Thursday, July 8, 2010

Is Science My Religion?

Image courtesy of Google Images.

This is an issue that arises often in discussions between religious and non-religious people or in the traditional debate between science and religion. Sometimes during a discussion those with religious beliefs will tell me that everyone has faith in something: they have faith in god, I have faith in science. Science has just become my religion, perhaps without me realizing it. Or, to look at it from a religious point of view, science has replaced religion in my life. That is to assume that one had religion or a need for religion in one’s life before. In my case, of course, that is true, but science only replaces religion is it fills the same needs as a religion. But does it? I suppose the answer to that question lies in how one views both science and religion and their influence on one’s life.

I believe in and have trust in the scientific method. Science is mostly responsible for bringing humanity to where it is today. Without science we would all be clustered in little groups on the African savannah gathering food (we wouldn’t even be hunting and we certainly wouldn’t be growing crops since the process of trial and error and the observations and conclusions required to develop these two skills is a form of science). As my high-school chemistry teacher told our class, if you want to live without the effects of science you will need to go and lie naked in the forest and be very careful not to think about most things. I also believe that everything that exists is theoretically knowable and understandable by science. That does not mean that the process of scientific discovery will eventually give us knowledge on everything. That is not practical given the various limitations (technological, financial, time and other resources) involved in putting scientific discovery into practice. But, I do believe that everything is knowable by science. Given enough time, resources, and technology, everything that exists is discoverable by the scientific method. That is also not to say that science can answer any question. Some questions are inherently unanswerable since they deal with abstract ideas (see below). For example, science will never answer the question of how tall tooth fairies are. The question of whether god exists, on the other hand, can be answered fairly well by science, just as the question of whether tooth fairies exist can be answered. However, my view that science has the ability to discover everything is in contrast to the views of many religious people (and agnostics) who accept that some things that do (or might) exist cannot be discovered by science. But, this is not be confused with my view that some questions are inherently unanswerable (see below). By contrast, what I am saying is that everything that actually exists can potentially be explored and explained by science.

All of this is to say that I clearly have a great deal of respect for and trust in science. Some would say that I put my faith in science. But is it faith that I have in science? Faith can be defined as believing something for which there is no evidence. I don’t think my trust of science is defined that way. Further, is science my religion? I guess I need to first examine what religion is.

To me, religion is an entirely human-made entity that satisfies a few needs in many humans’ lives. Firstly, it provides an explanation for the unexplained. Actually it does not technically do this, but it provides a substitute for an explanation for the unexplained. It provides an explanation to those who are satisfied without an actual answer. Religion in primitive societies provides a reassurance or explanation for things that cannot be explained. Ancient civilizations blamed the gods for things like lightening, thunder, eclipses and other natural phenomena that they had no scientific explanation for (some in today’s societies continue to do this with suggestions that earthquakes and hurricanes result from god’s wrath against the sinful rather than from plate tectonics or naturally occurring weather patterns). Even today, religion continues to provide an answer of sorts for questions that we as a species cannot answer. We do not have the complete answer to how the universe began (though we do know a lot about it), how abiogenesis occurred, and so on. The answer that god did it is a neat way of taking care of those difficult questions. As I explained above, I have no doubt that, given enough time and resources, science will provide all the answers to those questions (though I do not have faith that science will do so). Some though, clearly believe that since science has not yet answered those questions it is incapable of doing so, and that therefore god is the only plausible explanation. I hope you see the fault in this logic. Further along this line of thought, religion also provides answers for inherently unsolvable questions. There are some questions which humanity will never answer, no matter how scientifically advanced we become simply because they are not answerable through traditional research methods. For example, the questions “Why do I exist?”, or “What greater meaning does my life have?” are inherently unanswerable questions. While I believe we can answer scientifically the question about how humans came into existence, the question of why we came into existence does not have an answer. Yet, for those who accept religion, this inherently unanswerable question becomes answerable: we are here because God created us, loves us, and has a plan for us. In addition, I believe that a very large role of religion is to assuage the fear of death. Though I know many religious people who adamantly deny that they would still be religious if they knew there was no afterlife (and indeed I think they are so zealous about their religious convictions that they do believe that statement on a superficial level), I believe that religion would not have a firm grasp at all were it not for the promise of a pleasant and eternal afterlife (or the threat of an eternally painful one). Indeed I believe that the fact that we as humans are aware of death is one of the very factors that lead to the development of religion in the first place. This topic is of interest to me, and I hope to write more about it in the future, but in the meantime, suffice it to say that Pascal’s wager is alive and well in many church goers. Other, perhaps lesser, roles that religion plays is as a social club, or simply as something passed on from parents with no questioning of its validity or value. In short, many of the roles and reasons for religion is that it is a comfort.

None of these reasons for religion fit with my understanding of science. Science does not fill any of these needs for me. Science does not offer me a quick and easy answer for the things we cannot as a species yet explain. It holds promise that we shall understand them in the future, but that promise is not faith. Science does not take away any fear of death, nor does it provoke a fear of death. Death, from a scientific point of view, is simply the end of one’s existence and therefore there is no reason to believe it will be any different of an experience than what one experienced before birth. The process of dying may be awful, painful, or frightening, but neither religion nor science necessarily takes that away. And if we are talking about the more gruesome and painful factors in the process of dying then I will take science and medicine over religion any day for its ability’s to provide comfort through that process. Science does not act as a particularly good social club. Scientists are like anyone else – some of them are nice and interesting people and some are not. On balance, if I were to spend a social occasion with a group of people, I would prefer it to not be with only scientists, given my propensity to dislike egomaniacs and scientists propensity for a healthy ego.

Some people, usually religious ones, seem to assume that all humans need to believe in something “greater than themselves”. That we could not have come to exist by chance. That there is some greater reason or purpose to our lives, or that there is something eternal about us. But some of us, mainly atheists I would assume, have come to accept that our lives are nothing more nor less than biological. We are not eternal. There is no greater purpose to our lives than that which we find meaning during our lives (or perhaps the meaning we pass on after our deaths). Some of us atheists, myself included, believe that, while evolution is not a random process (more on this later), our species does exist more or less by chance. We feel no void that needs filling in our lives. The assumption that science is my religion stems from the assumption that all humans feel this “deeper” need for meaning and purpose in humanity’s existence is what leads some to believe that all humans need a religion of some sort and that science is mine. But, I feel no such void. I feel no such need for meaning to humanity’s existence (this is quite different, understand, than wanting or searching for meaning to one’s own life – a process that many if not most atheists take quite seriously).

So, science is not my religion. I do not have faith in science. I do not worship it. I do not look to science for answers to inherently unanswerable questions. For me, no question that is inherently unanswerable is worth asking. Most importantly, though, I do not look to science for comfort.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Shack - A Review

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The Shack, by William P. Young, is a book that made waves a couple of years ago. It seemed particularly popular amongst Christians, and was perhaps viewed as a way to present the Christian god in a more palatable way. I got the feeling that many Christians thought that finally, here was a book that described the loving personality of their god, and that if only you would read it with an open mind you too might understand how wonderful their god is. (Which of course dodges one of my main concerns with religion: a lack of evidence. Describing a wonderful deity and religion is a nice story, but it doesn’t mean anything until there is some evidence to support one’s claim that it is true). I read the book carefully after having been given a copy by a Christian. I found it disturbing on a number of levels, and when I sat down to write a review of it, the following is the most honest and factual review I could come up with that actually fit with the facts of the story:

The Shack is a gruesome and twisted story of familial murder, written with deep psychological undertones. The protagonist, Mackenzie Philips (“Mac” as he is known), murders his young daughter, Missy, though throughout the book he fails to recognize his guilt or acknowledge his crime due to his severe psychoses. Initially the reader is also misled to believe Mac’s innocence and the story unfolds as an abduction-murder mystery. But it soon becomes apparent that Mac himself is the perpetrator, as his psychoses become apparent. Young brilliantly leads the reader through Mac’s tormented schizophrenic mind as he deals with his genuine grief and subconscious guilt. Written with a sympathetic tone towards the protagonist, and with a detailed journey through his warped mind, Young almost manages to convince the reader of Mac’s innocence, such is his own deranged conviction. During the story Mac proceeds through several stages of grief, becoming stalled in bargaining during which he endures a lengthy delusion of a personal relationship with a deity who him/herself suffers from multiple personality disorder. He revisits the scene of his daughter’s murder, and eventually leads authorities to her body as he slowly comes to terms with her loss. Eerily, Young leaves the reader with no resolution of Mac’s tormented mind. Indeed Mac even finds acceptance and resolution about the loss of his daughter, while still deluding himself that he was not the killer. The authorities lack enough evidence for a conviction and the story ends in suspense of anticipating Mac’s future violence as his psychosis remains unresolved and unrecognized.

A Former Christian?

One of the issues that I, as a former Christian, often face in conversation with Christians is the notion that I could not have ever really been a Christian if I have now left the faith. A common attitude amongst Christians is that no one, once they had truly been a Christian, could leave it behind and become an atheist. I find this attitude arrogant and cowardly.

Arrogant because it assumes that Christianity is the truth, and the only truth. This is nothing new amongst Christians. Anyone who has had even an elementary discussion about religion with a Christian will almost invariably have found them to assume that they are right and you are wrong. The prevailing attitude is often one of reluctant willingness to engage in a discussion, but only with the pre-arranged understanding that they can't change their mind because they are already right. I suppose on some superficial level I can understand this attitude. If I think about something that I am almost certain about -- gravity for example -- I suppose I would have a hard time keeping an open mind in conversation with someone who didn't believe in gravity. Perhaps even with my belief of atheism I could relate. Do I think it is possible for someone who has truly understood atheism to then become religious? I think it's unlikely, but I certainly have an open mind to the possibility. I don't think that an atheist who becomes a Christian automatically and retroactively becomes someone who never truly understood atheism in the first place.

Cowardly because it is a convenient way of avoiding an inconvenient confrontation. If a Christian meets someone like myself who was a true Christian for many years and then left it behind, they have to start facing some very difficult questions. Such as: Why did you stop believing? Aren't you afraid of hell? What questions did you ask about your faith that lead you to realize it was false? Instead of facing these questions, it is easier (and less scary) to simply state that I could never have been a Christian to begin with. That solves the problem in one easy statement. Someone who never was a true Christian didn't really understand Christianity and so could not have asked some uncomfortable questions about the religion. Instead, they must have just drifted away through laziness or selfishness (the Christian assumption that all atheists are inherently selfish is a whole other topic, worth discussing).

Ultimately perhaps the issue is best resolved by examining how you define a Christian. Christians often define themselves as people who believe that Jesus is the son of God (the specific Biblical Yahweh, though of course many Christians don’t know their god by that name), that Jesus died to save them personally from sin and death, and who rose from the dead following his death. Of course, there are many other things one associates with the definition of a Christian, including changes to their life and an attempt to live their life a certain way. But ultimately I think most Christians would define their faith as a relationship. A relationship with Jesus.

So, by this definition, I think I qualify as a former Christian. I was a Christian by the very definition that Christians themselves use to define themselves: I believed that Jesus Christ was the son of God and that he died to save me from my sins. I didn't just say I believed it, I really did believe it. I also had a relationship with Jesus. Or so I thought. Now, of course I recognize that it was all in my head, and there was no relationship since a relationship with someone who no longer exists is not possible. Perhaps this is the loophole Christians will grab onto to insist that I never was a Christian: you never actually had the relationship with Jesus, otherwise you could never come to the point that you think it was all in your head. But the reality is that all relationships with Jesus are imaginary, so I fit the definition of having that relationship in the same way as anyone who has ever claimed to be a Christian. Now I no longer believe in Jesus, nor do I claim to have a relationship with him, which puts me in that most awkward category of persons that Christians must face: a former Christian.