Ok, here you go. This is a summary of what I think about who we are, why we are, what we should be doing, issues of free will, whether prayer makes sense, how God (if He exists) sees the world, how notions of good and evil fit in... the answer to life, the universe and everything isn't 42. At least for me, it's this. Oh, and when I say God I mean God/The Gods/some elemental forces that created the universe for some reason, and appear to have a sense of style involving a concept of goodness. That's too much typing, so I'll just say "God", but you'll know what I mean. Ok, then, moving on.
First off, I think it's fairly obvious the universe isn't random. There's an order to it, laws of physics and whatnot. Does that mean it's created, that it can't possibly have arisen spontaneously? Hm. Probably, and so I'm going to go with "Yes", but if anyone disagrees with me I’ll go “you could be right”.
Secondly, related to the consistency of the laws of physics, it doesn't seem to me that if there is a God, he's busy mucking about with things here on Earth. Direct, obvious divine intervention in our lives that defies the laws of physics in response to prayer, worship, virgin sacrifice, placing your furniture correctly, or whatever, appears to me to be out.
So what about "God has to hide his work, because if he didn't... " followed by some explanation? Maybe, but I think probably not. Not that I'm a god, but if I was, and I had the power to create the entire universe, and the genius required to make it actually a relatively workable system, I think I could figure a way to reward people for believing in me, and prove my existence to those who didn't believe at first. As I understand it that's what's written in the bible. If those stories are even approximately true, then God's presence was fairly obvious to people back then, because he started fires, parted oceans, etc.
So, divine intervention, hidden or otherwise: out. Stories in the bible being true: out for the old testament, open to serious questioning in the new testament. Prayer/attending church because it’s looked on favorably by God: not helpful (more on this later). Transcendental moral truths being told through stories in the bible or other religious holy books? Sure, that could happen, and in fact probably has happened. Summary: the stories and practices of religion appear to be less than credible, but the universe has some order, and was probably created by someone, something, or perhaps a community of beings or elemental forces.
So what might the creator(s) look like? "Way, way, way beyond anything you can imagine"? ... well, yeah, possibly. But let's do a thought experiment and see what we might be able to say about the matter.
Before we even start speculating, we can say one thing with reasonable certainty: God, if he exists, has to be outside of time. Why? Because He made it, along with the rest of the universe. We've proven that space and time are linked (Thank you, Einstein plus supersonic jets taking atomic clocks around the world a few times to see that time slowed down at high velocities) and are really one thing, rather than two separate things. So you can't argue that God made the space we live in, but not time as well. And God made space-time, so it didn’t exist before Him, so he's outside of it. C. S. Lewis drew the analogy of how an author can create a book, yet be outside of it, and that works but over simplifies things so that his audience's heads wouldn't hurt. Follow me now, and try not to get a headache.
What would someone who exists outside of our four dimensions (length, width, height and time) see the universe as? Well, we can easily see and understand three dimensions, so let's use the difference between a two dimensional view of the world and a three dimensional view of the world as an analogue to the difference between seeing the world in three dimensions plus a moment-to-moment view of time, as we do, and seeing the world in four dimensions as God must do.
Let's take a simple three dimensional object as our example. Picture an ice cream cone without the ice cream, lying on its side on your kitchen counter. Now, your two dimensional view of that cone would be a cross-section. Picture a laser beam slicing through the cone in a vertical plane, and the infinitely small width of that laser beam is what you get to see from moment to moment. The movement of the laser beam is like our movement through time. If we were two-dimensional beings seeing this, we would see a circle that grows or shrinks from moment to moment, not a cone. For more complicated three-dimensional shapes, we would see more complicated two-dimensional patterns. And if you'd seen a cone before, you could go "hey, I know what's going to happen next, the circle's going to get bigger/smaller." That's sort of like cause and effect - given a past/present state, and a motion through time, our two dimensional beings could predict, to a degree, what the future holds.
The difference between seeing a bunch of moving patterns and a cone whose shape doesn't change at all is kind of like the difference between our view of the universe and a god's eye view. Instead of seeing a bunch of moments in a timeline, he just sees a four dimensional object. No confusing three dimensional events which seem to make some kind of patterns sometimes, just a cone sitting on the counter. We move through time and try to figure things out, but God can just see the big picture. From the first moment in time, through to the last moment in time, across all of the billions of light years of space, the millions of galaxies that are out there, it's all there for Him to look at at his leisure, like C. S. Lewis's God-novel. And to someone or something with an intellect capable of creating a universe, maybe it really is as simple as an ice cream cone.
Right now, some of you are probably thinking something containing the words "free will". In a static four-dimensional universe, does it exist? My answer: From our limited perspective, for all intents and purposes, it does. This is important, because we do get to choose what we do, and without the motivation of knowing your contribution counts a lot of people might not choose as carefully. But from God's perspective, he knows what we will choose, he can have a look and see. "Will choose", from his perspective, has no meaning, because there is no difference between "I will choose" and "I have chosen", they’re both just what happened at a slightly different point in space-time.
His viewpoint is also how the omniscience thing is done. Being outside of time is how God could be everywhere at once, if he wanted, listen to or look at or know the universe from every angle at every moment of its existence. Because "moment" is a concept he's just a little bit beyond.
Now I ask you, do you find it likely that a being like that would find it worthwhile to stick his finger into the universe and change something to answer your prayers? I say no, for two reasons. First, we are so, so, so, so insignificant when you look at all the vastness of the universe. I find it almost funny that religion preaches humility, while at the same time telling you that the human race is the reason creation was created. That we have dominion over all things here, that we were made in God's image, and that he cares about each of his little ones individually and will listen whenever they have a problem. I know people really like that idea, but it doesn't seem to be true. Which leads me to my second reason why he doesn’t interfere mid-way through the universe’s development: he doesn’t have to. Let's not forget, God chose the laws of physics. Instead of giving you what you prayed for, he could just tweak the laws of physics slightly so that either you don't ask for it, or you get what you asked for. So the idea of "God made that car stop at just the right moment" ... well, true maybe in a sense, but not in the sense most people see it.
"Sure it is", you say "You just said God makes sure our prayers are answered!" Not exactly. Not in the sense of "I ask for something and God gives it to me, but if I didn't pray I wouldn't have got it." Your mind is stuck in time, which makes this hard to grasp. God’s is not. But it still might seem as if he does answer prayers, from your perspective.
Consider this: if God could tweak the laws of physics however he wanted, to get whatever he wanted, if he could see exactly what any changes he made to physics would mean for everything in the universe, from beginning to end, and the concept of a limited amount of time didn't exist for him, so he could think and play with physics to get just exactly what he wanted, what would he make the universe be like?
"I have no idea / I can't say for sure I'm not God" comes to mind. And it's true, this is all speculation. But it seems, to me at least, that the idea of the greatest good for the greatest number is one element of his style. We certainly seem to have it ingrained in us, to the point where many people who deny the existence of god still adopt that as their guiding principle and say "See, I have morals!" And it's amazing how often ecosystems are finely balanced so that there is no waste, everything is incredibly efficient so that life can get the most benefit out of every bit of energy and nutrients available.
So assuming the greatest good for the greatest number is something God likes, wouldn't he set up the laws of physics so that good things happened to as many people as possible? So some of your prayers get answered, sometimes in ways you don't expect, and my not praying still gets me what I want about as often as you get what you want. As a result, atheists go “Prayers don’t work, look at the stats”, and theists go “but look at this amazing coincidence, it can’t really be coincidence, this proves God exists!” But that doesn't mean your prayers affected the outcome, it just means God wants people to be happy as much as possible, and has the power to make it so, by fiddling with physics. Away goes the “Why is God hiding?” argument. And the answer to "why does God let people suffer so, in that case?" might be "Maybe that's the best that could be". And my answer to the idea that God has a plan is "Well, if you think it involves everyone getting into heaven unless we use our free will to deviate from the plan because the Devil convinced us of an evil lie, I'd have to say that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me and seems rather superstitious. But in the sense of God knowing what's going to happen to you and making it as good as he could figure out how to do, which might make things happen that you wouldn’t quite expect, you might just be right. On the other hand, a plan implies a desired future state, so that idea doesn't quite 'get it'".
And if you're a cynical atheist going "You're an idiot, the universe is f#@#ed up!", well, there's no reason to say God created the best of all possible worlds this time around. If he can make one universe, he can probably make more than one. Or maybe this is a work in progress, an intermediary state, and he'll tweak physics a bit and make a better one. Unfortunately we wouldn't be around to see it, because we arose under a given set of physical laws, and if they change we no longer exist. But I happen to think the universe we live in is pretty neat, even though there's an awful lot of pain and suffering in it too. And regardless of the possible relativity of the goodness of this universe, we can still understand that there’s something called “good” that makes sense to pretty much all of us, so I vote we go with that concept. Anyone vote Evil?
And the answer to anyone who doesn't like any of my answers is "I can't say they're true for sure, they might not be, but they fit what I've seen of the world better than any other story I've heard, particularly a biblical one. Tell me a story that’s Occams-razor simple and fits the facts better than mine and you win. Go! :)"
And there's one more big question, which just boils down to "But why?" If God could do basically anything, why bother to create the universe in the first place? What does it all mean? Is it meaningless? In this story we're just physics-driven groups of molecules, there’s no heaven to go to and God doesn’t really care much more about me than He does about the rest of the universe. But it doesn't feel meaningless, so... What's the point of it all?
Think again of the ice cream cone, as an analogy for our universe. Except now it's something more complex. A sculpture, or a building, or a painting. We create things all the time, just because we like making things of beauty. An artist doesn't ask why he should create a sculpture, he just does it because he gets some intrinsic satisfaction from doing so, and then maybe goes "see, isn't this neat?" If we can take drives we feel ourselves as any guide to God's "style", then maybe an intrinsic motivation to create beauty is why God created the universe. If there is more than one god, maybe the one(s) that made this universe made it to show to others and go "see, isn't this neat?"
And when you think about it, it is neat. And that's a point that I think religion misses, sort of. Religion is so focused on us as human beings. In the religious story, we're the center of God's attention, and the center of his creation, and we're more intrinsically valuable than every other kind of life, and God gave his only son so we could get into heaven (if you're Christian), and we're "in this world but not of this world", this world is not really where we belong, there's something better waiting.
People cling to that story to the point where they say schools should teach that Evolution and Creationism are equally scientifically valid. Isn't it possible, they say, that the earth was created by God substantially as it is now, instead of having to go through billions of years of lifeless darkness? Couldn't God do that, too? And doesn't the complexity of the life we see around us rule out the possibility that it wasn't designed? Well, technically speaking, if God has a sense of timing, I suppose he could have created it yesterday, and I just think last week happened because he decided that’s what I should think. But I don’t think that’s it. Besides which, again, if I and C. S. Lewis are right and God is outside of time, the universe didn’t come into existence at a particular moment, it came into existence all at once, as it is, evolution and multi-billion-year-period-of-lifeless-darkness and all.
I'm a computer programmer. I build things too, that require thought, and planning. And they're complicated enough that wrapping your head around how a program works is often tricky. And when I see a program that does a lot of work in a few lines of code, that takes something simple and builds it into something complex (like, say, a fractal, which we see often in nature) I look at that and think it's elegant. In a way, the logic demonstrated by a really well written program is almost beautiful. And when I look at the simple programs that I try to write, and I think about the universe by comparison, it just seems beyond words. The fact, the mere idea that you could take a few elemental laws (clearly very, very carefully chosen), and a single point of pre-molecular energy, and let it run for a few billion years, and you get stars and planets and self-reproducing life, and you let it run for a few billion more and you get us, who can appreciate beauty... that idea is so mind-bogglingly elegant, so totally beyond my ability to comprehend how it was done, that it seems to me like an idea a God could come up with. It fits. It makes sense. Compared to that idea, the religious stories I've heard seem like trying to fit the meaning of the universe into a little metaphorical box, which in turn will fit neatly into as many people's minds as possible. It seems to me that the more we find out about the universe, the more amazing and elegant it will become. And telling ourselves we have most or all of the answers, and they're mostly or completely on our scale, as religion attempts to do, just seems wrong, and not humble at all. Thinking we have the answers stops us from asking questions which would lead to a greater appreciation of the universe's order and beauty (I think Galileo would agree with me on this one, just as one example). It forces us to suggest that all there is is to live for a while on a small dot created to give us a chance to learn to be good people, and then go somewhere better if we succeed with the goodness bit, gold star and eternal life for us. That idea just seems so... small.
From the first single-celled life on earth to here is 4.5 billion years or so. Consider that the universe could have many billions of years yet to run. Our sun is only about half way through its life, so even if we don't find a way to leave this solar system, we've still got billions of years to grow. Just imagine, assuming we don't destroy ourselves, what the result of that could be like. I can't, really. But by contrast, I can imagine heaven, which tells me it’s not on god-scale, which means it’s probably not true. I think the future that lies in store for life in this universe will be amazing beyond anything we can understand, and that is a far more compelling vision than anything proposed by any religion I've ever heard of. Why should you try to be good? Not because God will reward you. Not even because you believe you can change the future (although if that makes you happy go ahead and think it, from our perspective it might as well be true). But really, just to have your small part in making the amazing beauty that the future will be.
And by the way, I don’t fault religion for telling stories that don’t make sense, because until very recently we didn’t know what we know now about how the world works. But in that light, I think we need some new stories. And as our knowledge grows, I think we need to be willing to change those stories again, without shame.