Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Beware the Secular Taliban

In my last article I posed some questions and shared some thoughts on faith and what I think is the difference between faith and belief. As was the case with two prior articles on the Religion section of HP, this article drew a large number of responses ranging from appreciative to caustic. Since that posting I’ve read a number of articles in the Religion section and am puzzled by a pattern I think I’ve detected.

Not to pull rank, but by way of a relevant context, I consider myself a scientist. I have a Ph.D. in Neuropsychology and have studied biology, pharmacology, and (at an amateur level) quantum physics. Additionally, I’ve made a study late in my life of philosophy and theology. I find no essential contradiction between being a scientist and inquiring into philosophical or theological questions or even having religious faith. In this I find myself in the company of Einstein, Freeman Dyson, Charles Darwin and others as detailed in a recent post by Krista Tippett.

My theological thinking is, without doubt, on the radical end of the spectrum, so I’m used to being attacked from the right – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, even Buddhist from time to time, conservatives are offended by my lack of orthodoxy and my view that all institutional religions are (a) aimed at the same target and (b) fundamentally corrupted to the extent that they hold power over their adherents. What did come as a surprise was the vituperation I drew from those who proclaim themselves to be anti-religion, atheistic, scientific, and intellectual. Somehow the very fact that I consider this to be a legitimate area of inquiry seems deeply offensive to these folks.

So I have to wonder, what is so offensive? If I engage in an exploration of my own faith (and I distinguish faith from religion or belief), how does that harm those who would have you believe that they have settled the question once and for all. There is no God, all religions are false, and all those who profess any level of faith and belief are stupid. So why bother going online to call them names (it’s not just me, it’s anyone who posts from a faith perspective including the aforementioned conservatives who come in for their share of calumny from these supposed superior intellects)? One fellow was honest enough to answer that he just likes to argue, but most don’t.

I’ve come to believe that there is a scientific/intellectual right that is no less fundamentalist and no more tolerant of other views than their religious counterparts. Their belief system is one of the secular churches – science, mathematics, philosophy, etc., and anyone who does not think as they do is ipso facto evil. Oh, they would never use a term like evil – they use their world’s terms for evil – stupid, benighted, brainwashed, you name it.

What I will call Secular Fundamentalism is no more consistent with what it claims as its roots than Religious Fundamentalism is consistent with its own roots. Christian fundamentalism bears very little resemblance to the teachings or life of Jesus Christ, extreme Orthodox Judaism is more concerned with following rules than with the moral teachings on which Judaism stands, and as for Islamic Fundamentalism, the Prophet (PBOH) would barely recognize it.

My studies in science, philosophy, and theology have led me to a conclusion I consider both basic and inescapable. We know nothing for sure, and everything we think we know will someday be shown to be either false or only part of the story. As human beings we are very sure of what we know and equally sure that when we discover something we don’t know, we will figure it out. We are equally sure that there is nothing we don’t know (and don’t know we don’t know) that is worth bothering with. As Schopenhauer said: “every man mistakes the limits of his vision for the limits of the world.”

So to those who take issue with my exploration I say “yes, I may be wrong.” But to those who feel the need to be insulting and condescending about it, I say “what are you afraid of?” The 17th Century mathematician Blaise Pascal is famous for his metaphorical wager: If God does not exist and I act as if he does, I lose nothing. But if God does exist and I act as if he doesn’t, I lose everything.” On the face of it this seems to me to be a pretty cynical basis for belief, but even so it points toward an open mind that the detractors of religion seem to lack. As a psychologist, when I see a reaction that seems (a) intellectually inconsistent and (b) out of proportion to the stimulus it suggests to me that something is being threatened. It is human to resist being dominated by anything, even our own beliefs, and that is one reason I tried to make the case for faith as a more difficult but superior basis for the inquiry than belief – my detractors seem to have missed that point.