I begin with a bit of self-disclosure. I don’t have a religious or spiritual bone in my body. (Yes, maybe even less than Richard Dawkins.) But this doesn’t mean that I’m not open-minded about research on happiness and religion. As I write in my book, The How of Happiness, just because (most) religious beliefs cannot be empirically tested or falsified doesn’t mean that the consequences of having religious faith, participating in religious life, or searching for the sacred cannot be studied. Indeed, a growing body of psychological science is suggesting that religious folks are happier, healthier, and recover better after traumas than nonreligious ones.
Consider just two examples:
• If you are having serious cardiac surgery and receive strength and comfort from your religious faith, you’ll be almost 3 times more likely to be alive 6 months later.
• 47 percent of people who report attending religious services several times a week describe themselves as “very happy,” versus 28 percent of those who attend less than once a month.
The trouble is that researchers don’t really know why.
Now I’m in Bethesda, Maryland. Another day, another MRI scan. This time, the prompt on the monitor I’m gazing at inside the machine leaves no room for a nuanced answer:
There is a god.
I have a few seconds to answer yes or no on the clicker in my hand, but I am stumped about which button to push.
As blood surges in my head to locales associated with religious belief, I’m thinking that this question, for me, may be unanswer able. I am essentially nonreligious. I seldom go to church, and I often find myself agreeing with the likes of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens that organized religions are mostly artifacts of premodern cultures that in ancient times created all-powerful deities to explain and cope with the unknown. I believe that overzealous piety has led to horrors such as the Inquisition and to dogma that at times becomes so rigid that it blatantly contradicts scientific proof (and sometimes common sense). Yet I know that religion clearly comforts people. Studies show that patients who pray often tend to do better than those who do not. Nor can I deny the crucial importance of spirituality, a sense that one’s goals can be bigger than just looking out for oneself.
Bottom line: I have no proof that a god exists or that the universe is anything but random atoms assembling and disassembling without a design or a creator. My thumb twitches above the “no” button.
And yet I lack definitive proof that God does not exist. It is possible that he (or she or it) is real. Not the man with the beard depicted in medieval paintings, but some force far beyond our brains’ comprehension. If there is even a 0.0001 percent chance that this is so, can I answer no?
Time is up. My thumb moves toward yes, and I press it. I feel exhausted by so many thoughts racing through my brain; the neuronal exertion must have lit up my brain like a city at night seen from 35,000 feet.
The Collision Detection Blog commenting on a an ‘easter egg’ from the new computational search engine Wolfram Alpha:
Wolfram Alpha is a super cool question-answering system. Ask it about something factual, and it’ll offer up whatever specific info it has — such as the dimensions of a #10 screw or a definition of “20/50 vision” (including an eye chart fuzzed out at the right line!) Wolfram Alpha can also answer queries that require it to collect together, parse and compare bits of data, such as finding the “10 nearest stars” or comparing the populations of Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily.
But what happens when you ask it a metaphysical question? I tried the query above — “Does God exist?” — and cracked up at the answer:
Why are religious people measurably happier and more content than non-religious and non-believing ones?
Why is a secularist forced to answer Yes to the does-God-exist question in a moment of tense but honest psychological wrestling with his self?
Why is an excellent and scientific (though reticently self-referred as ‘poor’) engine gives a humble answer when asked the God-question?
This time round, I want my readers to provide me with the counterpoint.
I know I do have some loyal readers out there. They may not agree with my occasional rantings against modern science (or rather against the way science is being used today), but they keep with me because of our common faith and certainty; and because of our common fate of striving to hold our head high in the increasingly crazy world of hedonia, immorality, atheism, discontent, extremism, …..
After I have accumulated at least 5 different, reflective &/or elaborative answers as comments, I will post them as Part II of this post, annotated with appropriate commentary &/or references if I found suitable.