Religion, historical context and common sense

When I get pulled into a discussion on the topic of religion, I usually end up leaving with many frustrating thoughts. In the most recent conversation, the following particularly stood out.

Historical Context

Throughout human history, many gods have come and gone. Today we’d ridicule someone believing in Poseidon or Zeus, but feel comforted when a nation’s leader consults the Bible. But there was a time in history when people feared and worshiped these mythical gods, just as devoutly and sincerely as people fear and worship Yaweh today.

And not only have numerous gods and religions existed along the dimension of history; at any particular point in time, a variety of gods and religions also exist across the dimensions of geography and culture. Today, people in one part of the world tend to be Christian, while in another part tend to be Muslim.

It’s therefore surprising to me when someone doesn’t find it even a little concerningly coincidental that their religious beliefs — what they take to be the truths of the universe — happens to coincide with the culture and geography into which they were born, and the particular period of time in history in which they exist.

Common Sense

People often appeal to common sense when evaluating possible answers to life’s most challenging questions. It obviously makes no sense that something can come from nothing, or that something as complex as a human eye could evolve. When we observe nature, common sense tells us it all must come from an intelligent creator.

But what we understand as “common sense” is derived from our human experience. Our common sense would cause us to be alarmed if we saw another person levitating, but a newborn baby wouldn’t give it a second thought.

The leading explanations of our universe are founded upon quantum physics — the work of people such as Richard Feynman. This is significant for two reasons:

First, it turns out that quantum physics is the area of science which we most accept to be “true” (as far as we can know something to be true). Unlike classical mechanics, which break down at the atomic level, quantum physics provide a set of theories that have been verified empirically, and have never been demonstrated inconsistent.

Secondly, quantum physics is the domain of notions which violate our human common sense. Things can exist in two places at the same time. Things travels from A to B via all possible paths, simultaneously. Time can slow down. Systems have multiple histories. The universe contains many dimensions, only four of which we humans can experience.

Paraphrasing Stephen Hawking, “The common sense view of reality is not compatible with modern physics.”

Think about that. The area of science underlying the leading explanations of our universe, is both the area of science in which we are most confident, and is the domain of things which violate our common sense. Every time we use a flash memory device, things are happening at the atomic level which, according to our common sense, simply can’t happen, and yet are perfectly predicted by quantum physics.

Considering this, how do you respond to someone who argues for one idea, and rejects another, based on an appeal to common sense?

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