Thursday, October 25, 2007

Miracles, Science, and Fundamentalism

As an atheist, I am of course very uncomfortable with any religion that believes in a supernatural being. And as a scientist, a belief in miracles really drives me up the wall. A central tenet of science is that a fundamental, probably unchanging, set of physical laws has governed the entire Universe since just after the Big Bang. And no exceptions whatsoever are permitted! So you can’t get around inconvenient physics that regulates important events like death and the future just by calling in a favor from your favorite diety. And yet miracles are part of the fundamental (pun intended) fabric of at least three of the current major world religions- Christianity, Hinduism, and Judaism.

Although organized religion leaves a bad taste in my mouth, I find that I can in some sense respect the conservative fundamentalists of any religion. These conservatives by God hold unequivocally to their ancient beliefs, be it Christianity’s virgin birth and transubstantiation (tantamount to cannibalism!), the parting of the water by Moses, etc. On the other hand, I hold little respect for the modern religious revisionists who say something like “We modern (name-your-religion)ists don’t really believe any longer that stories of miracles in the Bible (old or new), Koran, etc. should be taken literally- we now think these stories should be viewed as parables.” But if you take away the miracles in Christianity, I think you’re left with a pretty vacuous religion. Just think of The Book of Matthew, loaded with situations where Jesus had to pull off magic “miracles” to prove he really was the expected saviour.

So as religions go, I prefer one that sticks to its guns about its supernatural beliefs, and essentially says to the world (including all other religions): “One of us is going to hell, and it sure as hell ain’t us.” This type of religion steadfastly maintains its unadulterated beliefs, and doesn’t “cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions” (Lillian Hellman, letter to House Un-American Activities Committee, 1952). Such a fundamentalist religion, although sorely misguided about God (and often also about Science), at least represents a worthy adversary of atheism.

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