I recently watched a debate during which a panel discussed whether the human race would be better off without religious belief. I wondered how an argument supporting the idea that the world is better off without religion and spirituality could even be put forth in an intellectually honest manner. The presenters argued that ethical behaviour isn’t dependent upon any type of religious or spiritual belief.
To make such an argument is like a child arguing that their life would be better if they had different parents, or a person proclaiming their life would be better if they’d never made a certain choice. To engage in such arguments is pure fantasy. We have no clue, no idea whatsoever, what this life would be like if our ancestors hadn’t believed in divine beings.
“Ethical atheists,” for all intents and purposes, have essentially adopted the more appealing aspects of spiritual ethical codes and incorporated them into their view of life and existence. This is a natural and good practice in and of itself. It’s a wise practice to see what works and then incorporate it into your own life philosophy. To insist that a person must adhere to some belief system in order to be ethical, loving or compassionate is nonsense.
The belief that life is sacred, should be respected or has inherent value aren’t scientific statements; they were instead born from spiritual beliefs chiselled out over thousands of years. Ideas that seem to be “common sense” or “obvious truths” to us today weren’t as clear-cut or obvious to humans in the past. In fact, historians use the word presentism to describe the tendency to interpret the past according to present-day morals and attitudes.
What is presentism?
Presentism occurs when people look back in history and apply current understandings and beliefs to earlier civilizations, judging those civilizations according to current standards. For instance, today, many look back and declare Western civilization guilty for its practice of slavery. Most of the people who think in these terms fail to understand that, in the past, slavery was practiced throughout the world. In fact, we’re not aware of any civilization whose practices didn’t include some form of slavery.
Some argue that hunter-gatherer societies had little use for slavery, but there’s little evidence for this assertion. While these smaller tribes may not have been able to practice slavery on a wide scale, that doesn’t mean they didn’t take women and children from other, smaller tribes. The legitimacy of owning slaves was so engrained that no one questioned its ethical standing for thousands of years.
To assert that present-day society would be better off without spiritual belief is a form of presentism. This argument assumes that positive and life-affirming values that have been engrained into contemporary societies would’ve developed regardless of the existence of spiritual practices and beliefs.
While there’s essentially no evidence to support this claim, there’s ample evidence that demonstrates how “scientifically-minded” individuals have engaged in what many would consider unethical behaviour by today’s standards.
At the end of the 19th century, scientists, politicians and other individuals within the higher social classes began to apply Darwin’s theory of evolution to society. The supporters of eugenics reasoned that through selective breeding, many of society’s ills could be remedied and a better society could be realized. The medical profession advocated for forced sterilization of those considered to be of inferior genes.
The medical profession advocated for forced sterilization of those considered to be of inferior genes.
By 1910, genetic statutes had been enacted in three U.S. states, including Washington, California and Connecticut. Within 20 years, 24 more states had passed involuntary sterilization laws. By 1935, more than 20,000 involuntary sterilizations had been performed. Some of the supporters of the eugenics movement included John D. Rockefeller, Winston Churchill, Edward Thorndike, Alexander Graham Bell, G. Stanley Hall, H.G. Wells, Margaret Sanger and Theodore Roosevelt.
One additional proponent of eugenics was Thomas Robert Malthus, a professor of political economy, who insisted that a population time bomb was in the making. As such, Malthus condemned charities and other forms of public assistance. Malthus even stated the following:
All children born, beyond what would be required to keep up the population to a desired level, must necessarily perish, unless room is made for them by the deaths of grown persons. We should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavoring to impede, the operations of nature in producing this mortality.
Ironically, it was organized religious groups that opposed the eugenics movement. Even today, proponents of the “scientific method” continue to engage in behaviours or actions many challenge on ethical grounds.
Imposed education standards
In the article “Defending science education against intelligent design: a call to action”, published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation (2006), the authors state:
The remedies are educational and political and must involve scientists and non-scientists. Instituting an effective response does not require large blocks of time, nor need it involve debates with creationists: small actions can have large effects.
Here, we see scientists arguing for imposed educational standards that circumvent the need for open debate. What’s most disturbing is the arrogant belief that “real scientists” shouldn’t have to be bothered with addressing the criticisms of those with inferior beliefs; instead, laws preventing students from hearing the criticisms should be passed and enacted in classrooms.
In 2015, scientists from many universities and within the United Nations requested that Barack Obama prosecute those individuals who disagreed with their conclusions on climate change. So within the last 15 to 20 years, scientists have advocated for methods that prevented debate on the scientific evidence as well as criminal prosecution for individuals who didn’t support the supposed consensus.
Despite recent evidence demonstrating serious failings in those advocating the scientific method, scientists such as Sam Harris continue to proclaim the supremacy of this method:
Science is the most durable and non-divisive way of thinking about the human circumstance. It transcends cultural, national, and political boundaries. You don’t have American science versus Canadian science versus Japanese science.
Science will be the saviour of humankind
Sam Harris, like so many other individuals today, insists that science will eventually be the saviour of humankind; that humanity will begin to truly thrive when the scourge of religious and spiritual belief is eradicated from human consciousness, and logic and rationality are given total reign. Harris blames religious fervour and blind faith for the majority of violent acts and atrocities committed by humans.
Is this an accurate assessment? Have spiritual and religious fervour and blind faith been at the core of human violence, and would the world be better off without them?
Many people are consumed with the arrogant assumption that others who don’t share their convictions are ignorant and deserving of death.
Throughout history, in almost any recorded war or conflict, each side was led by a person or group of people who were convinced, beyond any doubt, that they were right and the other group was wrong. This tendency towards arrogance and a lack of humility are the main sources of the vast majority of human suffering. From Malthus insisting on the deaths of the genetically inferior to academic Richard Parncutt advocating for the execution of climate deniers, many people are consumed with the arrogant assumption that others who don’t share their convictions are ignorant and deserving of death.
The Garden of Eden
One of the oldest stories known in history provides an example of this human fault. According to Jewish and Christian theology, God created a man and a woman and placed them in a garden, a paradise, where they were intended to live in communion with Him. According to the myth, God placed only one prohibition upon this man and this woman—better known as Adam and Eve—they weren’t to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
The story continues, describing how a serpent appeared in the garden. After questioning Eve about God’s prohibition, the serpent declared, “For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Adam and Eve both ate from the tree, which supposedly brought death into existence, as well as their expulsion from the garden. What was their motivation for disobedience and violating the prohibition? They both wanted to be like God, to know as much as Him and possess the ability to know good and evil.
The problem with arrogance
The arrogant, self-deceptive belief that we know more than we know, or are capable of knowing, is at the core of so much human suffering. Consider this part of the Sam Harris quote provided above: “Science … transcends cultural, national, and political boundaries.” According to Merriam-Webster, “transcend” means “to rise above or go beyond the limits of.”
Sam Harris, in his view of humanity, believes that science (like the tree) will help us gain the ability to go beyond the limits of our human condition (or be like God). Humanity continues to commit the original sin over and over and over again.
Harris doesn’t seem to address the fact that different people and groups interpret scientific data and evidence differently.
Abortion and consciousness
Consider the issues of abortion and consciousness. Abortion is an issue through which we can observe science’s limited ability to transcend cultural, national or political boundaries. Atheists Against Abortion, Democrats for Life of America, Libertarians for Life, Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians, All Our Lives, National Black Pro-Life Union—these groups demonstrate that many Democrats, atheists, libertarians, members of the gay and lesbian community, progressives, Republicans and individuals within the black community oppose abortion.
What does science say about this issue?
Only a human blastocyst
Harris states the following on abortion in Letter to a Christian Nation, published in 2008:
The human embryos that are destroyed in stem-cell research do not have brains, or even neurons. Consequently, there is no reason to believe they can suffer their destruction in any way at all. It is worth remembering, in this context, that when a person’s brain has died, we currently deem it acceptable to harvest his organs (provided he has donated them for this purpose) and bury him in the ground. If it is acceptable to treat a person whose brain has died as something less than a human being, it should be acceptable to treat a blastocyst as such. If you are concerned about suffering in this universe, killing a fly should present you with greater moral difficulties than killing a human blastocyst.
“Sparks” from a fertilized egg
Yet, just three years after Harris’s statements, researcher Teresa Woodruff, Professor in Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and director of Northwestern’s Center for Reproductive Science, discovered that “sparks” were emitted from a human egg when fertilized by a sperm.
At the moment of conception, zinc is released from an egg. This zinc binds to small molecule probes, which emit light in fluorescence microscopy experiments. The rapid zinc release is observed as a flash of light that appears as a spark.
Woodruff stated, “It was remarkable. … to see the zinc radiate out in a burst from each human egg was breathtaking. All of biology starts at the time of fertilization, yet we know next to nothing about the events that occur in the human.”
According to Woodruff, life starts at the time of fertilization. This brings Harris’s statement defining the killing of a fly as a greater moral difficulty than the killing of a human blastocyst into serious question. If Woodruff’s findings are taken seriously, the question is no longer when life begins, but rather what stage of development that life is in.
Consciousness continues after death
Researcher Sam Parnia, who leads a multidisciplinary team at Southampton University in the United Kingdom, has produced evidence supporting the view that consciousness continues even after death. Parnia stated the following in an interview:
The evidence thus far suggests that in the first few minutes after death, consciousness is not annihilated. Whether it fades away afterwards, we do not know, but right after death, consciousness is not lost. We know the brain can’t function when the heart has stopped beating. But in this case conscious awareness appears to have continued for up to three minutes into the period when the heart wasn’t beating, even though the brain typically shuts down within 20 to 30 seconds after the heart has stopped. This is significant, since it has often been assumed that experiences in relation to death are likely hallucinations or illusions, occurring either before the heart stops or after the heart has been successfully restarted. But not an experience corresponding with “real” events when the heart isn’t beating. Furthermore, the detailed recollections of visual awareness in this case were consistent with verified events.
Consciousness is a result of brain activity
Harris also assumes that life, or consciousness, is a result of brain activity. The mind, according to Harris, is little more than the biology and activity of the brain.
Two beliefs that support this position:
- First, it’s alleged that because scientists can replicate a feeling or an emotional state in a person by manipulating their brain, the experience in and of itself is invalidated.
- Second, it’s alleged that because scientists can cause a deficit in brain functioning, which can result in misconceptions of reality, consciousness is brain activity.
Weaknesses in these arguments:
Just because something can be replicated in no way devalues or invalidates the authenticity of the original experience. Scientific studies have suggested that oxytocin, an “emotionally bonding” hormone, is released during hugging, touching and orgasm in both genders.
Some scientists have asserted that love is little more than neurochemical activity. Some researchers have even stated that brain activity while a person is in love is just like the brain activity of someone on cocaine.
Saying that being in love is like being on a cocaine high is a very problematic statement.
However, saying that being in love is like being on a cocaine high is a very problematic statement. Individuals who are addicted to cocaine tend to be totally self-focused and self-serving. On the other hand, love between individuals entails self-sacrifice as a person focuses upon the needs of another.
Just because a neuroscientist may induce a false or simulated experience in no way indicates that the long-term responses will be in any way similar to those pertaining to the equivalent naturally occurring experience.
As mentioned, neuroscientists also insist that their ability to disrupt normal brain functioning, which either confuses or results in misrepresentations of reality, indicates that consciousness is brain activity. This is also a weak argument, and to demonstrate its faulty reasoning, I’ll use one of the most popular superheroes recently featured in Marvel films—Iron Man!
Iron Man and near-death experiences
In the film, the fictional character Tony Stark is a wealthy inventor who has developed state-of-the-art bio-skeleton armour that allows him to perform extraordinary martial feats. While Tony’s in the Iron Man armour, his perceptions of the world are filtered through this suit. If his suit malfunctions and starts misreading the environment, and he’s unaware of the malfunction, his understanding of what’s occurring in the environment ends up being inaccurate.
You could then declare that Tony Stark and the Iron Man suit are in fact one and the same, but this would be a gross misunderstanding.
Once Stark is able to exit the suit, he’s able to comprehend that it was malfunctioning and therefore providing him with inaccurate information.
This simple metaphor provides a very similar picture to what occurs during near-death experiences, according to those who’ve had them. According to these individuals, when their “consciousness left their body,” everything became very clear to them. This correlates with Tony Stark exiting the malfunctioning machine. Once a person’s perceptions are no longer dependent on the “machine,” they’re able to perceive reality in a very clear, lucid manner.
Thus, the assertion that the mind is the brain due to the ability to cause disruption in conscious perception can, indeed, be a gross misunderstanding.
So who’s correct?
The most intellectually honest answer that I can provide is, “I don’t know.” However, I can also assure you that Sam Harris and the other scientists who make similar claims to his don’t know, either. Now, they may object that our current understanding of physics indicates … blah blah blah. But the reality is, we still only have an elementary understanding of physics.
We need theories to work from
Scientists understand that the “laws” of physics change from the micro to macro level. For example, at the subatomic level of protons and neutrons, quark-antiquark pairs can pop up into existence and momentarily transform a proton into a different, more complex particle. Virtual quarks involve a matrix of more than 10,000 trillion numbers, which is beyond the memory capabilities of any computer.
Researchers Saul Perlmutter, Adam Riess and Brian Schmidt all contributed to the discovery that the universe isn’t just expanding, it’s also speeding up as it does so. This is a violation of the laws of physics, as we understand them.
To try and account for this phenomenon, researchers developed the theory of dark energy that somehow repels gravity. In other words, they made stuff up that sounds good and helps provide some sort of understanding of how the universe operates. This, in and of itself, isn’t bad or unethical. On the contrary, we need theories to work from to try and better our understanding of how the universe works.
This becomes unethical when someone uses our extremely limited understanding of how the universe works to declare that something such as ESP isn’t possible, because it violates the laws of physics.
To end, I’ll share two stories
X-rays and child cancer
In 1953, Dr. Alice Stewart began research that determined the newest tool in medicine, the X-ray machine, was contributing to the development of childhood cancer. She reported her findings over and over and over again.
Her methods were initially declared unsound, even though they were not. For the next 25 years, Dr. Stewart continued her fight, evidence in hand, against the doctors and scientists of her day. She was eventually proven right, although thousands upon thousands of children would have to pay with their lives before her evidence was given the consideration it deserved.
The issue wasn’t a lack of research or evidence. The issue was a lack of interest in looking at and considering the research and evidence.
Evidence for neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change and grow, was discovered in 1923. However, it took around 100 years for the scientific community to acknowledge that the theory of a static and unchanging brain was incorrect.
Again, was it because there was a lack of research or evidence? No, the results of the studies demonstrating the brain’s ability to change and adapt went against the accepted understanding of how the brain worked, and were therefore discarded and declared “junk science.”
A better world without religion or spirituality?
Scientists declare that they’re guided by facts, but even when the disproving of those facts is right in front of their noses, it still takes decades for supposedly rational, logical men and women to acknowledge their errors.
On the other hand, people who are guided by religious and/or spiritual beliefs often have great difficulty acknowledging that at the heart of their faith lies hope, not facts.
In our human quest to know as much as God, we lie to ourselves and others that we know more than we actually do.
Both of these groups—the arrogant scientists and the arrogant religious/spiritual adherents— believe that they’re right. In their arrogance, they justify and rationalize acts of violence and hatred towards those who don’t share their beliefs. In our human quest to know as much as God, we lie to ourselves and others that we know more than we actually do.
Allowing room at the table for others’ opinions and experiences, even if they’re radically different from our own, is a wiser choice when it comes to moving humanity’s knowledge and understanding forward.
My intention isn’t to try and convince anyone, one way or the other, in regard to the place of religion and spirituality in the world. Neither science nor religion/spirituality is the cause of suffering or the source of salvation for humanity. Rather, humanity’s arrogance and lack of humility are the real sources of much of our suffering!