Sunday, April 20, 2014

Thoughts on Easter

Today, Easter Sunday, the social media are full of posts proclaiming the resurrection of christ jesus.  This outpouring of rapturous excitement over a mythical event nearly 2000 years ago provides justification for this blog post of mine.  They're entitled to believe whatever they wish, and are free to proclaim those beliefs however they choose, at least here in the USA.  So am I.  Hence, this is an occasion for me to discuss a particular aspect of this belief system.

I've already posted a web essay that provides an extended position statement, so I won't repeat all that here.  Keep in mind, the goal of my essays and blogs isn't to "de-convert" anyone from their beliefs (everyone has been "converted" to their religion - most often by their parents - no one ever was born with a particular religious belief), but rather to suggest that faith-based religions are irrational.  Every rational person knows there's no way to provide absolute proof of the existence of the abrahamic deity often referred to as "god".  Why is that?  If the putative deity exists, I'm told by believers, it chooses to avoid giving any tangible evidence of its existence (although it was quite willing to do so 2000 years ago, for some reason!), so that nowadays believers must accept it purely on faith (i.e., belief without evidence).  Evidence would apparently make it too easy!  Why is that?  Why should this deity work so hard to make it difficult to believe in it?

Every rational person also knows there's no way to provide absolute proof of the non-existence of said deity.  This is often a response from believers when their belief in a deity is challenged, who usually go on to commit the logical fallacy of claiming that the inability to disprove something constitutes proof of that something.  What we're really talking about is evidence, or more properly, its non-existence.  The evidence I see is basically consistent with the non-existence of a deity.  The burden of proof falls on the person making the claim, not someone who disbelieves the claim, especially in the absence of compelling evidence for the claim.  If someone were to provide convincing evidence, I'd be willing to change my mind.  Would believers do the same?  In many cases, it seems, they assert vigorously they would not!  I have another web essay on this topic, so I'm going to leave it at that, here.

What I really want to comment on this Easter Sunday is my continuing struggle with how otherwise intelligent and rational people are willing to embrace irrationality.  I'm not talking about fundamentalists who interpret scriptures literally and accept those scriptures as literal truth.  Fundamentalists must somehow rationalize that the literal words of scripture are contradictory, full of logical and historical errors, and sanction all sorts of behavior we would consider immoral.  I'm not going to dwell on this here.

Most christians in the US have interpreted many parts of the bible as metaphor, parables, songs, etc., and rationalized biblical words in various ways (e.g, 'Just how long was a "day" in the Genesis story of creation?'), no doubt at least in part because it's pretty clear that science contradicts those literal words, with a lot of evidence to back up the scientific understanding.  Believers have labored hard to find a way to accept 'magical thinking' even though they know magic is not real.  Unlike religion, science makes no claims to complete understanding, but what understanding it has developed since the Renaissance is solidly rooted in evidence - evidence that scientific understanding works in the real world, not just within the confines of a collection of writings from barely-civilized late Bronze Age tribal members of 2000+ years ago.  Is there a conflict between science and religion?  You bet there is!

The challenge that a rational believer must resolve is that clash between rational and irrational - you either develop your opinions and beliefs based on logic and evidence to the maximum extent possible, or you accept belief in the absence of evidence (faith).  Religious belief creates a cognitive dissonance with reason and evidence - a clash that must be resolved.  Many rational christian believers apparently solve this challenge by compartmentalization:  science and rationality hold sway in many (if not most) elements of their life, whereas in the religious compartment, faith and irrationality dominate.

Why would people do this?  I'm not qualified to provide an evidence-based answer, but I can at least speculate, so long as I admit I have no evidence.  Thus, I suspect otherwise rational people cling to their religious beliefs so desperately for many reasons:
  • Fear of death and the promise of eternal life.  
  • Threat of eternal punishment for unbelievers.  
  • Hope for a reunion with those who have died before them.  
  • Solace and comfort provided by a myth being used to control them.  
  • Social support from their religious 'tribe'.
  • Inertia of beliefs developed in childhood.
  • A way to explain tragic events in their lives. 
It's a willing suspension of disbelief in one compartment of their lives.  When I hear from an intelligent believer that nothing could ever cause them to waver in their belief, that's prima facie evidence of a closed mind on that subject.  I'm reminded of when some people are being told something they don't want to hear, they stick their fingers in their ears and go "La-La-La-La ... " to avoid hearing those words.  They're afraid to have their beliefs challenged.  They're afraid to admit their security blanket might have no rational basis, and so might be unable to provide security, save that of the placebo.