Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Pious War on Science and Reason

© Charles D. Hayes
That Donald Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, wants Christianity to play a bigger part in the education of America’s children is appallingly unacceptable. Trump’s appointment of Jerry Falwell Jr. to lead an educational task force is equally unacceptable, as is the Supreme Court’s loosening of the separation of church and state. For me, these issues are the straws that break the camel’s back. An anti-science, anti-intellectual educational agenda in the 21st century is untenable. The Trump Administration is using organized religion solely for the purposes of regimentation in the creation of a backward, authoritarian, patriarchal culture that’s rich with contempt and animosity for those they assume don’t belong.   

I’m now in my eighth decade on the planet. I grew up in Oklahoma and Texas in the 1940s and 50s, in a family that professed a belief in God but did not attend church. In my youth, I was a religious child, but at some point, in my early twenties, I was hit with a lightning bolt of skepticism. Since then, I have been listening to arrogant people declare that if we don’t align the endorphins in our gray matter with theirs, we will burn forever in Hell. These days, in a country with holidays, laws, tax exemptions, and other practices of publicly declaring that supernatural beliefs are to be respected, we hear a constant chorus of complaints that such beliefs are under siege. I say, it’s about damned time.

We celebrate the human brain as the most complex entity in the known universe. Human consciousness is staggeringly complex, and yet there are people who declare that if you go along with their views and if you believe what they believe, you won’t need your brain in order to live forever; you will retain your consciousness and you will experience blissful joy for eternity. 

Any belief system that promises that dead people—people without functioning brains—will live eternally and that they will continue to survive in a glorious mental state simply because they believe something someone said about an event that they didn’t witness—an event that flies in the face of physics and elementary science, an event so preposterous that sanity must be put aside to even consider such violations of physical possibilityis a system that is a threat to global civilization.

The credulity required to accept these beliefs defies rationality. If such radically absurd views were not taught to children before they learned to think for themselves, they would not long survive, as is increasingly evident in Europe. Moreover, these outlandish notions pose an existential danger to mankind because they come with a surplus of defensive contempt for nonbelievers.

True believers are always on alert for those who raise doubts about their doctrines, and they are understandably wary of science and secularism. The devastating but largely ignored reality is that believing such impossible nonsense leads to magical thinking and a license to believe any damned thing, no matter how absurd the premise.  

People who identify as religious fundamentalists are very often so fully invested in their beliefs that they perceive opposition of any kind as a mortal threat. Job-killing automation, social change, accelerating uncertainty, gay marriage, other worldly religions—these looming issues threaten constricted worldviews. They cause believers to double down on their fantastical belief in the promise of immortality by stressing a need for conformity and obedience.  

The crux of the angst of true believers is deeply ensconced in the probability that if the world at large assumes they are wrong about traditional issues as basic as gender identity, gay marriage, and wedding cake politics, then they could also be wrong about bigger issues and quite possibly everything. It is not by accident that anti-LGBT laws are being enacted in states where significant numbers of religious fundamentalists reside. As millennials fight racism and bigotry via social media in southern states, especially concerning LGBT rights, the chorus of fearful response is getting louder.

A religion promising an afterlife is a psychological shield against the fear of death. It’s an existential dressing for the wound of nonexistence. Supernatural beliefs may have positive benefits for some, but the costs are enormous. Millions upon millions of people have been butchered because of religious conflict over the true nature of reality and which fantastical beliefs have credence.

At the geographical borders that separate divergent religious communities, the friction we see erupting threatens to favor one religious view over another. The resulting animosity can fester and smolder into a strain of hatred which, if it remains unchecked, can lead to genocide.

The world is treading dangerously close to a major religious confrontation between the West and East, Christian vs. Muslim. Many radical leaders from both religions are eager to engage in an all-out conflict because it will add great meaning to their lives. Christian conservatives increasingly call for political leaders to use the word Islamic when describing terrorists. This is precisely what the terrorists want to happen because it brings them closer to the possibility of Jihad and martyrdom.

Worship is amped-up delusion, and for the sake of humanity, it needs to be replaced, where possible, with thoughtfulness. Doubt can be frightening, but the price of willful illusion is high, too high. Take any mainstream religious text and substitute the word illusion for the word faith. By doing this, you will be taking a giant leap toward a more objective sense of reality while dissipating oceanic waves of angst and contempt.

Cosmologist Carl Sagan argued that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” There is not a shred of evidence that there is life after death or consciousness without a brain. None, zero, zip, nada. Death is simply nonexistence, and if you think it through, we’ve all been dead before. The first 14-plus billion years went by fast, so to speak. If you want to emulate those religious aspirations that call for brotherly love, compassion, and looking out for those among us least able to care for themselves, I’m all in. But if you expect me to subscribe to supernatural magical thinking, leave me out.

While I remain an advocate for religious liberty and religious tolerance, despite my wariness of organized religion, the separation of church and state requires an unmovable wall. If your religion gives you comfort, good for you. But when people use their religion to engage in bigotry, racism, and ethnocentric hatred, it’s time to speak up and denounce such rhetoric as having no place in a civilized society. If we violate the Founders’ principles of the separation of church and state, we do so at our peril. As Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” Let’s not let them.

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