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Friday, October 27, 2006

The Concept of Faith

I like to read a blog by a particular godless heathen, like myself, PZ Meyers. He often features cool squid, octopus, and cuttlefish content, too.

Today he posted a particular rant which made me start thinking about faith.

His point, in one section, was to call attention to something which I had not completely realized.

Faith is a concept which some people put great stock in. Many of these people are good, upstanding folks who we would never want to be mean to, or rude to, or call out because we thought faith was hooey and recently some of the 'faithful' were making asses of themselves in the press.

So, here begins a line of reasoning.

Human beings are at best unreliable as carriers of information. The more out of the ordinary the information is, the less likely it is to be conveyed properly by a random pick of one out of six billion of us. Not only that, but our perception is faulty, it changes over time, and it also degrades over time.

Now, while I do believe that ancient peoples were as capable and able to be educated as any of us modern day people, I do not believe that at any point there were as many people as learned about history nor as able to access facts about it, per-capita-wise, as there are now. The reason this is important is that dissent seems unlikely to spring from ignorance- it's very hard to disagree with something when it's all you know.

Human beings, by and large, succumb to peer pressure far more easily in small groups than in large groups. Small town thinking and small town mentalities work very well for keeping order when people do not have the option to up and move. Thus, long ago, the option was likely to move off into the wilderness alone and likely starve, try to move in with a neighboring small town (and we all know how warmly you're often greeted even to this day in a small town), or shut up and at least pretend to agree with everyone else.

If the theory of Evolution is true, then we humans have spent a fantastic amount of time honing our intelligence against the world we perceive. That is to say, cause and effect and pattern recognition play a huge part in our ability to survive. Our physical bodies and ability to perceive not only the world around us but concepts like numbers and logic, in general, do not perform well beyond ten or twenty of anything. Why? Well, until the last few thousand years, we've never needed more than that.

The word anthropomorphism exists for a good reason. We have a bad habit of projecting our psyche on everything around us. When we find something out of place, we wonder who did it. When we are able to think the thought: "We seem out of place, who put us here?", we look to the same explanations which have always suited us- someone put us here. Bob here claims to have seen this someone, who is obviously more powerful than us if he put us here. If this someone IS more powerful, then maybe when we die they can let us keep living, since we're all a-feared of that death thing.

Now, where I was going with all that.

Religious belief is typically brought to the follower at birth, by their family, and it is done so because that is how it came to the parents. Enforced by: peer pressure.

The supernatural content of any religion cannot be proven, so the belief in it is enforced through shame (in not doing as your parents did), fear of the unknown (what if this stuff really is true), and fear of exile/retribution (I'll get kicked out of my small town/lynched if I don't shut up.) Enforced by: Lack of education and historical reference, inability to dissent, family/peer pressure.

As is already well known, god is useful for describing that stuff we can't understand. The 'simpler' a culture or civilization is, the 'simpler' their religion will tend to be, conceptually. Without getting too deep into this, I do recognize that 'simple' is a bit of a kludge, and that ancient religions were quite elaborate. The point here is the human need to explain through reasoning which makes sense to us as evolved animals the difficult and inexplicable events in the world around us. The religion that fits us culturally also fits our ability to reason and our education. Enforced by: ignorance, anthropomorphism, innate human cognitive and cause-and-effect understanding.

Religion makes sense to its followers, both as a picture of the world and an explanation for why we are here, and it fills the need to know why we are here. From that perspective, a world without that belief and structure seems like a world of peril and chaos- a home with children but no parents must be a misguided home. enforced by: need to know why we are here, fear of death.

To reiterate, religious beliefs cannot be proven true the same way science can be proven true, and people who may not actually believe continue to obey because they're ashamed, afraid, ignorant, and don't have a better answer.

This is really of no consequence, and not my point at all, but merely something I've always wanted to illustrate.

Long ago most people swore up and down that the earth was flat- believed it wholeheartely. That didn't make it true. I suspect they probably would have likewise disbelived any kind of proof of non-flatness, as well.

If you disagree, for a moment think about the theory of Evolution, and even if you don't believe it, imagine it were true.

Now imagine how popular that theory would have been, say, 2000 years ago. If god had shown up and himself declared to the world with lightning, thunder, and burning bushes, that you people all came from little ookie monkeys. Not a damn one of them would have bought it, and whatever god that was would have had to regroup and try again later, leaving out the monkeys part.

There is no reason god can't have started the universe with the big bang and just fudged a bit in his epic works to assure that 2000 years of slightly-behind-the-times thinking didn't cost him any followers.

So now, back to my point. We have perfectly nice, good, upstanding folk who also just happen to indulge the idea that a white flowing bearded old man hovers above us and calls the shots, and that they need to cater to him. I used to believe in santa claus, so, I don't blame them. We all get along nicely, and there's no reason to be mean.

HOWEVER. Some of the people who 'believe', also think that because modern science disproves their religious beliefs that it needs to be silenced. A PR battle is currently being waged across the country, and apparently with the approval of all other religious people.

As a favor to those of us who believe in and support the sciences and do so nicely, I would have to call upon all of those fine upstanding good religious folk amongst us: Please, reel in these jokers within your flock and shut them up. We don't want to start a whose beliefs are better battle, we don't want to have to call EVERY believer out and be rude to them. You are free to believe what you want, whether it can be proven or not- we'll set aside that my beliefs can be proven and yours cannot, as it is not the provability of beliefs which is the question here, but the freedom part. Let's keep it open so everyone else has the right to believe whatever they want, provable or not, differing from you or not, too, ok?


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