The hidden god hypothesis

Believers in god are usually willing to acknowledge that they have no convincing empirical evidence for the existence of god. But at the same time, the claim is made that god could reveal himself/herself any time he/she chose. So why is god’s presence hidden?

People who believe in god invariably explain this with one version or the other of a ‘mysterious ways clause’ (MWC), which argues that god has good reasons for keeping his presence hidden from us and that our mind are too puny to understand the reasons or that he has deemed that we are not yet ready to receive these truths. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that this is essentially a get-out-of-jail-free card to wriggle out of a tight situation. The very fact that you have to invoke such an escape clause should be a strong indication that there is no rational reason to believe in god.

One argument that is often brought forward is that the personal experiences that people have had of god’s presence is evidence of god’s presence, and that just because this kind of evidence does not meet the standards demanded by science does not mean it is not valid. Such people argue that they have had some personal experience of god in their lives and this is evidence enough for god’s existence.

There is a problem with this argument in that it seems to lead to a logical contradiction. Either god wants us to show us that he exists or does not. If god wants to be reveal himself, then why does he tease us with these tantalizing glimpses? Why not simply come out with definitive proof? I have already stated what kind of proof would be really convincing to anyone. God could take over all the TV stations worldwide and announce that next Tuesday, starting at noon, the Earth would stop spinning for 24 hours, so that we would have a 48-hour day. If that happened, I don’t see how anyone could dispute god’s existence. The Bible says that it has been done before (the stopping the Earth’s rotation part, not the TV broadcast of course). In fact, most religions proudly claim that god has shown herself directly to the world in the past. For Christians and Jews, for example, all the miracles of the Old and New Testaments, and the whole story of Jesus’s resurrection, are supposed to be revelations of god, so clearly god was not always interested in hiding his existence. Why would a god who long ago seemed perfectly willing to reveal himself time and time again suddenly become coy now?

Some believers try to produce empirical evidence for god. One sees occasional excitement around experiments to test the existence of god by seeing if (say) prayer is effective. For example, in 2001 there was the much publicized Columbia University Medical Center study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Reproductive Medicine that, based on a sample of 219 women in Korea, claimed to show that infertile women who were prayed for became pregnant at twice the rate of those not prayed for. The statistical significance was p=0.0013 (meaning that such a result was likely to occur by chance in less that 13 occasions out of 10,000, which is better than the usual standard of p<0.05 which is considered acceptable for sociological and medical studies, but is much worse than the standard for physics experiments which is p<0.0001.) This result was trumpeted as 'proof' of the efficacy of prayer and thus implied that is was also a proof of god.

But it soon became clear that there were serious problems with the protocols of the study, and subsequently the lead author of the paper Rogerio Lobo, who was head of the Columbia University department of obstetrics and gynecology, said that he had not been even aware of the study until six months after it had been completed and withdrew his name from the paper. It turned out that a second author of the study Daniel Wirth is a lawyer who had elsewhere claimed evidence for faith healing. He was later imprisoned for fraud in an unrelated matter. The third author Kwang Cha is also a businessman who owns fertility clinics in Los Angeles and Seoul. He left Columbia University and refuses to talk about the study. He was later also accused of plagiarism in another paper by the editor of that journal. (See God: The Failed Hypothesis, Victor J. Stenger, 2007, p. 96 for more details.)

Given the strong desire of religious people to find evidence for god, one sees these kinds of prayer studies repeated all the time, and on occasion even produce positive results. A study reported in the British Medical Journal in 2001 said that praying for patients reduced their length of stay in hospital (p=0.01) and duration of infections (p=0.04). But another study by Duke University, a three-year, double-blind one published in 2005, found no significant effect of prayer in improving patient recovery. Yet another study, published in 2006, of people scheduled to undergo coronary bypass surgery also found no beneficial effect for intercessory prayer. In fact, the group of patients who knew they were being prayed for actually did worse. (See Stenger, p. 99-102 for more details.)

The media are quick to seize on initial reports of the possible scientific evidence for god, but not as enthusiastic when more careful analysis reveals that there was nothing there after all.

But my puzzlement with these kinds of exercises is more basic. Why would god choose to signal his presence on the very edges of statistical significance? Even someone sympathetic to the idea of god would have to concede that god seems like a shy suitor trying to give out subtle signals of interest without being obvious about it. What’s the point? Why not hide completely or appear openly and unambiguously?

Again, religious believers can appeal to the MWC, that god has a reason that is unknown to us to play peek-a-boo. But at some point use of the MWC becomes overkill. Using it to explain the existence of something big like suffering, to say that suffering is a great mystery, lends a certain grandeur to that particular admission of ignorance. Invoking the MWC to explain little things like the borderline statistical significance of experimental results makes it seem trivial.

POST SCRIPT: Meanwhile, in the other war. . .

Lara Logan reports on waste in Afghanistan.

Does god and religion satisfy other human needs?

In the previous post I listed four possible reasons why religion should not be undermined:

  1. God does exist and there is empirical support in the form of evidence.
  2. God does not exist but believing in god satisfies deep human psychological and emotional needs and that getting rid of those beliefs would lead to people feeling emotionally bereft of support.
  3. Religion and belief in god supplies a foundation for morality and without it we would have lawlessness, anarchy, and general social breakdown.
  4. Religion is a useful tool for the ruling elites that enables them to maintain social order, by convincing oppressed people to accept injustice and inequality as part of a divine plan and defer their wishes for relief until the next life, where they are told they will reap great rewards.

Of the four, only the first argument really justifies preserving religion but it does not hold up. There is no convincing evidence at all that god exists and the only rational thing to do is to give up the belief.

All the other arguments are purely utilitarian, essentially claiming that even if religion is based on a false belief, it still has social value that makes it worth preserving. I hear this argument surprisingly often, so it is worth examining.

As for the second argument, if there is no god, then maintaining a belief in it for emotional psychological reasons makes as much sense as not eventually telling children the truth about the falsity of Santa Claus and fairies because we don’t wish to harm them psychologically. Getting rid of childlike illusions is part of the growth to maturity and it is not clear why religious people need the crutch of god for emotional stability even into adulthood. Surely they would be psychologically stronger for facing up to the world as it is than in believing in something fake? An adult who grows up still believing in Santa Claus is much more vulnerable emotionally, and doomed to perpetual disappointment, than someone who grows up realizing that there is no mysterious gift-giver who is periodically going to give them what they want. As George Bernard Shaw: “The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”

The third argument, that religion and belief in god supplies a foundation for morality and without it we would have lawlessness, anarchy, and general social breakdown, has been countered so often and so effectively by others that I will not address it again. I described some of the arguments against this position earlier.

The fourth and final reason for upholding religion is that it is a useful tool for the ruling elites that enables them to maintain social order, by convincing oppressed people to accept injustice and inequality as part of a divine plan and defer their wishes for relief until the next life, where they are told they will reap great rewards.

This is the most crass and is completely indefensible and will be rejected by well-meaning religious believers. But I think that it is the real reason why religion has survived so long in the face of overwhelming evidence for its falsity. State patronage has served religion well. Rulers realized long ago that you cannot rule forever using just force and fear alone. People have to accept that a few are meant to rule and that the majority has to accept being ruled by the minority. People have to accept that their ethnic group/tribe/nation is special and that it is morally right to subjugate and exploit other groups/tribes/nations. The god idea serves this purpose exceedingly well. If people can be convinced that everything is according to god’s plan, that it was meant to be that their rulers were destined to rule, then half the battle is won. Those at the suffering end of this arrangement are pacified by being told that they have the consolation of rewards in heaven. In fact, the greater their suffering in this world, the greater the supposed reward, which is a very useful idea for exploiting people even more.

I have written about the useful role that belief in god has played in maintaining systems of oppression here and the cynical way that some non believers support such beliefs to achieve their political ends here.

It really comes down to this fact: If the kind of god most people believe in does not exist, then there is no reason to believe in such a god. It really is as simple as that.

POST SCRIPT: Boneheads on TV

Have you noticed the people in the background on live TV who try to get noticed by doing weird things? Apparently the name for them is “boneheads”. The Australian TV show The Chasers (which has become one of my favorites) challenges Chas to see how many bonehead appearances he can make during an awards show.

Should religion be undermined?

Religion is such a ubiquitous phenomenon, so pervasive in all aspects of people’s lives, that imagining life without it is very difficult. It is like asking an American teenager to imagine life without their cell phone. Not only are people extremely resistant to giving up the idea of god, they also resist giving up qualities they ascribe to god even if those qualities cause severe logical difficulties.

But if we think that belief in god violates reason, should religion be actively undermined? This question, raised by Corbin Covault in his guest post, is not simple to answer. Even if there is no evidence for god, does religion still play a useful role or have some value that makes it a worthwhile belief to support or at least not seek to actively undermine? Or is there something to be gained from actively working to discredit the idea of god, as has been the aim of current best-selling books written by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens? Or should atheists treat religion with benign indifference, the way we treat children’s beliefs in fairies, as harmless illusions, not worth wasting time over, except in those instances where it actively does harm?

I can think of four arguments for the continuance of god and religion:

  1. God does exist and there is empirical support in the form of evidence.
  2. God does not exist but believing in god satisfies deep human psychological and emotional needs and that getting rid of those beliefs would lead to people feeling emotionally bereft of support.
  3. Religion and belief in god supplies a foundation for morality and without it we would have lawlessness, anarchy, and general social breakdown.
  4. Religion is a useful tool for the ruling elites that enables them to maintain social order, by convincing oppressed people to accept injustice and inequality as part of a divine plan and defer their wishes for relief until the next life, where they are told they will reap great rewards.

Let me start out by saying that I think only the first reason is sufficient cause for keeping religion. If there is no empirical evidence for god, then we should unequivocally say so and work towards the elimination of such beliefs, just as we dismiss the claims of astrology and belief in ghosts and other similar phenomena. As soon as you start saying that some evidence-free beliefs need to be sheltered from criticism, you lay yourself wide open to special pleading by every charlatan, such as crystal-ball gazers, card readers, faith healers, spoon benders and others who take advantage of the shelter provided by the privileges accorded to religion to ply their trade. They too can say they provide services to meet the emotional and psychological needs of people, such as getting people in contact with their dead loved ones. If you are a person who believes in god, then I am not sure on what basis you can criticize these other groups since the kinds of evidence they invoke is of the same kind that religious people use.

Of course, people should be free to believe anything they want. But I am saying that believers should not feel that they occupy some privileged place in the space of public discourse where only genteel and mild criticisms can be made. I am not suggesting, of course, that such beliefs and the people who hold them should be subject to verbal abuse. What I am saying is that the only standard that applies to them is the same that we apply to any other beliefs, and religious beliefs, especially mainstream one, should not be granted immunity from very close scrutiny and sharply-worded criticisms. So if it is acceptable in public discourse to dismiss the beliefs of flat-Earthers as ridiculous, then it should be acceptable to do so for beliefs in god as well. If it is legitimate to campaign to discourage people from believing in astrology and astrologers, it is just as legitimate to discourage them from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and the like.

A curious thing, given the supposedly small numbers of atheists in this country, is the huge popularity of the recently released books that advocate atheism,. I suspect that many more people than we realize have serious doubts about god and religion but have been cowed into not saying anything against religion and god precisely because of this sense that to speak against religion is rude. The arrival of these books and the publicly declared atheism of many people must come as a relief.

What about the tone of the criticisms? It is argued that harsh criticisms are not effective in persuading people to change their minds, that one can ‘catch more flies with honey than with vinegar’. It is often pointed out, for example, that Martin Luther King was effective in winning over many people because he did not speak in strong terms. Actually he did express strong views but his language was very measured and his example is often used to argue that tempered language is more effective than harsh.

As I have said before, this depends on whether one is discussing in the private sphere or the public sphere. In the private sphere (in the classroom or in social settings), I tend to not argue in strong terms and in fact do not actively raise the issues at all. During the dinner party discussion I wrote about earlier, I took a soft line, seeking only to explain why I was perfectly satisfied being an atheist. I did not subject my dinner companions’ religious beliefs to a cross-examination.

But in the public sphere, one can make the case that opening up beliefs that have no evidence to harsh criticisms can be a very effective way of getting rid of them. For example, we know that most people’s belief in Santa Claus does not survive past early childhood. Many are gently weaned away from it by their parents. But for those children determined to hold on to it, it would be an interesting study to see what effect the ridicule of their childhood peers has in getting them to abandon their belief in it.

There is another argument to be made in favor of having at least some people speak out harshly against religion. Take the case again of Martin Luther King, who is often invoked as someone who was successful because he was not abrasive. It must be remembered that King was not speaking and acting in a vacuum. At the same time Malcolm X, the Black Power movement, and other radical elements were making very strong attacks in very harsh language on the institutions of racism, and strongly criticizing the non-violent methods of King. King’s moderate tone may have been effective with the white community precisely because they could contrast it with what King’s rivals for influence in the black community were saying. Since he was seen as less threatening, they could thus warm to it.

In public sphere debates on contentious issues, the labels ‘extremist’ and moderate’ are not absolutes but relative. When the range of opinions expressed is broadened, those who were once thought to be on the fringe now become mainstream. So subjecting belief in god and religion to critical scrutiny by some opinionated anti-theists (the ‘extremists’) may actually be very effective in widening the range of discussions. Such people are providing an opportunity for those (the ‘moderates’) who prefer to speak in more tempered terms to emerge from their silence and have a dialogue with religious believers. In the absence of the strong anti-theists, it is these so-called moderates who would have been the ones portrayed as ‘extremists’, and thus been cowed.

So Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris are actually playing a positive role. By getting rid of a lot of the sacred cows prevalent in discussing science-religion issues, they are opening up the field for a whole lot of people to speak more openly about their own disbelief in god.

Next: What about that belief in god satisfies deep human psychological and emotional needs and thus has value?

POST SCRIPT: The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy

Professor John J. Mearsheimer (University of Chicago) and Professor Stephen Walt (Harvard University) caused quite a stir with their article The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy. They now have a book out with the same name.

They will be speaking at 7:00pm TODAY (Wednesday, September 26, 2007) in the Ford Auditorium in the Allen Building on the CWRU campus, at the corner of Euclid and Adelbert. The event is free and open to the public. The event is sponsored by Case’s Hallinan Center for Peace and Justice.

Although I have not read their book yet, I did read their article in the London Review of Books, and the more detailed working paper on which it was based.

I also wrote a four-part series on their paper and the aftermath. You can find the last part here, which has links to the earlier parts.

You can listen to a Fresh Air interview with Walt here.

Pinning down the properties of god

One of the difficult points on which discussions between atheists and religious believers flounder is that while there is a fair degree of uniformity amongst atheists as to what they do and don’t believe, there is a huge diversity among religious believers about what they believe. This can be disconcerting because in the middle of a discussion, a religious person will often say, “Oh, but I don’t believe in that stuff. My idea of god is quite different.” Understandings of god tend to be so fluid that it enables believers to slide from one to another whenever one particular formulation comes under close scrutiny and is shown to be untenable. People tend not to want to be pinned down on what they actually mean by god. This is more so in the case of more sophisticated believers. Fundamentalists are more concrete in their beliefs.

When I was debating the intelligent design movement in Kansas, I would find that the views ranged from believing in the literal truth of the Bible in every detail to people who regarded the Bible as metaphors but still believed in a personal god who could intervene in the actions of the world. If one goes outside the world of intelligent design advocates, one finds an even broader spectrum, people who are what I call ‘almost atheist believers,’ who call themselves ‘spiritual’ and whose idea of god is so vague that no empirical statement can be made about it at all. For some, god is somehow synonymous with nature, for others it is the creator of the big bang and nothing else, and so on. They are the people whom Daniel Dennett describes as people who believe in belief, who need to feel that there is something transcendent in their lives and will construct it to meet their needs.

So in order to have a useful dialogue, it may clarify things and avoid misunderstandings if each person knew where the other stood. It is useful, for example, to see if someone accepts the idea that god has the qualities of being omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all knowing), and omnibenevolent (all good).

We know that belief in this god immediately runs into the problem of theodicy, the problem of defending god’s goodness and omnipotence when bad things occur, such as the death of an infant or widespread tragedy in the recent tsunami. Epicurus (341-271 BCE) posed the essential and, to my mind, the ultimate contradiction that believers in such a god face:

Is god willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is god both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him god?

This obvious logical contradiction has resulted in some theologians arguing against assigning all three qualities to god. But which one(s) should be jettisoned? Most people who are not theologians are reluctant to abandon any because it would seem to devalue their concept of god as someone to whom all positive superlatives should apply. Anything less than absolute perfection is seen as unworthy. Such people then have to resort to the ‘mysterious ways clause’ (MWC) which argues that that while god does have all those three qualities (and more), the reason that things appear to be contradictions to us is because our minds cannot understand god’s plans or that he has not confided his plans to us in a manner that we can understand.

But the odd thing is that although believers, by invoking the MWC, have effectively argued that logic and reason and evidence (things they routinely value and use in other areas of their lives) cannot be used to argue against the existence of god, they still try to use evidence and reason to argue in favor of god, and resort to the MWC only when that attempt fails and they end up in a dead end from which there is no escape.

In an attempt to clarify what people mean by god, Victor J. Stenger in his book God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (2007, p. 12) defines what he sees as the properties of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic god as gleaned from their religious texts and official doctrine.

[The Judeo-Christian-Islamic] God is not the god of deism who created the world and then left it alone, or the god of pantheism, who is equated with all existence. The Judeo-Christian-Islamic God is a nanosecond-by-nanosecond participant in each event that takes place in very cubic nanometer of the universe, from the interactions of quarks inside atomic nuclei to the evolution of stars in the most distant galaxies. What is more, God listens to every thought and participates in each action of his very special creation, a minute bit of organized matter called humanity that moves around on the surface of a tiny pebble in a vast universe.

Stenger spells out the basic elements that go into this model of god (p. 41):

  1. God is the creator and preserver of the universe.
  2. God is the architect of the structure of the universe and the author of the laws of nature.
  3. God steps in whenever he wishes to change the course of events, which may include violating his own laws as, for example, in response to human entreaties.
  4. God is the creator and preserver of life and humanity, where human beings are special in relation to other forms.
  5. God has endowed humans with immaterial, eternal souls that exist independent of their bodies and carry the essence of a person’s character and selfhood.
  6. God is the source of morality and other human values such as freedom, justice, and democracy.
  7. God has revealed truths in scriptures and by communicating directly to select individuals throughout history.
  8. God does not deliberately hide from any human being who is open to finding evidence for his presence.

This seems like an accurate list to me, corresponding to my own understanding of what mainstream believers say. Stenger deliberately does not include the problematic trinity of omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient qualities (especially the ability to know the future) since those lead to immediate and severe logical contradictions in explaining away things like the tsunami, and makes religion too easy a target to attack. He also does not consider the views of scriptural literalists, the so-called fundamentalist Christians and Jews and Muslims, who take their creation stories and history and images of god straight from their holy books and argue (say) for a 6,000 year old Earth. Such people have abandoned science entirely and there is little one can say to them.

Stenger’s book is a detailed analysis of the more sophisticated arguments put forward for a god and he argues that none of them stand up to scrutiny. He looks at all the things that we can infer from the properties of the above god and examines the commonly stated arguments and evidence in favor, some of which have been discussed here too: the appearance of design in nature and the universe; the sense that we have a mind and soul apart from the body; claims of immortality and the afterlife; the idea that the origin of the universe needs an initiator; the ‘fine-tuning’ or anthropic principle argument; the answering of prayers; and the morals and values argument. He finds that none of the evidence produced in favor of these stands up in the face of close scrutiny. The conclusion is simple: In the absence of evidence in support of it, the god hypothesis is rejected. As Stenger says (p. 71): “Earth and life look just as they can be expected to look if there is no designer God.”

Stenger is careful to point out that this does not rule out all gods. The MWC enables you to define god any way you like and assign it any properties you wish and be immune from contradiction. But atheists see this exercise as a waste of time.

The problem that arises in discussions with believers is that defenders of god tend to shift around among these qualities so that when (say) feature #2 is shown to cause problems with logic and evidence, they shift to #3, and then when that is shown to be also fraught with problems, they move on to #6. And, when all else fails, there is always the fallback option of invoking the MWC (which is the same as abandoning #8) and serves as the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card.

Perhaps the discussions with religious people would be would be more fruitful if right at the beginning they listed which of the above properties of god they agree with. That would make for a far more focused discussion.

POST SCRIPT: Interesting short debate

Listen to this short debate between a biologist Lewis Wolpert and a Christian theologian William Craig Lane. It raises many of the issues discussed in this post. Listening to the arguments made by this sophisticated theologian you realize how weak the arguments for god are.

The end of mysteries and the rise of atheism

The linguist and political analyst Noam Chomsky once divided up the questions that linguists study into two categories, mysteries and problems. That division has since been seized on and expanded well beyond the field of linguistics and used as a tool to classify all problems of scientific research. For example, Steven Pinker writes in How the Mind Works (1997, p. ix):

When we face a problem, we may not know its solution, but we have insight, increasing knowledge, and an inkling of what we are looking for. When we face a mystery, however, we can only stare in wonder and bewilderment, not knowing what an explanation would even look like.

Where religion and god have found their strength in the past was in their ability to “explain” the many mysteries that confronted people in the early days before modern science. Of course, such explanations are not really explanations at all in the conventional sense of the world. What we usually expect of an explanation is something either in simpler terms or as an intelligible cause of the phenomenon. To say “god did it” doesn’t really advance the discussion in any way.

The progress of science has seen the steady transformation of mysteries into problems. The great mysteries of the physical universe were made into problems with the advent of Newtonian mechanics. For the first time, the behavior of the solar system became comprehensible in terms of natural laws and we had tools to investigate its behavior and make predictions. There were still huge unsolved problems, but that is what they were: problems, not mysteries. Of course, the big questions of the properties of the large scale universe had to await the advances in 20th century physics and big bang cosmology, but Newtonian physics provided such a satisfactory materialistic basis for explaining so many things, that it was hard not to feel that the nature of the universe was no longer a mystery.

This does not mean that all the major questions have been solved. Scientific research is always springing surprises on us. For example, right now dark energy and dark matter are thought to have a pervasive and widespread presence in the universe but have eluded detection for some time. But while they are mysterious, these phenomena are not mysteries but problems, since scientists have fairly well-defined research programs to study them.

After Newton, the next major mystery to fall by the wayside was the mystery of the complexity and diversity of life. The origins of the seemingly exquisitely designed features of nature had to have been totally baffling to people living before the 18th century and one can understand why they might have thought that god was the only explanation. But the arrival of evolutionary ideas with specific mechanisms for how they might work, starting with people like Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), started the chipping away of that particular mystery. Although his theory that animals could pass on acquired traits to their progeny is no longer accepted and his name is nowadays sometimes mentioned disparagingly, his work published in 1801 was groundbreaking in that it suggested that the diversity of life was due to natural laws and not necessarily due to some miraculous intervention by god.

Lamarck laid the groundwork for taking these questions out of the realm of mysteries and into the world of problems, work that reached its culmination with the brilliant work of Charles Darwin. Darwin himself in 1861 acknowledged the debt to his predecessor: “This justly celebrated naturalist. . .first did the eminent service of arousing attention to the probability of all changes in the organic, as well as in the inorganic world, being the result of law, and not of miraculous interposition.”

Richard Dawkins argues in The Blind Watchmaker (p. 6) that it was Darwin’s successful theory of natural selection that broke down a great mystery that had prevented the easy acceptance of atheism:

An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: “I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn’t a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one.” I can’t help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

So are there any mysteries at all left? I can think of only three possible candidates: the first appearance of life on Earth, consciousness, and the origin of the universe.

The first appearance of life is, I would argue, no longer a mystery although it remains a hard problem. We already have some idea of what the initial conditions of the Earth were and what kinds of properties the earliest replicators need to have in order to evolve and grow in complexity. Experimentalists and theorists are actively working on the problem using many plausible scenarios.

We have not advanced as much with consciousness, but I would argue that the tremendous work that has been done in the area of brain research, artificial intelligence, and artificial life has also shifted this former mystery into the realm of problems. (I will write about these things in the future but the website MachinesLikeUs is a tremendously valuable resource for getting updates on the state of those fields.)

Only the origin of the universe can still be considered as a mystery. Part of the problem is that it is hard to envisage what is “before” the beginning of the universe and what is “simpler” than it, two elements that are needed to construct a satisfactory explanation. The conditions of the very early universe are so very different from the present that it is hard to get a handle on how to handle them. Explaining the origins of the universe may mean going back “before the beginning”, if that even makes any sense, and it is not clear how to do that. So for the present, believers in god have a good mystery candidate, the last refuge where perhaps god can act without being subject to scrutiny from those pesky scientists. In fact, in almost any discussion of religion and god, when plausible scientific explanations are given for other things, believers almost invariably resort to the claim that the origin of the universe had to be an act of god.

There are those who will resist the drive to convert mysteries into problems, not for religious reasons but because it threatens to destroy the sense of wonder. There is a romantic streak in many of us that yearns for mysteries, that enjoys the sense of awe that accompanies the feeling that there are things beyond our ken. We are drawn with a curious fascination to stories of the supernatural, of spirits, of “ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night.”

While the disappearance of mysteries undoubtedly makes atheism easier to accept, would it be a bad thing not to have mysteries anymore? Would we be losing a sense of awe and wonder? It don’t think so. The difference is that while most people have a sense of awe in the presence of unexplained phenomena, atheists have a sense of awe at the power of the mind that can comprehend the phenomena.

Richard Dawkins in Unweaving the Rainbow says: “I believe that an orderly universe, one indifferent to human preoccupations, in which everything has an explanation even if we still have a long way to go before we find it, is a more beautiful, more wonderful place than a universe tricked out with capricious ad hoc magic.”

I agree with him. Consider the fact that we humans, tiny specks each living for a brief time in an infinitesimally small part of the universe, have been able, by painstakingly building upon the work of our ancestors, to uncover so many deep mysteries of the cosmos, of who we are, what we are made of, and how we got here.

If that is not awe inspiring, I don’t know what is.

POST SCRIPT: The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy

Professor John J. Mearsheimer (University of Chicago) and Professor Stephen Walt (Harvard University) caused quite a stir with their article The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy. They now have a book out with the same name.

They will be speaking at 7:00pm on Wednesday, September 26, 2007 in the Ford Auditorium in the Allen Building on the CWRU campus, at the corner of Euclid and Adelbert. The event is free and open to the public.

They will also be speaking at noon that same day at the City Club of Cleveland.

Although I have not read their book yet, I did read their article in the London Review of Books, and the more detailed working paper on which it was based.

I also wrote a four-part series on their paper and the aftermath. You can find the last part here, which has links to the earlier parts.

You can listen to a Fresh Air interview with Walt here.

How to disrupt dinner parties

Last weekend I went to a dinner party where there were people from Sri Lanka whom I had not met before. When Sri Lankans meet for the first time, there is a fairly standard ritual that occurs. People try to find connections between you and them, starting with others who share your name (e.g., “Are you related to the Singham who used to work at X/who married Y/who lives in Z?”) and then on to questions about where in Sri Lanka your family is from and what K-12 school you went to. The last question is important because Sri Lankans are quite attached to their schools and many cities with a large expatriate populations even form associations based on these old school ties and hold dances, sporting events, and other elaborate get-togethers.

During a casual conversation at the dinner with three of my fellow guests (all sisters), they asked me the usual questions and then one of them went off-script and asked me which church I went to. I replied that I did not attend any church since I was an atheist.

The sharp intake of breath and astonished looks in response alerted me that this had gone over big. It was as if I had walked into a vegan conference eating a hamburger. It turned out that not only were the three of them Christians, but they were of the extremely religious “born again” variety. The stunned look on their faces at my revelation got even worse when they realized that I had once been a Christian. They simply could not understand how anyone who had once been a Christian could not believe any more, and for the next hour they proceeded to try and convince me that I had made a grave mistake. Of course, their arguments consisted entirely of quotations from the Bible, all of which I have heard many times before. It simply did not seem to register with them that there was no point in using the Bible as evidence to someone who did not believe that it was god’s revealed word.

Another interesting point was that they felt that my atheism had to be because I had not “accepted Jesus as my personal lord and savior”, which is the standard by which evangelical Christians judge whether you are a “true” Christian or not. In fact, they kept insisting that I had never been a “true” Christian because of my failure to pledge such allegiance. In my religious days in high school and college, I had attended many religious services where the preacher, at the end of a stirring sermon asserting that we were all sinners and in the grip of Satan, would ask people to come up front and pledge their lives to Christ so that they could be cleansed of their sin. I never obeyed this “altar call”, although many of the people I knew had done so in the past and they often asked me to join them. During one of those services, I was startled when the friend who had invited me suddenly clutched my sleeve and with tears in his eyes told me that Jesus was calling me and implored me to obey the call, helpfully adding that someone else who had rejected the call just a few weeks earlier had subsequently been run over by a bus right after the service. It was an awkward moment but I said no. I always rejected such altar calls, since I felt even then that a god who depended on a formulaic repetition of a slogan as a sign of faithfulness (and apparently was willing to kill someone who would not comply) was hardly worth following.

After some time, my companions at the dinner asked if we could pray together so that Jesus could enter my soul. Although I am an obliging sort and the discussion had been friendly, I had to draw the line and say no. It seemed like another altar call and, to my mind, highly presumptuous. While they were free to pray for whomever and whatever they wanted to on their own time (and they said they would pray for me later anyway), I wanted no part of it. It struck me then that if I told them about my dream from last week they would probably have thought that that really was a sign from god trying to save me from my path to doom.

I think that what puzzled my dinner companions the most was the fact that I was perfectly happy being an atheist and was not looking for anything more in the spiritual realm. They kept repeatedly asking me whether I felt a “yearning for something more”, whether I was “missing something in my life” and whether I had a “gap in my soul”. (My responses? No. No. No. To the last one I added that I did not have a soul and that did nothing to improve my image in their eyes.) They seemed to assume that since belief in the Christian god was such an essential part of their lives, that it must be the same for other people. They simply could not conceive that it was possible for someone to have a fulfilling life without god. And not just any old god, but their own particular Christian Jesus-god package.

One would have to say that my dinner companions exhibited all the signs of religious fanaticism. Not that they would in any way do harm to others such as fly planes into buildings. On the contrary, I am quite certain that they are very good people who would not dream of harming anyone. But they are religious fanatics in that they are absolutely sure that their particular version of religion is the right one, their own religious text is infallible, they have a personal relationship with god, that followers of all other religions are wrong, that those who do not believe what they do are lost souls who will suffer eternal damnation, and that it is their duty to try and convert others to their belief.

But while these particular people may be harmless, it is a very thin line that separates “good” fanatics from the bad. The problem is that if you accept that that kind of unquestioning faith and allegiance as a good thing, it becomes hard to condemn the actions of those who, again on the basis of that kind of faith and following what they believe are the dictates of their god, commit the most atrocious crimes. Voltaire’s remark keeps coming to my mind: “As long as people believe in absurdities, they will continue to commit atrocities.”

It was an interesting evening.

POST SCRIPT: Religious con games

It is amazing how preachers who claim to have some direct link to god are able to so easily con people into giving them huge sums of money to build their private empires and support their lavish lifestyles.

The Australian TV comedy show The Chasers takes a look at TV evangelists.

Civil liberties and cell phones

I go to a fair number of public talks and on occasion have even been one of the speakers. Invariably at question time there will be people in the audience (usually the first in line to the microphone) who are familiar figures who always speak at such events. They either have a particular agenda that they wish to push and will somehow connect it to the topic at hand, or they have a particular political slant and they will aggressively criticize the speaker on that basis. Sometimes they will ramble, making a small speech, and have to be prompted to actually pose a question. At other times, especially if the featured speaker is a high profile political figure, they may try to hog the microphone and transform the question time into a private debate. Some of these people feel strongly that they have something to say and have no platform to say it, and use these public functions to get it off their chest.

Sometimes these people are simply pranksters, practicing a kind of performance art or trying to prick the balloons of self-important politicians and celebrities.

Some members of the audience get annoyed at the time taken up by these people and try to shout them down. I tend to be more tolerant, treating these episodes as amusing interludes. It seems to me that the price we pay for freedom of speech is that we have to tolerate the occasional jokester or egotistical or obnoxious or even mentally disturbed person taking up time at public meetings. Their behavior is not really appropriate but usually harmless and at worst a waste of time. So I am willing to let it go, both as an audience member and as a speaker.

But as a society we seem to be becoming increasingly intolerant of these kinds of behavior. I am sure many have seen the disturbing video of the 21-year old University of Florida student Andrew Meyer who was Tasered at a meeting at which John Kerry was speaking on September 17, 2007.

To me the student speaker seemed like the many people who attend such events, someone who has many things to say and tries to quickly say them in the guise of a question. He spoke rapidly for about a minute and a half, which is quite long for question time, but not abnormally so. The security people first started trying to shut him down after just thirty seconds. Although the student seemed impassioned and excitable, his behavior came nowhere close to warranting the heavy-handed treatment that he received from the security services. There is no indication that he was dangerous or threatening to anyone.

A previous shocking episode of a student being Tasered in the UCLA library was also captured on cell phones last year and broadcast on YouTube.

What is going on here? Have we become so intolerant of any kind of lack of order that we are willing to so readily condone the use of force to suppress speech? Are we really a people who are so cowed by authority figures that we accept the forcible restraint of any person who even argues with officialdom? One can understand security forces responding with some urgency to prevent harm when there is a clear and present danger. But there seemed to be no indication of that kind in either of these two cases. These were not fast-moving situations that threatened to get out of hand. In both cases, the authorities greatly outnumbered the person being subdued. They both seem to be situations where things could have been settled through patient discussion.

Paul Craig Roberts comments that the fact that the police were confident enough to Taser a student questioner in the midst of a crowd and the presence of a US Senator who did not vigorously protest the action is a sign of how far we have gone down the road of authoritarianism.

Usually when police violate constitutional rights and commit acts of police brutality they do it when they believe no one is watching, not in front of a large audience. Clearly, the police have become more audacious in their abuse of rights and citizens. What explains the new fearlessness of police to violate rights and brutalize citizens without cause?

The answer is that police, most of whom have authoritarian personalities, have seen that constitutional rights are no longer protected. President Bush does not protect our constitutional rights. Neither does Vice President Cheney, nor the Attorney General, nor the US Congress. Just as Kerry allowed Meyer’s rights to be tasered out of him, Congress has enabled Bush to strip people, including American citizens, of constitutional protection and incarcerate them without presenting evidence.

These are not rare instances. If you go to YouTube you can see a whole lot of situations where people are getting Tasered in situations that did not seem to require such strong measures.

I do not own a cell phone but am glad about the ubiquitous presence of such devices, even though they can be abused. Combined with the ability to easily upload to YouTube, they may be an important tool in preserving civil liberties. Because of them, we are no longer dependent on only official sources or the media for information, which is often sanitized by both to paint the authorities in the most favorable light. We now can see the raw footage of events and judge for ourselves.

It has already been realized by politicians that because of cell phones they are always being recorded and they cannot deny things that they said or did as they could have in the past. George Allen’s 2006 bid to be re-elected as Virginia’s US senator was doomed partly by the infamous ‘macaca’ incident captured on a cell phone.

But I don’t think that it has yet dawned on security services that the presence of cells phones means that they no longer control the narrative and cannot blandly assert that they were responding to a threat when they use what seems to be unnecessary force on unarmed people or non-threatening people.

But all the cell phones in the world will not help if people are not outraged when they reveal abuses.

POST SCRIPT: Bush gaffes in Australia

President Bush in Australia made a series of gaffes.

Anyone who speaks in public constantly, no matter how sharp-witted, will make mistakes and slips of the tongue. So why do we focus so much on Bush’s slips? As someone said, with Bush it is the seeming inevitability of it that is the attraction. It is like watching accomplished comedians performing a routine with a careful setup that telegraphs the punch line. You know what is coming and that expectation forms part of the humor, building up to the moment, so that when it inevitably occurs, part of our laughter is due to the release of the tension.

Bush has established for himself a reputation as someone who is completely out of his depth and when he seems to confirm that expectation, the humor is greater than if the same thing had been said and done by (say) Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon.

Mother Theresa’s mixed legacy

Mother Theresa’s legacy was not an unmixed one. On the one hand, she did important work that others were not doing, and took in the sick and dying from the streets of Calcutta and provided them with beds to spend their last days with at least some minimal care and cleanliness. On the other, she exhibited a serious tone-deafness when it came to hobnobbing with rich and powerful people, who, by giving her cause money, tried to immunize themselves from criticisms for their own barbaric cruelty to the people of their country.

Michael Hand in his review of Christopher Hitchens’ book The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (Verso, 1995) gives some examples.

[Mother Theresa] said of Michele Duvalier, wife of Haiti’s despised and ruthless dictator Baby Doc Duvalier, that she is “someone who feels, who knows, who wishes to demonstrate her love not only with words but also with concrete and tangible actions.” At the time, Haiti had the lowest per capita annual income in the western hemisphere. (I think this remains the case.) Living conditions for most Haitians were intolerable. Stories abounded that US cosmetics companies purchased blood from poor Haitians to make shampoo with “human protein” ingredients. Eventually the Duvaliers were forced out of Haiti — they absconded with large amounts of government money, to settle on the French Riviera. Still, Mother Teresa said of Michele that she had “never seen the poor people being so familiar with their head of state as they were with her. It was a beautiful lesson to me.”

During the trial of Charles Keating, eventually resulting in a ten-year sentence for fraud in the S&L debacle, Mother Teresa wrote to the trial judge. She appealed for leniency in Keating’s case, for he had donated a large sum to her projects. That the money was not his to donate didn’t occur to her, and she has not responded to a request that she return the illegitimate gift.

She quickly made the scene at the famous Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal. Even before the cause was known — it turned out to be corporate negligence, unsurprisingly — Mother Teresa was advising all victims to “Forgive. Forgive.” This advice presupposes that poverty and misery are the destiny of the poor and miserable, so that their response should be an act of mercy toward the murderers of their families and friends. This conception of the poor is Mother Teresa’s stock-in-trade: “I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot…I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people [italics added].”

The last point highlights another disturbing feature of Mother Theresa’s ministry, her strange belief that suffering was in itself a good and ennobling thing. It was almost a cult of suffering, the belief that suffering brought you closer to god. As someone once said of her, she was not a friend of the poor so much as a friend of poverty. There were, however, two issues over which she showed no ambiguity whatsoever: her opposition to abortions and the use of contraceptive aids. In her 1979 Nobel Peace Prize speech she even made the extraordinary statement that “I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion.”

The magicians Penn and Teller have produced a blistering expose of what they say is the dark side of the Mother Theresa legend.

Part 1:

Part 2:

The judgments of Penn and Teller and Hitchens seem a little harsh to me. The sight of Mother Theresa hobnobbing like a politician with the wealthy and providing them with political cover in return for getting big contributions to expand her religious activities makes her a tempting target to label as a hypocrite. But there is little evidence that her concern for the poor and the destitute her mission took in was anything but genuine. The more likely reason for her tarnishing her legacy by cavorting with disreputable but wealthy people is that she fell prey to the all-too-easy trap of rationalization that the ends justifies the means, convincing herself that the work she was doing with the poor was truly worthwhile and the money she got from the Duvaliers, Keatings, and the like was at least being used for a good cause that compensated for their tainted origins.

Her official public image clearly has great propaganda value for Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular, which has put her on the fast track to sainthood. Despite her recently revealed explicit doubts about the existence of god, my guess is that they will canonize her anyway. The Mother Theresa brand name is too valuable to let slide.

POST SCRIPT: Religious hi-jinks

Samantha Bee on This Week in God.

Mother Theresa and signs from god

In the previous post, I wrote about Mother Theresa’s unfulfilled yearning to get a sign from god that he existed and that her faith was justified. What is most surprising to me is that she did not receive such a sign.

Most people who desperately want to believe in god, like Mother Theresa clearly did, are quick to seize on random events and coincidences that we all experience in our lives and interpret them as signs from god. If you really need a sign from god, it is not hard to manufacture one to your satisfaction. Surely there must have been many such instances in her life that would have served her purposes, such as receiving a generous donation for her mission at a time when they desperately needed money or having one of her charges unexpectedly recover from near death?

For example, just last week I myself had a powerful experience of god’s presence. I had been discussing with two friends the lack of evidence for god and had come home with them. My friends went into the living room while I went to the kitchen to get some refreshments. While there, I suddenly felt two powerful hands gripping my shoulders and forcing my head through some sort of invisible screen. I found myself on the other side immersed in something like water except that I could see patterns like galaxies and stars swirling all around in a blue watery haze. I could breathe quite easily but could not hear my friends in the next room and could not call out to them. It was manifestly clear to me that I was under the influence of the Holy Spirit who was revealing his presence to me and showing me his power. When the Holy Spirit released me after a brief time and I could move freely and speak and hear again, my first reaction was amazement at receiving such a direct signal from god, followed by wondering how I would explain to my friends in the next room what had happened and whether they would believe me. I also realized that I would have to abandon my atheism and revise my entire personal and scientific worldview, and write about these changes on my blog.

And then I woke up.

I tend to have quite vivid and detailed dreams, especially if I have been eating chocolate (Freud would have loved having me as a patient) and can often trace their content to things that I had been thinking about that day or the previous one. The Mother Theresa story had been on my mind and I had been wondering whether I should blog about it so the fact that I had such a dream was no real surprise to me once I woke up. But while the dream was going on, the events seemed very, very real, so much so that it took me a little while even after I woke up to realize that it really was just a dream and that there was still no god.

If I had been a religious person going through a period of doubt, I might well have interpreted this dream as a sign, that the powerful hands holding me were those of the Holy Spirit (hands being a common image invoked in Christian circles for this mysterious entity), and the whole experience was done by god to reassure me that my faith was true. I suspect that when religious people talk about having had a personal experience of god, it is due to something like this. Strong emotional feelings released by dreams or a spectacular view of nature or some major event in their lives such as the birth of a child or a recovery from an illness or the feeling of euphoria that religious people sometimes experience during religious observances, when the singing of a favorite hymn, coupled with the sun shining through stained glass windows and a sense of personal peace, can all be misinterpreted as a spiritual other-worldly experience.

When I was young, I used to sometimes spend school vacations at my aunt’s home in rural northern Sri Lanka. On Sunday mornings we would wake up well before dawn and go to the nearby ashram (a kind of religious retreat) where there was an open-air rustic church. The service would begin while it was still dark with us all sitting on the ground. The a capella singing of hymns, the chanting of prayers, the blowing of gentle breezes, the chirping of birds and other sounds of life awakening in rural areas as the sun slowly rose up over the palm trees, often combined to give a real sense of peace, easy enough to interpret as something spiritual.

Given Mother Theresa’s clear anguish over the lack of a sign from god, she must have experienced dreams or experiences similar to what I have described. Her inability to interpret such things as evidence of god’s existence suggests that she had greater skepticism and a much higher empirical standard for evidence of god than most religious people. It actually reflects creditably on her, suggesting that she was not that credulous, and required something more convincing than a run-of-the-mill ‘spiritual’ experience.

Daniel Dennett writes that this kind of agonized disbelief among the formally religious is not uncommon.

Mother Teresa’s agonies of doubt are surely not all that unusual. What is unusual is that she put them in writing and now they are being revealed to the world, in spite of her explicit wish that they be destroyed. I get mail all the time from religious leaders who admit to me in private that they do not believe in God but think that the best way to continue their lives is to swallow hard and get on with their ministries, concentrating on bringing more good than evil into the lives of their parishioners and those for whom their churches provide care. I would never divulge their names without their consent, but I do wonder: How many millions of priests, pastors, rabbis, imams, nuns and monks around the world are living lives of similar duplicity? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the outing of Mother Teresa inspired a few thousand of them to come out of the closet and acknowledge their atheism! Then it might start being obvious not only that faith in God is not a requirement for morality, but that the loss of faith in God often goads people into living more strenuously helpful lives, as seems to be the case with Mother Teresa.

Mother Theresa is not the first high profile religious figure to try and suppress her deep doubts by loudly and publicly proclaiming her faith and certainly will not be the last. She is but one example of the kinds of people described by the philosopher David Hume who said that “[t]hey make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity, by the strongest asseverations and most positive bigotry.”

Dennett’s claim that there are many more like her is supported by Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion (p. 324), where he describes the story of Dan Barker’s “gradual conversion from devout fundamentalist minister and zealous traveling preacher to the strong and confident atheist he is today”, recounted in Barker’s book Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist.

Significantly, Barker continued to go through the motions of preaching Christianity for a while after he had become an atheist, because it was the only career he knew and he felt locked into a web of social obligations. He now knows many other American clergymen who are in the same position as he was but have confided only in him, having read his book. They dare not admit their atheism even to their own families, so terrible is the anticipated reaction. Barker’s own story had a happier conclusion. To begin with, his parents were deeply and agonizingly shocked. But they listened to his quiet reasoning, and eventually became atheists themselves.

It will be interesting to see what fallout, if any, occurs from the revelation of Mother Theresa’s doubts. Religious apologists have quickly moved into damage control mode. As is usually the case with religion, whatever happens is taken as a justification for belief. If Mother Theresa’s letters had revealed an unwavering confidence in god, that would have been taken as a sign of her deep faith. Now that they reveal the opposite, that is also taken as a sign of her faith.

Ideally, though, it should make people more comfortable about expressing their own fears and doubts about their faith publicly, rather than feeling the need to suppress them or to seek confirmation in ‘evidence’ that is nothing more than coincidence or tricks of the brain.

POST SCRIPT: Rewarding failure

Keith Olberman shows how no one in the Bush administration pays any price for lying or incompetence, as long as they are loyal Bushies. Instead, they get rewarded or promoted

Mother Theresa’s dilemma

There have been a flurry of news items and commentary about the publication of a book of Mother Theresa’s letters, which reveal that she struggled for most of her life with the fear that there was no god. Excerpts from the letters (as quoted in the press) show that during almost her entire ministry, she struggled with deep doubt, saying things like: “Where is my faith?. . .Even deep down… there is nothing but emptiness and darkness. . . . If there be God — please forgive me. . . Such deep longing for God. . . . Repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal. . . What do I labor for? . . . If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You also are not true.”

The letters reveal a woman who yearned for some sign that her belief in god was justified, for some sense that there was a godly presence, and that she failed to receive such reassurance, although she publicly maintained a face of unwavering devotion.

Religious apologists have been quick to try and shield her from suggestions that she was a hypocrite acting in bad faith, hiding her disbelief in god behind a façade of piety. They point out (correctly) that most religious people have doubts from time to time and struggle to maintain their beliefs. It is perhaps only the psychotic who are absolutely certain that god exists and think that god speaks to them in clear and unambiguous ways. So while her doubts seem to have been deeper and longer lasting than most religious people would admit to, they are by no means unique.

It is not hard to see why Mother Theresa’s belief in god was being constantly challenged. Most ordinary religious people are fortunate in that they do not often have to deal with tragedy and sadness in their own lives, excepting for maybe one or two major events, thus making it easier to maintain belief in a benevolent deity. But she was dealing on a daily basis with the sickness and death of huge numbers of men and women, young and old, who had not done anything that merited the deep misfortunes that befell them. Under those circumstances it would have been inhuman for her not to question the benevolence of god. It was perfectly natural for her to seek some sign from god that all the suffering she saw had some purpose and meaning, and to despair when she did not receive such an assurance.

In some ways, Mother Theresa may have been a victim of her own success, trapping her into a belief structure that she could not reject without also undermining the work she was trying to do. Most of us who can switch from believers to atheists and the only disruption this may cause is within our small circle of family and friends. But she was an enormously successful figure for the image of the Catholic Church, generating immense amounts of goodwill and money because of her work with the desperately poor people of Calcutta. She would have known that to make her doubts public, let alone come out as an atheist, would have resulted in a huge blow to the faith of others. Such an admission would have been to turn her back on the basis on which she had started her entire life’s work. While she could have continued her work as a doubter, that would have risked losing the official backing of the Catholic Church and its publicity apparatus, which was undoubtedly helpful in efforts to raise money.

In the normal course of events, when we fail to find evidence for something, it is considered to be a reasonable thing to not believe in that thing. This is why we do not believe in the existence of unicorns or fairies and do not hesitate to publicly say so. To do otherwise would be considered hypocrisy. But in the case of Mother Theresa, the split between her public unwavering piety and her private doubts is being portrayed, oddly, as something virtuous. I find it hard to see how it can be virtuous to publicly profess devout belief while harboring serious doubts. That simply imposes feelings of guilt on those who also do not have certainty, making them feel that their own faith must be somehow inadequate or inferior to hers. Surely it would have been better for her and others if she had said publicly that she had her doubts, just like everyone else, but that she hoped that her belief and hope in god would be vindicated in the afterlife.

As Daniel Dennett points out, this hiding of doubt behind the mask of certainty cannot be a good thing:

[T]here is good reason to believe that the varieties of self-admonition and self-blinding that people have to indulge in to gird their creedal loins may actually cost them something substantial in the moral agency department: a debilitating willingness to profess solemnly in the utter absence of conviction, a well-entrenched habit of deflecting their attention from evidence that is crying out for consideration, and plenty of experience biting their tongues and saying nothing when others around them make assumptions that they know in their hearts to be false.

It is hard not to sympathize with Mother Theresa’s lifelong struggle to find some reason to believe. It must have caused her considerable anguish to fear that she may have been living a lie. I believe that such struggles are far more common than we realize and are due entirely to expecting people to believe in things for which there is no evidence and making them feel guilty when they cannot do so with easy assurance. This is the kind of thing that happens when we elevate ‘faith’, i.e., belief in the absence of evidence, to a virtue.

POST SCRIPT Constitution Day Forum

Case’s Third Annual Constitution Day forum will be on the topic Religion and the Constitution and held today (Monday September 17, 2007), 4:30 p.m. ― 6:00 p.m. in Ford Auditorium, Allen Medical Library.

The panel looks good and it should be interesting.