Is religion isn’t real, what good is it? Not much. Admittedly, believing in something that isn’t real can make you feel better and offer consolation when life is tough. It is easier to accept a tragedy if this is taken to be “God’s will.” And instead of feeling powerless to change an unfortunate situation, many people embrace prayer as a way to call a higher power into action.
Similarly, children ask Santa Claus to bring them presents from the North Pole. They also put newly lost baby teeth under their pillows and expect that the Tooth Fairy will reward them. What difference is there between a childish belief in beings for whom there is no evidence of reality, and an adult belief in a God who can’t be proven to exist?
As we grow older, we should become wiser. The essence of wisdom is knowing the difference between reality and unreality. There’s nothing wrong with embracing fantasy—this is a creative wellspring for artists and writers—but let’s not call this wisdom. Socrates was fond of pointing out that a wise person knows when he doesn’t know something, while a fool is ignorantly confident of his false conceptions.
I recently watched a Bill Moyers interview of the renowned zoologist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins spoke eloquently about how the richness of reality is sufficient to keep us enthralled for the rest of our individual lifetimes, and likely for the lifetime of humanity as a whole. Science has learned much about reality, but with every step forward on the path of knowledge more mysteries come into view.
I love this quote from the physicist John Wheeler: “We live on an island of knowledge surrounded by a sea of ignorance. As our island of knowledge grows, so does our shore of ignorance.” Human ignorance is going to expand naturally as our ability to contact reality in more breadth and depth grows. When the first interstellar explorers begin to survey the 100 billion or more stars in the Milky Way galaxy, the truth that we know astoundingly little about even our own immediate environs in the universe will hit home.
It is crazy, then, that so many Americans choose to deny what is already known about reality. If someone starving were to throw away the few morsels of food in his possession because he believed that the mirage of a banquet could sustain him, we’d say “That guy is out of his mind.” So what should we say about the 55% of Americans who, according to a recent poll, believe that God created humans in our present form?
Obviously, they are out of their minds, at least in this regard. The scientific evidence for evolution is unquestionable. To call it a “theory” is the same as calling the law of gravity a theory. Significant details remain to be worked out in each case (for example, no one knows how to meld quantum theory and relativity theory when it comes to gravity), but there is no doubt that life has existed on Earth for some 4.5 billion years and that Homo sapiens is a twig on a marvelously branching evolutionary tree whose root is a common single-celled ancestor.
If people’s unfounded religious beliefs about creation stayed within their own deluded minds, that would be tolerable. It would be injurious to American society to have over half the population so misinformed about the nature of reality, but as long as this ignorance didn’t broadly spill over into our nation’s politics and culture, I’d say “everyone to his own opinions, even when they are ridiculous.”
But this same poll showed that Bush voters are much more gullible than Kerry voters. Only 47% of Kerry voters believe that God created humans in our present form, while 67% of Bush voters do. Similarly, 45% of Bush voters believe that creationism should be taught in schools instead of evolution, while only 24% of Kerry voters hold this extreme unscientific opinion.
This is scary. Two thirds of those who voted for Bush are woefully out of touch with some basic facts about reality. Many, if not most, of them also believe that the Earth is less than ten thousand years old, an error of a mere five billion years or so. Dawkins pointed out that a majority of Bush supporters also are convinced that evidence for weapons of mass destruction has been found in Iraq.
Not surprising. If you take your religion on faith, then you will find it easy to take your politics on faith also. This is the secret of Bush’s success: he has tapped into a goldmine of American fundamentalist credulity.
If Karl Rove prays at all, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he regularly gets on his knees and says, “Dear God, thank you for rendering inoperative the critical thinking of those who have blind faith in you. This is what got us over the top on November 2. It enables us to pursue policies that would be rejected as out of touch with reality if, god forbid, a majority of the American electorate cared about what is real.”
The more a religion is based on unreality, the more dangerous it is—both for its followers and the unbelievers who are affected by what the followers do in the name of their fantasy God. My own prayer is that more and more people will come to accept that any religion which requires a rejection of physical reality isn’t worth following. Spirituality has nothing to do with matter; it has everything to do with spirit. There is no reason why scientific knowledge about the material universe should conflict with any truly spiritual practice.
Being open to the possibility of knowing things unseen shouldn't blind us to the truth of what is right before our eyes.
On a lighter note, I keep having an image of a cool t-shirt that says, “Reality is my religion.” Maybe I should stop fantasizing about it and make it, well, a reality. But, being a born-again procrastinator, I’ll probably never get around to it. Any entrepreneur who wants to take my idea and run with it, feel free. I’d even buy your first t-shirt (size: XL) and proudly wear it to unchurch.