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Monday, January 21, 2019

Settled religion

If religious thinkers could put religion back on a solid intellectual footing and resist making claims that are refuted by science, it would benefit everyone.

W e hear lots of talk about “settled science,” but in fact it's religion that is settled, which is to say fixed and unchangeable. There are good reasons for that, but it also creates problems. An established dogma based on miraculous events and myths runs the risk that later investigation will throw the entire belief system into doubt.

Now, I am not a highly religious person—I gave up on Cthulhucism a long time ago, and my flirtation with Druidism died when the tree I thought was so great tipped over and almost smashed my car—but I finally got around to reading Paradise Lost, and since Amazon.com still has me listed as the author of the Bible, I feel qualified to pontificate.

When atheists claim that religion is anti-intellectualistic, I cringe: is it possible they've never read the vast body of profound intellectual thought from Spinoza, Paul Tillich, Thomas Aquinas, and so many others? A reasonable argument could be made that the empirical basis of religion is on shaky ground, but to call it anti-intellectualistic is to reveal a howling chasm of cultural ignorance.

Virtuous saints discovering chemistry
Artist's conception of virtuous saints discovering chemistry

Of course, these atheists aren't representative, and their argument is not philosophical. For the most part, they feel threatened by attempts to get creationism taught in schools, or they're making political attacks on believers, who they see as traditionalists standing in their way. It's generally recognized that religion is vital to maintaining coherence of a society. It is telling, therefore, that the voices most hateful toward religion are not (with a couple notable exceptions) scientists or engineers, but political activists whose goal is to weaken Western capitalist society and replace it with something new. They know well the horrors that communism has inflicted on humanity, so they must convince us that religion is worse.

The emphasis on stability also leaves religion open to the Marxist claim that it is merely a tool of the “oppressor.” When asked what constitutes an oppressor, Marxists define it in such a way that it's clear that an oppressor is whoever stands in the way of their power. This is why leftism is opposed to traditional religion.

People crave absolute certainty. Science, which is built on endless questioning, cannot provide this, and those who claim that science is unchanging, unquestionable truth are today one of the biggest threats that science faces. If science allows itself to become a tool of politics, it will find its conclusions misrepresented and twisted into the service of bigotry, hate, and social chaos, just as Christianity was in the past.

Most of the religions that have survived teach compassion and tolerance. This is no coincidence: the purpose of religion is to encourage a mode of behavior that facilitates the survival of civilization, and the virtues they preach are the product of ancient wisdom from people who saw how unethical behavior quickly led to the downfall of their own tribe or neighboring tribes.

The intellectual appeal of religion is therefore the appeal of an old, stable, and enduring civilization. It provides a perspective on the eternal and on mankind's kinship to the universe. To the ordinary believer, this perspective is expressed by participation in ancient, unchanging rituals. The perspective of the eternal is something that science also teaches, but only indirectly, and so logically science and religion should be brothers.

Christianity's idea of personal redemption is sheer psychological genius. The idea that all humans have fallen, and must strive to regain their original virtue, has undoubtedly helped millions of people to turn their lives around.

But when religion proclaims creation myths and miraculous events as unchallengeable truth, and when it asserts that its ideas were obtained by communication with a conscious super­natural being, as opposed to being natural laws discovered over millennia, it weakens itself. Most people can identify and respect wisdom, but they will balk at being told that some wise man was able, for instance, to feed thousands of people with five loaves of bread without making several additional trips to the grocery store.

Suppose a loaf is one foot long. To give 1000 people a slice, each slice would have to be 0.012 inches, or 0.305 millimeters, thick. Alternatively, one could make tiny square sandwiches. Take a loaf 30.48 cm long, divided into one-centimeter-thick slices. Assuming the loaf has a 10×10 cm square cross section, it is easy to calculate that to feed 1000 people, each person should get a piece of bread 1.746 × 1.746 cm, or about 2/3 of an inch square, roughly the size of a communion wafer.

That a wise preacher might do this would be a convincing sign of his sense of fairness, and it is something anyone could believe. And if you read it carefully, you realize that's probably what actually happened.

Well, I seem to have gotten off the track there about the bread and all, but my point is that religions need not make magical claims to be viable. In fact, refraining from going beyond empirical results, and claiming only that they are repositories of wisdom, could only benefit religion's survival.

They need not abandon belief in a deity to accomplish this. Contrary to popular belief, science actually takes no position on the existence of a deity. It only demands that empirical proof be found before it can be accepted.

The challenge is that there are major risks in re-interpreting a belief system. Presbyterians tried it, and they were rewarded by a drop in membership from 3,131,228 in 1983 to 1,415,053 by the end of 2017, mainly because they replaced their beliefs with social justice ideology. Replacing a stagnant ideology with an intellectually bankrupt one seems not to be a winning proposition, but to do nothing could see religion disappear altogether.

Religious people are correct when they claim that humans have a spiritual dimension; without it, they can become mean-spirited, dishonest, and short-sighted. If religious thinkers could put religion back on a solid intellectual footing and resist making claims that are refuted by science, it would benefit everyone.

A side benefit would be that wisdom, unlike miracles, can be expanded and added to. If religion could evolve, it would benefit everyone. And maybe those pages in the Bible about the bread, suitably understood, could feed us spiritually for a long time.

And if you don't mind, I have now made myself hungry, and I am going to create a sandwich.

jan 21 2019, 6:40 am

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