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Faith - The Unreasonable Emotion

Richard Brown

Science vs. Religion

Science and religion are locked in debate about the reality of our universe, about nature and a supernatural, about the existence of god--whether he is real or not.

Science does not have to prove that a supernatural god does not exist, only that there are not any convincing reasons to believe in god. Science presents a comprehensive body of evidence which explains our universe without the need of a supernatural realm.

The burden of proof that god exists rests with religion. Religion has to present compelling reasons to believe in god, heaven and the soul. As support, Religion offers 2,000-year-old texts containing testimonials of miraculous events.

History Joins the Debate

History shows that the idea of god was conceived 35,000 years ago by cavemen (possibly at Altamira, Chauvet or Germany), or by hunter-gatherers (possibly at Gobekli Tepe) 10,000 years ago, or by the pagans of prehistoric Egypt 5,000 years ago. (See The History of God and Other Religious Myths.) In any case, God is an idea that was conceived thousands of years before the birth of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Thus god is not a Jewish idea, not a Christian idea, not a Muslim concept. The originators of today's three Western religions merely inherited or accepted the idea of god from these primitive ancients because they couldn't figure out a better explanation of the world they lived in.

The idea of god belongs to the prehistoric people who created it. If the credibility of these authors is found wanting, then we should abandon the idea of god in the same way we reject the claim of astrology that star constellations at birth foretell human destiny. From their observations of nature, these prehistoric people came to three misguided conclusions:

  1. the Earth is flat, not round,
  2. the Earth is stationary with the Sun circling around it, and,
  3. supernatural gods have extraordinary powers.

Since they were confused about nature we must conclude they were also confused about the supernatural. They couldn't figure out what was real and what was not. They guessed wrong about both. In the debate, history supports science: the fact that supernatural beings were first conceived by a primitive people and simply trickled down through history is actual evidence that there is no god.

Modern science has replaced the fanciful supernatural explanation of the universe with a factually based, natural explanation, making scientific and many religious ideas incompatible, yet the concept of god nevertheless persists even in the 21st Century. This incongruity has an explanation, however: psychologists demonstrate that when we humans internalize two opposing contradictory ideas, we simply place the conflicting views in different parts of the mind (compartmentalization). To make the mind contort itself in this way, both the contradictory ideas, the intellectual Scientific View and the emotional Spiritual View, have to hold a benefit for the individual. Let's examine the value or function of each of these two disciplines.

The Value of Science

The purpose of science is the pursuit of truth. Science originated from the geniuses of humanity starting 400 years ago with Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Descartes; furthered by the genius of Newton, Einstein and Sagan; and continues today supported by geniuses from all around the globe.

Understanding the truth about how our world operates has improved our everyday life. Science brought us medicine--the polio and smallpox vaccines, anesthesia, and heart transplants. Science has increased food production per acre in order to feed today's 7 billion people. Science invented the refrigerator, the airplane, and the cell phone. Science launched the GPS satellite network, put men on the moon, and sent rockets out of our solar system into interstellar space 11.7 billion miles away.

Only science can measure the enormity of our universe. Science determined that our Earth is spinning on its axis at the rate of 1,000 miles per hour, that Earth is circling our Sun at 100,000 miles per hour, that our Sun is traveling around our galaxy at 500,000 miles per hour, and that our Milky Way galaxy is expanding outward at the rate of 1.5 million miles per hour. The Big Bang tells us that our universe began 13.8 billion years ago starting from a single microscopic point and that it is expanding at an ever-increasing speed.

Science is a continuing investigation to understand the complexity of our universe.

There are six basic building blocks of the universe: matter-energy, space-time, force, entropy, dark matter and dark energy. Dark energy comprises 75% of our universe but was just identified within the last 20 years.
The universe, at both the microscopic and gigantic levels, does not operate like everyday objects we can hold in our hands.
Quantum mechanics states that a photon of light is both a particle and a wave at the same time and that one electron can be in two different places at the same time.
Einstein's relativity states that speed slows time, and mass curves space and bends light.
When mathematicians integrate the formulae of these two systems they will have constructed the Theory of Everything.

Evolution states that life on Earth began from single cells ~3.8 billion years ago. Life became more complex by slowly mutating over billions of years, producing the millions of different species we find on Earth today. (Both humans and chimps, with whom we share 98% of our DNA, descended from a common ancestor.)

If the cavemen, hunter-gatherers, or pagans had known this science, they would not have dreamed up their simplistic notion of god. But religion preceded science. Religion thus positioned itself as "common sense" making it easy for the mass of humanity to believe and understand. Today only a tiny fraction of our 7 billion population comprehends Einstein's elaborate formulae. Even though we may not understand it all, we know one thing for certain: science works--we can depend on it.

If science had preceded religion, science would have precluded the concepts of god, heaven and the soul. Intellectual truth would have preempted emotional wishful thinking. But because science and religion coexist, Believers are caught in a conflict with truth. There are good reasons why Believers have a difficult time giving up the idea of god, however.

The Functions of Religion

The primary function of religion today is the same as it has always been: to support and maintain the emotional well-being of the Believer. There are many ways that religion can help a person to cope with the difficulties of life.

Psychologists tell us that humans use a defense mechanism to help overcome sadness and depression from loss. An effective religious rationalization to tell a grief-stricken mother whose daughter has just died, for example, is that "She is in a better place with god and you will be reunited someday with her in heaven."

A person's emotional need for justice can be achieved by believing that god will sit in judgment of each of us after death. Those of us who were saved will go to heaven and those of us who were sinners will go to hell.

Humans tend to want to leave a legacy of their good name and accomplishments to posterity. Heaven fulfills this transcendental emotional need. Fear of our own death is overcome by a religious wish-fulfilling belief in an afterlife (or in reincarnation). Confessing our misdeeds to a priest or pastor helps us overcome our feelings of guilt. Prayer helps to relieve stress and loneliness. Belief in miracle generates hope.

But all too often prayers are unanswered; miracles don't come true; and we are left with our fear, guilt, grief, and loneliness--never sure of god's presence since there are so many suicides and wars, so much poverty and injustice. Whatever benefit religion is to emotional stability, religion works (when it works) by coincidence or the placebo effect because god, heaven, and the soul do not exist. Faith is unreasonable in light of scientific truth and historical fact.

A second function of religion is to give identity to Believers from being members of a group, thus satisfying our universal emotional need for social recognition. Group goals provide meaning and purpose to an individual's life. Group norms instruct Believers as to what is expected of them and how to conduct themselves. Friendship bonds within the group may even lead to marriage and family life.

Because it is the economic unit of society, the family is the most important group a person belongs to. Parents provide infants with the basic necessities of life. In exchange parents generally require their children to accept the family's religious beliefs starting at a very early age when children do not yet have enough knowledge and experience to evaluate the truth of what is being told to them. Thus the simple idea of god is learned before children are exposed to the complicated principles of science. When children are taught science they have to compartmentalize these new ideas in order to maintain their mental balance. (In some societies science is not taught because the leaders know the truth contradicts their religious doctrine and undermines their authority.) Early childhood exposure to religious ideas is another reason that religion persists against the onrushing tide of scientific fact.

The Price of Faith

The group dynamics of religion also operate at the international level, but in a negative way. Roughly ninety 90% of America is Christian, 90% of Ireland is Catholic, 90% of Israel is Jewish, 90% of Saudi Arabia is Sunni Muslim, 90% of Iran is Shia Muslim, 90% of India is Hindu, 90% of Tibet is Buddhist, and so on. Along with ancestry, culture, language, and custom, different faiths polarize the leaders of nations making it difficult for them to reach agreement on global priorities at this time when natural resources are under growing pressure and the group identity that matters most is "Citizen of Earth."

Faith is an unreasonable emotion because it divides nations, preventing humanity from solving global problems. The United Nations, for example, cannot achieve consensus on extinction of animal and plant species, nuclear proliferation (that other creation of science--the atom bomb), and the Millennial Goals: "eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality," etc.

Realizing that uncivilized ancients artificially created an imaginary god, continuing to believe in him is indefensible. Denial of truth by the affirmation of faith is too steep a price to pay: it could be said that "God is preventing humanity from attaining our greatest achievement--universal peace and cooperation."

Converting Believers

Realists, Humanists and Skeptics are like astronauts who can live in outer space without a spacesuit. We have learned to get along emotionally without religion, getting through tough times by reaching out and connecting with a real not an imaginary being--a friend. We need to show Believers how to seek real-world solutions rather than religious solutions. But if we are going to modify someone's life support system, then we have to do it calmly with respect and compassion.

Dan Brown in Angels and Demons showed us Realists and Humanists the right approach when he wrote these words for skeptic Robert Langdon, "I have not been blessed with the gift of faith." We Realists have to take this same gentle approach with Believers if we are to wean them from religion. We need to convince Believers that the real world we can see and touch and struggle with is better than any surreal utopia their minds can only imagine, that the experience of a starry night arouses more wonder than any dream of angels in heaven, that a deep breath of fresh air is more exhilarating than any silent prayer, and that a loving act of charity is worth more than any pretend miracle. Only a caring mode can conquer an unreasonable emotion.

We need to convince everyone that we are all blessed with the gift of life--lucky for the chance of just one brief existence here on Earth. That realization will motivate us all to explore the upper regions of our human potential and give each other our finest effort--friendship.

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