Carl Sagan defined superstition as “belief without evidence.”
“But what,” he asks, “constitutes ‘evidence’?” He suggests an essential ingredient in the process of compiling evidence is skepticism. He then says we must ask the question: Is it plausible? Whether looking for evidence for the existence of God or life on some other planet, “you want a plausibility argument first that it makes at least a little sense.” Sagan says that when confronted with skeptics there has to be some viable argument to counter their skepticism.
He then makes an interesting correlation – Is there a relationship between religious experience and chemical reaction at a molecular level? We know that under certain circumstances the body produces hormones than enable us to react without thinking – “fight or flight” as induced by adrenalin; the sex drive as induced by testosterone. Is it possible, wonders Sagan, that there is a molecule that produces a religious experience? What would be the benefit of such a molecule? Social stability. Dr. Sagan notes that religion has been used to insure a level of conformity in a society. Those who are less fortunate when it comes to material blessings or status are told that there is a better day coming – perhaps not in this life, but in the next. Such a doctrine, he writes, would be very appealing to the ruling classes.
It is true that many ‘religious’ people are more concerned with how a person behaves than with strict doctrinal adherence. This suggests that “religion” is less about any particular belief in a Supreme Being and more about how human beings treat each other.
So … What is the evidence for the existence of God? Is “God” a creation of the ruling class in order to maintain their privileged position over the masses? Is “religion” a molecular-level impulse – a kind of spiritual testosterone that generates an interior disposition toward a distant deity?
The author of the Biblical Book of Hebrews says faith is the evidence for the existence of God. This is an interesting text. Hebrews 11:1 reads like this: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That’s the New Revised Standard translation. The New International Version reads this way: “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” And King James reads like this: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The same Greek word is translated three different ways: “conviction”; “certain”; and “evidence”. Faith, says Hebrews, is the evidence. And faith is confirmed and strengthened by our experience of God.
That might be a bit too loose and subjective for Carl Sagan.
One thought we might put to Dr. Sagan: Can the same line of questioning be put to science as to religion? Is there a molecular explanation for curiosity that, in a sense, undermines anything we might claim to actually know? Thomas Kuhn addresses this in his classic work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The paradigm we begin with influences the results we discover. But lets, for a moment, take the case of testosterone. Is the sexual impulse any less authentic to the individual or any less useful to society for having been initiated and driven by a molecule? Is the survival of the species reason enough to provide that molecule with a legitimate claim on the canvass of reality? What we can say is that testosterone’s effect on the propagation of the human species is mitigated by birth control methods in order to limit the level of population growth that is no longer needed. But the sexual urge generated by testosterone is very much alive and well in spite of the fact that we don’t need to worry about having enough people any more.
Could the same be said for religion and the ubiquitous urge among members of the human species to believe in something or someone we call “god”? Would the discovery of a belief-generating molecule make the religious experience less real or less useful to society? It may well be that religion’s influences need to be mitigated as a result of humankind’s current reality and struggles in the world; but from a global perspective, religion or the “spiritual impulse” is not generally on the wane.
Whether it is driven internally by molecules or inspired externally by some “spirit”, it is time for the “will to believe” and the “desire to find out” to come back together, as once they were. The primary aim is not to validate a particular method, but to encounter truth – with small or capital “t”. Let’s move toward “spiritual and religious”, “science and religion” “STEM and the arts”. It’s time to pull out the wedges that have divided the disciplines and fractured the individual spirit and the communal soul.
We all need to get together. There’s plenty of evidence to support that.