Thursday, March 31, 2005

Religion revisited

The End of Reason

Really great column on AlterNet by David Morris. He makes an interesting suggestion: imagine every time someone says the word faith they're saying superstition, since the definition of both is "belief without evidence." He paraphrases a statement from George W. Bush:
I believe in the power of superstition in people's lives. Our government should not fear programs that exist because a church or a synagogue or a mosque has decided to start one. We should not discriminate against programs based upon superstition in America. We should enable them to access federal money, because superstition-based programs can change people's lives, and America will be better off for it.

Let's be honest: it's called faith when you believe it and superstition when it's someone else. That doesn't make faith any more legitimate. You're allowed to make fun of the Reagans for consulting psychics; that's just silly superstition. You're even allowed to think they were stupid for doing it. Come on? Psychics? But the instant you suggest that a person's faith in God is just as ridiculous, you somehow cross a line, despite the fact that there is actually more evidence for the psychic—at least the psychic talked to them in person. But God is different. After all, faith is their personal belief! Religion is a deeply private thing and important to people and it gives them strength and hope.

Fine. If you believe that religious faith is off-limits for debate, discussion, and indeed ridicule, then to be consistent you should take those same reverent tones when somebody discusses tarot cards or telepathy or talking to the dead or palm-reading or faith healing. They all give people comfort when they need it by feigning certainty in the face of doubt. There is no difference between superstition and faith. None.

We all try to avoid laughing in someone's face when they are superstitious. I usually pull the, "Yeah, that's great," kind of half-smile thing and get out of there. So it would be counter-productive to suggest that people go up to an obviously religious person and start giving them shit for it. Everyone is entitled to believe whatever they want.

But we have an obligation to speak out when superstition organizes and tries to change our lives. Faith—in God or the local psychic—at least gives people hope. In contrast, organized religion has always been a force of division and control. It exists for no reason other than the imposition of the will of the few upon the many. First the will of the hypothetical God on the leaders, then the leaders on the followers, and ultimately the followers on the skeptics. It is the very basis of division and hierarchy and false authority.

The Quakers aren't hurting anybody! The Buddhists keep to themselves! There aren't a lot of evangelical Jews nowadays! Same goes for Taoism and Shinto! Agreed. These religions don't currently pose a threat to nonbelievers. That doesn't mean that they are true. It doesn't mean that their leaders have legitimate reasons to lead. And it definitely doesn't mean that they shouldn't be examined critically just like every other institution.

If there's one thing I agree with the anarchists about, it is this: question all hierarchy and authority for necessity. Any authority which is not essential is illegitimate. Unless there is evidence for the existence of a worship-demanding God there is no necessity for worship and therefore no necessity for institutions of worship. So it's your choice. If you want to spend your private time, effort, and money empowering other people to tell you what you should think, who am I to stop you?

The idea that faith is not a special category of belief and that it can in fact be examined critically is a paradigm shift that society is not prepared to accept. We have firmly entrenched the notion that faith is a taboo topic. Any belief a person can have is fair game for discussion, argument, and parody, unless that belief has to do with God. The culture has even deluded itself into thinking faith is a virtue! Believing things without evidence is apparently a sign of strength and conviction.

In truth, believing things without evidence is a sign of gullibility.


  1. Since you seem to be pretty book savvy, have you ever read The Mind of God? I've gotten to the 2nd chapter(3 weeks later)& it seems pretty good. I had a lot of questions about the cult...I mean the church , & this guy seems to hit the nail right on the head.

  2. I've never read it. I assume you mean the book by Paul Davies, since that's the only one with that direct title that comes up on Amazon.

    Googling it seems to tell me that it would be a decent book. The arguments presented in it regarding physics and mathematics are probably pretty good. However, the reviews consistently note that Davies suggests that the universe and humanity are "special" and that mysticism can answer questions that science cannot. Obviously, I don't really agree with that, but since I agree that science can't answer questions of "why," I don't see any real harm in such speculation.

    Believing in a generic "creator" responsible only for setting the universe in motion is by far the most harmless of religious beliefs, but it still strikes me as an unneccessary and inherently unprovable hypothesis. Other than natural human desire, I don't see a need for there to be a "why" at all.

    In that sense, we'll really never know. Because of that, it seems futile to guess.

  3. Yeah that's the one. I've struggled my whole life with the "why" question. I have a real problem with putting my beliefs & hopes into something that doesn't exist (in my opinion). Something that seems a little more easy to swallow (such as Evolution, & continuing science) is more my forte. I'm not all that educated in either sense, so don't take my words to deeply. :) More & more I see your views on this blog & have never really wanted to comment on the subject. More times than not these views get me into trouble with friends & co-workers who are strong "believers". I try mainly to stay away. (this also goes along with pro-lifers...Bastards!)Thanks for the input though. I will continue to read & silently nod my head in approval. :)

  4. I think it's pretty obvious that I am officially out of the atheist closet, but I definitely don't go out of my way to talk about religion with anyone offline unless they ask me directly about it. I don't really have regular coworkers nowadays, but when I did about the most detail I ever went into was that I was "not religious" if church or something came up. It's not that I wouldn't talk in depth about it if somebody wanted to, but there's not really any reason to get into a potentially controversial subject with people you have to deal with everyday!

  5. **sigh** I know what you mean. I was threatened by a former friend a couple of years ago because I questioned something about Adam & Eve. I don't even remember what the hell it was, it was that juvenile. She actually said to my face that God is the answer to everything & if I continued to question the "way" I was gooing to go to hell.....Bring it on Bitch!! :)