Tag Archives: reason

Comparative Contexts: From Stars, to Humans, to Faith

No human has lived long enough to witness the life-cycle of a star, and yet we know how stars are created, how they persist, how they degrade, how they die. There are two main reasons for this: we know the basic rules that govern their lives (i.e., physics) and we have a tremendous sample size. We understand the principles of atomic fusion, the power of gravity, the inevitability of entropy. We can look up and see stars at every possible stage of development across a variety of compositions, from gaseous nebulae to black holes and supernovae.

Just like how we have a broad understanding of the fundamental forces that underlie the life-cycle of stars, we have a sense of how the human mind works. We know that humans are susceptible to suggestion, are easily misled, how ideas can be reinforced through repetition, and how we rarely question the status quo. The psychology of humans is one designed to defer to authority in youth, bad at breaking habits later in life, and often resolute in erroneous belief near the end. Children are predisposed to listen to their parents as part of the survival instinct, otherwise they might die. Habits formed in youth are extremely hard to break, and humans have a great habit of forming and maintaining habits; it’s basically a mental shortcut we’ve evolved to save time. And old people, after a lifetime of such reinforcements, are often implacable in their ideas no matter how illogical (think of the stereotypical racist grandfather or the grandmother who has boiled potatoes with pizza, because it isn’t dinner without potatoes).

Now, I agree, these are broad generalisations, but we do have a remarkably large sample size; there are, and have been, literally billions of humans, not unlike stars. Even if an alien took a single snapshot of humanity, there are so many of us from so many varied backgrounds that they could arrive at a reasonable hypothesis as to how we are conceived, born, live, and die; they could note the similarities and differences in our cultures; they could see some interesting disparities in wealth and status across gender and race. Basically, we do not have to witness the full lifespan of an object or concept to understand its underlying principles if we have sufficient evidence from various stages of development.

Now, because we have such a large sample size and a basic understanding of humans, in addition to the whole of human history and endeavours, we can draw some interesting conclusions concerning faith and religion.

If we look across the gamut of humanity, we can see a life-cycle of sorts for religion and faith. Taking a snapshot of the world as it stands today, we can see primitive cultures (I do not use this term in a pejorative sense, I simply mean societies which are not considered technologically or organisationally advanced, or what anthropologists refer to as Traditional Cultures) which have ‘rudimentary’ supernatural beliefs revolving around ill-understood natural forces, spirits, or totems, whereas more ‘advanced’ societies have complex religions with elaborate rituals and hierarchies of celestial beings. Through history, we can examine the development of, for example, Judaism from polytheism to monotheism, or how Christianity and Islam picked up ideas from paganism and Zoroastrianism. We can see how faith was born of ignorance and awe of the natural world, how, as cities and hierarchical societies emerged, more hierarchical religions developed alongside to minister to the nascent societies. We have religions born in the full light of history, like the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormonism) and the so-called ‘cargo cults’, which offer fascinating insights into how religions begin and develop. This is not new information. It seems patently obvious that faith and religions were born of human imagination, like love and hate, art, Doctor Who, and unicorns. Over time, these invented and inventive notions were clarified and codified, laying the foundations for religions. Elaborate stories were told to explain the nature of reality and humanity’s position in it, and came to be understood as ‘true’. Generations of reinforcement and the stifling of free thought led to the situation where to think that these ‘truths’ were just stories was anathema, ridiculous, a challenge to the status quo.

Then there arrived on the scene the modern disciplines of academic History, Archaeology, Science, Philosophy, Anthropology, and Literary Criticism (I say ‘modern’ here, as many disciplines had a strong religio-imperialist spin until very recently, a spin which disappointingly persists in some quarters) which started asking questions and some people got a bit annoyed and started saying that the ‘truths’ they hold can’t be academically analysed. But they can. And they have been. I’ve met Catholics who scoff at Mormons and their recasting of the great journey westward to Utah in the Mosaic tradition, but these same Catholics affirm the reality of the ‘true’ exodus of Moses (for which there is no evidence). The fact of the matter is that both stories clearly demonstrate how people mythologise their own religious past. Islam grafted in the daily prayer routine of Zoroastrianism and the veneration of the pagan Ka’aba. Christian notions of the essentiality and holiness of virginity are drawn from Roman legal demands for ensuring paternity and pagan custom. And, of course, there is the well-trod path of comparisons between the Christian myth and various Egyptian mystery cults, the cults of Mithras and Sol Invictus, and various Graeco-Roman mystery cults which I will not explore here. When you get to the heart of it, many core traditions (or ‘unique selling factors’ if we think of religions as competing marketing brands) of many religions are actually fairly common myths recycled into new narratives.

It is clear, then, that belief in the divine is a human construct. There is always the cry of the religious that Science can’t explain everything, which of course it can’t, and that the God of the Gaps still leaves a space for God. And there is the argument that Faith and Science occupy non-overlapping magisteria, which seems to placate some, bit it is still a platitude, and not a very helpful one at that. The gap that Science can’t fill, the Humanities do. Science drives forward with explaining material reality, investigating everything from strings to stars, and the Humanities give it meaning, and then interrogate that meaning, and then interrogate the validity of that interrogation and its meaning. The magisteria of religion is based on a false premise, and its area of inquiry is better left to Philosophy. Logic might drive the Sciences, but Reason leads the Humanities; Evidence is the foundation to both. Faith and religion are easily explicable frameworks within the context of human development; they arose from fear and awe and became enmeshed in value systems and societal structures. The religious have convinced us that faith is the foundation of a just society when it is, at best, an impediment and, at worst, a corruption. The sheer number of competing faiths and structures of belief, from animism to polytheism to monotheism and all the factions within, do not demonstrate the existence of a divine force, but rather serve as evidence of human inventiveness and susceptibility to belief.

Just as we no longer believe that the stars are the super-celestial fires burning through the celestial sphere, just as we no longer believe that the mind and body are governed by four humours, we must cast aside the unhelpful burden of faith in the divine. We ought to at least put it in its proper place, not prioritising it and its adherents’ beliefs over all other considerations. Once you have seen that it is only shadows that dance on the cave wall, you can never go back. The world outside the cave is full of beauty and wonder. There’s horror and sorrow too, but even that is better than the lie perpetuated by religion; false hope in an afterlife is little encouragement to make positive change in the real world, while sober and rational confrontation with the ills of humankind yield tangible results. It’s about time we stopped wasting energy on Iron Age cults gone viral and effect real change in the world.

Fwuzzerip, a ‘proof’ of Faith

I was hanging out with some Christian friends recently, and, as expected, we spoke about belief, and I get the feeling they want to convert me. They are genuinely baffled as to why I do not believe in ‘God’ (I doubt they put the quotes around that word though). And I am deeply puzzled as to why they do. One told me the story of his conversion; it was touching and clearly important to him, but I couldn’t help but think to myself “you don’t need God, you need a counsellor”. As they were going on about Jesus and miracles and stuff, my mind wandered.

Miracles amuse me. I study them, they are fascinating. But, basically, if one removes faith from the equation, they are basically fairytales and fantasy. And this is how people of one faith categorise the miracles of another. For a Christian, the miraculous deeds of Muhammad are either blasphemy, literary flourish, or fantasy, but the miraculous endeavours of the Christian sky-god and his son (as if that isn’t weird) are true. The intervention of a god is impossible in any other religion except the one they hold. How do they not see how incongruous this is? But this is only one logical flaw among many. I tried to figure out a simple way of summing up all of the issues in one neat example.

I can’t help but think of the arguments like this:

Believer A: According to my God, 1+1=1.

Believer B: Blasphemer! My God affirms that 1+1=3!

Believer C: Oh you silly people, my God holds the undeniable Truth: 1+1=fwuzzerip.

And the atheists sit on the sidelines and say: It’s 2, what is wrong with them? It’s so obviously 2. And why do we have to structure our society, laws, and social mores around their patently ridiculous assertion that it is 1, 3, or fwuzzzerip? This is holding back science and technology and human rights. We get that it helps you in some strange way to believe in 1, 2, or fwuzzerip, but do we all have to suffer for it? Can’t you just keep it to yourself? Seriously, people are dying, you are impeding the advancement of the human race.

Believer A: Ah, silly atheists, it is a miracle how my God makes it 1. Because God.

Believer B: Don’t be an idiot. Your religion is false. Only my God performs miracles. The truth of 1+1=3 says so.

Believer C: Ah, no, duh, fwuzzerip?

Atheists leave, stage left, exasperated, leaving A, B, and C to their curious argument.

***

Of course Believers don’t think that what they say is so strange. They really do think that 1+1=1, 2, or fwuzzerip. Sure, some toe the line, they agree to the answer fwuzzerip because their parents and society told them to. It’s called indoctrination. This should be stopped, obviously. Some believe that they have personally seen the ‘truth’ of fwuzzerip. Fair enough, but keep it to yourself? I love Samurai Jack and van Gogh and the Sandman Chronicles, but I don’t think we should re-model society based on them.

Sorry, dear Reader, no great diatribe here, no anger, no vitriol. Just bafflement. I really just don’t get why my friends want me to believe. When they talk about god and miracles like they are real, it literally makes no sense to me. And I imagine that they are thinking the exact same thing but from the opposite side.

It’s like as if they think Batman is really real and the movies and comics are factual recollections of his life and deeds. And praying to Batman to save you will have as much effect as praying to ‘God’. So yeah, Batman is as real as ‘God’ to me. But not to them, one is really real.

It make as much sense to me as 1+1=fwuzzerip.

(It’s so obviously 2. I mean, you get that, right?)

Why Reason is Better than Faith.

The Large Hadron Collider.

This is the single greatest thing humanity has ever built. LHCThe Concord was sexier, the Apollo Moon-landings were more inspirational, the AK-47 is more iconic, the Pyramids more impressive, the Taj Mahal more beautiful, but the LHC is an astounding example of the aspirations of science and the imagination of mankind. It is the most complicated thing ever built. It is the coldest place in all Creation. It is also, oddly, hotter than the surface of the Sun. The beams of energy flying around in it travel at 99.9999991% the speed of light, the universal constant. Its interior is a vacuum containing fewer particles than what exist in the space between the planets, making it the emptiest place in the Solar System. It requires the most powerful supercomputer ever built to run the whole thing. It will accelerate particles to 7TeV (7,000,000,000,000eV), which is an awful lot when you consider that the energy of light is 1.5-3.5eV. (This, in fairness, still makes no real sense to any non-particle physicist. Imagine jamming the power of 9775 Hiroshima atomic bombs into a bullet. That’s roughly the power of 1TeV). Humans did this with reason and science. It defies faith, and might even upset religion. No ancient text written by slaves or desert wanderers will ever tell us more about the fabric of the universe. Faith in God had no hand in this. Human Reason has built the greatest machine in the known universe.

Medicine.

Folk-healers and faith-cures were all we had until someone thought about disease and injury in a reasonable and logical fashion. Until the human device of medicine was invented faith and authority were the cure for everything. This led to appalling epidemics, tragically high infant mortality, short life-expectancy, and vile living conditions. Humans eradicated smallpox, a disease which killed 300-500 million people in the 20th Century alone, with medicine, not faith. Human reason and science will eventually find cures for cancer and AIDS, the latter of which, it can be argued, is spread by adherence to Catholic doctrine in the Third World through the prohibition of prophylactics. Medicine has given us vaccines, prosthetics, skin-grafts, transplants, artificial organs, and other such advances. More people than ever before survive childbirth to live longer and better lives than their ancestors could even imagine because of Human Reason.

Science

Science has given us the world. Faith is a closed system where “the will of God” is the answer to every question. Faith does not add to human knowledge or freedom; more often it oppresses it. Science has given us the Internet, an almost limitless tool for education and communication, selective breeding, creating types of wheat which are more productive and ending frequent famine in India, evolution and astrophysics, which show us our place in the grand scheme of things, among many other things. It is said that religion, the belief in the divine, gives people hope. Science is where hope truly lives, because it inspires, it answers, it provides practical solutions. Faith is a stone wall; Science is a sledge-hammer.

Reason

If Science is a sledge-hammer, Reason is the hand that wields it. Both Faith and Reason claim to be arbiters of wisdom, truth and ethics. One refers to authority, tradition, and dogma enforced by terror and punishment. The other revolts against these impediments to the human will and intellect, seeking out innovation, solutions and harmony. Cave-dwellers may have found fire, thanked some ancient proto-god, but reason led them to master fire, to use it effectively to shape their world. Under faith electricity is a destructive force striking from the sky under the command of an angry god; with reason it is a tool of limitless potential. Faith requires no questions, Reason revels in them. Faith enslaves, Reason frees. Faith is by its very nature credulous; it accepts what cannot be proven as fact, what cannot be seen as truth. Reason is more skeptical; it requires proof, honesty, results, and purpose before it will declare anything as factual or true. Reason demands more. Those who believe condemn those who question belief, and are defended in their belief ironically by the fruits of Reason. ‘Freedom of Speech’ is not derived from any religious text but from the ideals of the Enlightenment, yet frequently those who do not believe find their freedoms impinged by those who do. The tide is turning however. Slowly, but surely, Reason will succeed. The products of Reason have been increasingly integrated into the very fabric of our lives. Reason has been, is, and will continue to be the source of truth and practical answers in our world. The Will of God will not end poverty, ignorance, or war. Human Reason might not either, but at least it is trying, at least it has a chance.

“This is our world now… the world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud… We explore… and you call us criminals. We seek after knowledge… and you call us criminals. We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias… and you call us criminals. You build atomic bombs, you wage wars, you murder, cheat, and lie to us and try to make us believe it’s for our own good, yet we’re the criminals.

“Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for.”

– Loyd Blankenship (‘The Mentor’).

“He who will not reason is a bigot; he who cannot is a fool; and he who dares not is a slave.”

– Sir William Drummond.