Promoting Science Reason & Atheism

Thank you for showing an interest in my blog. The general theme of my posts will be the promotion of a secular worldview, where religion and superstition do not frequent the halls of power within government, or falsely promoted as having an educational merit. I believe that secular governments, with absolute separation of Church and State, are in the best interest of religious and non-religious alike.  This is because secular democracy protects the right to personal belief and expression of such belief for everyone, while facing down, any element, of any religion that would seek to oppress others. It is possible to be deeply religious and still support the idea of separation of Church and State.  While I acknowledge this fact, I am still of the opinion that secular society is best achieved by becoming an irreligious society in the first place. This belief is fuelled by the history of countries with deeply religious majorities.

I acknowledge that many wish to entertain religious belief and respect their right to gain consolation from it. However respect for the right to believe does not confer an automatic respect for any particular belief. The subject content of my blogs will offend those who are hard in their conviction that everyone’s opinion carries equal weight.  I will argue two different notions of tolerance, the first being, that society must be tolerant of everyone’s right to voice an opinion and that offence should not be a barrier to such a discussion. However I will argue that if we are to advance as a society we should be intellectually intolerant of ideas that are not substantiated by empirical evidence. This should not be particularly controversial for the most part, as it is essentially the scientific process. We are already intellectually intolerant of many non-evidence based notions.  Our schools and universities no longer see alchemy as a valid alternative to chemistry or astrology a valid alternative to astronomy. Unlike our ancient ancestors, our medical schools no longer believe that conditions such as epilepsy or schizophrenia are the result of possession by malevolent entities.  Such ideas were believed by the intellectual elite of their day despite the absence of evidence to support such fantastic claims. Today, any politician or academic leader entertaining such ideas would be automatically cast to the sideline and ridiculed at every opportunity.  One would not be considered a bigot or accused of being intolerant for being openly critical of those who would promote any of the above as a legitimate intellectual position. This is probably the single most important cultural shift that separates 21st century society from the dark ages and the piles of human misery that stemmed from it.  Prior to the enlightenment of the 18th century, that spread through Europe, the notion of evidence based belief took second stage to entrenched beliefs, formed on the basis of Bronze and Iron Age religious tradition, as well as the uttering of the most powerful, and those considered to be “wise” by the societies of less enlightened Europe.

Most would consider themselves to be intellectually above superstition; however nothing could be further from the truth, as we are all biologically hardwired to be superstitious, for very good evolutionary reasons. Humans and other animals that tried to establish causal relationships between an action and a subsequent outcome would be more likely to outlive those who did not share this useful trait. This would be beneficial, even if the hypothesis was incorrect 90% of the time. The 10% who derived an accurate assumption of cause and effect would gain potentially lifesaving data. Consider the hunter gatherer of 50,000 years ago who ate poisonous berries. Those who would try to determine the link between death and eating poisonous fruit would be statistically more likely to outlive more apathetic tribes, even if they attributed the death to several superstitious notions such as, curses from dead ancestors or offending the gods etc. This is because innate curiosity would lead a few to determine the correct causal relationship, which is, eating poisonous berries and subsequent death. Indeed superstition precedes humanity itself and has been observed experimentally in other species, the most notable experiments being those carried out by psychologist B.F Skinner on pigeons in his operant chamber.

While superstitious behaviour was more advantageous than apathy throughout our evolutionary history, in the scientific age, it becomes a liability. The reason being, the scientific method is dramatically better at separating true causal relationships from those which are a mere coincidence.  The scientific method no longer takes the view of any one individual claim, but concedes that large scale studies need to be undertaken before any claim of a cause and effect relationship can be established, when it comes to claims such as, efficacy of new medicines, or treatments, or whether or not global warming is real, and whether or not it is manmade.  The elimination of many erroneous concepts by the scientific process has been a milestone that allowed us to manipulate the world in a way that our innate biology failed to achieve, not least, the industrial revolution. The problem is our most visceral instincts are waging a war against the scientific method itself. The conflict is by no means confined to the uneducated and marginalised and its battleground is marked out right up to the highest levels of international power. Despite the empirical evidence of the validity of the scientific method above any other means of determining our best understanding of the true nature of reality, our instincts still perceive the edicts of leaders, both political and religious, as well as uneducated celebrities, to be of superior intellectual value to ideas derived through painstaking research and validated by multiple experiments.  This affects every part of society, from how we derive our ethics to how we treat the sick.

Superstition is literally killing people, and forcing societies to live under self-imposed slavery. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Islamic world.  Saudi Arabian Wahhabi Islam declares that a woman’s evidence is worth half that of a man. It mandates the death penalty for imaginary crimes such as witchcraft and sorcery. Visceral beliefs, such as the bizarre notion, that the Creator of the Universe has such a keen interest in human sexuality (as opposed to other species) as to impose laws, which carry the death penalty if breached. In former Taliban run Afghanistan, the fear of men getting illicit sexual gratification from women, led to imposition of laws that required the windows of houses to be painted. The low level of exposure to sunlight gave rise to a huge rate of suicide among women. The regime also deemed that the education of girls was an inherent evil, even more so than the punishment for this crime, where many schools were burned to the ground.  Edicts that women who were not wearing the burqa could not be medically examined by men led to one of the highest rates of female mortality in the world.  Other imaginary crimes include blasphemy, again which regularly carries a death sentence. This punishment is often endorsed by the governments of these countries and not only by the fanatical religious mobs.  The most obvious example being the Ayatollah of Iran calling for the death of Salman Rushdie and who offered a handsome bounty for anyone who would carry out the murder of this innocent writer.

Superstitions religious intrusion in State affairs is not only confined to Islamic nations. Only last week (at the time of writing), a member of the US Republican scientific committee came out firmly against biological evolution through natural selection, and the big bang theory. It is an obvious statement that these are among the most important scientific concepts of the last two centuries.  Ireland’s culture of Catholicism infiltrated every layer of government. Women were forced out of the workplace after marriage and were denied basic reproductive rights.  Progress in IVF technology and embryonic stem cell research were delayed, as legal systems gave equal status to embryos, as to infertile, disabled or sick adults. Couples trapped in a bad marriage were not allowed a fresh start as the Irish constitution forbade divorce. Homosexuality was outlawed and the priesthood was seen as an elite and prestigious position. The resulting consequences of this require no explanation.

Genuine medical treatments are currently being compromised by a huge growth in so called alternative medicine, an industry that is making millions of dollars yearly, despite the absence of a shred of evidence to support efficacy beyond placebo. Charlatan psychics are getting airspace on television and idiotic superstitious notions are becoming ever popular in celebrity culture. All of the above, while admittedly giving solace to some, pose long term problems, undermine scientific progress and the drive for a society, which sees all of its adult citizens possess a level of scientific literacy.

If my blogsite can make a few people reconsider their attitude to the growing problem of irrationalism within society then it will have served its purpose. If not, I hope you are at least entertained and challenged.

Cyril Butler

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