Monday, January 30, 2012

Imagine No Religion

by Timothy Ferris

Many religious believers share a conviction that religion is the sole or at least the most effective defender of morality. It is not. If it were, religious believers ought at the very least to commit fewer serious crimes than do atheists and agnostics, but such is not the case. As many surveys have shown, atheists and agnostics are, if anything, less apt to commit serious crimes—and they persist in their erstwhile ethicality even though they belong to the most distrusted minority in the modern world. What is  called secularism—meaning atheism, agnosticism, or simply having no interest in religious faith—is on the rise in the United States, having jumped from 8 percent of the population in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008. The trend is geographically widespread—secularism is growing in all fifty states—and likely to accelerate. While only 5 percent of Americans born before 1946 describe themselves as nonbelievers, that number more than doubles for those born in the years 1946-1964 and reaches nearly 20 percent for Americans born since 1977. Yet the American violent crime rate remained flat from 1990 to 1993, and has since been declining. Indeed, crime correlates inversely with levels of religious conviction, if it correlates at all. While 15 percent of all Americans identify themselves as having no religious beliefs, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that nonbelievers make up only two-tenths of 1 percent of inmates. (Christians constitute 80 percent of the American population and 75 percent of its prisoners.) A ten-year study of death-row inmates at Sing-Sing found that 91 percent of those executed for murder were Christians, less than a third of 1 percent atheists. Similar anticorrelations between religion and crime are found internationally. Only 20 percent of Europeans say God plays an important part in their lives, as opposed to 60 percent of Americans, but Europe’s crime rates are lower than America’s. Denmark and Sweden rank among the most atheistic nations in the world—up to three quarters of their citizens identify themselves as nonbelievers—yet these godless souls somehow enjoy admirably low levels of corruption and violent crimes while scoring near the top of the international happiness indices.

Religious fundamentalists are often surprised to hear this, just as their forebears were surprised to learn from explorers’ reports that upright Hindus and Buddhists living in faraway lands comported themselves as ethically as did Anglican bishops. But the basis of such confusion disappears when the genesis of morals is examined empirically. The basic tenets of morality, such as prohibitions against murder and incest, are common to most peoples and most religions. This makes sense if the moral precepts evolved over time, socially and perhaps biologically, because they promoted human survival—as they obviously do—and are reflected in religious texts rather than having been handed down from heaven. If morality evolved, rather than having been independently invented by thousands of gods, people should behave at least as ethically without religion as with it—as, evidently, they do...

…Scientists originally were as religious as the rest of the population, but the scientific process and the knowledge it obtains are so different from religious practices and doctrines that it is becoming increasingly difficult, as science progresses, to accommodate both within a single worldview. Religions value faith but scientists have found, often to their own embarrassment, that having faith in an idea has no bearing on whether the experimental evidence will verify it. (Nobody asked for, much less prayed for, irrational numbers or quantum nonlocality, but they became part of science anyway; nature is as it is, regardless of what we wish for.) Scientific theories stand or fall on their ability to make accurate predictions; religions have such a poor record in this regard that to champion divine prophecy is to risk being thought supercilious or deranged. Religions account for natural phenomena by positing the existence of an invisible and miraculously complex agency, science by sticking to discernable phenomena that are simpler than what they seek to explain. In that sense, God is literally the last thing a scientist should look for when studying nature.

excerpt from The Science of Liberty, p.279-280

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