England’s Problem with Reality

May 25th, 2009 by Null Session · 1,132 words 5 Comments
Free Thinking, Religion, Philosophy

Last year, I think I was writing about how England seems to be awash with knife crime. It was during our election cycle, and I was getting pretty fed up with atheists being blamed for all the horrendous crimes of the past century, ala Ben Stein and his ilk (i.e. the Evangelicals, Fundies and Pentecostals).

Today, I read another article, from Hugh Kramer on Examiner.com, highlighting how Hitler was not just another frothing, murderous atheist… but, in fact, pro-religion and against atheism. Yet, in an article from Brother Richard, he shows just how frightened the Catholic Church is today, as Vincent Nichols, the new Archbishop of Westminster, takes time to single out atheism as impeding humanity’s search for truth. Nichols also goes on to waive his hands and tell us that “decades of child abuse by Catholic priests” has been sorted out and we should all just go home and stop trying to look behind the curtain. There’s nothing there. All better. See you in church on Sunday.

I continue to worry about the state of religion in the United States. I just came back from the heart of the Bible Belt, home to the Assembly of God, where Pentecostal churches dot the landscape along the Interstate like fast food joints. Here’s your Jesus Burger, can I supersize that for ya? Buy two, today only, and get a free miracle! (Disclaimer: Miracle cannot involve actually curing major disease, growing back of limbs or anything that rises above statistical likelyhood to happen on its own, as that might be seen as proof of God and thus defeat the purpose of blind faith.)

So, we have our own issues with fundamentalist protestants in America. We continue to try and explain science and logic to those who demand the earth is only 6000 years old, and believe that The Flintstone’s was a documentary. Perhaps we fail, because we have not found a way to explain it in terms of NASCAR (see: The Physics of NASCAR) – but, I digress.

England has its own set of problems. The Catholic Church is striking back out of fear at the atheists, due to a rampant decline in church attendance. In a recent article in The Guardian, church attendance in the UK is likely to drop by ninety percent from current numbers, to about 88,000 by 2040. While the trend has been downward, there has been a recent uptick, attributed by many to the economy. Of course, when the economy is down, there is also a rise in people playing the lottery and visiting psychics! The concern I have is that many who “lose religion” seek something to take its place, and find their faith is shifted to homeopathy – remember how Prince Charles promoted that a while back? We also have prominent celebrities pursuing an Anti-Vaccination campaign, which is irresponsible and totally without scientific merit. Read Phil Plait’s article on the antivax controversy in the UK.

We seem to be making progress, slowly but surely, in the battle to free people from religious dogma. In the US, there are certainly more people claiming to be non-religious, however the fundamentalist fringe religions have been expanding rapidly in the past two decades. Any attempt to counter their young-earth or creationist claims only seems to bolster their support. The more we try, the further behind we get. I resist the fad to break the US up into red and blue states, but more and more that is becoming the truth. In the UK and Australia, less so. But, when people accept that the idea of a personal god ranks right up there with Santa Claus, this doesn’t mean they automatically become skeptics. Too many “born again” atheists and “lapsed believers” need something to believe in and turn to pseudoscience. The popularity of television shows on psychics, ghosts and UFOs has exponentially grown in recent years. We need to take this into account, and as “out of the closet” atheists and non-believers, lead by example by being “compassionate skeptics”. We must find a way to present reason and science in terms that the layperson can accept. We must strengthen and require science during grades K-12.

England is a perfect example of what happens when the illusion of religion is broken, and not replaced with something substantial. Like Carl Sagan, I find that the universe is beautiful and instills a non-religious spirituality in me. We are a part of the cosmos, and I resist the evolutionary hard-wiring that urges me to seek answers to larger questions that may not be knowable. What we do know and what we will learn, is substantial and I find that I no longer need fairy tales to “feel special”. All I need to do is look around me. I’m not sure what will work for others, but we face that problem, that when we take away religion, we leave a gap, and we have no plan for how to transition someone from religion to non-religion, so they are left vulnerable and susceptible to the pseudoscientific claims of quacks and charlatans (and Oprah).

Do you have a solution? I don’t think there is a quick fix. I think the answer is to educate all our children, and to make certain when they leave school that they have a basic understanding of science. They should have some perspective on the scope of the universe. They should understand Occam’s Razor and the scientific method. They should appreciate how science builds a framework, and how the pieces fit together like pieces of a puzzle, and that is how we know things like the age of the earth and the universe and that we evolved from a common ancestor. We have to be bold and tell them that astrology and homeopathy and similar shams are pseudoscientific scams, and no more real than fairies and unicorns. They should graduate, realizing that sometimes their gut instinct is wrong. They should learn to ask questions and not accept arguments from authority or emotion.

I just don’t know if this is possible. This is a paradigm shift, I’m asking for. I don’t know if our school systems can be this bold, or if we have to just keep fighting the good fight until the day it is possible. At a minimum, we must recognize that fighting the battle to make the world more secular (at least in public) is just that, a battle. The war is to train the majority of people to think and distinguish reality from fantasy, in all forms. I think this is a war we can eventually win, if we don’t get too caught up in being clever and arguing logic with the blind-faith trolls that are all about, just waiting to drag us down and slow our progress.

I’ll leave you with a cartoon from Brother Richard:

Militant Atheists

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