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Rosalind W. Picard, Sc.D., FIEEE
Director of Affective Computing Research
Faculty Chair, MIT Mind+Hand+Heart
MIT Media Lab, E14-348A
75 Amherst Street
Cambridge, MA 02139; USA
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What's the hardest test your faith has been subjected to? (If this is too personal for you to answer, I can think of others.)
The hardest tests have not been what I expected - death of beloved family members, friends dying of horrific cancer, friends losing a child, unfulfilled desires, major disappointments, surgery, and major illness - although I have endured all of these and they are awful.
The hardest tests are those that I put faith through before being willing to accept that Christian faith was reasonable.
I used to be a staunch atheist, in part because of living fourteen years in the South, in the so-called "Bible belt." I assumed that those who believed in a God had thrown reason to the wind. I could look around and see all kinds of uneducated people who were believers, and I thought the two went hand in hand. I believed religion was a creation of man, contrived by people who weren't strong enough to handle death. I assumed that faith was not intellectual or based on evidence, that religious people were not real thinkers, and that if they only thought hard enough, then they would see that their religion was unnecessary. I believed things I heard such as that religion was "invented" to help people cope better. I thought my way, without any God was the truth and was scientific. Therefore, it was the best way.
Looking back, you might say my atheism was pretty dogmatic.
The crux of my "hardest test", in deciding to believe in a God, was (and remains) pride. I never liked religious people, still abhor religiosity, and did not want to be associated with such appearances or with any religious beliefs. It is easy to look around and see examples of people who are religious hypocrites, real religious bozos, who give religion a bad name. The media is great about finding these examples and holding them up for all to see. In fact, they are quite biased in doing this.
But at the time I didn't know the positive examples and I let myself believe what the media showed. Particulary egregious examples showed crazy immoral acts with perpetrators claiming "God made me do it" or worse. I thought, "Why would anyone want to even be associated with religion?" so I didn't even bother to learn more.
I remember being annoyed when I learned that my atheism was also a religion. I learned that a view of "there is no God" is a philosophical position; it is not a view supported by science. It is a statement of faith. Being an atheist is a religious position, even if you think you are not religious.
Take the question of the existence of God. How could I confidently deny it, declare God couldn't exist, unless I was omniscient? But only God, if God exists, is omniscient. (See definition of God.) So, if I claim God does not exist, then I am claiming to be omniscient, and then I am making myself into God. This is a problem. Denying God's existence is not rational.
The non-existence of God cannot be proven. If God is indeed Author of the whole universe, including time and space, science, reason, and experience, then all of our abilities fall short when trying to comprehend God.
When we deny God, we're acting like a little software character in a game an engineer created, which can choose to output the statement, "There's no such thing as an engineer."
This left me with either agnosticism or belief in God.
The rest of what was so hard for me is a longer story. But, the short version is that there is a huge amount of historical and intellectual evidence for Christianity and for Judaism, e.g., see a 15-min talk on this topic that I gave spring 1995. Note, for example, the Judeo-Christian God is the only deity that is revealed as transcending both time and space. Speaking as a scientist who loves physics, this seems to be a pretty important property for a deity.
My change from an Atheist to a Christian is not to deny that there is also a lot of crap associated with religion, including with many ways fallible humans practice Christianity. I'm certainly not always the best example of Christian behavior (understatement). But it is unwise to throw out the baby with the bathwater, even if the baby barfs or poops in the bath and you are tired and upset with the baby. I have 3 sons and speak from experience. Better to hold on to that precious baby, and find a way to deal with the mess. Likewise, while we Christians have often made a mess of the revelation in the Bible, the revelation should not be thrown out.
In brief, the hardest trials have been those of confronting my own pride, and my unwillingness to examine anything other then the materialist assumptions made (unthinkingly) by so many of us.
Many of the assumptions, such as that there is no God, are not scientific, and have no way of being proven scientifically. Turning to Science as the only way to know things does not work, because Science presupposes that there is only "natural" stuff in the world. Science does not even have a way to test if that assumption is true or not.
Science is powerful, but it is not all-powerful. Science cannot, for example, validate one-time historical events that are not under our control to repeat. A different kind of methodology is needed to validate historical events.
Scientific evidence must be gathered using the most reliable methods, and methods often undergo revision, with science frequently correcting itself. How does it know when it needs correction? The accuracy and integrity of science is ultimately judged by scientists -- it is subject to the experience of a scientist, and eventually to that of multiple scientists. "Does this methodology look sound?" If yes, and if if it holds up to replication (a test that cannot be applied to everything), then we scientists are likely to believe it, at least until something better comes alone.
The strongest evidence in history is eye-witness testimony. Some of my scientist friends have tried to bash historical eye-witness testimony as not as strong as science. Yet they have nothing better to propose for historical facts to be verified, except perhaps testimony from multiple eye witnesses. Furthermore, the ultimate verification in science also requires eye witness testimony. When science is replicated, this extends to multiple eye witnesses. Thus, even the evaluation of science is limited by the evaluation of human experience.
For those who do not know me: I am not bashing science. I am a hard-core scientist; I chose to earn my doctorate in Science, not in Philosophy. (I have an Sc.D, not a Ph.D.) I love science. I like to prove and test things. At the same time, it is a blunder to think that Science can prove all things. Science is a powerful tool, but it is only a tool.
In denying God's existence, I realized I was making assumptions that were based on no deeper truths than those I sought to discredit. Nonetheless, the appearance of much of religion still made it very hard for me to want to investigate religious faith.
It wasn't until I met a number of impressive thinkers who were intelligent in their faith and defied my stereotypes of religious people that I began to open my mind to really consider what was there. I met well-educated thinking mathematicians, engineers, scientists, writers, artists, athletes, and leaders who thought more deeply about these things than I had. (I have started a partial list of famous Christian mathematicians, artists, and scientists. Sorry, I chose to only include dead ones.)
Having thought nothing but ill of believers-in-God for so many years, you can imagine the tests I put faith to before I was willing to finally change my views. I'll not list them all here; they were many many many things, small and large. I did not "become a Christian" overnight, and I remain on a continuous path of learning.
But today I can say this: I know what it's like to not believe in God, and I know what it's like to believe in God. I've lived my life both ways. While I cannot scientifically prove either faith position, I have abundant evidence that I am more fulfilled, more adventurous, happier, and less stressed in living with belief in God. I also find much greater meaning and purpose in life. My life feels like one that has moved from that of the little naive character inside a game, to a character that knows the game-maker and gets to experience the world beyond the game. It's exhilarating and I have no desire to go back to the atheist faith.
Have you thought deeply about whether or not God exists? What is your answer? How do you know what you believe is true? What if you are wrong? How do your beliefs change your life? Think and decide.