Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

On Religion

Some months ago, I resolved to limit discussion of religious beliefs and institutions here, and to reserve the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems site for the purpose. The Dialogue blog was lively for a while, but we could not recruit sufficient interlocutors who wanted to contribute from the point of view of religion and faith.

I have at times discussed ethics from a humanist perspective, and contrasted typical religious forms of ethics in the process. During the Terry Schiavo circus I took on specific religious institutions and leadership, as they were obviously highly salient. But I have not focused very much on general problem of faith in the 21st Century.

Now I have come to feel there is a certain urgency to basic philosophical questions. Public health is global. The expectation each of us can have for life and health, and our children and grandchildren and beyond, depends on events of planetary scale -- burning of fossil fuels, depletion of marine life, cutting of forests, the application of pesticides and the evolution of insects, the evolution of microorganisms, conflict and violence, erosion of topsoil, international cooperation, the size of the human population, the global allocation of medical and public health resources, and on and on. Religion, it turns out, has a bearing on all of these problems.

So I will tell you that I am a humanist. That means that my loyalty is to humanity. I'm with the home team. That is all of us. Not Americans. Not Christians, or Muslims, or anything more specific. It also means that I recognize that we have to depend on ourselves and each other. The human future is up to us. No supernatural being is going to save us, or destroy us. We are on our own, for better or for worse.

It means we must understand and use the powers that we have, our senses and our reason, to understand the world, to understand ourselves, and to figure out how we can live in the world. It is obvious that the beliefs people had when they wrote ancient books like the Bible and the Upanishads and the Koran have been shown to be incorrect. Scientists like Edwin Hubble did not imagine the universe, they discovered it. It turns out to be far more grand and wonderful than anything the biblical scribes could possibly have imagined.

It also turns out that we are not at the center of it. We are slime on a grain of dust. We don't matter to anyone but ourselves -- but that is more than enough for me. I don't find that a depressing thought at all. It is liberating. Religious people, in my view, are delusionally arrogant, to think that they are made in God's image and that they matter in the least to a supreme, omnipotent being. Just open your eyes. That is obviously false.

If we wish to solve our many, urgent problems, we must accept these facts. They are the essential foundation to the human future. That is what I believe, and I thought I ought to make it clear.

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