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Joseph Smigelski

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Life Without Religion

Posted: 06/22/11 03:04 PM ET

I used to be the kind of guy who tried to be conciliatory and find a "middle ground" between science and religion. (I even wrote an article about it twenty years ago.) I used to go along with scientists like the late Stephen Jay Gould, a man I have much respect for, who said that science and religion did not have to be in conflict, that they could peacefully co-exist as "non-overlapping magisteria." But I can no longer side with Gould and must join his erstwhile rival Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion -- and also Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, authors of The End of Faith and God Is Not Great respectively -- and conclude that science and religion are really not compatible in the twenty-first century. Science and all human knowledge has advanced too far to allow us to wallow in any kind of superstition.

The conciliatory argument goes something like this: Science and religion should be kept separate, but they are not enemies of one another; they fulfill different needs in the intellectual and spiritual evolution of human beings. We need science to understand nature and how things work. Science is what has brought us out of the dark ages and into the modern world. Without it, we would still be primitive hunters and gatherers. We need religion, the argument continues, because without it we'd be amoral and unethical, unable to appreciate anything beyond the cold materialism of "survival of the fittest" (a phrase that, as used by some, distorts Darwinism).

My own thinking on the subject has evolved: the notion of reconciling science and religion has lost its charm. Too many people have used religion for too long as a manipulative tool to obtain and maintain inordinate power and authority over others. And religion is based upon nothing but non-verifiable supernatural beliefs. It's founded on nothing that is real. Certainly, many people have done good in the name of religion, but balance that with all the Crusades, the jihads, the Spanish Inquisition, and the many "heretics" throughout history who were hanged and burnt at the stake.

One can justifiably argue that unscrupulous rulers have misused science and made the world a less happy place. Science isn't perfect, and scientists are flawed human beings just like the rest of us. But at least science is something that is real and testable. It concerns itself with the real world, not a world of superstition and unreality. The scientific method is the only thing we have to really help us survive on this planet and perhaps, one day, colonize others. Sure, you can say that science has contributed to global warming, for instance; but it will take more science to cope with that and other serious environmental concerns. No amount of praying is going to make our problems disappear. Albert Einstein said, "All of our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike -- and yet it is the most precious thing we have." Science deals with the tangible, not angels and demons and Da Vinci codes.

I received my primary education from Dominican nuns in a Catholic grade school in upstate New York. We were taught the Baltimore Catechism: "Who made me? God made me."

I now find it much more interesting and gratifying to ponder that what really made me was an incredibly hot ball of luminous fire. Science informs me that every atom in my body was created eons ago in the center of a star. And that is something that I don't have to accept solely on faith; there is verifiable evidence that -- excepting hydrogen and helium, which were generated by the Big Bang -- all the elements of the periodic table (at least through number 92, uranium) were created when stars formed, and then those elements were distributed throughout the universe when those stars exploded.

And I understand that the sacraments are rituals and that humans, for some reason, need rituals to form bonds with one another. But isn't an even stronger bond created by the knowledge that we really are "all one" because we all share the same building blocks that were created when the universe was in its infancy? We are all members of a real "great chain of being": not the medieval pipe dream, but one described and verified by physics and cosmology. We can have spirituality -- an appreciation of grandeur, beauty, and truth -- without religion. The natural world can be seen as godless, yet its natural majesty can still inspire awe and wonder.

Hamlet said to his best friend, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." He was referring to natural philosophy, which we today call science. And he was right. There are more things in heaven (outer space) and earth (especially the oceans) than scientists had ever dreamt of in the past: black holes, dark matter, neutrinos, life on the ocean floor in the absence of sunlight, etc. Every week, scientists are discovering strange, wonderful, and sometimes frightening novel aspects of our universe. Pick up a science magazine once in a while and take a look. Who needs the supernatural when the natural is so challenging and wild?

I think it's necessary for us to study the religions of the world in order to get an idea of what has been important to people throughout history and how they have coped with their problems both temporal and spiritual. But in the light of modern science, it is time to reject all supernatural explanations for the way things are. There is plenty to surprise and inspire us in the natural world.