Last week I "debated" the question above at my school, Stevens Institute of Technology, in an event sponsored by the Christian group Veritas. My "opponent" was John Lennox, a mathematician at Oxford and a Christian. I enclose "debated" and "opponent" in quotations marks because Lennox--a ruddy-skinned, white-haired Irishman, who has debated such renowned religion-bashers as Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer and Christopher Hitchens--is so disarmingly genial. The debate's original title was "Can Faith and Reason Coexist?", but Lennox and I substituted "science" for "reason" to sharpen our focus.
I suspect Lennox wins over many people by appealing to their hearts as well as intellects. Lennox loves God, loves the world, loves people—even atheists!--and compared to him infidels such as Dawkins must seem mean-spirited. Lennox presents an eloquent case for intelligent design--How could this marvelous world possibly have arisen through sheer chance?—and the consolations of belief in divine justice and an afterlife.
Speaking after Lennox, I called myself a lapsed Catholic turned psychedelic agnostic. I expressed sympathy with several aspects of Lennox's perspective before outlining where our views diverge. Here's a summary of my major points:
WHY I'M NOT AN ATHEIST
*Obviously faith and science can coexist. John Lennox is a demonstration proof, and so are all the brilliant scientists--including physicist George Ellis and others I have interviewed recently--who are religious.
*Anti-religion scientists such as Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking have overstated science's power to solve all the secrets of the universe. Yes, science has helped us map out the structure and history of reality, from the largest to the smallest scales. And yet the origin of the universe and of life and the nature of consciousness remain paradoxically as mysterious as ever.
*Science and religion converge in one important way. The more scientists investigate our origins, the more improbable our existence seems. If you define a miracle as an infinitely improbable event, then our existence, you might say, is a miracle. Scientists try in vain to hand-wave our improbability away with silly tautologies such as the anthropic principle, which says that reality must be as we observe it to be, because otherwise we wouldn't be here to observe it. During so-called religious or mystical experiences, we experience reality's miraculousness—and especially its goodness--in a powerful, visceral way, which makes it hard to believe that reality stems from pure chance. Even Steven Weinberg, a physicist and adamant atheist, once conceded that "sometimes nature seems more beautiful than strictly necessary." My own mystical intuitions keep me from ruling out the possibility of supernatural creation.
WHY I'M NOT RELIGIOUS
*My main objection to Christianity and other monotheistic faiths is the problem of evil, which the religious scholar Huston Smith has called "the shoal on which all theologies founder. " If God is all-powerful, just and loving, why then is existence so painful and unfair for so many people? Why do kids get cancer? Why do earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters kill so many people? I have never encountered a satisfying solution to the problem of evil (although a psychedelic trip more than 30 years ago briefly convinced me that I had solved it).
*Our belief in a personal God stems from our innate narcissism and anthropomorphism. In spite of all the blows dealt to our egos by science—beginning with the demonstration that the Sun and not the Earth is the center of the Solar System—many of us remain convinced that this universe was created for us, and that our destiny is unfolding according to a pre-ordained divine plan. Perhaps because our theory-of-mind modules are so powerful, we are also prone to projecting human qualities, emotions and intentions onto nature.
*Belief in an afterlife and supernatural moral order—in a God who created us and wants the best for us—may be consoling, but it is also infantilizing. Accepting that we are on our own, with no God to save us, can be scary, but it is also exhilarating. And it forces us to take complete responsibility for making this world less painful and more just.
*Each religion insists that there is one supreme meaning to existence, which the religion represents. Unfortunately, different religions present different meanings, so adherents fight over which religion is right. Human history would have been much less violent if we had figured out long ago that there is no universal meaning of life. Unlike scientific truth, which is objective and universal, meaning is personal and subjective, like taste in music or literature or food. Each person should discover his or her own meaning and not insist that others embrace it.
*Without God, Lennox said, there can be no ultimate hope. I vehemently disagree. I am more hopeful than most people I know, whether believers or atheists, and my optimism is based not on wishful thinking but on the enormous progress we have achieved overcoming disease, poverty, oppression and war. I don't have faith in God, but I do have faith in humanity.
Postscript: See the response of John Lennox here.