Addendum to Religiosis

I received some comments on my earlier post on religion and the Mumbai attacks, and rather than pour time into comment replies, I’ll publish my response here. It’s a good reason to talk about this stuff, and I plan to write much more about this topic as time permits.

As Tristan notes, any discussion of religion and its role in society is a long discussion.

A very long discussion indeed, but a welcome one, as long as certain rules apply. At least on my blog, where I get to set the rules… and hope to live up to them. Those rules start with no weasel words, no hemming and hawing about definitions, and no hiding behind logical fallacies. Given those rules, I doubt a discussion of the existence of gods would take very long. This isn’t personal, it’s objective. I actually intend to write much more about this, so please forgive the brief reply here.

My short version is that I see no evidence whatsoever that there are all-powerful beings of any kind controlling anything that happens, under any circumstances, anywhere. I appreciate that an abstract feeling of oneness with the cosmos can arise in the human brain, and it’s a great feeling when that happens. Enjoy it. But there is no objective evidence that such feelings are anything other than imagination, psychosomatic. Like being on drugs, being on socialization endorphins can be a rush, but it’s literally all in our heads.

The claim that there are gods is a factual claim, about the existence and intent of large, powerful, alien creatures. Such beings either exist or they don’t, and if one makes a positive claim about their existence one really does need to justify that claim with objective evidence beyond personal imaginary experiences. That’s kind of a basic rule of detective work, either in the lab or at the crime scene.

As far as the good religion does… if I were a historian I could claim expert knowledge, but I’m not, so I can’t. I’ll gladly step aside and let others do that dirty work. Nevertheless… I’m sorry, but there is really no way to look at human history and not see religion as anything other than a force of pure malevolence. Religion claims knowledge about things for which there is no evidence, claims positive certainty about things that are literally impossible and fictional, and tells people to behave in ways that do wonders for reinforcing the tribe but do terrible things to other tribes. Religion is exclusionary… you are either with us or you are against us. Religion cares nothing about suffering, and instead presumes there are powerful agents from beyond the stars whose offense we are continuously preoccupied with avoiding, no matter the human cost.

Yes, sometimes there were religious social groups who took upon themselves to do good works, and to preserve the written records of prior years. But why did they need to do that? Because religious people destroyed every book they found that didn’t fit their dogma. Kings would likewise destroy records of prior kings, to squelch public sentiment toward better times past… and both derive from the same root: Argument from Authority.

Religion is evil because it descends directly from the ultimate Argument from Authority. If I am a holy man, and I claim to speak for the Creator of All Things, I cannot be questioned by definition. I can order the death of millions, I can command – as does the Bible – to gut pregnant women and kill all the livestock of those who oppose me, no matter the suffering, no matter the waste of precious resources. I can command – literally – anything.

That is the problem with religion. It is a systematic social order based on the Argument from Authority, no better than the so-called Divine Right of Kings… worse, in fact, because the claim is not only to temporal power but to ultimate, infinite power. Religion is not god – assuming for argument’s sake there are gods – it is a power hierarchy among humans, designed to rule by terror.

If there were gods, they’d sometimes do obvious things to make themselves known… things that would leave no question they are in charge… things for which there are no other plausible explanations. Please be clear: those kinds of things have never been reliably observed to happen. Not once. Ever. There can be no logic supporting a positive, assertive claim for a god or gods, because there is no evidence supporting such existence. And be clear…. positive claims do require evidence. The burden of proof is always on the person making the positive claim… otherwise I could claim that no one has ever disproven the existence of the god Thor, therefore Thor exists. Or Baron Samedhi, or Anubis, or Puff the Magic Dragon.

The antithesis of religion is free inquiry, free thought, examination of evidence and basing actions on that evidence. Religion doesn’t have to stipulate a god, only a god-like source of unimpeachable, unquestionable truth…. such as Stalin, who did a pretty respectable god-impersonation for the Soviet people, at least for a while. Science questions everything, at every moment, and bases decisions on what can be demonstrated. And please don’t counter with arguments about individual scientists who didn’t do that. That doesn’t matter, because Pons and Fleischmann failed as scientists, as did others who got blinded at some point by personal needs and desires. The aim of science is bigger than the faulty people who practice it… to figure things the hell out, for real.

Why do I lump mild religionists with fundamentalists? I do so in only one way…. both claim positively that something big, bad and interested in us is living here, feeding on our thoughts, obsessed with everything we do, and cares deeply about very particular and detailed things that mattered a lot to Bronze Age people…. and who is willing to punish the human species in horrid, perverse ways if we don’t go along with Its or Their agenda.

If a person wants to go through life with a personal attitude that Something is out there… fine. That’s what freedom is all about. I might believe in faeries, and have wonderful thoughts about how cool it would be to meet faeries (actually I don’t). But when I go in front of others and say that the faeries want us to do things… things such as denying informative sex education to starving throngs, because the faeries want people to reproduce infinitely no matter the consequences…. or things such as blowing up ourselves and our enemies in their name…. others would be right to call me out, and either ignore me as a psychopath or put me away. Personal emotional meanderings are part of human nature…. organized, assertive religion is a lethal disease.

~ by Planetologist on December 1, 2008.

7 Responses to “Addendum to Religiosis”

  1. [...] from nothing leaves nothing In response to a prior post, I received a pretty thoughtful, non-hysterical comment that nonetheless invoked the infamous [...]

  2. Bumping part of my reply up to main-post level.

  3. I understand your position a bit better now, thanks for the explanation. As someone who works in the physical sciences, this complaint about “something from nothing” is something I encounter fairly often… and with all respect, it’s a complaint typically leveled from those who have a non-professional understanding of natural processes.

    Physics does not – at any point – require the evolution of “something” from “nothing” in the sense you mean. People read about the Big Bang and assume it means that all the mass-energy in the universe appeared out of pure nullity, but that’s not correct. It’s highly likely that the Big Bang was caused by brane fluctuations in higher-dimensional spacetime… something that is completely amenable to a physical-mathematical treatment, and doesn’t require the violation of any laws. The mass-energy making up our universe derives from the energy released when (at least) two higher-dimensional branes interacted (crossed hyper-paths), leading to a catastrophic diversion of mass-energy at the boundary condition. Spacetime itself is not “nothing”, either… it’s a fabric of structured energy and force, real and measurable.

    As far as “material” stuff goes… most people also fail to understand that mass is simply congealed energy. The two are not different from each other at a fundamental level. Everything in the universe is a function of energy doing something… everything from gravitational flexure of space to pair-production. The equations governing such transitions are well established.

    This all becomes hard to picture, but several popular books treat the matter very well. I’d recommend The Five Ages of the Universe, The Elegant Universe, The Whole Shebang, and Fabric of the Cosmos, as nice treatments of the subject.

    The only thing modern physics fails to do at the moment of the Big Bang is reconcile quantum effects at the Planck scale with gravitation. That’s it. It’s a gap, but one likely to be filled as people keep working on things like the LHC. It’s a gap between two sets of equations, requiring only that we figure out exactly the formulation linking them. But at no point in that gap is it necessary to invoke a complex, gigantic sentient computer made of twisted space… or whatever formal description a “god” would require.

    This is where I get so frustrated with people who invoke the “god of the gaps” argument vis-a-vis the Big Bang. It explains nothing to invoke a god where a current gap in rigorous understanding exists. Positing a thinking organism that supersedes spacetime as an explanation for spacetime, requires such colossally unfounded assumptions as to be absurd.

    What set of processes generated this titanic thinking creature that theists posit? What is it composed of? What evidence is there of this composition or the underlying structural requirements for processing information in an ordered system at energy densities exceeding that of Grand Unification? How many new physical laws would need to be written, to allow such a profoundly complex entity to exist? When did it form? How? Where?

    And why would such a theoretical, hypothetical Overmind necessarily correlate with the petty predispositions of a single late-Bronze/early-Iron Age tribe in the Middle East on our one little planet?

    When someone can answer those questions, with replies that propose physical processes less complex than what rational, empirical inquiry can provide, and when some – any – evidence is provided supporting such a baroque model as theism assumes… then I will listen attentively. But a warm fuzzy feeling at church, arguments from personal incredulity, and scientific assertions from people who haven’t spent the years and hard work required to offer a coherent opinion… those don’t count as serious arguments.

  4. Thank you for your post. Despite that we don’t agree I appreciate intelligent discussion. To make a rhetorical misunderstanding clear, at “strike three” I’m the one who is “out” as I don’t need to put another stressor on myself in the form of reading a deliberately offensive blog. Probably and hopefully it won’t happen… and Ty: no, I do not assume that anyone would give a shit, if it did.

    Back to the subject… I think this whole argument is so widespread that it has to be subdivided and organized around two questions: 1) Does God exist? 2) Did religion do mostly good or bad to humankind throughout its history? If I understand correctly your answer are:

    1 – No. and this statement does not need to be proven.

    2 – Religion is a harmful disease of humankind.

    My answer to question no.1 is the following:

    My chain of thought finds the hypothesis for the existence of God more logical than the pure materialist approach. When we dig into the meaning of our World, first we have to go back to its genesis. Lets assume that material and energy exist. Lets treat them as two interchangeable things. We are learning more and more about their evolution and most of us choose Big Bang as their origin. We know less about space, however there are efforts to describe its early history, too (e.g. superstring theory). What we don’t know is how things formed from nothing.

    Until the industrial and technological revolution, if a natural phenomenon could not be explained, people used supernatural entities to explain it. Then we have realized that these phenomena can usually be explained with previously unknown force fields, or particles. For me it is trivial that forming of material/energy from nothing is not something you can explain with such a thing. If nothing could turn into something spontaneously, as a natural process, then everything we know about physics and the foundation of logic (0 NOT= 1) would collapse. I believe in science and logic and instead of assuming that there are flaws in them, I suggest a factor into the equation that is beyond the rules of physics as it is the creator of these rules. In other words, there are two hypotheses: 1) one is that physics governs everything but its rules are (were at one point) inconsistent with themselves 2) another is that physics governs everything material and its rules work everywhere except in a supermaterial domain where they don’t apply, and where they were originated from. Now, both hypotheses are hard to digest, hard to defend or dispute… but assuming that personally I am under some psychosomatic condition or state of mental illness just because I find hypothesis no.2 a more adequate explanation for our World than hypothesis no.1 is ignorant, and I’d appreciate if you “took it back”.

    Once we agreed on the fact that both contradicting opinions can and should be respected, then we can move further on with the argument about the historical and sociological effects of religion.

  5. Indeed.

    And the simple fact is that once you dig down far enough every single person’s reason for believing in god/s is that it makes them feel good.

    Ultimate appeal to authority is spot on.

  6. No apologies needed. That was very well said.
    Hardly a word misspent.

  7. Sorry… I try to cap myself at 1000 words, in my standard blog posts. I get carried away and wordy, and I’m working on that.

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