Science and the Religious Impulse

Creationism? Trumpism? Science denialism? Religious Fundamentalism?
The religious impulse gone wild within a world in intellectual decline.

Photo by Kyle Johnson on Unsplash

As a boy, I learnt children’s Bible stories: Adam and Eve being banished from Paradise as punishment for gaining knowledge, God committing genocide upon the whole Earth except for Noah and his ark, David brutally slaying Goliath, God killing the Egyptian babies, and Jesus being nailed to a cross. You know, all the Bible stories deemed to be fun and fit for children.

And yet the story of Doubting Thomas is the one that possibly captured my childhood imagination the most: the Apostle Thomas, upon being told that Jesus had returned from the dead, skeptically stated that he would not believe the claim until he was able to physically see and touch the evidence for himself (a demand that was jointly both a bit eeew and a bit awesome – kind of like Ben Hur Meets the Walking Dead).

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

To my childhood mind, Doubting Thomas was uber-cool. He was the only scientist in the Bible. I could imagine Thomas’ skepticism on also being told that Jesus had walked on water; should he check for water skis? When Jesus performed a cheap magic trick by making money appear in a fish’s mouth, did Thomas pull out a magnifying glass and check for fingerprints? Responding to the claim that Jesus had physically ascended into heaven, did Thomas pilot an Apollo lunar module up into the skies to investigate? Doubting Thomas was a Bronze Age Sherlock Holmes and a role model for all thinking, rational people. Richard Dawkins has even proclaimed Thomas to be, ‘The Patron Saint of Scientists‘.

Sadly, the story of Doubting Thomas is a morality tale – for all the wrong reasons – among many modern religious thinkers and conspiracy theorist types: Thomas was chastised by Jesus for his skepticism, and was encouraged to believe by faith alone rather than require empirical evidence. Thomas may have been a cool dude, but his intellectual rigour was apparently his moral weakness. Thus we see one of the most insidious aspects of religion: its potential for anti-scientific and anti-intellectual pretension.

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil

I acknowledge the duality within religion: like all inventions of humanity, it has the potential for great good as well as great evil. A popular assertion is that religion has been shown in scientific studies to be good for us – even good for non-religious people. Transcendance, peace, charity and consolation are often proclaimed as being outcomes of religious benevolence. Of course, this ignores the fact that religion has also been responsible for a great deal of bigotry, suffering and other negativity in world history, and the reality is that even at its most benevolent, religion cannot claim a monopoly upon beneficial life experiences. Perhaps an apt summary of religion’s somewhat ambiguous role in society might best be expressed: “Religion has often been a vehicle for intolerance and fundamentalism; religion has been used as an excuse for persecution and war. But, religion in its purest form has provided many benefits for humanity.”

When speaking about the tree of knowledge of good and evil, religion was surely describing itself. To paraphrase Eckhart Tolle, humanity created god – and religions – in its own image.

The Evolution of Religion

Where did the religious impulse originate within the human species? What evolutionary purpose might it serve: perhaps to assist in survival of communities bonded together in devotional benevolence or cultural tribalism? How can such an impulse prosper within societies when it has potentially dubious benefits for individuals? Richard Dawkins suggests: “I think there was something built into the human brain by natural selection which was once useful and which now manifests itself under civilised conditions as religion, but which used not to be religion when it first arose, and when it was useful.”

He offers one possible example of the kind of survival mechanism involved:

“For excellent reasons related to Darwinian survival, child brains need to trust parents, and elders whom parents tell them to trust. An automatic consequence is that the truster has no way of distinguishing good advice from bad. The child cannot know that ‘Don’t paddle in the crocodile-infested Limpopo’ is good advice but ‘You must sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon, otherwise the rains will fail’ is at best a waste of time and goats. Both admonitions sound equally trustworthy. Both come from a respected source and are delivered with a solemn earnestness that commands respect and demands obedience.”
The God Delusion, p. 176.

I like the idea that religion might be some vestigial evolutionary mechanism involving teaching children unquestioning deference as a means of ensuring survival of the next generation. We see that same juvenile mindset in the conflating of Santa Claus with God. However, in recent decades, we have also seen the rise of this somewhat immature religious impulse fueling a cultural explosion of anti-science, anti-intellectual nonsense, and personality cults ranging from gurus and celebrities to politicians. As a result, we are in the midst of a pandemic – not COVID-19 or another biological attack upon our species – but an anti-intellectual pandemic that threatens to take our species back to the Stone Age. Although we live in the greatest scientific age in history, we also have a shameful amount of pseudo-scientific, ignorant drivel being peddled everywhere from nursery to nursing home.

“That’s Your Opinion”

The insidious dualism of religion can be found in our cultural and intellectual landscape. Religion has inspired much art, literature, and scholarly inquiry – including pre-Enlightenment humanism. Yet it has also, in its modern fundamentalist form, opposed science, intellect and inquiry – not a surprising outcome for those who follow a text in which the token scientist is lambasted. It is this same anti-intellectual syndrome that has expanded across populist culture.

I had a revelation when I was aged fourteen, during the peak popularity of the UFO craze. Entranced by the spookiness and excitement of it all, I came to realise that I could just as easily (and I did!) make up my own, fictional, stories of alien visitation to spook my gullible school friends. Incredibly, I realised the crazier my story, the more they seemed to actually want to believe it. To this day, I suspect that such modern mythologies are a means for people to feel special or to claim undeserved expertise.

Faith that requires unquestioning acceptance in the absence of evidence – the religious midset – is absolutely not equal to the rigours of scientific inquiry. Yet the popular false equivalence between faith and science can be seen when debating adherents of pseudoscientific ideas, where scientific rebuttals have often been met with a dismissive retort: “That’s your opinion.” The common misunderstanding here is that because everyone has an equal right to hold an opinion, all opinions are therefore equal. However, they are not all equal, nor do they deserve equal respect or deference. An opinion that is backed by scientific evidence, informed research, and which defers to expertise, is one that presents a much stronger case than one based upon faith, ignorance, misinformation, or a few conspiracy theory videos and websites.

Sadly, our modern cultural template seems to be that an armchair expert’s self-declared PhD in alternate facts somehow qualifies them to claim kudos equivalent to that of genuinely qualified, peer reviewed experts who have spent a lifetime in scientific or academic study. In our common culture, astrology is equal to astronomy, mysticism is equal to medicine, and uninformed opinion is equal to scientific fact – because proof (or lack of it) is irrelevant. Those who subscribe to this religious methodology fail to grasp the importance of the aphorism attributed to Walter Kotschnig who warned us: “Don’t keep your minds so open that your brains fall out.”

Despite some effort by religious apologists to redefine his skepticism, the story of Doubting Thomas is a wonderful parable regarding the power of critical thinking and intellectual inquiry over superstition and gullibility. We must not confuse his skeptical thinking with the uncritical acceptance of unsupported claims and pseudo sciences, televangelical rhetoric, or conspiracy theories. The philosophy of anti-intellectualism has most recently gained pride of place in a culture that values superstition over science, or a sound byte over a sound mind. People who value critical thought must take a stand against such populist piffle. Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit is a good stepping stone in teaching people how to think, not what to think. More than that, we must address the underlying emotional needs for significance that make conspiracy theories and pseudosciences so popular:

“Pseudoscience speaks to powerful emotional needs
that science often leaves unfulfilled” – Carl Sagan.

In a story about religious reverence and rationalization, Doubting Thomas instead demanded relentless rationality and reason. While crowds compliantly queued up for loaves and fishes, he alone sought learning and facts. If I recall correctly, he made very little other contribution to the Bible story – and yet it was enough.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn