Mondays seem to be a big day for ScienceBloggers who track their site stats closely, so I’m going to try to generate interest in an ongoing “open discussion” sort of thread to start the week, with topics to include the sequential vetting of idea x1, idea x2…idea xn, with n being an integer hopefully greater than 1.
A discussion at Pharyngula by way of Brian Flemming got me thinking about one of the many counterintuitive stances offered by religious adherents, that being the idea that the natural state of a new human being is to believe in God.
I’m not talking about the generalized wonder that ultimately catalyzed the onset of sky-fairy religions at some indistinct point in our ancestral past; that’s something neuroscience is busily working on, or not. I’m talking about the notion that in the absence of distinct programming, each of us is fully poised to accept THE LORD — or, if you happen to be born in a different culture, some other god — as our creator.
This, to me, is one of many ideas which — while not strictly testable in the classical sense (try to imagine designing and implementing a controlled experiment using the hypothesis in the subject line) — fails miserably in the face of real-world experience and observation, so much so that I feel like more of an obsessive, redundant nogodbot than usual in even typing this post. Yet its sheer persistence, like that of a great many unsupported, ad hoc beliefs, begs for its close examination.
I once saw someone on the Internets write, “We’re all born naked and atheists, and to get into Heaven we have to believe and be dressed properly,” or something similar. This encapsulates the entirety of sectarian religious adherence — it’s all about indoctrination, obesiance, and negotiating a psychological obstacle course fraught with formidable logical challenges, which were a lot easier to swerve around en masse until we pesky skeptics started taking to heart the fact that religion is not — and, given its destructive potential to those who have no use for it, should never be — off-limits as an outmoded institution ripe for debauchment and dissolution. (You may have some idea on where I stand on this issue already.)
Forget about the ludicrous extreme (one which, despite its preposterousness, is fomented nonetheless by more than a handful of believers): that left untended, a maturing human being will ultimately recognize not only that a conscious, watchful and judgmental god got everything rolling, but that the very god the claimant happens to believe in created everything more or less as is a few dozen million years after the very last dinosaur drew its final raspy breath. As crazy as this is, it forms the basis for the god-of-the-gaps argument adored by Biblical creationists, i.e., that which remains unexplained by human scientific inquiry can be readily explained by simply opening a Bible to the proper page.
Here’s just one way of looking at the matter: If believing in a given god is so natural, why must so many religions make evangelism their primary mission? (Let’s leave aside clear financial motives here.) Why is so much energy spent hammering into young minds not only the idea that belief is right, but disbelief is, to simplify only slightly, eternally fatal? Why is there no such urgency in “primitive” godless societies that nonchalantly remain that way for thousands of years in the absence of missionary intrusions?
It takes little imagination to envision how many churches would remain filled or even standing in contemporary society after a few generations if the majority of parents repeatedly emphasized to their young ones that believing in invisible, inaudible, hypervigilant entities would be grounds for terrible lifelong persecution by inescapably powerful agents. (Actually it is, should you find yourself, say, a Hasidic Jew or a Mormon in Kandahar, but this is something of an ironic aside.)
I grew up in an areligious household, the son of a lapsed Catholic and an agnostic-at-best Protestant. Religion was simply not an issue. As a young child I was a fan of The Superfriends, Hong Kong Phooey, and other Saturday-morning cartoons, and was always disappointed that Sundays were grimly anticimactic, offering loud talkers in suits but no ribald animated alternatives. I remember watching Davey and Goliath, that old claymation-style Sunday show featuring a boy and his dog, and couldn’t understand what it was all about because I had not been given the proper and arrantly bizarre backstory. Nevertheless, I was a curious kid and aware of “going to church,” and had I expressed an interest in doing this myself, I don’t doubt that my parents — who catered neatly to my every intellectual and recreational whim, from anatomy and math books to atlases to Erector Sets and Legos — would have accommodated me. But this “innate tendency” was as much a non-issue as a putative God-given urge to travel to the Ronald McDonald house of Delaware at age six and receive a lap-dance from a ultramarathoning nerd (see sidebar).
Strict theists, in order to protect their notion about default states, would classify this upbringing as spiritually stifling, whereas I would instead rightly term it the expected outcome of a environment free of bias (not to mention an unqualified blessing and a stroke of very good luck). I also suspect that the theist would offer some variation of the argument that if belief were too easy to come by, there would really be no reward for those pious enough to believe in God in the face of so much distracting information prefectly countering the whole ball of wax (although the theist might not say it just like that). We all need to be saved, but only the special among us can be. That’s awesome!
It is what it is. I know very few people who grew up in god-free households who went on to develop meaningful beliefs in the supernatural — supernatural anything, senility and excessive pharmacopeia being disqualifying conditions. The concept of “faith” only makes sense from within, where it makes perfect, immutable sense; this, as Sam Harris emphasizes so eloquently, represents a plain and generally conversation-ending impedance to a useful discussion between a believer and a nonbeliever about their respective ideas.
If anyone can help me understand why a default human concept evidently requires repeated (though indirect, of course) exposure to the idea, ritual indoctrination to the idea set against the backdrop of implicit and explicit threats of harm, and ongoing battles with those members of society with the temerity to demand that claimants support the idea with something akin to evidence, I’d enjoy hearing it.
I’m not sure if I’m bleak or hopeful in noting simply that the only reason this stuff is still with us is because it has survived well beyond its expiration date owing to sheer lingering fear by those who resist it coupled with unholy amounts of force exerted by those taught before they could think to blindly toe the line and spread their uniquely mutated strain of the virus.