Shattering the Sacred Myths - Chapter 16

Replacing Religion with Science

 
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Looks at the failures of Christianity and considers the issues that need to be addressed before religion can be replaced by the scientific worldview.

The rise of Christianity

Around the year 306, the Roman Empire was plunged into civil war as a handful of military commanders battled for the imperial throne. One of the contenders, Constantine, was sympathetic to the Christian cause, and after winning a number of key battles, his forces gained control of Rome. Within a few years, the Christian bishops had agreed on what scriptures to include in their holy book, and the Church had begun taking over the institutions of imperial power.

All of the values upon which the empire was built were overturned by the rise to power of the Church. In the decades that followed, science and philosophy were banned and replaced by delusions of heaven and hell, and ideas about justice in this world were replaced by hope for a heavenly reward in the next world. Within a few generations, the empire had lost its aggressive sense of self-preservation and had begun to collapse under the weight of invading hordes.

As Christianity continued to spread throughout Europe, religious fanatics worked to destroy anything that might cast doubt on the Christian mythology. Books were burned, knowledge was lost, and freethinkers were persecuted and killed, plunging the entire region into a dark age that lasted for more than a thousand years.

The decline of Christianity

Many freethinking people despised Christianity during the dark ages. They knew that the Bible was just an improvised collection of mediocre myths, but because the Church had so much power, very few people were brave enough to speak out openly against it. Only in the late 1700s and early 1800s, with the emergence of political freedom and the discoveries of modern science did freethinkers start to openly criticize the Christian myth.

By the end of the 1800s, the theory of evolution had gained widespread acceptance and most Western intellectuals abandoned Christianity. But despite having lost all of their intellectual credibility, the churches maintained a strong following, particularly among those who were not educated in science. Many faithful Christians became so frightened of scientific discovery and social change that they became politically active, attempting to regain power in order to turn back the tide of progress.

The popularity of communism in the early 1900s was an even more serious threat to Christianity than science. The communists hated Christianity and vowed to eradicate it from Europe. Church leaders responded by forming alliances with anti-communist political parties like the fascists and nazis. This was not surprising, as the Church had always been opposed to freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and democracy.

Christianity thrived in America in the 1950s and early 60s thanks to Cold War paranoia. Anyone who criticized Christianity was immediately branded a communist. People were pressured into thinking that it was unpatriotic not to attend church. Conservatives grasped this golden opportunity to slip God into the pledge of allegiance and onto the paper currency.

The Great Social Revolution

By the end of the 1960s, television, pop music, and the birth control pill were inspiring a revolution in Western culture. Social activists demanded women's rights, sexual freedom, and gay liberation. Conservative Christians fought bitterly against these social changes, but the old religious morality was soon condemned by the mass media as unhealthy and oppressive.

As conservative Christians became an unpopular minority, mainstream churches adapted by becoming less sexist and homophobic. But the interpretation of religious scripture can only be stretched so far before people begin losing faith and start looking for new beliefs. Many abandoned Christianity in favor of new-age mysticism. Others simply became non-aligned free-thinking materialists.

By the late 1980s and 90s, in cities across the Western world, most people only went to church to attend weddings and funerals. Enthusiastic church-going Christians were assumed to be ignorant. At the same time, being openly anti-Christian was not popular either. Like a bad memory, people just did not want to think or talk about religion.

Meanwhile, conservative church leaders harvested money from believers, built financial empires, and established media networks. By promising health, wealth, and happiness, they managed to convert many of those who had been left behind by the modern world. They schemed, hijacked political parties, and quietly waited for a chance to regain power.

Being anti-Christian

Fortunately, there is very little reason to worry about attempts by fanatical Christians to retake power. It is easy to be fooled by talk of a religious revival, but the fact that Christianity needs to be revived is just another sign that it is a dying religion. The truth is that Christianity has never been so weak or vulnerable.

With Christian fundamentalists and Islamic extremists waging a holy war against modern democratic values, traditional religion has never had so many enemies. University professors are starting to openly attack it, and the hardworking masses are starting to question what it is worth.

Thanks to the uncensored freedom of speech only made possible by the Internet, there is a growing chorus of resentment towards religion, and scathing criticisms are starting to echo into the mass media. For the first time in more than 1500 years, it is finally becoming socially acceptable to be openly anti-Christian.

Relic from an age of ignorance

Most of those who are opposed to Christianity think that it is just a relic from an age of ignorance, and they cannot understand why it has not yet been abandoned and consigned to the dustbin of history. But Christianity is more than just a relic.

The reason why it continues to attract followers is because it offers the unthinking masses an easy-to-believe family-friendly explanation for why they exist, and it encourages believers to think of themselves as a caring sharing community rather than as separate selfish individuals.

You might think that society can function perfectly well without some fairy-tale explanation of existence being used to uphold some contrived system of social values. And you might be right. But it might also be true that Christianity will continue to thrive until something better comes along to replace it. And in order to understand why Western society seems to be so hesitant to abandon Christianity, you first need to examine the emerging alternative.

The scientific worldview

History has clearly shown that the only reliable source of knowledge about our existence is the path of scientific discovery. And according to the authoritative scientific worldview, our entire universe operates like a mindless law-abiding machine. Every particle of matter and wave of energy is constrained to follow the laws of nature, and these laws can never be broken.

So, where did this mindless law-abiding machine come from? Without any evidence, this is where science gives way to speculation, but according to popular scientific opinion, our universe is just one of an infinite number of randomly configured universes called the ‘multiverse’. The multiverse itself is thought to be a mindless law-abiding machine that has either existed forever for no reason, or else it unexpectedly exploded into existence like a bubble of order in a sea of chaos. The exact details are still being argued over by cosmologists, but the general idea is that the ultimate source of all reality is a mindless meaningless sea of chaos.

Natural evolution

According to the scientific worldview, human beings evolved into existence through an endless series of random mutations and natural selections. Life began billions of years of ago when a complex organic molecule unexpectedly replicated itself, and then as the unbroken chain of generations mutated, and variations that were better adapted to their environment survived, the evolutionary process eventually led to the rise of intelligent life.

In the opinion of most evolutionary biologists, the randomness of the mutations proves that the appearance of intelligent life was purely an accident of nature. This means that human beings are like self-preserving self-replicating biological machines. Our existence has no purpose and our lives have no meaning other than whatever meaning we invent for ourselves, and yet we are compelled to struggle onwards by vain dreams and biological desires, and we are almost all completely immersed in the illusion of our contemporary social drama.

No foundation for morality

The meaninglessness of life might sound depressing, and many people will refuse to believe that their lives have no cosmic significance, but an even more depressing outcome of the scientific worldview is that, other than feelings of affection or the possibility of some mutual benefit, we have no provable cosmic reason to care about each other. And other than the fear of punishment or rejection, or the perception of personal gain, there is no reason to follow the rules and values of society. Despite any idealistic claims, the scientific worldview supports no philosophical justification for unconditional cooperation or personal self-sacrifice.

Most traditional religions preach that God gave the world unquestionable rules and values about right and wrong that were written down long ago in holy books. After centuries of struggling to overcome this oppressive idea, many institutions now teach that there is a natural foundation for universal human rights and values, and that we are discovering these rights and values through the historic struggle for freedom and the power of human reason.

In recent times, however, a more sophisticated understanding has been developing as scientifically minded thinkers come to terms with the full philosophical implications of the theory of evolution. According to this new understanding, the only reliable truths in this universe are the laws of nature that govern matter and energy, and these laws cannot be used to substantiate any universal human values.

If our lives are merely the product of complex interactions between atoms and molecules, then any attempt to make judgments about human behavior would be the same as saying "this chemical reaction is good, and this one is bad". You might want to believe that if you added up all the molecular interactions and calculated the most successful way to live, the result would be something like "love thy neighbor". But without ever being able to perform this calculation, we cannot be sure that the result would not be "screw thy neighbor". In any case, the real result is probably a mixture of the two, because both describe how people actually behave.

The power struggle

In the scientific worldview, ideas about morals and values are purely the product of human thinking. People learn many of their ideas about right and wrong from the traditions of their society, and these ideas continue to be shaped throughout people's lives by their personal interests and the interests of those they care about.

The problem with this, is that groups with competing interests often have different ideas about right and wrong, and these differences can easily escalate into power struggles. Since the earliest days of human society, groups with differing ideas about right and wrong have competed for the political power to impose their interests and values upon everyone else.

The struggle for political power has historically been played out using violence and oppression. Those in command of the greatest physical force have had the power to decree right and wrong, and those who disagreed were silenced. It was during these times that religions like Christianity gained popularity by using myths about miracles to convince people to believe in eternal and universal ideas about right and wrong that were intended to permanently protect the interests of the wider community.

In recent centuries, kings and dictators have been overthrown and replaced by democratic governments, and science and technology have undermined religious morality. Now thanks to the historic struggle for political freedom, people living in modern democracies each have a small share of political power. In the democratic political power struggle, physical force has been replaced by the gentle art of persuasion. Various powerful interests now compete for popularity in the commercial mass media. For better or for worse, media brainwashing and majority opinion now decide right and wrong. While religious morality still influences believers, it only influences the rest of us inasmuch as religious leaders compete with other interest groups to sway the opinions of voters.

The secular humanist tradition

Although the mindless cosmic machine has no provision for universal human values, most people in the modern world, including most scientific thinkers, still believe that some things are universally and eternally right or wrong. Some examples of how these values make it into the common consciousness are ...

Throughout history, storytelling idealists have used romance and poetry in an effort to persuade their audience to believe in some kind of greater good that is worth struggling for.
The Western philosophical tradition, from Plato to Sartre, has been like a never-ending attempt to outwit the scientific worldview and prove that some universal human values really do exist.
After the human rights revolution in the 1960s and 70s, many people now believe that any form of discrimination or oppression is universally wrong.
University social scientists often use distorted interpretations of history and human nature in order to justify their humanist ideals.

Left wing political activists (those who fight for the poor and powerless) are generally opposed to the idea that right and wrong arise purely out of power struggles, because if this were true, then left wing political ideals would have no real moral superiority. The left could be accused of being just as selfish as the right, and their ideals could be dismissed as nothing more than political propaganda.

Classic literature, Western philosophy, political idealism, and even social science all contribute to a secular humanist tradition, which is like a godless religion dedicated to convincing people to believe that even in a cold heartless mechanical universe, they should think of themselves as a caring sharing community rather than as separate selfish individuals. And like religious fanatics who cannot understand why freethinkers reject their faith, many idealists cannot understand why some people do not share their ideas about right and wrong.

The religious right

Right wing political groups (the side of the rich and powerful) have no ideals other than their ambition to pursue wealth and power. They oppose left wing political ideals because they loathe any kind of humanist value that tries to prevent them from fully exploiting the profit potential of every available resource.

Popular myths can create opportunities for people in power to exploit believers. As masters in the art of the power struggle, without any misguided idealism to restrain them, those on the political right, who would do anything for power, have no problem upholding religious myths as a means of keeping the working masses complacent and obedient.

Being ideologically opposed to unconditional cooperation or personal self-sacrifice, the political right needs religion in order to give it the appearance of having morals. And the churches need the political right to protect them from the left, whose secular humanist tradition acts like an alternative religion, competing to control the moral sentiment of the masses. Through their ownership of the corporate media, right wing political propagandists try to convince people that the churches are morally superior to the humanists.

Conservative voters

When old folks see kids on the street these days with wild looks and bad attitudes, they know that many of these kids live only for the thrill of partying all night, getting drunk and stoned, and having sex. They know that many young people don't care about their future because they think that life is meaningless, and they don't care about the future of the world because they think that we are all screwed anyway.

And this is one of the reasons why many older people go to church and vote for the religious right, because they hate the idea of having slaved and sacrificed their entire lives just to leave everything in the hands of a delinquent generation.

In the absence of any effective secular alternative, they still see religion as the most potent cultural force for regulating the thoughts and behavior of young people. The most vocal advocates of traditional religion have always been older generations who are worried about their families, and who feel threatened by their neighbor's kids.

Breaking down the percentages

Opinion polls suggest that around one quarter of all Americans still believe that every word of the Bible is literally true. Many of these people have never read any other book than the Bible. If they were not reading the Bible then they would be reading some other book of ancient myths. It could be worse, they could be reading the Koran.

Another fifty percent of the population still call themselves Christians out of sentiment for tradition and in the absence of any popular alternative. Many of these people have never even read the Bible, and many are looking for something better to believe in, but at the end of the day, they mostly believe whatever they are told by their televisions, because it is safer just to follow the herd.

The remainder are non-Christians. Among them are freethinkers, political idealists, and skeptics who disbelieve everything. Less than ten percent of the population have a good understanding of the scientific worldview.

Replacing Christianity

The obvious replacement for Christianity is the scientific worldview. Unfortunately, the interpretation of science now being offered to the masses seems to be too difficult for them to understand and too hostile for them to accept. Many scientific thinkers blame this on the ignorance of the masses, but it is probably just as much the fault of the arrogance of the scientists.

The scientific worldview will not replace religion unless it can satisfy the following requirements ...

It needs to be easy to understand and easy to believe.
In order to attract the loyalty of the masses, it needs to be interpreted in such a way as to advance the interests of the poor and powerless while not making enemies of the rich and powerful.
It needs to reassure older people that the minds of their young will not be corrupted by despair about meaninglessness or the abandonment of moral restraint.
It needs to be acceptable to everyone, regardless of why they believe the universe exists. The question of why the universe exists is beyond the limits of science and is open to speculation. Some people will want to believe that the reason for our existence is orderly and purposeful, others will want to believe that it is mindless and chaotic.

If the scientific worldview could be interpreted in such a way as to satisfy these emotional needs, then it might be possible to convert large numbers of liberal Christians. If that happened, then many liberal Muslims, who are even more desperate for an alternative belief, might follow. Eventually the entire world might be united by a common belief in the scientific worldview.

Continue to chapter 17 ... Evolutionary Metaphysics