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Religion is a hypothesis

Since I wrote the article stating my official position on religious moderation, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the arguments theists make — everything from the arguments for the existence of God to the arguments against atheism.  In particular, I’ve been thinking about what kind of arguments are being made.  That is, which ones are actual logical progressions of ideas, and which ones are so much emotional claptrap without content.

Today, I want to address one of them in some detail, partly in an effort to help Greta Christina spread her “Atheist Meme of the Day,” but mostly because it’s been tugging at my brain for a while now, and Greta’s meme inspired me to solidify some of my own thoughts.

Many theists, and even some non-theists argue that even if religion isn’t “strictly true,” I and my ilk are wrong to criticize it so harshly.  They offer a variety of reasons why I’m doing something wrong:

  • I’m trying to force my beliefs on other people
  • I’m trying to create a world in which everybody shares my beliefs (In other words, I’m being authoritarian)
  • I’m taking away hope
  • I’m taking away wonder and mystery
  • I’m attacking culture itself

There are more reasons, and I apologize if I have not listed someone’s particular objection, but I think I can address them all with one counterargument.

Religion is a hypothesis

A hypothesis is a potential explanation for something that happens in the universe.  In a very scientific sense, a hypothesis must meet several requirements before it is considered acceptable.  However, in a more colloquial sense, any attempt at explaining anything is a kind of hypothesis.

It may seem trivial to point out that religion is a hypothesis, but I think sometimes apologists and defenders of religion’s “right” to exist without criticism have missed the point entirely.  Regular readers will notice that I frequently point out claims about religion that have been made so often that they have become accepted as “obvious truth” but have never actually been put to the empirical test.   I believe we can start at the very foundation of the discussion, with the claim that religion deserves any special treatment at all.

Hypotheses are all around us, and they all have two things in common:

  • Every hypothesis attempts to explain something
  • Every hypothesis either succeeds or fails at explaining something

Again, it may seem trivial to mention this, but hypotheses that fail in their attempt to explain something are not useful.  At worst, they accomplish no good and at best they can cause harm.  (The hypothesis that colloidal silver cures diseases can cause death if it is believed and practiced.)  We humans evaluate hypotheses all the time, and the way we do it is through critical thinking, challenging conclusions, empirical testing, and nitpicking every detail until we’re sure our model is correct.

Religion is a hypothesis which attempts to explain how the universe works.

Let me take Christianity as a convenient example we’re all familiar with.  Christianity makes specific claims about the nature of reality:

  • There is a “supernatural” component to the universe
  • The supernatural interacts with the natural, affecting change in it
  • Morality is an innate quality, such as “green” or “porous.”
  • Homosexuality is a choice
  • Free will exists

These are only some of the claims made by Christianity, but they are some of the ones that are most directly relevant to our daily lives.  While it’s true that the existence of an afterlife in either heaven or hell is proposed, there’s not really much we can say about how that affects life on earth.  I’m not aware of any claims made by Christianity about the interaction of either heaven or hell with the natural universe.  So strictly speaking, we shouldn’t be able to directly observe the existence of either even if they exist.

In any case, leaving out the social and personal effects of religious belief, I want to point out that the claims listed above are specific claims about the nature of reality.  The truth or falsehood of each of those claims has a significant impact on our understanding of the universe.  For instance, if homosexuality is a choice, then biologists are going to have to rework their entire hypothesis about animal sexual behavior.  It doesn’t take much to realize how tremendous the impact of such a discovery would be on the natural sciences.  This is an important claim.

Each of the claims made by religion is important to a scientific understanding of the universe.  If there is, in fact, a supernatural component to the universe, and it interacts with the natural component, then physicists need to know, or their models of the universe will be wrong!  What if something supernatural is going to mess up our first manned mission to Mars?  What if it impacts the way lottery numbers are chosen, or changes the rate of remission in certain forms of cancer?

Scientists need to know.

And what of morality?  Is there a more pressing question for humans than the nature of morality?  Day in and day out, there is almost nothing that concerns us more than whether we are acting morally or not.  If morality is something real, and not just a conceptual box for examining the relative value of actions, then scientists have got it wrong.

Scientists need to know.

You can see my point, I hope.  Religion refutes its own claim to exemption from criticism when it makes any claim at all about the way the universe works.  Put another way, if religion didn’t make any meaningful statements about anything, it would be above criticism.  Otherwise, its claims are important, and need to be examined for truth value.

So to the critics, I say this.  I am doing what humans have always done, and what they must do — I am examining a truth claim about the nature of reality, and when I find it erroneous, I am criticizing it in the hopes of correcting errors.   It is not important that there are a lot of people who are very attached to the idea that the religious hypothesis is true.  There were also a lot of people attached to the flat earth hypothesis, or to the hypothesis that schizophrenia was the result of bad parenting, or that time and space are linear.

And all of those hypothesis turned out to be wrong, and humanity is better off now that it knows the truth in all cases.  Religion makes specific claims about things like happiness, sexual ethics, economics, and childrearing.  If it is willing to repeal all such claims about things that affect our lives daily, then I will be happy to stop examining its claims for truth value.  Until then, things like happiness, sexual ethics, economics and childrearing are important to me, and I demand the right to examine any claim about any of those subjects with a critical eye, and if it is found lacking, to do what I believe is right and tell other people it’s wrong.

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  1. Pingback: Reassurance « Life Without a Net - January 3, 2010

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