Science, faith, and deconversion

I'm sure most folks who read my blog (go you!) are familiar with PZ Myers and his blog Pharyngula, but just in case you've missed it he posted one earlier today in which, in his usual polemical style, talks about why science works and faith does not. I thought it was pertinent after the Stephen Hawking post I put up yesterday. These were the gems that caught my attention and made me cheer, though I encourage you to read the whole article:
The success of science has shown us what an effective knowledge generator accomplishes: it produces consensus and an increasing body of support for its conclusions, and it has observable effects, specifically improvements in our understanding and ability to manipulate the world. We can share evidence that other people can evaluate and replicate, and an idea can spread because it works and is independently verifiable.
Look at religion. It is a failure. There is no convergence of ideas, no means to test ideas, and no reliable outcomes from those ideas. It's noise and chaos and arbitrary eruptions of ridiculous rationalizations. Mormonism, Buddhism, Islam, and Catholicism can't all be true — and no, please don't play that game of reducing each religion to a mush that merely recognizes divinity. Religions have very specific dogmas, and practitioners do not blithely shuffle between them. Those differences are indefensible if they actually have a universal source of reliable knowledge about metaphysics.
That's really a great summary. The only way anyone's been able to produce consensus among the world's religions and all their innumerable variations is by noting that they all recognize some kind of supernatural consciousness. But as soon as you start dissecting what this consciousness is, what it wants us to do, the extent to which it interacts with the world, and how we're supposed to interact with it (and to what extent we can), the consensus evaporates. Since there is no theological methodology for independently testing ideas, consensus is gained through emotional appeals, cultural conditioning and/or threats of violence; and even then, consensus usually exists in only small, localized sub-culture pockets. The best way to make everyone think that they agree about God and religion is to make sure they don't think about it too deeply.

In a previous post on Pharyngula, PZ said something else I thought was interesting: that he never sees "road to Damascus" deconversions. This is because deconversion is usually a long, emotionally difficult process of critical thinking and self-reflection. I was raised Christian, but becoming "born-again" took all of a few minutes. I just had to surround myself with friendly people who were all doing the same thing, and who could give me some spiel about living a better life and going to heaven if I gave my heart to Jesus. I've yet to meet a Christian who converted only after a rigorous study of the world's religions and a dispassionate examination of the countless conflicting Christian theologies before settling on one particular one. This dichotomy between conversion and deconversion really illustrates the essence of what "faith" is, and isn't. It's not a reliable, valid methodology for attaining knowledge; it's a human force driven by cultural conditioning and groupthink. And because claims to knowledge are predicated on "revelation" and other subjective experiences rather than an independently verifiable methodology, there cannot and never will be a broad consensus on either its fundamental tenants nor its pragmatic application.


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