Reason and Sceptical Thinking on Politics, Philosophy and Technology

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Religion - Why it's a harmful fantasy

Can humanity pursue both Scientific understanding yet hold deep religious sympathies? Can any of the claims made by organised religion be scientifically verified? Is religion good for the world, and for people? These are the issues I intend to highlight in this article. Overall, I intend to analyse the relationship between these two pillars of our civilization – Religion and Science.

First of all, lets define the main characteristic of the claims of the major world religions (you may not hold this view, but it is true of most religious institutions) – i.e. they hold a creation myth based on belief in an omnipotent, omnipresent, and apparently omni-benevolent deity or God. You may turn to me and say God is 'subjective' or that its existence is present 'in your heart' – I am largely uninterested in debating this issue and if you hold such believe, fair enough. – However, the major world religions have much grander, 'real world' claims, that are open to debate, and verification. Either the texts held so dear by religion are ultimately the work of God, or Humankind.

What I call the 'colloquial' or environment based nature of religion is perhaps the strongest case that religion is a work of humanity and not a deity. Religious texts, like all other works of literature, are characteristic of the local setting i.e. their era, national or ethnic group, or ultimately, on a universal scale, the planet they originated from. The Egyptians extended their class structure into the afterlife, with the rulers being looked after by slaves for all eternity. Without understanding of our rather ordinary place in our celestial neighbourhood, we imagined ourselves to have a special place. After all, Man was created in God's image (or was it the other way around?).

As the great German Philosopher Ludwig Fuerbach once said 'If birds had a religion, their God would have wings'.

Faith is a concept that was created in an era of strong relative uncertainty, before we had real explanations for earthquakes, lightening bolts, and disease. In these times, the desire to latch on to the sayings on the monk, the shaman, or the bishop would have been overwhelming. I admit I would have accepted these musings, if there were no greater explanations were present and the fear of death, ruin or disfigurement a constant reality.

It is also very much worth noting that the prophets and enlightened ones of antiquity made their 'revelations' in a time when we did not know that hallucinations where simply a disorder of the mind. If those who had been atop a mountain or starving themselves in a cave for 3 days would come forward and claim they had been in contact with a messenger of God, I would at least hope that what they say would not be taken seriously by the general population. But to the people of yesteryear, these claims would have been near indistinguishable from real accounts, and I do not blame them for being caught up in the hysteria.

On to the claims of those who hold 'Creation' Myths. Most theists have pretty grand claims as to what their own creed has to say about the creation of all we know (and don't know). They all more or less claim that the universe was created by an intelligent being, i.e. it was designed by a higher power. My take on this is the following; Next to the fantastical stories about the earth being created in 6 days, perhaps some mention could have been given of the fact that the earth revolves around the sun (would have saved the church some effort in having to imprison and burn people), or something about the origins of mankind, the universe etc. Where is the mention of the dinosaurs? the real age of the earth? Instead there isn't a single scientifically verifiable fact in any 'creation' myth, Yet many claim that their supernatural belief is 'compatible' with the scientific version.

In our contemporary age, faith is still upheld as something 'noble' and a pursuit worthwhile for humanity, yet does it really have any real value in today's society? After all, the literal truth of religion is not the only reason theists hold up for participation in their creed.

Moral guidance is one such 'benefit' of religion the theists proclaim. In response to this, I would like to quote the following passage, spoken by Noam Chomsky when asked of his views on organised religion -

'While I think in principle people should not have irrational beliefs, I should say that as a matter of fact, it is people who hold what I regard as completely irrational beliefs who are among the most effective moral actors in the world, in many respects. They're among the worst, but also among the best, even though the moral beliefs are ostensibly the same. Take, say, the solidarity movement in Central America. To a large extent, it comes out of mainstream Christianity, based on beliefs that have had outrageous human consequences in the past, and that I think are totally indefensible. In this case, they happen to lead to some of the most courageous, heroic, and honourable human action that's taking place anywhere in the world. Well, that's how life is, I guess. It doesn't come in neat little packages.'

I think its very interesting that Chomsky should mention that the best and worse moral actors of the world are religious people. This points to me the fact that religion is bankrupt as a moral philosophy - the great variation in behavior of those claiming to act in its name is testimony to that. We simply do not need any supernatural belief to be 'Good', kind, community-spirited or any other positive trait of human behavior - All it does is distort the real issues or objectives at hand. Another point I would like to make on this issue that I will touch on is the issue of humanity requiring religion to be 'Good' or moral is almost entirely fallacious, considering the changing nature of society. What was acceptable in antiquity can not be deemed acceptable now. Examples would include the omission of women's rights, torture, child abuse etc and the inclusion of the persecution of witches and warlocks in religious texts.There are plenty of other literary sources that cover the issue of why morality does not require religion, including ; 'Godless Morality: Keeping Religion out of Ethics' by Richard Holloway.

Perhaps one of the most uninspired arguments put forward by theists is one that portrays the view - “I know/hope there is a God/Afterlife because there must be more to life than this”. It's also very ironic that this point of view is largely held by the kind of people who spend their lives in their respective 'Place of Worship' on their knees in worship of some idol. Do they not know of the world of wonder that exists out there? To study all of the amazing things that humans have discovered or thought of would take several whole lifetimes to just look over. Go examine the fascinating data collected by the Hubble telescope or biologists on the origin of our universe of species. The fact that the universe is 'Understanding' itself, through us, is far more deep and wonderful than anything you will find in a religious text. And after doing all this, if your still unsatisfied, go make some discoveries of your own, and create your own wonder.

Science is not only something which we can pursue for our personal enjoyment, and fascination, but is truly something that can, will and does bring great benefit to society. Not only can it aid in the development of new technologies, but the adoption of a scientific and rationalist attitude to the way we conduct our affairs as human beings is immeasurably important.

During the time that I have studied various scientific theories, I have come to realise something – That science is an entity that exists outside of humanity (something that the religious falsely claim for their own ideologies). Science is the study of reality; a reality that exists regardless of whether we can understand or observe it or not. The study of science begins with a blank slate, and knowledge is obtained gradually through a process of observation and repeated testing and verification of predictions and results. The particular views or predisposition of the individual scientist is ultimately irrelevant – the cross verification process practiced among scientific community (i.e. when a theory is put forward its results are checked by other, independent groups) make it highly accountable.

Many religious institutions (including the lunatic ID or 'Intelligent Design' movement) attempt to essentially carry out the reverse of this process. For them, the end point is already decided, and the process involves finding selective evidence that only supports their stand point. This highly unscientific process, by its very definition, can not even be called science at all. It in fact reminds me of a defence lawyer twisting the evidence to get a fraudster off the hook.

In fact, historically, many of those who have set out to gain evidence to support a creationist agenda often end up doing the complete opposite. The astronomer Johannes Kepler sought to prove that the movement of the planets was governed by divine intervention – instead he identified the laws of motion that paved the way for Newtonian physics.

The evidence that the universe is expanding from a singularity (or 'big bang' theory) is compelling and almost completely irrefutable. Images from the Hubble telescope can 'trace back' the movement of galaxies from a single directional origin. Einsteinian relativistic models provide separate and exclusive confirmation of the theory.

The evidence for Darwinian Evolution is equally compelling. I remember examining a book when I was a child on the geological column i.e. the oldest organic specimens are found at the bottom, the most recent generally at the top – palaeontologists and anthropologists use this structure of the earth to trace the development of species from beginning to end. If I could understand this as a child then I'm sure everyone else can understand it in adulthood. The mapping of the genome of various species is now providing incontrovertible evidence of evolution – we can see how much of our DNA we share with other species and identify the genes that are responsible for certain traits.

But I do not feel that the argument from creationism deserve any serious discussion here, as rebuttals and outright dismantlements of their claims are made already made very strongly elsewhere. Besides, they don't really have many serious evidence or claims anyway. To use a warfare analogy, they are now too weak to make a full on a assault on serious scientific theories such as the origins of the universe or Darwinian evolution. Instead they participate in snide attacks on parts of theories here or there, usually using conjecture or human prejudices instead of real evidence. They are very much in a fighting retreat.

Isn't it also very coincidental that the 'criticism' or 'controversy' on evolution always come from theists? Never anyone else, only theists. If you can't guess why this is, re-examine my earlier comments.

Why is all this so important you might ask? What does it really matter what people believe, even if it is false? Why do we dedicate so much of our time to criticising the beliefs of others?

First of all, the question must be asked – Why shouldn't we evaluate the grand claims that the proponents of religion make? After all, such views have been strongly evangelised for thousands of years. I'm pretty sure an equivalent response is justified. It is not only our right to make our views heard, but also our duty as human beings.

What makes religion so damaging to human individual and society at large? How is it different to other schools of thought?

The main reason and difference is the fundamentalist nature of religion. Its unchanging basis. The core of the main abrahamic religions has not changed since they were first written thousands of years ago and its followers have to adhere to the word of scripture that is set-in-stone. This means that draconian attitudes towards sexual practice, scientific discovery, medical practice, education and many other things are still taught (and accepted) to hundreds of millions of people. The suspension of logical and rational thought and complete servitude to scripture is also the reason why there are 'holy' wars – and the reason why the nation of Israel claims justification for its existence and behaviour in the middle east.

At the very least, religion has been used as an incredibly potent tool of war and oppression – a tool I intend to help strip the powerful of. Religion has and is being used by the powerful as a means to instil fear and loyalty into their subjects, and keep them submissive. It is used to justify war, killing, and 'martyrdom'.

What I have just highlighted are the main reasons why those who are powerful are so keen to expound religious teachings and values – they allow them to maintain their current, valued position. This is why I feel it is so important that we as atheists and rationalists are vocal in the public sphere, and put forward our arguments, and make sure we are winning the debate.. It is important that we do this, not only to defend and prevent the perversion of scientific discovery, but also to disarm and defeat those who use religion as a tool to benefit from the suffering of others.

The Islamic militants in Sudan and elsewhere, as well as the Taliban and Al-Qaeda ultimately will not be defeated with bombs and bullets. What will be far more effective than military interventionism something of an ideological battle. A spreading acceptance of a rational and more scientific outlook and a move away from religious values will cripple the dominance of theocracies and 'Islamofacism'.

I also believe that this process must also take place in places such as the USA, where religious values has a stranglehold over many aspects of public affairs and politics. For politics to move forward there, perhaps a move away from 'A nation under God' is needed.

You could say that religious scripture is continually being re-interpreted in different ways. Some religious apologists state that scripture is being interpreted in a more 'modern', tolerant way. The reality is, that some religious institutions are trying to appear modern or contemporary, whereas they really continue to exist as the works of antiquity that they really are. It feels as though many religious institutions simply decide to ignore their own scripture, in an attempt to not alienate a growing, tolerant, secular community.

For example, the behaviour of the Catholic church is very much in a relative state of idleness in comparison with the last 1500 years. I'm sure it would have continued its rain of terror for another 1500 years, had the increasing secular nature of society not forced them into their state of submission.

However, the fact that scripture can be re-interpreted is indeed another of its weaknesses, and is the cause of much suffering and even death in the world. So many religious conflicts have broken out because of a disagreement over the interpretation of scripture – Sunni and Shia Muslims, Catholics and Protestants – and still do exist to this day.

Perhaps the weakest and most cowardly of all arguments surrounding this issue is the one of 'Political Correctness'. Religion is not up for debate, it seems – we must not 'attack' the beliefs of religious people, as we risk offending people. I think Stephen Fry says it best - 'Your offended? Well so fucking what? Thats not an argument.' I find it quite pathetic that many hide behind such an intellectual veil – surely if you so strongly believe in something, you can defend it through debate? The fact is there's a risk of us all becoming fundamentalists if our views go unchallenged.

We need a scientific approach to the way we conduct our affairs as human beings. We can not do this if we continue our obsession with ancient superstition. We need effectively a second enlightenment – this time on a word scale – where we accept a more rationalist and secular world view. However, I believe secularism requires people themselves to begin thinking in a secular way.

This century will be the make or break period of the human race. We can either give up on Science and rationality, and plunge ourselves back into the dark ages or, we can embrace our ability to logically use our knowledge and make a better world for ourselves. Freeing ourselves from our infantile obsession with religion is the first step in this process.