My World View: Religion
- I have no religious beliefs.
- I consider the use(albeit widespread) of the words “belief” and “believe” when not referring to religious belief very damaging to clear thinking about science and religion mdash; that is, in all discussions with an epistemological element. More about the semantics of belief.
- Therefore I consider the notion of “scientific belief”, and this phrase, self-contradictory. A true scientist, and indeed any empiricist thinker, only holds hypotheses.
- Anyone who works in science but has religious beliefs is not being an honest, competent scientist in their everyday life outside the laboratory, or at least is not applying the scientific method where religion is concerned. This is not to say that such people are bad people; only that they are deceiving themselves in a slightly different way, and with less excuse along the lines of intellectual incapacity to evaluate more critically the basis for their creeds, than the mass of people with no intellectual training of the kind represented by scientific empiricism.
- For the present purpose, I define a proposition as the content of a statement, an assertion that something is the case, as Wittgenstein used to say (more).
- Similarly, I define a hypothesis as a proposition about which the degree of reliability is of particular interest in a given discussion. More on propositions and hypotheses
- Each such hypothesis is held provisionally, and with some sort of credibility rating ranging roughly speaking from from "greatly distrusted" to "greatly trusted" — and the credibility rating is what is provisional, what changes when new information becomes available that necessitates a change in the status of any given hypothesis.
- To each hypothesis that I encounter, including those that I entertain (as they say), I ascribe a credibility rating.
For purposes of communication with other people, I recommend the following scheme
of numerical credibility ratings.
The credibility of each proposition (including hypotheses)
is rated, and the rating quantified as a number in the range from 0 to 1,
- 0 means “certainly false”
- 1 meaning “certainly true”
- all other ratings are decimal fractions between those limits
- It is valid for a person (such as me) to assess using my scheme the credibility rating that another person gives to a proposition. More on rating assessments by others
- I can say that the credibility rating within my scheme given by a devout adherent of a religion, to each of the tenets of that religion which they say they believe absolutely, is 1, even if the devotee in question is innumerate or has simply never heard of my scheme.
- For the time being, I adopt as my working hypothesis the cosmological model of the universe in which, using order-of-magnitude estimates only, there are approximately one hundred thousand million galaxies each containing approximately one hundred thousand million stars, which appears to be traceable back over approximately 14 thousand million years to a singularity event popularly known as the Big Bang.
- I adopt the hypothesis with a credibility rating reasonably close to 1 (perhaps between 0.8 and 0.9) but with a (non-negligible) allowance for the possibility that further data might force cosmologists to drastically revise this model.
- I adopt the hypothesis that life evolved as described by the current scientific mainstream, including the work of Prof. Richard Dawkins.
- I consider quite untenable the proposition believed by the monotheistic religions that some omnipotent, omniscient, infinitely intelligent and eternal being (which they call Yahweh or God or Allah, and I shall refer to here as YGA) created the universe as we know it. That is, I give it a credibility rating reasonably close to zero, say 0.01.
- More importantly, from the point of view of everyday life, I consider the further proposition believed by the monotheistic religions, that this YGA created the universe with the principal purpose of creating human beings, and of giving them somewhere to live (as it were), apparently because “He” wanted intelligent companions in the universe, utterly preposterous — credibility rating perhaps 0.001.
- I consider utterly preposterous, credibility rating even smaller still (0.0001) even if there were such a being as YGA, the idea that YGA would create a system the size of the known universe, in such a form that it would take the time it did (five hundred million or so human lifetimes) before first a planet was formed, and then organic life emerged and finally human beings evolved, if our creation was its aim.
- It is equally preposterous that YGA would find any satisfaction at all in creating a population like the human species with all the special qualities religions ascribe to us (like “soul” and “free will” but an obligation to be good to go to the right place in the “after life”) unless it were as some sort of cynical experiment. As experiments are to find out what will happen, no omniscient mind would need them because, by definition, it would know the result from the outset.
- I consider the moral philosophies of the major religions every bit as fatally defective as their theologies; the sophistry adduced to explain away what is called “the problem of pain” is just one example of the intellectual vacuum at the heart of all of them.
- I consider the hatred, cruelty and violence inflicted on people the prelates did not like by Christianity and Islam for most of the centuries of their existence additional justification for regarding the organized side of those religions as so tainted with wickedness as to be irredeemable even if they had been impeccably behaved in the last century or so. However, the failure of Christian religion organizations (the various churches) to deal in a child-centred way with such issues of child abuse by priests right up to the present day, and the failure of Islam to produce leaders able to put a total end to radical muslim fundamentalism and associated terrorism, condemn both as fundamentally malignant entities for human society even today.
- I consider the theologies of ancient Greece (Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite,...), ancient Rome (Jupiter, Juno, Venus, ...), Hinduism (which has many from monotheism through polytheism to pantheism), and all other religions that I have come across just as lacking in any rational basis. The modern invention by a (not very good) science fiction novelist, Scientology, I find just as absurd as the ancient religions, or indeed perhaps even more preposterous, ludicrous ... one could almost say infantile, if it were not so dangerous to free discourse because of the aggressive way it habitually behaves.
- One origin or religions is apparently the progressive exaggeration of the degree of deference shown to a leader of some kind so that it mutates first into reverence, then into worship, to the point where the person is declared to be a god and what was politics (of some sort) changes into a religion. More about progressive deification
- The comedian and writer Ben Elton has commented most cogently, in discussing the theme of a recent novel of his (Blind Faith), that we seem to have got to a stage in society where we are expected to respect the mere fact that somebody believes something — and this is in my sense of the word. That is, we are expected to respect the fact that somebody holds to some tenet — indeed, to some set of tenets, some creed — as though blind faith, believing in this religious (credibility rating=1) manner without any rational or empirical justification for it, is in itself somehow admirable. I agree with Ben Elton that such a state of affairs is a bad thing, and that respect for belief for belief’s sake is an absurd thing to ask of us.
- Were I wrong about the YGA, even if such a being were out there having brought the known universe into existence, the idea that such an entity would derive satisfaction from being repeatedly told it was wonderful and good and just and so on by billions of the miniscule ephemeral life forms on one planet of one star in its creation is even more preposterous. Yet what form does organized religion take in most people's lives? Worship — that which goes on in chapels and mosques, synagogues and temples. It can only be self-important self-delusion on the part of the priests, and mass delusion (pun deliberate) of their congregations by the priests.
- As YGA is a popular delusion, moral codes taught by religions are void. This would leave a bit of a moral vacuum at the base of most societies if they abandoned their religions, and that is an important area for consideration.
- The soul is a figment of the religious imagination. The mind is an abstraction, simply the functioning of the brain considered collectively, and what is called the soul even by non-religious people is just a subset of that. For more, see The idea of soul
- All religious experiences are functions, incidents or products of the mind. For more see Religious experiences.
- Religious belief is the result of the human brain's inherent tendency to attempt to create mental models of how the world around it works — including, specifically, cause and effect. It is a result, especially, of the inability of the individual or culture without any scientific understanding of major natural phenomena to come up with anything like a real scientific explanation. The natural recourse of those in such a position is to invent theological explanations: for a primitive people living near a volcano, when the volcano erupts they tell each other it is because the god who lives in the mountain is angry. (The very word volcano is derived from the name of the Roman god Vulcan.)
- Such thought processes are almost universal among human beings. They serve to impose a spurious kind of order upon the random happenings of nature that are otherwise very scary for people, because of the very strong drive to try to understand and indeed predict events. This does not make the stories that such peoples come up with true!
- Creationism is merely anti-scientific, anti-intellectual religious bigotry. Creationists are extremists in the school of thought now called "intelligent design". The latter is the argument alluded to in the title of a book by Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker. However, science has shown how the universe evolved after the big bang, how life emerged on this planet, and how the many species on this planet, including Homo sapiens, evolved over long periods of time.
- Some people simply cannot understand enough of the science to replace with it their simplistic (essentially creationist) mythology; Others cling to the emotional comfort the idea of a benevolent omniscient and omnipotent father figure, as a child clings to the myth of Santa Claus. More at Why people cling to religion.
- Would an atheistic society work? I think very possibly not, perhaps even probably not, despite the optimism of Richard Dawkins and others on this question. More.
Belief, religious and otherwise
Science and religion
Propositions and hypotheses
Rating proposition credibility
The origins of the universe and of life on Earth
The idea of a supreme creator
More views about religions
Faith for its own sake
Religion and morals
The delusion called soul
The nature of religious experience
The origins & causes of religious belief
Why religion's hold on people is so strong
Summary for religionists in a hurry
There is a certain sort of Christian religionist who says that religion is not necessarily incompatible with science, which you might imagine is a good thing; they do this because they think it makes them seem less irrational than the Creationists.
However, I take the view that religion is necessarily incompatible with science because religionists assert the existence of their deity, whereas I say that the empiricist position is that you do not assign any credibility rating other than very low, say below 0.1, to any proposition for which there is ostensibly absolutely no empirical evidence, and moreover that there is absolutely no empirical evidence for the existence of any entity of the nature of any deity of any description. I have no idea what the reaction of any given group of such theists to my position is; I only know that of one eccentric self-declared deist, which is to dismiss my view as “prejudiced” on the basis that I am an empiricist, whereas he seems to claim that maybe empiricism cannot be applied to deities, but he has never offered any coherent rationale for such a claim.
What I do say is this:
From empirical observation, one concludes that human beings grouped in primitive societies tend to invent deities, and then to invent religions based on their notions about those deities. The fact of sharing these delusions seems to afford a primitive form of social cohesion to tribes and primitive societies and thus to give them a survival advantage over time, say centuries (but, actually, even short-term).
This explains why religions are so prevalent in a way that does not imply that there is any slightest germ of truth in these superstitions which these societies invent; it simply provides a rational explanation of why such shared delusions are so prevalent, and that removes from the empiricist any further epistemological need to explain why such beiefs are so prevalent. They are prevalent because they bring success in the competition for tribes and groups to stick together, to bond in struggles for resources against outsiders (for example) and thus to survive as tribes or societies. This means there is no need to suppose any slightest degree of truth in their superstitions in order to explain the prevalence of those superstitions.
There are a great many sets of superstitions, including those complex enough to have become described by anthropology as “religions”. By and large, these religions, their sets of beliefs including their mythologies, what they think of as their "theologies", are mutually contradictory. They make assertions about the nature of the iniverse, and about the existence of their respective deities and other "spirits", that are directly contradictory each of most of the others. So much so that, if any one of these religions were true, all the others have to be pretty well entirely false as a consequence of these mutual condemnations.
Therefore if there are 1000 religions, 999 of them have to be false simply because each contradicts all the others, saying only it is the true path. To an empiricist, there is nothing significant to choose between one religion and another except the numbers of adherents, in case those numbers have any sort of significance for credibility. However, a small number of the religions, less than half a dozen but very well known to any well read adult, have such large numbers of followers (billions) that they are almost of a different order of empirical phenomenon, and yet of that small group, each of the religions specifically requires that all the others in that group of successful ones be regarded as false by their believers, just as with all the hundreds of tiny religions with only handfuls of followers. Therefore even the fact of having hundreds of millions, even billions, of followers does not make a religion less likely to be utterly false than the smaller groupings, others from the point of view of an empiricist outsider, precisely because, of this small number of religions with these huge numbers of followers, at least all but one must also be false.
So what of the one remaining religion which we cannot conclude is as wrong as the rest by virtue of their universal mutual condemnations?
Well, empirically, where there are multiple cases of a phenomenon, and one knows whether by observation or by reason that all but one of these cases must have a certain property (here, being utterly false), if one is for any reason unable to confirm that the final one of these also has that property, the most reasonable hypothesis to adopt is that the one which cannot be examined for this property has it too, precisely because all the others have the property, and this is the most credible surmise to adopt.
Ergo, because at least all but one religion is false, so all religions are almost certainly false, even without looking any further.
Quite apart from that reasoning, when one looks at the universe and notes that there is no available empirical evidence for the existence of any deity at all, as imagined by the religions, one concludes that there is no deity in the universe by Occam's Razor: this is the 8 centuries old principle that in the absence of evidence to the contrary one adopts the simplest available hypothesis.
As for the "first cause" argument, the infinite regress argument meets it. End of subject. The only rational position for an empiricist is atheism. If you imagine that, for the universe to exist, there had to be some conscious being — a deity — who “made” it, then you must also suppose that for that deity to exist there must have been an even more powerful deity who “made” the deity that “made” the universe. Otherwise, you are just engaging in infantile “magical” thinking, that the deity you believe in is special so that none of the normal processes of reason apply to your deity although although they apply to the physical universe.
There is no point trying to conduct a retional debate with anyone who thinks like that. The thinking pattern is infantile, which is probably the explanation for the appearance of all religious mythologies anyway: primitive people think like small children in terms of special, “magical” happenings and never experience any social encouragement to think rationally at all. That was why it took many centuries for the handful of people with any kind of scientific thoughts to make any progress with the population at large. For several thousand years until about the beginning of the 20th century, all but a tiny few people regarded all who did any kind of scientific thinking or research at all merely as lacking in whatever sort of piety their societies approved of.