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.