I. The Mother of All Inconvenient Truths
What is it in the human psyche that leads many of us to accept supernatural explanations for life’s greatest mysteries? And not just to accept these explanations, but to embrace them as indisputable and absolute truths? I’m of course speaking of religious and spiritual belief systems that rely on unproven and unprovable supernatural speculation.
And for those of us who do not buy into unproven speculation, how can we stand silently on the sidelines, watching the carnage that inevitably results from unchecked religious fervor? It’s not like we don’t have daily reminders of the atrocities committed in the name of religious differences. And yet, time and time again, we fail to act.
The answer is the same in both cases: fear.
Fear of uncertainty drives people to rationalize illogical behaviors and beliefs, even when it means ignoring everything they know about logic and reason. No one can say with any certainty, for example, what happens after death. But the fear of not knowing is so unsettling to some that they choose to believe religion holds the answers to all the great mysteries of our existence.
Fear of social recrimination causes others to stop short of doing what’s really necessary to bring an end to religious tyranny. We remember Copernicus and Galileo as much for their fear of being labeled heretics as we do their scientific discoveries. Leaders today on both sides of the isle fear the consequences of being labeled ungodly by those on the religious right.
Rather than inspiring curiosity, fear closes the mind.
So here we are today. Centuries removed from the Age of Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment, only to find ourselves still held hostage by the most dangerous of all Medieval practices: organized religion.
We continue to face censorship and persecution, much like Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton when they began to publish scientific discoveries that contradicted Holy Scripture. These early scientists sought truth, not by relying on interpretations of Christian doctrine and supernatural speculation, but through logic and reason.
It is now up to us to finish what they started. We must face our fears and embrace the mother of all inconvenient truths: faith is not fact.
II. Faith Is Not Fact
Herein lies the problem. After centuries of Scientific Revolution, organized religions today still misrepresent their doctrine as indisputable and absolute truth – and we have collectively failed to hold them accountable. This failure has resulted in some of the most horrific crimes against humanity, from genocide and conquest to slavery and segregation.
The concept of faith, which can be such a powerful force for good, is by its very nature susceptible to the most egregious abuse and manipulation. Religious exploitation proved such an effective way to exert power and control over a populace that it became the ultimate weapon of man.
Conservative legislators and judges today seem to have perfected that weapon, acting with impunity to circumvent the Constitution and sanctify religious beliefs over facts and evidence. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the GOP’s legislative assaults on women’s rights to bodily autonomy, Black identities, LGBTQ rights, and gender-affirming health care.
Acknowledging faith is not fact recognizes that the core tenets of religious doctrine, as with any supernatural speculation, are unproven and unprovable. It does not claim that any religion is false, for we can no more prove that God does not exist than we can that God does exist.
Recognizing faith is not fact does not diminish an individual’s religious freedom, it preserves it by ensuring that no religion or supernatural claim can be used to dehumanize and oppress others. It doesn’t stop anyone from believing what they want, but it does stop them from making false claims and weaponizing those claims to oppress others.
People may hold deeply held beliefs built on doctrine that they assume to be factual, and consider it their truth, which is of course a subjective truth. Objective truths require facts, which in turn rely on evidence from hypotheses that can be tested through measurements and observations that are repeatable and can be verified independently.
We call this the scientific method. It is a formulation of critical thinking.
Regardless of whether hypotheses about the supernatural originate from religious doctrine or not, the scientific method gives us a powerful framework to evaluate those hypotheses. Since we can’t conceive of any way to repeatably test and independently verify the existence of a supernatural deity, it is irresponsible and dangerous to claim any religious doctrine is objectively true.
When religious doctrine is presented as absolute truth and used to make false accusations about trans-affirming parents and doctors being child abusers, educators who affirm LGBTQ and Black identities as being groomers and pedophiles, this is defamation, and it is a crime.
When religious beliefs are cited as the reason for proposing and passing legislation that criminalizes trans-affirming health care, denies the civil and human rights of the LGBTQ community, and openly calls for eliminating them from society, this is pre-genocidal fascism. And it is a crime against humanity.
This is the accountability we must demand.
We must once and for all recognize that any decision affecting the citizens of this country must be based on facts, data, and evidence – not supernatural speculation — and that is the real reason we must separate church and state. Neither morality nor rule of law can be allowed to be driven by religious doctrine.
III. The Rise and Fall of Critical Thinking
For millennia, the Catholic church and autocratic empires, led predominantly by white men, controlled every aspect of life. From birth to marriage to death and everything in between. The rules of law were said to originate directly from God, and as such were incontestable – but of course, interpreted and modified as the men in power saw fit.
The Catholic church approved imperialist expansion and conquest resulting in genocide, enslavement, and oppression of indigenous people and non-believers, all in the name of saving souls for Christ. Native cultures were extinguished and personal liberties abolished. The people and their land were exploited mercilessly.
A new world order was established where indigenous people were stripped of their humanity and given the shackles and chains of Christianity in return. Their reward for submitting to their Christian masters, they were told, would come in the afterlife. In a cruelly ironic twist of fate, some in the BIPOC community now continue to be exploited by the same powers that led to their own culture’s demise.
It certainly has been convenient for men that Christian doctrine has been widely interpreted to give them dominion over women in every aspect of life.
It’s been only a little over 100 years since women were granted the right to vote and hold public office. Women had no representation in government, no rights to property, no say in family decisions and not even a right to their own children – women did not exist as a separate legal entity after they were married. Aside from claims that women did not possess the intellect and were prone to hysteria, suffrage opponents interpreted the Bible to justify why women must remain subservient to men.
Our country has allowed sincerely held beliefs to carry the same credibility as evidence-based facts for far too many generations. This submission on our part has only given strength to those skilled at weaponizing religion and has paved the way for a resurgence of the religious right, rebranded as Christian nationalism.
What many have failed to appreciate is that the winds have changed, and we are teetering on a precipice. Power and money are behind this movement, with the ability to incite insurrection and rage in the name of God. The very freedom and individual liberties of women, Black, and LGBTQ communities – and democracy itself – are at stake.
IV. The Age of Scientific Rebellion
I struggled with the realization that it will take nothing less than rebellion, a Scientific Rebellion, to pick up where the Scientific Revolution left off. We must succeed where countless generations before us could not.
Now more than ever, we must provide future generations with the tools they need to make the most informed decisions about the many crises we face on our planet. If I could have these future generations read only one book on this topic, it would be Dr. Carl Sagan’s The Varieties of Scientific Experience – A Personal View of the Search for God, edited by his wife, Ann Druyen.
We keep finding ourselves debating the most critical issues of our time with those who justify their arguments in religious terms: climate crisis, reproductive justice, voter suppression, anti-trans legislation, LGBTQ rights, stolen elections and insurrection, vaccines and masks, and even gun control.
It seems these words from Carl Sagan 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.”
I think it’s safe to say that access to knowledge today, though still painfully inequitable, is a tad better than during the Middle Ages. But just as ignorance of the law does not give one a free pass for breaking the law, ignorance of logic and reason does not give one a free pass with respect to understanding the difference between faith and fact. To deny that faith is not fact today is a choice of willful ignorance.
We are all complicit in allowing Christian churches to claim that their doctrine is the indisputable word of God. We are complicit in not holding these churches accountable for indoctrinating generations of Americans with false and malicious narratives and allowing the powerful and wealthy to weaponize religion for their own benefit.
We are out of time. It must end now.
We must end this tradition of oppressing people in the name of supernatural beliefs that conveniently only bestow men – and typically white men – with the power to interpret and execute the will of God.
We must end this tradition of acquiescing to those who claim their supernatural beliefs give them the right to dehumanize, discriminate, and violate the individual liberties of women, BIPOC, LGBTQ, and any other community that does not fit their particular white, straight, cisgender Christian narrative.
We must end this tradition of allowing firmly held supernatural beliefs to outweigh facts and evidence in matters that affect the future of our species and planet, including decisions on climate, the environment, and public health.
There is absolutely no reason we should allow any religious doctrine to be used as the basis for laws or policies defining life, marriage, sexual norms, gender norms, end-of-life decisions, or any other aspect of morality. If someone chooses to follow their personal religious convictions and it does no harm to others, more power to them. But as soon as those convictions are used to encroach on the individual liberties and rights of others, those convictions become crimes.
I’d like to think that when future generations look back on this Age of Scientific Rebellion, they will shake their heads in disbelief that it took a couple millennia before we brought an end to religious tyranny. I hope they are able to say things like, “I’m so glad I didn’t live during the dark ages of the early 2000s.”
Because that would mean we succeeded.