With the recent declaration of Pope Francis that the Theory of Evolution and the Big Bang are, in fact, correct, there is perhaps no better a time to discuss the idea of Faith as it pertains to our everyday lives. His declaration, to many, has come as the Vatican’s response to the ideas of Creationism and Intelligent Design, and the offering of an olive branch to the scientific community. For others, this is the beginning of the Church's declining relevance, as it waves a white flag in the face of amassing evidence: a chance to simply try to incorporate otherwise empirical ideas into religion’s scope as a last ditch effort for survival. It’s a confusing state of affairs when you have a community whose scripture and teachings would promote blind faith and then also take a stand for evidence. So it would seem apt to strike while the iron is hot and dig into the subject of Faith, religion, and secularism now more than ever.
The issue, really, comes from the definition of Faith and what you decide to stand for in your own views of the world. Faith, in and of itself, is not a concept at odds with the scientific process or the pursuit of knowledge. Indeed, much of our scientific progress has been in making leaps of faith based on axioms which are regarded as self-evidently true. We accept that mathematics works, we accept that the speed of light in a vacuum is a constant, we even must accept that our perception of reality is true. Our very acceptance of reality is a leap of faith that this world in which we exist is actual: that we do not live in the Matrix or a Hologram, we are not dreaming, and we exist in this reality. Sure, we can back these declarations with experimental evidence, but we must have faith in ourselves that we have come to the correct conclusions about the mechanics involved in reaching these answers. We make postulates about our world which define the very systems of logic we rely upon to describe our understanding. We are constantly evolving our understanding of the universe, and throwing out old ideas. Therein lies the critical difference between an act of faith and blind faith. The logical faith of believing something to be true and building an thoughtful argument to support it is open to new evidence and new understanding. It adapts and even throws out concepts which are demonstrably wrong. Blind faith, by contrast, simply incorporates- de facto- ideas which bolster the hypotheses and rejects those which do not. Galileo was imprisoned for life for standing against the Church when proposing that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, but rather that it orbited the Sun. It is this sort of blind faith which stands firmly as a barrier for expanding our understanding of the universe in which we preside.
It is with blind faith that the truly religious must accept their doctrine. The scripture proposes a world created and moulded by the will of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent entity or pantheon of entities which should be worshipped for some intrinsic divinity. It proposes that it played an integral part in the formation of humanity and our culture. Depending on your beliefs, we were created from dust and bone and given life by the simple power of god because, well, he is god. The evidence in support of this is the scripture, and the scripture’s validity is based on its mere existence. It’s a system of circular logic which is supported as a straw man argument by un-testable hearsay and supposition. To be fair, the communities surrounding these religions have, in many cases, evolved past their scripture- however, the fundamental writing remains stagnant. Where in science new journals and books are constantly published for peer review, and the community shifts its views with time with what proves itself sound, religious writings do no such thing. They are essentially set in stone, with merely their interpretation left open ended for a community whose perception of the text is only hopefully in accordance with a progressive society.
The argument, of course, always comes that religion does not present itself to be a statement of empirical fact: that it stands as a more abstract embodiment of a moral for life. This argument falls apart when you look at the actual claims of religion, though. While there are surely scientists who align with a religious doctrine, they must either find a way to compartmentalise these aspects of their lives or they must make concessions nearing agnosticism in their concurrent commitment to these ideologies. Religious text would have you believe in a divine intervention which willed the universe into creation and which may or may not continue to act in a way to influence our lives. In America this belief becomes blindingly evident. The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky - at the heart of the Bible belt - has designed itself to look like an actual scientific and factual depiction of our history and understanding of the world, with exhibits that depict the coexistence of man and dinosaur in a Jurassic Park-esque setting. It promotes a Young Earth creationist explanation of the origin of our world, positing that the Earth is only 6,000 years old and that evolution does not exist. Its popularity, and the popularity of these ideas are strikingly evident in the culture of this nation, with almost half of Americans believing in a creationist origin of human life, rather than in the Theory of Evolution. There’s still a vast number of people who believe in the power of prayer, and miracles, and healings and homoeopathic remedies which work in a mysterious way beyond scientific explanation. These testable claims have been routinely put on trial and proven wrong. It is here that the Pope’s recent declarations become truly interesting. For the Vatican to concede the correctness of the Theory of Evolution and The Big Bang, and say that god is not a wizard with a wand really undermines what Biblical teachings really stand for. In a way, the Pope dismissed his own religion. It takes a unique form of creativity and confirmation bias to incorporate the very Theories that outline an empirical alternative to religion’s explanations of creation into that very religion’s scope with sincere belief. The culture of Biblical teachings, especially, is one of unquestioning faith, and a denial of the religiously incompatible, which means at a fundamental level, these ideas are surely incompatible. As the scientific method comes to a greater understanding of our universe by illuminating the blind edges of our knowledge, religion is slowly being pushed farther and farther into the recesses of obscurity. With each scientific advance, something that was once unknown is now being replaced with a logical explanation: something that is not God. Where once the rain and the thunder may have been attributed to an all powerful being’s emotions, they now can be easily explained to children in primary school. The choice, then, becomes that of where to put your faith; a choice which for many is made self-evident by the ever amassing wealth of data and logical proofs.
The other argument often comes that God is not something that can be proven or disproven empirically, that he is an all encompassing concept that unites and is intrinsic to our universe, something, perhaps, that transcends any mortal concept of reality. This passive and often empathic view, to me at least, feels like a desperate final defence. By placing God outside the sphere of logic and outside the scope of what we understand the universe to be, he’s suddenly turned into an unfalsifiable claim. If God is not a part of the universe as we know it, then he can no longer act as a part of the universe as we know it, or else he would inevitably reveal himself in some observable way. To this end, while His existence may not have been debunked with this postulate, His importance has surely been hobbled. What use is there in any sort of arm chair philosophical musing when the being in question is detached and meaningless? What use is there in worshipping a being who cannot, by that definition, have any effect on your existence? The people who would claim religion’s correctness by this logic would also tend to claim to be unable to imagine a universe in which God did not exist. In response to that, there are many ways to model a theoretical and stable universe within our understanding of the laws of physics in which the only requirement is a faith in mathematics- a theoretical universe without a God.
Fundamentally, though, I don’t think there are many truly religious left in our modern world. There are surely many radical and militant Fundamentalist groups who use religion as a scapegoat for terror, and churches such as the Westboro Baptists who use religion as a scapegoat for hate crimes. Thankfully, these outliers often find push-back even within their own faiths. For the rest, the vast majority of “religious” people, though, I would doubt the extent of their loyalties to the scripture. Their faith is more reliant on an indoctrination through upbringing, and a human loneliness seeking community. They inject their own morals and views into their interpretation of the text. They cherry pick the lines which are convenient to them, and ignore much of the hatred, homophobia, misogyny, slavery, murder, and genocide that exists in these tomes. At that point, though, what is religion but a façade? It becomes a self applied label by which you allow others the opportunity to attempt to judge your social merits. It becomes vapid and hollow, devoid of an actual meaning as merely a legitimization by argumentum-ad-populum. At that point it becomes a purely political institution: something made for patronage rather than logic. What moral guidance religion would claim to provide gets lost to perception and free will.
The biggest issue, as I see it, is that religion has created a middleman for empathy and curiosity. There is a push to pray and hope passively, rather than to actively fight for a world worth living for. You’re to ensure yourself a happy afterlife rather than to ensure a happy life. You’re turned from the pursuit of happiness and knowledge towards servitude and subjugation to a deity. Rather than having a fundamental appreciation for the value of life in and of itself, you are to see the value of god’s creation. There are questions you mustn't ask, or accept as unanswerable quandaries better left to the mind's of professional theologians than to the average thinking man. There are arbitrary rules to follow in order to be a devout and holy person, which do naught but restrict you from expressing to your fullest extent your own humanity... we thank god for our health rather than our doctors, we say grace rather than appreciate our farmers... We put religion between ourselves and truth.
Of course, saying all that in America I've inevitably just committed an act of "persecution" by putting religious dogma in the spotlight. In recent news, the former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said “I think we should start calling secularism a religion, because if we did, then we could ban that too, because that’s what they've done: they've hidden behind the fact that the absence of religion is not a religion of itself.” The truth is, however, that religion is not banned from schools, only the mandating of prayer in government funded educational centres. No one will stop you, though, from praying of your own accord. Unfortunately, his words stand as a general summation of the attitudes of a majority of Americans. It is an ignorant view of self-pity, claiming persecution when disallowed from forcing their views on others. In the words of Professor Brian Cox, “The problem with today’s world is that everyone believes they have the right to express their opinion and have others listen to it. The correct statement of individual rights is that everyone has the right to an opinion, but crucially, that opinion can be roundly ignored and even be made fun of, particularly if it is demonstrably NONSENSE”. There is no persecution, but rather a discussion about how we should move forward as a society and our beliefs which has been left too controversial for some to touch. There is the potential for an intelligent debate about fundamental philosophical aspects of our existence which has been lost in a puerile and closed minded view of reality, and a refusal to consider the other side.
All this is spoken from my own perspective as a Secular Humanist, of course, and the biases that come with such beliefs. I would like to say, however, that my world is not one without emotion, or beauty, or a form of morality and spirituality. To me, it is the very knowledge that there is a logical explanation which makes this universe all the more magnificent. That we are just collections of atoms arranged into cells, structured into massive biological machines… that those elements which form every molecule of this world and our own bodies were forged in the heart of stars- that we are the children of stardust… and that from this chaos and these systems has come a temporary order which has allowed us to simply Be is as close to a miracle as there ever can be. That our sentience and our wills, that “soul” which is the autonomous entity of ambitions and thoughts with which I can communicate, can simply exist at all is awesome in the most literal sense of the word. It stuns me that this world so fails to inspire wonder in us that we must dilute it with the invention of mythology. My morality comes from an appreciation for the very idea of Life and its infinite splendour… that we all live such short existences and should be able to purse to our fullest extent our own happiness. Our lives are so brief, and this world so vast… we should be allowed to do whatever brings us pleasure so long as no one else is harmed. Just imagine it… a world in peace with a people given a fundamental appreciation for Life...
My name is Jeffrey Hepburn, and I'm a young writer, graphic design artist, and aspiring filmmaker.