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Modern Faith

This is a quick take on a set of essays floating around the secular-identity parts of the blogosphere, relating to an image of Dawkins paired with the text "I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world". In particular, I'll discuss Aaron Diaz's commentary and add my own thoughts.

For starters, I basically agree with Dawkins' statement, not as a complete enumeration of the reasons for my beef with religion so much as a statement of one of the reasons I generally find it bothersome. I am bothered by the notion that we have an understandable place in the cosmos, particularly that it was made for us and that we're not entirely understandable as patterns in matter. I am bothered by the notion that we might claim to know at the present time some kind of meaning for things (and am pretty skeptical that such meaning exists). The false certainty of faith is offensive and stifling. The lousy philosophical foundations involved in most religions (even those that have great works built on those foundations) is insulting to philosophy.

Yet I am most against religions because I believe they make incorrect factual claims. I recognise that faith can give solace, and that it may in certain forms inspire less-selfish behaviour, but if it is based on inaccuracies, it must (in the long run) be abandoned. I believe religions to be factually untrue, and so in the long run I wish to see the end of all religions. I do not claim this will bring world peace or introduce a glorious future, nor do I think an abrupt transition is necessary. We should just seek to outgrow religion.

Some thoughts on Aaron Diaz's comments in particular:

  • I admire that he's willing to talk about philosophy and religion in the same breath; this is appropriate because religion and philosophy have a lot in common. I consider religions to be life-philosophies with mystical elements, while he considers religions to be life-philosophies with truth-claims. We're not using quite the same definitions, but it's a great place to start a conversation
  • The truth-claims that religions make differ, and apologists for religions will reinterpret factual claims as need be to pull them back from falsification, sometimes using the last ditch (that was not meant as a factual statement) notion of metaphor to keep the faith safe. Some forms of modern Christianity are so hollowed by this that they don't need an actual Jesus. Other truth-claims are about historical one-shot events and are at least partially exempt from scientific investigation because of that (we might consider historical tools for that though, but the relationship between history and science is pretty complicated!)
  • I think Diaz's argument is a bit loose in that it smudges physical claims and metaphysical claims into the same boat. Is Diaz saying that there are philosophical right-answers (one possible meaning of metaphysics), or is he saying that religions frequently make claims about the laws of nature (another)?
  • I don't think it's *quite* true that science is culture or value-free, although the idea that it is still our best tool for investigating many kinds of claims about the world suffices.
  • I note that the defect in scientific perspective that comes from a religious background is not actually *that* deep. While the idea that one is discovering the plans or designs of gods when doing science is stifling in the ultimate senses (and problematic for the other reasons I outlined above), it's not deeply so. We know this empirically; pre-modern science, done most notably by Muslims during the Islamic Golden Age, was quite capable of leading the advance of science. Many kinds of inquiry are possible under faith (depending on the faith).
In sum, I agree with Dawkins and Diaz, with some reservations. Religion may limit the upper bounds of scientific imagination, but this is not fatal to the advance of science. Maintaining compatibility with the truth-claims of religions may torture one's logic at times, but provided one is sufficiently committed to science, the mental gymnastics needed to keep the theology working ideally will do minimal violence to good scientific thought.

At best, Dawkins' statement above may be a secondary complaint; were any religion to be true (and known to be such), we would accept this difficulty for science as a reasonable consequence of the nature of things. I happen to reject religion as false (and hold that most of the deities I've heard/read described are reprehensible enough as to not merit consideration as a source of morals even were they to exist), but were I to think deities exist, I would probably accept the limits on the upper bounds of scientific investigation as an insignificant limitation because the matter might be considered solved were one of the well-known creation myths to actually be true.

(note that I am doing my best to speak very broadly about a great variety of religions here, yet I may not have been adequately comprehensive)