There is a growing movement today toward secular humanism. This is a form of humanism that specifically embraces human reason, ethics and naturalism. It specifically rejects religion and in fact, there is a growing tendency to blame religion for all of the world’s evils. Now, I’m not an apologist for religion – deeply held religious beliefs are certainly responsible for a lot of the violence and suffering in the world today, and also for historic atrocities. And for many years, religion effectively prevented the advancement of science. But Hitler wasn’t driven by religious motives, and neither was apartheid in South Africa. But how do we begin to sort out those who have used religion as a smokescreen to promote their own personal agenda? It’s not often that we get such glaring examples as the rise and fall of the Jim and Tammy Faye empire. People are desperate to believe something, anything about the world in order to escape the existential pain of living. In the film Kumare, Vikram Gandh poses as a guru to conduct a social experiment in order to see how people would go in following the completely fabricated teachings of a self-styles holy man. The results are not only fascinating, but oddly uplifting.
I have begun reading The End of Faith, a book by Sam Harris that was written at the forefront of today’s secular humanist movement. I have not finished it yet, but what I have found so far it that it is broad but not overly deep. It definitely brings many ideas to bear in order to defend the point of view that religion is the root of all evil. He rightly points out that religious fundamentalism presents a terrible and growing threat in the world today. Our technology now allows worldwide communication instantaneously, and it also allow a bomb capable of killing millions to be fit into a suitcase. But there is a fatal flaw in Harris’ argument. Where he errs, in my opinion, is that he discounts moderate, mainstream religion as “religion lite”, responsible for providing legitimacy to the platform used by fundamentalists to carry out their atrocities. He selects phrases from the Koran and from the Old Testament in the Bible to prove that religion incites its followers to violence. But those who reject that part of religion are in no way responsible for those who embrace it. This argument is equivalent to saying that unless you fully embrace all aspects of Aristotle’s idea, you are simply practicing “science lite”.
As I have said, I’m not an apologist for religion, but I do not agree that there is no possibility for any evolution in religious thinking. You can’t simply ban the use of the word “God” and assume that the idea of God will go away. After all, if a scientist believes that there is an organizing principle at work in the universe, isn’t that principle one possible form of God? If the universe as a complex system has an emergent quality that we cannot see or detect, can’t that quality be defined as God? Perhaps God is dark energy. According to current scientific thinking, dark matter and dark energy comprise 96% of the universe, yet we have no idea what it is. We inhabit a billion billion (etc) billionth of a universe that has been around for more than 13 billion years, and there may be billions more universes like it, yet somehow we have become arrogant enough to believe that everything can be explained by human science and logic. We can’t even figure out how to provide food and clothing to the people we create, or control the animal instinct that causes us create more people than the earth can sustain. But we are going to figure out what happened before the Big Bang? First, of course we have to get religion out of the way, or so the argument goes. Sure, that will fix everything.
Sorry, but it looks to me as if we are simply substituting on type of intolerance for another. It’s not new, of course, only the latest permutation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s claim the God is dead. It is an arrogance born of scientific materialism, the belief that if we can’t see, measure and dissect it, it does not exist. I’d be the first to admit that it’s absurd to believe that a God who created everything has written a self-contradictory book as his (or her, it its) definitive statement to humanity. But it also seems absurd to assume that by the simple power of our vast and unlimited intellect, we will ever be able to step outside of the tiny reality we live in to know everything there is to know about the vastness of space, the complex interaction of life, or the desperate emptiness we feel that causes us to need a God in the first place. We cannot simply discount those things as not real. All of these things exist at some level.
So what do we know? We know that the things we find to be solid and real are composed of tiny bits of vibrating energy, and these tiny bits are completely interchangeable. We know that the tiniest thing we can currently measure can exist at many places at once, and many of them can occupy the same space at the same time. We know that time moves slower if you are moving faster, and that the reason the apple bonked Sir Isaac Newton on the head is because the earth he was sitting on was warping space-time. Or maybe not. We know that the way we see the world is simply due to the limitation of the recording instruments we call eyes, and that the data they transmit is inverted and preprocessed before we perceive an image. We know that everything we see, touch, smell and experience is simply a limited and preprocessed version of the total reality that surrounds us. We know that we don’t know much, but that our brains are wired to believe that we know how the world works. But in fact, all of these things are only things we think we know, based on our current understanding of how the world works. These are not things we know, but things we believe we know.
You see, that’s the problem with religion, or secular humanism, or scientific materialism, or any other form of knowing. It is all simply a belief. We don’t know anything about ultimate reality. We don’t know anything about meaning or purpose or what we are “supposed” do be doing with this gift we call consciousness. All we know is that any time we decide that we know something so completely that everyone who agrees with us is wrong, that we have divided our world once again. We have tried to fit all that there is into a tiny little space that makes us comfortable. No, religion, or science, or any other form of inquiry is not the problem. The problem is, and always has been, that over and over again we succumb to the belief that if we find a world view that work for us, it must work for everyone else or it’s wrong. But the only thing I believe I know for sure it that no one knows for sure.