Today I’m pondering a rather fundamental question: what has the spread of scientific knowledge meant to religious faith? In some ways, this is the central question I keep returning to with this blog. To me the answer is rather simple: an increase in scientific knowledge will decrease the space available for irrational religious belief.
Of course there are two basic assumptions underlying this notion, the first being that religious explanations for phenomenon occupy the same mental space that scientific, evidence-based explanations would occupy. And therefore it becomes a rather straightforward process of replacing old, incorrect information with newer, better knowledge. The second assumption is that all humans are reasonable and rational. As the proverb says, “Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you.” (Proverbs 9:8, New International Version, © 1984). The formulation, then, is simple: a wise man will respond positively to new information (and even thank you for the correction)!
But obviously this is not always the case. Perhaps all that this process of the spread of scientific knowledge is really doing is separating out the “mockers” from the “wise men”. But for “mockers” I would substitute those that are anti-science in the face of ever mounting evidence that contradicts their beliefs, and “wise men” would be those who have successfully internalized scientific knowledge. (In this second group, I would venture that there are many who have been able to remain both religious and reasonable, at least to the degree that their religious beliefs are of a nature as to be able to coexist with an evolutionary view of the biological world. In these cases, science has, indeed, occupied the ground once held by religiously-inspired explanations of the physical world, but a corner has been reserved for “spirituality”, an area thought to remain off-limits to the scientific method — not because science shouldn’t investigate the spirit realm, but because science is not believed to be equipped to investigate it).
But there are those (such as myself), that see a bit more writing on the wall, as it were, and feel that scientific knowledge does not simply replace some religious knowledge, but, in fact, points out the fallacious basis of all religious knowledge. This is materialism (which is not a deep love of buying material things, but an understanding that there are no non-physical phenomenon, and that any seemingly non-physical phenomenon is far more likely to appear mysterious only because it is presently misunderstood). There are a lot of us out there, to be sure (a great proportion of scientists are materialists compared to the general population, but even here the majority is not complete). But those who come right out and call themselves atheists or materialists remain a small proportion of the general population.
The huge, honking, obvious, maddening question, then, becomes this: how in the world can that be in this modern world whose very health and economies depend on the products of science? A world where many of us are alive only because we were administered a vaccine as a child, or were able to be treated with medicine for an infection or disease that (in an earlier time) could easily have cost us a limb or our life? We obviously believe in science when we refrigerate our food or take an aspirin or antibiotic, or when we drive our car or fly somewhere on a jet. And yet there is this persistent dependence on religious belief that produces the rather astounding phenomenon of half of our population still disbelieving in Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Considering the evidence for evolution, the implications of this state of affairs is enormous. It means that over half of our population is woefully or willfully ignorant of one of the most basic truths about their own existence: many of these think that they were created as human beings some six or eight or ten thousand years ago. They don’t know (or simply refuse to accept) that their ancestors were once small, furry mammals about the size of a shrew, or — long eons before — lobe-finned fish.
Think about this for a moment. Has not one of the primary reason’s for religion’s existence been the story it tells us about our origins? Isn’t it always the questions of where we came from, where we are going, and why we are here that have been considered the most fundamental to our happiness? Religion is loved, revered, followed, fed and supported (in part) out of sheer gratitude for the answers it has provided to these questions.
But it turns out that the answers from religion to these fundamental questions have been wrong. Perhaps not intentionally, but wrong none the less. And not just a little wrong on the details, but off by a magnitude that makes the word “magnitude” seem insufficient as a descriptor! We were not formed out of mud and spit by an actual, physical God in an actual, physical Garden of Eden. We evolved from the earliest forms of “life” on an ancient planet formed out of cosmic dust and elements born in dying stars — not on a world created in seven days. Mental illness is not caused by the possession of individuals by demons, but by genetic defects that occur in the copying of our DNA through sexual reproduction. Diseases are not caused by the sins of the father or of the son, but by bacteria and viruses that invades our very physical bodies. More than half the cellular weight of your body is bacteria. We basically have the iron-rich seawater in which we first evolved running in our veins. We still have tailbones, for crying out loud. We now know that we share almost all of our DNA with chimpanzees, who we must regard as our distant cousins. All of this we know, now. And there is no telling how much more we will know by the time my short life is over.
And yet…religious belief persists. Science is denied. And yet we consider ourselves rational beings. But if we were truly rational beings, and not so bounded about with wariness and distrust of those outside of our particular tribe (be that a blood family, political party or nation), we would simply weigh the evidence for the question at hand, and accept the good as a ready replacement for the old. But we don’t always do that. And even when we do, we do not always do it easily.
Here’s the facts, then. Science has answered the most basic questions of our existence. The big existential quest to find out why the hell we are even on this planet has been successful. You and I live in the first generation of humans ever to know what we know about our natural origins. Others have suspected it, Darwin theorized it, but we live in the age of proof of their theories. We know.
We know, and yet…we still believe.
Make what you will of that fact, it remains a most telling trait of we human animals. We sent scientists to find the answers to life, but we didn’t like the answers they found. Instead of being the “wise man” thanking the scientist for his or her labor, all too many “mock” them.
My hope is that, over time, the implications of scientific knowledge will continue to penetrate our consciousness in ways that produce clearer thinking about social and political issues, instead of the kind of atavistic denial that marks most religious fundamentalism.