A Scientist’s View of Religion

Author questions the rationality of his religious beliefs

By Marvin Druger

This article will deal with an issue that is sensitive for almost everyone — religion.

There are many religious beliefs in the world. Each of us is born into a religious culture and we are trained at an early age to follow the precepts of that religion. I was born into the Hebrew culture.

As a youngster, I went to special classes after school to learn how to read Hebrew and how to pray to God. Unfortunately, although I learned how to read the words in the Hebrew prayer book, the meanings were never fully explained. My family followed the traditions of Passover, Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and other Jewish holidays. I fasted on Yom Kippur to atone for my sins, but I never really thought about what my sins were.

I had a mental image of a bearded old man sitting in heaven who watched over all life on the earth, including me. This was my concept of God. When things went wrong, I prayed to God to help me out. Sometimes He did, and sometimes, not.

As I grew older, I began to have doubts about this old man in heaven that monitored all life on earth. I began to question the rationality of my religious beliefs. How can one spiritual figure monitor the tremendous diversity of life? Why did so many bad things happen to good people? Why were some prayers answered and some not? Did God really care if a football player prayed and then scored a touchdown? How could a Bible be truthful for so many centuries? Why did God make it such that every living thing eventually dies? When I asked these questions to religious people, I was told that, “God works in mysterious ways.”

As a scientist, I adopted evolutionary views that seemed rational and convincing. Much of “God’s” doings could be explained scientifically, but I never saw a conflict between religion and science. I would tell my students that there are different ways of viewing the world. One way we call “science.” Humans invented a logical way of interpreting nature, based upon unbiased observation, experimentation, repetition of results and verification.

Another way of viewing the world is religion, based upon the Bible and spiritual beliefs. Science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. Nor can religion prove or disprove the existence of God. Religion is simply another way of viewing the world and I don’t know which view is correct. In fact, nobody really knows. So as a scientist, I can be religious and can believe in a spiritual world as well, and many scientists are very religious.

Beliefs lead to conflict

Religious beliefs have been the source of wars for centuries. The basic problem was revealed to me through a conversation with a colleague who was resigning from teaching at Sydney University, Australia, to work full time for his church. I said to him, “There are so many different religious beliefs and so many different gods. Somebody has to be wrong.” He responded, “Yes, but you know who is wrong. They are.”

This comment emphasizes the fundamental problem that leads to wars. Some religious groups believe that their religion is the ultimate truth, and they will go to war to defend their religious beliefs. It is almost impossible to win a religious war, especially when believers are willing to sacrifice themselves in the name of their beliefs.

My own belief is that death is the greatest mystery, and this unsolvable puzzle has led to the development of religions as a coping mechanism. Why do all living things eventually die? You can live the purist life imaginable, and do many good deeds, but eventually you will die anyhow. Is there an after-life, or do our atoms and molecules simply continue after death as part of other living things. Who really knows?

Religious beliefs help us cope with death, but religion does not explain death. Spiritual beliefs help us deal with the loss of loved ones, but such beliefs don’t explain death. I respect and am even envious of people who have strong religious beliefs. They are equipped to deal with disasters in life that are likely to happen to anyone.

Prayers help soothe inner feelings, but they may not change anything external. I think about life and death as natural phenomena that have evolved on our planet. Much scientific activity has been focused on finding life on other planets. Why is the Earth so special? Earth is not in the center of anything. It is in one spiral arm of our galaxy — the Milky Way — that has at least 100 billion stars and many more planets revolving around these stars.

Earth is but a tiny dot in one of the multitude of galaxies that make up the universe. Surely, there is another planet the same distance from its sun as we are from our sun, with the proper ingredients to form life. We may never find such life in the universe, but, if we do, does that life also experience death? Has the mystery of death been the foundation for religious beliefs on those planets?

I was thinking of how infinitesimally small each human being is in the vastness of the universe. Yet, each human is unique, and, instead of killing each other, every human should have the opportunity to live his or her life fully. Will prayers help? I wish I knew. Whenever I encounter very religious people, I always think, “I hope you’re right.”

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