Religious pomposity is an arrogance like no other. The long arc of religious influence still controls some of the most important decisions facing our world today – or at least demonstrates tremendous influence. Religion has been around since time immemorial, and as a result, it is ingrained into our lives, and our very way of thinking. You can receive degrees in religion, careers in religious studies or pastorship. Mere affiliation with a particular religion in many areas of the world determines whether you live or you die. Although the religious (specifically Christians) try very hard to demonstrate ways in which religion and science converge towards a shared goal, or are at least not at intellectual war, religion is best contrasted with science. Science in its most basic form is a way of gaining knowledge and information about causality. Religion in its most basic form is an answer to many of the biggest causal questions we humans seek to answer.
As humans, we have an innate predilection to anthropomorphize, and to hierarchically abstract things. As a result of that reflex, science is spoken of as if it were a living, breathing organism; an entity (what will science teach us; science does not have all the answers). Well, it isn’t. It is a method. A method employed by inquisitive and intelligent people who require a way of understanding the world that they live in, and life itself. A thousand years ago this was called ‘philosophy’. In ancient Greece, philosophers saw unlimited intellectual jurisdiction. The impulse which established philosophy, through philosophy, established religion. At the time, positing a god, or gods, made logical sense. Philosophers sought the truth, and proposed some theories which then caught on. But the tools they used to do this had not yet been refined by time.
Religion is an addictive substance, powerfully coercive and endlessly harmful. For the sake of brevity, let’s just say it stuck. Philosophy, however, continued to expand and grow. Eventually birthing science, and a much more sophisticated tool-set – which itself has continued to grow (and as long as there are rational, intelligent minds at work, will continue to do so). The most important quality of any rational inquiry is conviction and falsifiability; if a new theory grows out of, and overtakes an older one, follow the new theory. Don’t reject it simply because you’ve grown very attached to the older one.
And that’s precisely where we find the conflict between religion and science. Philosophy as a vector for truth, had a major part in the creation of religion. Religion posits an explanation; a qualitative explanation for the major existential and metaphysical questions facing us today. Science has proven many religious claims completely and undeniably false (claims such as the world is only six thousand years old, or that dinosaurs never existed, or that God created two men and women six thousand years ago, or that a man seeking refuge from a world-wide flood built an ark in the Mediterranean loaded with every animal on earth which wiped out the entire human race, which he repopulated). The truths religions did hold onto were roughly carved, using ancient hardware; science is strip mining. Religion once occupied a continent, now it finds itself adrift, clinging to a life-raft built of denial and tautology.
Remember, science is a discipline defined by the urge to discover and uncover truth. When you discover a theory of everything (TOE), a theory which explains every problem and answers every question, you don’t really need to keep looking (at least for the average person). Religions propose a TOE, and so feel like they have somehow weaned themselves off the vein of truth. As a result, any new fact or novel information which disproves some religious principle is not taken seriously.
There are many subsystems within the genus ‘science’; mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, physiology, psychology etc… So too are there many specialized practical professions which derive meaning from information gained through science; business, economics, education, politics etc… If we want to run with this ‘living entity’ metaphor, than truth is the air science breathes, objectivity the lungs, and experimentation and falsifiability are science’s leukocytes; its immune system.
Much like an athletes talent grows with practice, the scientific method is constantly evolving. We do not define truth as this abstract entity; truth ad infinitum. For scientists, true means that which, as of yet, cannot be proven false. Truth is relentlessly and rigorously put to the test.
Science only exists because we have not yet found every missing piece to every puzzle. If there’s one truth which has stood the test of time, though, it’s this: do not fit facts to suit theories, fit theories to suit facts. Changing facts and picking and choosing truths to suit the respective theory is by definition an unscientific process. On the academic and professional landscape, this is precisely where religion stands alone. Science makes the claim that truth is not totally relative, it is quantitative; that there is some answer out there. And the only way to study that is through a process of falsifiability, experimentation and observation. In science, personal preference and ignorance do not count as valid vectors of intellectual inquiry.
In the scientific community, an uneducated teenager cannot lecture a biologists on signal transduction with authority. In science, personal preference loses total power in the face of cold-hard fact. That’s because science has something called ‘the scientific method’; a system in which subjectivity loses out to factual objectivity, always. Religion has no such system to speak of. Sure there are catechisms and doctrine; theologians working tirelessly through the hand of god. But the amount of free, unclaimed territory on the religions plane is a vast, ever-expanding veld of personal preference and blissful ignorance. If a scientist wants a theory to be taken seriously, he has to prove its falsifiability.
Merely showing that you can logically falsify your theory is not enough to make waves in the scientific community. Sometimes in order to prove your theory, you must overturn hundreds of years of landmark work done by some of the most brilliant minds in history. You have to completely give yourself to your studies. You become as much a part of your theory as your theory becomes a part of your discipline. And this is ultimately the big problem I have with religion. Every Christian (I’m going to pick on Christians in particular because I was raised and educated in the christian school system) has a set of beliefs which they each hold to be ultimately true – humility is not a strong suit. And each and every christian has a rightful claim to do just that. The other day I was talking with a friend. We came upon the topic of illness. He suffers from bi-polar disorder (type 1), and I have a genetic disease. We were talking about friendship, and my place in our group of friends. For a while now I have noticed that we have all drifted; or at least that I have drifted from them. They don’t really make an effort to spend time with me, or talk with me. And I’ve noticed how cold and distant they have become; like they don’t really like me that much anymore. I told my friend I think a lot of it has to do with being ill. He says that everyone thinks I’m just too negative, and they just cannot understand why I don’t come out with them as much anymore. I told him about my disease, and he reassured me that I have no reason to be insecure, that I should have just tell them all. My friends are members of the dutch reformed christian community. A particular virulent strain of Christianity which prides itself in its bigotry, racism, misogyny homophobia and emphasis on the importance of manual labor. I have two gay brothers, my father is disabled – as am I, to a degree – and I am unable to work at all for the time being. I posed this question to him: I said, imagine if your bi-polar disorder weren’t so well managed, and you were having attacks of mania and depression on a very regular basis. So much so that It affected your ability to work. to have a family and to maintain regular relationships like you used to. Now, do you think that everyone would jump to spend time with you? Or do you think they would slip away and slowly drift? Now imagine watching that happen and then trying to talk to everyone about how sorry your life is, and about how hard your troubles are? It may be important to share these things with your friends, but it may be nearly impossible to do so if your friends drift away before you get the chance’. Now here’s his reply: he told me that the only reason his illness was managed so well was because of God. That he prayed to god and asked forgiveness for his sins and in return god rewarded him with a manageable illness…
I replied with some trite banal stuff about ‘if god were true, don’t you think it would make more sense if some people suffered on earth to gain insight and wisdom for the afterlife’. He responded with some of the most childish, religious bull-shit I have ever heard. Only, to him, that stuff about Jesus dying, that veggie tales level epistemology was the holy grail. I offered my opinion, and he told me flat out ‘No, that’s ur beliefs. I hope one day you can come to believe mine’…
Frustrated doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt. I forgot about this aspect of Christianity. I have been sheltered from this crazy shit for a little over a year. And honestly, if you read back in my blogs, I began questioning the purpose and ethics of militant atheism. I thought ‘why not just let Christians believe what they want; they aren’t hurting anyone’… definitely see the flaw in that thinking now.
My point is this: there seem to be no rules Christians have to follow when it comes to making factual claims. Everything’s up for grabs because they know if they’re questioned, they have the ultimate inductive proposition to back them up: ‘God’s mysterious and he spoke to me’… or something along the lines of that (I was inspired by the holy spirit; we can’t know God’s plan now, but we will one day’).
In the coming blogs I’d like to show precisely what’s wrong with this approach to truth, and this line of thinking. I will explain some of the key concepts in the philosophy of science and how that applies to the thinking, specifically, of my religious friend, and of religion generally. Hopefully by the end of it I will have armed myself, and those of you who choose to read, with both and understanding and a defense against the crazy lunacy that is a radical Christian apologetic and religion in general.