On religion

Religion is a tricky question -and why should we even bother with that on a blog about Knowledge? Well, it turns out that religious beliefs are more and more threatening scientific truths, but also the rights of individuals. As an atheist and a libertarian, I want to write something about religions. By religions I refer to every cult based on dogma, such as Christianism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism, the most common ones.
It’s important for scientists, researchers, knowledge seekers, to understand why they shouldn’t be passive about religion. When religion interferes with science, when it interferes with the truth, you have to fight it.
If you have some religious beliefs, I’m going to hurt them. But perhaps you want to read this essay. In my view, you’re free to believe in what you want, what I do not accept is that you try to shape laws, dress-codes and morality on your beliefs. I also despise the fact that your scientific ignorance gets media’s attention. I respect you as a person, although I consider you might question your beliefs since science (and basic common sense) have mostly been proving them wrong again and again. Take Thomas Jefferson’s advice: “Shake off all the fears of servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the hommage of reason than that of blind folded fear”.
Most of my examples are from Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and the Proud Atheist blog which I encourage everyone to read.

 

I

Why do people surrender reason to dogma? Plenty of publications have shown and satirized how ridiculous religious beliefs are (like a man born of a virgin…)  so I won’t spend too much time on proving religious people wrong.
But still, you have to examine religious writings to understand just how silly they are (and to be even more baffled by the fact that supposedly reasonable people can actually believe any of these). All of them. The Bible, the Quran, the Torah, the “Teachings of Buddha”, they are merely boring old fables, deformed by centuries of retranscriptions. Reading them is quite painful, but believing in what they say is ludicrous.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said “The religion of one age is the literary entertainment of the next”. Just as nobody believes that the story inside Homer’s Odyssey is true, I can only hope that current religious scriptures will one day become just this – literary entertainment. To quote Jefferson again: “The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the wonb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”
The problem is that religious people consider the scriptures as the absolute truth, thus criticizing them is a despicable thing to do. So if a new fact proves something in the Bible wrong for example (fossils, geological records, etc.), christians will strongly deny the truth to stick with their Book. If the Vatican says the Earth is 6,000 years old, catholics will believe it.
“Truth, in matters of religion, is simply the opinion that has survived” said Oscar Wilde, and the biggest problem lies here: religions are completely irrational and do not listen to reason. Priests, imams, and all the other religious leaders fear knowledge as a capital threat to their dogma, and do everything they can to keep the people in complete ignorance (by opening religious schools for example), because a learned person is less likely to buy any of their fairy tales (and thus less likely to smash a plane into a skyscraper or protest against gay marriage).
Religious scriptures are as true as the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The only difference between them is that the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is recent fiction while they are old fictions.

Religious people are pretty silly too. Andrew Mueller thinks choosing to follow a religion “is no more or less weird than choosing to believe that the world is rhombus-shaped, and borne through the cosmos in the pincers of two enormous green lobsters called Esmeralda and Keith”.
But some people claim they have experienced God! He talked to them! Alright, let me tell you this: if you hear voices, you’re not experiencing religion, you’re experiencing neurological troubles. Many guys in asylums claim they hear God, or Napoleon talking to them. Some of them even see Jesus, or pink elephants, and yet they aren’t taken very seriously. Why? Because they’re sick and there isn’t a lot of them. Sam Harris wrote, in The End Of Faith: ” We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there is no rational justification. When their beliefs are extremely common we call them “religious”; otherwise, they are likely to be called “mad”, “psychotic” or “delusional”… Clearly there is sanity in numbers. And yet, it is merely an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your thoughts, while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window. And so, while religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are.”
The proofs for the existence of a God people come up with are generally quite tasty too. Just take a look at this website which has an extensive list of reasons to believe in God, for example “Argument from Incomplete Devastation: A plane crashed killing 143 passengers and crew. But one child survived with only third-degree burns. Therefore God exists.”. What’s really cool is that you can make your own proofs of the existence of God, for instance: “I only cut my index with a sheet of paper, and not the other fingers. Therefore God exists.”
The fact that religion in itself is a stupid concept would be a minor issue if it was a private thing: if you want to believe the Earth is 6,000 years old, it’s alright as long as it’s just something you keep for yourself and your close fellows (just like you keep your opinion on what the best brand of beer is to yourself and your Facebook friends). Unfortunately, religion is not so much of a private thing today: people shout their silly beliefs anywhere they can, stage protests, picket funerals; religion is tightly embedded in public affairs and politics, and threatens individual rights.
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II

The list of countries where you can be sentenced to death for non believing in the official religion is quite astonishing. So is the list of countries where children are “taught” religion in public schools. These two acts constitute major violations of human rights. By forcing people to believe in a religion is to deny their right to have different opinions. To force children to learn religion is child abuse, as Dawkins and others have already argued, and it’s similar to and as perverse as the endoctrinement we see in North Korea where children are taught to worship their version of God, Kim Jung Un and his predecessors.
Every religion has a record of abusing individual rights: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, even Buddhism, despite its image of being a peaceful and tolerant religion.
Dawkins made a good account of the state of freedom under states which endorse a religion and/or enforce laws based on religious beliefs: “In 2006 in Afghanistan, Abdul Rahman was sentenced to death for converting to Christianity. Did he kill anyone, hurt anybody, steal anything, damage anything?  No. All he did was change his mind. Internally and privately, he changed his mind. He entertained certain thoughts which were not to the liking of the ruling party of this country. […] It is still an article of the constitution of “liberated” Afghanistan that the penalty for apostasy is death. Apostasy, remember, doesn’t mean actual harm to persons or property. It is pure thoughtcrime, to use George Orwell’s 1984 terminology, and the official punishment for it under Islamic law is death. […]
But let’s have no complacency in Christendom. As recently as 1922 in Britain, John Willian Gott was sentenced to nine months hard labour for blasphemy: he compared Jesus to a clown. Almost unbelievably, the crime of blasphemy is still on the statute book in Britain, and in 2005 a Christian group tried to bring a private prosecution for blasphemy against the BBC for broadcasting Jerry Springer, the Opera. […]
In Afghanistan under the Taliban, the official punishment for homosexuality was execution, by the tasteful method of burial alive under a wall pushed over on top of the victim. The “crime” itself being a private act, performed by consenting adults who were doing nobody else any harm, we again have here the classic hallmark of religious absolutism. My own country has no right to be smug. Private homosexuality was a criminal offence in Britain up until – astonishingly – 1967. In 1954 the British mathematician Alan Turing committed suicide after being convicted of the criminal offence of homosexual behaviour in private. […] After the war, when Turing’s role was no longer top secret, he should have been knighted and feted as a saviour of his nation. Instead, this gentle, stammering, eccentric genius was destroyed, for a “crime” committed in private, which harmed nobody. Once again, the unmistakable trademark of the faith-based moralizer is to care passionately about what other people do (or even thing) in private.”
Religious laws are antidemocratic, and constitute for some of them crimes against the rights of the individuals. They are patriarchal, which explains why women’s rights are abused everywhere these laws exist. They oppose a woman’s right to birth control, to dress as she intends, to have a job, even (in Saudi Arabia) to drive or leave the country without her husband’s or father’s permission. Free speech is prohibited, so is the freedom of the press.
And still, people assume that religious faith deserves a protection well beyond the protection of every other kind of opinion, that somehow religion is good for people and it shouldn’t be attacked (but such an assumption neglects freedom of speech).
Religion is a barrier to human progress and should be a strictly private matter. As soon as there are any laws, any lobbying coming from religious organizations, it’s always to violate someone’s rights or deny a scientific truth (when creationists lobby to get creationism taught in school for instance).

Now, it’s true the vast majority of religious people are of course nice, and won’t kill anyone or hurt anyone in the name of religion. But these so called “moderates” in fact are helping extremists by being a part of their “platform” of believers. Extremists are using the moderates as a population they can fight for, the most famous example being the jihadists who fight to install an Islamic state under Sharia law in the name of the muslim world (and the muslim world of the “moderates” doesn’t seem to be bothered by that!). All the extremists from the Christian, to the Judaic, to the Buddhist world operate the same way: they speak and act in the name of all the believers of their Church.
The Vatican, as a permanent observer at the UN, is vehemently lobbying, along with Putin’s Orthodox Church and Iran’s Islamists (what a strange coalition) to prohibit gay mariage, contraception and abortion at the international level. Pope Francis, when he was still cardinal Bergoglio, considered gay mariage as being “a destructive pretension against the plan of God”, that doesn’t sound like the “modern” Pope everyone is talking about… Even worse, the Vatican and their other extremists friends are lobbying to get an amendment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to protect religions from being “denigrated” in the medias and in schools, thus making “blasphemy” and freethinking crimes against humanity. Such an amendment is a grand threat to human rights. And the fact that very few of the “moderates” denounce it is extremely disturbing.

As religions are so noxious to freedom, according tax breaks, and using taxpayers money to help them in any way is wrong and must be stop. The Vatican makes millions of euros from owning real estate all over Roma, because it doesn’t have to pay any tax on the buildings it buys (even if they are restaurants or hotels and not cult places), an outrageous situation when everybody gets harmed by more and more taxes, individuals and corporations alike.

And there’s the issue of the separation of Church and State. In the US, the Constitution’s First Amendment makes it clear: the government doesn’t endorse any religion nor does it make laws according to religious beliefs. Swearing on the Bible when being sworn president is absolutely wrong. Saying “God Bless America” is pointless. The “In God We Trust” on dollar bills is a recent addition. Politicians in the US who can’t stop talking about God or the Bible are a threat to the Constitution. Even some constitutionalists seem to misunderstand the First Amendment. The United States of America is not a Christian nation. The United States of America has a Christian people in majority, but the Country is neutral. The Founding Fathers, if they weren’t atheists (and that’s a subject of debate, because it seems very likely that at least Jefferson was actually quite skeptical about religion) were definitely believers in keeping religion out of politics, and as Dawkins explained, they would probably today be on the side of those who believe having “ostentatious displays of the Ten Commandements” in government-owned buildings, or inscribing “In God we trust” on dollar bills, is wrong. They would probably not tolerate creationists lobbying for religious education in public schools (since a separation of the Church and the State needs to apply to the public school system as well).
The Constitution is clear that the State and the Church are separated, that’s why Judge Bernard Friedman from Michigan rejected the law banning same-sex marriage in his state, saying “Many Michigan residents have religious convictions whose principles govern the conduct of their daily lives and inform their own viewpoints about marriage […] Nonetheless, these views cannot strip other citizens of the guarantees of equal protection under the law. The same Constitution that protects the free exercise of one’s faith in deciding whether to solemnize certain marriages rather than others, is the same Constitution that prevents the state from…mandating adherence to an established religion.”.

Yet some States’ constitutions violate the First Amendment of the US Constitution by refusing atheists the right to hold public office. These States are Arkansas (“No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any Court.”), Maryland, Mississippi (“No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this state”), North and South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. Such Constitutions make freethinking difficult to assume and are in violation of individual rights. It’s very odd that Libertarians don’t fight on this issue, because it’s quite a big one in my opinion. Religion is as much a threat to freethinking and free trade as the State is. I invite every libertarian to meditate Ayn Rand’s words from her book For The New Intellectual: “With very rare and brief exceptions, pre-capitalist societies had no place for the creative power of man’s mind, neither in the creation of ideas nor in the creation of wealth. Reason and its practical expression – free trade – were forbidden as a sin and a crime, or were tolerated, usually as ignoble activities, under the control of authorities who could revoke the tolerance at whim. Such societies were ruled by faith and its practical expression: force. There were no makers of knowledge and no makers of wealth; there were only witch doctors and tribal chiefs. These two figures dominate every anti-rational period of history, whether one calls them tribal chief and witch doctor – or absolute monarch and religious leader – or dictator and logical positivist”.

 

III

As the pursuit of the truth, science is the opposite of religion. It uses reason and longs to discover new things, to explain phenomenons we don’t understand. Religion on the other hand relies on dogma and doesn’t even try to understand our Universe, since every answer is supposedly contained inside the Scriptures.

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Religious people usually dislike it when scientists (among others) challenge their beliefs with facts. That’s because religion at its core is irrational. Bertrand Russel masterfully demonstrated it in his parable of the “celestial teapot”: “Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or the Inquisition in an earlier time.”

Science is based on facts, while religion is based on fairy tales. Thus the two are forever incompatible, and scientists shouldn’t endorse any religion while they do research. Being an atheist seems to me to be a prerequisite to be a good researcher. When you don’t surrender reason to dogma, you’re free to think outside the box, and you’re much more objective about the facts that you might stumble upon while doing research.
Most scientists are in fact agnostics or atheists, which is logical: when your job is to understand the world, you’d better be rational.

But academia still has a relic of the time when science was ruled by the Church: Theology. Studying the Scriptures is interesting, but the goal of theology is religious and not scientific. Francis Bacon in his Novum Organum denounced theology and religion as enemies of science and reason: “And there is yet a third class [of philosophers], consisting of those who out of faith and veneration mix their philosophy with theology and traditions; among whom the vanity of some has gone so far aside as to seek the origin of sciences among spirits and genii”. Dawkins wrote “I have yet to see any good reason to suppose that theology (as opposed to biblical history, literature, etc.) is a subject at all”, and the good reason will certainly not come from theologians, like Richard Swinburne, a fellow of the British Academy who stated, regarding the lack of evidences proving God’s existence (not enough miracles, etc.), that “too much [evidences] might not be good for us”. How can more evidences be bad for a scientist? Swinburne really demonstrated that theology has no place in academia (as Jefferson argued) but should be the matter of Churches – which are free to employ him!

Contrary to religion, science is open to change and new ideas can quickly revolutionize whole fields. Even if some scientists, who after all are just human beings, will sometimes resist change, scientific revolutions happen quickly. While religion accepts new ideas very slowly (evolution, anyone?), science embraces new theories if the facts supporting them are here (evolution, anyone?). Dawkins’ story of one of his professor at Oxford is a good, although probably a bit romanticized, description of a scientist changing his mind very quickly once presented with convincing facts: “For years he had passionately believed, and taught that the Golgi Apparatus (a microscopic feature of the interior of cells) was not real: an artifact, an illusion. Every monday afternoon it was the custom for the whole department [of Zoology] to listen to a research talk by a visiting lecturer. One monday, the visitor was an American cell biologist who presented completely convincing evidence that the Golgi Apparatus was real. At the end of the lecture, the old man [his professor] strode to the front of the hall, shook the American by the hand and said – with passion – “My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.” We clapped our hands red. No fundamentalist would ever say that. In practice, not all scientists would. But all scientists pay lip service to it as an ideal.”
To give a recent example of religion’s denial of the truth, when last week it was revealed that evidences of the Big Bang had probably been found, creationists’ reaction was to simply deny it  by stating that basically Science cannot be trusted!
It really is a perverse thing to refuse to accept the truth, and it’s even worse when you do the propaganda of such denial, like AnswersInGenesis does. Victor Hugo rightly described the dichotomy between science and religion when he wrote: “In every French village there is now a lighted torch, the schoolmaster; and a mouth trying to blow it out, the priest.” Ken Ham and his group of crazy bigots are trying to shut science up. Just as with their refusal of some basic human rights, all the religions agree on their aversion to science. It’s our duty, as free human beings, to fight for liberty and for the truth, to not let bigots win their war on science and freedom.

A Social History of Knowledge (Part I & II), is a remarkable book on how knowledge got disseminated throughout history. It also deals with the forces trying to slow down or stop this dissemination. “Another traditional method of hiding knowledge or hindering its dissemination is censorship, whether by churches or by governments, prohibiting the circulation of certain books entirely or allowing them to appear only after particular passages had been cut or ‘expurgated’ ” wrote Peter Burke. That’s another thing to consider: religions (and governments, too, but it’s not the subject here) did and do censor scientific works in order to “preserve” their believers from the truth.
They violate free speech and persecute scientists. The examples are countless, from Galileo to Darwin to scientists attacked by creationists today.
PaleoLibrarian reported in January of this year, when Islamists burned a library in Lebanon that “no religion on the planet is clean from this vile act of censorship. And in this way religions which claim on their face to be peaceful are in fact the consistent veneer of racism, anti-humanism, and violence against women and freethought. As in Lebanon and in this way throughout history any written word which does not conform to a strict interpretation of a particular faith can be considered dangerous enough to be destroyed as an insult to that religion”. I hope it’s pretty clear for you now that religions are a threat to science and should be rejected by the scientific community.

As for the claim made by many religious people that science cannot answer some questions, I have to admit it’s true. But wait and see… Many “unsolvable” questions have been solved by science throughout history, and even if some questions seem utterly complex or “unsolvable” to us today, tomorrow will hopefully bring us an answer.
Auguste Comte, the french philosopher, stated in 1835 that it would be forever impossible to know, by any method, the chemical composition of stars. The same year, Fraunhofer determined the chemical structure of the Sun using a spectroscope. Eventually there are answers to our questions out there. It’s the scientists’ role to pick them up.

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