Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Religion by Any Other Name

A friend emailed me this interesting article by Regis Nicoll:

"Let's teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome--and even comforting--than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know."-- Carolyn Porco, astronomer

A crusading troika

After four centuries of growing tension, the battle lines between secularism and religion have sharpened, owing in large measure to the efforts of Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins. Determined to reduce religion to the ash heap of Dark Age superstition, the crusading troika delivered four flaming arrows this year.

In Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett sets out to defang religion with statements like this: "Everything we value--from sugar and sex and money to music and love and religion--we value for reasons. Lying behind, and distinct from, our reasons are evolutionary reasons, free-floating rationales that have been endorsed by natural selection."

By presenting religion as an outcome of evolutionary development, rather than as a framework about ultimate reality, Dennett hopes to "break the spell" of our religious enchantment. Come to think of it--since Dennett's own beliefs about religion are, likewise, the products of evolution, maybe he'll disabuse us of those as well--but I wouldn't count on it.

In October, Sam Harris' book, Letter to a Christian Nation, became a New York Times best seller. Harris who, after 9/11authored The End of Faith--a jeremiad against religion--discussed his latest work in an NPR interview, insisting that religion was irrational and dangerous, and that faith had no place in a country founded on Reason. (The last time this writer checked, the founding document of our country mentioned something about rights that are endowed by a Creator).

Early this year Richard Dawkins produced The Root of All Evil--a film that places all the world's horrors squarely on the doorsteps of the church, synagogue and temple. Presumably, Mr. Dawkins skipped class the week they covered the social consequences of Stalin, Mussolini, Khrushchev, Mao Tse-tung, and Pol Pot--all anti-religious regimes, by the way.

Most recently, Dawkins issued a clarion call to arms with his book, The God Delusion. Convinced that there are far more atheists out there than meets the eye, Dawkins aims to embolden the silent throng with nothing less than atheist pride: "You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled...Being an atheist is nothing to be apologetic about. On the contrary, it is something to be proud of, standing tall to face the far horizon, for atheism nearly always indicates a healthy independence of mind and, indeed, a healthy mind."

Independence? Sure. Healthy? Only if you consider the greater incidence of suicide among atheists as healthy. But perhaps Dawkins' most quixotic hope is that "If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down." Now that's what I call evangelistic zeal.

Another approach

Clearly Dennett, Harris, and Dawkins are unsettled that three centuries of Enlightenment have failed to rout religion from the cultural landscape. As well they know, today, two hundred years after the goddess of Reason was enthroned in Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral, there are over 5.5 billion religious adherents in a world whose populace is less than 3% atheist.

While the three firebrands of militant humanism are trying to convert the masses through a take-no-prisoners stratagem, others are suggesting an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach--well, sort of.

Research scientist and astronomer Carolyn Porco recommends that instead of denying humankind's yearning for transcendence, science should capitalize on it. Acknowledging that religion fulfills an essential human need--otherwise, it wouldn't have passed through the evolutionary sieve--Porco suggests that it is a need that can be satisfied in scientific inquiry.

Scientific discovery engenders awe and wonder by exposing us to the grandeur of the universe. Plumbing the hidden mysteries of nature, we gain a sense of meaning and immortality as we become aware of our part in a greater whole. This, says Porco, is "greatest story ever told"--a story that needs its own "church."

The church that Dr. Porco has is mind is a "Church of Latter Day Scientists" replete with ceremonies, communal worship, rituals (including baptism!), missionaries, apostles, and even its own sacred sites: research labs, particle accelerators, and observatories. There would be worship centers (museums, planetaria and lecture halls). It would use the media to spread the "word"-- extolling the genius of Darwin and showcasing the elegance of evolution.

What would a church service look like? Dr. Porco gushes, "Imagine congregations raising their voices in tribute to gravity, the force that binds us all to the Earth, and the Earth to the Sun, and the Sun to the Milky Way...can't you just hear the hymns sung to the antiquity of the universe, its abiding laws, and the heaven above that 'we' will all one day inhabit, together, commingled, spread out like a nebula against a diamond sky?... 'Hallelujah!', they will sing. 'May the force be with you!'"

Imagine, indeed--the Mendelssohn masterpiece replaced by the Obi-wan slogan? 'Hallelujah' is not the reaction that struck me.

Although the anti-religiensa are sure to dismiss her ideas as transmogrification, Carolyn Porco unwittingly reveals a deep truth about their secular and materialistic ideology--it is, at its core, religious.

Common themes

As previously chronicled in these pages, in my long-running debate with a UK philosopher, I argued that his atheistic beliefs were just as religious as my Christian ones. Although my arguments focused on the faith necessary to buoy the materialistic foundation of his secular humanism, I could have pointed to the religious themes in common with the biblical narrative.

Inspired by the goddess of Reason, modern humanists crafted their own narrative, beginning with a Creation account called, "Cosmogenesis." It goes something like this: In the distant past, a seed of quantum dimensions materialized and, then, exploded out of the pre-cosmic void. After a few quick phase transitions, and billions of years of nucleosynthesis and stellar genesis, a "just-right" planet formed containing a pre-biotic swill with all the ingredients necessary for life. In time, chemical evolution led to single-celled organisms which, after millions of years of natural selection, complexified and diversified into everything from the simple bacterium to the human mind.

After countless centuries of human and cultural progress, the sacking of Rome heralded the Fall of man. The disintegration of Greco-Roman civilization led to a black-out of literature, education, and scientific achievement leaving the Church as the sole centralized institution. Driven by its imperialistic vision, the Magisterium held the masses captive in the darkness of superstition and religious doctrine.

It would take over a thousand years for man to experience Redemption. In quick succession, Copernicus, Galileo and Newton announced their breathtaking discoveries about the universe--each, a flame that Descartes, Hume and Kant fanned with their philosophies of rationalism, skepticism and empiricism. And as the Light spread by the invention of Gutenberg, the Way to Reason and Freedom was illumined.

In the "now", there is hope in a coming Eschaton, when man's perfection, and that of the social order, will be realized through our unswerving commitment to Reason and the unfettered exercise of science. The unlimited potential of human ingenuity, once liberated from the morality of revealed religion, will free man from evolutionary object, to evolutionary master.

Through the wonders of genetic engineering, cloning, nanotechnology and cybernetics, we will advance from homo sapiens to techno sapiens, overcoming the plagues of birth defects, disease and even mortality. With the power of our collective minds, and our perfected bodies, we will put an end to poverty, ignorance, and war.

Essentials and trappings

Although Rationalism reigns supreme in the above narrative, it is hoisted on a pedestal of numerous Articles of Faith--things like materialism, cosmic inflation, macro-evolution, common descent, emergence, self-organization, unlimited progress, and reason as the sole source of knowledge--things that enjoy not one scintilla of empirical evidence, are non-falsifiable but essential, lest the "house of cards" collapses.

Then there are the religious trappings. In common with all religions, humanism has its patron saints: Voltaire, Charles Darwin, and Carl Sagan; its revered text: The Origin of Species; its creed: The Humanist Manifesto; its martyrs: Galileo and Daniel Dennett (!) who fancies himself as such because, as he puts it, he "risks getting poked in the nose or worse" for voicing his beliefs; its holy day: Darwin Day in celebration of evolution and its founder; and its evangelists: Dennett, Dawkins, and Harris who have all become quite the media darlings as of late. And, I almost forgot--its religious symbol: the Darwin fish plaque, available in assorted styles and colors.

Lastly, there are ceremonies. As advertised on the Humanist Society webpage, "In communities all over, individuals certified to our unique ministry stand ready to provide ceremonial observances of the significant occasions of life." (Emphasis added.) Among the ceremonies provided are: weddings, same-sex commitments, memorials, and "baby welcoming."

So, if you're surprised to learn that the American Humanist Association is classified as a 501(c)(3) organization exempt from federal taxes--you shouldn't be. Religion by any other name...

As it was from the beginning

In the 19th century, Lord John Morley of England mused, "The next great task of Science is the building of a new religion." Inspired by Morley's vision, Sir Julian Huxley later remarked, "I was fired by sharing his conviction that science would of necessity play an essential part in framing any religion of the future worthy of name." Huxley would emerge as a leading figure of humanism calling it, "a religion without revelation."

So Messrs. Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett--which spell, delusion or religion should we dispense with? All, or all but yours?

For Further Reading:
The God Delusion preface, Richard Dawkins
The Greatest Story Ever Told, Carolyn Porco, The Edge
Atheists Agonistes, Richard Shweder, New York Times
A Free-for-All on Science and Religion,
George Johnson, New York Times
Religious Affiliation and Suicide Attempt,
American Journal of Psychiatry
The Humanist Society webpage
American Humanist Association webpage

Regis Nicoll is a Centurion of Prison Fellowship Ministries Wilberforce Forum. In addition to writing Thinking Christianly, Regis is a columnist for BreakPoint and Crosswalk, and a contributor to Prison Fellowship's worldview blog, The Point.