Tuesday, 28 November 2006

Beyond Belief

The NYtimes published this interesting article on the 21st November reporting on the outcomes from the 2006 Beyond Belief conference held at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California.

For the uninitiated, this is its context (from the beyond belief website):

"Just 40 years after a famous TIME magazine cover asked "Is God Dead?" the answer appears to be a resounding "No!" According to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine, "God is Winning". Religions are increasingly a geopolitical force to be reckoned with. Fundamentalist movements - some violent in the extreme - are growing. Science and religion are at odds in the classrooms and courtrooms. And a return to religious values is widely touted as an antidote to the alleged decline in public morality."

(The Pew Forum look suspiciously pro-christian to me. But I must say I've only come across them today, so I may be being unfair.)

The conference aimed to debate this and plan how the scientific community could redress this imbalance.

However, I'm not sure whether this imbalance is a reality or just a myth that we've all bought into. If it is a reality, then I think its wholly North American centric. After all, the Bible belt neo-conservatives do have a friendly ear at the White House right now. And as a result, the attention of the Washington press.

So, the conservative christians may have a disproportionate influence in the national policy of the US, but to say that 'God is winning' is a bit of an overstatement.


Well, even debating the idea that the 'God is winning' strikes me as being utterly pointless. This isn't a corny western film. In my view this town is big enough for the both of us, whether you're theist or nontheist.

Francisco J. Ayala's argument made at the conference that "...systems of belief that require nothing more than unquestioning faith are extremely dangerous" is a flawed oversimplification in my view. Yes, there are horrific examples of violence to innocent people in the name of religion. But to infer that because of this violence, all religions based on 'faith' are extremely dangerous is a bit of a logical leap.

In my experience, the vast majority of the truly religious (ie those who have 'faith' as opposed to those who follow the customs without any real belief) are no more dangerous than my Gran. On the whole, faith based communities are moderate and tolerant, they value kindness and charity. Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim alike.

There are extremists, of course, who are violent and terrifying. But I would argue that these people do not posses a true 'faith' in their god. They are unfortunate people, who lacked opportunity and education and are ripe for indoctrination through misinformation.

We don't need religion to indoctrinate people into violence. We can look closer to home for evidence of this. Take the BNP and some anti-vivisection extremists. Both are accused of promoting violence through indoctrination of its members.

There will always be people on the fringes of society who are ripe for radicalisation. What makes us think this will be any different if there were no religion?

We call these unfortunate people terrorists because they aim to terrify and bewilder us.

And they're the ones winning right now, not God.

The western media are like rabbits trapped in the headlights of terrorism. They can't stop talking about it. This Beyond Belief Conference has contributed to this clamour in my view.

This attention, paranoia and talk of 'God is winning' energises the 'terrorists'. They see that their cause is reaping rewards. They see that we're all terrified of 'them' - the 'others'.

Rather than a 'War on Terror', I think we should have a 'War on Intolerance'. Lets divert the billions of USD spent on the war on terror across the world to projects that share knowledge and awareness of all faiths and philosophies to the masses. If this was a reality, we might have a western community more open to tolerance, liberalism and reflection.

And what will be the logical outcome to this increased liberalism and reflection? A dramatic reduction in the need for people to say that they're 'religious'. Job done.

I'll let Dr Carolyn Porco summarise my sentiments “Let’s teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome — and even comforting — than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know.”

This lifted my spirits no end.

You can watch most of the conference presentations on google video here.

No comments: