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The Confusion between Belief and Truth

Posted by on 29/07/2011

Religion provides a set of pre-formed beliefs that are not to be questioned, but if anything is clear about our world and our universe it is that  we can be certain of nothing. Whilst that allows for the possibility that the faithful of some particular religion are exactly correct in what they think, progress has shown us that every belief that is non-evidence based is going to be overturned sooner or later, as all previous beliefs that conflicted with scientific evidence have had to give way.  We no longer believe that the earth is flat; that the stars are holes in the sky where Heaven shines through; that the earth is the centre of the universe; that the world was created in six days; that crops will not grow if a virgin is not sacrificed each spring; that the sun will not rise if a man’s heart is not ripped out each sunset; that we should not suffer witches to live; that Kings are appointed by God; that a girl who has sex before marriage should be stoned to death on her father’s doorstep, or that disease is sent by God to punish us.

The point is that preformed beliefs – those based on hearsay rather than evidence, don’t ‘stand up in court’. If we believe something because we’ve been told it or read it, we have come to a premature conclusion. There is a fairly simple test that can discover whether a belief is not justified. Given a particular belief, is it testable? If not, that belief is not justified, because if we can’t test whether a belief is right or wrong, there is no way of knowing the answer. Of course, being testable does not necessarily make a belief justified – that depends on the results of the test. Instinct, however arrived at, is often wrong. We can think we know something, and be certain of that thing, and still be wrong. Only the facts tell the real story, and even facts are often in dispute.

This might lead to a person of religion saying that atheists could be wrong, and that is true, but unlikely. However, most atheists, given just one piece of sound evidence that a god exists, would change their opinion. This would not necessarily cause an atheist to become a worshipper of a god proven to exist, because to deserve to be worshipped is different from being a god. And of course, there is the problem of defining what a god is. Almost everything man once thought was in the hands of gods is now in our own hands, from the creation of matter to building new life forms.

But unlike the religious who continually have to revise their morals and their belief systems, and despite atheists willingness to change their opinion in the face of any evidence that they are wrong, atheists have never had to change their position or their morality to catch up with modern advances and refinements of morality, or what it means to live the moral or good life. Atheists tend to be thinkers with their own highly developed sense of morality and personal conscience. They know that no god is going to forgive any evil they do and as a result have done far less harm in the world than adherents of religion.

“I regard monotheism as the greatest disaster ever to befall the human race. I see no good in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam — good people, yes, but any religion based on a single, well, frenzied and virulent god, is not as useful to the human race as, say, Confucianism, which is not a religion but an ethical and educational system.” [Gore Vidal, American novelist, At Home, 1988, from James A. Haught, ed., 2000 Years of Disbelief, Famous People with the Courage to Doubt]

Given that the all-powerful mono god created by the Judeo/Christian/Islamic traditions apparently would like atheists to believe in his existence, a quick demonstration, say by instantly giving all amputees back their limbs, or just the religious ones, of a particular sect that the god favours, who undoubtedly have made that prayer, would change the view of every atheist. See…

But it is difficult to get to that same acceptance of evidence with the religiously inclined. They argue hopelessely against proof of evolution. They argue against our insignificant place in the universe, and against every advance of knowledge that conflicts with their religious beliefs. No matter what god the religious believe in, whether it’s the Holy Trinity of the Catholic Church or the indivisible Allah of Islam, it’s difficult for the faithful to change their beliefs. They will ignore all evidence or any arguments that could make the change happen. They deliberately avoid the knowledge that would have the inevitable consequence of making them unbelievers, or their institutions forbid them to acquire the knowledge.

But there is another aspect to this clinging on to old beliefs: people who are involved in religious communities or are practitioners of a religion so often define themselves by their religion. The friends people have, their social life, their respect in the community, and their personal identities and those of their families is likely to be at least partially defined through their religion and in cases can become such a core part of their being that the option of being wrong would bring the whole edifice of their life tumbling down. Thus the religious protect their beliefs and hold on to old ‘truths’ that are revealed by science to be ridiculous nonsense, or constructed from myth and legend.

In the modern world, where the ‘truths’ of the ancients are constantly being revised by the truths of incontrovertible scientific evidence, that’s a bad thing about religion.

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