Religion’s Old Clothes

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.

27 Responses to “Religion’s Old Clothes”

  1. Matt Says:

    phenomenal. thank you!!

  2. Spanish Inquisitor Says:

    Outstanding E.! I wish I’d written it.

    And it has nothing to say about science or the universe that hasn’t been updated in centuries.

    I’m reading Natalie Angier’s “The Canon”, and in the chapter on chemistry, she does a real fine job of explaining chemistry in this carbon based life we are a part of. There is so much known about chemistry, and how it interacts with physics and biology, and all of it is known because human beings have had the inquisitiveness and drive to go looking for the answers, and after much blood, sweat and tears, we know most of the basics about chemistry.

    I doubt that Geno would agree with me, but if religion had anything to do with his knowledge of chemistry, don’t you think the periodic table would have been in the Bible? Instead, humanity discovered it, element by element, over time, through scientific inquiry. Religion was a big help.

  3. Spanish Inquisitor Says:

    Imagine that last sentence dripping with sarcasm.

  4. tobe38 Says:

    Great post Evanescent

    @ Spanish

    I doubt that Geno would agree with me, but if religion had anything to do with his knowledge of chemistry, don’t you think the periodic table would have been in the Bible?

    Very, very good point. If divinely inspired we could expect to find all sorts of scientific knowledge in the Bible , all laid out for us. Chapter and verse, as it were. ;)

  5. evanescent Says:

    @ Matt: thanks!

    @ Span: cheers!

    Imagine if somewhere in the bible we found this passage:

    “Go therefore and make disciples of people of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the father, and the son, and the holy spirit, and by the way, the atomic number for Carbon is 6.”

    Or “verily I say unto thee, oxygen is a diatomic molecule.”

    I’d be a believer overnight!

  6. Spanish Inquisitor Says:

    To save Geno some time, let me give you his response to this:

    “God would not have simply given us the periodic table. He created us with free will, and he wanted us to exercise that free will. We do that by striving to understand his plan, which, in hindsight, was clearly for humans to struggle for millions of years, believing that water was one of the four elements, along with fire, earth and air. We would not have raised our voices in glory to the Lord if we had not had to figure out chemical compounds leading to life saving medicines on our own. All those people that could have been saved by early knowledge of pharmaceuticals were just collateral damage, stepping stones on the way to heaven. How would we have possible appreciated the wisdom of God if he had simply handed the periodic table to us on a plate? Besides, it’s the people of the 20th and 21st century who are God’s chosen people, not those savages that lived before us.”

  7. Geno Says:

    Actually, what the Bible does say about this subject is clear;
    “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.”

    It is always through reading the scriptures that science knew to go look for something. In this case, science looked for those invisible items and came up with the periodic table.

    But I do appreciate you guys including me in on the conversation.

  8. Spanish Inquisitor Says:

    Yes, that makes it much clearer. Clear as mud.

    The King James version is:

    By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible. Heb 11:3

    Makes you just want to go out and start investigating things, doesn’t it?

    If I understand the quote, it’s talking about faith. Faith in “God’s word” (something that seems to mean a lot to Christians, but I can never make any sense of). It seems to be saying, “have faith in what God did. What you see is not what you get, but don’t worry, be happy, God loves you.”

  9. Geno Says:

    Spanish,
    You are right – you don’t understand.

    But I did go back and check – I have 3 Dawkins books and I looked in Bertrand Russell’s book – I didn’t find the periodic tables in their books either – what’s up with this crap.

    BTW, why do you use a translation that is in Elizebethian English – I only use such language when I speak with people over 350 yrs old.

  10. Geno Says:

    Spanish,
    You should really look into some of these guys and the motivation for their science. Newton was obvious in his effort to discover what and how God created.

    Look up Matthew Fontaine Maury and see what he says;
    “Matthew Maury’s seagoing days came to an abrupt end at 33 after a stagecoach accident that broke his hip and knee. Thereafter, he devoted his time to the study of naval meteorology, navigation, charting the winds, and currents, seeking the “Paths of the Seas” mentioned in Psalm 8 in the Bible.

    It was because he knew that the Bible was true that these deep currents must exist.

  11. tobe38 Says:

    But I did go back and check – I have 3 Dawkins books and I looked in Bertrand Russell’s book – I didn’t find the periodic tables in their books either – what’s up with this crap.

    Lol! Classic Geno.

  12. Geno Says:

    If anyone would expect something like the periodic table to be in the Bible, it is just proof that they have never read Bible or didn’t read it very seriously.

    The entire theme of the Bible is listed in Genesis 3:15, why would someone include the periodic table?

    I guess I will need to read my Dawkins primers closer to see why this is such a mystery.

  13. evanescent Says:

    Well of course I have read the bible many times, and taken it seriously for a long time too. But all joking aside the point is that religion has nothing of value to say, and probably never has, at least not for a very long time. All it would take would be a few verses here and there with throw-away facts about chemistry for example that would have been incredible useful to mankind (as per Spanish’s comment) or would have utterly convinced doubters (the ones that weren’t stretched on the rack or immolated).

    Instead, we are given some rather interesting advice regarding genetics: if you want stripy coloured sheep, have them mate whilst looking at stripy coloured sticks! Brilliant. Don’t recall Mendel or Dawkin’s mentioning that chestnut in any of their works!

  14. Geno Says:

    evanescent,
    Again, this is an example why your comments cannot be taken with even a remote amount of respect.
    “But all joking aside the point is that religion has nothing of value to say,”

    Great minds down through history has discussed the value of religion and the person of Jesus Christ. More has been published on the subject of Christianity in general and Jesus Christ is particular than any other subject (even to this day) – 1,000s upon 1,000 of volumes.
    But you, in your quarter of a century (plus 1 yr) have declared that all of their knowledge and wisdom is for naught.

    Carry on!

  15. Spanish Inquisitor Says:

    Geno says

    Newton was obvious in his effort to discover what and how God created.

    and

    Great minds down through history has discussed the value of religion and the person of Jesus Christ

    Coincidentally, I’m still on the Chemistry chapter of “The Canon”. From page 140:

    Working in his Cambridge laboratory, Newton handled and sampled mercury droplets and inhaled their volatilized fumes, until he became as mad as a hatter or as flaky as a furrier – tradesmen that famously cured their fabrics in mercury and infamously suffered from the metal’s neurotoxic effects. Preserved locks of Newton’s hair reveal high concentrations of mercury, and, according to contemporary accounts, he grew increasingly hostile and choleric over time. Toward the end of his long life, the man who earlier had discovered the universal laws of gravity, motion and optics and invented calculus, and whom James Gleick called the “chief architect of the modern world,” expressed little interest in anything but that most fantastical of Gospels, the book of Revelation.

  16. Spanish Inquisitor Says:

    Geno says:

    More has been published on the subject of Christianity in general and Jesus Christ is particular than any other subject (even to this day) – 1,000s upon 1,000 of volumes.

    Got any more fallacious arguments for us , Geno? You seem to be full of them.

    Anyone want to enlighten him with the name of this one?

  17. Spanish Inquisitor Says:

    Geno

    Everyone is probably sleeping on that side of the world, so I’ll tell you what it’s called:

    It’s called the Appeal to Popularity.

    After you read the link, do me a favor. Check the library of Congress for all the books and articles ever written about alchemy and astrology.

  18. Spanish Inquisitor Says:

    Geno says

    If anyone would expect something like the periodic table to be in the Bible, it is just proof that they have never read Bible or didn’t read it very seriously.

    The entire theme of the Bible is listed in Genesis 3:15, why would someone include the periodic table?

    Humor, right?

    And I will put enmity
    between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and hers;
    he will crush your head,
    and you will strike his heel. Gen 3:15 (NIV)

    WTF?

  19. Geno Says:

    Spanish,
    That wasn’t even the point.

    The point was that evanescent has put himself in the position to declare that religion has no value. He puts himself above all knowledge in the history of man.

    If he had said that if held no value for himself or if he said that no one one on this blog saw any value, I wouldn’t have objected. However, he chose to speak for all mankind – I thought that was ballsey – and since he is speaking for all atheists (included in all mankind) it shows lack of perspective.

    Therefore you can take your “Appeal to Popularity.” and stick it since that was not the point.

  20. Geno Says:

    Spanish,
    Sorry, I forgot that you are biblically impaired – Genesis 3:15 is called the Protoevangelium, which means that it is the first proclamation of the gospel.

    But at least you did upgrade to modern english.

  21. Geno Says:

    Spanish,
    So, when you open one of your law books are you disappointed that there is not a copy of the periodic table included?
    For some reason, people on this blog think it should be published with all books. ;)

  22. Geno Says:

    “Name one good that a religious person did that they couldn’t have done without their religion.”

    Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world.

    Try doing that without your religion! :-)

    No one ever gave that answer to Christopher Hitchens? Kind of surprising wouldn’t you think?

  23. evanescent Says:

    But you, in your quarter of a century (plus 1 yr) have declared that all of their knowledge and wisdom is for naught.

    Ah are we back to my age again? That old chestnut of a logical fallacy. Instead of wasting your time and everyone else’s with this ad hominem rubbish, why didn’t you comment on the stripy sheep verse of the bible?

    Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world. Try doing that without your religion!

    Sorry Geno, my question was limited to events that actually happened. I thought this was fairly obvious. No more than Father Christmas visiting every Christian child in the world on Christmas Eve can be considered a good deed.

    Of course you will keep dancing around the real issues, but as usual you’re yet to say anything of value, which is of course in keeping with your religion.

    Of course I wouldn’t expect to find a periodic table in the bible! The people who wrote it didn’t have a clue about it. Instead we’re given tons of useless info about dying wool and not making a garment from two different fabrics, or the exact dimensions and composition of the tabernacle, or not working on a particular day, or which animals can be eaten or not, how much a woman is worth compared to a man (half of course), or how to produce stripy sheep by making them look at stripy pieces of wood! I’d say you can’t make this stuff up, but of course that’s exactly what they did.

    All I was asking for is one throwaway verse about the atomic number of carbon. How incredible would that be? How useful and inspirational for future generations, and what solid proof of futuristic scientific knowledge?!

    But as usual, like the article says, when it comes to anything really useful or meaningful, religion is bankrupt and childish.

    (Oh and I don’t speak for any atheists – I speak for myself. Some agree with me and some might not. But atheists are independent free-thinkers, we don’t have a creed or belief system. We can think for ourselves. Neat eh?)

    No one ever gave that answer to Christopher Hitchens? Kind of surprising wouldn’t you think?

    No. The people who he debates with (watch the videos on YouTube for yourself) as religious as they are; even they recognise that to use that as an example would be question begging hilarity.

  24. Spanish Inquisitor Says:

    Spanish,
    So, when you open one of your law books are you disappointed that there is not a copy of the periodic table included?
    For some reason, people on this blog think it should be published with all books

    This is why we back off from arguing with you anymore, Geno. You make up stuff like this, then attribute it to us, so we have to defend against it, while at the same time, you ignore our points. It’s nice deflection, but we see through you.

    Now, point out where anyone said the periodic table must be published with all books.

    Then, after you show me that, how about a little comment about your religious scientist hero, Newton, whose fascination with religion needed to be artificially stimulated by insanity, brought on by exposure to a neurotoxic element that God COULD have warned him about, but didn’t.

  25. Spanish Inquisitor Says:

    Spanish,
    Sorry, I forgot that you are biblically impaired – Genesis 3:15 is called the Protoevangelium, which means that it is the first proclamation of the gospel.

    But at least you did upgrade to modern english.

    Yes, but even in modern English, it makes no sense. Being biblically impaired as I am, I suspect that there are probably 1000s upon 1000s of books written to interpret that one sentence, and poor me, I haven’t read them.

    But I’m sure one of the Gospel writers or Paul wrote something that you could then point to as fulfillment of some prophecy.

  26. Spanish Inquisitor Says:

    Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world.

    Try doing that without your religion! :-)

    No one ever gave that answer to Christopher Hitchens? Kind of surprising wouldn’t you think?

    Hahaha. You slay me, Geno. Good one. :D

  27. BlackSun Says:

    Great post! Sums it up succinctly.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 68 other followers

%d bloggers like this: