Fear of the Light

Faith, of the sort involved in religion, is said to be free from doubt, as many fathers of the early Christian church have asserted.

Faith is certain.

Faith is without questioning, perhaps beyond it altogether. Indeed, many major religions, particularly the Abrahamic ones, forbid any questioning, any doubt, of their core tenets and punish those who do accordingly, often harshly in fundamentalist or conservative sects.

Doubt is seen in a mostly negative light. Certainty of conviction is often thought virtuous. Faith is often thought superior to knowledge for its lack of doubt.

As a former religious believer, I once thought this way myself. I was frightened by doubt, fearing eternal punishment for it. Terrified by it. Doubt was a thought-crime. Or so I thought.

Now, I disagree. Now I embrace doubt.

Doubt is seen in some sects as something that should be applied only to alien religions or to religious nonbelievers and dissenters from one’s own group. This sometimes includes vilification of ‘the wrong religions’ in disputes over even minor points of doctrine.

Science, however, uses doubt and questioning as tools, as ways essential to its process of inquiry. Philosophy does likewise, though in a different manner. But disagreement and dissent are important to both.

Science asks questions about testable reality, those things that at least in principle can be known, and be shown to be when they are in fact known. It then uses a set of tested, reliable methods to answer the questions it asks of nature…methods of querying the universe and noting the answers we get by careful observation and measurement of what the Cosmos tells us.

Throughout this process, both creativity and reason are at various points involved: Creativity to spin new and original explanatory hypotheses, a creativity limited only in that the explanations proposed must conform to as well as explain the data uncovered, and the use of the best reasoning at the time to infer what it is we have found and what it means, in finding the best answers to our queries.

All human beings can fall victim to confirmation bias, but convincing yourself that it is a good idea, even worthy of praise, much less respect, to reject facts in favor of what seems good is never an effective way to succeed in life, however reliable it is at comforting you, and those who believe likewise.

Sooner or later, we must all accommodate facts that confute our intuitions, our gut feelings, our faith, our wishes, or be held accountable by an implacable universe that neither knows of nor cares anything for us or what we believe.

There’s that whole thing about stopping, looking, and listening at railroad crossings even when we intellectually and vocally dismiss reality as a humbug…

Science, however, while useful, and being very effective at what it does — to paraphrase Richard Dawkins, “It works, bitches.” — isn’t a font of endless blessings either.

Science is morally neutral, a double-edged sword, and while both powerful and essential to the upkeep of a global civilization like ours with billions of people, it is dangerous when misused, or used with harmful intent — especially for use in warfare or the dangers of industrial pollution and waste disposal.

But that does not mean we are free to dismiss or reject it altogether — we have let the efreeti free from its lamp, and it will not be put back, not without serious consequences. — any problems caused by science’s use will not be solved by promoting ignorance of it in the people of those nations so dependent on science and technology for their economic future and well-being.

Each and every faith-claim made, on the basis of authority, of revelation, of intuitive ‘gut feelings,’ or of mystical experience, has its rivals, and there exists to the best of my knowledge no reliable way within such faith itself to distinguish true faith-claims from false ones.

Unfortunately, outside the confines of a given belief system, faith claims subjected to testing by something other than faith, (and they must be…) have a distressing tendency to be shown wrong. Those that cannot be tested at all do not even merit the honor of being wrong.

There is the expression “the gods will not be tested,” but what’s really being tested here is not gods, but the claims we make, including our claims about gods, all special pleading aside.

I’ve learned since my deconversion that there is no non-ideological reason that any claim should get a free pass, no free ‘get out of jail’ card.

Faith and science. As ways of thinking, and of gaining knowledge; no two things could be more opposed. The former brooks no questioning, and admits no error. It’s claim to certainty absolute.

The latter thrives on questioning and depends on its ability to seek out and find out error so that it may correct itself with newer, better information and sharper reasoning than before. It depends on probabilistic matters of contingent fact rather than deductively certain truths.

Both can be and often are riddled with error. But at least science has ways of letting us know this so that we may pick up the pieces and put them together somewhat more soundly than before, to build a stronger foundation of knowledge that needs no absolute self-justification by logical necessity.

With faith alone, we are left with no worthwhile way of telling truth from falsehood, save by whim, or prejudice, or the commands of an authority, guided only by a subjective feeling of certainty and never really knowing our way outside the sometimes rigid confines of our own beliefs.

I know, because I’ve been there, and I know personally, as Plato noted, what a tragedy it is to be afraid of the light.


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