I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a lot of the arguments I’ve seen for and against many of the things I believe or know to be true. And one of the thoughts I had about it was that I should put some of the things I’ve learned out there, partially just because it helps me to write things down, but mostly to help dispel some of the misunderstandings some people may have about these things, at least in regards to me. So here goes:
Q: I think people who do good only because they anticipate some sort of reward in the hereafter are shallow and mercenary. People should just do good because it’s good or because it helps other people. Therefore, how can you believe in a hereafter or that the idea of a hereafter can make someone good? And who could believe in a pecuniary God anyway?
A: I don’t believe that the ideas of rewards or punishments should drive our motivations, though I believe it can be a good start. When you are working with small children, you often have to use fairly simplistic systems of rewards and punishments to stop bad behaviour and encourage good behaviour (and tell them they whys as well). As they grow older, and their understanding increases, this type of behavioural conditioning can be replaced with more altruistic motivations. That doesn’t mean that we should skip the first lessons, or that the first lessons are bad. It just means that lessons change as our capacity changes (and, just as different children learn different things at different rates, so to with everyone on earth).
So, for instance, when I was younger, much of the good I did was out of a sense of obligation, or of fear that if I didn’t, I would ‘get in trouble’ (that’s a very vague concept much of the time). Many people even now, religious or not, believe that if they follow rules they can avoid bad consequences or be guaranteed good ones. “If I don’t smoke, I can never get lung cancer.” “If I exercise and eat right, I am guaranteed a long and healthy life.” “If I go to college and get a degree, I will definitely make more money than anyone who doesn’t get a degree.” And while that statistically improves your chances, it is not a guarantee. Same as believing in and following God does not guarantee that you won’t suffer or struggle in this life. Because his commandments are very similar: great ideas that really can help people have better lives. I mean, can you imagine what kind of world this would be if we all loved each other as ourselves, didn’t lie, didn’t murder, had faithful spouses, and didn’t get all upset because we didn’t have what our neighbor has?
Now, will a lie instantly ruin your life? Almost never. Same as one cigarette usually won’t kill you. But as soon as you start making exceptions, it becomes easier and easier to make MORE exceptions, and others make exceptions, and the odds that something will go wrong go up, and it can go downhill fast.
Now, over time, I began to realise that rewards, punishments, fear, and incessant guilt were not good motivations. They were even destroying me. But luckily, by that time I had built up enough of a relationship with God and my Saviour that when I imploded, I still knew I could rely on them (and that was about all I could rely on). And I realised that they love me unconditionally. Messing up doesn’t make them hate me. They aren’t sitting there with lightning bolts at hand, waiting to rain destruction upon my head. They want me to be happy. They want me to be successful. And over time, I have rebuilt. I serve others and try to do good things not for rewards or punishments. I do it because I love God, because God and Christ have already done so much for me, they STILL continue to do so much for me, and I want to show how much I love them. Even more, I realised that if they could love me unconditionally, and help me even when I am a jerk or lazy or I just plain suck, then I can do that for other people too. Because God and Christ love them just as much as they love me.
Q: Seriously? How can you even believe in all that mumbo jumbo? The whole idea of religion is just another way for a few people to hold power over the masses. At best, you only believe it because that’s what you were taught.
A: Well, I could bring up all kinds of arguments about how the core tenets of most religions (especially Judeo-Christian ones) don’t give exceptions to the elite members of their societies. No one should commit adultery, not even David the prophet-king (who got in a lot of trouble because he did). No one should shed innocent blood, or lie, or covet. Or I could bring up scientific study after scientific study that show how most religious values–such as marriage, fidelity, honesty, etc.–have highly significant positive impacts on individuals AND society. Not that religions or religious people are flawless. There have been a LOT of people throughout history who have used people’s beliefs against them, often (though not always) by claiming to be a great person in their religious system, or twisting the religious system to make them more powerful. Even GOOD religious leaders make mistakes, and if their human imperfections get equated with their ability to be a religious leader, you seem to have a big dichotomy. But humans are not perfect. Never have been. God and Christ are the only ones to hold that honour. And they allow even their leaders to make mistakes sometimes. Not to mention that holding up people who misused religion for nefarious purposes, as examples indicative of the corruption inherent in all religion, is like saying that just because the water in Flint, Michigan is full of vast amounts of lead and is not potable, that ALL publicly treated water is bad and not drinkable. It’s one of the oldest logical fallacies, the composition fallacy–that if a part of something is one way, then the whole must have the same trait.
At any rate, I have never based my belief system simply on what other people told me and I assumed to be true. I’m not that kind of person. (And honestly, you’ll find that kind of person on BOTH sides of the “is there a God?” debate.) I used the scientific method.
I can see your incredulous meter spiking. “How can you possibly use the scientific method for something so UNscientific?!” Well, I’ll tell you.
In science, you see things in the world, patterns, or phenomena, or behaviour, or whatever, and you’re curious as to how it works and other things about it. Science is based on curiosity, after all. So you do some research: see what other people, often scientists, have had to say about the phenomena. For many people, that’s enough to believe the theories that are out there. But for the sake of the full scientific method, let’s say that’s not enough. It doesn’t answer a particular question that you have. So you gather information from other scientists, experimentation, and observation and you form a hypothesis. An educated guess as to what you think might happen.
After the hypothesis is formed, you experiment and collect data regarding that hypothesis. Now, good scientists, of course, know and accept that the data, when collected correctly and without bias, may not support their hypothesis. They don’t think it will (that’s why they chose that hypothesis), and they don’t want to be wrong, but if they are good scientists, they accept it, tweak the hypothesis as needed, and continue testing.
One of the facts of the scientific method that a lot of people miss, is it’s almost impossible to completely ‘prove’ or ‘disprove’ anything with a single experiment. Or even a lot of experiments. Science isn’t about answering all the questions. It’s about constantly collecting data. The more data you have supporting your hypothesis, the stronger it becomes. The more data you have that goes against your hypothesis, the more you learn how to tweak the original hypothesis to be more true. The more valid your experiments, the better the data, and the more your experiments hold up under different circumstances, the stronger the results. Once you have collected a LOT of data, and made a number of tweaks to the hypothesis, and are getting consistently supportive results, and other people are finding the same things, your hypothesis can be upgraded to a THEORY.
Now, theories are still not facts. They are stronger than hypotheses, They are more accepted as probably true. But, contrary to most popular opinions, we are still collecting data on them because we aren’t 100% positive they are true yet. Some are even disproven after CENTURIES (such as Newton’s 3 laws of motion and law of gravitation that were shown by Einstein to be only partially correct, and better data on Einstein’s theories was found only this last week!), because we didn’t have the means to be able to properly test or collect data on the theory, or some of the original experiments or data were flawed.
So how, you ask, does this apply to belief in God? Quite simple, my friend. I have a lot of observations and questions. Why do people feel emotions the way they do? Why are we here? Why are sunrises and sunsets so inherently beautiful to almost every being on earth? Why do we have music? Lots of things. I collected some data; there’s lots of theories on these things. Lots of people have claimed to have answers. You could call them ‘existential scientists’ if you want. But the ones I knew the most about, and had the most access to, were the Christian, specifically, LDS ones. There is even a chapter in the Book of Mormon (Alma 32, in case you want to look it up) that pretty much invites you to try the scientific theory on questions of faith. I thought that was a good idea. I didn’t want to just take someone else’s word for it. I wanted to know for myself.
So I tested some basic questions. Collected data. That led to tweaks in my theories, sometimes more questions, sometimes some answers. Kept collecting data. Now, some may claim that I can’t collect data on matters of faith. But look at Einstein’s theories. How many years had his theory that immense gravitational wells could warp space time (since space time is more like a fabric), sat out there, pretty much accepted, until we were actually able to collect data on them? Nearly 100 years, right? And yet they were accepted. Not by everyone. And not always immediately. But enough that they weren’t just thrown out. We just knew we couldn’t measure them empirically yet. We didn’t have the means. We had faith in them.
Faith in God is rather similar, if you ask me. It’s pretty hard to measure the amount of peace and comfort that has come to me through my increased relationship with God. It’s pretty hard to assign a value to the promptings and answers that I have received. And it’s impossible to compare how my life has been with choosing to follow God, to how it would have been had I not. The LDS religion even believes that our spirits have mass, just not really at a level that we can detect with our five senses. But the bottom line is this: I have tested the hypotheses I formed about God–that he exists, and that he loves me. I found enough evidence in support of these hypotheses for me to continue to research and collect data along these lines. The more I research and test, the more supporting data I have collected, to the point where I don’t doubt so much anymore. Plus, it has led me to more correlating hypotheses that have also been supported strongly. And the data in the rest of my life is more consistent and reliable when I conform other hypotheses to these hypotheses, rather than the other way around.
It’s like flipping a light switch. If you told an aborigine who has never seen electricity or anything that runs with it, that just touching a button or flipping a switch will fill a room with light without fire or sun, he would think you are crazy. But you are so accustomed to it working, that you have faith that it will work every time, and if the light doesn’t come on, you don’t think, “I KNEW it! I knew it was too good to be true! Obviously this whole electricity and artificial light thing is a scam!” You think, “oh! The bulb must have burned out or the power is out. Or something went wrong with the wiring.” Your faith in the technology is not shaken.
So, I won’t tell you what to believe. I’ll just tell you, IF you want to find out for yourself if it’s true, I could give you some of my data. My experiences. You can choose, if you wish, to find out if my hypotheses hold true for you as well. After all, it’s rather silly to poke fun at the beliefs of another if you are not willing to examine the evidence and entertain even the possibility that they are not complete idiots and there may be some merits to their belief.
Now, since this has grown way too long, I’ll have to save more for another day!