Myth as Asylum from Questioning

by  —  December 15, 2008

There is too much religious tolerance in the world today.

This may read as nonsense given the seemingly endless stream of news items in which guy from faith A attempts to kill person from faith B and recent quasi-scrutiny of the belief system birthed by that science fiction author; if so, suspend your disbelief for a moment. Tolerance of religious belief has causally allowed a regular discouragement of scientific inquiry, but what is more damaging than that is that it has allowed illogical ‘explanations’ of real world phenomena to gain social validity. I suggest that by allowing one large portion of people’s lives, of their tenets, to slide by completely unquestioned despite obvious flaws and contradictions, an underlying message of complacency towards the ‘okay-ness’ of irrational and unsupported policy claims is being allowed to permeate portions of society in which it has no place being.

at the Vatican Museum As i was walking around Rome several weeks ago, it was impossible to dodge the overarching influence of Christianity which still shadows life there: from roving small packs of American priests in their 20s on study, to the density of churches, to, of course, the Vatican itself. While i don’t expect the wide spread conversion of churches to Starbucks, it is saddening to note that nearing the end of 2008, with centuries of inquiry and discovery under our collective human belt, with rapid information dissemination at our fingertips, with an increasingly egalitarian view onto our peers, that we can still find such large subscriptions to religious faith.

As is evidenced by published poll data, and anecdotally noted by the turn out at public celebrations of religious events, the vast majority of the human race1 turn towards religious doctrine for their moral guidance and cosmological explanation. While surveying in the US did appear to give evidence to a shade of a down tick in religious adherence from 1990 through 20002, there was an apparent bounce-back (though not to 1990 rates) reported by 2008.3 Outside the US, the data is not very available (or, at least, very locatable) on a more global scale; though with the world becoming more economically and politically instable4 over the past decade, one can imagine an increasing trend in faith during this time.5

Confusing this situation even more: during this same recent era, the ability to communicate information across geographically separated communities has become ever easier. This is perplexing since, as communication of information has become increasingly easy, and more widespread, one would think that it must take more effort to actively discount and screen out ideas contrary to one’s personal religious beliefs. Unfortunately, this sort of willful ignorance cannot be easily grouped under the established correlation between poor education and religious belief.6 Since the majority of the population succumbs to some flavor of superstitious belief system, what we often see as a reluctance to pose rational questions on the belief systems of others could likely be the fear that their own fragile framework could not withstand a similar scrutiny.

Key to both illusionary magic tricks and religious indoctrination: the participation of two parties is required — someone willing to be fooled, and someone willing to fool. While it is more difficult to see the motivations behind those willing to be duped, it’s not hard at all to see the roots of interest in an established belief system’s discouragement, or forbidding, of rational inquiry into an area which it has already claimed to be able to define through divine insight. No one wants to look like an ass, especially an organization which believes they are able to steer one’s eternal existence; so whether it’s an earth-centric view of the universe, a six day formation of all the universe, or whatever, once the guardians of the belief system have stated X as fact, it is in their interest to discourage examination of X.7
The Judeo-Christian belief system carries an extra weapon for this discouragement: in their mythology, the cause of their banishment from an idyllic eden life is the very process of questioning — the search for knowledge, symbolically embodied in that whole serpent-apple routine; to Christians, it is the original, the first, sin.8

Once we, as societies, kowtow — giving power to religious ideals by accepting them to be a coherent piece of the fabric of an individual — then it greatly hinders the ability for remotely rational dialogue to enter the equation when a belief system jumps from somewhat loony9 to dangerously-and-completely-absent-from-reality loony10. If we cannot consistently and regularly apply rational scrutiny to matters impacting daily human existence, then there is muted value in those times that we can do it at all.
It is of cold comfort that, for example, sanity finally regained control of the Kansas School Board when the real problem is the large step backwards taken due a fundamental Christian worldview being given such validity within society that a subculture believed it to be something it wasn’t, something it couldn’t be.

Truly, not everything can be presently answered by scientific inquiry and research — and it is completely plausible that it will never entirely be able to be answered — but it is certain that when people are allowed to defer to ritual and willful blindness then inquiry and research is stunted at best, and, at worst, it is prevented outright. Especially in these times in which there is a rash of bad events arising partially from our inability to model a large system11 and partially from our inability to engineer new production solutions12, it is important that we turn our minds outward with vigilance to ask coherent and decomposing questions, not turn our minds inward to take refuge in constructed fantasy.

As a postscript: it should be noted that, while i am mentioning Christianity in this article, there is no reason this complaint does not apply to all faith based systems (including those ‘alternative’ types — the ‘magick’ spectrum, the wiccan variants, …): they all have, as their basis, a kernel framework of unverifiable supposition over which further ideas, also unverifiable, are added or inferred to form a body of ‘laws’ and a cosmology.13

  1. pie charted for your visual consumption []
  2. for two frequently referenced sources, there are the ARDA studies and the 2001 ARIS study []
  3. the Boston Globe had a decent summary []
  4. including the re-inventing of societies previously dominated by atheism-enforcing governments []
  5. … given the indications that humans, in a perceived crisis do turn to religion. Anecdotal evidence abounds through Google – here is one of the more recent picks of the litter []
  6. … those nations which do have less resources with which to educate their population actually do have a more ‘religious’ population (with the United States being the anomalous, and embarrassing, data point in that set) — PewResearchCenter Global Attitudes Project study in 2002. []
  7. especially when the synthesized ‘fact’ is not based on fact at all []
  8. think briefly what it means to have a system in which this is the core principle describing the cause for a adherent’s lot in life. ‘you could have had an amazingly paradisiacal life, had only your ancestors not been inquisitive’ []
  9. like “there exists exactly one omnipotent being who watches over everything in the universe” []
  10. like “there are young children in Nigeria who are actually witches, and whose evil magic is responsible for poor fishing harvests (and not the oil industries dumping regulation-free into the waterways)” []
  11. in this case an economic system []
  12. for example a new economically and environmentally sound energy generation source []
  13. as opposed to something like the field of study loosely termed ‘Physics’, which has a kernel framework of verifiable conjecture from and over which further ideas (including some thought to be unverifiable as portended in certain facets of ‘string theory’) are derived []

Marked as: Belief SystemsScienceSocietal Policies  —  7 comments   (RSS)

7 Comments so far
  1. christina December 16, 2008 11:14 am

    I hadn’t been on in ages, and you had me at hello!
    I was raised in a strict Christian home, the sort that awaits “the End”—
    whilst doing nothing in particular to save the world. A certain “bring it on”
    mentality was in the air.
    The world never DID end, but I always wait for it TO end.
    Organized religion robbed me of ever enjoying being alive.
    Instead of finding the ways of life, I found the ways of death.
    Everyone at school was going to Hell, nothing was to be enjoyed.
    Somehow Jesus wasn’t able to deal with the emotional problems I was
    demonstrating, so I was sent to psychiatry.
    By my teenage years I was a self-styled satanist.
    At my Christian school the teachers would ask me about the books I was reading
    I can’t remember what the particular ones were,
    I guess the exposing of vast underground satanic networks
    In a very real way the philosophy of Charles Manson is very accurate in
    discribing the reverse order in which the World operates.
    I have no doubt Charlie has emotional problems not completely caused
    by his 23 hours or more in isolation each day.
    Perhaps it’s the “gladiator style” fighting matches held in his prison making
    his so jumpy?
    Anyway, I thought your blog nicely exposed the Starbucks style of religion
    the church has disolved into.
    The Church is now the friend of the world and the enemy of the people.
    By that I mean to directly imply that it serves the needs of $commerce$
    and “tummy rubbing” that the fearful need…
    while any serious debate of science or politics is quickly silenced.
    It’s no wonder that it preaches against it’s own greatest fears and passions.
    The Satan Realm so badly lusted for and sought by
    Christians and Radical Islam and yes, the Jews and whatever other
    “trickle down” faiths are out knocking, can be found within it’s own
    hallowed halls.
    Those hallowed halls of inquistion and whitewash.
    Drunk on the blood of saints and sinners.
    Seeking to exalt itself above God, man and any law, supernatural or
    Hard to support child molestors, drug dealers and murderers.
    It would be forgivable if only they saw themselves for what they are.
    I think it is sad they take no pleasure in the minds they rape.
    I would feel much more chipper if I knew they secretly took joy
    in their pointless rituals and kneeling and bowing and chanting
    and condemning.
    It’s the dutyful wife come to suck.
    The under paid servant come to clean.
    The hand of death, out streached in compassion with a gun behind it’s back.
    Surprising, I never lost my faith in a higher power.
    I pray he destroys these impostors in my witness, in my lifetime.
    May the people of earth witness a day free from usury, fear and war.
    A day free of Wolves in Sheep’s clothing,
    ever ready to pull the plug and push the button…
    may they have the plug pulled on their own sinking ship.
    If anyone can find the button, push it.
    Dr. Kissinger will eventually push it anyway.
    What will rise from the ashes?

  2. magdalene January 21, 2009 3:34 pm

    I’m hardly a religious apologist (though certainly a realist), and adding your voice to the alarm among the rationally minded seems sound enough. Still, I’ve struggled to pinpoint my disagreement with much of your article.

    Sure, on the more alarming end of the spectrum, accepting “religious-based explanations for real world phenomena” has, it would seem, impinged on the collective intelligence of humanity (I’d go into how I think this has occurred, but I think you already did nicely), not to mention the concerns you raised about public policy.

    However, many religious adherents see no conflict between scientific discovery/knowledge and religious faith (e.g., the theory of evolution does not contradict the story of creation because of the metaphorical nature of the Bible). Perhaps more instructive than the pie chart of adherents you provided would be a percentage of those adherents whose religious beliefs do not contradict or belie scientific inquiry and critical thought. My guess is that this manner of approaching faith and reason is more common than the tone of your article would suggest.

    I think the crux of my difficulty in sorting out my patently experienced disagreement with much of what you’ve written here is this: It seems to imply that eradicating religious belief is not only a good idea, but one that is possible. Am I mistaken? If not, what would you suggest be done with the reality of it?

  3. Loki der Quaeler January 26, 2009 2:29 am

    The likelihood of eradicating religious belief seems to be basically zero (certainly to my chagrin), though I do think it would behoove the ability for research and inquiry were it to occur. While i do accept that there are religious adherents who have intertwined facets of scientific discovery with their mythology (like the example you have provided), i suspect-cum-worry about the personality type of that religious adherent.

    It seems not unlikely that a greater questioning of ‘why things are the way they are in the universe’ is dulled by having a fallback-mythology; similarly, should push come to shove in the search to answer actual instances of those sorts of questions, a person who has an alternate solution in which they actually ‘believe’ is likely to be less-than-tenacious in their pursuit.

  4. magdalene January 31, 2009 8:28 am

    It seems clear that religious belief has a dulling effect on the drive for scientific discovery. It is an interesting mental exercise to imagine how mental processes involving religious experiences, and explanations for phenomena might change were it somehow possible to eradicate religiosity. As for a personality type, someone who takes religious belief with their science without prohibitive discordance should be less worrisome than someone who never drinks coffee at all.

  5. magdalene February 2, 2009 1:35 pm

    Timely article in The New Republic decrying continued attempts to reconcile religion & science. The author’s thoughts on “liberal theologians” were useful to me in considering the impact of being exposed to much liberal religiosity during my ‘formative’ years. Perhaps I underestimate its dulling impact, as well as the possibility that a majority of American religious fall closer to the “Baby Jesus Made The Earth 10,000 years ago” end of the continuum than to that of the “Praise Sagan”.

    The reason that many liberal theologians see religion and evolution as harmonious is that they espouse a theology not only alien but unrecognizable as religion to most Americans.


    So the most important conflict [snip] is not between religion and science. It is between religion and secular reason. Secular reason includes science, but also embraces moral and political philosophy, mathematics, logic, history, journalism, and social science–every area that requires us to have good reasons for what we believe. Now I am not claiming that all faith is incompatible with science and secular reason–only those faiths whose claims about the nature of the universe flatly contradict scientific observations. Pantheism and some forms of Buddhism seem to pass the test. But the vast majority of the faithful–those 90 percent of Americans who believe in a personal God, most Muslims, Jews, and Hindus, and adherents to hundreds of other faiths–fall into the “incompatible” category.

    Unfortunately, some theologians with a deistic bent seem to think that they speak for all the faithful. These were the critics who denounced Dawkins and his colleagues for not grappling with every subtle theological argument for the existence of God, for not steeping themselves in the complex history of theology. Dawkins in particular was attacked for writing The God Delusion as a “middlebrow” book. But that misses the point. He did indeed produce a middlebrow book, but precisely because he was discussing religion as it is lived and practiced by real people. The reason that many liberal theologians see religion and evolution as harmonious is that they espouse a theology not only alien but unrecognizable as religion to most Americans.

    Statistics support this incompatibility. For example, among those thirty-four countries surveyed, we see a statistically strong negative relationship between the degree of faith and the acceptance of evolution. Countries such as Denmark, France, Japan and the United Kingdom have a high acceptance of Darwinism and low belief in God, while the situation is reversed in countries like Bulgaria, Latvia, Turkey, and the United States. And within America, scientists as a group are considerably less religious than non-scientists. This is not say that such statistics can determine the outcome of a philosophical debate. Nor does it matter whether these statistics mean that accepting science erodes religious faith, or that having faith erodes acceptance of science. (Both processes must surely occur.) What they do show, though, is that people have trouble accepting both at the same time. And given the substance of these respective worldviews, this is no surprise.

  6. christina April 1, 2009 12:56 am

    Was Crowley’s “Equinox” all about being a journal of “scientific illumination?”
    An attempt to reconcile so called opposites? Do I need to remind every Catholic
    of the Inquisition? No, but it is one of my favorite songs!

    Anton La Vey said “the grey area” between Religion and Psychology needed a
    bridge. As someone who is from a religious background I can testify by observation of my groups and by watching other groups of religions that
    Masochism plays a big role in most religions. Madonna watching her mum dance around with her knees on beans in the kitchen floor made quite an impression?
    I tell myself personally, in dark moments “they’re all going to laugh at you”

    I like Religion, other than Plutonium and a handful of other devices, it really is what a person does with it.

    My own mish- mash of Christian , Buddhist and “Satanic” symbols
    have served me well. I like believing that staring at pictures of people I like
    will give them good vibes.

    Dear God, please save me from all your people? Sure.

    The best way in life is to be kind and treat others like you want to be treated.
    How much you respond to being mistreated is up to you. In my philosophy.
    I have noticed that “karma” type effect from ones own bad behavior.

    Maybe people don’t want to get rid of religion as much as it’s bad side effects.
    People even worship the Earth. Persons with no faith usually just turn their
    favorite philosophers into their god’s or idols.

    Our current state of affairs would seem to result from the worship of Money and Power, here on Earth.

  7. endless March 14, 2010 10:12 am

    After everything is said and done, it is a shame that the gift of distribution of knowledge electronically and literarily throughout distant countries comes with the curse of the distribution of flawed promises and unverifiable doctrine, void of all fact.

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