Saturday, 19 December 2015

The Agnostic Argument - 10 (Is Faith "Religion" Or Just Superstition?)

I saw this witty riposte to an anti-atheist question, and posted it on Facebook:



In response, one of my friends wrote:

Disagree with the false equivalence.

Those who do believe in God do not deny science. In fact many scientists themselves were deeply religious. So there is no case for someone believing in God to deny themselves the benefit.

Quite different from the point being made that atheists should not avail religious holidays because it certainly is the case they do not believe in God.

Of course the reason I feel it is perfectly acceptable to enjoy the religious holidays is because they are an entitlement earned by working for x number of days for a company and not a reward for one's religiosity.

I shot off an immediate rejoinder quibbling that those who believed in a concept like "god" without proof could not really be said to be practising science, but my friend's comment did make me think a bit more about the relationship between scientists (i.e., those who could be thought of as practising science) and their faith, if such faith exists.

Specifically, the claim that "many scientists themselves were (are) deeply religious", made me think about ISRO's (the Indian Space Research Organisation's) former chairman K Radhakrishnan, and how he took a replica of the GSLV (Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle) rocket and Mangalyaan (the Mars probe) to the Tirumala temple to be "blessed". As one who believes it was the meticulous research and calculations of the ISRO team that were responsible for the success of these projects, I was offended by the eminent scientist's genuflection towards religion.

ISRO Chairman Dr K Radhakrishnan praying at Tirumala with a replica of the GSLV rocket and the Mangalyaan Mars probe

I could not visualise the head of NASA or the European Space Agency (ESA) taking a replica of one of their spacecraft to a church to be blessed, and I could not help wondering why an Indian (Hindu) scientist would think nothing of doing this sort of thing.

My conclusion is that people (even the educated ones) from less advanced countries have more recently been at the mercy of forces of nature than people from advanced countries. Death, disease, destitution and other major misfortune are part of virtually every family's not-too distant history. (My own extended family, over just the last three generations, has had many examples of needless tragedy caused by forces of nature.) This leads to higher levels of fatalism and superstitious belief. These attitudes of fatalism and superstition are wrongly and charitably labelled "religion".

To be sure, sudden catastrophes, both lethal and economically crippling, overtake people in advanced countries as well, but these can generally be traced quite readily to human agency. Traffic accidents, homicide and drug overdoses are the major causes of untimely death in advanced countries. Retrenchments/layoffs and marriage breakups are the major non-lethal yet potentially catastrophic events in the lives of people. Yet if we think about it, all of these events can be readily traced back to human agency.

In advanced countries, natural disasters do not claim as many lives. Deaths due to disease or animal attacks are similarly rare. Droughts or floods do not cause the same scale of economic havoc. In other words, people in advanced countries are less likely to be affected by "acts of God". The factors that impact on their lives tend to be obviously traceable to human activity and human will. No supernatural force need be invoked to explain any of them.

So I'm forced to the conclusion that the wider prevalence of what we think of as "religion" in less advanced countries is probably the result of a sense of helplessness in the face of an amorphous, abstract and malevolent Nature, which has to be propitiated and appeased if people have to be spared its wrath.

It's not surprising to me that 93% of the scientists who belong to the US National Academy of Sciences self-identify as atheists or agnostics. They are the elite even among scientists, and their families have probably been insulated for generations from forces of nature. It's small wonder that they are not tormented by the same background fear that haunts those much less fortunate.

In conclusion, I don't believe it's fair to defend religious faith by pointing to scientists who are believers. There is a larger sociological influence on such believers than their scientific training, and this is what accounts for their belief in spite of their training. In any case, such belief is not a positive, "spiritual" quality but a manifestation of collective subconscious fear. As the world develops and begins to insulate more of its people from the vagaries of nature ("acts of God"), I have no doubt that superstitious beliefs (wrongly called religion) will recede. Those trained in science will always remain in the vanguard of scientific thinking, and those from societies that are less threatened by the forces of nature will remain freer from superstitious fears. As both scientific thinking and social progress spread throughout the world, atheism will gradually replace religion.

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