Over the holiday weekend I had two epiphanies concerning those two topics my mother told me never to discuss in polite company, religion and politics.
The first revolved around religion. Highly regarded physicist Stephen Hawking announces in his new book that God is not an essential ingredient to creation. Indeed the Big Bang can be explained without God in the equation. It is possible, according to Hawking, for something to come from nothing. I’d estimate there were three types of reaction to this finding. Atheists rejoiced. Polite Christians said Hawking was mistaken at best and spiritually lost at worst. Impolite Christians told Hawking that God had some choice words for him upon his imminent death from Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS). I was in none of these three camps. I’ve never called myself an atheist because I find most atheists to be as dogmatic in their disbelief as the most obnoxious Christian. In fact, a conservative friend of mine recently remarked that for folks who don’t believe in God, atheists manage to talk about Him almost more than the average religious person. I tend to agree. I’ve always maintained, I don’t know if there is or is not a God. I don’t find His existence relevant to my everyday life. I also don’t believe that anyone else knows for sure that there is a God.
The epiphany occurred when I thought about Hawking’s comments about gravity. He said something, which I admittedly don’t understand, about gravity being the foundation of something arising from nothing. Have you ever seen gravity? I haven’t. Yet every night we go to bed 100% sure that we will awake the next morning to find our bed firmly on the floor. We are equally sure that when we emerge from bed, we will not float up to the ceiling or for that matter that our entire neighborhood won’t be hovering in mid-air. I’m sorry but this is not science. This is faith. We have faith that gravity, the force that keeps us grounded, will not suddenly disappear. Now most folks would tell me “I believe in gravity” is not equivalent to “I believe in God”. I’m not at all sure.
When I studied advanced mathematics in college, one of the things that really bothered me was when we started discussing concepts that defied my notion of reality. An example is the Klein bottle which I would call a three dimensional version of the Möbius strip. You can construct a Möbius strip by simply taking a strip of paper and gluing its ends together but first twisting the strip once before you glue. The circle you have created has the following quality. A fly walking on the outside of the circle will find itself on the inside of the circle once it gets beyond the twist. In a sense this represents the fly moving from a two dimensional space, momentarily into a three dimensional space as it moves from the “outside” of the circle to the “inside”. In the Klein bottle, a fly walking along the handle of the bottle can conceptually, go into a fourth dimension and then wind up on the inside of the bottle. Although rational to any competent mathematician, it was to me totally preposterous and it was the point at which mathematics started to resemble religion to me and I became disenchanted. Mathematics scholars would simply call me ignorant. Perhaps they are right? But let’s get back to the gravity example. I take gravity for granted. I have often heard believers in God say “how can you not see evidence of Him everywhere you look?” Indeed, if one has faith in God as I have faith in gravity, then He is evident everywhere around us.
This brings us to the next epiphany, related to the first one. I spend a good amount of time arguing with folks on the Internet about politics. We live in such polarizing times that I often encounter folks who say things like:
“Obama wants to destroy this country.”
“Our government wants to make slaves of us all.”
“We have abandoned our Constitution.”
“We will have Sharia law here any day now if we’re not careful.”
The list goes on and on. I defy anyone to take these comments out of context and not identify their speaker as a paranoid schizophrenic. I’m sorry but taken on the face of it, these comments constitute the ravings of a nutjob. However if we factor in the prism of perception that bends the clear light of day and distorts it, then these comments are not so crazy. The folks who say these things interpret the signals around them in a way completely different from me. Perhaps I’m the nutjob? The bottom line is that debate with people who say extreme things like this is futile. How can I possibly convince someone that Obama does not want to destroy this country if every signal they absorb convinces them otherwise? It is like trying to convince a believer that God does not exist or convince an atheist that He does. Everything Obama says passes through this prism of perception that makes me believe in him and makes radical conservatives think he is the anti-Christ.
For those who really believe the United States is fundamentally in danger of collapsing from within, there is no changing minds. Will this stop me from debating? Not likely. I enjoy the exchange of ideas, even when I am confronted with what I believe are irrational ones. Perception is reality. It is true in religion as well as politics and it accounts for intractability from both ends of the belief spectrum.