Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Belief is not a Virtue

It is a common misconception among religious people, and because of its constant utterance even some secular people have subscribed to it, that belief in God is a virtue. Absolute faith is praised as a noble virtue, as something positive to be sought after.

The reason for this misconception is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of belief. The truth is: belief is not a choice. Belief is a direct reflection of something we hold true. You cannot believe something while simultaneously thinking it to be untrue. To put it in our terms, one cannot believe in God without also thinking that he actually exists. Therefore, what you think to be true you will believe in, and vice versa. This point is obvious, yet overlooked. If one doubts the truth of this notion, one should attempt not believing something he knows to be true, or believing something he knows is not. 

The first time I was informed that belief is not choice I was still a believer in God and almost immediately rejected the idea. It was only after stammering out a pathetic response to this claim, that I began to comprehend its validity. As a believer it was very humbling to suddenly realize that what I had once held as a virtue of mine was merely a reaction to an idea I had already accepted. 

People generally wish to be considered virtuous to themselves and more so to their friends. It is for this reason that we are so easily convinced that belief in God is a virtue. Belief in God for believers is not a difficult thing to retain. A believer can then be virtuous by the mere act of being himself! Even in the face of the worst suffering, so long as the believer still thinks that the notion of God is true, the most he will feel is anger or hatred toward God. Though the believer may overcome his anger and confuse this with choosing belief over disbelief -- and thereby feel virtuous -- he has done nothing more than fall back in love with an idea he never doubted.

I suspect that the origin of this misconception, promulgated by almost every religion, is far more sinister than simply wishing to be virtuous. When someone thinks that he chooses to believe in God, he then thinks of himself as better than he who doubts God. For as he chooses, so does the skeptic. The believer will then at best, pity the non-believer as we see in the more benign christian sects, and at worst, hate the nonbeliever, as we see in the fundamentalist Islamic regimes of today. Religion therefore sets itself apart from the secular as they who choose to believe in God against those who choose to disbelieve in him. 

Once we can admit that belief in God is nothing more than a reflection of what we consider a fact about reality, we can understand the great fallacy in blaming someone for doubting God, or praising one who doesn't. Of course, since our beliefs represent what we consider to be an actual state of reality, it behooves us then to have some evidence for this claim. Is this not the rule regarding everything else? This is why all religious people whom I have met have called on some personal experience, or reasonable argument, or piece of evidence that resonated with them as the reason they believe. I suspect it would be very hard to find a true believer in any religion who does so without some reason or another, at least not admittedly so.

When the reason for belief is challenged in the mind of the believer -- when he actually doubts the principles of his faith -- he will be compelled to find an answer of sorts to quiet his doubts. If he cannot find one, he may begin to doubt other points of his faith, and may eventually leave his faith entirely. What brilliance of certain religions then, to make belief a virtue and doubt a sin! 

The "virtue" religion is actually referring to is that of allowing oneself to be credulous to the supernatural, obedient to the religious authority, and to not question the "truths" it espouses. They seek not to excite your investigative mind, but rather to inspire your feeble heart. Why else would religion praise blind faith over honest skepticism, if not to keep the wolves far away from the sheep? 

Doubt too is not a choice. One can only choose to question the assumptions he has been taught. One can look for truth at the risk of his convictions. One can choose to be unafraid of what one might find... does this not seem virtuous? 

It is the skeptic who stands in opposition to religious dogmas, or societal convictions. He casts aside any unproven claims about reality and ventures forth to see them for himself. He does not wish to be told that faith requires him to not know, for to him that sounds suspicious and rather stupid. He does not need some clergymen to lead him shackled and comfortable; he is brave enough to face reality on his own... as a free man. 

Doubt has another feature that sets it as more positive than belief. It was best said by the English actor Sir Peter Ustinov: "Beliefs are what divide people. Doubt unites them." Doubt is the function of being unsure about a given proposition and therefore not willing to die or kill for it. How quickly peace among men could flourish, if we could only admit our own ignorance.  

It is humility (an actual virtue) to know the limits of man's knowledge. It is noble to admit those points of which he is ignorant, and it is brave to face this mysterious world as a man of doubt. It would seem then, that the path to doubt is the virtuous one, a path found only through honest questions, and an open mind. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Are Science and Religion Partners?

Pope Francis has recently announced that he believes in the Big Bang theory and has reaffirmed that religion is compatible with science. He is not the first religious person to make such claims. Maimonides claimed that science has precedence to religion in matters regarding the laws of nature. Rabbi Abraham Kook, the chief of rabbi of Palestine in 1921, said regarding scientific discovery that: "In general this is an important principle in the conflict of ideas, that when an idea comes to negate some teaching in the Torah, we must not, to begin with, reject it, but build the edifice of the Torah above it, and thereby we ascend higher, and through this ascent, the ideas are clarified." Rabbi Jonathon Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, wrote a comprehensive book entitled: "The Great Partnership: Science, religion, and the search for meaning."

It would seem that religion, and Judaism in particular, has come to terms with the validity of scientific discoveries, and have found ways that these new discoveries serve to enhance their belief in God. How many less people would have been tortured and killed had the Catholic Church respected what science had to say in the centuries passed?

When I was believer I manged to accept that science simply showed us how God created the world. As a child I had studied under rabbis who taught that the dinosaur fossils were sent by God to test the faithful and confuse the heretics. The one time I remember learning about evolution in my elementary school was when one rabbi exclaimed: "If evolution is true, why are there still monkeys?!" The students laughed at the silly scientists, and the class continued. However, these cases are extreme and are fundamentalist views according to many leading rabbis, as shown above. In my later adolescent years I modified my religious belief to include respect of science.

Religion use to be afraid of science, but religious faith has adapted and evolved to be impenetrable by reason or evidence to the contrary. Every new discovery no matter how contradictory to the Bible will be accepted as God's tool. They have learned to embrace science as a branch of theology. Religious leaders no longer need to be worried about scientific discoveries since their faith and the faith of their people do not rest within this world. Their God is beyond this physical existence, therefore though he cannot be proved, he cannot be disproved. Why then should religion be wary of discoveries that can only affect this physical existence?

It would seem that religion is compatible with science; but is science compatible with religion? I do not think it to be. Science is based on the principles of testable theories, observable experiments, and, perhaps most in contrast to religion, that no "truth" is sacred and cannot be later proven wrong. There is no dogma in science. No principles one must accept without evidence. Scientists are always aware that at any moment some piece of newly discovered evidence can change the way we view the universe entirely; and they seek it! It was the scientific mind that first challenged the notion that the world was flat, or that the biblical creation narrative was accurate. Where would we be without the scientists? Indeed, we would be right where are superstitious, ignorant, ancestors were, would we not?

This idea of questioning assumptions, challenging common sense, and commitment to evidence, has propelled us from shepherds to astronauts, from creatures within the universe to its observers! It is this passion to know the universe, the humility to accept our ignorance, and our defiance of dogma, that permitted us to see beyond the stars, and below the deep dark oceans.

Religion cannot be compatible with science so long as it makes claims about the way the world is. Though the clergymen who have stopped condemning science have certainly helped it move along undisturbed, religion and science are still antipodal ways of discovering the universe. I am certainly pleased that religion has begun to accept science, for as I said, scientists will no longer be hunted down and silenced the way they once were, but there is still a gap the size of God that creates the dissonance between science and religion. Science may be a great partner for religious moderates, but religion is certainly no partner of science.