Invitation to the Study of Religion Chapter 4 – How do we know whether or not “the Lord” exists?
The short answer is, we can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God.
A question of probability
The best that most of us can do is observe what is around us, learn what science can tell us, study religion, and then try to reach a common sense or intuitive conclusion about whether some sort of God does or does not exist. For most people, the question is, What appears to be most likely? and we answer it to the best of our ability.
One group of people, however, has a different perspective – that small group of people called “mystics.” Mystics are people who see and hear God, or, at least, they have a very strong subjective belief that they do.
Unfortunately, true mystics usually don’t like to talk about their experiences, so it’s hard to locate a mystic, let alone get one to tell you about his, or her, experience of God. (I don’t take it on myself to judge other individuals, but as a general rule, I’m suspicious of people who get up on a stage and tell me God spoke to them, especially if they say God wants me to give them money!)
I’ve known a few mystics, however, because mysticism runs in my family. Color blindness also runs in my family, so when I was a kid, I just assumed that being a mystic was sort of like having good color vision – some people see red and green, some people don’t; and some people see God, some people don’t. The mystics I grew up around were very normal people except that they occasionally saw or talked to God. As a kid, I naturally assumed that their account of what they experienced was true. My relatives are a pretty dependable bunch, if they told me they saw a car accident or a yellow cat or a beauty queen, I would believe them. So why wouldn’t I believe them when they tell me they saw God?
Most of the mystics in my family were Christians, but my father was both a mystic and an agnostic. He was a nature mystic who experienced a sense of unity in the universe, but he did not experience the presence of a personal God, and since he was a skeptical minded person, he did not believe in a personal God. My Aunt Peggy sat at my father’s bedside when he was dying and asked him to pray with her and accept Jesus. My father laughed and waved her away, saying, “If God exists, He’s too smart to be fooled by a deathbed confession!”
So mystics don’t all agree, but most of the mystics I’ve known have believed in a personal God because they saw Him or spoke with Him, and they are people I regard as truthful, so I reason today the same as I did when I was a kid. I think that those among my relatives who say they saw God, probably actually did see God.
One of history’s most famous philosophers, Socrates, appears to have been some type of mystic. After Socrates’s death, Socrates’s student, Plato, wrote a work in which Plato quotes Socrates’ explanation of why he had dedicated his life to studying and teaching philosophy and here it is (The Phaedo, Benjamin Jowett’s translation of the original Greek):
(Socrates, speaking to the poet Celes): In the course of my life, I have often had intimations in dreams “that I should make music.” The same dream comes to me sometimes in one form, and sometimes in another, but always saying the same or nearly the same words: Make and cultivate music, said the dream … I imagined … that this … was intended to exhort and encourage me in the study of philosophy, which has always been the pursuit of my life and is the noblest and best of music.”
Socrates goes on to explain that, now that he is at the end of his life, he is concerned that he may have misinterpreted the dream and failed to fulfill the command he was given in his dream – maybe he was supposed to, literally, compose and play music! Since he did not want to die without fulfilling the command, he has written a hymn to one of the Greek gods and set a few of Aesop’s fables to music.
I don’t know whether hearing voices in dreams is the same sort of mystical experience as having a vision while awake. But Socrates was certain that he was hearing a divine command through his dreams, and he sounds a lot like my relatives.
Skeptics often say, “There is no evidence that God exists.” If you see God with your own eyes, is that evidence? If a trustworthy friend or relative tells you he/she saw God, is that evidence? If a great philosopher tells you that a divinity spoke to him in his dreams, is that evidence? I think our society influences us, and sometimes even pressures us, to disbelieve in God, therefore sometimes we overlook the obvious.
Modern neurobiologists are studying mystics to try to find out what is going on in their brains when they have visions. The scientists may find out something that helps explain mystics and/or God. I am always interested to read the latest research reports.
Here’s a link to the Oxford Research Encyclopedias which gives a thumbnail sketch of the problem, including a brief explanation of the difference between agnostic mystics (like my father) and theistic mystics (like the rest of my relatives). Since the substantive research is always being updated and each update sparks a lot of controversial theories about what is really going on with mystics, I would suggest that anyone who is interested in the topic do a fair amount of reading to get a balanced understanding. And talk to a mystic, if you can find one willing to talk to you. But it’s hard to get them to talk.
Scientists and physicians
Dr. Sarah Salviander, an astrophysicist, was raised by atheist parents but converted to Christianity while in graduate school. She earned her Ph.D. in astrophysics and became a research scientist and a Christian evangelist. She blogs here:
A friend of mine, a biochemist, grew up in an agnostic/Jewish family. One night while he was working late in the laboratory, he was suddenly overwhelmed by how incredibly complex life is, how all sorts of things have to go exactly right and be perfectly coordinated in order for a person or animal to be alive. He decided on the spot that God must exist because all these things couldn’t possibly happen by accident, the odds against it are simply too great. He later converted to Christianity and eventually became a professor of biochemistry AND an ordained Baptist minister.
The argument that converted my biochemist friend is sometimes called “the argument from design.” Why the name? The idea, in a nutshell is, the universe is too complicated to happen by accident, therefore someone (God) must have designed it.
There are famous philosophical defenses of this argument and equally famous philosophical refutations of this argument. Having discussed two Christian scientists, I feel I should give equal time to the skeptics. A famous, and formidable, criticism of the argument from design was penned by the British philosopher David Hume, in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion Part II. I have a friend who’s an atheist. He says that he read Hume as an undergraduate, and Hume convinced him that there was no rational basis for believing in God. (This friend also went on to complete his Ph.D, the atheists I know are just as smart as the Christians.)
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy includes a modern skeptical analysis of the argument from design.
So, does God exist or not? Very bright and well educated people come down on both sides of the argument. You’re going to have to make up your own mind about it.
But before we finish with this chapter, please let’s explode two myths:
Myth 1: Atheists like to claim Einstein was an atheist, but this is incorrect.
Myth 2: Religious people like to claim that Einstein believed in a personal God, the God of the three great western religions, but this is incorrect.
Let’s let Einstein speak for himself, shall we?
In January 1936, a school girl named Phyllis Wright wrote Dr. Einstein to ask what he believed about God and prayer. He answered her letter.
My dear Dr. Einstein,
We have brought up the question: 'Do scientists pray?' in our Sunday school class. It began by asking whether we could believe in both science and religion. We are writing to scientists and other important men, to try and have our own question answered.
We will feel greatly honored if you will answer our question: Do scientists pray, and what do they pray for?
We are in the sixth grade, Miss Ellis's class.
I will attempt to reply to your question as simply as I can. Here is my answer:
Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish.
However, we must concede that our actual knowledge of these forces is imperfect, so that in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith. Such belief remains widespread even with the current achievements in science.
But also, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.
With cordial greetings,
your A. Einstein
Einstein wrote some other letters on the topic, at a more sophisticated level. It would be fair to say that Einstein’s religious views cannot readily be pigeonholed.
For myself, I am wary of those who claim the ability to either prove or disprove the existence of God. The universe is quite mysterious. Our understanding of it is incomplete.
 A Pew poll taken in 2009 indicates that one third of all scientists believe in God. http://www.pewforum.org/2009/11/05/scientists-and-belief/  A 2016 University of Chicago study indicates that a majority of physicians believe in God. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16050858