Tuesday, 26 February 2013

The Sword of Truth is sharpened by free inquiry

Is it really so much to ask for religious beliefs to be openly scrutinized? For the religious to be able to defend themselves against even the staunchest criticisms? To be held to the same successful standards as science? I firmly believe that one of the main reasons for the success of science is because of the fact that no ideas within its grasp are considered sacred.

In the Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan sublimely wrote:
You sit in at contentious scientific meetings. You find university colloquia in which the speaker has hardly gotten 30 seconds into the talk before there are devastating questions and comments from the audience. You examine the conventions in which a written report is submitted to a scientific journal, for possible publication, then is conveyed by the editor to anonymous referees whose job it is to ask: Did the author do anything stupid? Is there anything in here that is sufficiently interesting to be published? What are the deficiencies of this paper? Have the main results been found by anybody else? Is the argument adequate, or should the paper be resubmitted after the author has actually demonstrated what is here only speculated on? And it’s anonymous: The author doesn’t know who the critics are. This is the everyday expectation in the scientific community.

So in preparing to defend their theses, they must practice a very useful habit of thought: They must anticipate questions; they have to ask: Where in my dissertation is there a weakness that someone else might find? I’d better identify it before they do.

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark. Pages 31-32.
Imagine if religious sermons were held to the same standard. Can you imagine, at the end of a church service, a layperson standing up from their pew and asking their pastor: “why are the events contained in each of the gospels chronologically out of order, relative to one another?” or “why do you choose to enforce the Bible’s views on homosexuality, but not on these other issues?”

The outrage! What authority does this person have to question the doctrines of the church? Of the pastor?

Guess what – if the pastor truly is an expert on the information he’s (yes, he, thank-you-very-much to all the patriarchal denominations that, against all logic, somehow manage to still exist) presenting to his parish, he should easily have solid responses to these questions. He should be able to quash any such questions with a mere explanatory sentence, strong enough to convert even the most die-hard atheists. He should be held to the same standards we hold scientists to when they present their theories.

Why, instead, do we get: “Don’t ask such questions, faith is better if such questions are simply not asked.”

Now, I realize not all believers hold all parts of the Bible as literally true, some probably hold the Bible as being only metaphorically true (whatever that means), but many do hold some parts of the Bible as true. And asking them how they decide some parts, and not other parts, are true should be a legitimate and even mandatory line of inquiry. This is especially true when they interpret it in such a way as to persecute and bully other human beings!

Christians, as with followers of most belief-systems, often believe they wield the Sword of Truth. So what have they to fear someone questioning their beliefs? If the answer to the sword is merely a question, it’s really not much of a sword at all. And if wielding such a weapon is truly important to them, then at least sharpen it on the whetstone of free inquiry. Let yourself be challenged! Become stronger!

I really do wish religions were held to the same rigorous standards that most scientific discourse is. And it does bother me when people respond with incredulity towards anyone that has the audacity to question.

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