Bounded faith

The Bible is brimming with examples of faith healing. Jesus performed a number of miraculous healings in all four canonical gospels, and later his apostles performed similar healings. In his epistles Paul speaks of faith healing as a gift of the Holy Spirit that can be bestowed on potentially any faithful Christian. Miracles, including the miraculous healing of the sick, were reputedly quite common during the era of Early Christianity and were not exclusive to the apostles or church leaders. Many Evangelical Christians today declare belief in the continual existence (or at least the possibility) of legitimate, New Testament-style miracles including faith healing, often bearing witness from personal experiences.

If this is so, then why do Christians never pray for the miraculous healing of amputees? Why should believers in faith healing refrain from asking God to grow back lost limbs? There seems to be a very pronounced disconnect between the outlandish miracles of the scriptural account, the professions of the faithful regarding miracles, and the actions they will or will not take to generate miracles. If God is capable of anything, from softening hearts to raising the dead from the grave, why do the vast majority of Evangelical Christians restrict themselves to asking for more pragmatic miracles? Prayers for cancer to be healed are common, prayers for limbs to grow back are virtually nonexistent. Why?

It would appear that the faith Evangelical Christians in America have in miracles is bound within the realm of the everyday. An essentially irrational concept, faith healing, has been subjected to modern rationality. People of faith claim that we don’t see miracles, such as an amputee’s limbs growing back, because of a lack of faith, or simply because no one ever prays for the truly outlandish and extraordinary. But could it be that Evangelicals don’t pray for limbs to grow back because, secretly, they understand it is impossible? Could it be that we don’t see New Testament-style miracles in the 21st century because they do not exist?

On indoctrination

Most Americans grew up believing Santa Claus is real. They believed a senior citizen clad in a red suit travels across the world in a flying sleigh every Christmas secretly giving presents to all the children of the world before returning to his elven-operated workshop at the North Pole. They believed this obvious fantasy because their parents told them it was true and in some cases provided falsified evidence to prove it. When children are old enough they either independently discover the fantasy, which is affirmed as such, or are directly told by their parents. No one I have ever met reviles their parents for instilling such a falsehood during the impressionable years of their childhood, because neither the belief or eventual disbelief in Santa Claus is deemed to be harmful.

Indoctrination is the process of instilling concepts, beliefs, or attitudes. In this sense indoctrination is somewhat similar to education. What differentiates indoctrination is that there is no expectation the indoctrinated party will critically question or analyze what they are being told. Children believe in Santa Claus due to the process of (arguably harmless) indoctrination. They are presented a belief and based on authority, in this case the authority of the parents, they accept it generally without question. Confidence in the acceptance of this reality is not based on hard evidence or tangible proof, it is based on the allure of magic and youthful imagination.

Religion is the primary vehicle of indoctrination. Children born into a particular religious tradition are taught to believe it as reality either at home, school, or a place of worship by the authority figures they trust. What makes this process indoctrination, rather than education, is that the child is not expected, prompted, or encouraged to actively and seriously question what they are being told. Major religions have never been comfortable with the legitimate questioning of their most fundamental tenets from outside and youth growing up inside are taught that questions, if any, are acceptable only when basic doctrines remain solidly maintained.

Religious indoctrination is not harmful simply because it teaches children beliefs that are untrue (although this can be extremely harmful), it is harmful because it teaches children to think incompetently. Children do not need religious indoctrination, they need religious education. They need to be taught to think critically, to question authority, to take nothing at face value, and to use information as an evaluative tool. Education would teach children to critically evaluate religion, to honestly and actively question its doctrines, and to utilize information to make reasonable and knowledgeable decisions about religion.

Gods in the attic

I do not believe in Zeus, the Greek god of the sky and king of the Greek Pantheon. I do not believe in Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war and patron of Tenochtitlan. I do not believe in Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of fertility, war, and erotic love. I do not believe in these deities because there is not sufficient evidence to do so. No modern, Western individual would have grievance with my rejection of these gods and goddesses. However thousands of human beings once worshiped, venerated, prayed to, and even sacrificed each other to such deities. Now they are considered myths, simplistic and barbaric superstitions of a time long passed.

I do not believe in Yahweh. I do not believe in Allah. I do not believe in Brahma, Shiva, or Vishnu. I do not believe in these deities because there is not sufficient evidence to do so. Billions of human beings living today worship, venerate, pray to, and are at some times willing to die and kill for such deities. Many of them would tell me I am mistaken on the most fundamental level for having no faith. Many would tell me I am damned for having no faith.

Myth and superstition are alive and well in the modern world. We like to think that we are enlightened, forward thinking, modern individuals that have left anachronistic and primitive ways behind us. How is Yahweh different from Horus, or Ahura Mazda, or Odin? What makes our modern religions worthier than the thousands that came before? At various points in the ancient past humans have deified the Sun, the Moon, various rivers, and Nature itself. We pity these ancient people for their foolishness, knowing that there is no divinity in natural things. Why does believing in an invisible, unknowable, unavailable super-being make us superior?

Holiness, hatred, and Hell

The doctrine of Hell is reprehensible and both Christianity and Islam, the two largest religions in the world, teach this doctrine. The Gospel of Matthew describes Hell as a place of fire and darkness where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. According to the Qur’an, it is a place of “scorching wind and scalding water” and, in agreement with Matthew, “blazing” fire. In both religious traditions Hell is created by God (Yahweh/Allah) to house the souls of the unholy for the purpose of torture and torment.

In Islam the fate of every soul was foreknown by Allah before the creation of the universe, and nothing has or will ever happen outside his divine will, thus all damned souls are so damned within and by the will of Allah. The omniscience of God in Christian orthodoxy denotes a near identical, fatalistic scenario. Despite the feeble and amusing attempts of Christian apologetics, divine omniscience would necessitate God’s foreknowledge of every possible potentiality. Therefore, unless God is viewed as something less than all knowing, everyone that is damned to agony in Hell is done so by and/or within his will. And if humanity is innately unholy we all are innately damned.

For self-identified holy Christians and Muslims the reward of their holiness is not only the joys of Heaven but also escape from the fires of Hell. In this sense holiness is less of a virtue and more of a guarantee. Many times I’ve heard from religious adherents that the substance of religion is service to God, but I would submit that a much more potent motivation is self-preservation. To be unholy is to be destined for Hell. To be holy is to be pleasing to God. To escape Hell one must be pleasing to God, one must be holy. Serving God would only be a pure motivation if it was free from retribution. When an all powerful deity asks his creation to serve him or face the consequences, the creation’s motivation is the fear of those consequences.

Placing the burden of eternal consequences on the actions of other human beings is an act of hatred.  We’ve all heard the adage “love the sinner, hate the sin”, but if mankind is innately sinful and unholy then to hate sin is to hate mankind’s natural state. For a Christian or Muslim to claim holiness they juxtapose themselves to the unholy, the unbelievers, and often to each other. Hell was created so religious belief could be rewarded and disbelief could be punished, and human beings became disposable objects in a grand scheme to justify faith. Degrading the value of humanity in the service of religion is an act of hatred.

The doctrine of Hell is reprehensible and both Christianity and Islam teach this doctrine. How can any person of faith, let alone thousands upon thousands of Christians and Muslims, adhere to this doctrine and consider themselves humane? How can a doctrine that so degrades the human condition possibly be justified?

Universality

A human being has an estimated 30,000 genes or less, much less than previous estimates of 80,000 to 140,000. Some species of rice have 50,000 genes and up to 70,000 by some estimates. This means that rice potentially has double the amount of genetic information that we do. From this it may be extrapolated that rice, at least at the macromolecular level, is more complex than a human being. However the structure and function of genes are virtually identical across the spectrum of organisms on this planet. Rice may have 40,000 more genes than a human, but how those genes form, look, and operate is astoundingly similar.

Based on the multiplicity of evidence, the debate over the truth of the universal common descent of life is over. All of the major discoveries in genetics and molecular biology in the past 100 years have supported the theory of universal common descent by means of evolutionary processes. The astounding similarity of genes among organisms, which affects our fundamental understanding of biological complexity, is just one example. In many ways the similarities of life are more remarkable than life’s boundless variations.

Evolution requires no higher power, in fact denoting some sort of intelligence in the evolutionary process is illogical. Evolution as it is understood by modern science has often been a clumsy, wasteful process. Returning to the field of genetics, only 1 to 2 percent of DNA in the human genome is utilized  to encode protein sequences. 98 percent of human DNA is effectively junk, that is it has no known biological function. At points in the evolution of our species this now inert DNA may have been utilized but eventually lost its utility. This evidence makes no logical sense if an intelligent designer is assumed, unless it is also assumed that the intelligent designer purposefully designed humans to appear as though we were designed unintelligently.

The modern theory of evolution rightfully has a great impact on modern religion and philosophy. Science has always had a tendency to infringe on the territory of ideology. In its most idealistic sense science is the pursuit of truth, and is therefore inherently philosophical. Many theologians and philosophers have expressed a great deal of chagrin when science has supposedly overstepped its bounds. Some scientists have claimed that science and ideology, particularly religious ideology, are not in conflict because they do not seek the same knowledge.

Hardline adherents from most major religions and I have one thing I believe we can agree on: science and ideology do come into conflict with each other. As science explores, analyzes, and answers more and more of the foundational questions concerning our universe religion must continually reevaluate and adjust its position. As science charges forward into new vistas of discovery and knowledge religion is left lurching behind attempting, most often unsuccessfully, to keep up.

The significant discoveries of genetics, molecular biology, geology, paleontology, zoology, and evolutionary biology are continually denied by fundamental religious individuals and groups. Staggering discoveries in the field of genetics, which provide us with the most convincing evidence for evolution to date, are meaningless when ideology trumps the truth. If the universality of common descent is acknowledged then the notion of intelligent design should be abandoned. The proof is in your genes.