What need do religions fulfill?

Discussion in 'Comparative Studies' started by DIKL, Mar 18, 2006.

  1. DIKL

    DIKL New Member

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    Why do we believe in gods? Why have we done it since we were cavemen?
    We can't prove or disprove the existence of gods (at least not in a way that all people in all times can agree to it). Still, religion seems to fulfill a basic need in human beings.

    Could it be that we have religions because we are inherently meaning-seeking creatures? Because we can't stand not knowing the reason for everything? Because we don't like chance or luck limiting our lives? Because it feels better to say "God works in mysterious ways", rather than "I don't know why this happened."

    Maybe we have religions because evolution brought forward curiosity in us? The same curiosity that drives science forward?

    Maybe the large religions of today exist just because they happened to be "in place" as writing and large empires emerged?

    What do you think?

    Regards,
    DIKL
     
  2. Thomas

    Thomas Administrator Admin

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    Hi DIKL, and welcome.

    Why do we believe in gods? Why have we done it since we were cavemen?

    Man is conscious of two things: himself, and the world - and religion is an attempt to unify that often cruel and arbitary duality - it seeks to place man 'in' the world, rather than outside of it, in which he is its spectator, and often its victim.

    We can't prove or disprove the existence of gods (at least not in a way that all people in all times can agree to it).
    A proof for a thing is a container of that thing, it defines it, it locates it ... but the gods are (or should be) infinite, absolute, beyond all definition, all limitation, therefore there can be no 'definition' of God that does not allow the fact that the 'reality' of God lies beyond the definition. Man can no more prove God than he can prove infinity.

    Still, religion seems to fulfill a basic need in human beings.
    We are reasoning creatures. And we are loving creatures.

    Could it be that we have religions because we are inherently meaning-seeking creatures?
    Yes.

    Because we can't stand not knowing the reason for everything?
    Well, we're getting into emotive language here, which distorts the picture somewhat. I would say that man can stand not knowing - that's what wonder is - when man wonders at the universe, the feeling is usually one of delight, rather than frustration. Frustration follows when he knows all his answers are inadequate.

    Because we don't like chance or luck limiting our lives? Because it feels better to say "God works in mysterious ways", rather than "I don't know why this happened."
    Some, perhaps many, take refuse in such a position, but not the philosopher. Certainly the caveman religions seem to attempt to appease the gods rather than understand their nature, but given what he was working with, that's understandable.

    Maybe we have religions because evolution brought forward curiosity in us? The same curiosity that drives science forward?
    Man is a curious creature - I don't think his curiosity 'evolved' in the sense that there was a time when man wasn't curious. Man was formed to know, man is a knowing being with self awareness. Evolution might well sharpen his faculties, but it didn't add faculties he does not by nature possess.

    Our closest evolutionary neighbours (I think) also display curiosity? They don't wonder, however (it would seem) in quite the same way, although the activity of dolphins, for example, show they might well 'delight' in things.

    In short, our evolutionary neighbours show no signs of seeking the cause of things, they are curious about and delight in the effects. A squirrel will 'figure out' a test to get the food, for example, but it shows no sign of pondering who set the test, or trying to communicate with who set the test.

    Maybe the large religions of today exist just because they happened to be "in place" as writing and large empires emerged?
    No, I don't think that's a tenable argument. Religions fail when they cease to provide adequate answers that accord with man's understanding of himself and the world. Polytheism fails for this reason - once man arrived at a philosophical position of there must be a Prime Mover, a First Cause, then you can't logically have two 'First Causes' - there can only be one 'One Above All'.

    That's my answer for Saturday 18th March, 2006, 15.32 GMT

    Ask me again tomorrow, the world will be a different place, I shall be a different person, and I'll have a different answer.

    But God will be the same.

    Welcome again,

    Thomas
     
  3. Druweid

    Druweid Sage ~ Student ~ Servant

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    Well, my initial feeling is that each person believes something, and what they believe is for their own reasons, and best suits their own needs and wants. there are many reasons people have religion, and there are many reasons that people are atheists.
    I believe that touches on one significant possibility.
    Possibly, but I don't think so. "The Fates" have been blamed for such things, as well as "Mother Nature," Karma, etc., and these are not gods, per se', nor necessarily the central object of any specific religion.
    If you combine this with your previous question of being meaning-seeking creatures, I think it comes very close to the answer for which you're seeking.

    Most animals, including man, do have natural and/or instinctive curiosity. I believe it would have to be more than that, however, to culminate in the formation of religion.

    While it may be grossly over-simplifying the truest possible explanation, I believe that a significant part of the birth of religion comes down to a single concept. A simple idea that has haunted mankind since the first day his/her mind could form an abstract concept. The one question that has continually been asked despite the impossibility of a final answer.

    "Is there not more?"

    Beyond the need for answers, and beyond the need to satisfy curiosity, people continually to look both ahead, and above, for concepts beyond what is presently considered possible. People are never content with perfecting life with the knowledge and resources presently available to them. We continually strive, not just for increased knowledge, but for a higher state-of-being that is beyond anything we have ever observed. I find it difficult to believe that such a quest could be so inherent to humankind if that state-of-being did not exist. Somehow, spiritually or instinctively, we know it exists.

    Just my thoughts,
    -- Druweid
     
  4. Käthe

    Käthe Kitchen Witch

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    Dang it all, I've been trying to post this for over an hour. :(


    A number of years ago I read something very like the following in an introduction to a book. I wish I could remember which book it was, since I’d like to read it again, but in the meanwhile I wanted to share what I remember:

    “In the beginning…” “Before there were things…” “At the start of time…”

    Stories about how life began, stories about the origins of the universe, the stars and sun and moon and the earth, often start with similar phrases. These stories are not really about how the universe came into being, though. They are about us. And we tell our stories about ourselves in many different tongues.

    In our modern language of science we may talk about small things attracting other small things and combining to form bigger things. We may discuss chaos theory and “wild attractant” molecules, natural selection and evolution rather than gods who spoke the universe into being or from whose heads their children sprang fully formed.

    And, still, we humans are worshippers. A sense of the sacred suffuses any story about our beginning. The stories we tell about how we came to be touch our sense of wonder, and we are filled with awe. For no matter how scientific the terms we use, our innermost selves tell us that these are miracles: that things exist at all, that life exists at all, and that life has become conscious of itself.

    Throughout the ages, and all over the world, we have worshipped at many different shrines. Each altar has been oriented toward a different face of the All, of the Divine, of the Mystery, shaped by our different cultural and personal experiences and values. The way that we experience life and understand consciousness informs all of our actions, and especially the ways in which we worship.

    Our holy places are everywhere, for we are surrounded by miracles. And it is in our recognition of the miraculous that our image of "God" is formed. Which particular miracles you can see as miracles determine what face "God" wears for you. If your central miracle, the miracle that defines you as a culture or a person, is that humankind is distinct from the rest of creation, the face of "God" you see will not look anything like the face of "God" seen by people whose central miracle is that the same life-force infuses rocks, water, trees, animals, flowers, stars...and humans.
     
  5. lunamoth

    lunamoth Episcopalian

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    Nice post Kathe :) . I especially like your sentence about 'a sense of the sacred suffuses...' Worth the trouble it put you through to post it.

    lunamoth
     
  6. Käthe

    Käthe Kitchen Witch

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    I'm just glad I thought to copy it into my clipboard when it got hung; I'd have hated to try to think/type that all over again.

    :)
     
  7. DIKL

    DIKL New Member

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    Thomas, Druweid, Käthe,

    thanks for the welcoming, and thanks for sharing your thoughts on my questions.

    Druweid has an interesting perspective on the main question:
    Let me rephrase the quote for clarity:
    Observation: Religions seem to have been part of humankind since the birth of modern man.
    Conclusion: There must be a higher being (or beings).

    I ask you then, what you think of the following alternative conclusion?:
    Observation: Religions seem to have been part of humankind since the birth of modern man.
    Conclusion: Humans need to believe that there is a higher being (or beings).

    (Notice that belief systems where the higher being is no being (e.g. Mother Nature, Karma, etc.) also apply. Such systems also assert the existence of supernatural forces.)

    This is the analogy of the saying "When pointing at someone else with one finger, you're pointing three at yourself." Suppose for the sake of argument that there are no deities. Meanwhile, religions do exist and do play a significant role in human life. What does that tell about us? What can we learn from that?

    I feel that Käthes idea is related.
    It reminds me of a statement I've read in some book on cosmology. It - and Käthes comment - could be (over)simplified to:
    Observation: The natural forces in universe are incredibly perfectly balanced in such a way that life could evolve. Had the forces been arranged in any other way, there would not have been life.
    Theist Conclusion: There must be a higher being that arranged universe in this manner. It couldn't have happened by chance.

    Atheist/Agnostic Conclusion: It did happen by chance. There might have been billions of universes without life. If we could have seen these alternative universes, we would have been less likely to assume the existence of higher beings.

    If I remember correctly the book presented the analogy of a tiny insect living on the "6" of a die. Everytime the die is rolled, the insect can only survive if the die lands with the "6" facing up. If this happens and the insect survives, he will conclude that there was just a 1/6 probability of such luck. Ergo, there must be some benevolent higher power that arranged the roll.

    Curious of your comments. Take care,
    DIKL
     
  8. Druweid

    Druweid Sage ~ Student ~ Servant

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    I suppose that's one way to look at it, but it misses the point of what I was trying to convey in my original reply. I had not meant to focus on the length of time, or how far in the past, that mankind has held the concept of religion, I had meant to focus on mankind's ability to conceive of a state-of-being beyond that which has been experienced or observed. It would be comparable to a chimpanzee conceiving of itself as a Wall Street businessman.
    Even in the absense of any actual deities, it still leaves the possibility of an advanced state-of-being within spiritual development, where the deity serves as an example, role-model, or inspiration.

    Regards,
    -- Druweid
     
  9. DIKL

    DIKL New Member

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    Sorry for the misintepretation, Druweid. I'll try again. If I understand you correctly, you believe that man has the ability to imagine himself beyond that what his previous experiences would logically indicate. And ability would enable gradual personal spiritual development to the point where, possibly, a higher state-of-being could be reached. Now, I am not sure if you mean a personal state or an external state, e.g. reaching Nirvana or Heaven?

    In both cases: would you say that man needs to strive for a higher state-of-being? Why? Because evolution made us such?
     
  10. juantoo3

    juantoo3 ʎʇıɹoɥʇnɐ uoıʇsǝnb

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    Kindest Regards, DIKL, and welcome to CR!

    Thank you for the opportunity to respond.

    The first things I would have to ask is what it is you mean by the term "religion." Do you mean the authoritarian political constructs and edifices we have built? Or do you mean our personal and individualized search for something beyond ourselves? I see a distinction between institutional religion and personal religion.

    As "cave men" (and women) we did not have the political constructs and edifices. We had only our personal religion, and perhaps the shaman.

    I don't see how written language of itself could lead to institutional religion. I think institutional religion stemmed from codified law (Code of Hammurabi). Religion then became institutionalized, and a means to control the masses, while at the same time providing a sense of inclusion for society, growing into what we can better understand as culture. Not that "cavemen" did not have a culture, but such a culture is pretty far removed from our understanding of the term.

    Could it be that you are confusing cause with effect? That is, seeing the effect as cause, and cause as effect? Could it be that we are inherently meaning-seeking creatures because we have (an innate, personal) religion, or better said an intuition and inclination towards something greater than ourselves?
     
  11. Käthe

    Käthe Kitchen Witch

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    I do understand that this is a common conclusion, but it isn't mine. I don't think that the beautiful and awe-full patterns of life mean that there must be, or have been, a "creator". And I am emphatically a theist.

    From my post:

    For no matter how scientific the terms we use, our innermost selves tell us that these are miracles: that things exist at all, that life exists at all, and that life has become conscious of itself.

    To clarify: I don't think that there has to have been a designer, because a rose is so amazingly complex and beautiful. I do recognize that roses are miraculous. And at the moment that I allow myself to be fully appreciative of the miracle that is a rose, I am filled with awe.

    At the moment that I allow myself to be fully appreciative of the miracle of *anything* I am filled with awe; that is, a state of worshipful veneration; a state of thankfulness.

    The hunger for life in everything is astounding. The diversity of expression of life is mind-blowing. The fact that I am here, among all this and a part of it, is enough to make me weep tears of joy.

    I don't see that it is needful to assert a being apart from this wonder that "designed" it. A creator being, not part of this profusion of life but outside it, would not inspire feelings of worshipfulness in me.

    For me, Deity is immanent as well as transcendant, embodied in everything that has life.
     
  12. DIKL

    DIKL New Member

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    Thank you, and you're welcome. :)

    Using your definitions, I would say I'm interested in the personal search for understanding ourselves and everything beyond ourselves. I believe this search is something primal in man. And I take institutional religion, science and childrens' neverending questions as indiciations of this primal need for understanding.

    Ok, maybe I shouldn't have included this question in my list, as it broadens the topic too much. My point was not that institutional religion was a direct consequence of the birth of written language.

    Rather, I believe there are cultural reasons for making Judaism, Islam, and Christianity the major influences in the formation of Western and Middle Eastern cultures, while Asian civilizations have been affected by Buddhist teachings. Written language, increased mobility, increased domestication of plants and animals that lead to ever more people leaving the hunter-gatherer life, all organized through large empires, allowed for the religions 'in place' at that particular moment in history to grow. Why didn't earlier religions take hold? Or later ones?

    For me, to be meaning-seeking means that we want to understand, first and foremost. (See above - what I called personal search for understanding ourselves as well as everything beyond ourselves.)
    To have an inclination towards something greater than ourselves, as you say, sounds like wanting to believe - a priori - that there is something greater.

    Personally, I believe understanding is basal. I could see how the need to understand could lead to the development of personal religion. A personal religion IS a way of creating meaning, understanding and order. I would have more problem starting with a personal religion and arriving at need for understanding. Why would an inclination towards something greater than ourselves lead to thirst for knowledge?
     
  13. DIKL

    DIKL New Member

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    Ok. If I understand you correctly, you take the incredible complexity and beauty of the world as indicitation of a deity that is immanent and transcendant (as opposed to a deity which is separate (and transcendant)).

    But you do reject the idea the world just being what it is without any deity?
     
  14. China Cat Sunflower

    China Cat Sunflower Nimrod

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    Religion is what keeps the poor from killing the rich. Simple.

    We don't NEED religion. But, we might want religion for a lot of different reasons. Why would a person want to waste a part of their weekend on church? Well, it's a good place to network. You can dress your kids up all cute and show them off. It might be your only opportunity to get all cleaned up and snazzy yourself, and that's enjoyable. You can see people you don't see during the week. Plus all the spiritual stuff. I personally prefer to relax, play golf, watch the football game, and throw a couple of steaks on the barby. But then I had enough church as a kid to last me the rest of this life and half the next.

    Chris
     
  15. juantoo3

    juantoo3 ʎʇıɹoɥʇnɐ uoıʇsǝnb

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    Kindest Regards, DIKL!

    Thank you for your post!

    I agree that intuitive search for meaning is a primal matter, and I sense that there is something to it that may even be biological, or at least have biological roots. It also seems to me inherent, so your point about "childrens' neverending questions" is a good one. But I also think that when it comes to science, and institutional relgion, that these are more intellectual pursuits, something that could only come about with the advent of reason. It wasn't until we developed a rational mind, capable of foresight, that these became possible. I could be off base, and I have been searching a long time for answers. I still agonize over how a rational mind could develop purely through an accident of biology. I have to be careful I do not impose my desire for an outside influence, but I see no other viable explanation.

    Very well. Without belaboring the point, it is not difficult to find a history of the development of religion in historic time, beginning in Sumeria. Looking prior to that involves a bit more speculation and tying together of seemingly disconnected and random elements of pre-historic knowledge.

    Ummm, "cultural reasons...in the formation of...cultures," would seem pretty apparent. That Monotheism began at all, considering the cultural norms that surrounded it, is in itself intriguing. Again, much is left to speculation, but it would seem that such a concept as Monotheism must have had some pretty impressive instigation, some overwhelming reason, to even get a start. Between Judaism and Zoroastrianism (and arguably Hinduism), the embryonic Monotheism is pretty well covered by scholars of these various traditions.

    I am sure Vajradhara would have some to say in this regard. While what you say is true, keep in mind that going back to the era of the birth of Monotheism in the Copper and Bronze Ages, Asia was not Buddhist. On the other hand, Taoism was in existence in a great deal of this area. By some reports I have read, much of "rural" Asia was also animistic / shamanistic. I known I use the term shamanism a little loosely, but shamanism proper is from Siberia.

    It is pretty well understood that these developments occurred in Sumeria, in the Fertile Crescent (modern day Iraq). Have you looked at the "Applied Anthropology" thread? I posted a link to a rather interesting paper there regarding the development of agriculture, with the suggestion that humans have an addiction to cereals that is not, ummm, a normal part of evolutionary development.

    That is one of the million dollar questions.

    If one counts Buddhism, then this is not an accurate conclusion.

    Well, and I hesitate here, self-awareness is an interesting critter. On the one hand, the only thing animals can know is self (and possibly the Divine, but on a different level than humans). On the other hand, I think self-awareness as applied to humans has a bit different meaning. Not only do we understand we are cold, tired or hungry, but we are also "consciously" aware that we can drive ourselves towards things we desire, be it another piece of pie or a multi-million dollar mansion. Or to learn how to Tango.

    I think I see what you are saying, and it is certainly possible you are correct, and not I. I see this inherent intuitive "reach" beyond our limited self as being the foundation of rational thought. Problem is, I can't prove it. :D
     
  16. DIKL

    DIKL New Member

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    This comment is exactly on the spot. My feeling is that maybe humans honed reasoning skills through evolution. Other predators got faster and deadlier. We got smarter, we developed languages that allowed us to operate more effectively as a group. (Here we have the chicken-egg problem, as always. What came first? Did we for example develop languages consciously in order to coordinate hunting/gathering? Or did better group cooperation lead to languages? My guess is this is a positive feedback system.)

    Your agony over the possibility that reasoning arose by chance through evolution is quite interesting. My experience is that an overwhelming majority of people interpret the following observations as incredibly unlikely, and therefore as strong evidence for a supernatural structuring being/force and as strong evidence against chance playing a role in our universe:
    a) mankind being able to reason
    b) life existing
    c) complexity of the universe

    My question is then: WHAT IF chance does play a significant role in our universe? What if there have billions of universes with the wrong conditions for life to arise, and this is just one of the universes where life could arise? THEN I draw the conclusion that we humans don't feel comfortable with explanations that include chance. We are meaning-seeking creatures. We ask "What is the meaning of life", assuming it must/should have a meaning. And a meaningful universe should be based on cause and effect, where the ultimate cause should be an ultimate beings will, not randomness and chance.

    Maybe we are misunderstanding each other here. My question was why religions arising LATER in history than the five world religions haven't taken hold. For example scientology? (Well, it's quite well-spread, but I don't think it can challenge the 'big' religions.)
    Anyway, this was not my main point (although I am very interested in the topic per se). I wish to concentrate on my other question: if there might be a single driving force in man causing the advent of both personal religion and science?


    I'm not sure I understand your point. Can you please elaborate a bit on this?


    Hmm, really interesting thought! If I understand you correctly, even before man was capable of rational thought, the urge for understanding was already there. And this urge was the root and driving force of rational thought.
    Hmm...have to think about this. A spontaneous question is: Couldn't it possible for man to feel the need for being rational without feeling the need for more knowledge? If there's a causality, in which direction does it go?

    If anyone could 'prove' their beliefs there wouldn't be much going on at CR. ;)
    Seriously now, this leads to another reflection I've had. What would happen if science was to prove, say, universe is a product of chance?
    My guess: there would be massive emotional resistance to this idea, as it collides with the need for meaning we have. The proof would be scrutinized and criticized like no other in history.
     
  17. juantoo3

    juantoo3 ʎʇıɹoɥʇnɐ uoıʇsǝnb

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    Kindest Regards, DIKL!

    Thank you for your thoughtful post!
    Desmond Morris in his book "The Naked Ape" says about as much. Language is by its nature difficult to trace in pre-historic times. The closest we have to "writing" prior to the cuneiform developed in Sumeria is the cave paintings found in many places in Europe (and a handful of places in China). A few artifacts have been found, like the Venus of Willendorf, give us an eye into how early humans thought. I have also seen photos of geometric designs etched on an artifact (a stone?) that pose interesting questions, especially since it is attributed to Neandertal (no longer generally considered ancestral to modern humans). Interestingly, to me anyway, is that the cave paintings very often depict the hunt. I wonder whether this was a teaching tool for a successful hunt, or a memorial of (a) specific hunt(s). Perhaps both.

    I get a little antsy with "what if" questions. I mean, we can imagine all kinds of "what if" scenarios. Where does reality end and fantasy begin? I like to try to stay within the bounds of what we "know," what we have learned and what we can logically predict as realistically possible from what we have learned.

    In fairness, I realize "random / chance" is the accepted mantra in science, so to that much I must answer. IF random chance could somehow be proven, then I suppose like all drastic changes brought about by scientific revelation, there would be short term resistence, even perhaps violent at times. But as the realization of "proven fact" settled in, in time, religious and spiritual outlooks would find a way to merge the new information. Of course, how does one go about proving "random / chance?" It seems to me, the nature of the concept leaves itself open. In other words, random / chance also means "all things are possible." Philosophically if not scientifically.

    Well, that would seem to be in line with my pursuit of the beginning of rational thought and personal religion. Of course, I am of the opinion that "science" in the broadest sense of being able to manipulate nature to our will came considerably later, and in the more secular sense I believe began in Taoism (or its predecessor). I am reasonably certain there are / were analogues in Sumeria, considering developments like the wheel, metallurgy and thrusting weapons.


    I am speaking of the dawn of consciousness. Perhaps rational thought is a separate issue, but I see the two as synonymous. Thinking requires consciousness and foresight, or so it seems to me.

    Have you ever looked into the transcripts of conversations with Koko the gorilla? Look closely at what Koko actually says, not the glowing interpretations by her handler. Koko, like all animals except humans IMO, is not operating with "rational" thought, she is reacting to her surroundings and situation. Abstract conceptions are beyond her ability.

    Another example would be training a dog to do tricks. It is a matter of reward and / or punishment, not thinking through a problem to come to a solution. In fairness, animals like dogs can seek solution to pressing desires like how to get the cookie jar off of the counter or to get out of a pen. But this is still immediate gratification to immediate problems with no outlook towards consequence. Animals, including humans, learn by experience (hindsight), the difference being humans can look for solution with foresight and realize consequence. If I get polluted with alcohol, I will have a hangover, experience. If I continue as a habit to get polluted with alcohol, I will destroy my liver, foresight.

    It is this "little" matter of consciousness that is the puzzle. With consciousness, we can set a goal for ourselves and work towards that goal. I think I will learn to Tango today. OK, look in the phone book, find an instructor, place a call, book an appointment...and one day if I apply myself and have any talent I will be able to Tango. Animals do not reason in such a way, they have no comprehension of "future."

    Hmmm. My gut reaction is to say yes in the same way I just described with the dog in looking to get at the cookie jar. But there is a tremendous gap to cross, foresight, to get to where humans are.

    Good question. Yet, like your feedback loop analogy, thinking feeds knowledge feeds thinking... Knowledge without reason (rationality) is pretty limited, and confined to experience.

    You mean like how the earth really isn't flat, or that the earth isn't the center of the universe? The catch is, can you prove the Creator did not use chance as the method for creation?
     

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