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What a Waste!

It’s no secret than I’m no great fan of the world’s religions. In the past I have listed the reasons I object to them. They include the fact that religions simply aren’t true, that they have been responsible for many atrocities in the past and present, that they have suppressed alternative ideas, that they are used as a form of mind control of their members, and that they are just plain embarrassing. When I see intelligent people engaged in some silly religious ceremony I just want to laugh. Needless to say this isn’t considered appropriate in some circumstances where religion is utilised!

Before I go any further I do want to say that I recognise that religions aren’t all bad. Some provide charitable services, social support services for people, add to the variety of cultural experience in the world, and they sometimes give moral guidance to some groups in society. I don’t think religions are inherently moral and I certainly don’t think you need religion to be moral (I think the opposite is more often true) but there are some weak minded people who need to be told what’s moral and many religions do an adequate (but not great) job of that.

So there’s nothing much new there and you may be wondering what the point of this blog entry is. Well it’s all about a new conclusion I have recently come to. I listen to a lot of material about philosophy and the history of science (my favourite source is the BBC’s “In Our Time” podcast) and there’s a theme which seems to be depressingly common. That is that religion has caused a lot of wasted time in the past.

Many philosophers and scientists (I use that word in its widest sense to include people doing something similar to science before the modern version emerged a couple of hundred years ago) tried so hard to make their theories fit around the prevailing theology of the time, whether that was orthodox Christianity, Islam, or other religions.

They applied the strictest standards to most of their thoughts but threw away their rigour when God was brought into the equation. For example philosophers (I’m sorry but I can’t remember which right now) hypothesised that everything has a cause and this implied an infinite regression, so there had to be a first cause and that was naturally labelled “god”. By some unspecified process this often translated to God (with an upper case “G”) which was always the particular deity currently popular in the culture the person lived in.

Does that really make sense? Obviously if god doesn’t need a cause then the initial premise: that everything has a cause, isn’t true. But it’s just that premise which leads to the conclusion of God’s existence. If I can see that then why didn’t the greatest minds the world has ever known see it too? Is it because I’m smarter than them? No, it’s that I’m not blinded by the theological beliefs of the time. Even Descartes, when he was trying to get back to true first principles, couldn’t help but give god a “free pass”.

If thinkers had ignored the easy answer (the same one mindless fundamentalists still give today: “God did it”) then they might have pursued more interesting ideas. Ideas like asking whether everything really does have a cause (quantum physics seems to show that events actually can happen without one) and who knows where that might have lead.

First causes are just one idea where God can be invoked as a simple answer which requires no further explanation. It’s actually a lazy answer and is hardly worthy of the great thinkers who have used it. But there are many others as well where real progress was blocked by the concept of a non-existent supernatural entity. What a waste!

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