Wednesday, January 31, 2007

An Atheist Vs. Christian Debate

I've been really fascinated by the open dialogue between atheist Sam Harris and pro-religion blogger, Andrew Sullivan. If you have time to follow along, it's been wonderfully illuminating, respectful and educational. I was raised in a conservative Christian home, but many of the things I was taught are things I no longer believe -- like anti-gay theology, to name one example.

But what troubles me about religion is that it assumes that it should be respected above the kinds of standards we impose upon every thing else in the world. Science is always viewed with suspicion, as if it's trying to pull something over on the world, while religion gets a free pass because we shouldn't say anything bad about stuff that's "holy." Frankly, I'm getting tired of this kind of fascistic thinking. I think we should apply the same standards of "truth" to everything, whether it's been deemed "holy" or not.

That may scare some people, but, frankly, I think some people need to get scared about stuff they have always assumed to be true. Sam Harris makes a compelling point about the clash between science and religion here:

As you know, there are an uncountable number of questions upon which religion once offered a faith-based answer, which have now been ceded to the care of science. Indeed, the process of scientific conquest and religious forfeiture is relentless, unidirectional, and highly predictable.

Relentless, unidirectional and highly predictable. Think about it. From Galileo forward, every single time religion and science had a disagreement, religion ended up being in the wrong. Why? Because religionists and clerics inculcate mythology into their dogma. Then, when science proves them wrong, they are left with no good choices. Either kill the scientist or give up their religion. They never seem to understand that there is a third way: To admit they were wrong. Both in their belief about that subject, and wrong to impose mythology into their dogma.

Some smart person begins to doubt received opinion-about the causes of illness, the movement of celestial bodies, the nature of sensory perception, etc.-he or she then observes the world more closely (often making shrewd use of technology and/or mathematics) and makes predictions that can be verified by others. What we see, time and again, is a general unwillingness for religious people to seriously interact with this discourse (and even an eagerness to subjugate or murder its perpetrators) whenever it challenges doctrines to which they are emotionally attached.

Exactly. They want to be perceived as "knowing all." They want to be seen as better than the rest of us because they have "studied" God. Their position of power is threatened by truth.

Eventually, however, the power that comes with actually understanding the world becomes too seductive to ignore, and even the clerics give in. In this way, real knowledge, being truly universal, erodes the basis for religious discord. Muslims and Christians cannot disagree about the causes of cholera, for instance, because whatever their holy books might say about infectious disease, a genuine understanding of cholera has arrived from another quarter. Epidemiology trumps religion (or it should), especially when people are watching their children die. This is where our hope for a truly nonsectarian future lies: when things matter, people tend to want to understand what is actually going on in the world. Science (and rational discourse generally) delivers this understanding and offers a very frank appraisal of its current limitations; Religion fails on both counts.
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