Hope For the Future: a Humanist Perspective
Religion is dying. It has been a slow and long and sometimes painful death, and it will continue for some time. It started a very long time ago with great thinkers like Democritus and Epicurus, continued later with reformers like Martin Luther, who I’m sure will be familiar to many. The Age of Reason gave us names such as Baruch Spinoza, John Locke, Isaac Newton and Thomas Hobbes. These men, along with others, enabled our species to truly start understanding the world around us. Their works helped loosen the grip of the church and began our long march to better societal systems. No longer would we have to resort to the supernatural. Slowly, we opened to a new truth, an empirical truth, a real truth. One that could be discovered using the tools of science.
During this long, slow and painful death religion has come a long way as well. I would venture to say most of the world religions don’t believe their scriptures as they once did. This is easily demonstrated. Just try to find a Christian who endorses slavery as the Abrahamic faiths did not even two hundred years ago. Lightning bolts, volcanoes and droughts are no longer evidence of angry gods. Physical and mental illness are no longer the realm of demonic possession, spirits or jinns. Reason, science and critical thinking have given us a better understanding of these things. Our understanding of the world around us has propelled us to the point where we are the dominant species on this planet. A role that we are, in some respects, ill prepared for.
There are portions of the population who opt for the comfort of un-falsifiable beliefs, as they turn their heads away from the beauty and harshness that is reality.
Science doesn’t care about your personal hang ups or biases, even your supernatural beliefs. It is simply a tool to better understand what actually exists. That understanding has brought us great advancements in medicine, life expectancy and every modern convenience we enjoy. Unfortunately, it has also given us many new and horrible ways to kill each other on a massive scale.
One of the greatest fears is as religion dies, the un-falsifiable belief systems will be harnessed to this technology with dire consequences. In the Middle East we have one religion bent on the destruction of another. One has weapons of mass destruction, the other is eager to obtain them. Faith against Faith is unfortunately all too common in our world. For me it is hard to fathom that in this day and age a large portion of our planet could be reduced to a cinder by someone claiming he did it on direct revelation from his god.
Some may feel the fear of mass death may be not so much of a worry. They may say “We’re smarter than that.” I hope they’re right but as religion dies there are other ways it’s harming us.
There are some 4200 different religions being practiced in the world today. Everything from magic crystals, animism, paganism to the big monotheistic Abrahamic faiths. Many of these religions have fragmented further into thousands of sects, all believing that they have the right answers either because of divine revelation or an extensive study of ancient stories. According to the world Christian encyclopedia, Christianity alone has some 33,000 different denominations. All of them believing they have cornered the market on the truth. One has to wonder why a god who has a message for us would make such a muddled mess of getting his point across.
All of these belief systems have one thing in common and that is faith. With faith you can believe your religion is the religion of peace. The very same scriptures read by another believer can tell him to behead the infidel. Some holy books inform their believers that gay men and women should be killed or jailed. At the same, time other believers consider the same people to be valuable members of society who should enjoy all the same rights as others. For the believer any position is justifiable when taken on faith, and that’s the danger.
There is another aspect of faith: not just the belief without evidence, but belief in spite of the evidence.
If we just confine our scope to North America, today we have faith-based belief systems such as intelligent design and young earth creationism. A wholly asinine and dishonest system of thought that is presently growing a generation of scientific illiterates, dumbing down the population and leaving our children less equipped to deal with the realities of modern life.
In the state of Texas, a state dominated by fundamentalist/evangelical Christianity, religion has influenced their schools to teach abstinence-only sex education. It’s interesting to note that Texas comes in second in the United States for the amount of unwanted pregnancies and is first for repeat unwanted pregnancies.
Texas’s fundamentalist Christian ideas of abstinence-only education, defunding family planning clinics, its war on reproductive rights, and limiting access to contraception will result in what the Texas State Health Commission calls a “baby boom” of 24,000 unplanned pregnancies for 2014-15. Most of those will be young, undereducated unwed mothers. Many of them will be forced into using social services to get by, thus becoming a burden to the taxpayer. The kicker is we know how to fix this. Proper education of young adults about contraception, sex, and sexually transmitted diseases brings down the rate of abortions, unwanted pregnancies and STDs, and that’s a simple fact.
I would say my greatest fear would be the damage religion can do as it slowly fades away. Time and time again we see that faith-based ideas don’t work and very often increase the harm to others at great cost. But there are ideas that do work.
Evolution has enabled us to grow larger brains, and we have slowly begun to realize that in order to remedy human problems there must be real human solutions. Appeals to the divine, the nonexistent, just won’t work anymore (not that they ever really have). Answers informed by faith are completely ineffective and often harmful. The inability of religion to solve problems has forced us to find those solutions on our own, and our ability to find these answers brings us to the hope Humanists have for the future.
Wherever a society brings in basic human rights, education, the empowerment of women and a reasonable social safety net, supernatural beliefs decrease. Humanism discards the concept that an idea is good simply because someone has thought it divinely inspired. Ideas must stand on their own merit. They must be scrutinized by reason and tested by science. As we look around the world, time and time again we find that the societies that are more humanistic, atheistic and secular score higher by every measure of societal health.
A 2005 meta study by Gregory S. Paul on religion and societal health revealed that religion does not lead to a healthier society. The study demonstrated that Western democracies (secular, less religious societies) score higher in life expectancy and lower in rate of sexually transmitted disease, lower in unwanted pregnancy rates, lower incarceration rates, lower child mortality rates…the list goes on. This study may not demonstrate that religion is necessarily bad for society, but it does show that religion and faith-based belief systems may make us feel better but are ill-equipped to give useful answers to real problems. As Sam Harris stated in his book The End of Faith, “no society has ever advanced by becoming more religious”, and for most thinking human beings this has become axiomatic.
What gives me hope? As a society we are becoming less violent. It may come as a surprise to many, but it’s true. Author and psychologist Stephen Pinker lays out in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature a very good case for how our societies are becoming more peaceful and less violent, contrary to what many believe or have been taught by their religious leaders. Fortunately Armageddon is cancelled due to lack of interest.
What gives me hope? Human rights. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is far superior in every way and more moral than any religious text today. Developed and discussed by people from all backgrounds more than 50 years ago, it remains a document that our species needs to aspire to.
What gives me hope? The goodness of human beings. The increase of the percentage of the population who believe that we are not born with a black mark on our heart. The ones who understand we have no debt to pay for “Original Sin”. The ones who have quit shopping for redemption and started shopping for knowledge in the ultimate big box store we call the universe.
– Pat Morrow