Thanks for the Easter card and for your thoughts and concerns about my faith.
I am deeply touched by your concern, and the concern of the rest of our family. Such concern is one of the things that I truly appreciate. It is such a special thing that our family bias is toward support and concern, rather than condemnation and criticism. I count this as one of the great blessings of my life.
I don’t talk much about my beliefs, partly because there is a depth and complexity to them that does not make for good casual conversation, and partly because I don’t want to threaten anyone in the family (especially the impressionable youngsters) with unorthodox thinking.
I spend a lot of time contemplating things, and I believe that I have come to my provisional beliefs with openness and intellectual honesty. I don’t have an ax to grind with anyone or anything. I am simply interested in discovering truth, which is one of the great joys of my life.
Despite my normal reluctance to talk about such things, I am going to open up a bit with this letter, since you asked and appear to be genuinely interested. Please bear in mind that there continues to be a warm place in my heart for many of the principles of Christianity, despite my discomfort with its basic supernatural premise. So, in no particular order, here are some of my provisional beliefs.
1) The question of existence. To me, this is the most mysterious of all questions. Why is there anything at all? To believers and unbelievers, this is a challenging question. Believers say that things exist because God created them. Unbelievers are unfulfilled by this, because it doesn’t really answer anything, and only leads to the next logical question, which is why then does God exist. In my view, no one has the answer to the question of existence, and the question itself may be unnecessary. Thus, I default to the simplest explanation, which is that existence has always existed, in some form or other. There is no beginning or end, only change.
2) The question of evil. Why does evil exist? This is a difficult question to reconcile with the notion of an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent God. There are two possible theorems to describe the relationship of God to evil. Theorem One: God created everything. The problem with this theorem is that it necessarily implies that God created evil. Theorem Two: God created everything but evil. The problem with this theorem is that it necessarily implies that something (evil) exists outside of God, which seems to ruin a critical argument about the nature of God. Theorems aside, when I observe the world and see the hatred, randomness, brutality, violence, cruelty, and devastation that results from both human and natural causes, I find it difficult to see an all-powerful, all-loving God at the root of it all. If the common notion of God has any meaning, it must be that he had something to do with the existence of evil. This thought is so unsettling that it compels me to question the whole notion of God.
3) The question of morality. What defines and motivates right behavior? Believers put forth the idea that God defines right behavior, and that the love of God (or the fear of God, more commonly) motivates us. Unbelievers are skeptical about how this is known, and are puzzled as to how early humans managed to get along before they discovered God. How do we as a species come to know God’s wishes? The trite answer of believers is through the Bible and the Ten Commandments. Upon deeper examination, this answer is suspect. “God’s wishes” as expressed by the Bible have been interpreted by hundreds of religions and thousands of prophets around the world. Despite having a common source for their morality, there is radical disagreement. Some Christians are for abortion, some against. Some Christians are for capital punishment, some against. Some Christians are for war (e.g., the Crusades, or the “Troubles” in Ireland), others against. Some Christians justified human slavery, others were opposed. Some Christians are Marxists, and some are Capitalists. Setting these obvious (and numerous) issues aside, a far deeper question for me is what did early humans use a moral guide before they discovered religion? Religion is a very recent development (perhaps in the last 10,000-20,000 years). Humans have existed for an estimated two million years. It seems ludicrous to think that they did not have a moral code of some kind, even early on. Surely, there had to be a way to maintain peace and stability within tribes and relationships. Surely, such things as trustworthiness and familial loyalty were natural elements of early human relationships, religion or no religion, god or no god. The Golden Rule was a moral guideline for every civilization, irregardless of religious beliefs. I find it much easier to believe that the relatively recent emergence of religion was in part an effort to codify preexisting moral developments that evolved naturally, than to believe we were amoral and directionless brutes until a “representative” of God scribbled something on stone tablets. For the sake of brevity on this topic, let me summarize by suggesting that morality began without religion, and can stand alone without it. This is not to say that certain religions have not added to our general wisdom about morality; indeed, I think they have. But they were not the source of morality, nor are they even a necessary precondition for it today. I have greater respect for a person who does the right thing because he recognizes its inherent rightness, than the person who does the right thing solely because he fears God and wants to avoid his wrath.
4) The question of Man’s origin . Where did Man come from? This has been a lively debate throughout the ages. Creationists (and more recently, the Intelligent Design advocates) believe that God created man in his own image and likeness. Evolutionists believe that Man is one branch of an enormous river of genetic change that began 3.5 billion years ago. A sincere observation of the evidence can yield only one intellectually honest answer. I claim this for two reasons. First, I have an open invitation to anybody to present a single piece of evidence supporting Creationism or Intelligent Design. Just one piece of evidence. I’m still waiting, after 30 years. Second, the body of evidence supporting Evolution is staggering. Are there gaps? Certainly, just as there are gaps in every theory man has ever developed about anything. However, I would rank Evolution as the one of the best documented theories we have, just behind Quantum Mechanics, and just ahead of Gravity. With recent developments in the mapping of the genomes of humans and other species, it seems impossible to doubt the reality of evolution. It is written into the genetic code of all living creatures, and it can be observed happening in real time. The body of evidence from so many different disciplines (biology, archaeology, anthropology, geology, genetics, chemistry, history, math, etc.) is consistent and overwhelming.
5) The question of love. Is God the source of love, or is love a natural outgrowth of being human? Many believers prefer the perspective that love is impossible without God, that it is a feeling of such potency and purity that it must surely have arisen from a benevolent Supreme Being. Non-believers prefer the perspective that love is one of many emotions that arise naturally out of our evolution and circumstance. As a thought experiment, picture yourself in a world without God. Do you think you would not love your own children? I think that you would, and you would love them just as much. You would love them because they are flesh of your flesh, because you have invested your life in them, because you have a genetic propensity to care for their survival, because you have a rewarding relationship with them, etc. etc. We love because we are human. And that is not a bad thing. In my view, to suggest that love is only possible in the presence of God is to diminish the true meaning and power of the emotion.
6) The question of what happens after death. Does some form of life go on after death? Emotionally, this may be the most compelling mystery confronting us. Most religions (not all) believe that there is indeed life after death. This is a natural hope of all humans, I suppose. Life is precious, and the notion of it ending is disappointing at best, and terrifying at worst. But is life after death a reality, or is it just a delusion we nurture to avoid the stark finality of our temporal existence? Like everyone, I hope that the life-after-death theory is the correct one. However, this is another case where there is no evidence to support the theory. From a practical and objective viewpoint, billions of people die, some very close to us. All of them decay, and none of them rise from the dead, at least from what we can observe. Aside from a few unsubstantiated myths (e.g., Jesus, who not even his fellow Jews believe rose from the dead), there truly is no evidence of folks being alive after dying. Despite all of our hopes and wishes (mine included), the idea seems to contradict everything we really know and have observed about existence (especially the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics).
7) The question of so many religions. If the “truth” of religion is so obvious and ordained, why are there so many conflicting views of it? Let’s say there are a thousand religions (there are undoubtedly more, but it would be hard to argue that there are less). These thousand religions profess widely divergent views of whether god exists, who god is, how many gods there are, what the moral laws are, whether or not there is life after death, whether reincarnation occurs or not, etc. etc. Believers of each of the thousand religions all profess that theirs is the “true faith” (or else they would be the believer of one of the others). This creates a situation in which even true believers doubt the veracity of 999 out of 1,000 religions. Non-believers go just one step further and doubt the veracity of 1,000 out of 1,000 religions. I draw the conclusion that no clear answer emerges from the polyglot of religions. Therefore, I’m content to use my own senses and the tool of reason to interpret the world I live in. I feel closer to the truth this way. And, the investigation and discovery that comes from it (rather than blind acceptance of dogma), is a great joy.
In closing, your concern about my faith is very much appreciated. I’m guessing that what I’ve written is not what you wanted to hear. But I’d like for you to appreciate two things. First, I have no interest in changing how you feel about your faith. I wrote this letter, not to convince you of anything, but to thank you for your concern and to let you know that there is some depth to my thinking. If your faith fulfills you and brings you joy, then the last thing in the world I would want to do is to ruin it (that’s why I’m never the one who brings up this topic in family discussions). Second, my own beliefs, as partially sketched out above, are the result of some very intense contemplation. I don’t hold these beliefs because I’m angry with the Catholic Church, or because I want to hurt or disappoint my family. I hold them because, at this point in time, they seem to be true. But I am always open to greater wisdom when it comes along…