The global pandemic has forced humanity to re-evaluate priorities and core beliefs. What is the role of religion (subjectivity) and reason (objectivity) in response to looming existential threats? Is religion or science a more reliable asset for responding to COVID-19, climate change, mass extinctions and the unsustainable use of fossil fuels?
Before microbiologists discovered germs, bacteria and viruses, illness and death were often attributed to evil spirits, Satan and other supernatural fabrications. Evangelical spokespersons for God, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, said that hurricane Katrina was God’s wrath, which God told them was provoked by gay people. Do evangelicals have the ability to accurately invoke God as the cause of natural events?
Science has relieved suffering and dramatically improved living conditions through advances in health care, sanitation, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, nanotechnology, bio-engineering, epigenetics, physics, biochemistry and ecological sustainability. Science uses verifiable evidence from interrelated disciplines to discover new insights, applications and a deeper understanding of objective reality.
Religious beliefs can motivate benevolence. Most atheists and non-religious people, including myself, admire the virtuous work of religions. They have inspired generosity, compassion, empathy and volunteerism to relieve suffering and provide basic necessities.
As a Secular Humanist, I am envious of people who have a strong belief in a God. A strong, transcendent belief, whether religious or non-religious, can enhance psychological and physical health, healing and happiness. But religion may also include a self-deluding tendency to avoid facing insecurities, loss, suffering, mortality and existential crises –– subjective denial of objective reality. Religious convictions correlate with how strongly a belief is felt, not whether convictions are actually true.
Religious beliefs, without evidence, may shift responsibility for personal or social problems to God, Satan or other supernatural scapegoats. This justifies apathy in the form of thoughts and prayers, instead of corrective action. Thoughts and prayers, not followed by timely corrective action, result in feeling helpful without being helpful. Religious people that feel prayer without action helps eliminate existential threats address the problem with chronic apathy, rather than reason-based activism.
Religion, without the burden of proof, can cherry pick from the infinite buffet of subjective dogmas and assert them as objective facts. Like playing tennis without a net, the bar for proof is so low it is literally non-existent. Should beliefs change facts or should facts change beliefs? Religions often insist, using blind faith, that scriptures are inerrant. Can contradicting scriptures be inerrant? Did God create humans? There is evidence that humans created Gods –– hundreds of them. Comedian Ricky Gervais points out, “Only your God is the real one.”
Can an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful, merciful God authorize eternal suffering? Can religions know the unknowable? Do you agree with neuroscientist Sam Harris who says it is intellectually dishonest to pretend to know the unknowable? Are subjective distortions of objectivity a lack of courage to face objective reality? Marilyn Ferguson said in Aquarian Conspiracy, “A fear of knowing is a fear of doing because of the inherent responsibility in new knowledge. Our brains can (subjectively) censor what we see and hear. We can filter reality to suit our level of courage.”
Why are 95% of 2,025 National Science Foundation members and 93% of National Academy of Science members atheist and agnostic? Why do atheists and agnostics have more knowledge about religions than most religious people in Pew international surveys? While acknowledging some of the benefits of religions, let’s also acknowledge some of the subjective biases. Blind faith, wishful thinking, selective perception, selective memory, implicit bias, pre-rational childhood imprinting and indoctrination, the Dunning-Kruger Effect (over-estimating the reliability of beliefs), and subconscious influences often suppress science, rationality, logic, critical thinking and reason-based objectivity.