Does religion cause harm?


After choosing to believe in God for personal reasons, I had interesting conversations with people who passionately oppose religion and faith.   Their main argument is, of course, the lack of evidence for God which I’m going to address separately.  The other argument which is hard to dismiss is that religion causes harm because it makes humans […]

My experience with religion: Part 3


As I described earlier, I grew up as an atheist, I described my early experiences with religion, and why I finally chose to believe in God.  I’d like to reflect on some interesting side-effects.

Shortly after I chose to believe in God, I came across the Atheist Experience video podcast.  I have been an atheist for the most of my life.  It wasn’t a big deal for me.  I did not have to “break the spell”, break relationships with my family or face judgment from my friends for being an atheist.  I did not realize that people could be very passionate about their atheism and even confrontational with believers.  That was an interesting discovery for me.

To be honest, I did not like the tone of the show.  The hosts of the show ridiculed religion, religious beliefs, and religious callers.  There was a general overtone of arrogance and superiority.  I visited a few atheist forums.  What I saw there was even more shocking.  Once I identified myself as a believer, I was treated with scorn and contempt.  For some reason, people in these forums were prepared to refute my “stupid claims” even though I did not make any.  I was assumed to be a right-wing conservative who rejects evolution and supports YEC.  Now I realize that this, perhaps, was the kind of believers these people were used to deal with.  But I found it a bit narrow-minded for people who claimed to be “rational” to treat all believers according to their own stereotype.   I was bombarded with dogmatic cliche statements which sounded rational on their face, but did not stand a simple analysis.  For instance,

  • “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” (Hitchens)
  • Burden of proof principle (even though I did not make any statements)
  • “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” (“Clifford’s Credo”)

I thought about these statements.  I read Clifford’s essay “Ethics of Belief” and William James’s response “The Will to Believe”.  I have a notebook full of notes on these essays which I hope to share some time later.  I read about epistemology, empiricism, solipsism, rationalism.  I read about cognitive dissonance.  I read Karl Popper to understand scientific method.  I thought I may be making a huge mistake believing in God.  But I concluded that there are as many reasons to believe in God as reasons not to believe in God.   The question of God’s existence is not scientific because it is unfalsifiable.  People who know how science works, know this.  People who are confused about science, try to present “evidence” for God or claim that science “proves” that God does not exist.  Some people know that existence of God is not a scientific question, but deliberately require “evidence” from naive believers just to get them entangled in their own arguments.  It was a good experience.  Most notably, I learned what not to say in online discussions.  I tried to understand why we believe, how we make decisions in uncertain situations.  I concluded that all people have unjustified beliefs.  So, the lack of evidence for God is not a sufficient reason to reject belief in God.  After a lot of thought, I did not find any epistemological reasons to reject belief in God.

Another hard claim I was confronted with was the claim that “religion causes harm”.  I was presented with countless historical facts of religious wars, crusades, witch-burning, Inquisition, antisemitism, Holocaust, honor killings, acts of terrorism, allegedly caused by religious beliefs.  In other words, I was confronted with moral reasons to reject belief in God.  I think, being skeptical about my prior beliefs is a good habit.  But for me, it has a different meaning than for most atheists in those forums: I have to be skeptical about atheism, not religion.  That religion is “opium for the masses”, I know quite well from my Soviet schooling.  After reading about causality, I have concluded that religion is not the cause of the atrocities associated with it.  So, there are no sufficient moral reasons to reject belief in God.  I think, religion is very powerful.  And, as any power, it has many dangers.  But these dangers can be avoided and are not sufficient to disregard the power of religion which exists independently of what we think of it.   I’m going to write about it soon.

I was told that science tells us where morality comes from and that it can help us answer moral questions.  At that time, I have not heard of Sam Harris, but a short internet search lead me to this pivotal TED talk where Harris tried to suggest that science can help us solve moral issues.  Essentially, it was a promotion of Harris’s book “The Moral Landscape” which was going to be published at that time.  It was the first TED talk I watched.  Something did not sound right in this talk.  I smelled too much agenda.  It lead me to discover Sean Carroll’s response to Sam Harris which lead me to read Hume on the topics of beliefs, empiricism, “ought vs. is”, etc.  Watching TED videos and participating in TED online discussions opened a new chapter in my learning.  TED folks are a lot more diverse and open-minded than folks from atheist forums.  I found a lot more understanding there.  A lot of topics discussed are thought-provoking. I spent a lot of time participating in TED discussions.  These days however,  I find too many Utopian ideas discussed in TED conversations and too many idealistic discussions.

In atheist forums, I was also confronted with scientific theories of the origins of the universe and with claims that the universe started from “nothing”, according to the laws of physics.  And that the whole thing was started by a random fluctuation (of what?).  There is so much nonsense in this belief that it may take a few posts to cover them.  I even have heard that “there was time when there was no time” (regarding the “time” prior to the big bang).  That was a quote from an atheist forum that I thought is worth remembering.  I won’t go too far here as Sean Carroll has done a fairly good job already.  By Lawernce Krauss’s own admission, the title of his book “A Universe from Nothing” is only intended to stir up a controversy and get people thinking and talking about it.  It’s the same tactics Sam Harris employs with his claims regarding science and morality, free will, etc. which deliberately contradict centuries of philosophical thought on these issues.  This tactic may stimulate thought on these topics, but I find it a bit cheap and self-promoting.  It sells well, but it’s alike the cheap “popularity” gained by Internet forum trolls and Miley Cyrus antics.

So, science fanatics, sorry.  Science does not tell us how the universe came about and does not help much to answer moral questions.  Which, again, leaves me with freedom to believe what I want to believe.  The result of this investigation was reading a few books by Stephen Hawkins and Roger Penrose, articles by Andrei Linde and Alex Vilenkin, lectures on cosmology and vacuum physics which was a fun refreshment of my college education in physics.

All in all, my experience with religion is very positive.  I learned a lot about myself, science, politics, and philosophy with its many branches — epistemology, ethics, etc.   It’s been an interesting journey which I hope to continue.

What does determinism determine?


There is a lot of discussion whether free will is possible in the world where all events are determined by physical laws.   Let’s stop and meditate on the word determined.  What does it mean?  It seems to mean that if we knew the current state of a system with coordinates and momenta of all atoms and molecules, we should be able to know also the state of the system in n seconds from now. There are too many ifs here, don’t you think? First of all, the system must be closed, i.e. confined to itself and isolated from external influences. This implies not only that the system cannot exchange particles with the outside world, but also energy (heat, electromagnetic radiation, or whatever other forms of energy there might be). That’s quite impossible. We might not even be aware of all forms of energy out there considering the “dark matter/dark energy” problem. We also must know the state of each and every atom in this closed system. One atom in the system or coming from outside with unknown state can throw all determinism out of the window.

Just look at the image above.   Can we practically determine the position of every ball after the cue ball hits the pyramid?  The movement of every ball is strictly determined by the Newton’s laws.  What seems to be the problem?  The problem is that we do not know the exact trajectory of the cue ball, where it hits the pyramid.  We do not know the exact alignment of the balls in the pyramid (I am not talking about any quantum principles here).  We do not know how every fiber of the table cloth and every microscopic groove in the table will affect the trajectory of every ball.  We don’t know if all balls are exactly spherical, whether their mass is equally distributed, how many scratches and imperfections they have.  We don’t know if the table is leveled or tilted to one side.  So, OK.  Trajectories of the balls are strictly determined by the Newton’s laws (if we ignore relativistic effects).  That’s what makes this game possible.  But how much is anything “determined”?

And that was a fairly idealistic environment.  Reality usually looks more like this, except the balls are in Brownian motion.

Determinists say that every event is caused by another event.  Let’s stop and meditate on the word caused. What do we mean by that?  Causality is nothing more than another mental construct.  It’s a way to describe relationship between events. In certain cases, when one event follows another event, we say that event 1 caused event 2. But it’s simply a special kind of connection between events.  Which we construct in our mind.  The relationship needs to follow certain rules outlined by Hume (e.g. event 1 must happen prior to event 2, event 2 must always follow event 1, etc. — Hume lists 8 attributes of causality) After spending the last 15 years of my career analyzing “failure root cause” of semiconductor circuits, I realized that that there is no such thing as “the root cause”.  Finding “the root cause” comes down to finding practical and reliable ways of achieving desired results.  Some ways are better than others and some results are more desirable than others.  When a car “accident” happens, we can say that it was caused by distracted driving, slippery road, poor visibility, condition of the car, the tree standing in the way, etc. All of those can be considered as causes of the accident. But there is no magic that determines “THE ROOT CAUSE”.  It’s possible to say that the tree caused the accident because if the tree were not there, the accident would not have happened.  We can even blame evolution that “caused” the tree to exist.  But it does not make any practical sense.  I know the cause of all plane crashes — gravity.  Is this the cause people look for?

car_crash_1

 

We also seem to have freedom to pick and choose the causes of events:

“It all comes,” said Pooh crossly, “of not having front doors big enough.” “It all comes,” said Rabbit sternly, “of eating too much.”

To complicate the matters, an observer is a part of the observed system and inevitably affects the system’s behavior.  Think of turning on the light to see what’s going on in the dark room.  What will you see?  You will see what’s going on in the room right after you turned on the light, not what had been going on in the dark.  In some cases observer effect can be neglected, in some cases, not.  So, the very act of inquiry into natural causes of events adds an element of free will to these events.  Some things seem to be there just because we look.  There is a Russian proverb “If I knew where I fall, I would put some straw there”.    Knowing that an event will happen can change that event.

Now, let’s stop and meditate on the words physical laws. What are they?  Aren’t they also mental constructs allowing us to describe the world and make useful predictions?  Most physical laws operate within a certain idealistic model of the world and ignore “second-order” effects.  What constitutes a “second-order” effect depends on the application.  We can ignore relativistic inaccuracies of Newton’s laws when we play billiards, but when we design a GPS system, we have to take them into account.  When we launch a satellite, we account for the mass of the Earth, perhaps, the Moon, perhaps the Sun.  How about the effects of the gravity pull coming from the billions of distant galaxies?  Probably, not so important.  But second-order effects do exist even if we choose to ignore them.  And we never know when they become too large to ignore.  We also cannot pretend that we know all physical laws.  There are a few that we happen to know.  But I’m certain that there are quite a few of them that we are not even aware of.  Determinism seems to be just another such idealistic model of the world which only makes sense for certain applications, but not others.

Anything left from determinism that has not been reduced to absurdity yet?  Good luck with determinism, Mr. Harris and Mr. Coyne.

See also:

Hitler’s Racism and Christianity


Hitler was a Christian, by his own confession. What does it imply about Christianity? Uhh… Nothing… Hitler was a German. What does this imply about Germans? Nazis used philosophy of Nietzsche (an atheist). What does this imply about Nietzsche and atheism? Hitler also wore a very peculiar mustache, forever associated with him. Why is there no connection between Hitler’s mustache and racism, but (oh!) there is deep connection between Christianity and Nazism? Can someone explain the logic involved?

Knowledge Guild

‘Eternal Nature inexorably revenges the transgressions of her laws. Therefore, I believe today that I am acting in the sense of the Almighty Creator: By warding off the Jews I am fighting for the Lord’s work.’

“Die ewige Natur rächt unerbittlich die Übertretung ihrer Gebote. So glaube ich heute im Sinne des allmächtigen Schöpfers zu handeln: In dem ich mich des Juden erwehre, kämpfe ich für das Werk des Herrn.”

Hitler. A. 1925. Mein Kampf Munich, Germany: Franz Eher Nachfolger (1939) Chapter 2

‘The least beautiful that can exist in human life is and remains the yoke of slavery. Or does this Schwabing to decadence perhaps perceive the present-day fate of the German nation as ‘aesthetic’? There is certainly no need to discuss this with the Jews, the modern inventors of this culture perfume. Their entire existence is a protest incarnate against the aesthetics of the Lord’s image.’

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Do we have free will?


Daniel Dennett has recently published a detailed response to Sam Harris’s book “Free Will”.  As one can see from the reviews, the book was received with enthusiasm by many scientists.  E.g. Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist, also chooses the point of view that free will does not exist.  I like how engineer Jacque Fresco explains this idea in the first part of this video (the second part where he mentions how a person may decide to borrow a weapon to protect himself from a wild animal despite being preconditioned by society that stealing is unacceptable seems somewhat inconsistent which is OK considering that, according to himself, he did not choose what to think or what to say).

The popularity of incompatibilism (the notion that deterministic laws of nature are incompatible with free will) among scientists and engineers is not surprising.  It is not a new idea and has been known for many centuries as shown in  this review on Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy web site.  All good and well… But…

We still make choices, don’t we?  What do you say, yes or no?  How come?

I tend to agree with Dennett on this issue who espouses compatibilism, the notion that we can consider that free will exists for our practical purposes despite the determinism of laws of nature.  Although Dennett has a few good explanations of his view, I’d like to offer my own.

If we accept that every event is strictly determined by the laws of physics and all circumstances of that event, we must reject also the concept of probability.  There is no likelihood of occurrence of any event because, according to determinism, there is certainty whether and how this event will happen.  Nevertheless, probability is one of the most important concepts in science and everyday decision making.  Why?  I think, it has to do with predictability.  Determinism implies that all events are predictable in principle, if we know all circumstances leading to this event.  However, in practice, we never know all circumstances.  Therefore, we estimate probabilities.  This distinction between in practice and in principle also seems to be the source of confusion about falsifiability of scientific theories.

Let me ask you to name a random integer number between 1 and 10.  Can you do that?  I bet you can.  Now, that you picked a number, it’s not random for you any more — you know what it is.  But for me, the number is still random because I don’t know what number you have picked.  I can still talk about probability of what the number is, whereas for you there is no probability, there is certainty.

Once a lottery has been drawn, there is no longer any uncertainty regarding what the winning numbers are.  The probability of the numbers being what they are is 1.  Probability of the outcome of the lottery only makes sense before the lottery is drawn or if we do not know the results of the drawing.

Imagine a deck of cards face down on the table.  When I take a card from the top of the deck, what is the probability of the card being queen of hearts?  1/52, right?  Now imagine a deck of cards face up on the table with the top card being jack of spades.  What’s the probability of the card being queen of hearts now?  Now it’s zero.  Why?  Because we know it’s not queen of hearts.  But why does it matter whether the deck is face up or face down?  Isn’t the top card what it is regardless of what we think about it?  Why is it reasonable to talk about probability in the first case and unreasonable in the second case?

Perhaps, that’s enough of examples.  In summary, I think, probability, free will, and determinism are  ways to describe the world in a similar way as color is a way to describe the length of electromagnetic waves hitting our eyes (Dennett’s analogy).  In a similar way, imagining that electron is a wave or a particle or forms a cloud is a way to describe certain properties of electron.  But in reality, electron is neither like a wave in the ocean, nor like a cloud in the sky at all.  Thinking that an electron is a particle is incompatible with thinking that an electron is a wave.  Yet, scientists manage to use both models successfully, without contradiction.

It’s important to consider contexts in which concepts are meaningful.  Concepts lose meaning if they are used in a wrong context.  E.g., abbreviation “CD” can mean “compact disc” if we talk about audio records, “certificate of deposit” if we talk about banking, “critical dimension” if we talk about semiconductor processing.  In a similar way, the concept of “free will” is meaningful in most contexts of every day life, but not so in some specific contexts.  “Free will” and “probability” are all mere concepts.  If we argue that they do not exist, we might as well dismiss all other concepts and ideas we may have.

So, although, what I do is determined, I don’t know it, and it gives me the freedom of choice…  Or an illusion of freedom of choice which is as good as freedom of choice for all practical purposes.  There is no difference between free will and the illusion of free will just like there is no difference between real intelligence and fake intelligence.

Related links

 

My experience with religion: Part 2


Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

– Matthew 6:34

I find it to be a very practical psychological advice. Worries and fears can consume our mental energy and even cause physical health issues through stress. But how do I know that “everything will be OK”? The Bible implies that God will take care of everything. But how do I know? For this practical psychological advice to work, it seems to be necessary to believe in God.

In times of uncertainty and trouble, it is a comforting and encouraging thought that someone will take care of me. Normally, people get this emotional support from friends and family. My wife and I are first-generation immigrants in the U.S. We have 3 children. We have absolutely no relatives on this continent. Not even a distant cousin across the country. All relatives are across an ocean. We can’t “leave kids at grandma’s for weekend”, for example. Social life is minimal. There is simply very little time for it. We are so absorbed with daily routines, schools, practices, doctor’s appointments, and other mundane things that it would be very difficult to find anyone with similar interests. People in the same situation as we are would likely have equally little time for fun. It’s hard to form friendships in your fourties. There are friends from school years, but most of them are also 10,000 miles away.

This sculpture of Christ is sitting on top of a chapel next to the cathedral in my home city where my wife and I had a wedding. Carrying the burdens of this world is not easy.

The toll of stress can be high. I have a friend who died in his fourties from cancer, soon after selling his business for a few million dollars. That’s an extreme, and I do not own a business. But I have many friends and coworkers who went through divorce. One friend went through cycles of depression after divorcing his first wife. I can see why these things happen and there is no guarantee that something similar will not happen to me.

A hope or faith that I will get through difficulties despite being apparently inadequate for the challenge is quite essential. Where shall I get it? Go to a psychologist? Spend a few hundred dollars and many hours, get a report with “findings” and recommendations, to put it away in a drawer and not open it ever again? What will the psychologist tell me? Reduce stress, sleep, eat, exercise, and pay attention to my wife and family? My expectation that I would learn something I don’t already know is low. At the end, it would still come down to believing in a solution and doing it. So, practicing some good-old Biblical wisdom is, perhaps, as good as “professional help”.

I like another aspect of religion. With 3 children, life can get chaotic. These little cute creatures create all kinds of mess. Toys all over the house, drawings and boogers on the walls, food all over faces are everyday experiences. They can get sick just in time for family events planned months ahead and create all kinds of other surprises. I have noticed that participating in a Catholic mass has an interesting calming effect on me. Every move is scripted, polished, and performed for 2000 years, without changes. Catholic mass is the same in the U.S., in Ukraine, today, as it was 1000 years ago. It leaves an impression of being a part of eternity.

Many atheists use religious practices for their psychological effects. Meditation started as a religious practice. A friend of mine, an atheist, attended meditation sessions to fight depression at some Indian center. He said, he felt very positive effect. However, after a few practices, they started to introduce the “spiritual side” of meditation which was a total turn-down for my friend. It seems to me, you can’t sever a flower from its root, and enjoy it. If you want to enjoy the flower for a long time, it needs to be attached to the root. Spiritual practices will not solve spiritual problems if they are separated from their spiritual origins – religion.

So, the reasons why I choose to believe in God are purely emotional and psychological.  I am fully aware of these reasons.  I cannot call my faith unreasonable, although the reasons are irrational.   I did not accept faith blindly.   I chose faith not because I’m brainwashed or uneducated.  Actually, after I chose to believe in God, my interest and knowledge of science, philosophy, and history exploded.  I would not have read as much without taking interest in religion.  I’d like to talk about this in one of the future posts.

See also

No true “‘No true Scotsman’ fallacy” fallacy


The dialog between atheists and believers often goes this way.

Atheist: Religion causes great harm.  For centuries, Christians burnt witches and heretics at the stake, and killed Jews by the million.  Hitler’s ideology was based on centuries of Christian antisemitism.  Even to this day, they spread hatred towards homosexuals based on their beliefs not based in any reality.

Christian: But those people were not true Christians!  How can a true follower of Christ spread hatred instead of love and condemn instead of forgiving?

Atheist: You commit a common reasoning fallacy.  It even has a name.  It’s called “No True Scotsman Fallacy”.  You can read about it on Wikipedia.

Christian:  Wait a minute.  Wasn’t the carnage of the French and Russian revolutions committed by atheists?

Atheist: But how is this related to atheism?  How can lack of belief cause such things?  It only takes religion to commit such atrocities.  In fact, the Soviet regime had many attributes of religion.  Communists were not true atheists.

Christian: Aren’t you using the same ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy?

Atheist: No, this is not a true ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy.  My reasoning is completely different.

etc., etc.

Prompted by Daily Prompt: Groupthink

Inspired by “True” Christians

My experience with religion: Part 1


The road up and the road down are one and the same.

– Heraclitus

Continued from My Experience with Atheism

I have seen a few blogs where people describe their way from faith to atheism. Questioning one’s own beliefs is the only way to find truth. As I mentioned before, I grew up as an atheist, in an atheistic country (Soviet Union), in a family of atheists, with lots of atheist friends. For me, questioning my own beliefs means something quite opposite. I’d like to share my story of discovering religion for myself.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, attitude towards religion in the former Soviet republics changed. Religion became a symbol of national identity to Ukrainians and Russians and a symbol of “spiritual revival”. Religion became fashionable. Russian and Ukrainian presidents consider it politically necessary to be seen in church on Christmas and Easter.

Russian and Ukrainian presidents in church
Russian and Ukrainian presidents in church

I did not hold the Bible in my hands until I was about 20 years old. Bibles were not sold in Soviet book stores. I got one when the Soviet Union began to disintegrate and there were lots of missionaries distributing Bibles for free.

When I opened the Bible for the first time, I turned a few pages and my attention was caught by the book of Proverbs (it’s almost in the middle of the book). I would say, reading the book of Proverbs had an emotional impact on me. There was a feeling of reading timeless wisdom. The language is live and strong – very brief and to the point. It occurred to me that communists, perhaps, made a huge mistake discounting religion. They could make it work to their advantage big time, considering that religion already had a huge influence on the minds of Russian people.

Reading the Bible did not make me a believer. A few years before I married my wife, she had accepted Catholicism, driven by an emotional impulse. A few months after we got our marriage license from civil authorities, my wife went to confession. The priest told her that she lived in sin because she did not have a wedding. So, her relationship with me was still considered “extramarital” by the church. She told me her concerns. It wasn’t a huge deal for me, so we decided to have a church wedding. It turned out that I needed to be baptized before I could have a church wedding. OK. A few drops of water on my head wouldn’t hurt, I thought. Before I could be baptized and before we could have a wedding, we had to take classes regarding the meaning of those rituals. The premarital classes also had a few useful medical tips on detecting ovulation to use them whichever way we needed.

I don’t recall the baptism to be “a turning point in my life”. The wedding was more impressive. It took place in the central gothic cathedral of the city built in 13th century. The civil marriage ceremony left us both tired, annoyed, and disappointed. So, we decided to keep the church ceremony to ourselves. There were just us, the priest, the two witnesses, and God. They even had someone play Bach on the organ (the real one, with pipes under the ceiling).

This is the photo of the cathedral where my wife and I had a wedding.  It shows the back wall where the organ is located.  The acoustic is stunning.  The whole building, very crowded during the services, was just for the two of us.
This is a photo of the cathedral where my wife and I had a wedding. It shows the back wall where the organ is located. The acoustic is stunning. The whole building, very crowded during the services, was just for the two of us.

Having children made me understand how unpredictable life is. When things don’t go the way we like, it’s easy to be disappointed and frustrated. When people don’t behave the way we expect them to behave, it’s easy to get angry. It’s difficult to accept things and people as they are. Uncertainty can lead to fear and anxiety. Professionally, my job is to resolve quality issues of semiconductor circuits. I deal with consequences of design flaws, human errors, process defects, lack of due diligence, unrealistic promises resulting in unrealistic schedules resulting in cutting corners. Earlier in my professional and personal life, things were more difficult than I was prepared to handle. I noticed myself to become bitter, unhappy and blaming others for these difficulties.

Then I decided to give religion a try – in a practical way. I decided to change the way I think and treat people and circumstances. Instead of getting angry and frustrated at people, I started to think that I love them and think of the ways I could help them instead of feeling contempt. I made a conscious effort to avoid judging others and avoid worry and anxiety about things I cannot control. Results were interesting. First of all, I noticed a change in other people’s attitude towards me. They seemed to like me better, at home and at work. Second, I believe I became happier although, there was no objective change in any situation. Perhaps, the change of my attitude made people more likely to listen to me which, in turn, lead to change in their attitude towards matters of quality.

I don’t see anything supernatural in my experience. An interesting conclusion that faith does not work without practice. “Loving your neighbor” needs to show itself in practical actions and words rather than an abstract declarations. Still, “not worrying about tomorrow” needs some more work. It implies that “God will take care of tomorrow”. This is an interesting belief which can be interpreted as carelessness. Things are known to go sometimes very badly. There are all kinds of evils and disasters in the world. Which leads to a bigger question: “is it reasonable to believe in God?”

More on my experience with religion next time.