Friday 17 October 2008

The view from Mount Improbable

This blog is not about the 3-4 billion year journey that my genes and their ancestors have taken to get me to, what our species arrogantly consider, the top of Mount Improbable. Professor Dawkins has already eloquently written that book. This blog is about my personal journey to understanding how I reached the summit and a look back down at the path I trod.

My initial attraction to Christianity and my subsequent “decline” into atheism have been gradual journeys. No blinding light was seen either on my road to Damascus or in the pages of Darwin. On my journey to an honest appreciation of the universe through the best endeavours of science’s current comprehension, I have found one thing very easy. The acceptance of evidence based on sound, proven theories like, evolution, the age of the earth, astronomy and fossil records that appear to be at odds with traditional biblical texts. I guess this was because I always felt uneasy about either having to metaphorically reinterpret vast swathes of the bible to fit in with our current knowledge or simply dismiss what we have learnt since the days when the bible was written in favour of clinging to that original definition of the world. As a Christian I always feared that an understanding of science and critical thinking could undermine my faith, so like, I suspect, many others, I tried to just ignore it. When my dissatisfaction with biblical answers and my curiosity for understanding grew too strong, I was forced to stop ignoring it, investigate it, study it and eventually embrace it. The gradually increasing weight of the scientific evidence (as I read more science books) eventually stretched my faith too far, ultimately causing it to snap. I can now look back and wonder why I resisted letting go of my faith. Understanding why I eventually let go may help us to enable others to follow.

The two key reasons I came up with for initially defending my faith have now turned into two of the key reasons why I utterly reject it. The two reasons are “Fear” and “Morality”. In the remainder of this blog I shall attempt to explain why these two elements have changed their polarity from attracting to repelling my faith.

Firstly, Fear. Death can be a frightening thing and the only conceivable way of appeasing that fear that I could see as a child was the hope in an afterlife. A genuine fear of death or burning in hell could send you straight into the open arms your nearest clergyman. Freeing my mind of the attractive fantasy of heaven was therefore something I wasn’t initially keen on doing. So what I have I gained by abandoning this fairytale that has reversed my fear? Well, I can now see threatening children with a non existent hell for the child abuse that is, I can feel honesty with myself for not disingenuously forcing myself to believe in the ridiculous but best of all, I can feel a sense of wonder in the only precious life I will ever have. This new perspective and appreciation of my mortality encourages me to make the most of my opportunity on this earth, to try and understand it, preserve it, to travel it (if that doesn’t contradict the previous wish) and watch my children grow up in it. This life is not just a shallow waiting room for next.

Secondly, Morality. Another reason I was attracted to the Church was because of the fine upstanding pillars of the community it contained and the sense of honourable morality I believed it created and imbued. I’m not now claiming that religion is immoral (although you could argue that fundamentalist religion is), I’ve just come to appreciate that religion is not the source of our morality and it would thrive perfectly well and indeed blossom without religion. I now see how religious morality was founded by piggy backing onto the human morality of the times when it was written down. Our modern morality has (mostly) advanced since the days of the Old Testament when we were advised to stone people and cut off their hands for inconsequential offences. On the whole, we’re more liberal than the Inquisitors who tortured and burned those whose strict dogmas did not align with theirs, we’ve abolished slavery and we are overturning the female subservience mandated by many holy texts. If religion got its morale’s directly from God then surely it would transcend the morale’s of the time by pre-empting our post-biblical morality and even beyond. The human race had evolved enough morality by the time of Moses to have some sound thoughts on murder and theft that have made their way into the Ten Commandments. All very laudable, but if we were writing them today we might leave out the stuff about coveting your neighbours house, or megalomaniacal claims to have no other god in favour of saying something about rape or child abuse. In fact, in addition to not being the source of morality, religion positively lags behind the secular humanist morale zeitgeist led by godless liberals. As religion is still playing morale catch-up on matters such as homosexuality and female equality I can no longer see it as a positive attribute of faith.

So here I am, atop Mount Improbable surveying the world in its splendour, and I can’t help but feeling a little evangelical about sharing my vantage point. I mentioned earlier that the small crack of doubt in my faith was filled by a tiny droplet of science that eventually expanded and cracked my faith to its foundation. The best way I see of sharing our vantage point is by ensuring enough drops of science are out there to seep into the multitude of cracks that must surely exist. I see this being achieved by the promotion of science education in schools and on TV. When I was a kid, the public perception of science got men to the moon and built supersonic passenger planes, now it puts nasty chemicals in our food and experiments with nice fluffy animals. Lets reignite the public enthusiasm for science and all it can for us. The abolition of faith schools promoting myths and superstitions would help too.

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