Organized religion versus science and atheism

This is one of those topics that just never seems to get stale online. mergyeugnau shared some of her insights on twitter just now that I feel are a mirror of what many out there are feeling about this topic. So, before her tweets get lost in the internet dustbin, here they are including my response. (with her permission)

OK, I identify as a mystic relativist. My own experience & beliefs are here: I believe everyone’s experience is true.

There’s a difference between experience and how it’s interpreted. Every experience is real, as an experience, but whether our interpretation of it is valid enough for others to benefit from it, is another matter. Clairvoyant experiences for instance are valid in my perception: but the experience of the seer, as well as their power of observation, their natural prejudices etc. all matter in how reliable they are as a witness. On a more common note: there are very few people good at perception to a degree that they make good witnesses in a police investigation. If that’s true when it comes to ordinary life, how much more true must it be for the more fuzzy issues on the spiritual planes?

I believe in cognitive dissonance as essential to understanding reality. My experience & yours can be opposing and both valid. (Cognitive dissonance is the ability to hold competing facts or beliefs in one’s mind at the same time. We all do it at some level.) I believe that the more consciously we acknowledge cognitive dissonance the less we’re compelled to judgment. Or to acknowledge one’s hypocrisy. I often do things that I can’t explain but I am honest about the inconsistency.

I love that. I have decided long ago that it’s better to be an imperfect vegetarian than to avoid even trying because I can’t manage perfection. Avoiding perfection like that can be a great excuse not to even try. Of course trying for an objective understanding is pretty hard if we’re going to let the dissonance stand without at least trying to analyze it. On the other hand: the differences can’t be analyzed without being honest about them in the first place.

I believe everyone on the bell curve from staunch atheist to staunch theist has the right to hold & express their beliefs *for themselves*

And that we all should be able to do so unmolested. I abhor proselytizing of *any form* whether missionary or sceptic.

Yes, organized religion can be & has been destructive, but so can organized science (e.g. crusades & modern warfare.) The problem is this

That all human endeavors and structures are composed of humans. And we have both the beautiful & the horrific within us.

Organized religion also gives us charity, art & literacy & organized science also gives us medicine, ways to connect & appease suffering.

In summary: We need *all* of human experience, belief & endeavor & any time we cross over to interfere with another we damage us all.

Amen sister.

It’s sad that we’ve gotten to a point in our culture that I’m more fearful of talking about my faith than my sexuality, rape or politics.

That’s one of those statements that I both get and don’t. I guess the ‘our culture’ part is key. Being in The Netherlands of 2009 is different from being in the USA in 2009. In the US the dichotomy between the atheist scientists and the believer fanatics is so strong that any in between is at risk of being attacked from both. Or so I gather from these tweets. Which does remind me of how things were in The Netherlands when I was growing up. That is: back then religion was a taboo subject. The Netherlands have long prided itself on being a secular society where religion no longer played a big role. That is: those who did not believe in the sense of organized religion prided themselves of that. Those who were religious in the traditional sense, aka Christian of some denomination or other, huddled together and hardly mentioned their faith beyond their close circle.

Since then a lot has changed. ‘New Age’ has gone mainstream and things like alternative healing, vegetarianism, belief in reincarnation, near death experiences are now acceptable topics of conversation for many. There are few restaurants in The Netherlands that don’t have at least one, but usually several, vegetarian dishes on the menu. The term ‘New Age’ has lost much of it’s luster, but the movement itself has not. I do think Christians are still in a bit of a pickle though as are Muslims.

So, I don’t at all feel afraid to talk or write about these issues. I do it as a matter of course. Not out of bravery or anything like that. Simply because these topics fascinate me and are, these days, socially acceptable. I guess I’m lucky to be living here.

My point is this. Belief is not the same as action & an individual is not the same as a group. We must ALL live & let live in our diversity.

Organized religion *at its extreme* is terrible. You never hear of the millions of peaceful congregations of various faiths.

Churches, temples, monasteries, covens etc. throughout the ages have provided solace, education, charity and community.

A person who is judgmental & violent will use whatever tools they have to inflict harm, whether organized religion, nationalism or eugenics.

Group processes do go wrong sometimes. One thing the Hitler era has taught us, I hope, is that ordinary people can be guided into doing terrible things. Perhaps it should be remembered too that Hitler was merely tolerant of existing religion, he certainly did not actively support it. However to simply avoid groups because sometimes they go wrong is a bit ignorant of human nature. We form groups, that’s what we do. These days we have a choice which groups to join, how stable those groups are going to be, and how we contribute to them. And yes, that can include religious groups.

So, how do you, my readers stand on this one? Do you feel comfortable talking about where you stand on the spectrum between organised religion, spirituality, atheism and materialistic science? I think it would be helpful to share your age (at least roughly) and location. I’ll start. I’m 35, living in the Netherlands and having lived there for most of my life except one year I spent in the US when I was a teenager.

15 thoughts on “Organized religion versus science and atheism”

  1. Interesting post.
    Close to being a conversation starter on ‘high level’ topics.
    I don’t understand the ‘spectrum’ mentioned very well.
    I find the concepts of ‘reality’ and ‘honesty’ useful. Learning to trust and interpret ones experience (inner and outer) a bit better as one lives seems useful and satisfying.
    A broad understanding of “the scientific method” also seems useful.
    We know very little, yet practically we know enough.
    We all believe. We can learn to improve the basis of our beliefs.
    I am old.

  2. I think the issue is that most of us aren’t EITHER religious OR believers in science. We take beliefs from religions and culture in general, and match it to whatever we’ve picked up in attitude and knowledge from science.

    I am, like mergyeugnau somewhere on the spectrum between believer and atheist. That is: I don’t believe in a personal God (atheist), but I do believe in a lot of spiritual truths and meaning to the universe. I think it’s something like that that she’s hinting at.

  3. Very interesting post.
    I live in India and have lived here all my life although I spent some years of my childhood in Africa. I do not like extremism of any kind and consider myself an agnostic. Agnostics I think are in between! In India it is not easy to talk about one’s non-belief in organised religion as people are very religious here, whichever religion they belong to, whether Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism or Islam. So talking about not believing is taboo. When I was younger I used to keep my views to myself, except with close friends. But now that I am older I tend to speak out and don’t really bother about the shock on people’s faces.

  4. One of my readers wrote:

    i’m a 22 year old female living in the US in Wisconsin. i feel comfortable talking about my beliefs in most situations. in the US there is a wide variety of thought and it depends on what group you’re talking to as to where they fall on the religious/scientific spectrum. (the Christians tend to prefer each other’s company and reinforce their own beliefs, same with the atheists.) my family are all fundamentalist christians, so i don’t talk about my beliefs much with them. i have told them about them, but they are not a topic i wish to bring up because i just end up getting misunderstood. most atheists i know are at least accepting of other people’s faith so i don’t feel so restricted talking to them, but there are a few whom I’ve encountered whom i wouldn’t dare mention anything so “unscientific” as faith and dreams and the immaterial. i feel they are just as “fundamentalistic” as my Christian family. publicly, though, and in most groups, i don’t mind talking about my opinions or beliefs on the subject.

    Why be difficult, when, with a little more effort, you can be bloody impossible?

  5. Nita: welcome to this blog 🙂 I do think it’s only in Europe, and perhaps China, that atheism and doubt are the accepted norm. Everywhere else people take it for granted that a decent person must believe in something.

  6. I’m a 35-year old, born in Venezuela, but have lived in many countries. Today I travel back and forth between the US and Argentina. My father is Jewish and my mother is Catholic, which I formally am too, but none of us practice these religions.

    I am both an eager student of Taoism and a believer in the power of the scientific method to understand reality. So if I were to put a label on my spiritual beliefs, that would be something like “Daoism-based panpsychism.”

    This always puts me in an uncomfortable position with secularists and religious people alike. The former find it awkward that I believe that matter, when organized in a sufficiently complex way (and therefore the universe) has some sort of consciousness we can communicate with through transcendental experience. And the latter are usually disturbed by the fact that I refuse to consider this form of higher intelligence as independent from matter, or identify it with an anthropomorphic God.

    But luckily, wherever I am in the world I always manage to find my niche — people that are open-minded enough to not fall for the prototypical “religion vs. science” contention 😀

  7. I’m 30 years old, female, and living in the United States (Boston, MA). I was born in New England and have been here ever since, except when I went to college in the state of Ohio.

    Spiritually, I’m an agnostic. I don’t care for inflexible atheism or blind religious faith; I think everything we think we know can and must be questioned.

    My family background is interesting for its religious diversity, so I’ll talk a bit about that.

    My mother is a Jewish atheist; she is proud of her Jewish cultural heritage but does not trust any sort of religious or spiritual orientation. She and my sister are strict pragmatists with very little interest in anything ethereal.

    My father was raised Christian in an observant household. He always loved singing in the church choir. He has strong spiritual inclinations, but his family of origin was quite disturbed (lots of alcoholism, violence, etc. ) and I think he considered Christianity something to be left behind along with his parents and brothers. He now defines himself as agnostic.

  8. I try to stay away from beliefs. When someone begins to tell me about their beliefs, I stop them and ask them to tell me what they KNOW.

    A belief, after all, is just an opinion that one accepts to be ‘true.’ As such, beliefs are dishonest opinions, because to hold to a belief is to say that you too lazy to verify for yourself that your opinion is ‘true.’

  9. Hi all, thanks for your contributions.

    Darryl: Have you checked every one of your beliefs – or everything you think you know? It’s highly unlikely you know that you have.

  10. First up, I love this website I just stumbled! If that is you on the right of the screen you look kind of familiar to me, but it could be we are related, as I have plenty of relatives in the Netherlands! (I live in Australia.)

    I feel comfortable talking about my beliefs, generally, in that I feel at peace with where I stand on the “spectrum”, and I am pleased to say very often I am equally comfortable with *not* talking about my beliefs, as I think when I was younger it was harder for me to keep my mouth shut! (I am now 39) I must say it is comforting to find discourse among people who seem to be on a wavelength such as the present authors and many of those who have posted here. I don’t find so much of it where I live, but then, perhaps I have not learned to look!

    It is interesting that you say the Dutch did not discuss religion in times past. This may explain why my aunt politely ignored all my questions about her church on a visit many years ago. She wouldn’t tell me the name of it or where it was. It didn’t occur to me that I was making a faux pas: I just like visiting churches when I travel because I find them beautiful. I thought it would be nice to see hers.

    In Australia it is my impression that people tend to treat religion as a fairly personal thing. We don’t discuss it a great deal and we seem to prefer to keep it largely out of public life.

    I grew up in an extrememly homogenous community, in social, economic and cultural terms, so the level of potential for conflict was relatively low. As a kid my impression of church goers was one of polite exclusion, a bit like my aunty. I never had any trouble with atheists, but it seems to me they have become angier on the whole. I once posted comments on an atheist website, and I had no idea what I was letting myself in for! I learned that many atheists have a wonderful talent for inventing insults.

    As an adult I have come to understand the different perspectives a bit better. I think the comment about cognitive dissonance is spot on, and as such I have learned that silence can be a real blessing.

  11. Littlewren: glad to have you here. Yes, that’s me on the right.

    There are theosophists in Australia btw. Though perhaps they’re only in the larger cities. You will find there’s hardly a religious topic we don’t like to discuss 🙂

  12. Hi! My name is Ash… I stumbled upon your site and now can’t wait to dive into it!
    I’m a 29 y/o female from Colorado. I have a blog and write extensively about my beliefs (spiritual and more). Un/Fortunately, my blog is connected to ME, personally. I tied it up so all of my posts post on Facebook, where I’m friends with hundreds of people I’ve known throughout my life.
    I sort of care what they think when they read it. *IF* they read it.
    At the same time, I can’t care TOO much about it, because it’s MY blog, I pay for the domain, etc… and I figure that if people don’t like what I express, they can delete me as a friend, or not read what I write.

    However, when I wrote about my spiritual beliefs, which stray greatly from the Lutheran upbringing I had, I was *shocked* when the current principal of my old high school commented on something.

    I guess I’m a little ambiguous about it all. THIS is me. This is what I think. I’ll gladly discuss my beliefs with anyone as long as they can respond respectfully and rationally…
    Now if only rationality was an actual definable thing…

  13. God as a Scientist : Ten Scientific Commandments.
    God Himself is Creator.
    He/She/It created Everything.
    So God must be Scientist and must use Physical/
    Mathematical Laws and Formulas for His/Her/Its work.
    For forty days and forty nights Moses wrote the tablets
    of ‘ The Ten Commandments’.
    Which Commandments are they?
    They are moral, ethical Commandments.
    Can be written ‘Ten Scientific Commandments’ ?
    I think ‘ Yes’, God has given to us everything that necessary
    to understand Him and His Genesis using Physical /
    Mathematical Laws and Formulas.
    Ten Scientific Commandments:
    Fundamental Theory of Existence.

    1 The infinite vacuum T=0K. ( background energy space: E ).
    2 The particle:
    C/D = pi, R/N= k , E = Mc^2 = kc^2 , h = 0 , i^2= -1
    3 The spins: h =E/t , h =kb, h* = h/2pi
    4 The photon, the inertia
    5 The electron: e^2 = h*ca, E = h*f , electromagnetic field
    6 The gravitation, the star, the time and space
    7 The Proton
    The Evolution of interaction between Electron and Proton
    a) electromagnetic
    b) nuclear
    c) biological
    The Laws
    a) The Law of conservation and transformation energy/mass
    b) The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle / Law
    c) The Pauli Exclusion Principle/ Law
    The test.
    Every theory must be tested logically ( theoretical ) and practically
    a) Theory : Dualism of Consciousness: (consciousness / unconsciousness)
    b) Practice : Parapsychology. Meditation.
    Best wishes
    Israel Sadovnik Socratus
    The secret of God and Existence is hidden
    in the ‘ Theory of Vacuum & Light Quanta ‘.
    I want to know how God created this world
    I am not interested in this or that phenomenon,
    in the spectrum of this or that element
    I want to know His thoughts; the rest are details
    / Einstein /

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