10/13/2012 09:57 am ET | Updated Dec 13, 2012

Religion as a Private Pursuit, Science for Everyone

A few years ago at the University of Toronto I taught the course, The Philosophy of Sex. During the first class I remember telling the students that, depending on their world-view, they'd end up thinking very differently about the subject matter.

The foundational Weltanschauung will strain the input, leading to fundamentally different, incommensurable output.

What I had in mind was how some of them would be filtering the course material through their understanding of evolution, and others, in Creationism, or, as they put it these days, Intelligent Design. Certainly Bill Nye's recent remarks, "Creationism Threatens U.S. Science," is another call to reflection. In my course, I used the example of homosexuality.

For those students who accept evolution, they'll believe that homosexuality, heterosexuality and bisexuality are perfectly natural, valid forms of sexuality. It's prevalent throughout nature and the disposition is a matter of genetic and biological factors. On the other hand, there are students who believe that God had a strong hand in bringing the world into being, and gave the Bible as an instruction manual to guide us. Homosexuality is therefore a choice. The same contrast goes for the other topics of the course: Marriage, hetero and homosexual. Sex before marriage. Masturbation. What is "sexual deviance"? Prostitution.

Or, as Woody Allen remarked, "All my favorite hobbies."

As it turns out, with a strong view of religion -- especially with a rejection of evolution -- you'll see most subjects very differently. This is no surprise, but it's time to repeat once more that strong religion is a detriment to our overall well-being. If you think religion is mind-blowing (in the good sense), then you haven't been keeping up in class. As Christopher Hitchens used to remark, if you think a burning bush is amazing, you should look at pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope. Congressman Georgia Rep. Paul Broun says that it's all from "the pit of hell," - evolution, modern astronomy and the such - which, if true, would mean that hell isn't half as bad as we might think.

With this said, religion, in some forms and for some people, is a necessary and -- I dare say -- legitimate ingredient in their lives. That is, as long as they keep it to themselves, as a private pursuit, with the richness it can bring in ritual and as myth.

But strong religion -- the sort that turns the Bible into a comprehensive textbook on science, history, philosophy, medicine, sexuality, morality and politics -- is debilitating. Described by Joseph Campbell, it's a "little toy-room picture of the Bible."

This "toy-room" picture is a powerful and popular way of interpreting the world that still resonates with millions of people. The longer it continues, however, the more it'll keep us from a serious encounter with the real world. To mention a few, substantial encounters with that reality, the past couple decades have granted truly phenomenal insights into astronomy, quantum physics, biology, genetics and neurology. Today, the insights and discoveries happen on a daily basis.

It's not that these respective advances in the sciences have shown that God doesn't exist. It's rather that these, truly mind-blowing discoveries, can be learned by everyone without losing oneself (viz., one's mind, family, friends, money or clothes -- as is often the case in organized religion). Secondly, the more we learn about the real world, the clearer it becomes that the Bible isn't a book about topics that intrigue scientists. Clinging to a forced interpretation of the Bible only strips it of its historical nature (as a record of archaic societies) and coerces it to become transcendental woo-woo (if that isn't a pleonasm).

Religion, at least if you take its great writers seriously, like Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade and Wifred Cantwell Smith, was the way primitive humanity understood its insignificant existence in face of the awesome and often cruel powers of nature, man and circumstances. Gazing out into the starlit sky, witnessing eclipses, the oceans and its tides, cataclysms, seeing children suffer and die of mysterious causes, explaining life was about myths, ritual and religion, not a rigorous science that hadn't yet arrived.

To again quote Campbell, "myths are the mental supports of rites; rites, the physical enactments of myths." For some of us even today, they still our minds and emotions. In the midst of contemporary technopoly, they are a legitimate and reasonable way of soothing ourselves in the transitions and stages of life, just as other aesthetic choices.

But as an old professor of mine used to caution, "Just don't get religious about it." If we think myth is actually an historical and scientific happening, then it'll indeed make the New Atheists right. Religion, as "getting religious," does poison everything.

Explaining the great mysteries of the universe is now the task of the sciences. It's no longer about faith. It's about thinking. Don't forget that if God exists, he/she/it should be thrilled these little brains are starting to come out from behind the veil. St. Paul was more insightful than he could've imagined:
"When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things" (NASB).