Religion: Comfort for the Masses?

As the dominant species on earth, we have come to think of ourselves as the overlords of all we survey. We are self sufficient, successful, and intelligent. We have overcome massive obstacles in the evolutionary ladder, made great leaps in technology, developed the concept of society as we know it today, have reached the furthest corners of the earth and now we are gradually strengthening our tenuous grip on outer space. In becoming what we are, we have been through many socio-economic upheavals, survived multiple natural and man made disasters of cataclysmic proportions, and have continuously bettered ourselves. Man today is far cry from his ape like cave dwelling ancestors.

Throughout the ages society has generally believed in the existence of powers greater than its own. For those primitive hunters, fire came from the heavens, thrown down by a force much greater than any they had. Many thousands of years later, people believed in many different sprits and Gods. The Greeks had many myths and legends, the Romans others. Today there is a veritable plethora of different beliefs, cults, religions and sects. Man has always sought something to believe in, a power greater than his own, to explain certain things about the world in which he lives.

Religion, for want of a better word to describe this collection of ideas and viewpoints, has been used for many purposes. It has explained what science has not been able to, by giving frameworks in which the universe could have been (ultimately) created. It has been used as an excuse for wars, such as the Crusades, and it has provided us with many beautiful examples of architecture throughout the centuries. The most widely accepted view of religion, however, is that it provides something for people to believe in. Whether Christian or Cult, Buddhist or Bahai, people are constantly searching for answers in their lives, wondering about their existence here on earth, what happens when they finally die, and the rest of life's pressing existential questions. Religion provides the answers to these musings, and explanations as to why we're here.

In this context, religion can be easily labelled as a luxury which society has been able to develop to make itself feel comfortable. It always feels better knowing that there is some sort of greater power running cosmic affairs while the average little person goes about their daily business. A development of this point of view leads to the conclusion that religion is a comfort-lie: conjured up by those in power to allow those under their control to do their will without actually realising it. It has the added bonus of keeping people happy, and can also provide a source of income (such as in the medieval ages when the Catholic church was a very lucrative concept).

I personally disagree with this viewpoint. As a scientist, I feel that I can take the luxury of stating that I am not completely ignorant of the advances humanity has made, the theories that have been postulated and found to be correct, nor of the application of logic and reason. Science compels its followers to observe a process or object, suggest a possible explanation for a phenomenon, and subsequently perform tests to prove or disprove the original hypothesis. Such a sequence of processes can be applied to any subject, including religion, to assess its validity and the likelihood of it, as a hypothesis, being true.

Many times I have been accused of being blind in my faith. Growing up in a Christian family I would have been "force-fed" religion, complying with parental wishes and consequently undergoing the delusion that so many others have before me. This is incorrect. As a mature person, I have the choice to believe or not believe in something. As a scientist, the obvious mechanism for making that decision is the analysis of the hypothesis to ascertain whether it fits the known facts.

At this point I feel it will of benefit to digress slightly and talk a little about Philosophy. I cannot claim to know a great deal about the subject, but the little I do will serve to illustrate the point that will be made below. Currently, some philosophers question why man is on this earth, the purpose we have for "being here", and what the "meaning" of life (if there is such a thing), actually is. Others, meanwhile, go to the extreme of questioning the fact that we exist at all: are we just figments of our own imagination, does anything actually happen in the universe as a consequence of any of our perceived actions? In this sense religion seems (at least to me), a more concrete concept than the musings about whether we really exist at all!

As a scientist, I cannot conclusively disprove or prove the hypothesis that all the Oxygen molecules in this room will not gradually diffuse out and eventually leave me suffocated. However, I know from statistical analysis, countless experiments performed on gaseous diffusion, and from the obvious personal experience that this doesn't take place. It is the same with nearly everything in life. Of course it can be argued that I am now venturing into the domain of philosophy, but any scientist has to admit the above: we cannot "prove" many things. Instead we rely on experience, inconclusive evidence, and of course experiments.

It therefore logically follows that science is not far different from religion in terms of credibility. Admittedly in the western world science tends to be the much more talked about and readily believed, but this is because most science is of benefit to people, or at least does not affect them adversely, hence they are much more ready to listen and believe it. Have you ever seen a single atom? No one has, not directly. Of course there are many pictures of crystals showing atoms, but these are from technologies such as X-Ray crystallography, for which we make the assumption that we know how the waves emitted behave and hence what the atomic picture looks like. There is of course a large amount of corroborative evidence to support the theories proposed (e.g. "the atom exists"!), but none of it can be treated as concrete proof.

To make a non-scientific analogy, if a criminal is seen by a crowd of people to enter a shop and demand all the money, there is basically conclusive and concrete proof to imprison the person in question. However, most crimes aren't like that, and hence multiple pieces of evidence, inconclusive on their own, are needed, as well as careful consideration by a jury as to whether the defendant is guilty. In the end the jury will (hopefully!) decide on the basis of the evidence, on the correct verdict: but they cannot prove their view beyond all doubt, only all reasonable doubt.

I haven't seen God. I haven't seen the wind either, but I feel and see the effects of the wind. Likewise, I have felt God's touch on my life and have seen it in the lives of others. There are many things that are beyond coincidence in my life, things which I prayed about and God answered. Not always in the manner I would have expected, but looking back I can see that he did answer my prayer in the way that was best for me. I cannot argue with the fact that religion is comforting: but it seems to me that as an argument it is pointless! Of course it's comforting, otherwise why bother believing it?

The view I take is that having been provided with enough evidence in my life alone, (not to mention the lives of others), I have a solid basis for believing that God exists. Like a jury, I cannot prove beyond all doubt that God does exist, but then, I can't prove to that extent that atoms exist either. So in this sense I have a case for believing in God. Of course I could make the decision that the evidence wasn't conclusive enough, and that in fact God doesn't exist. There is a fundamental problem with this: science attempts to explain everything, and there comes a point where probability and complex hypotheses cannot explain why some things take place. It is a well known fact among mathematicians that the most unlikely things actually occur at a frequency well above what they should: why? Given that the only plausible explanation put forward thus far is the existence of God, would it not make sense to believe it? After all, the scientific community believed in J.J. Thompson's "plum pudding" model of the atom until Rutherford showed otherwise!

Those people who ask for conclusive proof before they believe in God are missing the point: religion is about having faith. If we all knew that God existed as categorically as we know the sun will rise tomorrow on earth (we can't prove it beyond all doubt though!), then it would of course mean that we all believed in him and the Christian religion. We wouldn't have to trust in the fact that God was there, because we'd know he was there, helping us along, carrying out his plan for us, and so on. Christianity doesn't work like that. Belief in God means that we take the risk of it not being true, and therefore God rewards us.

I cannot prove beyond all doubt that God exists. But from my analysis of the situation, I am confident enough in the theory that he does to believe it. And by believing I obtain more and more evidence for that theory day by day. It's up to you to do your own analysis, and decide whether you're willing to take the risk of believing it.