'Nightline' 'Face-Off': Does God Have a Future?

"Nightline" hosts Deepak Chopra, Michael Shermer in debate over God and science.

March 22, 2010, 1:15 PM

March 23, 2010 — -- God is everywhere in U.S. culture.

Many "American Idol" contestants, like Jermaine Sellers, say they look to God for strength. Oscar winners give him thanks in their acceptance speeches. Football players point to the heavens to give God credit for scoring a touchdown.

A whopping 92 percent of Americans say they believe in God or a universal spirit, and a vast majority say they believe in an afterlife and heaven, according to a 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

But believers see God coming under siege in this country.

Some Americans see religious belief as outdated, even destructive. And they aren't hesitating to say so.

CLICK HERE to watch the full "Face-Off" debate

"Nightline" tackled the debate with a provocative take on the issue. The sixth "Nightline" "Face-Off" asked: Are we at a time in history when the argument can now actually be settled? Given all that we know today about the cosmos and life on Earth, is science killing God -- or can it bring us closer to him? Does God -- or should God -- have a future?

The "Face-Off" had its roots in a long-running, very personal feud between two men. On one side, spiritual counselor to the stars and best-selling author, Deepak Chopra. A medical doctor and leader in the field of mind-body healing, Chopra believes in the soul, the afterlife and an intelligence at the heart of the universe. He also says there is scientific evidence to prove it.

"At the atomic level, all objects are revealed as 99.999 percent empty space," Chopra says in one of his DVDs, "How to Know God." "Electrons are vibrations that blink in and out of existence millions of times per second. Therefore, the whole universe is a quantum mirage, winking in and out of existence millions of times per second. In other words, we are being created over and over again all the time. Genesis didn't happen just once. Genesis is now."

This kind of talk drives Michael Shermer crazy.

Shermer is a former fundamentalist Christian turned anti-religious skeptic. He has become a professional debunker of what he calls pseudoscience, once even putting Chopra on the cover of "Skeptic," the magazine he runs, calling him "Dr. Woo Woo" -- his term for believers in what he calls junk science.

The two had feuded over the airwaves and the Internet but had not met in person until a quarrel on CNN -- via satellite -- led to the challenge of an in-person debate. They invited "Nightline" to film it.

'He Uses a Lot of Jargon'

"Deepak is the very definition of what we mean by pseudoscience," Shermer told ABC News. "He uses a lot of jargon and terms from science but in a very unscientific, very unclear, undefined way and mixes it up with religion and spirituality such that to an outsider it sounds good."

Each was allowed to choose a partner for the "Face-Off." Shermer chose Sam Harris, one of the most outspoken and controversial American atheists and author of the best-selling book "The End of Faith." Harris also is a neuroscientist specializing in brain behaviors and belief.

Before the "Face-Off," Harris was firm in his position. "Does God have a future?" he said. "Yes, as a fictional character."

As a debate colleague, Chopra chose Jean Houston, a philosopher and researcher into the nature of consciousness who has studied spiritual practices around the world. She is equally firm in her position. "Does God have a future?" she said. "Yes. I am not sure about human beings having a future, but there is no issue around God."

The debate took place at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena in front of an audience of almost 1,000. Each side laid out its central points early on.

"Things that God used to explain are now explained through natural forces," Shermer said. "Belief in God and the kind of God you believe in and the sort of religion you adhere to depend very much on where you happen to have been born and in which century you happen to be born. That alone tells us that there's a strong cultural component."

Shermer then went into some of the neuroscience behind belief. "We do tend to look at the world and find meaningful patterns and impose on those patterns intentional agency," he said. "And so, the intentional agents are things like ghosts and Gods and demons and angels and aliens and so forth. And God is another version of that. It's a projection of what our brain is doing to try to understand and make sense of the world."

To Shermer, this is proof that humans created God and not the other way around.

'Embodiment of Woo-Woo'

In response, Chopra invoked today's greatest realm of scientific mystery, quantum mechanics, which explores how the tiniest particles that make up all matter behave.

"Today, science tells us that the essential nature of reality is non-local correlation," said Chopra. "Everything is connected to everything else. But there is hidden creativity. There are quantum leaps of creativity. There's something called the observer effect where intention orchestrates space-time events."

Chopra said such scientific discoveries point to an intelligent consciousness at the center of the creation.

"That is the very embodiment of woo-woo," Shermer said, shaking his head. "What he means by non-local is that everything in the universe is interconnected. And it just is not true."

Harris brought things back down to earth. "Ninety percent of the people watching this on television will never have heard of non-locality, and if we could explain it to them they're not going to care about it. They're worried about Jesus. They're worried about the collision with the Muslim world."

It was no surprise that there were some scientists in the audience. One theoretical physicist offered to give Chopra a short course in quantum physics to help him refine his usage of some of the terms. The invitation was accepted. "I would like to be educated so I can be clearer in my dialogue," Chopra said.

The physicist in turn asked to be further educated about Chopra's view of consciousness.

While the debate may have ended on stage, the participants -- and even the theoretical physicist from the audience -- have continued to discuss the issue over e-mail.