Thanks for the Easter card and 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 about our family. 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 ones) with unorthodox, alien thinking.
I do spend a lot of time contemplating things, and I believe that I have come at my provisional beliefs with an openness and intellectual honesty that is unusual. I do not have an axe to grind with anyone or anything. I am simply interested in discovering truth, and the pursuit of this truth 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, primarily because you asked and appear to be genuinely interested. So, in no particular order, here is a look at 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. Of course, 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 either question, and the questions themselves may be unnecessary. I default, then, to the simplest explanation possible (Ockham’s Razor), which is that existence has always existed, in some form or other. There is no beginning or end.
2) The question of evil. Why does evil exist? This is one of the most difficult things 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 Theorem one is that it necessarily implies that God created evil. Theorem two: God created everything but evil. The problem with Theorem two is that it necessarily implies that something (evil) exists outside of God, which ruins all other arguments 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. I find this thought so appalling that I am compelled to discard the whole notion.
3) The question of morality. What defines and motivates right behavior? Believers, of course, put forth the idea that God defines right behavior, and love of God (or fear of God, more commonly) motivates us. Unbelievers are skeptical of 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 useless. “God’s wishes” have been interpreted by hundreds of religions and thousands of prophets around the world. There not only is no agreement between them, there is radical disagreement (e.g., about a billion folks believe it is okay to fly airplanes into buildings and kill innocent “heathens”). Even within Christianity, there is a terribly uneven history and perspective about what constitutes good. 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. Setting these obvious (and numerous) issues aside, a far deeper issue 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 in some developmental form or other 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. I find it much easier believe that the relatively recent arrival of religion was in part to codify pre-existing moral developments that evolved naturally, than to believe we were amoral and directionless brutes until 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 right solely because he thinks God is watching and he might go to hell.
4) The question of Man’s origin . Where did Man come from? This has been a lively debate throughout the ages. On one hand, the Creationists (and more recently, the Intelligent Design advocates) believe that God created man in his own image and likeness. On the other hand, the Darwinian 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 for each of the two positions can yield only one intellectually honest answer. I say 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 Darwinian 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 is 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 so overwhelming and so consistent that only people who willfully choose ignorance can deny it.
5) The question of love. Is God 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 come from pixie dust sprinkled by 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 (this will be hard for you), picture yourself in a world without God. Do you think you would not love Robert or Theresa or Mary? 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 life go on? 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 terrifying. But is life after death a reality, or is just a delusion we nurture as a species in order 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, we see billions of people die, some very close to us. All of them decay, and none of them rise from the dead, as near as 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” is so obvious and ordained, why are there so many conflicting views of it? Let’s say there are a hundred religions (there are undoubtedly more, but it would be hard to argue that there are less). Within these hundred religions are widely divergent views of whether god exists, who god is, how many gods there are, what the moral laws are, whether there is life after death or not, whether reincarnation occurs or not, etc. etc. Believers of each of the hundred religions will 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 believers doubt the veracity of 99 out of 100 religions. Non-believers go just one step further and doubt the veracity of 100 out of 100 religions. For me, I draw the conclusion that no clear answer emerges from the polyglot of religions, so I am therefore content to use my own senses and mind 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 consider 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. Second, my own beliefs, as partially sketched out above, are the result of some very long and very deep contemplation. I do not hold these beliefs because I am 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…