by Thomas M. Lemberg
This article is by Tom Lemberg, a trustee of the Parliament, about his personal journey from atheist materialism to spirituality and a belief in God. It is adapted slightly from a part of Tom’s book, Difficult Times: A Fresh Look at Democracy in Modern America. Difficult Times is available from Amazon both in hard copy and in electronic (Kindle) form and also from Apple in electronic form.
I know from where anti-spiritual people come. For years, I was a rock-ribbed materialist atheist. One might say I was devout in my unbelief. I couldn’t accept ideas of God and Spirit for two reasons: because of the presence of evil and because I thought God and Spirit required the suspension of the laws of science. If God, Spirit and paranormal phenomenon (such as miracles) couldn’t fit with Newtonian physics, I couldn’t accept them. But, over time, for me, the evidence of Divinity and Spirit piled up. And, as I learned more about modern physics, I found it quite compatible with a nonmaterial spiritual realm.
I’ll talk about Science and Spirt first. Central ideas of modern physics– quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle and field theory– drastically change the Newtonian picture of the world. It turns out that, at the sub-atomic level, matter is neither solid nor measurable, not the fixed, readily calculable material we’d learned it to be. Rather, most of matter is empty space; electrons are simultaneously both particles and waves, simultaneously in more than one place. As Einstein famously taught in his equation, E [energy] =m [mass] (x) c [speed of light] (squared), mass and energy are different aspects of the same thing. Moreover, the process of measurement alters the thing being measured: one consequence is that it’s impossible to tell either when or whether that electron is a particle or a wave or just where it is.
Now, as these effects operate at the sub-atomic level, Newtonian principles about the macro-world we inhabit are correct. What modern physics explains is that the micro-world which is the foundation of existence is much different from the mechanical certainty from which philosophic materialism derives.
Sub-atomic physics has also learned something revolutionary about connections between particles. Heretofore, particles were considered separate and distinct, unconnected except able to adhere chemically or attract and repel each other electrically or mechanically. And of course, nothing, nothing whatsoever in the universe, could travel faster than the speed of light.
Recent experiments seem to toss those notions in the dustbin. Photons (tiny sub-atomic particles) which have been in close proximity have been found later to affect each other even when kept utterly disconnected, either by lead which is impervious to light or separated by great distances. In these experiments, an action done to one photon registers with the other–through lead and faster than the speed of light. These experiments are among the bases of new theories that the universe, rather than being utterly empty almost everywhere, consists of multiple fields of information in tiny particles which are readily shared. It seems that, rather than distinct atoms alone in a cold universe, all is connected to all.
For a secular materialist comforted by the certainties of Newton’s laws, this is wild and crazy stuff. Yet, it seems to describe the world.
God and Spirit fit easily into a universe whose physical foundation is quantum theory, the uncertainty principle and field theory. Since electrons are simultaneously in more than one place, there can be more than one kind of reality. Rather than a single stable thing, the same physical material is simultaneously in different places doing different things, seen differently by different viewers with different perspectives. The great physicist David Bohm drew one possible conclusion: that reality is a set of holograms, that the world we see, feel and inhabit is one explicate order of many orders implicate in the holographic universe. Because the world we see is far from the only world, a world of Spirit can readily co-exist with the material world in which we live.
Some physicists go further to claim that quantum mechanics requires a superhuman presence. Thus, Amit Goswami argues from the fact that electrons are not in just one place that the world would not cohere without a supreme intelligence to assure that electrons be where they need to be for me to stay stable as me. Without a guiding intelligence, this collection of particles would not cohere to be a table nor stay a table from one moment to the next. Rather, it would quickly disintegrate (perhaps re-forming as something else) as the electrons change positions.
Perhaps Goswami is right that quantum physics requires the presence of God; perhaps not. Perhaps the way Bohm saw the world is in error. Perhaps other authors with spirit-allowing theories have not gotten it right. The point is that the new physics makes ample room for God, Spirit and paranormal phenomena. It seems that Science needn’t trump Spirit after all. You don’t have to dismiss Science to have religious or spiritual faith that there’s something beyond our material world.
Perhaps, Science will some day prove that there is a realm of Spirit, that God exists. Until then, it’s a matter not of rationality but belief, “feeling” and emotion. Religion isn’t a matter of cosmological theory but of peoples’ sense that they can apprehend a reality beyond and better than themselves, which encourages them to strive for goodness.
There is quite a bit of supporting evidence. Consider this. It may just be lucky chance, but the physical characteristics of the Earth are in so delicate a balance that the slightest variation in any of the chemical and other characteristics of our planet would make complex life impossible. The same is true of the balance of physical forces which allow the Universe to cohere. Does it not cause wonder that the universe came to exist at all, that it was able to develop into the rich world we know, that the laws of physics and biology are as they are so that the universe and life could happen? If Science can’t prove a Supreme Intelligence impossible, why is such an existence not a more plausible explanation than the random effects of the Big Bang’s unexplained ancient explosion?
There is much more evidence. Though called paranormal, many of these experiences have been verified; a purely material world can’t explain them. There are scientifically inexplicable cures, visions from near-death experiences, seemingly impossible powers of such deeply religious people as Tibetan Buddhist monks and Hindu savants. There’s the evidence of very similar experiences of great mystics from many traditions and faiths who gain knowledge of a profound, distinct spiritual world. The usual materialist opinion is that all of the people reporting all of these experiences were either delusional or liars. It seems highly unlikely.
Then, there is the age-old question, thought by many to be fatal to faith: how can a good and omniscient God have created a world full of evil. Bad things happen to good people, all the time. How can one square that with belief in an all-powerful beneficent God? Voltaire famously could not, seeing the horrific Lisbon earthquake of his time as proof that there can be no such God. This was long before the far worse horrors of the last century. So I had thought for many years.
I’ve reconsidered. God could not create a world which was all good because that would not allow for life in any form we can imagine. Everyone would then be God-like, perfect. There’d be no basis for striving, for doing all that constitutes an active life. Everything would be like the last cantos of Dante’s Divine Comedy with all engaged in the single activity of praising God.
Creation required that God separate matter from His Divine Existence. Had God not separated matter from Himself, all existence would be God: not a universe as we know it, but every thing wholly faultless and good. That is, to create the world, God had to shatter part of His Divinity. But, God connected His Creation to Himself by putting a piece of His Divinity into every thing.
My personal surmise about the purpose of existence is what Judaism calls “tikkun olam”, to repair the thus-broken world so that it, we, can approach ever closer to the Divine. If mankind or whatever creatures might succeed us ever reach that state, that would be the end of history, probably something like the conclusion of the Divine Comedy. For life as we know it then to resume would require a new Creation.
Of course, this surmise could be as wrong as wrong can be. Regardless, it is now evident to me is that we humans aren’t just randomly evolved collections of particles living in the cold, lonely empty universe of philosophic materialism. Life is more than a chance occurrence where nothing really matters. There’s a spiritual world and a Divine purpose to life.
I am no mystic. I have not been graced with experience of the ineffable. I have experienced relevant feelings and happenings and have been told and read of others’ highly believable experiences. While I have no iron-clad logical proof, evidence of design (such as noted above) and such feelings, experiences and reports make it utterly clear to me that there is a spiritual world, a Divine presence, a purpose to life beyond the here and now, though we mere mortals can merely surmise what that is.
It’s been a long and most satisfying journey from anti-spiritual atheism.
© Parliament of the World’s Religions
® Parliament of the World's Religions name and logo are trademarks of the Parliament of the World's Religions.