Thursday, September 24, 2009

Religion is already dead - it just doesn't know it yet

Like the cartoon character that steps off a cliff yet falls only after looking down, religion has already taken its first tentative steps off the cliff. Religious practitioners and congregants alike may have yet to consciously acknowledge it but many if not most are all too well aware of the preposterousness of the central stories underlying their shared dogmas, clinging to them and desperately pretending that they don’t see the elephant in the room; professing to believe even as they privately and in some cases only subconsciously recognize those ideas for the nonsense that they are.

People living in the real world are continually faced with the contradictions between the biblical stories to which they’ve been indoctrinated on the one hand, and their own direct observations of the world on the other, augmented of course by the enormous and continually growing body of scientifically explored and documented evidence. Even as they are exposed to the false controversies promulgated by those with an agenda to perpetuate religious ideas, attempting to present science’s inherent strengths, significantly the necessity to discard or refine earlier theories to explain new evidence, as though these were some sort of weakness – a lack of certainty, of strength of belief, held as a virtue by the religious but in fact a recipe for ignorance and stagnation – most people at some level recognize the basic flaw in the religious thinking and partition their own minds to try and accommodate both the religious ideas and their own limited understanding of reality. While the average citizen’s understanding of science and the scientific method is quite limited and most religious people’s scientific understanding is muddier still, the practical results of scientific examination of the world are real and have enabled great accomplishments that cannot be ignored. Faced with this contradiction, many will take refuge in their religious teachings, publically insisting on their “truth” while privately knowing that this position is untenable, incompatible with reality. Even (perhaps especially) clergy members, steeped in religious teachings and traditions, must be exerting considerable energy to shield their religious ideas from the onslaught of the obvious.

The battle of course is not between religion and science. Science is merely the most effective means we have yet developed to investigate reality, challenge and verify what is discovered, to discard whatever does not withstand the scrutiny, and document and disseminate the resulting information. Science is the messenger. The message is what the world really is, exposed through science to ever increasingly fine resolution and accuracy. Unable to provide substantive arguments against the message, many who have a vested interest in perpetuating existing religious establishments and the ideas they represent and the power they wield over the masses, instead target the messenger, treating science as though it were their enemy.

In order to survive, religion must keep its adherents ignorant. Until relatively recently this was much easier, but with the advent of the modern media and the growth over the past decade of the Internet and the World Wide Web, cultivating ignorance requires inoculating the ‘faithful’ against the torrent of information so widely available today, and tainting that information to whatever extent possible with ‘alternative’ interpretations, no matter how silly. To that end, they actively and deliberately misrepresent what science is and what it can teach us, in the various media including the Web, and in many cases try, in effect, to vandalize the teaching of science by attempting to insert religious nonsense into the curriculum. This tactic, at best disingenuous, ultimately cannot succeed. Reality is what it is. Insisting it is otherwise is an enormous waste of resources that would be better spent learning. Actively damaging our educational system threatens the very future of our civilization.

Even people who outwardly profess strong religious beliefs are privately driven to question the veracity of those beliefs as they struggle to reconcile them with their own experiences. Often they consult their clergy and others they’ve been raised to believe are knowledgeable in such matters. This of course serves to reinforce the ideas that underlie the conflict they seek to resolve. Others cling on moral grounds*. Left to their own devices, without professional reinforcers, most would eventually reject the religious ideas, contradicted as they are by nearly everything in their actual experience, their insistence otherwise notwithstanding. As human society becomes farther and farther removed from the days when the religious texts were written, they become progressively more difficult to apply to modern reality.

Even as religion seeks to survive and adapts and evolves to that end, its obsolescence is upon us and well entrenched. Religious beliefs become increasingly marginalized as their relevance to day-to-day reality becomes harder and harder to find. Already today, in many circles, religions survive merely as familiar and comfortable traditions, but even their leaders and practitioners no longer accept their teachings as truth. Though there are movements that expend considerable resources attempting to combat this, the trend is clearly toward diminishing acceptance of religious teachings as anything more than comfortable traditions, some of which may indeed be worthy of preservation in that capacity but not as a substitute for reality. Short of a catastrophic development, this steady erosion will eventually cause current religious beliefs to dissolve into the background of history much as did beliefs in other ancient god systems. Though it may take generations before mainstream religion is finally buried, it is pretty much already dead in the minds of people in modern societies. As modern technologies and communication capabilities increasingly penetrate developing societies, the pressure to modernize becomes irresistible. These societies too will eventually follow suit, though it may take further generations

* Religion as a vehicle for teaching moral values has shown itself to be flawed at best. As has been pointed out far more eloquently elsewhere, people pick and choose from among the various teachings, attempting to adhere to those that seem applicable and appropriate in their lives while discarding those based on obviously outdated contexts. The ability to do so demonstrates an innate capacity for moral judgment independent of religious guidance. While moral choices should probably be guided in early child development, the ability to do so doesn’t rely on religion and indeed many of its metaphors are so far removed from the experience of a child as to be of little or no instructive value.