27 January 2014

The Scientific Worldview And Its Impact Of Traditional Religion

Scientific understanding has advanced tremendously from its state in the Middle Ages, from classical Greek and Rome, and from the legendary and magical histories of the Bronze and Copper ages that was the source for, among other things, the ancient Mesopotamian and Semitic myths that came to be digested in the biblical Book of Genesis.

Paleontology, biology, physics, geology, astronomy and genetics have revealed that the true story of the origins of man, of life of this planet, and of our planet, solar system and universe bear no resemblance to the creation and global flood stories of Genesis.

These stories are no more true than the belief that we live on a flat earth, or that the Sun revolves around the Earth.  There may have been something akin to a creation event in the Big Bang, more than 13 billion years ago and about 7 billion years before the Earth formed.

But, we can explain the way that the modern universe came into being from at least as far back as Big Bang Nucleosynthesis, during which light atoms like helium and lithium were formed in a period approximation 10 seconds until 20 minutes after the Big Bang using a Standard Model of cosmology, while resorting to just one feature of the universe that cannot currently be well understood with the Standard Model of Particle Physics and General Relativity with a cosmological constant.  Apart from the precise nature of the dark matter that was involved in that process, we can tell a complete, more or less consensus story of the history of the universe from then on.

There is more scientific uncertainty in the first ten seconds of the Big Bang, with the most difficult questions being answers to the nature of cosmological inflation, and to the baryon number of the universe and lepton number of the universe, which are conserved constants in the Standard Model that relate to the number of particles of matter in the universe (e.g. how many quarks, electrons and neutrinos there are in the universe) net of the number of particles of antimatter in the universe.  We don't even know what contributions are made by neutrinos to this total since we don't know the relative number of neutrinos and antineutrinos in the universe.

Our universe's history is not quite that of Newton's clockwork God, because quantum mechanics turns out to be stochastic (i.e. probabilistic) rather than deterministic.  But, the randomness is so pure that it amounts to the same thing.  There is no room in modern cosmology for a God who did anything other than put in place the fundamental laws of physics and set the initial conditions of the universe in the Big Bang and perhaps the first few seconds that followed.

Historical linguistics buttressed by a fuller understanding of human prehistory generally, secured with archaeology, with modern population genetics and ancient DNA for both people and for plants and animals whose histories are intertwined with our own, and deeper understanding of linguistic processes from modern linguistic studies have all worked to displace the Tower of Babel.

While we can not cure every illness and remedy every condition, we understand much more deeply what causes all manner of diseases and psychiatric conditions.  None of them are caused by demons or spirits acting with moral purpose in the human world.  As a consequence of this, we know that the exorcism and faith healing that was one of the core ministries of Jesus, his disciples and many of the Saints whose lives are part of Catholic doctrine, didn't happen.

Historical and literary study of the Bible, informed by early collections of religious texts such as the Dead Sea scrolls, has made clear that the traditional Judeo-Christian accounts of their authorship are often incorrect, that stories like the Garden of Eden, Noah's flood, and the appearance of Baby Moses floating in a river to a Pharonic princess have direct antecedents in Sumerian myths, and that portions of the Gospels such as the stories of the childhood of Jesus and of his post-crucifixion exploits are late additions that are probably not authentic.  The Bible isn't even consistently monotheistic, acknowledging in its earlier portions YHWY as a the most powerful and righteous of many gods, rather than as the only existing God.

This isn't to say that legendary Biblical histories were entirely divorced from reality.  There really were non-Semitic Philistines in the Southern Levant in the early Iron Age.  There really was a Jewish kingdom in the Iron Age Levant that had conflicts with Mesopotamian sovereigns.  Many of the notable Roman political figures of the New Testament really existed.  Many of the places referred to in the Bible, like the City of Jericho and Solomon's Mines, correspond to places that really exist.  Indeed, the further you advance along the timeline of the Hebrew Bible, on average, the more it corresponds to some semblance of historical reality.  But, like the Bronze Age and early Iron Age myths of so many of the world's people, the Bible contains legendary elements intertwined with historical elements in a manner that does not delineate where hyperbole and fantasy end and historical accounts begin.  The Bible is a collection of short works of historical fantasy written by human beings, each with their own agendas, not an inspired, absolutely true historical account of man's dealings with God.

Studies of global religious variation and the history of religion sheds light on the origins of current religious belief systems, which are quite young compared, for example, to the time depth of our linguistic origins, and also make clear that there is no consistent, universal set of metaphysical religious beliefs.  Religious beliefs are so completely irreconcilable that certainly the vast majority of these beliefs must be completely wrong as a factual matter.

A scientific worldview, in short, is inconsistent with the metaphysical worldview of every one of the major world religious traditions in a manner that it increasingly obvious as our understanding of science and history grows ever more precise and gains ever more complete factual support.

Now, a scientific worldview does not deny that religions exist and that they have played a powerful role in the human story.  Archaeology supports the existence of human spiritual activity going back to the Upper Paleolithic period at the very least and quite possibly even to archaic homins predating modern humans such as the Neanderthals of West Eurasia.  Religious institutions and belief systems appear to have played pivotal roles in the emergence of the earliest farming and herding societies in the Neolithic revolution, and to the organization of the earliest cities and civilizations.

But, the essence of what makes religious belief systems religious, which is that there are non-human forces or beings that act with moral purpose in the human world with which humans can interact, benefit from or influence via religious practice, in the end is simply wrong.  The factually accurate history of religion is a story of people creating gods, spirits and religious practices and agreeing among themselves to at least act as if they believe them (and often sincerely actually believing them), in part to facilitate religious practices that taken as a whole provide some benefit to their societies.

Without a belief in the worldview in which religion is embedded, however, its force as anything more than an embodiment of philosophies and political views that can support themselves independent of their religious content (which is present in philosophies like Confucianism which are sometimes called religions), evaporates.  Perhaps some cultural philosophies and political views associated with religion can survive apart from the divine, but I very much doubt that this can hold in the case of some of the leading monotheistic religious beliefs such as Christianity and Islam.

In a world where the scientific worldview is increasingly acknowledged to be correct, religion must change or die.  It must either transform into philosophies (like humanism) and traditional practices (like Santa Claus) that initiated adults acknowledge have no divine basis or metaphysical truth, or it must be limited to people who reject to an ever greater degree a scientifically established reality that is ever more indisputably correct.  There are conditions where the benefits of religious belief may allow it to persist longer in the fact of these fatal intellectual and conceptual flaws.  But, no religious worldview is defensible any longer as an accurate description of how our world works.  And, as the world becomes ever more educated and gains ever more free access to accurate information, existing religious worldviews formulated for pre-scientific eras will be forever threatened by a consistent, global, universal scientific worldview.

I have no doubt that competing philosophies, culturally maintained traditional practices which may have roots in religious practice, and institutions serving purposes similar to those historically served by religious institutions, in some form or another that it is too early to be able to predict with any certainty, quite possibly in different bundles of functionality than traditional religious institutions, will emerge.  We are probably not entering an era of global moral consensus or one that is truly culturally homogeneous.  But, we are living in the middle of a historic era during which our collective religious inheritance will ever more swiftly lose its force in favor of a shared scientific worldview which will be a foundation upon which new worldviews will emerge afresh with little direct descent from single predecessor belief systems.  Belief systems and worldviews before the scientific worldview becomes predominant, and belief systems and worldviews after this point in our intellectual history, will be largely disconnected from each other.

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