On this Christmas Day and especially more than a year after the campaign and election of President Donald Trump, my thoughts turn to Jesus.
As a person committed to science—i.e., the testing of assertions, the reproducibility of results, and so on—I have known for some time that most of the historical events in the Bible can’t be corroborated by independent historical records or by archaeology. At least I know who wrote the Declaration of Independence, for instance, the Gettysburg Address, the Second Inaugural, and there are independent historical documents that testify to what went on at those times in our nation’s history. Not so with Christianity.
I have also known there are hundreds of “religions” people around the world hold, each of them demanding some sort of inerrant ownership of the truth. Since the tenets of so many faiths directly contradict each other, those claims can’t possibly be true, meaning that no one religion can faithfully assert ownership of the truth.
One of the cable channels was running somewhat of a marathon of Christmas movies all day, and I caught, once again, that wonderful film from 1940s America: Miracle on 34th Street. One line from the movie is that “faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.” Instead of turning to other religious documents and speeches (homilies or sermons) this year, I’m going to focus on that movie quote (I’ve looked at sermons plenty in the past).
What are some of the things I do believe in? Love, compassion, human rights, equality—these don’t lend themselves to independent historical verification, either. And like religion, people have fought wars in the name of these and sent people to their deaths in order to keep their personal understanding of them strong in the world.
But I know that stories of slavery weren’t fake. I know the sexual harassment struggles women face in the workplace and those suffered by young girls in some countries are fairly reported. And I know the denial of a good education to poor people and to girls under some faith traditions will lead to a life of low quality. The existence or nonexistence of a deity of any sort is completely irrelevant to these people, and they are just as much a person as anyone else.
Bear in mind, there are respected theologians, people of deep faith in God, who have hypothesized that a group of men (no women can be found authoring most religious writing) just made it up, like The Onion or Breitbart makes up news stories. These spoofs or fake news carry a different end, to a certain extent, but they are also driving the conversion of people’s hearts and minds, just as religion does.
Were we to read the Bible (I’ve read it in its entirety twice in my life), just as we read Breitbart or The Onion or National Enquirer, would we recognize the same trends, the same literary devices? The Bible, for instance, quotes people often, especially Jesus in the Gospels and The Lord in the books of the prophets. Yet none of these stories were written down until a few hundred years after they occurred, and none of the original documents have ever been found.
More than fake news, which is intended to deceive, then, we may simply be dealing with a telephone-game situation. Which brings me back to the Miracle on 34th Street quote: Since we can’t see what happened and have only accounts dated long after the events themselves purportedly took place, how do we view the intentions of the people who put out these stories? Were they working toward a life of compassion, a life of equality, a life where human rights were supreme, regardless of the existence or nonexistence of God?
That is the question we must ask ourselves today, and I’m quite certain, in many cases, we will find that their motivation was not very different from the motives behind Breitbart. I need not remind anyone of the Christian church’s treatment of Galileo or the cover-up of priests who were sexually abusing children. The people involved selected stories to tell based on what impact they believed those stories would have on people’s hearts and minds, including in the stories little regard for different perspectives and even less regard for the facts in each case. We would likely, on closer analysis, find them to be more close-minded than open-minded, in other words.
In conclusion, I am pretty sure the proof of the existence or nonexistence of God isn’t out there. We haven’t found it yet, and we’ve looked pretty hard. In most cases, negative data like that can’t be the basis of conclusion: If you want to prove something exists, all you have to do is find it, but proving that something doesn’t exist is a lot harder.
For two distinct points in space, there exists exactly one line on both of them.
I can prove the existence of the line in the above theorem by drawing the line. Because lines extend into infinity, I can only draw the one line and can see that no other lines are possible. A proof of the existence of God is done in a similar way for some people: How can such a beautiful world have been created randomly? they ask. Since we just can’t imagine such complexity as humans, in other words, nature itself couldn’t have created such a thing.
But any attempt to prove the nonexistence of God runs into the same flaw: Imagine a world where God does exist and assert the counterargument. Since there are wars and we kill each other senselessly, we can’t possibly have an all-present, all-loving God.
In the end, our analysis will inevitably come back to the stories, since their retelling is all we have. If a group of people just made it up one day, what were their motives? And how do we read those stories today? I can only pray we don’t use them to stop learning about the world around us, because such a result could not possibly rise from love, which would cast a seriously dark shadow on the motives of the men who made up the stories.