I recently had an interesting conversation with a friend. He is a Ph.D. and one of the smartest people I know. He told me about a family member of his who was sick and my friend stopped in a Catholic church and lit a candle for his dying relative. He said, “The scientist in me knows that I am just warming up the air with the candle, but the Catholic in me wants to believe there is more.” Clearly my friend was experiencing an internal struggle between his scientific beliefs and his Catholic upbringing. I thought about this a while and actually re-read Michael Shermer’s book Why People Believe Weird Things. I certainly think religion has had a role in the development of society. In days of old, the church held knowledge closely and the general population was largely kept ignorant. Thus, the church maintained control. And they used the knowledge they held to promote moral behavior (as they saw it). But, when the public railed, the holy men would scare them into conformity with stories of demons, devils and loss of the eternal life they had long promised in return for “faith” in a deity. It worked until education became more widespread and critical thinking evolved. During the Renaissance people began to question the teachings of the church and the various branches of western religion evolved (a poor word choice I must admit). Even at the end of the late 19th century humorist Mark Twain questioned religious authority when he wrote, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” (Twain was a professed Presbyterian).
I have traveled in many countries. In some, you see religion as a centerpiece of society. In others, it is barely visible. Many lament the decline in religion as being due the ongoing skirmishes within the religious world and the many atrocities carried out in the name of religion. But, I maintain it is due to the dissemination of information and critical thought. In actuality, the decline in religion began in the 19th century and advanced rapidly in the 20th century. An article published n a 1998 issue of the journal Nature reported the following:
I have written this to say this: It is a shame that, in this day and age, humanity mistreats women and other groups in the name of religion. The death of Neda Alga Soltan several days ago was just an example of religious persecution in Iran. I have nothing against Islam, but how can a modern society treat women as second-class citizens? How can one deny the horrors of the Holocaust? How can somebody rationally believe in intelligent design when virtually every scientific fact points to evolution? Can anybody explain to me the benefits of a burqa? Any reputable deity would certainly discourage the oppression of more than half of the population of a country or region in the name of said deity. And I don’t mean to pick on just the Muslims. How can you rationalize playing with poisonous snakes as a sign of faith? Can anybody explain the logic of a kosher diet? Jewish food laws would confuse even the great Jewish scholars such as Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan. Anyway, it is a sad statement that modern humanity would tolerate oppression and violence in the name of religion. Gee, I wish for a world like Gene Roddenberry envisioned in his Star Trek books. But, I guess I am just dreaming. A kind and just world will never exist in our time (some penis-headed dictator on the Korean peninsula may make humankind nothing but a museum display in the great celestial museum of extinct life). And, that will be sad.