mrcreek: Pikaia, a distant relative (pic#265175)
mrcreek ([personal profile] mrcreek) wrote2010-03-21 10:47 pm
Entry tags:

mature religion

As I have been delinquent in my fiction writing for the past few months, I thought I would post a few opinion pieces.

This is a brief rant on the perceived cultural rift between science and religion. It is widely accepted by advocates of both sides that science and religion are at odds with each other. As an evolutionary biologist, I find the debate difficult to avoid; nearly any blog or forum about evolution inevitably generates commentary by self-described atheists dismissing religion altogether, and/or creationist trolls denying scientific theories because they feel threatened by them and think that a secular worldview will lead to immorality. Although there are legitimate differences of opinion in this conflict, I think the argument is usually poorly defined and misunderstood by many of the participants. If this topic is uninteresting or potentially offensive to you, please read no further.

One under-appreciated truth is that religion is not primarily about God. “Atheism,” strictly speaking, is not a rejection of “religion,” it’s a rejection of “theism,” which is just a particular philosophical aspect of certain religions. Some religions, such as certain sects of Buddhism, do not involve gods at all, and even god-based religious philosophies like deism do not conceive of the personal god described in the Abrahamic religions. Religion is about more than belief in a higher power or the supernatural. It is about what we value and find meaningful and right, something that everyone practices. Even Richard Dawkins cares for his loved ones and thinks it would be a dick move to go punch a random stranger in the face. To worship something, after all, is merely to affirm it has worth, whether or not it is a conscious being who can respond favorably to your devotion. This doesn’t mean that values and morals exist intrinsically in the universe; they may very well be things we make up on our own and ascribe to aspects of our lives, but they still exist. Religion is also about belief or faith, and we all have beliefs, regardless of our religious affiliation. I have repeatedly seen the claim that scientists shouldn’t use the word “believe,” because science is based on evidence, not belief. Similarly, I have frequently read the assertion that atheism doesn't require faith. These statements are complete crap. No scientist has personally seen direct evidence for all of the scientific facts they believe, and even if they had, they would have to trust that their senses give an accurate depiction of the external world which they trust to exist. In reality, most of what we know is based on faith, especially faith that other people are telling us the truth. Even if I constantly remind myself in the back of my head that this world could all be an illusion and nothing can be known for certain, I still have to act on leaps of faith or I would be paralyzed by doubt. I still would, say, fly to Australia and fully expect this continent (which I have never seen before) to be there when I arrive. I do not see how this is qualitatively different from a person praying to God and fully expecting that they will arrive in heaven as a result. We both might have doubts, but we also both have what we consider to be good evidence, and we call it belief. The only difference is quantitative: in my opinion, my standards for good evidence are better. Organized religion is about people coming together to celebrate, discuss, and revere what they believe and find meaningful, but the personal aspects of religion are still there even if you do not share them with anyone else. Even if you are an atheist. It’s part of being human.

As I see it, the real main problem isn’t religion, or even theism, it’s salvationism. Any religion that divides people into “saved” and “unsaved,” however it chooses to define those terms, is going to create trouble. If saving people spiritually is of ultimate importance, you will likely endeavor to force your values onto others through legal or even violent means. By focusing on the next world, you will be less interested in making life better for people in this world. A second problem is dogmatism: an unyielding adherence to a set of beliefs received from an authority even in the face of contradictory evidence. Such close-mindedness leads to spreading falsities and making ill-informed decisions.

We should not, and probably cannot, get rid of religion. However, it is long past time for religion to grow up. Religion needs to be compatible with science, and that means throwing out anything which we know to be false. For many religions, that means a large portion of their belief structure. Obviously, mythological stories may still have value as metaphors or fables, but we need to stop believing them literally. Furthermore, whatever is empirically supported today could be disproved tomorrow, and religion needs to stay flexible and ready to change in response to new information. Religion needs to abandon this obsession with saving people for the next life, and focus instead on this life here and making it as rich and fulfilling as possible. Religion needs to lose its basis in authority; the beliefs you have should be the ones that make the most sense to you, not what some clergyperson says you are supposed to believe. Note that I am not re-defining religion here, because none of this is new. Various religious systems throughout history have been and still are compatible with one or more of these goals, but in recent times they have been overshadowed by more harmful sects. We must lose the immature aspects of religion and embrace both modern knowledge and modern ethics.

Does this mean getting rid of belief in God? The answer is more complicated than it might first appear. There are so many ways to define “God,” some of them will always be compatible with whatever facts science may uncover. I call myself an agnostic because in the end the great theological question is semantic. God does or does not exist depending on what "God" means. I do, however, believe that nothing exists which is similar to Krishna, Yahweh, or Xenu as these beings are traditionally described. Rejection of conventional gods is still a religious act, within the sphere of the religious quest to understand ultimate reality. Because we have speculated so much, and are so lacking in evidence, I think it would be more spiritually satisfying to at least dim the spotlight pointed at God and instead turn our gaze upon the ultimate essence of the material world that we experience and the ways we can maximize each others' quality of life.

I do not consider my materialistic worldview to be incompatible with religion. Rather, I consider it to be a foundation of my religion, along with my values and the ways I act upon and honor them. This is not a subversion of what religion means, it is exactly what religion has meant to most people throughout human history. It is, however, a subversion to equate religion with submission to a deity, or with a path to an afterlife, or with adherence to a scripture, or with "the aspects of religion I find distasteful." Likewise, it is a subversion of what science means to claim that science can provide our values and morals in place of religion. Science cannot tell us what is good or how we should act; that’s not its purpose. Nor can a book or a cleric dictate what is right and wrong. We can and should consult the scientific facts and the wisdom of religious teachers, but ultimately these decisions are subjective ones that must come from within each of us. Through such careful consideration, we can help to cultivate an intellectually honest, sincere, and responsible religion.
beledibabe: (Changed)

[personal profile] beledibabe 2010-03-23 01:42 am (UTC)(link)
Hmmmm, lots to think about, but on the whole, I agree with you.