We live in an amazing time. A time when we can increase our understanding of the cosmos by studying still-visible distant stars in the night sky. A time when we carry miniature computers in our pockets that are vastly more powerful than the ones which aided the 1969 lunar landing. We are presently able to understand bacteria and employ medicine to prevent the spread of horrific diseases. Yet, despite our scientific achievements, many people still refute the evidence and claim to know better than the scientists. Science and religion are increasingly at odds with one another – with science providing factual, peer-reviewed evidence, and religion offering nothing more than “faith” to support its claims, stubbornly persisting in its bronze age philosophy. The only time scientific advancement is controversial is when it contradicts the bible, and there is no valid reason that discoveries which benefit all of humankind should be met with such resistance.
As science continues to make new discoveries and bring us greater understanding of our world, it takes credibility away from the bible. It reveals the bible stories to be just that – stories: simple explanations for previously unexplainable phenomena. However, once an event has an explanation that is testable and found to be unfalsifiable, it is then a scientific theory and does not require a story to try and make sense of it. Science is not maliciously attacking the bible or its adherents; it is only showing that we have a better understanding of our environment than our ancestors who lived thousands of years ago.
In recent news of Hurricane Isaac, I have observed that there are still some commonplace superstitions today. I came across an article quoting a Katrina survivor named Margaret Thomas, “Isaac is the son of Abraham, it’s a special name that means ‘God will protect us’.” As if God had anything to do with naming the hurricane. The WMO (staffed by humans, for the record) maintains a set of six recurring lists of Atlantic tropical storm names, each containing 21 names alternating between masculine and feminine. In the event that a tropical storm reaches hurricane status it will keep the name (e.g. Tropical storm Isaac becomes Hurricane Isaac), and if that hurricane leaves extensive damage and/or deaths in its wake, then the name is retired and replaced with another beginning with the same letter. However, in the mindset of a believer isn’t God the one who is responsible for creating the hurricane? This contradicts Mrs. Thomas’s logic, meaning “God will protect us from God.”
Nature is indifferent to us, and does not care what we perceive as property damage or loss. Nature is nature, and will do what it does whether we are in its path or not.
NBC news shows a woman named Lisa Haywood leaving New Orleans because she doesn’t trust the $14.5-billion levee and drainage pump system built by the Army Corps of Engineers to protect the city from another flood: “I have faith in God, I don’t have faith in those walls.” (Video Clip, beginning at 1:55) Once again, in the believer’s mindset, isn’t God the one responsible for the hurricane in the first place? I personally find it a little rude that she would say she has faith in the one who could be said to have created the storm in the first place, but doesn’t have confidence in the system put in place to protect her and the rest of the city from said entity.
Through the science of meteorology we have gained an understanding of how weather works, and what we can do to prepare for it. Wind and cloud formations are monitored by satellite, and once a hurricane has been confirmed the data is used to create a computer model and predict the course it shall take. If we can place confidence in the science that warns us of an approaching storm, shouldn’t we also believe that same science when it explains how the storm began and what we can do to prepare for it? If the storm were indeed caused by this alleged ‘God’ fellow, it seems to me that such an all-powerful being ought to be able to target sinful individuals in need of a good smiting rather than groups, or at least protect the innocent from the punishment which is intended for their neighbors… and why is it that his punishments are only able to come in the form of natural weather patterns? Why not a hurricane in Alaska, or a hail storm in Ecuador? Maybe we could forgo the weather bit entirely and He could make a personal appearance to express his disapproval of humankind like a grown-up?
Denial of scientific evidence has been troubling many of our big thinkers these days, including Bill Nye who has attracted quite a bit of attention from a recent Big Think video, entitled “Creationism is Not Appropriate for Children”. At the time of this writing, the video has 4.4-million views and has attracted 155k comments, mostly from “experts” (i.e. common people who do not have a degree in science) claiming that he is stupid and doesn’t know what he’s talking about. This is common; people of this ilk tend to proclaim indisputable knowledge to all of life’s mysteries based on an ancient document, despite scientific research and mounds of evidence to the contrary. For the record, a degree in Theology does not make a scientifically literate individual, and for a layman to contradict what an actual scientist is saying seems a bit like a first grader confidently arguing with his teacher that Q comes after S in the English alphabet, or like a junkie giving sound financial advice to Warren Buffett.
The beauty of these comments is that they are supporting the points that the Science Guy is making in his video.
The creationist’s alleged proof of evolution being falsified is insubstantial, and is merely denial passed on from their pastors and preachers. However, everything that we know about biology today hinges on, and supports the theory of evolution. There are only two reasons to deny this theory: 1) You don’t understand what evolution is or how it works, and 2) It contradicts an idea that you are emotionally attached to.
The way I see it, science and religion are at odds because science has removed the foundation that the House of God was built upon. We all know, and can agree that a house cannot levitate off the ground…so if the foundation suddenly disappears it will fall. Science’s impact on this foundation is like the old tablecloth trick being performed by an untrained showboat – the tablecloth will surely be removed, but it’s going to be a little messy. You don’t want to be in this house when it comes crashing down in the absence of its foundation, so my advice is to pack up your things and move into something a little more stable that will protect you for many more years to come. Oh, and get hurricane insurance if that new place happens to be on the coast.
One winter evening in December of 1981, I was sitting down to watch Frosty the Snowman with my mom. I was excited; I loved Christmas time and everything that came with it: the sense of family closeness, watching snow fall outside from the comfort of our cozy living room, the wonderful holiday television programs that were broadcast every year, and of course – the presents. I was so content in the moment, I wasn’t even aware that anything could change that. Then it happened… The Talk.
“So, you do realize Santa isn’t real, right?”
My mother’s words slammed into me with unimaginable force. It was that feeling of reality suddenly rushing in that gives the sensation of an unexpected punch to the nose – followed by the idea that one might not be present in the here and now. Perhaps this could be a dream state? The overwhelming shock dissipated as the imagined silence ringing in my ears gave way again to the sounds of my surroundings, and I could hear my mom saying my name, “Did you hear me?” Not a question of malice, but from her perspective it probably appeared that I simply did not hear what she had asked. Perhaps I didn’t turn as pale as I felt.
Everything felt to be in slow motion for the next several seconds as I contemplated what I had just heard. “That can’t be right,” I thought to myself, “I must have heard that wrong.” I turned to her, hoping my ears had deceived me and asked, “What?” She repeated, “You do know that Santa isn’t real, right?” and my only response this time was a full blown meltdown. I began crying and babbling incoherently, “No, he’s real, he has to be real! Why are you lying to me?” I wanted so badly for her to take it back; I wanted her to be wrong. I would have given anything for Santa to be real again.
I was devastated. I had so many thoughts whipping around in my young mind, so many questions: What does this do to Christmas? Does this mean the presents will stop? Does this mean we won’t be taking the annual trips to Grandma and Grandpa’s anymore? Do I have to go to school during Christmas Vacation now? No, it doesn’t mean any of these things. As it turned out, everything stayed about the same, including the decorations of Santa and his reindeer. The only real difference was that the presents in the stocking hung by the chimney with such care now said, “From Mom & Dad.” Oh yes, and now I was no longer obligated to save any of those delightful Christmas cookies for Santa.
I contemplate this memory now, imagining that this might be why religious people have such a hard time letting go of God. I only held the Santa belief for a handful of years, and the only real consequence to it being untrue was that a man in a red suit would no longer break into our house in the middle of the night to give me stuff. Yet it caused so much heartache to be told my precious myth wasn’t true. I can only imagine how much more difficult a belief held for 20 or more years would be to let go, especially when eternal paradise is at stake!
Even when presented with empirical evidence, the devout often find an irrational explanation to justify remaining in their comfort zone. Quite often, this explanation involves “God’s plan” or “The devil did it” – such as believing they had been born into a Catholic family rather than a Hindu family simply because God wanted them to be born of the ‘one true faith’; or that the divinity of Jesus closely resembles so many gods before him because Lucifer went back in time and placed false evidence to instill doubt in all of us. If we entertain the possibility that Satan actually does exist (he doesn’t), I would think that if he were capable of time travel he could use this power to inflict greater damage to God than simple mischief… but i suspect this notion would simply be irrationally dismissed with another explanation of God’s greater plan.
The mind of a believer wants to think that life does not have any meaning or purpose without God, and that therefore the fact they have meaning in their life proves the existence of God. This is like saying that the holiday of Christmas doesn’t exist without Santa. Your life has whatever meaning or purpose you assign it, whether you are career-oriented, want to raise a family, or contribute to world peace. I was upset by the loss of my imaginary gift-bringer, but the tradition of family cheer and gift giving went on without ol’ Saint Nick, just as a life full of beauty, wonder and meaning goes on after you kiss your God goodbye.
“In the year 2000, all the rich people are going to put everything they own into the street, and anyone can go and take whatever they want.” This is what my older brother told me when I was very young. I looked up to him as a role model, and I loved this idea; this meant (to me) that if I wanted something that was unobtainable, then all I would have to do was ride out the hardship until 2000. I guess I had thought that whatever it was that I wanted would have been easy to find, wherever it happened to be in all the heaps of stuff in the street. Perhaps it would be more like Xmas morning, supposing I didn’t know what I wanted with absolute certainty, and whatever I managed to get my hands on would be the greatest thing I could imagine. If I didn’t like what I got, then I could always take it back and exchange it, or sell it to someone and walk away with the cash, right? Whatever the case may be, I loved this idea and looked forward to the turn of the century.
I have several memories throughout my childhood of wandering back to this idea; it was my happy thought for any occasion. “I’m pretty sure I just bombed that test, but it’s okay, ’cause in 2000 it won’t matter – when the rich leave all their stuff in the street, I’ll have so much cool stuff that I won’t ever have to work anyway.” It also made good fodder for general daydreaming, “I’m gonna have the coolest red Lamborghini when I’m grown up, ’cause some rich guy is just gonna hand the keys over to me!”
I didn’t ever consider why they would do this. Is it altruism at its purest? Or was there a law that demanded this? Maybe it’s just something that people do at the end of every century to balance things out. Who knows, but who cares, just so long as it happens? I never even bothered to think about what these rich people would do after relinquishing all their possessions; maybe they would just become wanderers and nomads, or maybe they were all going someplace special where they wouldn’t need these things. The bottom line was that I’d be taken care of and I wouldn’t have to worry about mundane things like a job or balancing a checkbook. I also knew that I had to be very careful not to accidentally become rich, because I didn’t want to have to give all my stuff away!
I vaguely recall my last hopeful memory of this thought. I was in 5th grade, my family had recently moved to a new state (Utah) halfway through the school year, and I was miserable. I missed my old friends, I hated my new school, and I didn’t seem to fit in with this new group of kids. It was midday, just after a lunch recess, and the class was lined up outside of the locked classroom door, waiting for the teacher to return. I thought to myself, “I can’t wait ’til 2000, then none of this will matter. I won’t have to go to school anymore or anything!” And then a new thought bubbled up, “How old will I be then? Well let’s see… I suppose I’ll be about… 25! So I may have to get a job for a little while, but it doesn’t have to be a good one.” I then decided to share my thoughts with the kid standing next to me, “Hey, did you hear that in 2000, all the rich people are gonna give all their stuff away and we can just have it all?” to which he replied, “Why would they do that? That’s dumb!” My immediate reaction was anger: “They just will, that’s why!”
I was angry because he questioned a belief that I held very near and dear, but this kid’s response got me thinking… He dared to ask the question I had never thought to ask: Why would they do that? That is dumb! After giving it a little more thought, it hit me… I’d been punked! I felt like an idiot for blindly believing this for so many years (To a 5th grader, ‘a few years’ translates into ‘so many years’). At first I was disappointed with the realization that I was going to have to work in order to provide for myself, but I came to accept it. Then in my teen years, this changed to “I don’t need to do well in school because none of it will matter when I’m a famous rock star!”… but that’s another story in itself, about a dimly lit, long and winding treacherous pathway with evils lurking around every corner. Another time, perhaps.
The bottom line is this: young kids will believe anything that someone of authority tells them. It was harmless enough in this case, and I have no ill will towards my brother; in fact he was my best friend and mentor when I was growing up. He probably thought I wouldn’t take him seriously, and given that I never discussed it with him again, he most likely assumed I had dismissed it as the nonsense that it was. But what if this had been something bigger? In this fable, in order to qualify as a recipient of the wealth, one simply needed to not be wealthy. But what if there were a whole set of qualifiers, such as one could never eat pizza again? Or jump rope on Wednesday afternoon between 4 and 6 o’clock? Or that boys were required to always pee sitting down, because doing so whilst standing is unsanitary and inevitably leads to seat sprinkles? And what if I had been told that there were tests that would be performed prior to receiving the goods, to make sure that I had obeyed these orders and had never strayed? And what if that one kid had believed me, and we spread the word to all our classmates? Well then, we would have been on a mission, and we would have had a moral obligation to tell everyone they had to remain poor, or they were going to have to give all their stuff away. But it would be worth it, because in the end we would all live prosperously.
Does this sound familiar? This is religion, in a nutshell. It starts with the parent telling the child that this is how things are, and this is what he has to do, and if he doesn’t do these things then not only will he forego the goods, but he will spend a very long time in a very unpleasant place. Also, he can never see/hear/touch any proof of this, and if he questions its existence then he will still go to that unpleasant place in the end. To a child’s mind, this is reasonable; If mom & dad say so, then it must be true, and even more so if the preacher backs it up. If he goes to a church every week that is filled with other people who also say it is so, this reaffirms the belief. The world is very small to a child, and heaven sounds like a wonderful place where he can roll around in the clouds and have fun all day long; he can do whatever he wants, eat anything he desires, and nothing can ever cause him harm. Furthermore, all those people who make him mad don’t get to go there, and he can laugh at their eternal misery. So what does he have to lose in believing this? It sounds very comforting to know the future holds such wonderful things!
But what of those other people who believe something similar, but not quite the same? A child wouldn’t stop to think that maybe those people are right and his ideas are wrong, because after all, his ideas came from his parents who are infallible (in his young mind, at any rate). So if someone believes something else, then it stands to reason that those people are the ones in error, and they’ll surely be surprised at the end! It has to be this way, it can’t be possible that everyone is correct, because everyone knows there is only one true god. Seems plausible, right?
I see so many red flags in all this that scream, “It’s a scam!” so why doesn’t everyone else see this? The answer can only be that they were raised to never question it for fear of stiff penalties, so they believe it is better to just keep their heads down and to keep the faith.