Thursday, January 18, 2007

The End of Faith, the Edge of Reason

Though we devote most of our attention to politics in this webjournal, our charter demands that we put reason foremost in all avenues, not just politics. Therefore, suffer us for a time while we speak about religion:

1. There is no evidence for the substantial claims made by any of the world's major religions. While we don't have the time to debunk every supposedly "miraculous" healing attributed to Lourdes or to touching the relics of some molding saint, there is no proof of the transubstantiation of the Communion wafer into the body of Jesus. Or of Mohammed's ascension to heaven on a winged horse.

The holy texts of those faiths - the Bible, the Koran - do not constitute "proof," as we have no one's word to take for the Bible's authenticity but the Bible's. And a subjective, unverifiable feeling that cannot be distinguished from a lie (e.g., "faith") is not proof. Faith is proof that you believe in something; it is not proof of that thing.

2. In any other arena of human experience - medicine, geology, aeronautics, football coaching, wedding planning, cooking, auctioneering, dog breeding - an assertion advanced without evidence would be laughed aside. Even in the fuzzier disciplines, where bold assertions can seem equally unprovable (e.g., "no one knew the emotions of man better than Shakespeare"), there is at least a marshalling of evidence and the possibility of debate. But it is possible to debate the importance of Shakespeare and still be considered an English scholar. It is not possible to debate the fact that an angel spoke to Mohammed and still be a Muslim.

3. The respect that religion is accorded in the realm of public discourse vastly outweighs its contributions.

4. Some would argue that religious belief leads to remarkable good works - charity, education, etc - that counter, if not outweigh, its tremendous evil. But any such charity must, of necessity, come from a very selective interpretation of the Bible. And to selectively interpret the Bible smashes the assertion that it is the inspired word of a god.

If we accept that it's okay to adhere to Jesus's exhortations to charity, but to ignore Deuteronomy's commands to stone heretics and burn adulterers, then what criteria are we using for such selection? What filter do we pass the 'word of god' through, that healing the sick emerges but slaying the infidel is left behind? Whatever this filter is, whatever benchmarks we use to determine what parts of the Bible to follow and what to ignore, it must obviously be taken from outside the Bible itself. For the Bible itself does not instruct its readers to ignore anything that sounds "barbaric" or "outdated"; the Bible does not invite you to pick and choose. So if the Bible's more moderate adherents apply some sort of filter to it, that filter must - of necessity - come from their own moral sense.

We can also anticipate the next response: that Jesus himself told his followers that he was "creating a new covenant." Does that mean that moderate Christians can ignore the Old Testament? Well, no - because there is no reason to believe that Jesus was the Son of God unless he fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah. Unless Jesus was of the lineage of David, born of a virgin in the village of Bethlehem, he is not the son of God - he's merely a particularly popular Jewish cultist from the time of Augustus Caesar. The appearance of Jesus does not invalidate the Old Testament. That's why the Torah and the life of the Prophets is included in Biblical canon, for Christ's sake.

Besides, no moderate Christian completely ignores the Old Testament - they're all fans of the Ten Commandments, for instance. So how did they decide which parts to follow and which parts to ignore? See above - their own moral sense.

(We devote the most time in the above block to moderate Christianity - Protestantism and Roman Catholicism - because we are the most familiar with that strain)

5. Armchair reasoning, as well as an empirical study of history, demonstrates that the greater a populace's religious belief, the greater the evil it perpetrates. The logic above proves that anyone who accepts monumental claims about metaphysics and ethics without evidence must be delusional. A survey of the last twenty centuries proves that it is fundamentalists - the Inquisition in Europe, the jihadi in the Middle East - that slaughter millions, torture mercilessly and wreck nations.


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