The God FAQs – 1
I clearly remember this incident from my growing years. This was the time when the serial Mahabharatha was going on in TV. My whole family, like many others, used to assemble in front of the TV for that one hour. In one of the episodes, Arjuna is teaching his son Abhimanyu, who is still in his mother’s womb, the art of breaking open and entering Chakravyuha (a war formation). But just as Arjuna completes teaching his son how to enter the formation, Krishna comes in, diverts Arjuna’s attention, and takes him away citing some reason. Years later, Abhimanyu is killed in war when he enters a Chakravyuha. That was because, though he was taught how to enter the formation, he was not taught how to come out of it.
I am not claiming any kind of expertise on Mahabharatha, and as usual there are many versions of the story floating around. But anyway, that is not relevant to why I brought it up. I remember that after the episode was over, one of my family members (I don’t remember who, but I think it was one of my uncles) explained to me, that the reason for this is that since Abhimanyu is perfect in all other respects, he cannot be killed in any other manner, and if he becomes undefeatable, he will live forever. And Krishna, for some reason, did not want this. And so he “cleverly” drags Arjuna away at the crucial moment, so that Abhimanyu does not get the complete knowledge. This strategy of Krishna, ensures that Abhimanyu is killed in the war. I was aghast at hearing this and started crying (remember I was only 8 or 9 years old then). I just could not digest the fact that Krishna, who is considered a god, could be so mean. I continued crying for some time and created quite a scene. I also could not understand how everybody else could go on with their lives, when such an injustice has been meted out right in front of our eyes. (My mental faculties were at such a stage then, that, I once asked my father, whether all those who were killed in the war scenes, actually died, and if so, why they agreed to act in those scenes at all, in the first place. I knew, the actors were not really the characters they played, but I thought that the scenes were really enacted). The reason why I recollect this funny incident now is that, to the extent that I can remember, this was the first time I questioned the infallibility of God.
I don’t know when exactly I stopped believing in a god, but I remember that even in my 11th or 12th standard, I was an atheist, and clearly recollect using that very word to describe myself, even though I was aware of the word agnostic. That atheism continues till date, and in the last 4-5 years, I have looked at the various arguments for and against the existence of god and realized that the existence of a god is next to impossible. It is not often, that the topic of religion/atheism comes up for discussion with friends. But from the few times this has come up, I can see some questions being repeated and so I thought, it would be good to make a list of FAQs. The idea is that, different people have varying degrees of belief in god. In many cases, they continue their belief in god, because they feel they have good arguments for their belief. But those points of view might not have been honed by active discussion or reading the various pro and con arguments. I don’t blame any of them, since on many important issues in this world, I don’t have a well-thought out opinion. And even on Atheism, I could be wrong (That is theoretically possible, but in my opinion unlikely). But to me this is an important and interesting question. The idea of this post is to make people think through their religious beliefs and other related ideas. Not all of these questions are directly about the existence of god, though many of them are. But all of them are in some way linked to the divine.
1. Is not Agnosticism a better position than Atheism?
This is a common question. The argument goes something like this. “I agree we cannot prove god exists, but neither can we prove that god does not exist. So we should wait till some evidence comes up. Till then I am going to be agnostic about god” The problem with this argument is quite simple. It can be seen easily by substituting the word “god” with “Harry Potter” or “Superman” or “Shaktimaan”. Let me help you. “I agree we cannot prove Harry Potter exists, but neither can we prove that Harry Potter does not exist. So we should wait till some evidence comes up. Till then I am going to be agnostic about Harry Potter”.
Do you see what is wrong with it? Being agnostic sounds like the middle-ground reasonable position. Such a position suggests that there is a 50% chance of god’s existence and non-existence. But if you think closely, that is not how we evaluate probability in daily life. When somebody says he was Mohandas Gandhi in his previous birth, or that he is Tipu Sultan’s reincarnation, you don’t give him a 50% probability that he is right. You will laugh at him. And that is the correct way to react. We cannot assign 50% probability to all claims (Is there a 50% chance that Ramar Pillai created Petrol from herbs?). As long as there is no evidence, the claim is as good as being false. Proving a negative is not possible. You cannot prove that I do not have a miniature invisible elephant in my pocket. Only if some positive evidence exists for some claim, can that be considered reasonable. Just because some claim is not disproved does not mean it deserves credibility. So the next time somebody tells you she is an agnostic, ask her what she thinks about Santa Claus? Is she agnostic about that, and waiting for evidence on that too, or would she say she doesn’t believe in Santa Claus.
2. If a god does not exist, how did the universe come into existence?
This argument seems to firmly establish the existence of a god. But it only seems. It comes from the idea that something cannot come out of nothing. So, if this universe exists it must have come from somewhere or something, and that something is god. Let us momentarily agree that something cannot come out of nothing (though that is not true as can be seen in this post). So it could be argued that the Universe was created by God. At least, she/he/it initiated the Big Bang. But will it not lead to the question of how that god came into existence? As somebody who is not ready to believe that the Universe could have existed on its own, how does the same person assume that god can exist on its own?
So how do we solve the question of how god came into existence? Should we postulate a next level of god, say Super-god, who creates god, who in turn creates the universe. We can keep doing this, and there does not seem to be any end to this kind of backward chaining. So is this an impossible question to answer?
No. To see why, let us look at an example. Suppose you are dropped off a space ship on some far away planet. You are all alone and you start going around the planet. There you see a small shapeless pebble, a spherical stone and an intricately crafted pendant. You will naturally assume that the pebble was the result of natural processes, but that the pendant was created by some sort of intelligence. On the question of the spherical stone, you will be in two minds. You do that because, you see that the pebble is not complicated, the pendant is complicated, and the spherical stone is somewhere in between. Thus, the more complicated a thing is the less probable it is of being the result of natural processes.
Now apply this logic to god and the early universe. Our universe, at the beginning was a very simple one. It was small, and mostly uniform (except for occasional disturbances in its uniformity, which supposedly is the starting point of today’s galaxies). Now consider god. It is an intelligent being, capable of imagining what the result of the big bang would be and the ability to create the big bang. It is also capable of seeing into future and calculating all the consequences of its actions.
At this point you would agree that the early universe is far less complicated, than a thinking all-knowing god. Thus there is a high probability that the universe is a result of natural processes (like the pebble), whereas, the god, like the pendant, needs a lot of explanation. Thus, in the end, it turns out that the universe, which we feel needs an explanation, actually needs much less explaining than the god, who is brought up to explain the universe. In case of any other two things, such an argument might sound like a joke.
A: I just don’t understand how a mountain came into existence. I think it must have been the result of some natural process.
B: Oh no. See how the mountain is shaped in a nice conical way. It serves the purpose of bringing rainfall to one side. It also serves as a landmark. I know how the mountain arose. There is this computer software, which reads the minds of all the people in the world, and finds their requirements. Based on these requirements, it decided that a mountain has to be built. It then prepared a design. This design is read by a hardware controlling program which is connected to a lot of machines, and actually built the mountain.
A: Oh is it!! (Scratching her head). Then how did the software and hardware technologies come into existence?
B: Oh that is easy. The software and Hardware technologies are timeless, eternal, and have been there forever. So that does not need an explanation.
Would you agree with that logic? Not me.
This is the first of a multi-part post. More questions in the coming parts. Meanwhile, let the discussion continue in the comments.
Here is the second part.