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Debate about God is a good thing when done intelligently

By Brian Platt

The two greatest physicists of the 20th century, Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, spent most of their lives at loggerheads over quantum mechanics. Einstein believed deeply in a material, deterministic world; Bohr’s model of the atom, with its physically unpredictable electrons, violated the very core of Einstein’s worldview. “No,” Einstein would famously insist during their heated debates, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” Finally, an exasperated Bohr burst out a brilliant reply: “Einstein, stop telling God what to do!”

It certainly raises the stakes of a debate when one starts invoking God’s intentions, doesn’t it? How do you challenge someone when they appropriate God’s authority to their side of an argument? As Bohr knew very well, Einstein was speaking in a mostly metaphorical sense — God as the embodiment of the complexity of the universe. Both scientists understood the limits of such rhetorical language and used it for the constructive purpose of advancing the argument.

But others are not so metaphorical or subtle. In June, the demagogues who rule Iran didn’t just fix an election result: Ayatollah Khamenei pronounced the outcome “a divine assessment.” How should one respond to this? The thousands of Iranians who doubted that it was God who tabulated poll results impossibly early and shut down the cellphone network were met in the streets by a phalanx of black-clad security forces.

Last January, a Canadian umbrella group of atheist and humanist organizations launched a campaign of public transit advertisements. The ads carried the cheeky and rather cunning slogan, “There’s probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life.” (The mad geniuses at the United Church’s Emerging Spirit headquarters produced a good response to this, which you can see at wondercafe.ca.)

I have yet to see the atheist bus ads in person. That’s because Vancouver’s transit authority decided to ban them. The reason: no ads are allowed that may “cause offence to any person or group of persons or create controversy.” Got that, Vancouverites? Transit advertisements are for selling you overhyped products, not for provoking thought — let alone controversy!

This will change with a Supreme Court ruling in July that struck down Vancouver’s ban as a violation of the Charter right to free expression. The decision will almost certainly apply to religious advertisements as well. Now we’ll be able to see these atheist bus ads, think about them and make up our own minds. Is anybody in the United Church afraid of such a thing? Why would you be?

Debate about God, when done intelligently, is a very good thing. We need more of it. A century ago in Copenhagen, two brilliant minds used  such debate to decipher the mysteries of the physical universe — launching a scientific revolution in the process. Today in Tehran, where the freedom to debate religious doctrine is violently repressed, ordinary citizens risk everything in their struggle to gain it. Vancouver’s attempt to keep debate about God away from the public space is a symptom of seriously misplaced priorities.

Religious debate is a fundamental tenet of human freedom. So stop worrying and enjoy it.

Author's photo
Brian Platt is a master of journalism student at Carleton University.
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