The Road to Rationalism - Part 3.1

It is a logical impossibility for all of the many religions, sects, and sub-sects thereof to be correct in their explanations of how the Universe, this planet, and life upon it, came to exist.

There are therefore only two alternatives - one of them is correct, and all others wrong, or none ot them are correct.

A believer would plump for the first alternative, citing their sect of their religion as the only true account, rejecting all others as false. How do they reach this conclusion, and on what authority do they rely?

I've already stated that my conclusion was to reject all of them as equally false, and that I did this with only a very limited knowledge of other explanations for, well, everything!

For our entire history until very recent times, religions have provided us with the means to understand and interpret the world, and our place in it. We had no other ways to do this than through mysticism and the invocation of the supernatural. What is the Sun? Why does it rise in the morning and set in the evening? If I don't sacrifice a goat, will the Sun not rise?

What is fire? What is thunder? Why does it rain?

...You get the picture, I could go on with thousands of examples of things that our ancestors must have found terrifying and inexplicable - indeed only explicable by invoking beings with great power - gods. Gods of the Sun, gods of the moon, gods of rivers, mountains, animals.

One of the things I find fascinating about our species, and must surely be amongst the greatest things to set us apart from other animals, is the level to which we think we are the centre of everything, both as individuals and collectively as tribes and later as civilizations. Why were we so scared that the Sun would not rise if we didn't do things in a certain way? Did it perhaps occur to some ancient free-thinker that the Sun had presumably been rising and setting for a long time, without his or her tribe killing goats?

Why this feeling that we are either responsible for the way things are, or that they are like that especially for us?

Even today we all do it, I'm no exception, though I always try to catch myself in the act... we know its irrational but we still do it. I'm talking about how we think random events happen just to spite us, or through good luck, or because we have willed it (please let me have a good run in the traffic; please be nice weather on my day off; please let me get a parking space etc) when in actual fact events are entirely indifferent to the personal desires or fears of individuals.

This feeling of being the centre of things, and of being able to influence our environment (and not just by killing goats) has had an amazing effect upon how we interpret, and interact with, our environment and each other.

One inevitable result of needing an explanation for this was, as we have already seen, the rise of religions and beliefs in every single culture around the world.

Another was the process of experiment, thought, and accumulation of knowledge that we now call science.

For most of history there was little or no conflict between these methods, indeed they often went hand in hand. Occasionally however, individual scientists (for want of a better word) would discover or work something out, the conclusion of which indicated that the established religious position was wrong.

In these circumstances, either the position of the establishment would be altered to reflect the new knowledge, or the scientist would be ridiculed, surpressed, exiled, forced to recant or even tortured or killed, and the established position would remain unaltered; sometimes until the weight of evidence gathered by independent workers became undeniable, more often in spite of any evidence, however convincing.

As an example of how long this process of adaptation can take, it took the Catholic church slightly more than 400 years to pardon Galileo for his advocation of heliocentrism (the sacrilegious idea that the Earth and other planets orbit the Sun), by which time science had shown us how the planets move around the sun, how far away they are, how fast they are going, and established the type of calculations that are used to this day whenever we send a craft into orbit, amongst many, many other things (physics is not my forte, sorry!).

What cannot be denied is that the position of religions has had to alter to reflect new knowledge, however stubbornly they have dragged their heels in this process.

What cannot be ignored is that all of the religions (and interpretations thereof) practiced today, from the most benign and peacable to the most warlike and ranting, require their followers to believe things, without any evidence, that contradict observable or deductable facts. To make this proposition more palatable to their followers, they claim that believing things in spite of contrary evidence is virtuous and will be rewarded.

Can we not see how dangerous this is? Can we not understand what an insult to human dignity and intelligence faith really is?

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Beda said...


I think the trouble with this sort of analysis is that it makes certain unexamined assumptions about what religion is "meant to do". In particular, you assume that it's role is to somehow "explain" things in the world, in the same way that science does, but of course, much worse.
It is true that religions tend to have cosmogenies associated with them, although the one in Genesis hardly does a good job at what it is meant to be doing if so (the Yawhist account in particular just says "God made the world" rather than going into gruesome details). But I think the assumption that that is religion's *primary* role - in the face of lots of evidence to the contrary - needs some defence.
Why, for example, if religion is there to explain, is sacrifice and ritual at the heart of so many religions? Presumably you would say that it is to "appease" an angry God as witnessed in the unpredictable and uncontrollable world: we have this explanation, thus we need to do this. But suppose the sacrifice and ritual came first, and its mythological (as opposed to strictly religious) interpretation came later? Then the explanatory aspects of religion would be secondary, not primary.
I bring these points up because I don't that the phenomenology and anthropology of religion and religious experience at all support the "explanatory" theory about primitive religion: and thus the implications that follow from this sort of theory are also suspect.

Dave said...

I take your point regarding my assumption that religion's primary role is explanatory, however you have not attempted to offer an alternative explanation.
You're correct in your assumption that my response to the question of why sacrifice and ritual are at the heart of many religions would be to say that an angry god or gods require appeasement, but again, what is your alternative suggestion?

Let us then suppose, as you suggest, that sacrifice and ritual come before mythological explanations for the existence of the world and life upon it. What purpose does this ritual have, without some kind of explanation for the reasoning behind it?

The main thrust of your argument appears to be: 'explanation is not the primary role of religion, as you have suggested, therefore comparing the validity of explanations put forward by religion to that of scientific explanations is suspect.'

I strongly dispute this argument, if that is indeed what you are suggesting, for the fairly obvious reason that it doesn't matter whether the founder of a religion invented the story, or whether the stories were set in stone much later by an organised church; what actually matters is the truth value of the explanation put forward.

We live in a world where the vast majority of people accept that their religion's creation stories are true.

Tell them that their explantions are only secondary roles in their religions, and see how far you get.