Saturday, May 4, 2013

Why Religious Equality Doesn't Exist

Freedom to practice the religion of one's choice (or none) rather than having a religion chosen for you by the government is one of the central guarantees made in the US constitution. But religious equality isn't guaranteed for one simple reason:

People of all religions are finally united . . .
in their abhorrence of South Park.  
It doesn't exist.

Religions are not all equal.  A person cannot legally be discriminated against on the basis of his religion, and correctly so.  However, it is not necessary to afford all religious organizations and religious ideas the same level of respect or privilege.  Some religions are worthy of general praise and respect, while others deserve all the public derision and general disregard that we can muster.   Religion can be a useful thing, but some religions harm people, harm the environment, oppress people, even abuse people.  And sometimes they tell lies.

Catholicism, for example, has been institutionally abusing children for probably hundreds of years, and has used its organization, political power and wealth to protect kiddiefiddlers.  In places where a robust secular judicial system exists over which the Catholic church has no power or sway, things are starting to get cleaned up.  But wherever it still holds significant civic and political power, you can bet that the Catholic church will continue to abuse that power and the people within its reach.

Also, any religion that makes testable claims is simply not the equal of the good religions.  When a claim is testable using any objective means, including making measurements of physical quantities, repeatable observations or experiments, mathematical or numerical analysis, then those claims are no longer the property of religion, but now belong entirely to science.  Science will decide whether the claims are true or not.  It may take a few decades and scientists may argue vociferously about it for a while, but that's how it works.  Eventually, the irrefutable truth emerges through persistent unrelenting empirical testing.  If a claim can be proved or disproved,  it has nothing to do with religion.

Examples of testable claims that are sometimes made by sub-par religions:

  • the nature of disease, both physical and mental;
  • the age of the earth, its size, shape, and position in the cosmos;
  • the nature, size, origin and location of objects that can be seen in the sky;
  • the nature, size, origin and age of the universe;
  • how living things function, live, reproduce, and die;
  • how living populations respond genetically to environmental or competitive pressures over very long periods;
  • anything to do with the weather;
  • anything to do with geology, paleontology, archaeology or politics;
  • anything to do with probability, statistics, chance or randomness; 
  • the meaning or nature of numbers and mathematics;
  • the properties of information, sound, light, minerals, M&Ms, geometry, or language.
Not to pick on Catholics too much, but they used to make testable claims about the earth in relation to its shape (flat), age (young) and location (center of universe).  Even the most rudimentary observations were able to show that these claims were false.  The church was able through the abuse of its power to suppress this information for a while, but was eventually forced to change its religious claims.  The religion either had to disband, or change beliefs to accommodate verifiable objective facts.  It chose to continue to exist.

Many prominent religions today make claims about the age of the earth and how living things operate that have been proven false, yet they continue to insist upon them.  They are bad religions, and you should feel free to ignore anything else they may say.  If a religion can be proven, it's not a religion. If a religion can be proven false, then it is a false religion.  Either way it can't help you, and it should either change its beliefs, or disband forthwith.

Many other religions make testable claims about their god which turn out to be false.  Generally, claims about god are un-testable and therefore religions are free to make any claim they wish (e.g. his name is Gary, he has a mustache and likes Mountain Dew and cow smoke, and other such claims which are inherently impossible to test empirically).  But religions that claim that god has a property they refer to as Omniscience are making a claim that CAN be tested.  

Basically, for information storage or "knowledge" to exist, a persistent means of encoding information is mandatory.  The persistent means provided by this universe is matter.  To encode all information about all matter in the universe using matter in the universe would require more matter than the universe contains, with nothing left over for the information to be about.  Therefore the concept generally understood to be "omniscience" or "knowing all things" must be dismissed as containing its own falsification, and is therefore meaningless nonsense.  Unless the universe and everything in it IS this god person . . . but that usually isn't what is claimed. 

The power and benefit of religion comes from having beliefs that, while unable to be proved or disproved, often cause a person to act and live in a happier, more beneficial way to themselves and to those around them. In that sense they are testable, but only in the context of application by each individual.  I can test my beliefs for me, and you can test your beliefs for you, but my test of my beliefs proves nothing to you, and your test of your beliefs proves nothing to me.  Unless your beliefs are testable by objective means.  And in that case you do not have beliefs at all; you have hypotheses.  

Objective, verifiable facts all belong to science, which is just our name for the systematic process of determining the status of objective facts.  Religion is our name for claims that cannot be tested by any objective means whatsoever, but which improve one's mortal experience subjectively.  Religions that fail to do that are bad religions and should be ignored.  

Substandard religions DO NOT need to be physically fought or persecuted, because evolution will eventually take care of them for us.  On the other hand, there is no need for society to give equal space, equal respect or equal status to religions that are demonstrably either harmful or false.

But if you absolutely insist on believing in and practicing a bad religion (in other words, practicing a failed Science), then for heaven's sake make sure you tell everyone about it!  The internet is running out of cat pictures.

1 comment:

  1. This post has raised several issues (among defenders of religion, mostly) that justify a follow-up.

    Q: Why can't Omniscience be modified so that it does not violate known laws of Information Science? Why can't my omniscient god exist somehow outside the universe?

    A: One modification is to say omniscience is really only "useful" or "important" information, not, say, every quantum number of every hydrogen atom everywhere. But how would this not-so-omniscient god decide what's important and what isn't? That in itself requires a hell of a lot of information. And it still leaves a lot of information to be encoded somehow in some form of physical media.

    Further, does this god of yours that lives outside the universe and therefore not subject to its constraints ever enter this universe to meddle with it? Yes? Ok - when that happens, does he bring his infinity of data with him? Yes? OK - that would represent a measureable amount of mass, and in principle your god's comings and goings would be experimentally verifiable. Now you no longer have a religion, you have a hypothesis. Good luck with that.

    Of course if god is just a made-up fairy tale then you can ascribe any properties to him that you want and they don't even have to make sense. So most of the time this discussion is completely pointless.

    The other question was this:

    Q: Why can't science and religion just be friends? I think they overlap in many areas.

    A: They do not overlap, sorry. Science is anything testable, and religion is whatever is left over. The delineation is perfectly clear and inviolable. That is not to say that one or the other is always right or wrong, or that you can only have one or the other (e.g. see ) But when one is required, the other will never do as a substitute.

    Second point: The relationship between science and religion is not an equal one. Science determines through objective testability what issues are even objectively testable, and therefore where exactly the dividing line is drawn. Religion must accept that decision as final. Also, when science uncovers a new truth, it is religion that must adapt itself to accommodate that new truth. In other words, science is Lord and Master over religion. That's just how it is. Adapt.