Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Future of God

I watched a fascinating debate recently. It was entitled "Does God Have a Future?" It took place on March 14 on the campus of Caltech and was broadcast on the ABC News program Nightline. On one side were a couple of atheists: Michael Shermer, the founder of Skeptic magazine, and UCLA neuroscientist Sam Harris. They were arguing for the supremacy of science and the irrelevance of God. On God's side were physician Deepak Chopra and scholar Jean Houston.

Actually it was the presence of Shermer that attracted me to watch the debate. I saw him debunking religious hoaxes on television, and I have read his magazine. He is a former fundamentalist Christian preacher who converted to atheism. Even though we could not be more different in our religious perspectives, I find him honest and fascinating.

The whole thing was moderated by ABC News correspondent Dan Harris. Harris is not particularly well versed in either science or religion, but he is honest and fair. He did a good job in keeping the argument from degenerating into a bout of fisticuffs.

Normally at such a debate I would be cheering for the theists. But there were no theists on the stage. Defending God was the Hindu monist Deepak Chopra. I still remember his appearance on the Phil Donahue Show decades ago, back when he was a spokesman for Transcendental Meditation. I could not stop laughing as I watched him bounce around the studio on spring mattresses, trying to convince Phil that he was really levitating.  I know he is a media darling now, but I have never been able to take him seriously since then.

Jean Houston was very articulate and intelligent, but is a bit too New Agey for my liking. So I was left without a horse in this race. But I watched the whole thing nonetheless. I found myself agreeing with Chopra sometimes and the scientist Harris at other times.

Mostly I saw that they were not really debating each other. They were debating caricatures of each other. This was especially true of the atheists, who continually presented gross distortions of God and traditional religion, and then proceeded to tear them down. The God that these atheists rejected (and which apparently Shermer once believed in) bore no resemblance to the God I know.

The same dynamics were at work with the God squad. They presented parodies of traditional Christianity and scientific materialism, and then demonstrated that they were distorted. Not a difficult thing to do.

The only thing I really learned from the debate is that we tend to debate our own fantasies, not other people's beliefs. Even the most intelligent and knowledgeable people tend not to really listen to those who disagree with them. They have their minds made up. It all seems to be a game of buttressing their own egos.

The only glimmer of hope occurred during the Q&A session with the Caltech faculty and students. Chopra agreed to be instructed by a theoretical physicist in the audience about quantum physics. That was the only humility and openness I saw on the show. My opinion of him improved at that moment. As long as he doesn't try to levitate again.

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