This story is by Thomas Heaven and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
All people can be divided into two major philosophical worlds. Those who believe in some form of higher power and those who don’t. These two worlds have been colliding since mankind was first able to redirect his focus from pure survival to contemplating the mysteries of the world in which he lived.
To be sure, his first existential question was not “Is there life after death?” It was more likely “What is that bright light in the sky?” It makes sense that the earliest deities such as a sun god or a rain god were derived from natural phenomena.
At the same time, the world of science was in its initial stage of development. The basic scientific methods, at that time, were trial and error and observation. If I put my hand in the fire, my hand will hurt and if I eat the wrong berries, my middle will hurt.
As time progressed, more and more natural occurrences were assigned mystical origins, while more ways to investigate the true origins were being discovered. At first, the two worlds were able to co-exist. But when scientific investigation contradicted belief in the spiritual world, the collision was profound.
Early in man’s history, those who believed in a higher power dominated all cultures. It was far easier to accept a concept that “explained” so many phenomena when a scientific discovery only explained one. At this point, belief systems (religions) had the power to suppress scientific investigation. Copernicus and Galileo, who both observed that the earth revolved around the sun and published books promoting this view, were casualties of the religious vs. scientific world collision. Copernicus got off easy as his book wasn’t published and banned until after his death. Galileo, however, was persecuted by the Inquisition and his book was banned.
In 1925, a substitute teacher named John Scopes was fined $100.00 for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Even today, religions attempt to block scientific investigation. Genealogy and stem cell research are only two examples of inquiry that incite sufficient anger in fundamentalists to inspire them to take to the streets in protest.
On the plus side, the belief in a power outside oneself has provided much emotional support for those who do not believe they have the power to deal with crises that are a part of life. For example, believing that the souls of the departed reside in a better world has helped many bereaved bear their grief. Alcoholics Anonymous recovery groups base their treatment on the belief in a “higher power”.
Religious organizations have provided physical and emotional support to victims of disaster, the homeless and other needy populations.
Prayer can have a tranquilizing effect when needed.
These are only a few examples of sustenance the church provides.
Another major benefit of religion is morality. The rules Moses brought down from the mountain “on stone tablets,” served as the foundation for all the moral rules most of us follow. Science, on the other hand, has little concern for morality. It concerns itself mainly with the laws of nature.
Although religions do a lot of good for societies, many believe that they do more harm than good in the long run.
On an individual basis, religion owns the concept of guilt. People are condemned as sinners not only for violating truly moral prohibitions but for doing things that most people regard as natural behaviors. Not too long ago, eating meat on Friday was considered a sin for Catholics. Essentially all major religions consider similar acts as sinful.
On a social basis, there are numerous religious beliefs that harm the poor and prevent entire countries from developing more modern living conditions. Most religions promote racism and sexism. A small minority are attempting to modernize but it will take many decades for Muslim women to even approximate the rights that their husbands currently hold, and the caste system is still prevalent in India.
Often, the harm done to individuals and societies is the result of conflict between two or more religions. No one will ever forget the religion driven actions of a small group of terrorists on September 11, 2001. Religious belief alone could not mitigate the pain of the families of the 2,996 souls that perished on that day.
Even more sobering than the harm that religion does to individuals and societies is the harm that it does to our entire world. Why should we be concerned with the emission of greenhouse gases and the resulting global warming? If there is indeed a god, won’t he or she take care of us? Then we don’t need to focus any energy or funds to alleviate damage to our environment.
When you compare the harmful effects of religion to the beneficial ones, it doesn’t appear that supernatural beliefs could have survived as long as they have. There are two reasons for this. The first is faith. Very early in the development of religion the concept of faith was conceived. It simply means that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, you should continue to believe that something is true. The concept is so strong that people actually believe that a human being can pray to a god and have the waters of the Red Sea part to allow an army of slaves to pass through without getting wet.
The second, and perhaps more powerful reason that so many people believe so much in the supernatural is indoctrination. Programming begins at a very early age. When a child is baptized, his or her religious training is guaranteed throughout childhood by identifying “god-parents” who promise to continue religious training in the event both parents become unable to provide this instruction. When the child is old enough, Sunday school often becomes a weekly event. In some churches, at about 11, children accept a life-long commitment to the church by having their “first communion” after more intensive religious education.
In spite of religions efforts to hang on to their believers, internet research indicates that many sources and studies suggest that religion is on the decline in the western part of the world. There isn’t a lot of agreement in the causes for this development, but one might guess that scientific advances in technology and communication have played at least a small role. Different ideas and ideologies now travel through cyberspace at an amazing rate. As technology makes our lives easier and more efficient, we become stronger partners with logical reason than with mystical spiritualism.
It may be that the collision is now favoring the natural world over the supernatural world. Isn’t there a way to retain the benefits of both worlds by giving up those aspects of both that are harmful to our world as a whole?
The answer is the rise of a new world. It is called Humanism. While some of those that have heard of this concept say it is just another religion, it is not. The common definition of religion includes the belief in a supernatural being. Humanism, by definition, denies this belief. Humanists incorporate the scientific investigation of the natural world with the moral concepts that promote the cooperation between all members of society. They also value and promote the growth of individuality and freedom from external authority while respecting the laws of society.
According to the Council for Secular Humanism, (the Council for Secular Humanism (1980).
“Within the United States, the term “secular humanism” describes a world view with the following elements and principles:
• Need to test beliefs – A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted by faith.
• Reason, evidence – A commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence and scientific method of inquiry in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions.
• Fulfillment, growth, creativity – A primary concern with fulfillment, growth and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general.
• Search for truth – A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect perception of it.
• This life – A concern for this life (as opposed to an afterlife) and a commitment to making it meaningful through better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ from us.
• Ethics – A search for viable individual, social and political principles of ethical conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility.
• Justice and fairness – an interest in securing justice and fairness in society and in eliminating discrimination and intolerance.
• Building a better world – A conviction that with reason, an open exchange of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.” www.secularhumanism.org
Taking the lessons learned from the two colliding worlds, a third world is evolving which promises a better, more humane world in which to live.