Sunday, February 28, 2010

Keeping the Faith

Keep the faith. That is something many of us are encouraged to do. It is part of the general well-wishing that often comes with saying goodbye to a friend. “See you later, my friend. Keep the faith!”

Keeping the Faith was the title of a movie about two good friends, a Catholic priest and a rabbi, and a childhood friend who came back into their lives as a beautiful woman and shook things up between them.

The priest, played by Edward Norton, fell in love with the woman after becoming reacquainted with her. He then, of course, had a crisis of faith during which he decided to leave the priesthood so that he could marry this friend from his childhood. The woman, played by Jenna Elfman, had no romantic feelings for the priest. She still thought of him as just a good friend. So when the priest embarrassed himself by admitting his love for her, he started drinking and became a derelict for awhile.

The Catholic Church frowns on priests falling in love and prohibits them from getting married. So you can see his dilemma.

The rabbi, played by Ben Stiller, loved her too, and she loved him. But because he was Jewish, he couldn’t get away with marrying this gentile woman. He kept his relationship with her a secret from his parents and his congregation.

Unlike Catholic priests, Jewish Rabbis are allowed, even encouraged, to get married. Jews seem to be more concerned with whether or not you eat the right brand of wiener or the right species of seafood. Marrying is ok, but only if it is to a Jewish woman. Of course, being a romantic comedy, things worked out just fine in the end for everyone concerned. And, of course, both the rabbi and the priest got to keep their faith.

In America at least, it would not have been appropriate for a comedy about love to end up with someone losing his faith in the Lord. After all, more than 80 percent of the population claims to have faith.

But just what does it mean to have faith? Faith simply means a very strong belief in something despite absence of proof or even strong evidence that what you believe in actually exists.

When you admonish someone to “keep the faith,” what you’re really saying is something like this: “Make sure you keep believing in spite of the lack of evidence,” or “Don’t worry about the facts; just believe it in your heart,” or maybe “Remember, it’s not necessary to know something is true as long as you believe it is and live your life accordingly.”

Anyone who can pretend that they don’t believe for 10 seconds, pretend that they have never heard of their religion or have never given God a second thought, and then exam the command to “Keep the faith,” they may see it from a different light.

Keep the faith? Really? I generally require some kind of evidence before I believe other things that I’m told. If someone tries to sell me a bottle of miracle medicine for $50, I’m hanging on to my money until I see some proof that this stuff works. But I’m supposed to have faith that a magical man in the sky is watching my every move and judging me accordingly? No thank you.

Keeping the faith is a routine part of being Christian in America, and elsewhere but to a lesser degree. The concept has been with us so long that it doesn’t seem at all silly or nonsensical to have faith. In fact, having great faith is often viewed as a virtue.

But strip away its religious shield and look at it from a perspective of a religiously-naïve person and keeping the faith does sound kind of naïve in its own right.

But so what? Is there really anything wrong with keeping some faith in your life? I mean, it doesn’t really hurt anything, right? Well, yes and no. It depends on what you have faith in. If you have faith in yourself it can provide encouragement for success. If you realize that your success depends mostly on you, then having faith in yourself and your own abilities presents a positive mental attitude that will help you through the day and your life. Having faith in those closest to you to come through for you when you need help is also a virtue.

But if your faith is in some unseen supernatural force, then you have misplaced your faith. If you waste your time waiting for guidance from a hypothetical omniscient force then you're really just being lazy. It can hold you back.

Even if you are not one of the religious fanatics who want to force your faith down my throat by lobbying to have creation nonsense taught in science class or who advocate violence against abortion doctors or who fly airplanes into skyscrapers in the name of God, you are spending vast amounts of your time, and presumably your money, focusing on a non-existent personal deity who is promising you an eternal life after this one instead of focusing on the one life you really do have. If we get to live forever after we die, then of what value is our earthly existence? This is your life; live it to its fullest and stop worrying about what some "sky daddy" thinks.

Oh, but what if I’m wrong? I hear that a lot. Well, maybe I am wrong, but I guarantee that whatever you believe is not closer to the truth than what I believe. What if there is a god but you chose the wrong religion? What if you are Catholic but God still chooses the Jews? What if you’re Baptist but God likes the Catholics best? What if the real god is Vishnu or Allah? You’re still just as condemned as I am. Without proof, or at least hard evidence, you have no justification for your faith, whatever it is.

“But I have faith because the bible….” Oh, so now you’re going to tell me that your faith in God is concordant with your faith in the bible. You believe in God because the bible tells you to. You believe in the bible because God tells you it is his word. Where else in your life do you allow such circular logic to predominate? Never mind that the bible is simply a collection of stories brought together in modern form by a conclave of Catholic bishop lawyers working on a deadline from a ruthless dictator. What’s that you say? It might have been written by men but it was under God’s guidance? And yes, that also requires a great amount of circular-reasoning faith. I hope you can see that faith is nothing more than wishful thinking.

Keep the faith? No thank you. An exceptional claim requires exceptional evidence, and I require a healthy dose of that evidence, real scientific evidence, not anecdotes, before I brush aside reason in favor of blind faith.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Warning! You May be a Fundamentalist

Take this test to see if you are, indeed, a Christian fundamentalist.

1. Do you believe that God created all the world in six literal days about 6,000 years ago?

2. Do you believe that being homosexual is a sin?

3. Do you believe that the United States was founded on the principals of Christianity?

4. Do you believe its ok to use any measures to stop abortions?

5. Do you believe that every word of the bible is true and literal in its meaning?

6. Do you believe that Creationism (or intelligent design) should be taught in science class?

7. Do you believe in a literal hell where people go to suffer everlasting torment?

8. Are you a strong social conservative?

9. Do you think Sarah Palin would make a great president?

10. Is masturbating a sin?

If you answered "yes" to at least 5 of these questions, you may be a Christian fundamentalist. If you answered 9 or 10 of them "yes" you are definitely a Christian fundamentalist. Either way, please seek help immediately. The only cure for Christian fundamentalism is a good dose of reality taken with an open mind.

Evolution Deniers Skew Poll Numbers

A recent survey reported in Science and Religion Today shows that more than half, 51 percent, of Texans do not believe that humans evolved from more primitive animal species. A full 38 percent believe that humans have existed in their present form since their creation by God less than 10,000 years ago. The Texas poll is fairly reflective of the country as a whole, unfortunately.

I don’t know for sure because I doubt that there have been any polls to measure it, but I would presume that if asked a similar question about people’s belief in other equally-well-documented scientific theories such as gravity or relativity a much higher percentage would have no trouble believing them. Most people know very little about the theory of relativity, but they know it was developed by Einstein, and that probably convinces them of its validity.

More to the point, the theory of relativity does not directly conflict with any particular story of the bible. The theory of evolution, on the other hand, runs completely counter to the claims made in the first and second chapters of Genesis. To most mainstream Christian clergy, those Creation stories are just that, stories. But to religious conservatives and evangelicals, the stories in Genesis are gospel (if not Gospel).

But only about 20 percent of people in America claim to be evangelical Christians. (That’s 20 percent too many in my opinion.) So how can the minority turn into a majority opinion in most polls of the kind taken in Texas?

I’ve puzzled over that question almost ad nauseum and I’ve decided the answer is multifaceted. First of all, let’s remove those who are truly the fundamentalist evangelicals, because no one is going to be able to figure them out. Focusing on the remainder of the 50 percent who do not accept the truth of evolution, one can surmise that the vast majority of them do not understand much at all about the science of evolution. Very few of those who actually understand it in any detail would have little trouble accepting it as fact.

So for these people, he who speaks loudest speaks the truth. And evangelical Christians speak louder than anyone. I hold out some hope that most evolution deniers are simply the ignorant fence sitters who have been convinced by the conservatives. If that is the case, a little education might bring them back to reality.

Another reason many people are loathe to accept the theory of evolution is due to the discomfort factor. Even those who know a little more than the average Joe about evolution might be put off by its claim that humans are merely another species of animal that has evolved from a common ancestor with other species of animals.

We are humans. We are supposed to be above the fray. We are intelligent. We invented Facebook for heaven’s sake. We can’t actually be related to the animals, can we?

Psychologists would say people like this are in denial. Maybe, down deep, they know the truth. But maybe they are afraid of the truth. Maybe the truth is so uncomfortable for them that they refuse to believe it out loud. They answer “no” to a poll question about a belief in evolution, but deep in the recesses of their minds, they sort of know it’s true.

People don’t want to believe that we are cousins of baboons and distant relatives of fish. So they become deniers.

But a disbelief in a fact merely because believing it would tend to make us very uncomfortable does not disprove the fact itself. Just as believing doesn’t make it so, disbelieving doesn’t disprove it. It takes unbiased scientific evidence to prove something or to disprove it. Evolution has as much evidence behind it as does the theory of gravity. Simply denying that truth does not turn it into a lie.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Keep Superstition Out of Science

There is a rather fine line between religion and superstition. I guess the biggest difference is that, whereas superstition involves a single act or a single item, religion is more organized and typically involves a set of related beliefs. But, in some cases, one person’s religion can be another person’s superstition.

Voodoo, for example, can be viewed as superstitious ritual, but not to those who practice it. It is their religion. And many non-Muslims regard some of the Islamic beliefs to be nothing more than superstition, and probably vice-versa.

The fact that fundamentalist Muslim’s believe that killing themselves and others in the name of Allah will send them to heaven where they will meet with several dozen virgins provides fodder for late-night comedians. And yet, to those who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center, and to others who believe the same way, it is not a joke. They really believe it. Would they take their own lives if they didn’t believe they were going to be rewarded with virgin vagina in the afterlife?

Many people are still superstitious, even in this modern world. They refrain from walking across the path of a black cat or walking under a ladder. Of course, I wouldn’t walk under a ladder either, but not because of a superstition. Some things are just reasonable precautions. Nevertheless, even though superstitions still exist, for the most part, they have been replaced as a guiding force in most people’s lives by reason and intelligence.

And that leads me once again to ask why, in this world of reason and intelligence, do the vast majority of people still hold on to their religions? Religion is simply organized superstition.

It wouldn’t matter so much if people would just believe their silliness and leave the rest of us alone. More often what happens is that they want the rest of us to follow their religious prohibitions and prescriptions. Sometimes, they go to great lengths to force compliance by everyone else.

It even goes as high as the President of the United States, as when George W. Bush signed an executive order banning public funding for embryonic stem cell research. His only reason for the ban was on moral grounds. Doing research with embryos, even those destined to be destroyed anyway, violated his Christian morals, so he denied everyone else the benefits of such research, even those who did not subscribe to his religious compunctions.

Recently, there was a report in the news about the sale of a pink Ouija Board. The game targets young girls. Christian fundamentalists have complained to Hasbro, the maker of the game, and to places like Toys R Us that sell it, demanding that the game be pulled off shelves. They say the game is sinful because it goes against the bible’s prohibition on communicating with spirits.

So let me get this straight: Since some backward, superstitious Christians are spooked by this board game, the more reasonable folks who would like to buy one of these games for their kids and see nothing wrong with it get the shaft?

That is what’s wrong with religion. Too many of those who are religious, especially the zealots, want to control the rest of us. They want us to live by their restrictive and irrational rules. And, unfortunately, they have become a powerful force in modern America.

I just attended a conference for science teachers in Indianapolis where I sat through a session on the controversies surrounding evolution and intelligent design. Many in the audience were just curious; a few were fence sitters. But at least one was an outspoken advocate of intelligent design. He was even toting the latest book by one of the authors who claim to have scientifically dispelled evolution.

Now, I don’t have a problem with him, or anyone else, believing what they want. There are those who still believe the world is flat. I don’t even have a problem with him trying to convince others that he’s right. It is American, after all. But this man is a science teacher. And he freely admitted to teaching creationism (along with evolution) in his science classes.

Everyone would be appalled if a geography teacher were to teach his kids that the world is flat. In his own defense, he might say, “But I just want to be fair. All sides should be taught. The Flat Earth Society provided the information and it is only right that I teach their point of view too and let the kids decide what’s correct.”

This is one argument, almost exactly, that many Christians use to justify teaching creation superstition to gullible teenagers in science classes. “It’s only fair.” “Teach both sides and let the kids decide.”

The problem with that is that science is not democratic. Scientists do not vote on what theories to support this year. Theories grow out of evidence. There is no evidence for creation or intelligent design. So even if, one day, evolution were falsified, scientists would have to go in search of a replacement theory. Intelligent design still would not win by default.

The speaker at the conference session, who tried to stay neutral, said that science is defined by the philosopher. That might be true, but the definition is based on what scientists actually do, not what the philosopher thinks they should do. Science tries to find natural answers to problems in nature. If you allow the supernatural in, you are no longer doing science.

The only way that creationism or intelligent design can be taught in the science classroom in public schools is to redefine science. And that is exactly what the ID crowd is trying to do, by their own admission.

If they succeed, not only will there be a fine line between superstition and religion, there will be a fine line between superstition and science.