Below is my response to an article that appeared in the Sunday Monitor on July 25th 2010 titled Reason is not against Faith written by Hillary Munyaneza. He was responding to my recent interview that was published in the same newspaper 2 weeks ago.

I’ve submitted this response below to the Sunday Monitor newspaper. I really hope they consider publishing it!

Click to view enlarged article image I feel honoured to have had no less than a theologian take an interest in my interview with Sunday Monitor regarding my freethought and atheism which appeared on Sunday 18th July 2010. Reverend Father Hillary Munyaneza wrote a response to my interview explaining how he believes faith and reason can be reconciled. I found his response wanting, particularly his attack on atheism, which I wish to address.

Rev. Fr. Munyaneza asked:

“In life, there are so many experiences where we go beyond reason and as such they can’t be subjected to reason alone. How does one explain realities of love, or suffering, basing on reason?”

Concepts like ‘love’ and ‘suffering’ refer to actual physical states occurring in nature. Love is simply a label we attach to a wide range of emotions commonly associated with kinship and reproduction. These emotions meanwhile originate from the brain through the interaction of various complex electro-chemical processes in the brain. Many of these emotions associated with the concept ‘love’ (including empathy) can even be induced through the use of certain chemicals and electric stimulation of relevant parts of the brain. We also know that we evolved the emotions typically associated with ‘love’ through natural selection because they conferred upon our species a survival advantage. Animals more cooperative, empathetic, and are more nurturing towards one another increase the chances of being able to propagate their genes successfully. So there is nothing magical or mystical about ‘love’ – and reason and science are well equipped to explain what it is. The same goes for ‘suffering’. The word ‘suffering’ simply denotes a range of subjective negative experiences ranging from physical pain to psychological distress. Again, there is no mystery here at all.

So why does Rev. Fr. Munyaneza think reason cannot explain these things?

My contention is that it is because of religious thinking. Religions have, since time immemorial, thrived on mysteries, and on mystifying things that are otherwise well understood. “How do you explain x,y,z?” a believer will ask, and if no immediate answers are forthcoming from a skeptic, a believer will triumphantly declare his having proved ‘God’ or something supernatural. But such arguments are fallacious because they are merely arguments from incredulity. Besides, history has shown us that many things for which supernatural explanations were invoked in the past, now have good natural explanations for their occurrence. Many of the things that could not be understood thousands of years ago such as rain, sunshine, life, death, sickness, floods, tectonic and volcanic activity were formerly attributed to gods – but now we know better. We know how and why these things occur naturally without any divine intervention. Therefore pointing to mysteries in no way justifies a belief in a ‘God’. To do so is nothing more than an admission of one’s unwillingness to think outside the box.

If Rev. Fr. Munyaneza honestly thinks reason is compatible with faith, he has to stop surrendering reason when he encounters mysteries. Let him roll up his sleeves and investigate. That is how mankind has progressed over the past several thousand years – by investigating, not throwing our hands up in defeat each time we encounter a difficult problem, or by mystifying things already well understood. Concepts like love and suffering do not lie outside the scope of reason to investigate and therefore do not require any mystification.

Father Munyaneza then went on to make references about ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical dimensions’. About vertical dimensions he said:

“…the vertical dimension dwells on the relationship of the human person and the spiritual world. To deny the vertical dimension is a dangerous step.”

It baffles me how the Reverend Father thinks this is supposed to make sense to anyone. Before talking about a spiritual world, he must first demonstrate that one exists. Proponents of religion are yet to provide sufficient reasons or evidence that there is such a thing as a spiritual realm, which is why I, like most atheists, aren’t convinced in the first place.

He also went on to say that logic reason and science are limited because they are products of the human mind. Well, as limited as they may be, they are the BEST tools we’ve got. The application of our senses, logic, reason and science has led to us to being able to create a fairly reliable model of the world around us – which in turn has allowed us to predict behaviour of nature and develop effective technologies such as airplanes, cars, ships, construction of buildings, cell-phones, radios, televisions, rockets, nuclear reactors, computers, medicines, telescopes, extreme high precision microscopes, and everything else we can’t imagine our lives without today. These successes of logic, reason, and science – and their cumulative nature – suggest a real understanding of things, and suggest that the model of reality we have constructed using logic, reason and science fairly closely matches reality.

But what about religious faith? How much better is religious faith in explaining reality? It is precisely because it is not known to have any demonstrable way of showing that it corresponds with reality that as a freethinker I cannot take religious faith seriously. Ironically, arguments put forward by believers to try to show the validity of religious faith RELY ON the same logic that Rev. Fr. Munyaneza is dismissing as ‘limited’. 

His next target was atheism.

“To deny the existence of God is to deny one’s own existence simply because God is the ground of being and existence – philosophically, He is the only necessary Being. Once one denies the foundation of one’s existence, which is God, that person has denied their own existence,”

..he said.

One could as well say a “Flying Spaghetti Monster” is the ground of being and existence, philosophically, and is the only necessary being. I could claim that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is the metaphysically necessary, uncaused, timeless, space-less, immaterial, malevolent creator of the universe. Nothing about this description of a ‘creator’ requires such an entity to be omnipotent, omnibenevolent or omniscient – which are some of the necessary characteristics ascribed to the concept of ‘God’ in classical theism. So, does denying the existence of the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” mean that one denies the foundation of his own existence? No. At least not until sufficient evidence for its existence has been presented. Similarly, in no way does the denial of other equally unproven entities such as ‘God’ equal a denial of one’s own existence.

With regard to ‘God’ existing, the contention of the non-believer is simple – it is that the burden of proof required to justify a belief in the existence of ‘God’ has not been met. Reading through Rev. Fr. Munyaneza’s response, besides making unsupported assertions, he offered nothing remotely resembling evidence – or even good reasons – to justify a belief in ‘God’. The same applies to the belief in the existence of a spiritual realm.

A believer might want to ask the atheist, “So if there is no ‘God’ where did everything come from?”

Indeed, all of us are curious to know the answer to this question. Fortunately, the question of how life arose and diversified into several species of organisms isn’t scientifically controversial anymore. But what about the universe? Using Einstein’s theory of general relativity, we are able to trace the origins of the universe to the moment (Planck Time) immediately following the beginning of the ‘Big Bang’ (expansion of time and space).  Prior to Planck Time, very little is empirically known, and this is where astrophysicists are hard at work trying to construct plausible models of how the matter and energy that expanded into what we today call the universe came to be. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the largest particle accelerator in the world, was recently commissioned to reproduce conditions similar to those produced during the Big Bang in order to study this.

Several logically and mathematically plausible explanations are on offer today from astrophysicists regarding the origins of the universe, such as the universe possibly spontaneously arising as a result of quantum fluctuations, or the universe being cyclical, or this universe being one out of an infinite number of universes. Even as these plausible models await empirical verification, what this tells us is that, in principle, the answer to the question ‘where did ‘everything come from’ does not necessarily have to be anything resembling what people call a ‘God’.

At this point we now have two options. Either declare the ‘mystery’ of the universe forever unsolvable and invoke ‘God’ as the explanation (as mankind did hundreds of years ago for things like thunder, rain, floods, volcanoes, and illness which today we can explain), or roll up our sleeves and keep investigating – especially since there are many good leads pointing to a completely natural, non-theistic, plausible scientific explanation for the origin of the universe.

Faith urges many to postulate the existence of ‘God’ to explain the mysteries. Reason urges others to investigate and try to unravel the mysteries in order to broaden our understanding of reality. If all the innovators through the ages had chosen the former option, we would most probably still be living in caves today. Luckily for mankind, believers throughout the ages have, for obvious practical reasons, opted to strike delicate balance between the two domains (different believers to different degrees).

What cannot be denied, however, is that whenever reason and science come into conflict with their cherished faith, believers have been quick to default on the commitment to the application of those principles. Just in Uganda, for example, the attitude of the majority of believers towards witchcraft – which they believe works (allegedly the work of ‘demons’) yet there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest it does – says it all. Indeed, when you point out the fact that their belief in the existence of demons or the efficacy of witchcraft runs contrary to reason, their answer is… “we have faith”.

And the Reverend Father thinks religious faith and reason are compatible? Religion encourages people to apply reason selectively, and that is its main problem.

James Onen

Freethought Kampala

UPDATE: Sunday Monitor did publish my response.