A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

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Mass Media Funk

a commentary on mass media stories about the scientific, the paranormal, the supernatural, and anything else that yanks at my eyebrows.

Note: Mass Media Funk is now Skeptimedia.

54

Science, Religion, and Politics

"Alone among the great nations of history we have got rid of religion as a serious scourge—and by the simple process of reducing it to a petty nuisance." --H. L. Mencken in Living Philosophies: A Series of Intimate Credos, Simon & Schuster, 1931)

December 21, 2006. Today is the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, which may mean that the sparks flying in the increasingly hot war of words between defenders of science and defenders of religion will be more visible. Perhaps no story in 2006 had as much success in helping us forget about the Iraq debacle as the one that featured scientists bashing religion and loudly complaining about political interference in science. Looking back, who would have predicted it? I mean, the year began with the news that Muslims worldwide were outraged at Danish cartoons (published the previous September) that lampooned their prophet Muhammad. In February a different kind of story started to emerge. At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) a press release was issued that denounced legislation and policies that would undermine the teaching of evolution and "deprive students of the education they need to be informed and productive citizens in an increasingly technological, global community." The denouncement came on the heels of the Kitzmiller decision the previous December in which Judge John E. Jones III exposed "intelligent design" (ID) as non-scientific and the intellectual equivalent of sticking out your tongue at someone you dislike. ID is a tool of Christian apologetics used to defend the faith, as its devotees understand it. For all the cobwebs they spin and the dust they raise, the IDers are intellectual pranksters, the religious equivalent of the dirty tricks gang of the Nixon era.

In March, the Bush administration, already under attack by Chris Mooney in his The Republican War on Science, took a hit from The New Yorker's Michael Specter in a piece called "Political Science - The Bush Administration's war on the laboratory." Complaints from scientists about the Bush people stifling results they don't like continued throughout the year. Earlier this month the Union for Concerned Scientists published a statement signed by more than 10,000 scientists denouncing the Bush administration for  "distortion of scientific knowledge for partisan political ends."* At about the same time, scientists were complaining about a new policy of the U.S. Geological Survey that requires administration pre-screening of all scientists' published research and talks. The Bush administration seems particularly concerned about science that might conflict with their views on global warming, sexual activity, and reproduction.

March also saw the publication of Dr. Herbert Benson's study on prayer, paid for by the Templeton Foundation, for 1,800 heart bypass surgery patients at six medical centers. The only thing of interest found by the study was that patients who knew they were being prayed for had a slightly higher rate of complications than both those who weren't prayed for and those who were but didn't know it.

That prayer doesn't heal at a distance wasn't much of a surprise but that three books attacking belief in God and religion would be bestsellers was shocking. Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, and Sam Harris's Letters to a Christian Nation caused an uproar in the blogosphere and in many mainstream publications. Time magazine sponsored a debate between Dawkins and Francis Collins (a theist and a scientist) in an issue it called "God vs. Science." And The Science Network in association with the Crick-Jacobs Center brought together an eminent group of scientists and philosophers to explore the following kinds of questions:

Will faith and dogma trump rational inquiry, or will it be possible to reconcile religious and scientific worldviews? Can evolutionary biology, anthropology and neuroscience help us to better understand how we construct beliefs, and experience empathy, fear and awe? Can science help us create a new rational narrative as poetic and powerful as those that have traditionally sustained societies? Can we treat religion as a natural phenomenon? Can we be good without God? And if not God, then what?

That meeting took place at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, from November 5-7 and was described in the New York Times as a free-for-all. The raucous debate continues on Edge.org. Dennett would like to see world religions taught in public schools. Some scientists (Dawkins, for example) would like to see the end of religion and others think it would be cruel to take away something that provides so much comfort to so many people.

In a recent interview with D. J. Grothe, Susan Blackmore opined that the reason religion is on the wane in England is because all children are taught about various religions in school. Presence makes the heart grow indifferent, apparently. However, there is some evidence that creationism is making headway into Britain's schools.

Due to poor planning on my part, I taught a course in world religions this past semester at Sacramento City College. I did have one young woman announce to the class near the end of the term that she had called her sister in Colorado—a devout atheist—and told her that after studying all these religions she had come over to the dark side. She realized, she said, that none of them were any better than the other and that none of them really made much sense. I can't report that there was a chorus of amens that went up after her announced deconversion. One fellow, in fact, seemed to find something wonderful in every religion we studied. He was especially taken in by Sikhism. But most of my students seemed to approach the various religions we discussed with cautious indifference. They were surprised to discover that Islam is no more represented by jihadist terrorists than Christianity is by abortion clinic assassins.

One fact that any student raised in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam must find strange is that not all religions believe in a God or gods. Neither Buddhism nor Jainism believe in a Supreme Being whose will brought about the universe. But the most interesting thing about Jainism is the set of beliefs that we shouldn't get attached to anything and we shouldn't harm any living creature (ahimsa), including insects and growing plants. Jains believe that all life forms are equally precious. We should think, speak, and act in ways that cause as little harm as possible to other creatures, including other persons. Jains also teach extreme tolerance because they think truth has many aspects. Like Hindus and Buddhists, Jains believe in karma and reincarnation. We don't know much about the origins of religion in India, but the many practices we now call Hinduism and the practice known as Jainism are indigenous Indian religions. Jains have a naturalistic worldview. They believe the universe is without a beginning and has no creator or destroyer but is in an eternal cycle of progress and decline. In fact, one of the common features of all religions seems to be the belief that we are now in a state of decline and that is why the Teacher, Guru, Prophet, Buddha, or Savior appeared when he did. (Most of these founders of religions or churches are men; two exceptions are the charlatans Madame Blavatsky and Mary Baker Eddy.) Given the facts of human history, it is likely that there will always be new prophets and saviors and hence, new religions.

Some religions, like Baha’i and Tibetan Buddhism, seem compatible with science without requiring metaphysical gyrations and fatuous harmonies or glorious magisteria. But most religions seem hopelessly at odds with the facts and hopelessly in love with fantasies and inane prohibitions or rituals. Studying religions over a few months time enables one to see the enormity of the irrationality of so many stories of nihilism and asceticism, good and evil spirits, miracles, healers, revelations, and promised Last Judgments or release from suffering. Born into a religion and being fed irrationality gradually, in small doses, leads billions of normal people to take for granted baskets full of absurd notions. They can attest to the Trinity and transubstantiation as easily as to the rising of the sun. But cram the inanities of other religions into a few weeks of lessons and even a child will see that one's own religion isn't any different.

Also, the story of how Christianity has come to be the religion of about one-third of humanity is fascinating. Equally interesting are the insights about self-control gained from thousands of years of looking inward by the meditative traditions. And the Buddha's insight into the nature of the self, or rather no-self, wasn't grasped in the West for another thousand years when David Hume figured it out. Muhammad's insights into the value of modesty and brotherhood civilized a world long before the Mongols, the Crusaders, and the religious fanatics destroyed it. The communal kitchen of the Sikhs is a great idea, as is the idea of charity that is prominent in many religions. Religions have had their moments they can be proud of and that the rest of us can learn from.

As I look back on this year, I'm reminded of how much we miss Carl Sagan. He was not dismissive of religion or condescending as Dawkins is. His discussions of religion are still worth reading. It may be true, as H. L. Mencken wrote, that "religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind—that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overborne by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking." The clergy, said Mencken, have a right to be heard, of course, "but they have no more right to be attended to than the astrologers and necromancers who were once their colleagues and rivals." Even so, the way to end religion might be to encourage more of it, to set up study groups to get to the truth about orisa, kami, nagas, Great Spirit, Changing Woman, devas, avatars, rishis, maya, mantras, yantras, sakti, mudras, etc. Let us study the world's religions with respect and an open mind. The result might surprise us.

* AmeriCares *

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