I got asked this question recently by somebody after a long time. This made me realize two things. First, the trivial one of the two realizations was that the fact that it has been a long time since I got asked this question is indicative of the other fact that I have not had discussions or conversations with anyone who is not a scientist of some form, and hence have kind of forgotten what that is like. The second more interesting realization was that asking if I believe in god is like asking me if I believe in the washing machine! And I want to take this post to explain to you why this is the case.
Now, every reader has to agree with me that the second question is ridiculous. Why is that? Because I can touch and see the washing machine? No, that is not what I mean. May be a washing machine is not that good an example, may be I should have chosen Energy or some other concept like that to illustrate what I want to say. What I mean is that the washing machine is an invention made to fulfill a need, namely to use a power source other than human muscles to clean clothes. In this sense god is an invention we made to fulfill another one of our needs, and a basic one at that, the need to understand.
Let me explain further. Human beings like all other organisms have needs, food, oxygen, water etc. But in addition, we have another need, that need is the need to understand. Now, suppose I lived at the times of early man. All I had for observing the world around me was my five senses. So, the length and time scales of natural phenomena I had access to were limited by that. And then I saw plants grow into trees and bear flowers and fruits and die. I watched the sun rise and set everyday and watched the stars at night and could not see them if I looked for them when the sun was around. I saw other humans die and become inanimate suddenly. I saw people get sick and did not know why as I was not able to correlate it with anything that had happened before they fell sick. Under these circumstances, I would definitely have invented god. I could explain everything that I observe using one simple concept, namely god is doing it. That is how god came into being.
Then, as people got more understanding of what was happening, for example, when they realized that the objects in the sky must be moving in circular paths relative to earth, they said such things as angels with wings (like the birds they observed here on earth) pushed the heavenly bodies so that they moved in circles and other such subdivisions and auxiliary stories branching out from the concept of god emerged. Then, they wanted to divide observed phenomena into two groups. The first group consisted of those things that were good for humans. The second was those that were detrimental for humans. The second class of phenomena they decided should be propelled and caused by a different unifying entity. This became Satan, or Asuras or whatever the local word was for it. And in this subdivision of phenomena, they included the emotions they themselves felt. If you were jealous, that is not good for the group dynamic and hence you were advised to pray to god to overcome this “temptation of satan” or whatever jargon was fashionable at the time.
So, what about now, in today’s world? First of all, our knowledge of all things is exponentially larger. Not only can we see on all scales (scanning tunneling microscopy and atomic force microscopy now give you subatomic resolution to see things and cosmological observations let you see way in the past, into the very early universe), we have been thinking collectively as a species for long enough that most of the observed phenomena is tied into neat theories with only a few basic assumptions and these assumptions are way simpler than postulating an all powerful entity that did everything. And there is a change in attitude as well. We still don’t know many things. For example, we don’t know how to cure Alzheimer’s or even a simple viral infection. But, we don’t decide that we should all spend time praying. We pay taxes so that the people who know about such things can find out more and hence figure out how to beat these illnesses and thereby make sure that even though we will probably die of these diseases, perhaps our grand children won’t. We have come to understand the power of knowledge and are willing to trust it in some regions of our existence.
But there is one region, where in spite of all the progress made, we cannot put our trust in our knowledge yet. And that is our mind. For all the lip service we may pay to the biochemistry of the brain and the value of Freudian theory of psychoanalysis, we still cannot accept the apparent “fact” that we are but autocatalytic chemical reactions, albeit very complicated ones, but still just a chemical reaction and everything else must follow from there. I mean, even I am a little reluctant to admit that my consciousness is just chemistry and could eventually be controlled as such. So, we still need god to complete the picture we have of the world around us.
PS: These thoughts are about god, not religion and those are two very different things.
PS2: Apologies to anyone that came looking for a new post last week and did not find one. I was traveling…may be I’ll tell you about my adventures in