Part Four: From Fear to Science

From Fear to Science

Part Four of Thirteen

One of the most dangerous consequences of leading a fear-based existence is that it often takes our attention away from the far greater threats, the ones that should absolutely keep us up at night. In this case, we should be wholly alarmed by the almost casual violation of church and state by the highest courts in the land. We should be terrified by Trump’s promise to convert the Department of Justice into his personal secret police.
We know the solution. We’ve known for centuries: Faith is not fact. It’s time to act on that knowledge.

I describe myself as agnostic, which in simple terms means I recognize what I know. And what I don’t. I cannot say with any certainty if there is a higher purpose in our individual lives or our collective existence. I cannot say with any certainty how our known universe was created, much less why, or if those are even the right questions to ask. And to whom am I even addressing these questions.

We cannot adequately define supernatural deities, much less validate their existence, what they value, and what they expect of us. How do we measure and observe what we have defined as being unmeasurable and unobservable, beyond nature.

Agnosticism requires getting comfortable with uncertainty, because we live in a world that does not give up its secrets easily. It’s fortunate then, that agnosticism also goes hand-in-hand with curiosity. It does not stop us from speculating, it encourages it, as long as that speculation is not presented as fact and weaponized to oppress others.

One thing I can say with absolute certainty, is that there is absolutely no certainty to support supernatural claims, religious or otherwise. I can say with complete confidence, that faith is not fact.

Contained within those four words are some four hundred years of scientific discoveries, each of which contributed to that confidence. Those discoveries led to one of humanity’s crowning achievements.

Through the rigor of the scientific method and the critical thinking skills it demands, we can objectively assess the validity of our claims. We can design and run tests on those claims, recording our measurements and observations, and then validating our results to ensure they are repeatable by independently run experiments.

In this way we can separate fact from fiction, distinguish between subjective and objective truths, and attempt to quantify uncertainty. Applying this to religious doctrine is a straightforward process and leads us to some definitive answers.

Since we can’t conceive of any way to repeatably test and independently verify the existence of supernatural entities, much less their characteristics and nuanced expectations, we quite quickly arrive at this conclusion: Hypotheses about supernatural entities are unprovable. Any religion that promotes its supernatural doctrine as objective truth or factual is making fraudulent claims.

Any chance we have in halting the damage caused by these fraudulent claims hinges on our ability to hold religions accountable, and the scientific method gives us the framework to do just that. Science doesn’t have the answers to the great mysteries surrounding the origins and meaning of our existence either. But the difference between science and religion is that science doesn’t claim to have those answers. Rather it gives us the confidence to acknowledge and embrace uncertainty, rather than fear it and flee from it.

As evolutionary biologist Dr Jerry Coyne explains in his book Faith versus Fact, many people continue to rationalize that their faith has some scientific basis and conflate the two. Coyne meticulously shows how faith and science are inherently incompatible, conflicting in methodology, outcomes, and philosophy. What is certain is that no one can claim to be objectively certain on matters of faith.

In his book, Jesus and the Hidden Contradictions of the Gospels, biblical scholar, Dr Bart Ehrman, describes not only the contradictions of the gospels but the fact that they were authored anonymously. The utter lack of evidence for the very underpinnings of Catholic Canon Law and all the doctrine that followed, led to Dr Ehrman becoming an agnostic.

Let’s call a spade a spade. Many churches and well-meaning parents are brainwashing kids from the moment they’re born. Isolation from those with secular opinions, like insisting on religious schooling, and controlling access to information, for example, by banning books. Exploiting fear and uncertainty by explaining the mysteries of life and death through the lens of their religious ideology and using repetition and daily recitations to reinforce those notions.

And finally, intertwining faith in God with love and loyalty to their family and country, emotionally equating obedience to God with everything good that gives meaning and joy to their lives. Is it any wonder these kids grow up to have an almost visceral reaction to anything that challenges their world view? Is it any wonder that they become susceptible to those who weaponize religion and exploit their deepest fears?

To end the cycle of generational indoctrination and the subsequent weaponization of religious doctrine that inevitably occurs, we must teach our young people that faith is not fact. Not only do we need to require all organized religions to display that message, but we also need every public school to reinforce that message with age-appropriate curriculum, starting in kindergarten and continuing through their secondary education.

It may seem a tall order, however we should never underestimate the power of inspiration. Like many others in my generation, I was inspired by the Cosmos series and accompanying book by Dr Carl Sagan and his wife, Ann Druyan. Cosmos shared the wonderment of the universe in a way that anyone could appreciate. It put into perspective how little we actually know about the universe and our place in it, and how that uncertainty can be a source of inspiration rather than fear.

Sagan defined superstition as belief without evidence. If we’ve learned anything from the church’s history, superstition can become so deeply entrenched in culture that it is not easily overcome. His words ring truer than ever,
“You can’t convince a believer of anything; for their belief is not based on evidence, it’s based on a deep-seated need to believe.”

We find evidence of that in how conservatives frame every critical issue in religious terms to motivate their voting base: climate crisis, reproductive justice, voter suppression, anti-trans legislation, LGBTQ rights, stolen elections and insurrection, vaccines and masks, and even gun control. Now, more than ever, we must provide future generations with the critical thinking skills they need to make the most informed decisions about the many crises we face on our planet.

The scientific method gives us the tools we need to make evidence-based decisions. It allows us to unequivocally state that religious beliefs, like any supernatural conjecture, cannot be proven or disproven.

Acknowledging that faith is not fact does not stop us from believing or appreciating the wisdom contained within the stories of our faith. They often carry with them the traditions and convictions of our ancestors, passed on through generations of storytelling. Some themes even seem to be common among all religions in some form or another. Like those encouraging us to love and care for one another, regardless of our differences.

Growing up Catholic, I did not think Christianity was meant to be interpreted as an absolute truth and I did not feel compelled to analyze it deeply. I also never thought of church doctrine as a legitimate answer to the mysteries of the universe and our role in it. I assumed no one else did either, based on the actions of my other Catholic friends.

I believed church was simply a place where you could find some sense of shared community. Where I grew up, you sort of inherited the church of your family, whether you wanted to or not. It’s understandable how people would attend a certain church and not really give it much thought.
Church seemed to fill a void for those who wanted to feel connected, either to family or their community. It was a place they would be welcomed regardless of their background, assuming you tithed on time. It also seemed the only place in town to get married and buried, so there was that.

For most people, church was inextricably integrated into their family traditions and often represented a link to their cultural identities. This was especially true in a city like Youngstown, where waves of immigrants were brought in from Europe to work the coal mines and steel mills that were the lifeblood of the region.

In Youngstown, the city was neatly divided into regions where immigrants from a certain country tended to congregate. For example, you knew exactly where the Ukrainian, Polish, Italian, and Irish parts of the city were. Think of it like an early version of EPCOT, but instead of beautiful gardens and fountains there were blast furnaces and huge smokestacks billowing glowing embers of soot that would burn into the paint of all the houses downwind.

I was baptized in the Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Ukrainian Church with the Byzantine Rite. I went through the equivalent of Navy SEAL Bud-S training and graduated from Catechism. And I learned to feel guilty for everything that went wrong and beg for forgiveness. We abided by the tithing regulations and attended religiously on Christmas and Easter, come hell or high water.

That’s the way it was for me and my sisters, and it seemed to align well enough with my family’s values. Take my dad, for example. He embodied the angry-God from scripture, and much like our priest, we knew instinctually never to cross him. My mom, thankfully, embodied everything good in scripture, which is largely what kept us kids alive when we invariably ran afoul of our dad’s many rules.

I’ll spare you the details, but for most of my adult life I did not attend church with any regularity, and mostly not at all. I just didn’t find any that matched with my sense of community. I won’t lie, it was also very difficult for me to be in places where even the tiniest bit of swearing would tend to make people uncomfortable.

Fast forward several decades to the birth of my last two kids, and wham. I suddenly felt compelled to go back to church. Yes, you heard me right. This agnostic decided to find a church. And it was pretty much my urging that led our family to start attending regularly and ultimately become members.

The church we started attending was the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor. I will say that I knowingly violated my dad’s rule against changing churches, but by then he had mellowed quite a bit, and it helped that he never attended church again after us kids left the house.
One of the things that attracted us most to the Congregational Church was its reputation as one of the first and fiercest critics of slavery in America and their on-going commitment to social justice. For one thing, they affirm the LGBTQ community and don’t describe trans kids as abominations. But more on that later.

All this to say that I had a pretty typical Catholic up-bringing by all accounts, and I don’t have some preternatural vendetta against churches per say. But it is infinitely clear that while religious doctrine may inform our character, traditions, and culture, we cannot allow it to be used as the basis for the Rule of Law or any rules of law. We cannot allow it to manipulate or dictate legislation, justice, education, or any other public institution.
And while each religion speaks to morality through the lens of their supernatural beliefs, morality did not arise from religious epiphany and is certainly not essential for moral conduct.

To the contrary, religions are responsible for or complicit in some of the worst examples of man’s inhumanity to man. And more specifically, man’s inhumanity to woman. And white man’s inhumanity to, well, everyone. The essential elements of morality result from societal evolution and natural selection. Morality today often exists in spite of religion rather than because of it. I bear witness.

Peter Tchoryk

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