Does religion diminish our humanity?


I’m sure that Richard Feynman or Richard Dawkins have said some­thing sim­ilar and said it bet­ter. Ophelia Benson cer­tainly can. I wrote this on June 28, and when I checked Butterflies and Wheels the next day she had an entry on the mor­al­ity of preach­ers. One of the com­mon whinges by fun­da­ment­al­ists against ‘nat­ur­al­ism’, which as I under­stand it is the whole ‘look­ing for evid­ence’ thing, is that it reduces human­ity to some­thing insig­ni­fic­ant. My view is quite the oppos­ite. When I see someone talk with Gods as their only jus­ti­fic­a­tion I see someone who isn’t enga­ging or con­nect­ing with the world. With a uni­verse of exper­i­ence it’s rather like insist­ing every­one occu­pies a dog­matic cul-de-sac. The ques­tion that star­ted me off was a simple one. “Can the­ists appre­ci­ate beauty?”

At the moment as I type this I’m watch­ing an image form on my screen. I’m hooked into the Slooh tele­scopes on Mount Teide, Tenerife. At the top, about a mile and a half above sea-level there are a couple of remotely oper­ated tele­scopes poin­ted sky­ward to the heavens.

Despite the advances in astro­nomy and cos­mo­logy over the past cen­tury, in some ways we are more poor now than we were a hun­dred years ago. Light Pollution drowns out much of the sky and instead of see­ing dia­mond dust scattered on vel­vet, the view from most cit­ies is one of a yel­low sodium glow with a few pins pricks punch­ing their way through. The tele­scopes in the Canaries allow me to see fine detail that I couldn’t hope to see from home. They reveal galaxy upon galaxy dan­cing in the night sky in an eternal waltz. I can only appre­ci­ate such beauty because I can see it.

I can also appre­ci­ate the won­der of show these sights come to be. Even in some­thing as con­stant as the heav­ens each moment is unique. I’m cur­rently look­ing at Supernova 2005AY. It’s the fad­ing remains of a star that has come to the end of its life. Now it is dim­ming as it grows colder. In this eternal uni­verse this moment will never hap­pen again. Yet the photons which are impact­ing on the CCD in the tele­scope have been trav­el­ling through inter­stel­lar space for 43,000,000 years. This is lit­er­ally a moment that has been mil­lions of years in the making*.

I see these things that I see the same as a the­ist would, but do they have the same mean­ing? For me these sights are inde­pend­ent act­ors in a story that star­ted at the dawn of time. For a the­ist it’s wall­pa­per for the sky; dis­tant from man­kind and thus of no import­ance. The cre­ation of the heav­ier ele­ments in super­novae means that it’s some­thing else in cre­ation with which I am con­nec­ted, even if only briefly and at an unima­gin­ably great dis­tance. As Moby said, we are all made of stars*. For a the­ist made of mud there’s no con­nec­tion at all. By seek­ing to cut them­selves off from the rest of cre­ation are they seek­ing to make them­selves less human?

Morality is another prob­lem. A charge by the cre­ation­ist lobby against Darwinism is that it leads to immor­al­ity. Is it pos­sible for Christians be moral? When I give to char­ity I don’t expect to see the money back. When I stop to help someone it’s because I want to help. I’m not expect­ing nor ask­ing for a reward. Fundamentalist Christians seem to have quite a dif­fer­ent view. They seem to feel that mor­al­ity col­lapses if there isn’t the threat of a Very Big Stick. Does this mean that when a Christian gives to char­ity they do so under suf­fer­ance, know­ing that a venge­ful God will smite them if they don’t com­ply? Does it really require the threat of eternal tor­ture to coerce Christians in fol­low­ing the philo­sophy of Bill and Ted in being excel­lent to one another? Is the only thing that pre­vents Reverend Plum from mur­der­ing me the fear that when he dies the Big Beard in the Sky will announce he knows the Reverend did it with the can­dle­stick in the kitchen?

The Creationist lobby claim that Darwinism dimin­ishes us all, yet the logical con­clu­sion from their pos­i­tion is that human­ity is a pretty wretched res­ult of a flawed cre­ator. In Christian philo­sophy it would appear that human­ity would appear to be so cor­rupt at its core that it can­not be worthy of sur­vival on its own mer­its. The Fundamentalist ‘mor­al­ity’ believes chil­dren dying in non-Christian third-world coun­tries from mal­nu­tri­tion by their very exist­ence deserve ever­last­ing tor­ment in hell.

So there’s one pos­i­tion based on fear, mis­trust and com­pul­sion and another based on being nice because that’s the right way to behave. If there were no evid­ence either way I know which one I’d choose, but with all evid­ence stacked on one side as well I can­not see what the appeal of a cre­ation­ist view is. Where do they get the opin­ion that inside each person’s heart is a bot­tom­less pit of sin?

Christianity, by passing on respons­ib­il­ity for everything to a God, says the way the world is is the way the world ought to be. Science gives inform­a­tion on the way the world is, but forces people to take the respons­ib­il­ity for the way the world ought to be.

This doesn’t mean that all Christians are immoral. On the con­trary they are often moral and so are attrac­ted to an organ­isa­tion that claims to embody their beliefs. However Christians tend not to be eth­ic­ally blind. When their churches diverge from their own mor­al­it­ies they tend not to blindly fol­low the church, but cease attend­ing. Belief in a god usu­ally adds noth­ing to people’s mor­al­ity and so cred­it­ing Christianity for cre­at­ing moral beha­viour is rather like cred­it­ing iTunes for cre­at­ing the pop music.

* an older per­son would cite Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock: “We are stardust.”