Our newly appointed Governor General, Julie Payette, recently made her first public speaking engagement at the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa. Surprisingly, in her speech she chose to take on everyone from climate-change deniers, to astrologers, naturopaths, and anyone else whose occupations or views conflicted with her scientific background.
She was speaking to a science-friendly audience, but she was later roundly criticized for mocking the religions of Canadians of all stripes, as to their beliefs being unsupported by science and therefore not to be taken seriously.
It was also particularly troubling that Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and our Prime Minister were so quick to cheer on their new hire for her remarks.
There’s no doubt that holding or not holding religious beliefs is a topic of discussion to be avoided at all costs in social circles.
However, while Payette and I both hold electrical engineering degrees, she can no more prove through science that God does not exist, than I can prove that God does exist, if I was so inclined.
This is the longstanding philosophical dilemma that neither logic or scientific evidence can help resolve. That’s why for religious believers their “faith” is a cornerstone to be respected, while non-believers’ science-based arguments are not yet up to the task of proving their case, and perhaps never will be.
Also, not to be ignored when taking pot-shots at religious beliefs is the fact that they come in a variety of forms that reflect different personal perspectives on the topic.
At the “atheist” extreme, occupied by our new G.G., we see that there is no room for any kind of belief in God. At the other extreme, “theists” are totally committed to a God with a supernatural intelligence; omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, who has not only created the universe we live in, but is still around to oversee its development.
This God also answers prayers, forgives or punishes sins, occasionally performs miracles, and has an abiding interest in the lives of all of us.
Somewhere in between these extremes come the “deists” who are willing to recognise God as the creator of our universe, but having no further intervening role, and certainly having no interest in human affairs.
As for the “agnostics”, they have nothing worthwhile to offer, claiming neither faith nor disbelief in any form of God.
Personally, I must admit to a leaning in the “deist” direction. I’m willing to concede the possible existence of some powerful entity or force; an inscrutable, unseen creator. But one that has no involvement in our individual life situations.
It’s a bit of a cop-out as a belief system I must admit, but it will have to make do until something more satisfying comes along.
To return to our new G.G. and what might have caused her to tackle such a controversial topic in public, I look to the personal qualities that have made her so successful in life.
There is no denying her amazing talents and accomplishments, as an astronaut twice over, a multi-linguist, a musician, a business executive, while taking on motherhood.
However, I believe that beyond intelligence, it takes a particular mindset for an individual to be so thoroughly successful in life; an attitude that has no room for equivocation, and a low tolerance for uncertainty and views contrary to their own.
It therefore came as no surprise to me that her position on a topic as sensitive as one’s religion was so uncompromising. Hopefully, in keeping with her elevated national position, she can learn to show more respect for the deeply-felt beliefs that are indispensable to so many other lives.
Alan Walter is a retired professional engineer living in Oxford. He was born in Wales and
worked in Halifax. He spends much of his time in Oxford, where he operates a small farm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.