Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Is Religious Belief a Choice?

More thoughts and some reactions to today's column about a religious scientist.

Is Religious Belief a Choice?


I’ve had a nagging feeling all day that something was missing from today’s column profiling a religious scientist who keeps his faith separate from his work. It was not intended to create the false impression that science and religion are compatible or equivalent. Science requires evidence, while faith requires belief in the absence of evidence.

But some religiously-oriented people do practice science and some of them make important contributions. It might mean putting on a critical thinking hat in the lab, then removing it and putting on a faith hat in church. The important thing is that they possess the critical thinking hat, and try not to use their supernatural beliefs to board up the windows of the unknown.

I was not surprised to get some nice letters from people who were concerned about my destination in the afterlife, since I admitted I was not of the Christian faith. Other readers were critical of religious people – theists - for believing in things that aren’t real.

I’m not sure they have a choice in the matter. I know I don’t.

In the column, I used the term “religiously-oriented” because I suspect we may have no more power over our religiosity than we do over our sexual orientation. I did not choose to be an unbeliever. In theory, I could choose to go to church, and I could go through the motions of worship, but if there really is an omniscient being up there, She will know I’m faking. That’s why if there’s a hell, there’s no way of avoiding it.  

Could it be there’s something in the DNA and deep neuronal pathways that makes it impossible for people of faith to think or feel otherwise?  Can we atheists and agnostics honestly say we resist religion through some act of discipline or willpower, or are we merely immune to its opiate-like effects?

Reality without faith is a hard bed to sleep on. I live with the awareness that the future will bring decrepitude and death and the deaths of everyone and everything I’ve ever cared about. There’s no reunion in the afterlife, little justice or fairness in the world, and no benevolent supernatural force caring for us all. Most things don’t happen for a reason. People of faith wonder how we nonbelievers get through the day. Sometimes I’m not so sure myself. I just know I couldn’t possibly believe otherwise.

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About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at fflam@phillynews.com. Reach Planet of the at fflam@phillynews.com.

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