Beyond Belief

I’ve been watching the recorded symposium, “Beyond Belief; Science, Religion, Reason and Survival,” recorded by The Science Network concerning the divide between science and religion and it’s quite impressive. And at times incredulous.  Impressive in that some of the speakers are incredibly eloquent and inspiring about the future of reason.  Persons like Steven Weinberg, Sam Harris (who is just amazing!), and Neil deGrasse (who is also a great orator), and, of course, Richard Dawkins.   I’d only had experience with Richard Dawkins through his book and BBC program “The God Delusion,” and Neil deGrasse from the PBS series “NOVA Science Now.” I’m definitely going to have to read some of Sam Harris’ work after hearing him speak.

The incredulous parts of the program are two fold.  The fact that these scientists, some of the greatest minds on the planet, seem so tentative that a reasonable moral code can exist without god.  Not quite that, they seem to agree that it can exist, they just can’t seem to actually codify it.  Too bad they don’t realize it’s already been done by Ayn Rand. 

Now, of course, a lot of them probably don’t want to admit that because just by mentioning Rand’s name one brings up a lot of baggage.  But in all honesty, her system of philosophy – as incomplete as it might be – is still one of the most reasonably sound philosophies out there. Unfortunately, her “followers” are a bit too much like Christian Fundamentalists in their presentation and it really turns people off.  Objectivism never gets a chance to convey its position on its own terms.  And I won’t even get into how I think Peikoff is turning the whole thing into a laughable dogmatic circus.  Which is too bad, because I think “in the beginning” he really had something useful to contribute to the conversation.

The other case of incredulity that I observed is how some of the presenters and people in the audience cling so tenaciously to their mythology. They really believe their mythology is literally true. And these people are scientists!  I’m not really sure why they picked Christ over Baal, as the two systems are equivalently false, but I’m assuming it’s just out of upbringing/local tradition. 

Another interesting aspect of the discussion so far (I’ve only gotten through the first five lectures/panel discussions, which are two hours each) is the lack of understanding towards just what it is that is so compelling about religion in the first place.  Only a few of the people have briefly touched on religion’s capacity to console people in times of great emotional stress – mainly around the death of a loved one or one’s own impending death.  But religion isn’t just about death.  Yes, for the most part all religions of the world are death cults, but there’s something else there – it isn’t rational, but it is comforting.  And that idea is this:  there is this Great Father, Grand Master, Ultimate Guru that not only understands literally Everything, but is also personally knowing and sympathetic to each and every one of our “issues” whatever they may be.  And not only that, irregardless of whatever situation we’re in He is understanding, loving AND can offer advice or direction. AND you cannot keep secrets from God.

Now why is this so compelling? It’s flatly not true, but it IS extraordinarily compelling. In counterpoint to religion, within science, philosophy, and/or psychology you’d have to come up with something that not only is consoling in times of dire emotional stress, but is the ultimate confidante, friend, fatherly figure, advice dispenser, wish giver, etc.  For those who believe, god plays a role in even the most mundane experiences; changing traffic lights, being “on-time,” getting a job, dealing with errant (insert person of the day here: brother, lover, parent, president, friend, etc.).

One of the presenters, I think it was Lawrence Krauss (whom I mostly disagree with), almost got it right when he said (paraphrased) “people are not rational.”  While it is true that people are not rational, each person believes that they ARE unequivocally rational.  A person will NOT do something unless they’ve somehow justified it in their mind. Even the most crazy, evil deeds are done by someone who has justified their actions within their own mind through some kind of twisted logic and rationalization.  They may later regret it and even wonder how they could’ve ever done such a thing, but in the time interval leading up to and in the moment of action, they’ve justified that action in their mind.

I believe science and reason can and already does offer an objective moral code. But what it cannot seem to offer are all of the “consolation prizes” that religion has to offer. Which basically boils down to “wish fulfillment.”  So how do you compete with the genie in the bottle? And this genie doesn’t just offer three wishes, but infinite wishes – even if they don’t all come true (some do just out of dumb luck – which is enough to perpetuate the delusion), at least you get the fulfillment of making the wish. And I do believe the very act of making the wish does fulfill some basic, psychological need.

All scientists have to do to understand the almost irresistible allure of religion is to watch one of those televangelist shows.  God offers: unconditional love (including forgiveness/salvation/redemption and all that), absolute understanding, unequivocal problem solving (wish fulfillment).  And if for some reason your hopes, dreams and wishes to God don’t come true? Well, God works in mysterious ways and He only holds your own best interest in mind when not granting you favors…

Now there are a lot of mean things that god does too, but those aren’t the ideas that lure the populace into the flock in the first place.  They’re the blackmail threats that keep you in once you’ve “accepted the blessings.”  Science and skeptics have done a very good job in dispelling/exposing all of the bad things about religion.  But it’s very difficult to come up with a reasonable/rational solution as an alternative to the grossly irrational, emotional, and immediate comforts that  religion was built to address. 

For many, if not all, religious people, when there’s no one else to turn to for help, they turn to god.  How does reason fulfill that desire? It’s a psychological puzzle to fulfill that incredibly strong, irrational desire – it’s far stronger than the sex drive – it’s a flat out survival instinct. When one senses impending danger (like an unavoidable accident), the immediate psychological response is “save me!” That’s where this idea of god steps in and says “ok,” if you live, or other people say “how tragic,” if you don’t live.  But, it doesn’t even have to be a life threatening situation.  To go back to traffic lights, one may be in hurry and be coming up on a red light and thinking, “god I hope that light changes before I get there – please god, I’m gonna be late…” and if the light changes – woot! god did something for me, and if not, damnit I guess I shoulda gone to church last Sunday – or some other irrational rationalization.

So, what is the answer to the religion problem?  And I do think it’s a serious, civilization threatening problem – more-so than nuclear war ever was. Education and teaching reasoning skills will go a long way towards a solution. And I think that will obviate the fact that religions are patently false, but then what do we offer to fulfill the intrinsic, irrational emotional desires outlined above that will surely linger on? Religion is a crutch, to be sure, and there are legitimate reasons for some people to be using crutches, like when they have a broken leg, or a dysfunctional psyche.  Is there a better set of crutches than religion? 

Some might think we don’t really need crutches.  But I’m certain we do.  Some (many?) people just won’t “get it” and they’re going to need some kind of assistance (crutches) to address their irrational, emotional desires(perceived as absolute needs) in order to live in a reasonable/rational world. Is there anything else besides religion that can fulfill that longing requirement?

 And to that, I do not pretend to have an answer.  And unfortunately I don’t think anybody else does either, otherwise there wouldn’t be a problem, would there?


I got so carried away I forgot two other really BIG things that people receive from religion that they may not get elsewhere. One is simple socialization and another is the awe and wonder of reverential ritual.

For example, from my own family’s experience, when both my mom and dad were working, we hardly ever went to church.  But as the children grew older and left the house and my mom no longer felt like she had to work to help support the family, she started going to church again.  I think mostly to get back into a social setting with adults which she had lost when she was no longer a part of the workforce.   I guess she could’ve always just gone back to work, but hey, you only have to go to church once a week 😛 

As for sacred rituals, these play a much bigger role than many learned people may realize.  Even I didn’t realize how central they were to the human condition until after I had read Joseph Campbell’s “The Masks of God” series of books for the second time. These rituals, like beliefs in wish fulfillment, seem to be embedded in our psyche.  And there needs to be a viable alternative if we’re ever going to fully free ourselves from the chains of religion.

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