21 November 2008

Religion and its conceits

I’ll say it: religious believers tend not to be sophisticated thinkers. I say ‘sophisticated’ rather than ‘knowledgeable’ because, to be fair, few people possess all the relevant information on the (religiously contentious) issues like evolutionary theory, euthanasia, abortion and the human right to individual liberty. But sophisticated thinkers are at least open to the facts presented by experts on the subject and will exercise their reason to the best of their ability in processing those facts. A religious believer on the other hand is only prepared to consider the facts so long as they do not contradict the doctrine he already subscribes to. His consideration of any kind of knowledge is strictly conditional, and these conditions include – but are not limited to – agreement with the accepted orthodoxy of his faith, absolute certainty on the part of the experts (any normal scientific doubt is immediately seized upon as proof that the facts are just plain wrong or inadmissible), and a willingness to ignore inconvenient truths that contradict or refute the established dogma. This prioritizing of revealed truth over discovered facts is the cause of much woeful attempts by religious scientists – an oxymoron surely – to try and square the circles they encounter in the real world. After all, their sacred text insists on the squares.

When a believer is pressed to give reasonable explanations for why he believes certain untenable things – that the Earth is some six-thousand years old, that a personal God answers prayers yet demonstrably fails to answer so many, that a martyr who kills innocents will be posthumously rewarded by a supposedly good and just God – and then fails to do so, the resulting frustration and embarrassment often causes him to simply – as a friend of mine puts it – ‘shut down’. In a debate, when a believer is backed into a corner where his irrationality and flawed logic have led him, there are two possible outcomes: either he turns petulantly defensive and insists that he has somehow been terribly wronged by the non-believer’s superior argument, or he pulls that trump card called ‘faith’ and leaves it at that, knowing that no amount of reason can breach the walls of blind faith protecting him.

Along with the ‘faith’ card, the ‘you-need-God-to-be-moral’ argument is another stock-in-trade tool of the believer. It coats him with a glossy veneer that positively glows with virtuousness, for if you accept the above premise, than logically believing in God makes you a moral person. And conversely, not believing in God makes you, well, not-quite-as-moral-as-a-God-believer. The informed non-believer can forget trying to convince the comparatively uninformed believer on how humanity’s concept of morality has evolutionary, biological, psychological and social roots. The believer tends to be too infatuated with his own sense of goodness to listen to and process complex, challenging yet illuminating explanations of why human beings are capable of being good without a God.

As mentioned above, one outcome of equating God with goodness is that the believer is likely to view non-believers as occupying a lower rung on the ladder of virtue. Conveniently forgetting that much evil has been done in the name of God and much good done without invoking him, the believer is quick to condemn the non-believer who doesn’t share his passion for altruism, charity or self-sacrifice. I have far more respect for the person who honestly states that he doesn’t advocate a social cause because it doesn’t interest him than for the self-righteous believer who wears his bleeding-heart on his sleeve primarily as an attempt to ‘embiggen’ himself in the eyes of the heartless heathens who apparently couldn’t care less for their fellowmen. When being and doing good is perceived mainly as a way to score points with the Almighty, it raises the question of whether a charitable believer would continue to act that way without any divine incentive. At least I know the non-believer’s motivation to do good comes from this world, from this life and the temporal rewards it offers those who do good.

Another upshot of religion being conflated with morality is that religion assumes a special status where people, even (or especially) non-believers, are expected to show it due reverence. You can make fun of the guy who believes that there are goblins in his wardrobe, or the woman who insists she is the reincarnation of Buddy Holly, but you're walking on eggshells should you have the temerity to politely point out any glaring contradictions, hypocrisies, flaws in logic or just plain lies that religion exhibits. This is because religion has usurped morality - which is the rightful prerogative of our humanity that pre-exists, and is independent of, organised religion - and so to criticise religion is thus construed as an attack on morality itself. Nevermind that criticism of religion is validly levelled at harmful, negative aspects like its narrow-mindedness, bigotry, disingenuity and bellicosity. This tacit deference towards religion is unwarranted. Religion is not synonymous with morality and shouldn't be unduly respected as if it was.

After the last five centuries of struggle for liberty of conscience and rational thought, religious belief is a collective slap to the faces of those men and women who fought so hard and sacrificed so much to build the liberal, secular, scientific, modern world we have inherited. To hold a religious position on a contested issue – whether on evolutionary theory, stem cell research, euthanasia, abortion, the separation of church and state, women’s rights – is to psychologically wrench the debate back to a medieval metaphysics and a pre-Enlightenment conception of what it means to be a human being. Yes, the issues are complicated, emotional, serious, but to frame them in religious terms is about as useful as bringing a Swiss pike to a modern battlefield. Religious morality is to a large extent a collection of anachronistic laws and customs, pertinent perhaps two-thousand-odd years ago but greatly irrelevant to today’s social reality and thus unable to contribute meaningfully to the issues at hand. And perennial values like justice, compassion, beauty and truth are hardly the sole preserve of religion. Religious perspectives are ineffective to the extent that they preach the metaphysical (the sacredness of the soul) rather than consider the material (the medical gains from stem cell research).

Religious belief harms humanity by advocating willful ignorance and condoning a disrespectful attitude towards the scientific method of determining fact from fiction. It enshrines comforting myths while denigrating uncomfortable truths. The human project is an ongoing one, and I stand with all those incredible men and women, past and present, who participate in the project by shining a light onto those dark, unknown places, where knowledge is hidden in shadow either by accident, or by design.


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