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Machines Like Us

The infantilization of religious faith

Thursday, 27 August 2009

It amazes me that people think that ignorance is a good thing. When people sing the praises of childlike faith, I don't think they quite realize how insulting that is to their religion.

By Mano Singham

Once in a while I get private emails from readers who disagree with my atheistic stance. Recently I got one that said in its entirety:

Dear Sir, from your comments about the religious beliefs of scientists, I gather that you contend that, for the scientist, the greater the learning, the lesser the belief in God; and, conversely, the greater the belief in God, the lesser the knowledge of science. It never ceases to fascinate me, the adoring eyes of a child for the elderly, yet the grown up has little need for them, and, so, they confine them to a home and out of their way. By far, what the child has is greater than what the grown up has. Love never enters the equations of scientists, nor does faith; consequently, the eternal God is not in view of scientists, but only His temporal creation. Archeology has uncovered less than 1% of all the treasures of our past (just scratched the surface), yet, for many decades, archeologists, in their haughtiness, have spoken with authority against the Bible, as bulls from the chair. Many scientists today, and of the past, with their silver surfboard in hand, have yet to feel a wave flow by their ankles, as they have barely just stepped into the ocean. What the eye cannot see, and the ear cannot hear, and the mind cannot understand, the spirit (even of a child) can fathom.

This letter, in somewhat flowery language, illustrates some of the contradictory beliefs that religious people commonly express without them even realizing it.

For example, it says that a child's understanding of the world is superior to that of the adult. It says that in order to perceive god, we need to be like children in our ignorance, and listen to the voices in our head, rather than the concrete senses of sight and sound. In other words, deeper knowledge and greater learning undermine faith. I actually agree with the last sentence but view it as a good thing.

When people sing the praises of childlike faith, it is saying that faith in god is on a par with faith in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, things that only a child would believe in. I agree with that last sentence too but am surprised that religious people advocate it as a virtue.

But the letter writer then promptly contradicts that position by implying that scientists know so little now and presumably that when we get to know more, evidence for god will emerge. So in order to perceive god should we be like children unburdened by knowledge or should we seek more knowledge? Religious people want to have it both ways, on the one hand saying that we see god only by faith and not by knowledge, and on the other hand that we are ignorant now and that more knowledge will provide the necessary evidence for what now must be accepted only on faith. What is interesting is that this contradiction never strikes them, providing another illustration of how religion undermines the ability to think rationally.

The contradictions go even deeper. After all, if god created us then he also created our unusually large brains and gave us the power to think and reason and use logic. As Hamlet says (Act II, Scene II), "What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty!" If so, then why would god not expect us to use the abilities he/she supposedly gave us to understand everything about the world, including religious beliefs? Why would he/she give us this extraordinary intellectual ability and then make it into a liability?

In the end, what religions want you to do simply boils down to this prescription: "You must believe in god. Anything that helps you believe is good. Anything that undermines belief is bad. Ignore any contradictions. Use your brain for everything except examining your religious beliefs to see if they make any sense."

In the great title song from the film O Lucky Man, singer Alan Price describes the qualities that a lucky man possesses. One of them is not being tempted by promises of heaven or made fearful by threats of hell but he also adds that, "If knowledge hangs around your neck like pearls instead of chains, you are a lucky man."

This phenomenon of religious people sacrificing knowledge and reasoning abilities in order to preserve beliefs for which there is no credible evidence whatsoever is sad, really. For religious people, knowledge is indeed like heavy chains, holding them back and burdening them because it contradicts their myths. Atheists, on the other hand, not being bound by dogma and religious texts, delight in discovering pearls of knowledge.

POST SCRIPT: Jesus and the dinosaurs

Many Christians are anxiously waiting for the promised second coming of Jesus when they will get their reward for being faithful believers. But what they don't realize is that the first coming of Jesus was not at the time described in the Gospels in the Bible but actually occurred much earlier, during the dinosaur age. Eddie Izzard recovers this lost history.

So the second coming of Jesus has already occurred. Sorry, Christians, the show is over, there is nothing more to wait for.