Changing the Discourse about ‘beliefs’

So I’m going to discuss once more the issue of Religious Privilege and further, the issue with Western discourse today about such issues. I’m not the first to say this, and I won’t be the last nor will this be the last time I bring it up. Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have done a pretty effective job of calling attention to the argumentative prestidigitation I’m about to attack.

It is no longer acceptable that we allow people’s opinions to go without question, scrutiny, or even ridicule. It is also no longer acceptable, and never should have been, that we allow an arbitrary sense of both perennial and obligatory respect to restrain us from putting to the fire unfounded and factitious cosmologies, ontologies, and more importantly, systems of values.

We have all been at the party, symposium, classroom, or place where a discussion about someone’s values, probably religiously rooted, ensues and the first thing that happens is everyone’s silence. Most people become quiet, refusing to comment. If someone dares asks why a belief in immortality, magic, or a book’s infallibility is held, the group forces their silence on the inquisitor. ‘How dare you!’ they’ll say, or ‘Everyone is entitled to their beliefs/opinions’.

If you manage to slog your way past this initial social trammel there is always the next stage which threatens to mire you. This is the ‘home court’ stage as I like to call it, and it is when the religious person forces you to explain your rational, scientifically founded belief system to them. Instead, it should be the other way around. The believer should be expected and indeed, be obligated (once they have spoken) to explain their faith-based, revelation-dependent, anecdote-oriented ‘evidences’ to the crowd.

Some of the most obvious points would include why a god is even necessary, observation of the infinite regress, recognition of the obvious factitiousness of the world’s religions, their long, sinister relationship with totalitarian and repressive, coercive authority, and its compulsive fear of knowledge and discovery. Indeed, why should I, recognizer of the natural laws of the world and universe, and of science’s complete domination over religious authority and exposition, subscribe to your tired and time and time again failed world view?

It is true that in a free country people should be allowed to believe whatever they wish but only because anything less leads to regimes that stifle human imagination and creativity, as well as progress and well-being. But that being said, I do not believe you are entitled to speak your mind without also being held accountable for it. Example:

I decide to start a massive, well-funded interest group that lobbies the government and engages vociferously in the political and social sphere on all matters pertaining to ‘family values’. My group declares that women shouldn’t have control over their reproductive rights and that homosexuals and their partnerships are a direct threat to the well-being of the nation.

Right. The very first question asked of this group, before it is even allowed to participate in intelligent and respectable debate, or engage in any kind of legislative process that could affect tens of millions of people, is ‘WHY?’ ‘Why do you believe that women are not entitled to their reproductive rights? And why do you believe homosexual couples threaten society? What scientific evidence, what studies have you, that conclude both objectively and definitively that these two stances are both valid and indeed, necessary?’

The list of unacceptable responses to these questions is long but the most popular one, the one that often includes a holy book reference, is about ‘religious values’ or morality.  The appropriate rejoinder should be, ‘I’m sorry, but your holy book and morality are entirely arbitrary, not grounded in reality, and are inconsistent with modern and enlightened concepts of both freedom and biology. But aside from all that, there is also no evidence to suggest what you’re saying is even remotely true. And moreover, there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.’ End of discussion.

You might, just to add insult to injury and point out that there are many religions in the world and many different kinds of moralities dictated by them. So how do they know theirs is the right one? But we need not go even that far. That’s just if you want to be extra-polite or you have time to waste.

You may be thinking, well, huge problem here, science can be wrong. And scientists can be biased, and many times their experiments, theories or what have you, are disproven or shown to be derelict.

Indeed, that is very true. But the difference between the great institution of science and its methods of discovery and analysis, and religion, is that science can be proven right or wrong. Indeed, humans are flawed, and can use science to evil ends and often do since science, to quote Dawkins, is the best way to achieve anything. But ultimately, if the scientific method is observed, then it can do no wrong. It can only expose truth. And that is irrespective of whether you like or wish to acknowledge the truth. And lastly, the answer to bad science is good science.

Religion, however, factitious, subjective, and governed not by rules, ethics, or a fundamental respect for truth, is governed only by its desire to survive. And to survive it requires believers. Again, not interested in facts or what is, only in how it can perpetuate itself and its power. This is apparent in the ever mutable dictates and outlooks of many religions. Example:

If the Catholic Church and its Potentate can never be wrong then why is it that they have been wrong so many times over? Why is it they can never admit to their misunderstandings and misapprehensions? Why can’t they admit that they were wrong about the Heliocentric Theory? Demon possession and mental illness? Or any of the numerous social stances they have tap-danced away from to avoid appearing obsolete and irrelevant? And why is it their strongest supporters typically hail from countries suffering from crippling literacy rates and an utter lack of educational infrastructure?

I mean, if God says homosexuality is wrong, and if God says women should submit to men, then why not stand by it? Surely God is greater than Caesar…except when you don’t really believe your own bullshit and you know that the life that really matters is the one here and now, and not that fairy-tale about heaven. See how easy that was? Religions are little better than corporations. They exist to wield material and political gain, and that is all. Good and evil have nothing to do with it.

Now you might be preparing to say, ‘But science changes too!’ Indeed, it changes based on new information, evidence, developments that add more to the context and equation of a thing. Religion does not change because of its pursuit of truth, it changes in its pursuit to maintain power and relevance. Further, science as an institution, has never claimed to have a monopoly on truth, such as ‘revealed truth’. Religion, however, does. It claims to know the reason we are here, what objective morality is, what happens to us after death, and who or what created and established the universe. These are overwhelmingly gargantuan claims about cosmology, which to this day remain unsubstantiated. Science has never made any such claims without first grounding them in reality.

The next huge difference, and I’m talking about a gulf the size of the Pacific, has to do with the leaders and members of these two institutions.

The consensus of scientists is above the consensus of both the general populace and that of religious institutions. Note, I do not say infallible, but I do say superior because it is founded and grounded in expertise in their various fields.

Too often we act as though the conclusion drawn from a scientific community, such as one on global warming or evolution, is one that can be dismissed the way we might one’s view on the existence of Santa Clause or the chupacabra. Except that theirs is one grounded in decades of education and experience in concrete disciplines that are universally recognized, quantifiable, and most importantly, verifiable. Religious leaders and scholars, for all intents and purposes are experts on unverified concepts, books, beliefs, and even histories. They are experts of nothing. Nothing meaningful, that is.

The consensus of scientists is a consensus that matters. It is grounded in reality, empiricism, and open for debate and critique. It is accountable to the facts. And so should we be when it comes to expressing ourselves. Beliefs have power, words have power, and we need to critically use our understanding of the world we live in – and that includes criticizing those that believe they know best without knowing anything at all.


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