For most ecclesiastical leaders and theologians, the so-called revealed truths contained in religious scriptures allegedly written under the inspiration of God are unassailable. Indeed, in their reckoning, such “divinely revealed truths” are superior to verifiable information about the objective world generated through scientific investigation.
The fundamental problem with religion with respect to truth is that the believer is cocksure that he is right because he has read the truth from a certain holy book and knows, in advance, that nothing will make him change his mind. Therefore, the truth of the holy book is an axiom accepted a priori, not the end product of the process of reasoning or painstaking research.
For a devout believer or fundamentalist, the holy scripture is true, and if the evidence appears to contradict it, that evidence must either be ignored, jettisoned or – the option favoured by theologians – “interpreted with the guidance of the Holy Spirit” to the extent that it loses its real meaning or evidential value. In my opinion, the elevation of faith above scientific research is the homage ignorance pays to intellectual laziness and dishonesty.
Now, a dispassionate reading of religious scriptures, including holy books belonging to the Abrahamic faiths, indicate that what passes for “revealed truth” is fiction blended with verifiable historical facts. In otherwords, “the word of God” is oftentimes the expression of the culturally conditioned fears, hopes, dreams, anxieties, and aspirations of certain individuals who lived thousands of years ago when techno-scientific knowledge of reality was yet to emerge and become a dominant force in the daily lives of individuals.
Consequently, because the unconditional certainty of faith cannot be brought into accord with the changing revisable results of scientific research that tend to undermine the teachings of religion, ecclesiastical authorities and prominent theologians have for centuries engaged in futile attempts to stifle the growth of science. To be candid, there is hardly any advancement in science that was not fiercely opposed by agents of religion. This point is well corroborated by the persecution of great scientists and innovators whose accomplishments have enriched human civilisation.
For example, the Catholic Church persecuted Galileo in the sixteenth century mainly because he supported the heliocentric theory which contradicted Ptolemy’s geocentric theory favoured by the Church; three centuries later Christian apologists subjected Charles Darwin to relentless vicious obloquy because of his theory of evolution, a highly plausible scientific construct that seriously undermined creation myths in the “holy” scriptures. In our own day, researchers working tirelessly to find a cure for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) were severely criticised by some evangelical pastors who accused them of trying to subvert the judgement of God against those involved in sexual promiscuity!
For a secular humanist like me, religion, by teaching children, right from infancy, that unquestioning faith is a virtue, severely weakens the very fountain that nourishes the quest for truth – curiosity blended with intellectual honesty. Religious faith not only stifles the quest for knowledge; it creates and perpetuates conditions for the negation of knowledge. As Sam Harris correctly observed in his book we referred to earlier, “The danger of religious faith is that it allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy. Because each new generation of children is taught that religious propositions need not be justified in the way that others must, civilisation is still besieged by the armies of the preposterous. We are, even now, killing ourselves over ancient literature. Who would have thought something so tragically absurd could be possible?”
Some might argue that religion has also contributed to the growth of science, to the development of human knowledge in general. Superficially, this appears to be so. However, the contribution of religion to knowledge is incidental, an epiphenomenon in the same way fiction or falsehood can be said to have contributed to man’s cognitive development. Genuine knowledge is premised on the autonomy of reason and evidence in an atmosphere of untrammelled competition of ideas and theories, which is at odds with religious faith in the inerrancy of “sacred” or “holy” books. The DNA of religion is actually toxic to scientific knowledge because whereas religion is based on the will to believe no matter the evidence, science proceeds on the assumption that it is the tribunal of experience, the real world, that determines which theories among competing alternatives should be accepted for the time being.
We have already noted the case of Kurt Wise, who aborted a promising career in geology because of religion. Blaise Pascal, the great French mathematician, was derailed from his mathematical researches due to preoccupation with sterile theological issues. It is not really difficult to understand how strong religious faith would have ruined the scientific careers of countless number of researchers who either aborted some research programmes because of scriptural passages that tended to proscribe such research or because their findings would likely explode a cherished article of faith.
Some Christian apologists have tried to hide or explain away the epistemological poverty of religion through various strategies such as “demythologisation theology” or by putting together voluminous tedious and tiresome writings that create the false impression of substantial theological knowledge, as in the works of Al Ghazzali, St. Thomas Aquinas, Avicenna, Averroes, Maimonides, Karl Rahner, Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich, etc. The fact is that theology offers an echo of knowledge, not real knowledge, which was why Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States of America (1801-1809), declared that a professorship of theology should have no place in our institution.
Aside from its epistemological barrenness, secular humanists have challenged the kind of morality that flows from religion. Every religion offers a set of moral principles allegedly laid down by God. Therefore, ethical absolutism is characteristic of faith-based morality. But there is a problem with basing morality on God.
For example, should one obey the Ten Commandments because God purportedly issued them or because they are appropriate principles for sane and responsible living in the society? If one should obey the moral law because it came from God, on what basis did God select one set of moral rules out of other possible alternatives? Another problem with religious morality is the fear-and-favour psychology that underpins it.
Christianity and Islam have elevated this kind of morality to the status of a categorical imperative by proposing heaven for those who obey God’s moral injunctions and hell fire for the disobedient ones. Although there are nuances and complications about this white-or-black eschatology in both religions, there is no doubt that Christian and Islamic morality is framed in a “carrot and stick” scaffolding. But a little reflection would show the gross inadequacies of this kind of morality. First, it tends to make morality an imposition from an external authority – God. Now, supposing the individual no longer believes in God, does it mean that everything would be permissible? Certainly not, because as rational social animals we can formulate and imbibe non-theistic moral principles that would allow us live harmoniously with fellow human beings and with other members of the biotic community.