Straight away, you are probably wondering to which category I belong. Is this piece an atheist railing against religion, or a Christian promoting only a Judeo-Christian perspective? The truth is that my personal relationship with religion is complicated, but I will try to clarify it.
I consider myself an agnostic, because from a purely logical perspective (the main focus of this piece) I believe the existence of God is unknowable. We lack the evidence to disprove said existence just as we lack the evidence to prove said existence. That’s agnostic in a nutshell.
My colleague argues that I should consider myself an atheist though, because my belief tends towards non-existence. I find this point somewhat ambiguous though as the reason for my belief tending that way is the agnosticism – faith and I have never gotten along well. I want as much independently verifiable, reproducible evidence as possible before committing to anything.
My mother also raised me Catholic – baptised in infancy, made my Communion, and eventually my Confirmation in the Roman Catholic Church as part of a long, Irish tradition. It’s hard to shake that off completely, which also causes enough hedging that I tend to identify instead as a universalist, looking for the universal application and tolerable perspectives of all religions.
This point is critical because, in my criticism, I think it’s important for you to understand that I do not hate religion or religious people. I envy, even adore their faith the one might envy the strength of an athlete or the beauty of a celebrity. I am critical of religion though, principally because I believe one ought to be critical of any idea. If the idea cannot withstand criticism, the idea is not worth holding.
So, are we all good? Kind of religious but not really, and I like many religious people but I am about to tear into a bit. None of what follows is a condescending statement of fact, but rather a perspective challenging religious thought that I apply to myself and am now sharing with you.
Eh, whatever – at the end of the day there is no way to avoid upsetting people with this topic.
Let’s begin with that first part – I was raised Roman Catholic, in a household that is Irish and Italian. My family thought, “Let’s raise James with religion,” and yet I was not raised Jewish, Hindu, or Buddhist. Other than the Judeo-Christian overlap with Roman Catholicism, I received no education in other faiths.
Question/concern number one: if a given religion is such a universal truth, as opposed to say, a cultural construct, why do those born to a particular region all tend to share the same faith? Roman Catholics do not, indeed cannot, accept any Hindu gods into their belief system (to do so would be to violate the 10 Commandments), yet anyone born in India is far more likely to become Hindu while someone born in, say, Brazil, is far more likely to be Catholic.
Sure, Christians exist in India, China, and, well, everywhere, but the distribution is far from random. People are most likely to adopt whatever religion is prevalent where they are born.
That works hand-in-hand with another criticism I often have of religion – religious people who advocate that public schools should be “more inclusive” and teach religious theories alongside the scientific ones. Case in point, schools should teach creationism alongside evolution. Except, when one says, “Schools should teach religious theories as well as the scientific ones,” what one is often saying is, “Schools should teach what I believe in addition to what science says.” To teach every story of creation is prohibited by time, and so the religious individual prioritises their perspective as something that ought to be taught to others.
Question/concern number three: is this misunderstanding of the scientific basis for teachings. Scientific illiteracy is all too prevalent in society, but it acts as a sort of beacon for the religiously minded in particular. Some (many?) seem to conflate discovery with invention. Science is such a robust thing in our world because the process serves specifically to remove our flawed human bias from the understanding.
Science merely observes the natural world and then formulates educated concepts of what forces might be at play. Scientists, the practitioners of the process, then control for all of the variables except for the one in question and evaluate in under those controlled circumstances. When the process produces consistent, reliable results, the question becomes a theory. That theory and the experiment is reproducible by any person and generates the same results.
Where the process fails to generate the same results, scientists return to the start and begin the process again (which is why scientific theory evolves over time – it’s not that science was wrong about a thing, it’s that the understanding was incomplete and since had further perspective added).
One must also separate “poor” science from actual science, as well as the interpretation of the scientifically illiterate. When one reads the results of a “study” in the news or on a television broadcast, one has to understand that 1) their interpretation of the study may be wrong and 2) just becomes something purports itself to be a scientific study does not mean that it is.
Fantastic example, Andrew Wakefield’s 1997 “study” that proposed the link between vaccines and autism. Actual scientific studies have torn those results to shreds, indicating the great many issues with Wakefield’s research. Additional study and peer review has concluded time and again that not only is there no link between autism and vaccine, the benefit of vaccine far outweighs any risk.
But I digress. The point is that science is a robust study that removes our bias and misperception from the equation.
The result of this is perhaps my biggest criticism of religion – and one of the principle concerns colouring my outlook. If our collective human knowledge and all written record of all things were to vanish tomorrow and we devolved to Neanderthals, over time our current scientific understanding of the universe would return in exactly the same way as it exists now.
Why? Because of what I described before. Science didn’t invent anything. It observed the natural world and then subjects it to a rigorous process to eliminate our bias from that understanding. Things fall from a higher position to a lower position because of gravitational force, not because ghosts are tossing things to the ground.
What about religion? You have what the priests and your community have shared with you about religion. You have the teachings of the Bible. If all of the knowledge disappeared tomorrow, what are the odds that humanity would arrive back at the same understanding of Roman Catholicism? Of Judaism? Of Hinduism? Our understanding of religion is rooted entirely in this cultural tradition and therefore subject to problems of cognitive bias.
For example, how does one know that the content of the Bible is correct? Yes, those raised with Biblical instruction know it to contain the word of God and accounts of Jesus’ teachings – yet we overlook that, at the end of the day, these are accounts written by man, men for which we have little understanding. Who is to say that they recorded everything correctly? Who is to say that what got recorded was specific to a particular faith? Historians would indicate the great deal of overlap in the traditions of many faiths. Many of the details associated with the life of Jesus of Nazareth, for example, bear remarkable similarities to prophets and deities of many older faiths. Who is to say that these stories were not borrowed in the oral traditions of the time and translated into the faith we know today?
This starts to get to a point where I do find myself at odds with religious individuals. In discussion/debate/outright feuding with people about a topic, the more evangelical believers like to throw out an accusation of surrendering critical thought over to science and not questioning things. They believe that their faith has examined the topic more critically than science and therefore has the absolute view on the matter.
This is where my tolerance for religion stops and I have to step away from conversations. As stated before, the whole notion of science is to perform that critical examination of the topic. The religious perspective is often unchanging and finds no basis in any sort of objective, critical review – it’s simply the word on the matter from a source the believer does not understand fully.
Evangelicals disagree with homosexuality – the behaviour, not the individuals (as one recently indicated to me). He wanted to know why “Liberals” were so outraged that Karen Pence went to work for a Christian school system, and when several people indicated that it was not the Christian teaching but rather their extreme stance on the LGBTQ community, the attitude was that, “We don’t hate gays, we simply do not tolerate their immoral behaviours”.
This is the whole point though – other than your faith stating that this behaviour was immoral, what reason would one have for believing that? What reason does one have for opposing trans or intersex people (or their behaviours)?
It’s not “natural”. It is natural – scientific review has concluded over and over again that homosexuality occurs naturally and is not learned behaviour.
Trans activists are confusing our children and teaching them harmful behaviours and attitudes. Except they aren’t – no one chooses their gender. It is what it is. No man can be “taught” to be a woman. Then there is the mistaken idea that this all boils down to the scientific: XX or XY, that makes you a man or woman, end of story. Except that is the simplistic view, not the scientifically critical one.
This XX/XY outlook on gender is wrong for multiple reasons. First of all, it addresses gender solely in terms of sex, and they are two different matters. Sexual orientation is yet another. Behaviours that typify a particular gender is yet another aspect of identity, and perhaps the most socially constructed aspect of them all. Scientific literature covers the more thorough examination of genetics, including things such as Klinefelter Syndrome, which introduces an extra X chromosome and can make someone XXY.
It’s not as simple as XX/XY, and that has been proved.
That someone of a religious faith will disregard that information out of hand as propaganda or a conspiracy of some kind is where my anger begins. Here one is saying, “I am open minded and a critical thinker to the extent that something does not oppose the beliefs I already have, in which case it’s a conspiracy by other groups to control people.”
If an aspect of your religious faith is true, it will still hold up to scientific scrutiny because, and I cannot stress this enough in this piece, science does not have an agenda to promote. It is the objective observation of the natural world. Science and religion are not incompatible, except where religion is wrong. One can be a scientist and maintain a strong religious faith. Indeed, many religious institutions are actively involved in the scientific method to improve their faith, not to undermine it.
This is also not to say that aspects of religion that science cannot yet explain are wrong. We still do not understand most of the natural universe, and the parts that we do understand we do not understand as well today as we will in future generations.
However, there is considerable difference between, “I don’t know what causes this phenomenon” and “An omniscient deity is responsible.”
This is why I despise ghost hunter shows. “This door often slams shut independently, and we haven’t been able to explain it scientifically. Therefore, ghosts.” Any logician would cringe and that thought process.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famously wrote that that when one removes all other possibilities, the only possibility, no matter how crazy, must be true. Those of supernatural or religious belief often misappropriate this truth to their thinking and conclude, “In the absence of all other evidence, this must be God/ghosts/leprechauns”. The problem is that one has not actually accounted for all other evidence and merely leapt to a supernatural conclusion that one presupposed going into the investigation.
Does it eliminate your belief as a possibility? No. To that point we also lack the evidence to eliminate that conclusion. The point is merely that it does not yet exist as the sole explanation and therefore is not the logical conclusion.
In fact, because of the rigidity of the scientific process, a scientist would argue that certain explanations are far more likely and they simply do not have the evidence necessary to put forth that conclusion. Scientists are responsible and critical in their evaluation, they are not inclined to draw conclusions prematurely. I’m talking to those of religious perspective who believe that they have the answers to everything in the natural world because science does not.
“Why can’t science explain _______?” Because it lacks the purposeful rigidity science requires to put forth a claim in response to that question. Religions are far less responsible about having positions on matters.
Some religious readers may feel defensive about that, and that’s fine. I’m not suggesting that you are not entitled to your faith. There is comfort in having that sense of answers. All that the scientific community asks is that you recognise we have no earthly, scientific reason to believe that is the case and continued observation may yield a result other than what you believe to be true. Stop rejecting the contra-evidence as attempts to deny you your religious faith. Incorporate it.
Most of all, stop using the “religious freedom” argument to insist upon inflicting these scientifically baseless beliefs on everyone else. Sure, you have a religious right to believe that homosexuality is an abomination. You have the freedom of speech to be a total racist, too. That does not make it acceptable. Everyone else has the freedom of religion and speech to be tolerant of the homosexual community that some religious individuals are so keen to repress.
Religious arguments in these areas boil down to a fundamental, scientific sticking point – eventually, it requires faith that others do not share.
“Because the Bible says…” – most people do not regard the Bible as an authoritative source.
“Because God says…” – most people do not regard God, or said God, as an authoritative source. They have a faith with a different deity or deities, or perhaps they have no deity at all. This appeal to authority means nothing to them, and the appeal lacks the evidence to compel others to accept it.
I believe it was Ricky Gervais who said, in defence of atheism, that the religious individual (Western monotheist) believes in a God and rejects all others. The atheist simply believes in one fewer God than that person.
In other words, religious people have no problem understanding the concepts set forth in this critique except when they apply to their own faith. As an Evangelical, one has no problem seeing why one may reject the claims of Judaism or Islam that have no scientific basis. Someone then says, “As a non-Evangelical, I have no reason to agree with your claim” is met with fervent disagreement, even hostility.
The most intense criticism I often have of religion is when its internal logic is inconsistent, such as the need to impose a religious ideology on others. That Roman Catholicism in which I was raised (remember from the beginning?) – that always instructed me to be tolerant and non-judgemental of others. At death, God would judge them and it was not for me to do. Yet I also grew up in a Catholic congregation that had no problem judging others for their non-Catholic behaviours.
Even worse than when religious types are judging folks for behaviours that do not meet with the teachings of that religion (especially heinous when the subject is not a practitioner of the religion) is when religious types reject their own teachings because…reasons. Catholics, according to the teachings of Jesus, should strongly favour charity, hospitality, and pacifism. They express those values often. However, when the population in question is undesirable, such as the migrants coming up through the Mexican border, one sees even members of the clergy speaking out against those people.
It’s here, where religion serves to justify whatever behaviour or attitude the practitioner chooses to express, that religion is at its worst.
Anyway, that’s enough out of me. I’d love to hear from religious readers and non-religious readers alike. I know some religious readers will feel outraged by these implications, others see the behaviours as well and feel that it paints religion in a bad light (actually where I tend to fall on the spectrum). Others might be atheists opposed to the idea of religion all together. Share your thoughts!