I don’t much talk about my religious beliefs to my friends much and especially not on this website, but I just finished a book which has made me think a lot about them and felt I should write a post about it. The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, written by none other than Carl Sagan, is a book that I can’t recommend highly enough. It has cemented my beliefs as an atheist and a staunch believer in the scientific method and process. If I had any doubts left before I read this book, they were pretty much eradicated by Sagan’s ability to list all of the reasons why he believes (and in concert why I believe) there is no proof there is a God and how science and religion have intertwined and fought over the years.
I grew up having been baptized in my Grandparents’ church and going regularly to a Methodist church fairly regularly until my parents’ divorce. I never much though about church much as anything other than something we did on Sundays until I was a teenager and hadn’t been going regularly. I briefly dated someone whose father was as close to a pastor as you can be without actually being one and it really showed me a different side of what church could be like. The older I got, and the more I researched things I’d been taught in church, the more and more I began to doubt what I had been told over the years. I think one of the funniest things I’ve been told about my young self was when I found out Santa Claus wasn’t real, I then asked “Does that mean that God isn’t real either?”.
I think one of the things that has really taught me a lot about religion and beliefs is the internet. I’ve been able to do research on topics and find articles and information and, most importantly, see videos of incredibly smart people talk about these topics. Neil deGrass Tyson, Carl Sagan, Richard Feyman, and many of the people I’ve watched in TED talks over the years have taught me so much about the world as it is, has been, and has been perceived to be over the years. That last part is a big one. Over the years we humans have learned an incredible amount; our knowledge pool is ever increasing and our ability to make accurate statements has grown tremendously. Unfortunately, there is still a large amount we don’t know, but that will slowly decrease over time.
So how does all of this relate to religion and god? One of the core tenets in science is the ability for anyone, anywhere to be able to reproduce results garnered by someone else. Studies are submitted to public journals, equations are able to be re-derived, and work is shown as how you get to a conclusion. Religions tend to rely on word of mouth, old books (that may or may not be historically accurate), and social structures to convince people of their beliefs. There is no way, many times, to prove or disprove statements made by religious people about their faith or beliefs. This is the basis of faith and why some people (like me) have a hard time having discourse with people who ardently believe things that are scientifically unprovable.
So back to the book. Carl Sagan gave a Gifford Lecture in which he talked about God (in all its possible forms), religion, alien civilizations, ufos, miracles, the origin of life, the universe, and our knowledge to date of most of those things. The book is a transcription of those lectures and is absolutely fascinating to read. I’m not sure I can adequately summarize everything he talked about, but if I were to try, it would come to this: belief without proof is wrong. Not wrong in the sense of murder is wrong, but in the sense that if you can’t prove anything, then having actions based off of those beliefs could have harmful consequences. For instance (and this is an extreme example), the Heaven’s Gate group ended up killing themselves because they believed something that wasn’t provable at all. There are many instances of groups of people believing the end of the world is coming. My point in all of this is that action based on unprovable belief may cause you to put wasted effort into activities that may completely hinder things that would help otherwise. In current day terms, embryonic stem cell use, gay marriage, and anti-global warming beliefs are just a few of the things that hurt peoples’ lives because of beliefs in things that aren’t accurate.
So then is all religion bad? No, of course not. Religions have grouped people together and spurred them to make changes to the world for the betterment many times. Slavery is one very well known case in which Quakers fought for the freeing of the slaves. On an individual level, many people like the community and the belief structure and believe it makes them a better person. These things don’t bother me in the slightest. Some of my best friends are ardently religious. I do believe, however, that if religion and unfounded beliefs weren’t prevalent, the world would be a better place and we’d be a happier populace.
I can’t recommend The Varieties of Scientific Experience enough. I wish everyone would read it as Carl Sagan has a way with words and how he describes things that is so much better than what I’m able to on this blog.