Sunday, March 25, 2007

Religion is a Dead Weight

On Friday, I had a very interesting discussion with a co-worker which began about the over-representation of religious figures versus non-religious figures in the media on issues of "values" or "morality." She took the position that pitting religious figures from the left and the right is enough to have a balanced debate, but I had to disagree. What about the perspective from openly non-religious figures (i.e. atheists)? By only having religious figures debate these topics, the impression that religion has some sort of moral authority is created. As we discussed this, the conversation quickly turned into a debate over the intersection of religion and science, as well as the role of religion in regards to human progress.

Her position here was that progressive religious people are a step in the right direction -- progressive religious people meaning those who still hold the basic tenets of their faiths as true while at the same time accepting known science about the natural world that contradicts what is taught in their holy books. Religious pluralism is what she was arguing for, but again, I had to point out the corrosive effect even religious progressives have. Despite the fact that these religious progressives have attempted to negotiate their faith with science create a sort of cognitive dissonance. Why haven't these people taken the methodologies behind the science that they do accept and applied them to all aspects of their faith? It is and interesting question, and one that religious progressives appear unwilling to explore.

Over at ScienceBlogs the other week, I followed an interesting discussion on this very topic. One blogger, Rob Knop, wrote about how he has meshed his religious faith and this scientific understandings. Another blogger, Jason Rosenhouse, pointed out that Knop was conceding many things central to the faith he subscribed to in order to hold onto that faith. Eventually, we are told that the religious progressive has some sort of "spirituality," which another blogger, PZ Myers, describes accurately. My point is that religious progressives are forced to throw away central tenets of their faith in order to keep that faith in conjunction with science. Tenet after tenet is sacrificed... so why not just take this progression to its logical conclusion?

But back to the original topic: I was trying to show that religion no longer holds any kind of moral authority. In fact, every modern social advancement I can think of -- human rights, democratic government, social equality -- is conceived of by thinkers using the basic foundation of the enlightenment: logic, reason, rational thought, empiricism, and collection of evidence to prove theorems. Religion then adapts in order to survive, all the while holding onto the tenets that cannot be directly challenged by science and philosophy. I do believe that one day science and philosophical thought will replace religion completely -- both science and philosophy have mechanisms of improvement built into them as our understanding of the world becomes more complete, as well as have a foundation in the enlightenment thought process. These are much better sources for moral authority -- why turn to the bible, which is a document that cannot be viewed or analyzed in its original form or altered from its current state, when you can turn to a document like the US Constitution, which can be viewed in its original form and which can be altered as social/cultural institutions change?

Religion is a dead weight on the road to progress. Religion holds us back, and religious progressives are a part of the problem. Religious progressives give legitimacy to irrational ideas and help those ideas persist in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It is this religious dogma that slows down progress. Religious pluralism, while sounding very democratic, allows for things like the literal interpretation of the Bible to persist. Not all ideas are created equal, and not all ideas should be viewed as polar opposites of each other with the same validity. Religious ideas are at the bottom of the knowledge food chain -- they aren't based on anything over than blind faith. Scientific ideas are much different in that they are based on repeatable observations and natural phenomenon, supported by empirical evidence, and argued using rational and logical frameworks. Science and faith are not equal ideas, and science will trump faith every time.

Unfortunately, many people still hold onto these religious faiths, and it is slowing down our progress as a species. But the good news is that an increasing number of people are rejecting them on some level or another, and each new cohort is more progressive and less religious than the one before it. And with the proportion of atheists on the rise and the proportion of theists on the decline, isn't it about time that non-theists be given the same exposure and legitimacy granted to the theists in the media?

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