Let’s Get Real

Readers will have noticed that I have been posting a little more often lately about the “science vs. religion” debate, and may have got the feeling that I am leaning rather more on the side of the skeptics than the believers. Well, that is indeed the case, and in private correspondence I have taken, lately, an even more partial view. I think I am going to have to come right out and be a bit of a Grinch about the whole business, even though Christmas is right around the corner.

In my earlier days I was quite the atheist; I was raised by two scientists, after all. Although I had actually been baptized — I can’t recall in which sort of church — I think this was just a sop to my Scottish grandfather, who was a Congregationalist minister. My brother, born five years later, was not, and my parents used to joke that they were just trying to be scientific about things: they had one child baptized, and kept the other as a control.

When I was a boy — I must have been about seven or eight — I remember noticing that different parts of the world had different religions, and realizing that they couldn’t all be true. I saw that this meant that most of them must be false — and that, in the absence of a good way to choose, one would naturally just go along with one’s neighbors, despite the fact that even if there were a true religion, the odds were that it wouldn’t be yours. This, it seemed to me, was the only way, aside from there being some sort of geographic variation of Truth itself, to account for the regionality of religion, and it was a startling insight for me: a revelation, even.

But as I grew a little older and learned more about the world, and about how little we really know about ultimate questions, my atheism began to soften. Taking up the practice of certain inner disciplines — first through the meditative aspects of the kung fu system that I began steeping myself in at nineteen, and later by way of some more focused esoteric training that I have touched upon briefly in these pages — opened my eyes to approaches to insight that were not within the purview of conventional science, at least not yet. In a common sort of psychological hysteresis, when I began to let go of atheism, I swung, perhaps, too far in the other direction. I began to focus on the smugness of many scientists, on how quick they were to reject that which did not fit comfortably into existing models of the world, and on the changes that had occurred in me as a result of my inner work, changes for which conventional models could offer no account. Doubt replaced certainty, and readings even in Western philosophy showed me that the question of the existence of God was not one that could be answered with sureness either way. It was all too much for me, I thought; who am I to pass judgment on such enormous mysteries?

But the fact of this world is that there are many indeed who pass such judgment, quite publicly and often quite violently, and the teachings they espouse with such fervor are often, it must be said, notions that, were they not embraced by entire cultures all at once, would be taken as the most hallucinatory lunacy, alleged as they are on no evidence beyond some or other antique Book. I of course will defend anyone’s right to believe whatever they like, but when the circle of believers comes to include a majority of my homeland’s population, including its senior officials, and when what they believe is palpable nonsense about, among other things, the basis of life, the age of the world, and the very purpose of human existence, and when they attempt to base public policy upon such superstition — at a time when the framework of civilization itself is eroding and crumbling as a result of intractable inter-religious hatreds — then it is incumbent, I think, upon those of us who are not taken in by this astonishing mass delusion to begin pushing back a bit. And this is why I have been posting more frequently on these issues, linking to the Beyond Belief conference videos, and so forth.

There is obviously much more to say, and readers needn’t bother pointing out that neither religion nor science has an advantage — yet — when questions of ultimate origins arise. And I realize also that all religions, and all believers, are not alike. I will return to these critically important points in forthcoming posts. The problem really is one of trying to be honest with myself, and I am suddenly finding it more difficult to wear a sort of patiently tolerant inclusiveness and suspension-of-disbelief that lately feels quite insincere, especially when the stakes seem so high. I’m tired of faking it. I simply don’t believe these quaint old yarns, and from now on the burden of proof regarding gods and devils, immaterial spirits, heavens and hells, angels, Adam and Eve, raptures and resurrections, past lives, and all the rest of it, is, as far as I am concerned, on the religions.

By all means, lets find the truth of the world. But let’s do it by painstaking inquiry, and by some sort of dependable and repeatable method, rather than relying on old folk stories. If the stories are right, then we ought to be able to put them to the test. And if they pass, then we shall wholeheartedly embrace them, knowing, finally, that we aren’t simply deceiving ourselves. And if they fail, let’s all see them, together, for what they already appear, to me, to be — the comforting myths of Mankind’s childhood, always to be an important part of our history and our cultural heritage — and move onwards, together, into what Churchill might have called the “broad, sunlit uplands”: the right and genuine understanding of the world that is our brightest chance for real awakening, and for a better tomorrow.

Related content from Sphere


  1. Nick N. says

    I couldn’t agree with you more. For years I have been a declared atheist. However I also think that retaining some doubt is essential to staying on the path toward truth. (Or perhaps to finding it again, once lost.)
    Recently my doubt concerning the impossibility of a “supernatural” plane has been enhanced by various papers by Nick Bostrom: http://www.nickbostrom.com/, particularly: http://www.simulation-argument.com/
    I’m curious as to your thoughts about this.
    Hope your back is feeling better,

    Posted December 22, 2006 at 2:20 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Nick, and thanks as always for reading and commenting.

    I’ll take a look at those links when I get a chance.

    I suppose it might seem a tad ironic to wish you all a merry Christmas, but I’ll do it anyway. There’s no reason that we can’t reflect on the joys of friendship and love and family and peace every so often, and Christmas is a traditional occasion for doing so. Certainly all of that is a worthwhile part of the Christian teaching, and well worth preserving. No need to throw the baby out with the bath.

    Posted December 22, 2006 at 2:43 pm | Permalink
  3. Andrew says

    Very thought provoking post Malcolm.

    Reason is under attack in this country and I am not sure what is worse, the way some lie to support their positions or the willingness of many others to unquestioningly accept these lies as truth simply because they like the implications.

    Posted December 22, 2006 at 2:47 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi Andrew,

    Thanks. I’ve been bending over backwards for years to be as charitable and open-minded as I can, and I do grant that there are enough philosophical complexities to go around (which I will address as well as I can in future posts), but there are lines that need drawing, and I thought it was time to begin declaring a clearer position.

    Posted December 22, 2006 at 2:55 pm | Permalink
  5. Nick N. says

    Regarding the joys of Christmas, we are currently appreciating the fact that we have, officially, one more second of daylight today than yesterday. For me this is the true meaning of Christmas.
    Also although we are not Christians, Janis does attend “Sunday School” (on Tuesdays), so I actually attended the Christmas Pageant at our local Lutheran church, as Janis had the role of Mary.
    They know we aren’t believers, but they don’t seem to mind a bit. The choir is surprisingly good, with piano and violin by locals also not bad at all.

    So Merry Christmas to Y’all as well
    (not yet sainted) Nick

    Posted December 22, 2006 at 5:33 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm: My attitude is very similar to yours, yet what irks, I find, is the refusal to make some important distinctions. (Not your refusal, necessarily.) Richard Dawkins, for instance, portrays the U.S. as a theocracy, or very nearly, and we can barely get a Nativity scene displayed. And when many adherents of the Religion of Peace would like to kill us, it’s positively obfuscatory to say that “religion” is the problem, when it’s one very particular religion that is. Christians haven’t killed others in the name of religion in hundreds of years, and I don’t see that they’re likely to start any time soon. If Dawkins et.al. would stick to the facts, they would be more palatable, but they like to inject a lot of leftist guff.

    Posted December 23, 2006 at 6:01 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Hi Dennis,

    I absolutely agree with you about the leftist guff, and about which major religion is causing the most trouble at the moment. And despite the febrile imaginings of many on the Left, the USA is indeed not a theocracy (not that there aren’t many at the highest echelons of government who are gladdened to whatever extent it behaves like one).

    I am not arguing for any sort of official curtailment of religious freedom; nor, do I think, is Dawkins. His problem is that he has such contempt for religion of any sort — lumping them all together with a surprising lack of discrimination for such a subtle mind — that he simply cannot manage to keep a civil tongue in his head, and I think that as a result he is doing more harm than good. But there is certainly a problem here in America when Biblical literalism is so prevalent that a majority of us don’t even believe in evolution (and press for its exclusion from school curricula), federal research funding is stymied on religious grounds, etc., and this in my opinion is ample justification for some vociferous resistance.

    If you haven’t watched any of the videos I’ve been linking to, you might like to take a look. There is some ranting, yes, but also some very thoughtful discussion among some extremely sharp minds.

    Thanks, as always, for your comments, and Merry Christmas!

    Posted December 23, 2006 at 6:58 pm | Permalink