Why I Rarely Debate Religion

I got into a brief discussion the other day with a fellow student in the break between two lectures. We were initially discussing the historical accuracy of ancient mythology when we digressed onto religion. I received an email from him tonight asking whether I was interested in discussing the subject of spirituality and, as far as I can figure out, some form of design argument that it seems he believes in. I explained to him that I no longer engage is such discussion and I actually wrote a long reply explaining why. I thought I’d add some more to that and share it here too.

I’m 36 years old and I have spent a lot of my life studying religion. I stopped being religious in my late 20s. I studied theological subjects at the bible college of one of the worlds largest churches when I was 24-25, The deeper I dug into the subject, the less substance I found to answer my own questions. Instead I had more unanswered questions than before. I have since spent a lot of time debating religion and its philosophical conflict with science. It isn’t really a topic that engage me much any more to be honest. The main reason I spent the time discussing it was because it is a good way to learn and test your position. Not that I claim to have found the complete truth now, I have just come to a point where these old questions no longer bother me. Learning something new about the world no longer causes a crisis of faith because I no longer need to fit the world into a religious context.

Beyond that point of realisation, I find most discussions on the topic to be fruitless because it always boils down to faith versus my disinterested in faith as a path to understanding. I have had these type of discussions literally a hundred times over, and my view of faith as largely redundant makes as little sense to believers as faith now does to me. I spent a couple of hours this Sunday afternoon discussing this exact point with two other women who deeply believe in a spiritual universe. In my opinion these views simply come from people projecting human attributes onto nature, which is something we have done throughout history. The only difference between older natural religions and modern ones, including modern spirituality, is that the modern ones are more sophisticated, but still without much substance. Why does the universe need purpose? Why do we assume there has to be a point to our own existence? Asking that counter-question seems to take a few believers by surprise. I don’t find the possibility of no purpose especially problematic, not after I’ve gotten used to the idea. I’m content with just being, until I run out of time. Being dead is no different from being not born. I’ve tried the latter, and I don’t feel it as especially traumatic.

As for subjects not covered by empirical science, I find much more insight in non-theistic philosophy, Hume, Spinoza, Hobbes, Russell, or modern humanist philosophy, than I ever found in religion. That is enough for me. Enough for a lifetime of reflection, and I no longer feel the need to debate these topics either with people as much as I used to. It doesn’t bother me that much that people have other beliefs either. Everyone needs to figure this out for themselves. To me the arguably creative concepts of modern spirituality is like drifting on a sea of imagination with no anchor-point in reality. These philosophies seem to be drift aimlessly on every new waves that constantly coms washing in. They may serve as temporary relief for some, but there is no certainty or lasting comfort.

As for religious spirituality, I do think people raised deeply religious are at a disadvantage. It took me a lot of time and worry to get passed that indoctrination. Many religious people are offended by such a statement, but all I am saying is that everyone should keep searching for the truth with an open mind, and don’t get caught up in dogmatic ideas. If you can’t make reality and your beliefs coexist, maybe it is the belief that is wrong? Assuming you even care much about the knowledge and understanding of nature. If you keep knowledge at an arms length, you may avoid the conflict of world views altogether, or maybe you always seek the supernatural explanation for things in favour of a more economical and rational one. If so, you should consider more objectively which one seems more logical. As good old Ockham used to say: among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Or at least he said something to that effect.

It’s a good rule. Especially if a hypothesis is redundant to explain the problem at hand. Take for instance the belief that evolution is guided by God (aka Intelligent Design). The theory of evolution through natural selection provides enough verifiable mechanisms to achieve this without the assistance of a God. God is redundant in this, and by Ockham’s principle should be cut away. Origin of life is not completely understood, not because the chemistry involved isn’t understood, and it is probably just chemistry, but the statistical probability of it happening by pure random chance is staggeringly low. But nature is full of guiding principles of chemistry that builds on more fundamental principles of quantum mechanics, and there are good hypotheses around that are completely within reach of both probability and within the limits of the laws of nature. So again, God is becoming redundant.

This is how we seek truth. Truth is never absolute or complete, it is preliminary and evaluated by its probability. Only religions claim they can provide truths, and that without giving probability, coherence and replicability much thought at all.

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  1. (e)m says:

    Yeah, I got over debating religion during transitioning. Not worth it, and of the people that have been most supportive of me, about half are extremely religious. To me, their other views matter more than a single category, especially when I haven’t exactly been welcomed with open arms by atheists (as a group, the other half of the people I know are atheists or atheistic pagans).

  2. Veronica says:

    Contrary to what a lot of both religious people and atheists like to believe about themselves neither are necessarily good people because of their beliefs. People are decent human beings mainly because they are capable of looking past their own experience and be inclusive and open minded.

  3. Very enjoyable book. Interesting interviews with folks who lost their faith. Although the author is obviously biased toward atheism, Professor Zuckerman did not write a hostile polemic against believers. The author essentially let the interviewees chat about the events that lead them to give up on religion. A measured discussion on the problems atheists have with faith. Much better than the anti-religious screeds from the likes of Richard Dawkins.

  4. Veronica says:

    I’m not sure which book you are referring to, but as en ex-Christian I can’t say I care much for Dawkins’ approach to critique of religion even if I agree with the core content of his arguments. In my first draft of this post I talked about one influential book for me, namely “Farewell to God” by Charles Templeton, a former evangelist. I bought and read that book while studying at a bible college. I was curious what reasons anyone could have to reject Christianity, and I was troubled by how rational he was about it because it echoed every doubt I’d ever had. I think I should read it again now 11 years later.

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