By Barbara Bradley Hagerty
NPR’s Religion Correspondent
I would like to say I left the faith of my childhood for exclusively noble reasons. While it is true that I made the final break with Christian Science because I was drawn to a simpler, “mere Christianity,” as C.S. Lewis described it, what initially beckoned me from the faith was Tylenol.
As a Christian Scientist, I had been taught that prayer and disciplined thinking had the power to alter my experience, whether that was my wracking cough or my employment status, my mood or my love life. I had witnessed many physical healings as a child, and by the age of 34, I had never visited the doctor (except to set a broken bone) never popped a vitamin, never swallowed an aspirin or taken a swig of cough medicine.
But on one frigid winter day in 1994, I came down with the flu. I slipped in and out of consciousness all afternoon, but in a moment of lucidity I envisioned the medicine cabinet above the bathroom sink. At that moment, what flashed in my mind’s eye like a blinking neon sign was Tylenol, Tylenol, Tylenol. A friend of mine, I recalled, had left some Tylenol during a visit.
I slipped out of bed and staggered to the medicine cabinet. Before I could stop myself, I downed one tablet, closed the cabinet, and stumbled quickly back to bed. Five minutes passed. My teeth stopped chattering. Another minute or so, I began to feel quite warm, no, hot, hot, what was I doing under all these covers? I felt the fever physically recede like a wave at low tide, and thought, Wow, I feel terrific!
It would take me another 16 months before I would leave the religion of my childhood for good for theological reasons. But I lost something – namely, a way to prove God. Christian Scientists believe that the ultimate evidence for God lay in answered prayers and physical healings – but I no longer counted that as evidence. After all, science has shown the mechanism by which a person’s thoughts can affect his body – it has the felicitous name, psychoneuroimmunology, and it has no need for God. Others are looking to quantum mechanics to explain – oh so controversially – why one person’s prayers might have an effect on another person’s body. God’s presence is not required there, either.
Three years ago, I took a year’s leave of absence from National Public Radio to research a book on the emerging science of spirituality. At bottom I nursed a nagging concern that perhaps this God business is just a ruse, self medication in the face of certain death, and that science would prove that all mystery, all numinous experience, can be boiled down to brain chemistry and genetics. I traveled to Canada to don the God helmet, to see if exciting my temporal lobes would unleash an encounter with the “divine.” I attended to a peyote ceremony (although, like our former president, I barely ingested) and visited Johns Hopkins University in search of a chemical that would manufacture a mystical experience. I spent endless hours with near death experiencers and their debunkers, to ferret out hard piece of evidence for a spiritual realm.
I’m not going to tell you what I found. You’ll have to read the book. But I will tell you about a seminal moment for me. It was morning of June 15, 2005. Nine other journalists and I had arrived at the Cambridge University for a two-month fellowship about science and religion, funded by Cambridge and the Templeton Foundation. We fidgeted in our seats. We were anticipating the Fight of the Century.
John Barrow, a brilliant Cambridge mathematician, was speed-walking us through the hypothesis of a “fine-tuned” universe that is exquisitely and astonishingly calibrated to allow for life. He explained the concept of “multiverses,” which posits that we live in one of 10,500 universes. Then he said, almost as an aside, “I’m quite happy with a traditional theistic view of the universe.”
He might as well have dropped an anvil on Richard Dawkins‘s foot. Dawkins is a renowned evolutionary biologist at Oxford University, and possibly the world’s most famous atheist. Two days earlier, Dawkins had delivered a talk that he believed would prove the impossibility of God (later published as “The God Delusion”). He had remained in Cambridge to hear the lectures of other researchers, particularly the world-class John Barrow. When Barrow, who turned out to be an Anglican, mentioned his belief in God, Dawkins began roiling with frustration like a tea kettle about to blow.
“Why on earth do you believe in God?” Dawkins blurted.
All heads turned to Barrow, who replied: “If you want to look for divine action, physicists look at the rationality of the universe and the mathematical structure of the world.”
“Yes, but why do you want to look for divine action?” Dawkins demanded.
“For the same reason that someone might not want to,” Barrow responded with a little smile.
And I thought – there you have it! God is a choice: We can look for – or exclude – the action of the divine. William James considered the dichotomy between “materialism” and “spiritualism” 100 years ago, in his book “Pragmatism.” He argued that both are internally logical. He asserted that a material worldview that excludes a Creator and a spiritual worldview that includes one can both explain natural phenomena, such as the motion of the planets, or the evolution of the universe and life. You can believe either explanations for life and leave it at that. It is when you look toward the future that you see how differently the two views play out. Materialism – in today’s language, scientific reductionism — holds that eventually, our sun will die, earth will be destroyed, the universe will collapse on itself, and everything we hoped or dreamed or achieved or learned will be for naught. But a spiritual world view means “the affirmation of an eternal moral order and the letting loose of hope.” It leaves room for the possibility that all we are, all we love, all we accomplish will be preserved for eternity.
So God is a choice, an internal witness that there is a purpose to existence and that there may just be more than this material world. Given the choice, I’ll cast my ballot for God.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty is NPR’s Religion Correspondent. Her new book is “Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality” (Penguin/Riverhead).