On Religion

What would you say if someone were to tell you that they think science is dangerous and worthless because of all the destruction that has been caused by it?  Because we got things like the atom bomb thanks to advancements in science.  What would you say if someone were to tell you that they despise science entirely because of the evils that were caused through research and testing in eugenics?

Speaking for myself, I would want to say a couple of things.  Hating everything to do with science for these reasons requires a lot of sloppy all-or-nothing thinking.  This is pretty plain.  I mean, sure, scientific knowledge and progress has been used to cause some immense harm over history.  But it has also been the source of amazing progresses in medicine, in technology, in our understanding of the natural world, among other things.  Another important nuance that should be thrown into the mix is that pseudoscience is possible and real.  Eugenics is widely considered to have been pseudoscientific work because its main principles were not well supported by empirical evidence.  And yet it flourished for a time.

I think most would readily see the holes in this sort of blanket attack on science.  Yet the same kind of all-or-nothing thinking can be frequently found in contemporary polemics against religion.  Many anti-relgion critics will attack religion, wholesale, with the most shockingly narrow tunnel vision in some instances.  Either because of intention or ignorance (it’s impossible for me to know which, but I’m not sure which is worse), many polemicists narrowly restrict their focus to the dark side of religious history, firing fury and vitriol at outrageously selective targets.  Now don’t get me wrong: an honest, thorough reading of history shows that every major religious tradition has blood on its hands.  And this is a sobering reality that deserves to be faced by everyone with a religious commitment.  But, when we pull the camera back for a panoramic view of human history, one thing that becomes painfully obvious is it’s possible to use almost anything—from religion to politics to science to business to technology to friendship to sex—for good or for evil.  We’d be terribly negligent to not recognize this.  Accordingly, we’d be terribly negligent to not recognize and respect the many ways that religion has motivated people to actively work for good and human flourishing throughout history.

There is another necessary nuance that is often absent from the attacks of anti-religion polemicists.  Just as science can be co-opted by pseudoscience, religion can be co-opted by pseudoreligious motives and ends.  And yes, I know, different people will have different opinions about what true religion really is—we live in a world where there isn’t complete, unanimous consensus about what the truest religion is within the community of those who identify as ‘religious’ (and the same goes for science, though many wish to ignore it).  Just as the work of eugenicists gained influence for a time because it was validated with the powerful brand name of ‘science,’ people have committed atrocities ‘in the name of God’ by backing their violent interests with some stamp-of-religious-approval.

Carefully comparing the claims, conduct, and character of a religion’s followers with the claims, conduct, and character of a religion’s founder is crucial when it comes to wading through the messy matters of separating religion from pseudoreligion.  For instance, if the founder taught love and a follower is teaching hate, or if the founder taught peace and a follower is teaching violence, then there’s good reason to think that there’s something fishy going on.  In other words, there’s good reason to hold out the possibility that the follower’s religion is not the same as the founder’s religion; that the follower has used the founder’s ‘brand’ to back their own pseudoreligious aspirations.  Sometimes these sort of inconsistencies are painfully apparent.  Sometimes serious study is needed to see them.  Either way, this work is essential and worthwhile if we are to take religion seriously.

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