The supernatural: invisible, unknowable, indefensible

I had a friendly discussion recently with two Christians, one clearly a fundamentalist, one less so. The topic turned to the struggle of a clergyman trying to square the scientific discoveries of his time (late 19th Century) with his faith. I offered that religious faith calls for views to be held as if fact even though there be contradictory discoveries—at that time in geology and biology—with far more observable evidence.

One friend pointed out that Christianity and religious Judaism require acknowledgement of the supernatural. (He didn’t mention Islam and many other religions, but surely they weren’t excluded.) Consequently, he said, it is futile to argue religion with a person (me, in this case) who can only accept beliefs supported by science. Belief in the supernatural, he asserted, is a necessary intervening variable or, put another way, a “foundation belief” the absence of which renders further religious considerations useless. He was, of course, spot on.

Well, he was right except for the “only accept beliefs supported by science” part. We all believe in great numbers of things, relatively few of which have been “supported by science.” I believe my wife loves me, that a couple of cups at Mae’s Coffeehouse help me write more productively, that the golden rule contributes to a better life for everyone, and that the scientific method offers a more rational test of propositions about the natural universe than either ancient texts repeatedly translated and hand-copied or the emotional feelings of the faithful.

We all believe things not supported, i.e., “proven,” by science; daily life would be impossible otherwise. Yet I, like many people, would like to know if tougher tests about my beliefs would show them to be right with greater confidence. “Right” in this context means aligned with reality. But that reality with which to be aligned is itself a slippery concept, isn’t it? Since I would likely have already thought my beliefs were reality, where is the “answer book” against which I can give these beliefs an authoritative test? If there were an omniscient resource with which communication is possible, how would that resource grade my beliefs? That would solve the problem except it requires not only that there be such a resource, but that I distinguish it from all other possible, yet fake, resources. After all, accepting an available scorekeeper is a belief, too.

Multitudes believe there’s an afterlife in which we get all the answers. Comforting, perhaps. We begin as infants testing reality at a rapid pace. As we grow, our parents save us some trouble by inculcating facts and beliefs. That process goes on throughout life as authorities and culture feed us more of the answers. Occasionally we learn that many of the beliefs and purported facts have been quite wrong, no matter the seeming trustworthiness of their sources. That applies to whole civilizations as well. Not wanting to be similarly duped, subsequent generations search for better tests—those less likely to yield results that are later overturned. Among many other tests that have been found wanting are miracles even widely reported, internal feelings of assurance, and a dogma’s longevity. These proofs of truth have led to contradictory “truths” and the vehemence of their advocates has led occasionally to disasters (vehemence seems of greater utility where there is less factual backing).

The scientific method arose about four centuries ago, ushering in an approach to determining reality of the physical world far beyond previous approaches and kicking off massive discoveries that passed harsh tests of veridicality. (One modern observer has said that science exists to show us how stupid many of our suppositions are, whether about heart-healthy foods or planetary retrograde motion.) New learning is usually welcomed unless it addresses the protected territory of religious dogma. Questioning understanding of the natural world may at times have been painful, but the same level of inquiry about religion was (and in much of the worlds still is) blasphemy.

However, going back to my Christian friend’s comment, science deals with the natural world. It can neither prove nor disprove tenets of the supernatural world or even whether a supernatural exists. While we can often test some implications of supernaturalism in the physical world, the truth or falseness of beliefs about the supernatural escapes testing. For example, we can test whether intercessory prayer has its desired effects (it doesn’t). We can’t test whether a god heard our prayer.

So is there a Jehovah or Allah or, for that matter, Zeus or Thor? And if there is one or more of these, is the associated dogma real? How would one know? Could one version of the supernatural be true? We know they can’t all be, but how would we choose among them? The easy answer is that we don’t; our parents and culture chose for us…..their choices having been similarly made. Religions persist not due to reasoned choice, but to proximity. In other words, the continuation of religion is a massive instance of circular reasoning, even though a thoughtful religionist will swear her or his choice came from careful study. Other than in exceptional circumstances—largely when someone makes a total change of religion—they are lying to themselves.

My friend puts a lot of stock in faith, as if it is a virtue (though I imagine he doesn’t put as much stock in faiths he doesn’t agree with, like Hindu, Moslem, or animist). He isn’t alone. Voters in the U.S. seem to do so as well, judging by the efficacy of claiming in campaigns to be a “man of faith” or “woman of faith.” That faith-equals-good supposition occurs in the complete absence of any evidence that the faithful are more honest, intelligent, socially conscious, or strong of character than those devoid of religious faith. Since that renders the criterion a nonsensical one, the fact that it is so widely accepted reveals at least one of the major stupidities of our faith in faith.

Religion and its claims—not only of the supernatural but of very specific, miniscule characteristics of the supernatural (e.g., trinity, expiation of sin, concept of worship, salvation through blood, everlasting fire, evil of lust, angels dancing on the head of a pin; the list is inexhaustible)—build on that ludicrous foundation. And it is on this foundation of foam that religionists ask us (or in the case of previous Christendom and present Islam, demand) to base our brief lives!

Let me be clear. I am not saying there is no Allah, divine lists of “sins,” a Holy Spirit, or souls. At a technical level I’ve no idea; not one can be proven or disproven. At a practical level, these fantasies are in a class with Father Christmas, crystal power, and a thundering Thor; their likelihood ranks lower than my retiring a billionaire, sufficiently low to be considered nonexistent.

So if belief in the supernatural—invisible, unknowable, and indefensible—is the ticket into religion, I accept my friend’s judgment on the matter as incontrovertible. I’m out. But science isn’t the problem. Doctrinaire fantasy is.

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About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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