Last night I experienced an interesting juxtaposition of two disparate events: watching "Boyhood", via a Netflix DVD, and reading an article in the most recent issue of New Scientist, "Big bang discovery crumbles to dust."
Both made me think about the ridiculousness of religion.
In Boyhood -- a great movie, by the way -- there's a scene of a Christian minister doing his thing at a church service. He's preaching about the part in the Bible where Jesus asks Thomas to touch him after his resurrection.
(This is where the term "doubting Thomas" comes from.)
The preacher says that when Thomas stuck his fingers into Jesus' side, as described in John 20:27, he knew that the story of Jesus being resurrected was true. But this isn't possible for people living today. We need to have faith in Jesus' resurrection, his congregation was told.
I'm no expert in Christian theology, for sure. But since the minister had a Protestant vibe to him, I assume what he's talking about is the notion of Sola fide, the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
No need to do anything. Just sincerely believe in the divinity of Jesus and, voila!, salvation is yours.
Naturally I don't believe in the Bible.
But I can imagine that the story of doubting Thomas losing his doubt is true. Hey, if I saw someone die, then they came to life a few days later, asking me to touch them so I could confirm that I wasn't hallucinating, I'd find it easy to accept the truth of their miraculous return to life.
If this was the basis of Christianity, though -- belief in Jesus via direct experience of his bodily resurrection -- the only Christians would have been very few. Just those who were present when he ascended to his heavenly Father.
Instead, as the minister preached, Christians are supposed to accept on faith what can't be proven empirically. In the movie the minister says that he has felt the spirit of Jesus, and he hopes most of the people in his congregation have also.
Which made me wonder, what the heck does the spirit of Jesus feel like?
How would someone know that they're feeling the actuality of this, as contrasted with a thought, emotion, or whatever produced by the mind of the Christian believer? How could anyone tell the difference between a 100% authentic Spirit of Jesus and an entirely imaginary emanation of one's own brain?
Well, since faith is the touchstone of Christian belief, this question isn't really germane in Christianity. If one has faith in the divinity of Jesus, faith in the veracity of what one feels to be Jesus' spirit comes along for the ride.
This sort of circular logic, where blind belief is the rationale for more blind belief, isn't limited to Christian religiosity. It is found in virtually every religion, whether of West or East.
Devotees of modern gurus, for example, are told to have faith in the ability of this person to reveal divine truths. If these revelations don't come to pass after years of meditation, say, the response often is "You didn't have enough faith."
How is it that faith is needed to follow religions that are diametrically opposed to each other? I've never understood how a faithful Christian is going to learn that the Christian God is ultimate reality, while a faithful Hindu is going to learn that Brahman is.
There has to be some way of distinguishing what is really real, from what is only apparently real.
Otherwise everything can be called really real, and most people are unwilling to accept that a mere thought of something possesses the same epistemic substance as something that actually exists outside a thinking mind.
Which gets me to the New Scientist article.
It dealt with the seeming discovery last March of gravitational waves in space-time that cosmologists theorized could be proof that the big bang was marked by an "epic growth spurt of inflation." This was huge news, but...
A series of studies soon suggested that dust within our galaxy may have muddied the picture. Observations at other wavelengths were needed to clear up the confusion, as dust shines more brightly at certain wavelengths than at others.
Now the discovery of gravitational waves appears less likely. This was the passage in the article that really caught my eye.
"To claim a detection of a primordial signal [of gravitational waves], one has to exclude the possibility, to the fullest extent possible, that something else hasn't generated the signal," says William Jones of Princeton University, who leads a balloon-borne mission called SPIDER that is expected to release its observations in a year or so.
Beautiful. This is why I love science.
Religious believers assume that what they want to believe is true, really is. Scientists, on the other hand, won't accept that a finding is true unless spurious explanations have been ruled out "to the fullest extent possible."
Skepticism is a hallmark of science. Faith is a hallmark of religion.
Which goes a long way toward explaining why scientific knowledge of reality continually expands, while religious beliefs are pretty much the same now as they were hundreds or even thousands of years ago.
Faith has no mechanism for distinguishing between truth and falsehood. Skepticism, though, serves as a means for subjecting possible truths to the rigorous tests that could lead to them being accepted as verified truths.
The spirit of Jesus never will be verified. Gravitational waves might. And if they aren't, science will use that disconfirmation to move onward.
Like I said, this is why I love science. It progresses toward truth, whereas religion doesn't.