August 20, 2006

Can Faith Make a Contribution?

This article in The Guardian argues that faith can make a contribution in both politics and science. Ms. Bunting argues that Islam is prompting a increased discussion of religion in the West. I think she's right that expanding this discussion is a good thing. Unfortunately, this is where my agreement ends.
I've lost count of the number of times at recent public debates where some good soul has got up to lambast religion for its barbaric history of violence and despotism. It's a cherished myth on the secular left, but its willful historical ignorance increasingly irritates me. Violence and despotism are not monopolies of the religious. Niall Ferguson's new book on the 20th century might enlighten a few. Much of the worst violence of that century was the product of atheist regimes.
That religion has been a central factor in intolerance, cruelty, and violence throughout history cannot be argued by any rational person. Of course, it is not the only cause of these atrocities. I've not encountered an atheist who would claim that religion is the sole cause for these things. As for much of the "worst violence" in the 20th century being the fault of "atheist regimes," this is little more than a common myth about atheism.
There are links between religion and violence, but there are similarly links between nationalism, ethnicity and violence, or even between scientific revolutions and violence.
Yes, but nationalism is nearly always accompanied by religion - the whole "god on our side" crap. Similarly, many scientific revolutions have been violent precisely because of religion. Scientists have never been very keen on the burning of heretics.

Part of my complaint about religion is that it requires the believer to intentionally distort reality, ignoring portions which would raise questions about religious doctrine. This article is a good example of this selective focus.
The question is: are we in danger of outstripping our ethical imagination? And if a resounding 'no' is to hold, we must pit all our global ethical resources of faith and reason to the task.
But faith is simply not necessary here. Faith is not a valid way of acquiring or verifying knowledge, so it has little to contribute. We do need to have discussions of ethics and morality, but these must be informed by reason and not obscured by faith.
Many areas of science are legitimising religious thought in ways regarded as inconceivable for much of the past century and half. Quantum physicists question our understanding of reality and Hindus respond: 'So what's new?'; neuroscientists formulate understandings of consciousness and Buddhists retort as politely as possible: 'We told you so.'
That neuroscience has demonstrated alternative states of consciousness has nothing to do with Buddhism or any other religion. These findings, with which I have at least some familiarity, say nothing about religious doctrine. On the other hand, controlled studies of the benefits of prayer on the target of such prayer repeatedly show that it is ineffective. Theists, you can't use science when you think it suits you and then discard it when it contradicts your cherished faith. It doesn't work like that. Unlike your religion, science is a method and a body of knowledge under constant revision; it is not a dogma.

Do we need more discussion about religion? Absolutely. However, more religion is the last thing we need. The dialogue on religion must include believers and non-believers. It must focus on how we can end the most dangerous forms of religious extremism and bolster the courage of religious moderates to denounce their extremist brethren. Assuming we place any value at all on religious freedom (and I suspect most of us do), we must also work to keep religion out of politics and politics out of religion.

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