Reason v faith

Reason v faith

Let us assume for just a moment or two that there is an omniscient and omnipotent Creator God who, in some magically unfathomable manner, constructed the universe from nothing – just Himself. How is that different from the Big Bang theory which, because of a growing appreciation of Quantum mechanics, is able to hypothesise the creation of everything from nothing but the Quantum Field? The work of Lawrence Krauss and Jim Al-Khalili exemplify this approach.

But I digress; so there’s this universe miraculously created by God. What is it like? At the most recent count it appears to be constituted by no fewer than 150 billion galaxies (that’s 15 with 13 noughts), and each galaxy contains countless billions of stars. Owing to the observable ‘red shift’ (a sort of visual Doppler effect) it is observable that not only is the universe expanding it is accelerating in its expansion; which means that we’re never going to see more of the universe than we can see today. Arguably, we would have seen an even more numerous universe 10,000 years ago – when some godly creation myths were formulated.

This also means that we cannot see the whole universe, only that part whose light manages to travel to our little home in an outer arm of the Milky Way galaxy. It is this fact that allows cosmologists to date the universe at 13.7 billion years because beyond that time horizon the universe is ever hidden from our view.

Owing to the steady growth of cosmic knowledge some cosmologists are now considering what might have preceded the Big Bang. Ideas associated with super massive black holes, or concepts like the ‘Big Bounce’ are being worked upon, and these ideas are fascinating. The Big Bounce concept has an echo in the ancient Vedic sources – the Veda – which posits a universe which arises, grows, matures and returns to the Big Crunch, from which the next cycle of creation begins; each cycle is called a ‘Day of Brahman’; for purposes of discussion let us be content with the Big Bang of everything from ‘nothing’ but the Quantum Field.

Frank Lloyd Wright, that fabulously talented and egoistical early 20th century American architect – designer of the iconic ‘Falling Water’ in Pennsylvania and Guggenheim Museum in NYC – was once asked if he believed in God and he answered ‘Yes, but I spell it n-a-t-u-r-e.’ He was brought up in the Unitarian Church via his Welsh aunts. What is clear from the truly fantastic numbers of galaxies and stars is that n-a-t-u-r-e is nothing if not abundant. In fact it is in essence universally superabundant.

This superabundance is observable on earth. Take any large deciduous tree; how many leaves will it generate each year? Millions (probably if it’s a Tamarind tree)? Hundreds of thousands certainly! And each leaf is unique; there are no two leaves which are exactly identical and yet they are recognisably from a single source – the tree – in which they share sameness, their unity is undeniable. Similarly, it is said that every ice crystal is unique; it is recognisably hexagonal in form as this is the molecular form of frozen water, but no two crystals are identical, their forms are infinite.

So, the superabundance is undeniable as too is the unity or sameness which runs through each existent entity. There are now 7 billion human beings on earth and each is unique yet identifiably human, irrespective of skin colour or racial type. This being the case, concepts of reincarnation must be brought into question; for with a fixed number of ‘souls’ with which to work how can we account for a burgeoning growth in human numbers? Aliens? Animals ‘earning’ a human birth? Moreover heaven and hell must be getting pretty full by now.

Proof of the existence of God

The number of human beings is surely simply a reflection of nature’s superabundance and at this moment in the history of the world man’s ability to adapt to his environment is such that humanity is now beginning to press upon the ceiling of the ability of the globe to provide the raw materials to maintain life and is polluting the environment beyond correction. On this tiny globe the superabundance of nature is being tested and this pressure will increase until quite naturally human numbers balance to a mutually nourishing relationship between mankind and its nurturing environment, or there will be mass extinction. (Or the Islamists get their wish and begin World War 3!)

Given this superabundance why would ‘God’ be interested in this tiny little planet which is barely visible even from the edge of the Solar System (as Voyager demonstrated)? More importantly, why would ‘He’ be interested in the morality of any one human being? With such amazing superabundance and the countless billions of locations in the universe ‘He’ could afford to be entirely cavalier about every human life, as He is about non-believers or ‘infidels’ according to the OT and the Qur’an. But for ‘believers’ even every hair on their head is counted by this amazing entity: God.

Part of the problem is the term ‘Creation’ itself; to the simple-minded it presupposes a ‘Creator’, and is simply a self-fulfilling concept. So, can ‘creation’ take place without a ‘creator’? Of course it can; Marcel Duchamp and Jackson Pollock devoted themselves to art created by accident or happenstance, and even just ‘found art’. Or consider emotion; who or what creates emotional responses? Why are some people full of compassion and others sociopaths or even psychopaths? Because God?

There are two excellent terms available for use instead of ‘Creation’; the first is ‘cosmos’ having the etymology from Latinized form of Greek kosmos “order, good order, orderly arrangement.” So cosmos means ‘an ordered, harmonious whole, or harmony and order as distinct from chaos’ (Online Dictionary). Or there is the word ‘universe’ having overtones of unity or singleness. Neither of these concepts requires the existence or presence of a ‘Creator’. Problem solved.

As Christopher Krzeminski demonstrates in his excellent book ‘What are you without God?’ religion rests on two wholly untestable ideas: the first is that the metaphysical or numinous is real and exists beyond perception and secondly that faith is preferable to reason as only faith can access the ‘truth’, albeit that reason is a necessary prelude to faith. Faith is necessary because ultimately mind cannot transcend sin to access the truth, which by definition is beyond human understanding anyway. Thus the faithful are malleable in the hands of religious authorities, who are but men who egotistically claim even greater faith.

Interestingly, the Brihadāranyaka Upanishad – one of the ten principle Vedic Upanishads – states quite clearly that man is above the gods because ‘man creates the gods’. The Vedas are not interested in gods but in the singularity of unity as the underlying reality, in the realisation that life is both multiple and unified simultaneously; i.e. Cosmic or harmonious.

Pope John Paul in his encyclical ‘Fides et Ratio’ (Faith and Reason – some twelve years in the writing) recognises the importance of reason to the BIG questions and to philosophy generally, but ultimately he says that faith must trump reason, because only faith can access the ‘truth’. It was a bold try at harmonisation but a failure owing to the metaphysical nature of ‘truth’. The fact is there is no ‘truth’, or any truth that can be spoken without invoking God, the metaphysical or the numinous.

But the encyclical does extol wisdom; a word which compounds ‘wid’ and ‘doom’ and literally means ‘the law of (pure) knowledge’ and comes to mean ‘the ability to discern or judge what is true, right, or lasting; insight.’ An example of ordinary knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, whereas wisdom requires not putting it into a trifle. The important thing about wisdom is that it is a special form of knowledge, one that incorporates experience. A biblical example is Solomon’s decision to cut the baby in two when claimed by two competing women and naturally he gives it to the mother who wouldn’t hear of the baby being bisected.

Another word for knowledge is ‘science’ from the Latin ‘scio’ ‘to know’. It follows then that wisdom presupposes science. Looked at another way, any philosophy for the 21st century must factor-in such concepts as quantum physics, the theory of evolution, modern cosmology, the mathematics of chaos (which Jim Al-Khalili calls the mathematics of evolution and was only revealed because of the availability of the supercomputer) and so on and it must do so reasonably and logically.

This being the case the question must arise what is the attraction of religion to so many? I would suggest that at the heart of this persistence lies poor education, the sort of education that allows people to say ‘my idea is as good as yours’ when it palpably is not so in the majority of instances. Another reason for the persistence is indoctrination and a third is simple preference: the believer wants to believe in the face of all evidence to the contrary. It is a desire for the fantastical or the magical because there is a deep seated desire that existence be that way. Such people completely miss the awesomeness of existence here on earth, rather they see it as a ‘vale of tears’ and they can’t leave quickly enough to spend eternity in ‘paradise’ with their Redeemer or Prophet. I can only say to such people: ‘good riddance, here’s the door’.

Despite Pope John Paul’s attempt to harmonise reason and faith, through the claim that reason is an integral element in faith, the faithful continue to reject reason, to reject evidence, to reject palaeontology, to reject logic, to reject science. They prefer their phantasmagorical and groundless belief in the totally unprovable metaphysical transcendent reality because: ‘faith’.

In Europe, atheism is well established. There is a joke in England: ‘Are you religious?’ ‘Yes, I am a member of the Church of England.’ ‘Oh, so you’re not religious then?’ In the UK church-going is limited to a tiny fraction of the population and society is the better for it (although there is a worrying growth in ‘charismatic’ Christianity among immigrant communities). There is measurably greater happiness and less criminal activity in countries with little religious manifestation. Whereas in America the opposite seems to be the case; it is said that an atheist could never become President of the United States and when the antics of the Tea Party and right-wing Republican GOP (Growth & Opportunity Program) are taken into account that seems an all too plausible and worrying claim.

Edmund Burke famously said ‘All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.’ This post has been written as a tiny part of the clarion call for all people of reason and compassion to stand up and be counted and thereby undermine the fantasists who would rule us all in the name of God or Allah. *Shudder*

If you have been, thanks for listening.

Stephen Coulson



  1. ZoeJenB said:

    “…only faith can access the ‘truth’. It was a bold try at harmonisation but a failure owing to the metaphysical nature of ‘truth’. The fact is there is no ‘truth’, or any truth that can be spoken without invoking God, the metaphysical or the numinous.”

    This reminds me of a story that may amuse you: fifteen-odd years ago whilst doing Eng.Lit. at university I signed up for a course run jointly by the English and Theology departments entitled ‘The Bible as Literature’.

    To my way of thinking this just automatically read as ‘The Bible as Fiction’ (I would be flitting from Sherlock Holmes to Elizabeth Bennet to Jesus – just a regular week’s work right?) – but therein lay my error.
    This course attracted out-and-proud Christian students from several faculties, none of whom were actually studying Theology, and all of whom were very eager to sit about discussing the Bible in earnest terms (strictly no analysis or questioning please!) and calling it ‘work’.

    I remember a particularly heated argument – me against all the others – about the idea in your quote above, that we could never ‘know’ or ‘possess’ Godly truth, and as mortals could not even speak of it because: metaphysics.
    I pointed out that if God was so inherently Godly that you couldn’t even speak of him, then you would never be able to communicate with other people about God, and that would effectively mean that you would never have any organised religion which would of course mean that you couldn’t be a Christian. They were very offended.

    They said it was a metaphor. I said a) it isn’t – you believe it literally and b) it was smart of God to make himself just metaphorical enough to elusive and unprovable, yet still figurative enough to allow us to use words to describe him so that we can spread his word (even if we can’t totally know what the word is because we can’t grasp it…) They were very offended.

    Then I said that even if you stop short of using the word ‘fiction’ (I didn’t, I used it repeatedly) nevertheless by the very acknowledgement that it is ‘literature’ you are engendering a debate about the function of those who literally sat down at their desks to write it. Human men. Were they capable of grasping the Truth behind the literal metaphor that isn’t an oxymoron because ‘metaphysics’, or not? I’m confused – where would a monk figure in on the scale of mortal -> enlightened enough to tell of God -> God himself, sole possessor of the Truth.
    They were very offended.

    Interestingly enough the teacher, who was a theologian, liked me (felt really sorry for me maybe?) and I did get a good grade 🙂 Just thinking more about that last point above, and about the title ‘The Bible as Literature’ actually opens some really interesting doors in my mind sitting here today, it’s fascinating to consider the process by which the books were actually written, but of course it’s only fascinating if you take the actual religious people right out of the conversation, because their mad ideas about it all being true and magic and their propensity to get alarmingly offended disallow for de-constructing how the thing came to be scribed. You’d think that if you’re going to live your life according to it you might want to understand more about where it actually came from – people won’t buy eggs these days without the name of the farm on the box.

    Sorry for clogging your comments with memory lane, this just really resonated, which I hope you take as a compliment!
    Keep up the excellent work, see you soon on Twitter 🙂

    • Clog away Jen, one of the reasons for deciding to ‘blog’ in the first place was not self-advertisement but to enter into discussion/debate. I love the cut and thrust of debate just as much as you clearly do, judging by your mini-memoire. And what you raise is interesting because when the early ‘spiritual’ tomes were written – the Upanishads, the OT – most communication was oral. The story-teller remains an important cultural institution in some parts of the world even today and maybe most people couldn’t then read or write. Some teachers suggest that the act of writing something down marks a loss of global consciousness as people lost the attention span to simply listen, and so the appearance of ‘literature’ is a sign of dumbing-down. (I don’t personally subscribe to this view).

      The opening words of St John’s Gospel is intriguing in this connection: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God’ which gives rise to the notion that the universe was ‘spoken’ into existence. Quantum physicists suggest that owing to the absence of time and space prior to the Big Bang (the Word?) it occurred everywhere all at once, in other words it had no location, and this is apparently how the universe appears – that everywhere the universe is expanding but without a ‘centre’. I love the mystery in all this and the absence of certainty.

      Believers destroy this by their desire for certainty, and the more doubt they experience the more certain they become of the ‘truth’ of the old books and the stronger their ‘faith’ has to grow. It’s a sort of mass ‘sticking one’s head in the sand’ on the basis that ‘if I can’t see the uncertainty the uncertainty can’t see me’.

      Thank you Zoe for taking the time to read the post and for sharing your thoughts, and I’ll certainly see you on that crazy smorgasbord we know and love called Twitter. xoxox 🙂

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