Religion as a Threat to Scientific Progress

In one of my new favorite websites, Secular Philosophy, a well-known contemporary philosopher by the name of Daniel Dennett wrote recently that religion is potentially the largest threat to rationality and scientific progress that we have in the world today. He claims other debilitating factors – for example, alcohol, television, or addictive video games – though powerful enough to negatively affect our critical faculties, are not as corrupting as religion. Religion, he claims,

has a feature of that none of them can boast: it doesn’t just disable, it honours the disability. People are revered for their capacity to live in a dream world, to shield their minds from factual knowledge and make the major decisions of their lives by consulting voices in their heads that they call forth by rituals designed to intoxicate them.

Dennett cries for the abolition of religion from all of humanity, for it is like a parasite holding its hosts back from truly realizing their full potential. He closes his argument with the following paragraph:

The better is enemy of the best: religion may make many people better, but it is preventing them from being as good as they could be. If only we could transfer all that respect, loyalty and intense devotion from an imaginary being – God – to something real: the wonderful world of goodness we and our ancestors have made, and of which we are now the stewards.

He is writing to a world-wide audience. However, it is only a small percentage of the world that is or could be performing actions that better or worsen it – definitely on the large scale, but even on the small. The large majority of people with whom I come in contact on a daily basis are not and will never change the world. Regardless of whether or not they go home at night and pray to a god or whether or not they attend church on their Sabbath.

Dennett makes believe that the average person is expending all of his vast energy banks on being faithful when he could be working towards bettering the planet. However, I submit that the average person is neither intelligent enough nor eager to expend any great deal of energy on something not immediately beneficial to him. The average person hasn’t graduated college – only 28.7% of Americans over the age of 25 had at least a Bachelor’s degree in 2007 (source: U. S. Census Bureau). The average person watches reality television and sitcoms. The average person shops at Wal-Mart.

There is nothing wrong with watching reality television and shopping at Wal-Mart, and there certainly is nothing wrong with skipping college altogether, for the education of arts and sciences gained these days can be superseded easily by reading a couple dozen books available freely from the public library. My point is merely this: if the average person was non-religious, then the only difference we would see would be in the lives of average people themselves. Even then, I have not found many religious people who spend any amount of time ensuring that they are even living their lives according to that religion.

I agree with Dennett’s writing, however, when applied to the movers and shakers of the world today. Dennett writes of a man in “Liberated” Afghanistan who is being held on death row having been charged with blasphemy. Even today we see many laws being made or not made in America based on religious foundations. Such topics as gay marriage and stem cell research are being debated using words such as “right” and “wrong” – these notions are defined by religion. If the leaders of the world were able to step back from the bias of their faith and dictate law and order based on pure reason and rationality, perhaps the world would be a very different and more advanced place.

Then again, humans may be unable to do this. It’s not as if one person decided he was going to invent this thing called religion and soon got the rest of the world to buy into it. All societies in every corner of the globe eventually created their own religion autonomously. It’s almost as if it is a fundamental need, either of human beings and mankind as a whole, or at least of a society that hopes to attain any sort of order. Humans needed religion to explain the unexplainable, and societies needed religion to define boundaries of actions.

I’m not prepared to take either stance – neither that religion should be replaced with pure reason, nor that religion is an institution that has produced more benefit than detriment. However, I do hold that the average person is not going to put down a Bible and pick up a book on Ethics if he was abolished of his religion. He would simply have more time to mow the yard and watch TV.

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13 thoughts on “Religion as a Threat to Scientific Progress

  1. I agree with everything that you and Danny (that’s right, we’re on a first name basis) have said here.

    However, I don’t feel that religion has any beneficial use whatsoever except on a purely personal level. Religion does not function to better a society in any capacity, and certainly not to give it order. I take that back…religion can provide order, but it is not essential for order.

    The Code of Hammurabi, perhaps the best preserved and one of the earliest formal law codes (along with the Codices of Ur-Nammu, Eshnunna and Lipit-Ishtar) does indeed have its roots in ancient Babylonian “religion.” However, beyond the introduction in which Hammurabi is endowed with righteous authority by two of his gods, Anu and Bel, the rest of it reads just like a bill of rights. The Old Testament is famous for its Decalogue or Ten Commandments, but much less known for the hundreds of lesser laws that follow. I couldn’t find a direct quote, but things like “If your slave is killed by your neighbor, he must pay you 5 bushels of wheat.”

    Both of these examples show that beyond the initial set-up that is based on religion, the actual meat and potatoes of the laws have nothing to do with their respective dieties. The only function of religion in order is to establish authority…an act that can still be done in the absence of religion. I respect a police officers authority, not becuase God made him a cop, but because my government did.

    The only purpose for religion that I can see, is for the individual’s own benefit (or detriment, depending on the severity of the disease). As you alluded to, religion is a crutch for many people. They depend on being able to pray to somebody or something, if for nothing else than to wish away their woes.

    I’m not saying that religion should be abolished either, but it definitely does need to be separated from any authoritative bodies. Countless atrocities have been thrust upon the world as a result of conquests inspired by Divine Destiny and led by the self-proclaimed Righteous.

  2. In both cases of the Babylonian laws and the Old Testament laws, the creators used dieties to enforce the set of rules established. Hammurabi at least pretended to believe that the gods called him to “bring about the rule of righteousness to the land”. The Old Testament, obviously, places tales of fire and brimstone alongside its rules for how to carry out one’s daily business. No matter what the laws are, they are backed by a higher power than mere mortals.

    I am hesitant to say it, but I might wager that every young civilization with a set of written, enforced laws, created those laws with the backing of a godhead. However, as a civilization grows – or maybe as the world evolves – this might no longer apply. I don’t recall a passage in the bible about driving 20 mph through a school zone, for instance.

  3. I think we’re saying the same thing. My point was that in the examples of the Code of Hammurabi and the Decalogue although they are founded in religion, the actual laws that come from them are not based on religion. The only part that religion plays in them is to establish authority. But you don’t need to have religion to establish authority, therefore you can have order without religion. Hence my line about the cop and God.

    BTW, I dissolved my Blurrrty account (for the second time) and am now adopting guj2154 as my sole blog (check out my cool new post), but I finally realized what I was trying to say with my whole “If A then B” spiel. If (A) Infinity exists, then (B) an Afterlife is possible [B requires A]. (Not A) Infinity doesn’t exist, so (Not B) Afterlife is impossible. I knew there was some valid logic in there somewhere!

  4. We’re not saying the same thing, because you keep saying that you don’t need religion to establish authority, and I’m saying that “every young civilization with a set of written, enforced laws, created those laws with the backing of a godhead,” meaning, they needed that godhead to provide the authority to make those laws.

  5. Oh, THAT’S what you’re saying? Yeah, nevermind, we’re not saying the same thing at all.

    You haven’t proven your point though. You can’t just say “every civilization uses religion to establish authority” and will it to be true. It just isn’t. I’ll use the obvious example. America’s government didn’t use religion to establish its authority. Even though the Declaration of Independence says things like “…all men…are endowed by their Creater with certain unalienable Rights…” that doesn’t mean that Christianity was used as a tool to gain authority. The American government held authority over its citizens because it offered freedom from the oppressive rule of a king, thousands of miles away. In fact, the very first amendment of the Consititution serves specifically to establish the LACK of religion in it.

  6. I didn’t say “every civilization uses religion to establish authority”, so I don’t know why you quoted it as if it were my words. I said (twice) that “every YOUNG civilization … creatED … laws with the backing of a godhead”.

    Maybe if you would have actually read my first reply to you, you wouldn’t be so quick to throw America in as a counter-example. First of all, I’m talking about young civilizations, or at least ancient civilizations, before science was able to explain many of the mysteries of the world and people still by-and-large used their faith to explain even natural occurences like lightning. America is not young for though it is only 232 years old, it is basically just a continuation of the English empire, which had been well-established and advanced enough to provide state-enforced law officers.

    I admit that this statement is not at all researched, but I’m making a generalization based on what I’ve studied so far in my life. At the beginnings of civilization, when groups of people became societies that grew large enough to require governing, the initial authority was supernatural. As societies grew – or perhaps simply as the world and science evolved – this authority moved into human hands.

    Of course I’m talking out of my ass and have no proofs or research to back that statement. But you don’t have any counterevidence either, so I’m ok for now. I will gladly take my statement back if you can provide one ancient civilization that did not use religion as an authority to rule its people.

  7. Alright, let’s try this one last time. I think you’re so caught up in arguing with me for the sake of argument that you’re glazing over my point.

    This is a direct quote from you, and the following text that you wrote in comment 4:

    “…”every young civilization with a set of written, enforced laws, created those laws with the backing of a godhead,” meaning, they needed that godhead to provide the authority to make those laws.”

    The only thing I’ve been trying to say in all of this hullabaloo is that religion is not required to attain authority. Therefore, I’m disagreeing with your assertion that “they needed that godhead to provide the authority…” As I’ve made amply clear, there are instances where authority can be granted without the use of a godhead or religion in general.

    THAT statement can be traced back all the way to the original comment and my thesis, that religion has no value to society because it isn’t even needed to establish authority and order, and that religions usefulness only extends to personal relationships and that that’s where it should remain.

  8. Yes, as for your original comment about the original post, you have made sufficient arguments to make your point that right now, religion could be abolished and it would not take away the authority of the policing bodies of the world. Ergo, I am prepared to reconsider the statement in my article that reads, “(Religion) is a fundamental need…of a society that hopes to attain any sort of order.”

    But this is a new argument, made in comment 2, that all young/ancient socieites used religion to establish power. It seems like then – thousands of years ago – they needed it, or at least nobody knew how to do it otherwise. That is what we are debating now, and that has not been sufficiently argued against. All I’m asking for (as of comment 6) is one counter-example of an ancient society that did not use religion to establish power.

  9. The cavemen with the biggest clubs and the pointiest sticks had the most authority, not becaue of divine decree but out of fear from their peers.

  10. Okay… I’m not involved in this religion/governing society debate, but I would like to comment on how scientific progress is being crushed by religion.

    Have you heard of this museum? It’s a creationist museum in which overly religious folk present their outlandish views on young and impressionable minds. It’s an offshoot of Young Earth Creationism by which ideas of man and dinasours walking the earth at the same time are presented. It’s an example of the church using science as a bludgen. People will walk their children through these museum exhibits and teach them all of this nonsense that defies sound scientific support.

    I just thought it was interesting because you were talking about how religion is threatening science, and now there is this crazy example of religion using science to threaten science. Anyone with a clear understanding of how fossils work can see that the creationist viewpoint is fiddle faddle, but what about these people’s children? They’re going to grow up believing this and the whole thing is going to start over again in a new generation even in this technological age.

    Science has always been great because it has been viewed with a skeptical eye, always tested, always treated with a certain objectivity to validate it. But now people use this psuedo-science to “prove” anything they want. God created man in one day, and here look! A clever diorama! Now times are changing, I guess, and the snake-oil charmers are at it again with a more potent argument. And worse yet, people are buying it.

  11. I thoroughly enjoyed reading up on Young Earth Creationism thanks to your link. I found it interesting that

    YECs claim that the lack of support for a Young Earth theory in professional science journals or among professional science organizations is due to discrimination and censorship

    when at the same time, they offer no scientific arguments at all for any of their claims. They simply say that since the Bible says it, it’s true. Furthermore, they refuse to accept any information given from the fields of

    physics and chemistry (especially absolute dating methods), geology, astronomy, cosmology, molecular biology, genomics, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology and any other fields of science that have developed theories or made claims incompatible with the Young Earth version of world history.

    They forsake science and complain when science forsakes them back. Awesome.

    However, your link to the museum failed to register properly, and I really would like to see it. Can you please post the web address?

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