Ithaca, N.Y. — Given that different religions hold different versions of the truth, how can anyone be sure that one religion is right?

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And given that one’s religion is so closely tied with one’s upbringing, how can we ever hope to find something resembling a “universal truth?”

These questions — and many more of similar knottiness — were put to Dr. Praveen Sethupathy and Cornell professor Roald Hoffmann during a heady talk Wednesday night hosted by “The Veritas Forum.”

The 90-minute forum, titled “Genes, Atoms or Something Else: An Atheist and Christian Geneticist Discuss What Makes Us Human,” drew hundreds of people to Call Auditorium.

Cornell professor Roald Hoffmann on Wednesday

Sethupathy, a devout Christian who teaches and researches genetics at UNC, argued that an evolutionary and biological explanation for man’s interest in religion is in no way incompatible with the Christian faith.

“Let’s say science is able to demonstrate (the) claim that religion is a pure biological phenomenon,” Sethupathy said.

“That’s not particularly damning for me in terms of the existence of God and the reality of Christ … that God would make us spiritually capable and desirous of knowing something of ourselves in part through the evolutionary process. I think that is perfectly compatible with everything else I’ve seen him do …”

“The idea of religion as a notion, as a concept, that there’s something beyond us, that we’re looking for something else — and that it could evolve, is not problematic for me.”

But Professor Hoffmann — a Holocaust survivor, renowned scholar and polymath advocating the atheistic approach — responded by boiling questions of the supernatural down to a radically simple phrase.

“All that there is, is what is,” said Hoffmann, who is the Emeritus Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters and won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1981. “And that suffices for me.”

Throughout the talk in Call Auditorium, Sethupathy and Hoffmann chewed over a series of questions put forward by moderator Dr. Rosemary Avery, chair of Cornell’s Department of Policy, Analysis and Management.

Here are 3 of the questions and how the panelists answered. You can also watch the whole talk at the video below. See here for more on Sethupathy and here for more on Hoffmann.

1 – How can one find comfort in life without God?

Hoffmann was asked that, given the death of some of his family members in the Holocaust and that evil, how he could find comfort in a world without God.

“I was in the midst of great evil, but I was in what I call the cocoon of love – my immediate family,” Hoffmann said.

Surviving that experience, he said, helped him build a “basic optimism about human nature.”

“It occasionally struggles when I get the referees’ report on my paper – here’s a bunch of people who were born without logic,” Hoffmann said to laughter, before adding:

“I find that optimism just in the scattered acts of goodness in humanity … it just comes from interaction with humanity.”

2 – How can one believe in God and Christ without direct evidence?

While recognizing that religious belief is by necessity an act of faith, Sethupathy also noted that our acceptance of truth is not uniformly contingent on direct evidence.

He turned to the following analogy:

“Consider the love my wife has for me. If anyone of you challenged me to prove it, I’m not sure what I would do, because I don’t think that I could,” Sethupathy said.

“I would essentially be telling you a story and relaying a set of experiences to you and that would either be convincing to you or not … and yet I don’t believe any one of you would challenge me that my wife really loves me.”

“What is that we’re doing as scientists? … fundamentally what we’re doing is accumulating evidence in favor of one model or the other.”

3 – How did Hoffmann come to atheism?

Hoffmann said he had a “quasi-experimental” approach to investigating religion.

He said that when he was 18 and living in D.C. he went each weekend to a different religious service — one Catholic, one Evangelical, one Islamic, and so on.

“I looked at those, and what I saw around me … was people of good faith. I was welcomed,” Hoffmann said.

“And everyone was saying good things about their neighbors, about themselves … But what I saw was these good, honest people had clearly reached rather different ideas about what religion and God meant.”

“It was clear to me from this examination that whatever or whoever God or Gods were they were clearly different to different people. And so there was no one God to me.”

“And that was my empirical conclusion to seeing the good faith diversity of religion.”


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.