Propositions and Beliefs; Describing What's Really Real
The Nebulous Nature Of Belief
In order to begin examining the propositions about the world that people hold and how these propositions dictate their behavior in negative ways we first need to differentiate the various ways in which we use the world, "believe," and identify the sense in which it becomes problematic.
Assertions that we all believe things on insufficient evidence and thus that religious beliefs are no more unreasonable than other types of belief is a conflation of varieties of evidence and an obfuscation of kinds of belief. The result of this logical sleight of hand is a casuistry which results in a superficially appealing, yet substantially vapid, argument. For example, " I believe that it's worth getting out of bed in the morning," or, "I believe that this person loves me," is not the same implementation of the word, "believe," as, "I believe that this book was written by the creator of the Universe."
I base my, "belief," about getting out of bed in the morning being a worth while notion through past experience, presuppositions concerning the cognitive and emotional states I'm likely to experience throughout the day, and past experiences concerning the results of excessive sloth. I base my, "belief," that such a person loves me on small non-verbal indicators, our past experiences together, and a supposition of some kind of continuity of emotion in the other person that reflects my own emotional durability. These uses of the world, "believe," are clearly different than the kind of professions of faith made for the sake of theology. In the religious paradigm it is a positive virtue to rely on, "the evidence of things not seen," or empirically verified in any other way, at that.
What this reduces to is a linguistic problem in which the various contexts in which we use the world, "believe," become muddled. In common vernacular the word, "believe," is often used metaphorically as in the first two examples. What we literally mean to say is, "It is reasonable to assume that getting out of bed in the morning is a good idea," or, "This person professes to love me and I have no reason to doubt it." It is only when it comes to religious propositions that we truly need to invoke not only blind belief but belief that even flies in the face of substantial evidence.
Belief Not Required
For many of us belief is a useless word. Things are true if they are buttressed by evidence, untrue if they have evidence attesting against them, or yet to be known if their isn't sufficient data to make a reliable truth claim. For all of human history this means of evaluation has extended into a reliable manipulation of the world around us and has been the only perspective capable of advancing our understanding of the universe and how to create utilizable tools within it. It is religious modes of beliefs that we find partitioned off in the minds of believers having little impact on how they regard and interact with their physical worlds. If you doubt this, consider the basic assumptions about logic, and the ubiquitous cohesion of physical laws that make flying on a plane, relying on a cell phone for important communications, or the utilization of western medicine propositions that we all seem willing to put our collective trust in every day, whether theistic or atheistic.
And so in this sense propositions about the world are true, untrue, or yet to be determined independent of what we would like to be true, what would make us feel better existentially, or what might make us behave better. It is these plain, and indisputable facts that I would like to focus on now and how the panacea of religion that prevents us from excepting these truths is crippling us socially.
Are unsubstantiated beliefs good for a modern society?
The Basics and The Problems
The following scientific Theories, are as close to absolute fact as science allows. (Sciences most admirable virtue in it's enthusiasm for refinement and self-reflective correction) They are universally agreed upon by every serious scientist of merit, they explain a collections of data from mountains of observation and experimentation, and make predictions about the future that have thus far been completely correct. To deny any of the following theories (and at least some religious people reject all of them) is tantamount to denying gravity.
The Earth is 4.54 Billion years old. (plus or minus .05 Billion years)
The Universe is 13.798 Billion years old. (plus or minus .037 Billion years)
All species on Earth both extant and extinct share a common ancestor with something resembling a primitive Prokaryotic Bacteria.
The laws of Physics as we know them are never suspended.
All recent discoveries in Quantum Mechanics indicate that a celestial intelligence was not required to bring the Universe into existence.
Now ironically, these same assertions which we know with the most certainly to be scientifically true are also some of the most heatedly contested assertions in social referendums. And while of course everyone is entitled to their opinions, not all opinions are of equal value. If you believe for example that the universe is less than 10,000 years old then you should regard the computer on which you are reading these words to be a miracle because the elements that compose the micro-circuitry upon which it runs could not have developed in so little time. If you doubt evolution then you should also abstain from vaccinations, flu shots, and antibiotics, the pharmaceutical development of which all necessitated predictions and assumptions drawn from evolutionary theory. The fact that most professed believers will not be shutting off and throwing away their computers now and will continue to use inoculations and antibiotics argues for the strict and airtight partitioning that the human mind is capable of. But these are examples of banal and inoffensive cognitive dissonance that do not use unfounded belief as a trump card over issues of social import.
Whereas the religious assertion that stem cell research is essentially murderous, based on the contention that a soul is engendered by these cells, does do great harm to our collective society in general and the injured and ill in particular. It is this, "belief," that results in a federal defunding of stem-cell research, the returns on which investment will surely be the most profound and expansive yet seen in medical history.
This same assertion that blastocysts are imbued with a soul at the moment of conception generates all of the women's reproductive rights friction within the public sphere and even manages by some transformative trick to equate prophylactic measures as immoral. This latter claim contributes massively to the immutability of poverty in developing nations.
Religious assertions regarding the age of the Universe, and the origin of humans that diverge from what we know to be scientifically true can only lead to an intrinsic distrust of science on some level by the faithful. This will cost us our national scientific status, untold fiscal opportunity, and the scientific literacy of the next American generation.
The distinctly religious notion that homosexuality is unnatural, although it is found uniformly throughout nature in a constant proportion, serves to severely hinder social progress and basic human rights and solidarity. These religiously exacerbated fissure lines serve only to divide at a time when pressing concerns require us to unite.
Lastly, religious doctrine would seem to put the proverbial silver-lining around an ever threatening nuclear mushroom cloud. As messianic Middle Eastern regimes acquire apocalyptic weaponry, the immanent threat of nuclear destruction would surely be greeted by a large proportion of the religious population as the fulfilling of a prophecy precipitating their assent to paradise. This nuclear apocalypse surely has a better chance of realizing itself on the back of such credulous and anachronistic beliefs. What's more our imperative to act as stewards over the Earth is all but nullified by the startlingly pervasive belief that this rapture has been celestially ordained to occur during this century.
Can All Beliefs Be Tolerated?
Based on the very real, yet very unsupported, beliefs about the nature of the Cosmos and the position of Humans within it, some propositions are very precipitately and very acutely becoming untenable. These propositions don't have merely a retarding effect on culture but they may prove to annihilate culture.
An important point to note here, is that religion, to the degree that it has modernized and liberalized itself, has not done so from within. It is the external pressure of secularism, materialism, and rationalism that has forced this upon religion as it has hoped to remain at all relevant in the 21st century. This pressure must not stop, we may be at a point now when the stakes are truly at their most profound and the consequences least congruent with the hope of remediation.