We face today one of the great challenges of modern civilization. We stand at a crossroad of social evolution, with half of humanity pulling us back the road of belief, while the other half, marginalized by their disbelief, struggle to push us toward a new way of seeing the world. We are faced squarely over an issue that, for all the thought I pour into it, doesn't seem to offer any real means of resolving itself.
I would like to think that the rapture is soon coming, so that the believers will be carted away to their pie in the sky and leave the rest of us here to finally get around to the business of making this world a livable one. But, as I don't believe in the Judeo-Christian god, I think that scenario is unlikely. All humor aside, humans today are facing a deeply serious threat of religious fundamentalism. While this isn't entirely a modern problem, it has become critical today because of the increasing boldness of non-believers, and the subsequent threat believers feel when faced with the rules of logic and science.
Jonathon Miller, producer of the recently aired A Brief History of Disbelief, gives a brilliant historical account of atheism, trying to make sense of why it has taken so long for non-believers to aggregate into a cohesive movement. The 3 hour documentary aired across the country on PBS, yet some of the affiliate stations refused to broadcast it because of its sensitive nature. While I don't agree with the stations who refused to run Miller's piece, I do understand how some might be challenged by it. But then, if belief is so solid, why would believers reject a serious, historically critical look into the history of non-belief.
Without asking serious (and sometimes dangerous) questions, we'll continually reject any such effort to modernize our morality. This rejection will invariably come from those whose beliefs dictate their reason, their action. True belief stands directly opposed to reform, because it states that laws written down in sacred texts are eternal and unchanging, and any attempt to modernize them is the work of some devil. In that light, all free thinkers are minions of the fallen one, put here to test their faith. The great British Philosopher Bertrand Russell said:
"You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world."Perhaps that is why our moral progress is today so antiquated. Religion disallows advancement in morality, primarily because of this unchanging principle. In an online debate between Theologian Douglas Wilson and Atheist Christopher Hitchens, the latter gives a telling example of this continuing question of whether our morality derives itself from Christianity, or something else...
Although Christianity is often credited (or credits itself) with spreading moral precepts such as "Love thy neighbor", I know of no evidence that such precepts derive from Christianity. To take one instance from each Testament, I cannot believe that the followers of Moses had been indifferent to murder and theft and perjury until they arrived at Sinai, and I notice that the parable of the good Samaritan is told of someone who by definition cannot have been a Christian.Hitchens doesn't necessarily disagree with basic moral codes like The Golden Rule, only to those codes being the direct product of Christianity. Common sense allows us to understand that if we treat our friends terribly, we'll in turn be treated this way. It's obvious, and we don't need verbose scripture to get that point across. Hitchens finishes his short essay be observing the following...
To these obvious points, I add that the "Golden Rule" is much older than any monotheism, and that no human society would have been possible or even thinkable without elementary solidarity (which also allows for self-interest) between its members. Though it is not strictly relevant to the ethical dimension, I would further say that neither the fable of Moses nor the wildly discrepant Gospel accounts of Jesus of Nazareth may claim the virtue of being historically true. I am aware that many Christians also doubt the literal truth of the tales but this seems to me to be a problem for them rather than a difficulty for me. Even if I accepted that Jesus—like almost every other prophet on record—was born of a virgin, I cannot think that this proves the divinity of his father or the truth of his teachings. The same would be true if I accepted that he had been resurrected. There are too many resurrections in the New Testament for me to put my trust in any one of them, let alone to employ them as a basis for something as integral to me as my morality.
I cannot, of course, prove that there is no supervising deity who invigilates my every moment and who will pursue me even after I am dead. (I can only be happy that there is no evidence for such a ghastly idea, which would resemble a celestial North Korea in which liberty was not just impossible but inconceivable.) But nor has any theologian ever demonstrated the contrary. This would perhaps make the believer and the doubter equal—except that the believer claims to know, not just that God exists, but that his most detailed wishes are not merely knowable but actually known. Since religion drew its first breath when the species lived in utter ignorance and considerable fear, I hope I may be forgiven for declining to believe that another human being can tell me what to do, in the most intimate details of my life and mind, and to further dictate these terms as if acting as proxy for a supernatural entity. This tyrannical idea is very much older than Christianity, of course, but I do sometimes think that Christians have less excuse for believing, let alone wishing, that such a horrible thing could be true.Thought provoking, to say the least. It is impossible to prove the non-existence of Yahweh, but then it is also impossible to disprove unicorns, or Zeus. I find it telling that Wilson opens his rebuttal with this:
P. G. Wodehouse once said that some minds are like soup in a poor restaurant—better left unstirred. I am afraid that I find myself sympathizing with him as I consider atheism.Now why would that be? Why is it better to not ask the difficult questions? I remember my own experience of leaving the religion of my parents, when, one Sunday I stood up and asked a question that the speaker thought couldn't be answered, and his response that "such questions shouldn't be asked" basically booted my believing ass out the door. It is not enough to say we shouldn't stir the mind, because that's the tool that the universe has given us. Frankly, we slap nature in the face when we refuse to look at things rationally and logically, because those are our gifts. Faith proves nothing, and as we have seen in recent years, can be hijacked by those with inhumane intentions. Suicide bombings are done in faith that one is dying for a 'higher cause', but in the end one is just acting out of selfishness.
Morality is in need of modernization. But, as Emile Zola notes...
Civilization will not attain to its perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest!I think there may be some truth here. Religion is a weight that keeps our ship anchored in the port of the past. It defies social evolution, it marginalizes unbelievers, and it is based (almost entirely) on things that are not independently verifiable. In this age of science and reason, we would be well served by understanding that it is not religion that keeps us good humans, but it is ourselves, our innate desire to be good humans. Call it enlightened self interest, call it common sense, call it what you will, just don't attribute it to texts that were written thousands of years ago. Because, after all, those texts have also been used to propagate some of the most horrific atrocities in human history.
I've yet to meet a scientist who wants to die for his equations. Science, it must be understood, is disprovable and verifiable, the very opposite of religion. So what is to be done? I don't know, but it appears the dialogue is heating up, and the unbelievers are finally finding their tongues.