Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Monday, May 09, 2005

The malignancy of religion

I usually defend freedom of religion and leave open its possible truth by noting that a great many people who are much cleverer than I have and do believe in a religion. Then I note that I am an agnostic, and so I cannot pronounce upon its truth one way or the other.

But the rise of religion in the politics of my own country, Australia, coupled with observation of the effects of religion in American education and so forth, and the recent abduction of one of my countrymen in Iraq, who was there to contribute to the rebuilding of that nation, by what can only be called a fanatical group, leads me to deviate from my past approach.

Yes, I am an agnostic (and an apathetic one, too, when I can be); but what that means is not only that I don't know whether there is a God or not - I don't think you do either, or can. This applies to strident atheists as much as devotees of a faith. Nobody has sufficient information to make a determination, nor is it likely they ever will.

So what triggered me off here? It is the present "hearings" of the Board of Education in Kansas against teaching only evolutionary biology in science classes. This is the latest in a long line of religion-based attacks on teaching this. Why are people so opposed to it? It is not, I think, because there really is a conflict between religion and science (there is between science that masquerades as a religion, and religion that masquerades as science, of course), but because, in short, people cannot deal with knowledge.

To be more exact, people cannot deal with new knowledge that deviates from what they learned as a child. And only most people. So if they can't handle the truth, as Nicholson might roar, what is it they would rather have? Comfortable belief, of their own devising, that's what. It is easier to believe in a shared authority or dogma than to accommodate the novel, the "shock of the new" as it has been put.

And this is symptomatic of a much broader problem. Objections to science have been around for a long time. Various people, from Wagner to Shelley to Jeremy Rivkin hate science because they are afraid of it, and because it makes them challenge their comfortable illusions. The results of retreating from science are rarely good, even if the results of science itself are sometimes not good either. We want guarantees, even if there are none on offer.

So, I mused, as I sat on the ferry this morning, what does this bode for us? The answer I fear is that human society will not long accept what some falsely call "modernity" but which I happily call knowledge. In a mob-mentality society in which the dominant cultural hegemony - religion - controls what can be said or taught, science withers. We can't handle the truth.

It is religion that manifests the tribalism of human behavior most clearly. Sports does it too, as do political affiliations, accent, vocabulary, clothing and so on, but religion is a fundamental expression of the "My mob is better than your mob" inherent tendency that all humans share.

And this is why religion needs to be restricted and constrained in a free and fair society. Not only because if one gets the upper hand all the others will suffer, though that is true too. Not only because free thinking and science will fail and die. But because in order for us to be civilised at all, we need to overcome our basic biology, to tame ourselves. What we see in Iraq, with the Taliban, with the Christian Right in the USA, with the rise of pious fraud in Australian politics, the intransigency of the past and present Papacy to deal with HIV and the other modes of expression of liberal Catholicism - it all has literally nothing to do with truth and everything to do with tribalism.

To my enlightened believing friends - I assert your right to believe anything you like, and I respect you for it. But let's face it - religion is more often than not, a malign influence on civil society. To my atheist friends - lighten up. Building a new tribalism isn't a solution either.

But I am not so naive as to ask, "Why can't we all just get along?" We can't - and the role of the pluralist democratic and free society is to make it possible for us to not get along in peace. What a pity, then, that so much of what is going on today is the exact inverse of that function.