The existence of God

The debate over whether or not science disproves the existence of God has been going on for many years. A lot of it centres on a misunderstanding by both sides of what science can and cannot tell us. The fact is that science cannot pontificate on the existence or otherwise of god. We don't have the data. We can, however, approach the question from another angle. By looking at what science has told about how the world works, we can now see that religion has an insuperable problem in its claim, not that there is a god of some sort somewhere/everywhere, but in the claims religion makes as to the nature of the god it asks us to believe in.
Most of the ancient claims for the direct involvement of God in what went on have been abandoned by the religious community in the light of science. We no longer believe that Zeus stands on a mountain hurling lightening bolts at us. Religious leaders, however, still assert that, at a minimum, the universe must have been created by their God and so he is responsible for all that goes on in it, except to the extent that we interfere to make it worse.
But no one can deny that this physical world, which God claims to have created, in and of itself brings horrendous suffering and death to us, his flock. The planet itself is subject to physical upheaval and a simple consideration of how life operates on earth shows it to be species feeding off species, often in the most horrendous way.
The standard religious response to the suffering which we see around us is that it has an unknown higher purpose, one which we finite beings cannot grasp. This does not make much sense.  Simply to say 'we haven't the faintest idea why things happen' wouldn't be accepted as very impressive even by the most devoted.  Many religious leaders have given at least partial explanations - they have blamed natural disasters on perceived shortcomings in morality in the area affected. They explain suffering through illness in terms of patience and promoting faith in God.  In other words, suffering has a moral purpose.  Now we are often asked to accept beliefs that have no obvious basis in fact, but in this instance the facts actually show the belief to be untenable.
When we didn't know how the world worked, it was accepted that, when earthquakes happened, a reasonable explanation for them was that God was unhappy with the people in that area.  Now we can see that things are not like this at all.  Plate tectonics tells us that major earthquakes happen because they are near fault lines while, in other areas, earthquakes are almost always minor events, if they happen at all.   Likewise, when we didn't know how illness happened, a possible explanation was again that God had specifically made it happen.  The plague was God's way of telling us that he was unhappy with our actions.  Now, by and large, we know what the causes of illness are. You may say, of course, that not everyone becomes ill or is affected by an earthquake and not everyone dies of the plague, so the idea of the unknown higher purpose can still be invoked.  But can it?
With the scientific knowledge we have amassed, we can see not only that there is a remarkable correlation of suffering with geophysical and temporal factors, but we can also see what causes that correlation to exist and it's obviously not divine intervention.  Those who live near to volcanoes or what we now know to be fault-lines have always on average suffered more than those who live in places where tectonic plates do not grind together.  Those who co-exist with mosquitoes or tsetse flies tend to suffer more from terrible illness than those living well away from these health hazards.  And not only that, but science has, over time, enabled us to find out the causes of the many illnesses we suffer from and how to prevent and treat them.  The introduction in the 19th century of drainage schemes in cities, for example, had a remarkable effect on illness and premature death.  Which means that, at least in the West, we now suffer far less and have significantly longer life-expectancies than did our ancestors. Indeed, centenarians are now becoming quite common-place.
So then people are more likely to suffer if they live in geologically active or disease-ridden locations.  We also see that those who lived in previous eras on average suffered more, much more, than us.  Does this mean that our ancestors were in greater need of having suffering inflicted on them?  Perhaps because of that higher purpose which we do not understand?  Is it perhaps the case that those who now live in the wrong place, whether on fault-lines or near malaria infested swamps, are on average more in need of this extra burden of suffering in order to fulfil the unknown higher purpose?  Or should we simply recognise this theory of the unknown higher purpose for what it is - a last desperate attempt to keep us in thrall to religion?
Although science cannot disprove the existence of some sort of god, it enables us to see the hollowness of the standard religious position.   The reality of how the world works makes a nonsense of it.  The whole idea of a creator god who is all-powerful, loving and just is seen to be a myth, perhaps understandable in a time of ignorance, but now long past its use-by date.
And, of course, the simple fact of the correlation of suffering with location in time and place is also perfectly consistent with there being no god of any sort. So then, just as before, it is up to us to continue to show the concern for others that we now know has never been shown by God.  It is and always has been our very human concern which has resulted in the doing of incredible good over the years by so many individuals for their fellow human beings, their neighbours.

23 November 2017

Paul Buckingham

To read "God and suffering", a version of this argument from a more religious (Christian) perspective, please click here



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