Summer 2002

Philosophy and Ideas

Feeding Us a Line

Jerry de Gier

In today’s smorgasbord of ideas, what are we swallowing?

Organized religion has countless faithful and loyal followers, many of whom unquestioningly take their faith’s teachings to be true. Consequently, a common criticism of religion is that it appears to be a wholehearted adherence to something unproven. Numerous philosophers have felt justified in labeling it a crutch for the weak mind with no value for the enlightened. They charge that religion is a mere shadow of what it claims to be, and that a closer look would reveal it as a thin veneer that covers a solid core of hypocrisy.

Critics point to all-too-frequent reports of sexual misconduct on the part of clergymen, at scandals over money, or at supposed miracles that turn out to be nothing more than well-scripted and choreographed frauds. To add further credence to their charges, opponents note with more than a tinge of irony that countless wars have been waged in the name of religion.

Still, surveys consistently show that at least 80 percent of the world’s population nominally adheres to one religion or another. Perhaps people need to feel part of something larger than themselves. Or perhaps they long for a sense of direction or for spiritual enlightenment. Some undoubtedly reach out for the hope of existence beyond this physical life.

In an attempt to convert people away from organized religion, many thinkers have declared war on what they view as the false security that religion offers. Instead of helping to strengthen, they argue, religion is the first step on the way to the ultimate destruction of the individual. They believe that the strengthening of the individual and of society comes from the emancipation of all people from the confines of any dogma, especially religion.

Liberating the Spirit

The freeing of humanity from religious weak-mindedness is not a new idea. Many have suggested that untethering our innermost impulse to worship someone or something greater than ourselves liberates the human spirit and enhances the so-called noble virtues of society. Some scientists and philosophers have even advanced the notion that the obliteration of “religious morality” breeds strength and character.

Karl Marx, for example, looked at religion as a means of social control. He saw it as part of a ploy used by the ruling class to prevent the masses from rising to their full potential. He described religion as the “opium of the people.”

A few years later Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed, “God is dead: but as the human race is constituted, there will perhaps be caves for millenniums yet, in which people will show his shadow. And we—we have still to overcome his shadow!” Morality, he said, is “the herd instinct in the individual.”

Emma Goldman, an early-20th-century anarchist and feminist, remarked that Nietzsche “saw in Christianity the leveler of the human race, the breaker of man’s will to dare and to do. [He] saw in every movement built on Christian morality and ethics attempts not at the emancipation from slavery, but for the perpetuation thereof. Hence [he] opposed these movements with might and main.”

She went on to say that Nietzsche “hurled blow upon blow against the portals of Christianity, because [he] saw in it a pernicious slave morality, the denial of life, the destroyer of all the elements that make for strength and character.”

Do religious ideals and beliefs strengthen or weaken us? Can they mark a clear path for individual enlightenment, or is it indeed time to cast them off?

Was Nietzsche right? Do religious ideals and beliefs strengthen or weaken us? Can they mark a clear path for individual enlightenment, or is it indeed time to cast them off? Should we, as many intelligent and highly respected people insist, recognize that any belief that does not rest on verifiable knowledge is suspect, even superstitious, and must therefore be opposed?

It sounds reasonable enough. If it is true, however, shouldn’t this be the test for all our convictions, whatever their nature? How many have stopped to consider that some of the “facts” we take for granted in the realm of science, for example, are not facts at all but simply theories and hypotheses?

Intellectual Laziness

Ironic as it might seem, when it comes to opinions masquerading as facts, science is vulnerable. For example, in his book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, molecular biologist Michael Denton remarks: “It is not surprising that, in the context of . . . overwhelming social consensus, many biologists are confused as to the true status of the Darwinian paradigm and are unaware of its metaphysical basis” (emphasis added).

We could also consider the impact of some of the giants in the fields of psychology and sociology. The ideas of men like Sigmund Freud and Alfred Kinsey had a tremendous effect on 20th-century society, yet their methods and conclusions are now being called into serious question. It would appear that millions of people made life-changing choices based on the teachings of so-called scientists without first putting those teachings to the test.

Most of us carelessly assume that what we have been taught is true. As a result we may engage in some highly irrational behaviors.

We can all become lazy in our approach to proving what we believe to be true. Most of us carelessly assume that what we have been taught is true. As a result we may engage in some highly irrational behaviors. Take the popularity of horoscopes. Many people consult them regularly, even to the point of directing their day’s activities by them. How many are careful not to walk under a ladder or allow a black cat to wander across their path? How many brides abide by the superstition that being seen in their wedding gown by the groom before the wedding brings bad luck? Do people ever ask themselves why they believe such things?

And then there’s politics. Don’t those who think of themselves as liberal tend to believe a liberal politician’s line on any given issue? Likewise, doesn’t the conservative buy into the conservative politician’s viewpoint? How many take the time to check facts and statistics cited by their favorite politician before embracing the party line?

So while it is true that many people have merely accepted, without question, a set of religious beliefs, it is equally true that many swallow information and ideas handed down by scientists, sociologists, politicians and the media without a second thought.

Can it truly be said, then, that weak-mindedness is a symptom only of religious belief, or must we conclude that the same intellectual laziness often applies to other deeply held beliefs and opinions?

All dogma (that is, anything held as an established opinion), originates from one source: the human mind. And whether in matters of science, religion, politics or the evening news, belief—or faith—plays a fundamental part in an individual’s convictions.

Can we conclude, then, that anything that requires a measure of faith is a sign of weak-mindedness?

One Scientist’s View

Albert Einstein realized that not all knowledge can be verified through scientific experimentation, especially knowledge regarding human behavior. He wrote, “The weak point of [the extreme rationalist’s] concept is . . . that those convictions which are necessary and determinant for our conduct and judgments cannot be found solely along this solid scientific way.”

He realized that knowledge wasn’t an end in itself, but that it should be used for the benefit of society. Yet the human race has proven over the millennia that it isn’t very good at regulating its behavior to achieve consistently positive results.

Einstein reasoned that when someone determines certain means to be useful for the achievement of a goal, then the means, in reality, become the end. In other words, how we go about achieving our goals is of critical importance. Some, including Nietzsche, would claim that as long as the character of the strong prevails, any means can be justified for an end. Einstein argued that in a healthy society this could not happen.

To make clear these fundamental ends and valuations,” he said, “and to set them fast in the emotional life of the individual, seems to me precisely the most important function which religion has to perform in the social life of man. And if one asks whence derives the authority of such fundamental ends, since they cannot be stated and justified merely by reason, one can only answer: they exist in a healthy society as powerful traditions, which act upon the conduct and aspirations and judgments of the individuals; they are there, that is, as something living, without its being necessary to find justification for their existence.”

Did Einstein prove this empirically, or did he hold on to it as a matter of faith?

Faith itself is not the problem. The serious and enlightened mind, however, cannot and will not back away from the search for understanding. It will look to prove whether its beliefs are grounded in fact. But where can we find such proof?

Religion and science share little common ground in the mind of the modern philosopher. That, in many ways, is a tragedy. Many of the stories of the Bible were considered tall tales until 19th- and 20th-century archaeology began verifying the names of biblical figures and places. History and religion have proven that a partnership of integrity can be struck when critical thinking and fact-finding are employed on both sides. Science is so much a part of who we are as human beings, and the Bible has much to say about it. Can we use both to enlighten our path in life?

Through the words found within its pages, the Bible shows the way to frame the human existence—the means to a desirable end. Far from diminishing and weakening the role of humanity, the Bible actually clarifies it. Simply believing without trying to prove what is right, however, is not an option.

Prove All Things

In this age of relativism, most people bristle at the idea of absolutes. They say that unless we’re able to prove empirically that there is a force that governs us and has the right to determine truth, we must reject any such notions.

The Bible itself challenges us to “prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21, King James Version). The Greek word translated “good” connotes that which is honest, valuable, virtuous or worthy. Clearly these are things to be sought with every fiber of our being, and when at last we find them, we should cling to them as an anchor in a sea of uncertainty.

It doesn’t come naturally, and in the process we can become weary and skeptical, but Psalm 34:8 says, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who trusts in Him!” Truth can be proven through actually living it to the fullest in faith. It is through real-life experience that belief, or faith, becomes grounded.

This type of living belief can propel a person to continually dig deeper into the mysteries of the universe and the purpose of the human race. Far from inhibiting the growth of the individual, it allows the individual the freedom to develop into a critical thinker and build the character that will truly liberate the human spirit.

When we blindly follow beliefs of any kind without substantiation, we make the same mistake that has been made throughout the ages. 

We see examples of weak-mindedness all around us. When we blindly follow beliefs of any kind without substantiation, we make the same mistake that has been made throughout the ages. Through intellectual laziness, we conform to unproven ideas.

In fact, it takes a strong mind to face and accept truth revealed by a supreme Spirit Being. Such a mind wants to know the truth just as the Author of truth wants us to know truth.

It’s when we move away from the process of objectively looking for truth that the weakening of the mind takes place. That is when we go our own way and look to fill the void with humanly devised ideas. History has recorded the failings of this approach.

Perhaps it’s time to investigate a way of life that promises true enlightenment and peace as its end. It takes strength of mind and spirit to embark on such a journey.