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.

[Read more…]

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.
[Read more…]

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.
[Read more…]

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.
[Read more…]

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?
[Read more…]

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.