Science and mathematics reign supreme in our understanding of the universe because, as has been elsewhere noted, each scientific fact and theory, each mathematical statement, has been exhaustively tested for inconsistencies and illogic before being given membership among the hierarchy of theories and facts that make up the totality of these disciplines. Our underlying belief in the universe’s causality requires this rigour, as any discrepancy, until resolved, threatens to demolish our whole understanding of the cosmos.
The mark of a true scientist is that he or she willingly investigates discrepancies. The hallmarks of scientific method are that its findings are repeatable, measurable, and universal in implication and relationship, yet simple in concept once understood. Although humans have uncovered a great deal about the universe, we have much to learn, and the meticulousness of the scientific method is the only sound approach.
Most religions, in contrast, do not tolerate such a questioning attitude and, consequently, many have become less and less in tune with reality.
Religions fail us when they ignore our need to be rational. Of course, anyone can hold any belief or statement to be true. There is no necessity (other than the mind’s own operational need for rationality) to demand a logical relationship between subordinate statements and apex belief in religion. Each statement could be taken at face value, true and absolute in itself. Indeed, many people (particularly those who follow their religion’s fundamental text conscientiously) seem able to accept most, and sometimes all, of their religion’s statements as absolutes, and require no inter-connectivity between them. But this treats us all as though we were automaton, incapable of thought, simply being required to believe and to act as we are told.
(Preachers do not usually ignore the inter-relationships within their religion. In my limited experience, preachers spend much time attempting to show links between a belief in God and subordinate statements [such as the existence of Heaven and Hell], or between actions and consequences. Possibly this is because preachers are more rational than most of us, and have been drawn to religion because of the need to find an authority for the moral decisions their mental constructs require them to address. If this is even partially so, it is truly ironic to realize that it is the universe’s very own rationality expressing itself within their minds that has induced them to become leaders in an arena where rationality has become subordinated to faith!)
As earlier stated, we can believe anything we choose. Our beliefs will cause us no harm, as long as they do not cause us to act in a way that reality will punish. Thus, we can believe, to use an extreme example, that the moon is made of green cheese, that the man-in-the-moon is our real father, and that we will all go to be with him after death. We can construct a subsystem of subordinate beliefs, all guiding us in our daily decision making, and all assuring us that we will be rewarded with an afterlife amid green cheese. And we can live more or less happily within this belief system and die content.
We can sustain these beliefs forever, provided we somehow filter and modify any incoming stimuli that fails to support them. For instance, we could believe in a cheesy moon as long as we did not spectrally analyze moon light, and we could continue to believe in moon heaven for as long as we did not physically visit the moon. Others could go, but they could not return to report its true nature and so challenge our beliefs, for it is clear that our green-cheese belief would become untenable after the return from a moon landing. (Of course, this is exactly why a belief in heaven or paradise can exist.)
All belief systems run the risk of unravelling when forced to confront reality. The only belief systems that survive close encounters with the real world are those that are based upon the rationality of the real world. The less our belief system agrees with reality, the more difficult following that belief becomes. We can enjoy our beliefs for as long as we like, but reality will compel us to revise such beliefs as soon as they create situations which threaten our existence.
We stand at this juncture in our current religions. Many of our traditional beliefs have become less convincing. Reality keeps pulling at the tangled skein of religious thought, attempting to correct false assumptions and misunderstandings. More and more, we become obligated to ask if current religions really are the best source of guidance in contemporary issues. Moral decisions are in danger of becoming little more than political trade-offs at the parish level. Matters relating to population control or gene manipulation, for example, that need a global consensus if such decisions are ever to amount to anything of significance, cannot even be raised at the international level for fear of the religious conflict this would create. Surely a global civilization can never be established until conditions like these are corrected.
- The Anglican bishop of Edinburgh, Scotland, said as much when he stated that the primary job of bishops has become that of preserving the church’s existence by resisting change. This, he claimed, will lead to the death of the institution. (See John Allemang, “The blaspheming bishop,” The Globe and Mail, March 16, 2002, F6.)
- We can believe, for instance, that the world will feed twice as many people as it supports now, or that chloroflorocarbons do not harm the ozone layer. But, if our beliefs are incorrect, then life for our descendants will not be as comfortable as it may be for us.
- Thus, for example, we no longer believe, as many of us once did, that radical Islamists can be ignored because they are simply harmless theologians.