Sunday, February 01, 2009

getting the message through

one of John the Baptist's hangouts, yawn yawn

Societies change, and rapidly, and we’re reluctant to acknowledge this. A child wants her parents to stay together, to be happy with each other, as they have been. She wants to go on attending the same school and not to have to deal with different routines, different teachers, the loss of established and loved playmates. If a particular religion and its congregation and rituals are regular routines for her and woven though her family and social life, she’ll be most reluctant to deny that religion. Has it not sustained the family and community that has sustained her? The word denial is vital here, for it carries so much more weight than any intellectual skepticism can convey. Questioning the truth of a faith can come at an incalculable cost to our social being. It’s hardly surprising that many people would never even consider such a questioning, for they would see no meaningful existence at all without that faith.

Of course I’m convinced that they’re wrong to think that way, but it often seems a useless conviction. It can also be a dangerous one, I’m sure. If ever invited to Kandahar to spread the message of secularism, I’m sure I’d decline.

However, unlike regions deep-dyed in Islam, most regions that have adopted Christianity, particularly European nations, are no longer as deep-dyed as they were. They are the nations of course, most affected by the enlightenment and the scientific methods that have so rapidly transformed human life. And it’s funny how cultures can be like siblings. If one sibling strides out on a particular path, the next sibling will consider, almost as a matter of course, that that pathway has been eternally blocked for her. Many have argued that Islam needs an enlightenment like that sparked by the likes of Galileo and Newton in Western Europe, but it seems that sibling rivalry might prevent this, perhaps indefinitely. Of course, that is to be too monolithic as regards both religious cultures, but there’s no doubt that jealousy, competitiveness and resentment are part of the package of tensions between these cultures. It’s not surprising that the gradual abandonment of mystical explanations and prophecies by one might result in their more fervent appeal to the other. And of course the same goes for the tensions within one culture, such as that most heavily influenced by the Judeo-Christian mythos.

The point being that the refusal to adopt the scientific method, and the related urge to see sacred texts as rich in historical and cultural truth beyond enquiry, have many strong forces behind them, including resentment, stubbornness and a need to forge or maintain a distinct identity. These forces aren’t rational – few human impulses are. Ultimately they’re instinctive, as sibling rivalry is instinctive, and they’re about survival and thriving. Ultimately the battle must be along those lines – survival and thriving. We need to present the argument convincingly that the scientific approach provides our best hope in that quest. Not everyone is impervious to the argument, clearly. Science would never have gotten off the ground if that were so. It’s a matter of continuously plugging away, doing fruitful scientific work and advertising and distributing its benefits.

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