Religion’s Old Clothes
Posted by evanescent on 22 September, 2007
Religion has nothing worthwhile to say on anything.
The ubiquity of religion, the respect it craves (and is indeed given), and the noble place for deep philosophical inquiry it is assigned, are out of all proportion with what it actually does and what it actually has to say. There is tendency to convolute inherently vacuous themes with extraneous rambling, wonderfully described here in reference to Physics Envy by the Humanities.
From the 17th to 19th centuries a great many scientists were religious. When theists point this fact out, I am baffled by its irrelevance. For centuries theism was the default worldview, and before Darwin came along this could be understood; although many intellectuals of the 19th century (like the Founding Fathers of the USA) were deists, if not strong agnostics or outright atheists already.
Even some non-religious people believe that religion has a role to play in society. But does it? What does religion have to say that is worth listening to? Let’s briefly consider some of the Gouldian magisterium supposedly covered by religion:
Morality: I recently wrote about this here. If you need punishment or reward to act humanely then you aren’t a moral person. If you believe hurting others and exploiting people is ok unless another being tells you otherwise, you are not moral. And if you can examine the good teachings of any belief then you must use your own moral sense to make any determination of it, which means such a moral sense already exists. Finally, if there is a god he is also bound by objective morality.
He is certainly not the first person to pose this challenge, but in all his religious debates he raises it to theists and is of course yet to receive an answer. I will therefore call it the Christopher Hitchens challenge: “Name one good thing that a religious person did that they couldn’t have done without their religion.”
And of course, no such person or action exists.
Meaning to life: First of all, even if religion gave genuine meaning to life, that wouldn’t make it true. And if it’s not true then it’s not genuine meaning. And if you’re going to include false beliefs that give people comfort, where do you draw the line? All religions offer some form of comfort. They all offer the ultimate prize: escape from death. In other words, they exploit innate human fears. But the comfort they offer is shallow and capricious. It is based on ignorance, faith and superstition, and these can only be negative in the real world.
Besides, if religion really cared about providing meaning to human life, then they would not be opposed to people acquiring that meaning from other sources. Since the comfort value of a belief is irrelevant to the belief’s veracity, and all religions offer this comfort, why are they are all mutually exclusive? Why do all religions claim that only they have the answer and no other belief system does? Because religion has absolutely no interest in human well being or a meaning to life. It exploits human fear to swell its numbers and win converts, and what meaning it gives to followers’ lives lasts only as long as a follower remains in the belief system. In other words, the comfort and meaning offered is a means to an end, with the end being the furthering of the belief system itself, instead of happiness itself.
Cosmological and transcendent questions: this is the biggest con of all. Religion has no deep answers. It doesn’t have the solutions to life’s mysteries. And it has nothing to say about science or the universe that hasn’t been updated in centuries. Indeed, a modern child of average education and intelligence would dwarf the combined scientific knowledge of any clergy through the ages. When the church in the dark ages blamed disease and illness on demons and black cats, a child of today could tell you about the germ theory of disease.
Whereas science has moved on, religion has not. It no longer makes explicit claims about the universe anymore (it never shied away from doing so before the advent of science!), but when it comes to metaphysical questions, and the “ultimate” mysteries it still thinks it has something to say, yet its answers are the same ones it was giving centuries, even millennia ago.
Richard Dawkins tells a story:
“I once reached this point when I asked the then professor of astrophysics at Oxford to explain the origin of the universe to me,” he says. “He did so, and I posed my supplementary: ‘Where did the laws of physics come from in the first place?’ He smiled: ‘Ah, now we move beyond the realm of science. This is where I have to hand over to our good friend the chaplain.’ My immediate thought was, ‘But why the chaplain? Why not the gardener or the chef?’ If science itself cannot say where the laws of physics ultimately come from, there is no reason to expect that religion will do any better and rather good reasons to think it will do worse.”
Society gives religion a respect it has done nothing to deserve. It is as though we’re trying to overcompensate for how little religion knows. It’s like when you sit around a table discussing something of importance, and you sense that it’s going over the head of one or two members of the group. You try to involve them, maybe phrase the conversation in terms they can understand, or ask their opinion. This is all well and good in a debate where everyone has something meaningful to offer, or with friends where sociability is more important than final answers. But in real life, why do we offer religion a place at the table? Whilst the rest of us debate genuine philosophy, science, literature, art, culture, politics, and morality, religion sits there twiddling its thumbs, waiting for a chance to quote scripture from memory, offer a life-changing panacea, or condemn those who disagree. In our politeness and slight embarrassment, we throw religion a bone and ask its opinion, and we’re always sorry we did afterwards. Religion has become the drunken embarrassing old uncle at a party, trying to tell the same old jokes and offer fatherly advice whilst being blissfully unaware that it has long since soiled itself.
When a debate is shown on TV, usually people from all viewpoints are gathered, some for and some against a position. They will be experts in the relevant field; geography, history, politics, or social science. Perhaps a head of state, an ambassador, the chief of police, or a community leader. But they will have spent years gathering experience in their field; perhaps decades being educated and forming a mature opinion based on years of research and labour. Along with them another position is invited to the table: the one that has done no research and no investigation. It has no knowledge or expertise on the subject at hand. What it has is an unusual level of respect in society, yet all it can do is repeat words written thousands of years ago by people who had far less knowledge of the world than today’s average child. This position is the religious one.
Have you ever watched a debate where someone is asked to give an opinion from a religious perspective? It is nearly always useless. I get that same sense of cringing embarrassment one feels when watching bad auditionees on the X Factor or Pop Idol. I can’t decide whether to laugh or cry as I peer through my fingers. Perhaps the real object of pity however should be the learned expert who actually knows what he’s talking about who has to debate the intellectual flotsam sitting across from him (or her of course).
Religion is the paradigm living example of the Emperor’s New Clothes. You can dress it up in invisible metaphysical garb. You can use an ethereal cloak of postmodern double standards of epistemology and uncertainty. You might pull the ghostly hood of respect down. You could throw on the immaterial gauntlets of popularity, or the insubstantial sycophantic boots of political-correctness or “I’m an atheist, buttery”, but the rest of us can see the Emperor, and yes, he has no clothes. There is nothing there.
Just because there might be questions we can’t answer at the moment through philosophy or science, it doesn’t mean that they will always be unanswerable. And even if they are, what makes anyone think for a second that these questions are religion’s magisterium?
It is precisely because there is nothing interesting or meaningful about religion that so much of an attempt is made to overcompensate. The religious have to do it otherwise we might not take any notice of them, and/or their primitive philosophy would be seen for what it is, and the non-religious do it because they’re either political correct, embarrassed, or feel a respectful obligation to include religion in 21st century conversations.
Well I don’t. If we’re going to praise religion for anything impressive about its apparel, the least we can demand is that it actually gets dressed in the first place. It is stupid to wax lyrical about the opulent attire of a naked beggar.
Of course that’s not to say the religious shouldn’t have a voice. It should just have the same weight as that of the farmer, the plumber, the magician, the streetwalker, the pimp, the gardener, and the maid.
And if you’re religious, you can have all the pride and righteousness in your opinions as you want, but you might just as well be walking around naked.