about in Catholic anti-divorce propaganda. Shouldn't the Vatican approve of divorce if either of the spouses can prove that adultery took place, considering that Jesus himself said so? I doubt that many Catholics are even aware of the verse. While Jesus is usually portrayed as peace-loving, that didn't stop him, in Luke 22:36, from ordering his followers to take what money they had and buy swords, selling their cloaks if they had to. Then there are of course those chapters which have haunted the Christian conscience for ages, like the ten plagues of Egypt - terrible punishments meted to the ordinary Egyptian citizens despite the fact that it had been God who hardened Pharaoh's heart each time, and despite the fact that the Egyptians were all in favour of letting the Hebrews go. So unjust is this account that Cecil B. Demille couldn't bear it, and in The Ten Commandments invented a woman, Nefertiri, just so he could blame her for hardening Pharaoh's heart.

So why did these gods get invented? I think the main reason is that mankind, having evolved to use its intelligence as its primary strength and curiousity as a potent tool towards gaining knowledge, has always felt a strong need to have an explanation for everything. We see lightning flash across the sky and we need to give it an explanation. By explaining it we feel superior to it. It does not bother us so much if the explanation is shaky at best, because even a wrong explanation is better than none at all to our insatiable curiosity. Thus lightning was attributed to Zeus, and further north, thunder was attributed to Thor swinging his hammer around and hitting stuff. Storms in all cultures were attributed to gods having a temper tantrum because, frankly, storms evoke the image of someone who’s angry. As human knowledge grew, we got better and more accurate explanations for these phenomena. Lightning, we realised, was the product of static electricity building up in storm clouds, and suddenly we no longer needed Zeus, or any other deity, as an explanation for them. The lightning gods had served their purpose and were discarded, sad byproducts of the human quest for knowledge. The Christian God was not totally unaffected. We no longer see a rainbow and think of it as a post-it note placed by a forgetful God to remind himself not to slaughter everything that moves. For a long time many Christians strongly resisted the introduction of teachings such as the idea that the earth orbits the sun, or that life evolved from simpler forms, or that the universe is actually older than Mnajdra Temples, since they believed that they contradicted the Bible’s teachings. In some ("first world") countries many are still trying to resist these concepts, fearing to admit they were wrong in anything lest it leads people to doubt other things, like the church's hierarchy of authority.

There are however a number of topics which science will not or can not approach, and in these areas the gods are relatively safe. For instance, what must we do to get a good seat in the afterlife? Since the afterlife, the soul and the gods are not something we can detect, measure, poke or prod, it’s safe to say that science cannot and probably never will be able to pronounce itself on these issues. As long as one sticks to things like these, one can rest assured that these things can either be proved true, or remain a mystery forever but can never be utterly disproved. Perhaps the best plan is to keep such things as personal matters, between the individual, their co-faithful and any gods that may or may not exist. It's only when these religious beliefs get transposed into laws which affect everybody, or infiltrate other secular matters that things tend to turn nasty. We've quite a lot of history to teach us what happens when religion and government get too intimate. We can see the death toll today as AIDS ravages Africa while the Catholic Cardinals and Archbishops gleefully continue teaching their faithful never to use condoms, even if they know they are HIV-positive. Keep religion where it belongs, in the church and in one's mind and conscience, and the world will be a happier place.

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