I remember having an argument with a fellow preschooler over where Jesus lived. I naturally assumed Jesus lived somewhere close, specifically over the mountains just in view at the time. She was certain Jesus lived in Heaven, up in the clouds. It was around this time that I had taken a flight on a rainy day and saw what happens when a plane rises above the overcast. There was a bright light, a blue sky, and a floor of glowing clouds as far as I could see. Even at that age, I didn’t look out the window expecting to see Jesus anywhere. I just knew that if this girl from school could see what I was seeing, she’d understand I was right about Jesus living in the mountains just off the playground. When I told her about what I saw and how Jesus was nowhere to be found, she assumed that Jesus must have been under the plane helping it to fly.
I know that who Jesus was and what made him matter to both of us was mostly the same. The disagreement was really over how planes stayed in the air and my having been in a plane to personally see what was out there didn’t make a difference. Her belief about Jesus would have to change before we’d be able to agree on how air planes fly. I’m sure that, had I been allowed, I would have made my way over the mountains just off the playground, caught up with Jesus, and brought him back to explain to her that he wasn’t under airplanes pushing them along.
As much as I’d like to think the argument about Jesus and airplanes was just the kind of thing five year olds do, I have found myself, as an adult, waging a heated preschool debate over matters of comparable gravity. What singles out this childhood experience is the sense of something similar currently reaching into realms I think matter most to the human race. Debates have risen in areas related to science, justice, and how we deal with our own planet, and these conversations are cluttered with useless fragments of belief that don’t belong there. The strongest and most disruptive voices in all this seem rooted solely in belief, the majority of which is associated with God-belief.
For all the God talk I’ve put into this photo, it should be said that in a book by the same name, Sagan’s foremost concern is over how humans are treating each other and The Pale Blue Dot. The subject of God is far into the periphery. At one point, Sagan walks his readers through an exercise in which we imagine ourselves part of an exploratory crew looking at modern Earth for the first time and staying to observe the conditions and activities of the dominant species, humans.
Fun! you down?
“From your orbital perspective, you can see that something has unmistakably gone wrong. The dominant organisms, whoever they are—who have gone to so much trouble to rework the surface—are simultaneously destroying their ozone layer and their forests, eroding their topsoil, and performing massive, uncontrolled experiments on their planet’s climate. Haven’t they noticed what’s happening? Are they oblivious to their fate? Are they unable to work together on behalf of the environment that sustains them all?”
All the signs of intelligent life on Earth would be questionable to any observers from space. Without digressing into all the specific fodder entangling political and scientific trends that may be threatening us, I don’t think the source of our destructive nature is a lack of intelligence as much as it is a crisis of ‘belief’. Further, the matter of how we deal with one another and the planet we share is becoming less of a question of ‘what’ we believe or what facts we know, and more a question of ‘how’ our belief takes its shape.
That said, I confess! I’m a “natural theist”. I don’t remember ever considering the idea of a universe with no higher power anywhere out there. Belief in God has always been like instinct, but something changed in me after seeing a short film of the last “Voyager I” photo of Earth, along with one of Carl Sagan’s most compelling, grounded observations about the rarity, isolation, and vulnerability we inhabit. This is a photo of us as a fuzzy pixel from the standpoint of just under 4 billion miles away. “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us.” To know the distance as a mere number is one thing, but you feel the reality when it encounters any one of your senses. To ‘see’ your own planet barely visible from an arguably short distance in space carries those numbers into something you experience.
It so turns out that if there is a God, a quick look doesn’t strongly suggests that such a being is anywhere out there to be found. The unlikely odds of finding God in the hidden corners of the present universe reaches beyond mere opinion. “Although we certainly do not know the exact nature of every component of the universe”, writes Victor Stenger of the University of Hawaii,(an astronomer known for dealing more directly with God-belief), “the basic principles of physics seem to apply out to the farthest horizon visible to us today.” According to Stenger, this can be said about cosmology as well, “…our existing knowledge can be used to infer the physical processes that took place within a tiny fraction of a second after the start of things.”
In other words, imposing a god assumption on our understanding of the current universe –anything that anticipates the universe is guided by the real-time motions of a being ‘out there’– means the universe stops making sense for us. It’s more serious than having just a difference in opinion. The possibility of “god prints” throughout the universe, anything that necessitates an interruption or suspension of physical laws, cannot be possible. This is where science and theism truly cannot co-exist. If God is present anywhere in this universe, then this universe can only manifest him the same way it does everything else. What happens in the universe, stays in the universe, or else the efficacy and logic for both God and the universe break down together.
For me, this is where God-belief begins. This is God, who moved the universe into being with a single gesture and the subtly of a whisper. It’s a universe set in motion with such mad purpose and innermost feeling, it would be blasphemy to ever interrupt its course. It is a universe where God is manifest only where consciousness, like kind of himself, is possible.
Obviously I think my God-belief is sound, but to anyone else, what I believe about God shouldn’t matter. What I believe isn’t shared with most of my fellow God-believers and, fortunately, that’s never made a difference. We seem to get along because we meet where our joy and awe takes place. It’s more than just a matter of tolerating each other. This is the kind of kinship that makes things like church, worship, prayer, and old school hymns something we share to satisfy the same inner promptings, despite having differences over the details of belief.
Likewise, it was the moment of pause and sense of wonder I felt in a universe without God, that touched the same sensitivities my innate sense of belief could recognize. For me, there was a type of temple experience led by Sagan that could be felt fully in my God-belief with equal sympathies for anyone without God-belief. A sameness makes itself so apparent. There is a specific feeling shared that is rooted in where our belief forms, not the beliefs themselves.
Isaac Asimov seemed blunt about his belief. “Emotionally I am an atheist”, he says. “I don’t have the evidence to prove that God doesn’t exists, but I so strongly suspect he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.” Despite being a ‘Godist’, I feel the same thing Asimov does about his atheism when he says, “I finally decided I’m a creature of emotion and reason.” Going a step beyond merely refusing to be identified with God-belief, Neil deGrasse Tyson explains how he loathes being associated with labels such as ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’. “The moment someone attaches you to a philosophy or a movement,” says Tyson, “they assign all the baggage, and all the rest of the philosophy that goes with it, to you. And when you want to have a conversation, they will assert that they already know everything important that there is to know about you because of that association.”
In a letter from 1970, Asimov relates the same notion in a way that represents the principle difference in a belief that exceeds being limited by ‘atheism, ‘godism’, or anything otherwise. “Have I told you that I prefer ‘rationalism’ to ‘atheism’?” he says, “‘Atheist,’ meaning ‘no God,’ is negative and defeatist. It says what you don’t believe and puts you in an eternal position of defense. ‘Rationalism,’ on the other hand, states what you DO believe: that is, that which can be understood in the light of reason. The question of God and other objects-of-faith are outside reason and play no part in rationalism, thus you don’t have to waste your time in either attacking or defending.”
As much as reason seems to be the common denominator of what I would consider a credible form of belief (one that doesn’t assume interruptions in the ticking universe), I’m convinced that native belief is mainly informed by our self-awareness or what we fundamentally feel about ourselves. Reason alone can never lead us. It can never shape the entire body of belief. It only seems of use to it as an advisor and without belief, reason is silent. It suggests to me that belief is one of those things that seems distinctly human and we not only need it, it is worthy of our trust.
Despite having such a differing set of personal conclusions about the big picture, the nature of belief tends to start looking and feeling the same when the ‘sanctuary of reason and fact’ isn’t being defaced by it. The result represents a signature of the human essence expressed in a fundamental belief that is always the same and always right, as is apparent from the summary interpretation Sagan draws from the standing of our planet, “To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
Scott Winter is from Northern California and is currently known to be a dangerous, but well meaning technophile. You’ll find him somewhere in Cloverdale either walking around in the middle of the night, at the family business, watching silent movies, or enjoying time with his wife and three kids. He and Andrea currently maintain the Facebook page “Christians for a Secular Society”.