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A secular humanist critique of religion (2)

By Douglas Anele

Like other psychological traits the combination of which, with physical and intellectual attributes, constitute human nature, faith and fear are not necessarily harmful. Faith, in the sense of tentative conviction about something or acceptance of a belief inspite of insufficient evidence, is rational and justified as long as the individual is willing to change his or her mind when better evidence supporting the contrary view becomes available.

Now, consider the kind of irrational faith at the core of religion, which is at odds with the appropriate quantum of healthy scepticism advocated by humanists. Kurt Wise, an American geologist, had a promising academic career in geology and palaeontology, having studied at the University of Chicago and Harvard University under renowned scientists. Unfortunately, he allowed fundamentalist belief in the inerrancy of biblical stories to scuttle his scientific ambition.

In a fit of religious epiphany, Wise declared that “if all the evidence turns against creationism [in favour of evolution], I would be the first to admit it, but I will still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand.” As this above clearly indicates, the kind of irrational faith fostered by religion is inimical to reason and the growth of scientific knowledge. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to overestimate the number of people whose lives and legitimate dreams, hopes and aspirations had been completely shattered by dogmatic acceptance of the truth of so-called divinely inspired scriptures.

The destructive blend of faith and fear engendered superstitions that, in turn, have led to unnecessary slaughter of countless number of human beings and animals. An obvious example is the ancient practice of sacrificing humans and animals to appease different Gods, for the improvement of agricultural production and for magical practices connected with religion.

bibleNow, because the cruelty of killing people and animals was sublimated in the feeling of religious obligation and piety or as an act of true worship, a fiendish mindset gradually evolved which permitted devout believers to differentiate themselves from unbelievers, ascribe high moral value to asceticism and contemplate with satisfaction the alleged eternal tortures of heretics in hellfire after judgement by God. Cruel subjugation of women, the Crusades and Inquisition, persecution of scientists and ‘heretics,’ murderous jihads, the support of slavery and fascist regimes, internecine conflict among religious groups and, in our day, terrorism – all this contradict the self-serving claim of religious apologists that religion is a force for peace, compassion and love.

Narrowing it down to Nigeria, one must mention specifically the cruel torture of innocent children accused of witchcraft by lunatic Pentecostal church pastors, based on the bloodthirsty biblical text that “thou shall not suffer a witch to live.” Although it would be difficult to provide exact figures, it is probably true that since 1914 when the British created Nigeria, Christians and Muslims have killed more people than were killed during the intertribal conflicts that preceded amalgamation.

As a corollary, the wickedness and evil perpetrated by believers are usually motivated by belief in a divine mission. This is particularly true of missionary religions like Christianity and Islam. Christians and Muslims have inflicted upon the world some of the greatest evils ever experienced by humans because they were absolutely convinced that God is on their side, that senseless slaughter of fellow human beings is justified as long as it is carried out in God’s name. This attitude stems from uncritical acceptance of what is written in the Holy Bible and the Holy Koran. It is unfortunate that religion makes people to feel quite certain about something which is at best doubtful.

Ascertaining the truth about some of the most fundamental issues in human existence is quite challenging and more demanding than most people realise, which implies that to act as most religious devotees do with ruthless determination that their religion has a monopoly of truth is to invite disaster. One of the most reasonable advise ever given was by Cromwell to the Scots before the battle of Dunbar: “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”

A devout Christian or Muslim would likely ignore Cromwell because, as I argued earlier, religious conviction, especially the kind manifested by a preponderance of believers worldwide, makes no room for scepticism by precluding a priori the possibility of error. Conviction about the unassailable truth of religious scriptures, aside from providing the psychological underpinning of religious wars, causes discrimination based on mode of worship.

The Abrahamic religions mentioned earlier, while claiming that all human beings, as children of God, are created equal, also endorse the atavistic concept of “the chosen people.” Of course, once the claim is made that God has chosen a certain group of people because of either race or mode of worship, a first class ticket to the evils of discrimination has just been issued. There is enough historical evidence that any group of human beings who generally see themselves as a special community chosen by God to accomplish a divine mission would try hard to impose their beliefs on others.

Worse still, fear of being contaminated by “pagans” compels “the chosen ones” to take drastic measures, particularly war, to prevent it. Sam Harris has masterfully argued in The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, that fear of contamination is key to understanding the proclivity of religious  extremists for fighting ferocious Jihads against infidels; it also explain why they insist on creating a purist Caliphate and on rigid compliance to the injunctions in the Holy Koran and the hadith.

quran1Connected to the fact that religion is primarily based on fear and faith is its cavalier attitude to truth, in the fundamental sense of correspondence of beliefs and propositions with facts or reality. The idea of truth is basic in everything we do as humans; it is the compass that guides us in our theoretical and practical pursuits. Truth gives meaning and coherence to our beliefs and activities. Generally, truth is understood intuitively as the correspondence of beliefs with what is out there in the world. But In philosophy, it is not that simple. Whereas idealist philosophers tend to propose coherence of beliefs as the touchstone of truth, pragmatists maintain that a belief or idea is true if “it works” in practice.

Some philosophers, especially F.P. Ramsey, have even suggested that the concept of truth is redundant. However, despite disagreements among philosophers concerning the concept of truth, few will dispute the notion that a true idea or belief must be in accord with reality, with the way things really are in the world. It may sound ironic to say that religion does not take the concept of truth seriously, as it ought to, given that the scriptures purportedly contain divinely inspired truths. Nevertheless, when one considers that for believers, the most important truths about the universe are in religious scriptures which must not be challenged let alone be superseded by research findings in science, the feeling of irony disappears.

The idea of ‘revealed truth’ that is superior to scientific knowledge opens the door to intellectual and epistemological retardation because it allows apologists of faith, especially those with highfalutin academic or ecclesiastical titles, to believe and justify absurdities with tendentious verbose arguments without qualms.

In my opinion, anybody that advocates the superiority of so-called unimpugnable ‘revealed truth’ over truth arrived at through painstaking scientific investigation is not genuinely interested in understanding the objective world. From what is known about the universe, dating back to the time when humans took the first tentative steps to understand the world and themselves, we have learned that the most reliable method for discovering truths is scientific research, not by arbitrarily designating propositions in religious texts as revealed truths.

And given that different religious scriptures contain contradictory revelations, it is logically impossible for all of them to be true although they might all be false. Religion oftentimes elevates dubious propositions and outright falsehoods uttered by some ignorant pastoral peoples of old to the privileged position of sacred truth knowable through religious or mystical experience.

To be continued.

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