What's All This God Stuff, Anyhow?

Sept. 13, 2007
There's an old story about an American visiting Ireland. As he was imbibing a beer at a tavern, one of the locals asked him, "Now, are ye a Catholic or a Protestant?" The American replied astutely, "Neither. I'm an atheist." Then the canny I

There's an old story about an American visiting Ireland. As he was imbibing a beer at a tavern, one of the locals asked him, "Now, are ye a Catholic or a Protestant?" The American replied astutely, "Neither. I'm an atheist." Then the canny Irishman asked sharply, "Ah, but are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?"

These days, trying to prove whether you're a Sunni atheist or a Shiite atheist in Iraq doesn't sound very easy, either. Yet it might be important, depending on who's asking the question.

I am not going to argue with you about your religion, or any version thereof, or any lack thereof. Whatever you like to believe in is fine with me. As near as I can tell, there is a very wide distribution of religious belief within the engineering and scientific community. Also fine by me. I've heard some people argue that if you believe in evolution, you can't believe in a religion—and vice versa. I don't agree with that correlation at all, and a lot of people don't.

Do I believe in God? Yes. I am a Christian and a member of an Episcopal church. You may have heard that in the 1860s, every Christian church in the U.S. split asunder over the issue of slavery—except for the Episcopalians. Apparently, they thought they could "get along" despite serious differences.

"God has been good to me, Alleluia" (do re mi mi mi mi, re, do re re)
"Let me return the favor, Alleluia" (do, re, mi mi, re, do, re, do)

DO THE RIGHT THING I'm not going to argue with people who say they are atheists, or agnostics, or any particular religion. But I am in favor of God. "I will try to help God," and I think God will encourage me to do the right thing.

What is the "right" thing? Everybody has his or her own moral compass. I don't want to argue much about this. Exactly where your moral compass is, or where you got it from, is your business. So long as it works, that's fine with me.

But eventually you might ask yourself where you got your ethics. Did you get them from a church or a Sunday school? Did you get them from your mother or father? Whatever way you got them, thought about them, and refined them is fine by me. Even reading Dilbert can bring you to conclude that some of the characters in that comic strip learned their ethics from some strange places. Learning to not do what the pointy-haired boss does is a pretty fair way to learn ethics.

When we ran the 1909 Rutherford experiment in our 1960 physics lab, we learned that bombarding the nucleus of a gold atom could lead to some knowledge of the structure of the nucleus. You bombard a beam of alpha particles off a gold atom's nucleus and see at what angle they bounce back. The distribution is quite educational.

Similarly, when problems are bounced off of us, we don't have to write down how we define our ethics. But eventually, by circumstances, we show what our ethics are.

ON THE JOB Here at NSC, we have an intranet course on business ethics that is fairly good. We had to study certain intercompany relationships and figure out how to be fair to our customers. All employees are supposed to take its test until they pass. It's fairly educational. I don't think Wally could pass it, nor the pointy-haired boss.

Do you believe in (most of) the 10 Commandments? That's good for a lot of real-world cases. How about the Golden Rule? Many of us agree on that—most of the time. How about the IEEE Code of Ethics (www.ieee.org/portal/pages/about/whatis/code.html)? I tried to find help there a couple of times, but didn't find much.

As long as your moral compass works, that's fine with me. Most engineers (and most people) have figured out that being nice and fair to your customer is a good idea. "Screw the customer" has long been recognized as a poor business practice.

So, I won't try to argue with any reader about religion. But I tend to be in favor of religion. And its positive side. I wish we could all avoid its negative side. In many places, Protestants and Catholics have learned to get along. Even in Ireland. "Love your neighbor" is a nice theory, but stopping "hate your neighbor" may be even more important.

What religion (if any) do you believe in? It sure is none of my business. But it would be nice if your religion allowed you the same respect for my beliefs as I have for yours. I don't denigrate your religion. If the U.N. Charter promises freedom of religion, does that allow your religion to denigrate mine? I'd hope not.

P.S.: Access to God is wireless.

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About the Author

Bob Pease

Bob obtained a BSEE from MIT in 1961 and was a staff scientist at National Semiconductor Corp., Santa Clara, CA, for many years. He was a well known and long time contributing editor to Electronic Design.

We also have a number of PDF eBooks by Bob that members can download from the Electronic Design Members Library.

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