Religion is generally understood as a belief in and reverence for supernatural forces. Most of us can agree that religious fundamentalism is a problem. Many of us will agree that there’s no good reason to believe in the supernatural. Some will see religion as a harmless delusion. My challenge will be to convince you that the problem with religion is bigger than religious fundamentalism. The problem is the basic nature of religion.
We are told that faith is a virtue. At best, faith is superfluous. We don’t need faith to affirm what already stands to reason or what the evidence supports. We only need it to affirm what does not correspond with our knowledge and experience. Faith, then, is a bias in favor of what we choose to believe—whether or not it happens to be true. The more outrageous a claim, the more faith is required to affirm it. Only in matters of religion is it considered a virtue to believe in the absence of evidence.
Unconditional reverence for any belief, supernatural or otherwise, creates a society in which ideas do not rise and fall on their own merits. A society that reveres any beliefs unconditionally is not only inhospitable to dissenters, but sells the faithful short as well. To never be challenged is to be deprived of opportunities to grow. As Salman Rushdie said, “The idea of the sacred is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture, because it turns other ideas—uncertainty, progress, change—into crimes.” Rushdie’s (1988) novel, The Satanic Verses, led the Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a fatwah calling for the author’s death.
The consequences of faith are dire: the Dark Ages, the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, Vatican support for 20th century fascism, Vatican sovereignty that shields criminal behavior from prosecution, misogyny, homophobia, terrorism, honor killings, genital mutilation, child marriage, the criminalization of blasphemy and consensual sex, creationism taught as science, and revisionist history that excludes the Enlightenment.
Church father St. Augustine denied himself the guilty pleasure of reading philosophy, knowing that it would challenge his faith. He somehow knew Christianity to be true without understanding how it could be true. It is disingenuous to profess to believe without understanding. It’s like agreeing in advance to a statement that hasn't yet been formulated. In this regard, belief in the ineffable is at best incoherent and at worst insincere.
Religious faith and knowledge have always been at cross purposes. If not for the suppression of philosophy, we might associate the heliocentric model of the solar system with Greek astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus (~310-230 BCE) instead of Copernicus who lived more than a millennium and a half later. We might have worked out evolution before Darwin’s time taking cues from the Roman poet Lucretius (99-55 BCE). Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was put to death by the Inquisition for another heresy inspired by Lucretius—a boundless universe with no center.
Theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) demonstrated the impulse to explain miracles in natural terms when he applied Aristotle’s physics to transubstantiation. He explained that the accidents of matter—what we experience—was bread, but the substance was flesh. In modern physics, Aristotle’s accidents of matter correspond to secondary properties—such as color and wetness. His substance of matter corresponds to primary properties—such as atomic mass. If a miracle is, by definition, the suspension of natural law, why did Aquinas need a natural explanation to understand transubstantiation? Aquinas demonstrated instinctive skepticism toward supernatural claims. He also demonstrated the willingness to take other presuppositions on faith.
A scientist, just to be competent, must be a methodological naturalist. That is to say that even a scientist who believes in the supernatural must proceed as if everything has a natural explanation. A neuroscientist, for example, may not recur to the soul as an explanation for consciousness. But to suspend belief in a “ghost in the machine” in order to provisionally accept mind-brain dependence is to compartmentalize knowledge from faith—to leave cognitive dissonance unresolved in order to preserve a bias. We all have biases and unresolved cognitive dissonance. In extolling faith, religion makes cognitive dissonance an aspiration—suppressing the desire to self-correct for bias.
Reconciling faith with reason and evidence always costs religion its most outrageous claims and categorical rules. Religious reform is a step in the right direction, but it comes at a cost. Secularism—not religious reform—is the antidote for religious fundamentalism. While religious moderates put a friendlier face on religion, they also embolden fundamentalists by extolling the virtue of faith. Consider the fact that fundamentalists so often justify their theocratic ambitions by claiming that America is a Christian nation with “In God We Trust” on the currency and “under God” in the pledge of allegiance.
The secular is merely that which does not pertain to religion. Secular law liberates us from arbitrary rules based on sectarian religious traditions. Secularism is universal, inclusive and neutral. Interfaith is inclusive of people of faith, but it does not resonate with nonbelievers. There’s nothing wrong with getting your own house in order, but let’s not pretend that Interfaith is the ultimate form of inclusiveness.
The difference between religious fundamentalists and moderates is that moderate religion is secularized. You can’t even begin the work of Interfaith until you've put aside the particulars that differentiate religions. If religion is improved only when it is secularized, why not leave it behind? Religious reform is a laborious and circuitous route to secularism. As long as religion struggles to reconcile itself with reason, it will exercise veto power on progress.
Socrates, in Plato’s Euthyphro, argued that what is good must be inherently so by its very nature. The gods do not make something good by divine command. Good is what enhances material existence for material beings. Only material beings can know advantage and adversity. Understanding right from wrong does not require supernatural pretensions. Empathy is such a universal human quality that we have developed the language of psycho-pathology to label the aberrations.
It seems doubtful that fundamentalists are capable of relenting. Would you submit to secular laws if you were convinced that divine law had higher authority? How can we uphold the rule of law if we grant exemptions based on religious convictions? Nonbelievers enjoy no such freedom of conscience. We must adhere to the law. How many discrepancies must we find between sacred texts and reality before we conclude that they are not inspired by an omniscient, infallible being? How many more before we stop revering them out of a sentimental attachment to our superstitious heritage?
Supernatural faith is not where the problem ends. Reverence for the supernatural is an encumbrance to personal autonomy. Aristotle’s (384-322 BCE) cosmological argument, that there must have been a first cause, has been religious orthodoxy since the middle ages. The cosmological argument answers the question, “Who created God?” and seeks to avert infinite regress. But positing a creator more complex than the creation does nothing to explain the origin of matter.
If we claim that God answers the prayers of the faithful, do we not also have to accept that others deserve their misfortunes? God's "mysterious ways" suggest a lower standard of justice than we maintain for ourselves. What atrocities are people capable of committing once they have decided that the bulk of humanity has been judged by divine authority to be unworthy of redemption? Even the vaguely spiritual and seemingly benign notion that everything happens for a reason betrays a parochial view of the universe that flies in the face of the evidence.
My case to abandon religion will not resonate with those who are convinced that it holds any truth. If I can dissuade believers—for the sake of universal human values—from attributing the products of our shared humanity to your particular faith, I will count that as a victory. If you were of the opinion that supernaturalism is a relatively harmless fiction, I would have you consider that supernatural religious faith is superfluous as a force for good, but it emboldens immeasurable harm. The difference between religious fundamentalism, vague supernatural determinism, and everything in between is the point at which reality becomes inconvenient.
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