So I talk, fairly moderately, about my interaction with religion one day… then one of Australia’s more outspoken faithful goes and tries to stomp ignorantly on nonbelievers, happily blundering into the land of fear-mongering and irrationality.
But before I get to that sad story, it’s a new month! I’ve been testing out the concept of regular features of late, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, and I will be winding some of them back – Roulette and Teasers in the next week, and the Dream Series will end by 2011. I’ll have my new Imperial student blog running, which will be posts about what I’m actually doing, and this one will be my photo-blog along with my thoughts and ramblings which aren’t Imperial-related. I’ll link to the Imperial blog once it goes properly live (it’s looking quite amazing).
November was my blog’s second-biggest-ever month in terms of hits, and first if I exclude the blip from when I was featured on the WordPress homepage back in March. It’s probably due to a widening of the audience, so welcome aboard, new readers (and much love to the old stalwarts)!
On to the weighty matters now! The discussion which inspired last Friday’s post was briefly reprised again in class on monday, and I had a chance to attempt to squash the concept that science requires faith. The standard line goes as follows: “Science can never, by its own admission, obtain absolute certainty about reality/the ‘truth’. Therefore science requires a leap of faith, and is quasi-religious itself.”
My response is simple: you’re using the word faith wrong. Imagine you’re standing at the top of a cliff, staring at a huge drop onto jagged rocks. Your scientific understanding – based on the laws of physics, biology and your own direct observation of reality – tells you that if you jumped off, you would fall and die. Is that a faith-based or quasi-religious position?
Of course not. That’s belief – a position held because it is supported by evidence and/or reason. A faith-based position in that situation would be: “I think that Quetzalcoatl would arrive on the wind and spirit me safely to the ground.” Not based on evidence; in fact, contradicted by every falling-related death, ever.
What I’m trying to hammer home here is the distinction between a fuzzy definition of faith, which is equated with any form of deeply held belief (eg. “I have faith in myself.”) and a stricter definition of faith, which is holding a position in spite of evidence or reason.
It’s a definition used a lot by the faithful, too, as in the final part of this next quote. One of Australia’s most reprehensible religious figures, Cardinal George Pell, expounded on the virtues of the nonreligious recently:
”A minority of people, usually people without religion, are frightened by the future … It’s almost as though they’ve nothing but fear to distract themselves from the fact that without God the universe has no objective purpose or meaning. Nothing beyond the constructs they confect to cover the abyss.”
Life without God was ”life without purpose, without constraints”, he said.
Cardinal Pell said education was not enough to create a civilised society, that faith was necessary too. He cited the example of 20th century Germany, which he said was the best educated society in the world when Hitler became leader.
”Australian society will become increasingly coarse and uncaring … if Christian principles are excluded from public discussion. The secularists pursuing this aim won’t be successful.” We should not create an ”ideological apartheid” between faith and reason, Cardinal Pell said.
He was speaking at the Australian Catholic University, to a sympathetic crowd. Pell wants to reinforce, in their minds, a worldview in which ‘objective purpose or meaning’ both exist and are somehow accessible to the faithful, but not atheists.
Not only that, he raises the spectre of Nazi Germany in support of his argument that faith was a necessary component of civilised society. This is demonstrably false – in Norway today, recognised as the country with the highest standard of living in the world, only 20% of the population say that religion is “an important part of [their] daily life.” This is part of a wider negative correlation between living standards and religious observance – I’m not suggesting causality, but it certainly makes Pell either a liar or ignorant within his own area of expertise.
He’s arguing for his place at the table of public discussion, but what does he offer? What can his faith contribute to public discourse? Pell is happy to invoke abhorrent yet irrelevant regimes, make unfounded and incorrect assertions about minorities he doesn’t like and ignore evidence which disproves his opinions. What happens when people like Pell get too much power and wield it in favour of their faith?
Look no further than the UN. A couple of weeks ago, the assembly “voted to remove sexual orientation from a key resolution that calls on member countries to investigate extra-judicial, summary or arbitrary executions that are motivated by prejudice”. Here’s the money quote:
“The representative of Morocco, on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, said the Group was seriously concerned by controversial and undefined notions that had no foundation in international human rights instruments. Intolerance and discrimination existed in cases of colour, race, gender and religion, to mention only a few. Selectivity intended to accommodate certain interests over others had to be avoided by the international community. Such selectivity would set a precedent that would change the human rights paradigm in order to suit the interests of particular groups.”
The parts that I bolded carry the most weight. They are saying that, by requiring governments to investigate hate-motivated executions, LGBT people would be getting selective treatment from the UN, and that the ‘notion’ of sexual orientation has no foundation in international human rights instruments.
I never understood the phrase, “faith is a virtue.” It strikes me as a warm, fuzzy saying wrapped around a hard tool to suppress inquiry and reason. Yes, many people have a garden-variety faith which offers them comfort, community and a channel through which they can express their morality. But in many countries around the world, faith in dogma can have toxic effects on crucially important human issues, such as women’s rights and the rights of minorities. It’s not an academic issue. Lives are at stake.
OK. Deep breath. If I had a table in front of me, I’d probably be banging my hand on it. Let’s all be reasonable. I think I’ll put religion on the shelf for a while.