I am a skeptic. I know many people who are skeptics, but most of them are amateurs. I am a professional. It’s what I do for a living. I am a scientist, and a scientist needs to be skeptical. I don’t know if I am a scientist because I am a skeptic or if I am a skeptic because I am a scientist, but I am clearly both. I would rather risk disbelieving something that is true than believing something that is false. I don’t recommend this attitude, but I can’t help it. I just refuse to believe junk.
My reason for beginning this way is to make it clear that, when I say that I am sure that God exists, that conclusion is based only on the most solid of foundations and evidence. It is based on this: I have spoken to God in prayer, and he has answered me.
Several years ago, there was a space mission proposed jointly to NASA and to ESA (the European Space Agency). The goal of the mission was to test Einstein’s equivalence principle. I was the NASA study scientist for the mission. During the first few months of our work, I came to know my counterparts in ESA fairly well. For one early spring meeting, I booked myself into the small English bed and breakfast cottage that they had recommended, and where they were staying themselves. After the first day’s meetings, we came back to our cottage for a huge meal (and a pretty good one, by English standards), after which we retired to three large armchairs by the fire. My two friends sat with their whiskeys and I sat with my mineral water and we began to chat.
After a few minutes, one of them came up with a question for me, totally out of the blue. “Ronald,” he said (he always called me Ronald), “I know that you are an intelligent man and a good scientist. But I must tell you that I don’t know any other scientists who believe in God. How is it possible for an intelligent man like yourself to believe in God?”
I had, of course, spent a lifetime appreciating the impeccable logic and the internal and external evidences of the restored gospel, and my first impulse was to begin there. But the way I finally chose to answer surprised even me. My answer was basically the same statement I have given above. I have spoken to God in prayer, and he has answered me.
“This sounds to me like wishful thinking,” my friend said. “You want for there to be a God, so you have imagined that you have received an answer.”
I thought for a minute and then responded to him. “How do you know that I am speaking to you right now?” I asked. “Can you see the sound waves, or do you feel a tickling in your ears?”
“No,” they both answered.
“No,” I said. “What you are aware of is that words and ideas have come into your mind, words that you didn’t put there. They do not represent thoughts of your own and they did not come through your logic. You know that, and so you know that they must have come from someone else. And that’s the way it is when I receive answers to my prayers. The thoughts are there, they are clear, and they obviously did not come from myself.”
“I just find that hard to believe,” the ESA scientist said.
“That is because you were not there,” I answered. “If you had had the same experiences I have had, you would believe exactly the same things I do. You would have no choice. I have no choice. I was there. I know what I sensed, and I cannot pretend that it did not happen.”
My two friends did not become believers, because my experiences could never substitute for the experiences that they must have for themselves if they are ever to have a clue as to what I was talking about.
I once saw a bumper sticker that read “Faith is believing in something you know isn’t true.” That offends me. That is not what I mean by the term faith. It is not what most people mean by faith, and so it is a bad definition. I also do not understand people who say that they “choose” to believe something. I don’t think you can choose to believe. If I could choose to believe something, I would believe that I am the most intelligent man in America. That would feel good; I would like to believe that. But I can’t, because I know better. I can only believe things that I reasonably expect to be true.
Many people have asked me if my study of the universe has strengthened my faith in God, if seeing the immensity and the orderliness of the universe has helped prove God’s existence. I hope I do not offend anyone when I say that I have no idea what they’re talking about. The nearly perfect spherical shapes of the large heavenly bodies prove nothing except that gravity is a central force. The regularity of the motions of the planets is the simple result of gravity being conservative. And the stars and the galaxies look to me like they have been poured randomly out of a salt shaker. I see no miracles out there. They may be there, but I don’t see them. The miracles I see are in here, inside me and inside others who are led by God to acts of love and sacrifice. Those are amazing. They are the evidence for God.
I have heard people say that science and religion are two paths to truth. I do not believe that. There is only one path to truth, and to me it seems closer to science than it is to what passes for religion in most people. But it is not the scientific method. The only people I know who care about the scientific method are philosophers. Scientists don’t worry about it. What scientists do is what Karl Popper said in his cute definition of science: “Science is doing your damnedest with your mind – no holds barred.” The problem with science is not the process, but the artificial limits that most scientists put on the evidence they will accept. Evidence, they say, must be objective. This is a reasonable limitation, in a way, because the goal of science is not just to find truth, but also to communicate it. And you can only communicate things that others will understand through your common experience. But many scientists use this limitation on what they can communicate to others as the criterion for what they will accept for themselves. They will not seek a revelation because it would be a subjective evidence. So what? What a brain-numbing, truth-avoiding, closed-minded attitude this is! This is not doing your damnedest with your mind, no holds barred; it is setting up artificial rules that exclude a wealth of evidence and knowledge. This is bad science.
What is good science is the process described by Alma to the poor among the Zoramites:
27. But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.
28. Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me. [Alma 32: 27-28]
This is good science. It proposes an experiment and predicts the outcome. I will grant that the conditions (casting out by unbelief, resisting the Spirit) must be subjectively evaluated, as must the outcome. So, again, my experience cannot substitute for anyone else’s. But the testimony I bear is that it works. God is there. He will honor his prophets’ words. I promise.
Ron Hellings was born and raised in Pasadena, California. After serving 2 1/2 years in the French East and Franco-Belgian missions, he returned to marry his sweetheart, Dee, and complete a BS in Physics at BYU, an MS at UCLA, and a PhD at Montana State University-Bozeman. He has taught Physics at Southern Oregon University, University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Cal Poly-Pomona, and Harvey Mudd College. Ron spent twenty-five years as a Research Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory before moving back to Bozeman in 2001 to work as a Research Professor in the Physics Department. For a period of three years during his time at Montana State University, he was actually on loan to NASA Headquarters in Washington DC to act as Program Scientist for the Astrophysics Theory Program. His research interests are alternative theories of gravity, experimental relativity, solar system dynamics, gravitational wave astronomy, pulsar timing, and relativistic cosmology. In the Church, Ron is basically a Gospel Doctrine teacher, having spent a total of 25 years in that calling in various wards. He has also recently served as bishop of the Bozeman University Ward. Ron and Dee have three married children and four grandchildren.
Posted January 2010