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Is Popular Religion Derived from Egotism?

Walter Lippman on Scientific vs. Religious Attitudes Towards the Universe


There is a lot of debate about whether science and religion conflict. Religious apologists commonly argue that, properly understood, the two are compatible. Materialists commonly argue that the two rely upon such diametrically opposed premises that it simply isn't possible for them not to conflict. There is one sense in which this latter view is more accurate: so much popular religion derives from the assumption that we are the center of the universe.

Science, in contrast, not only does not share this assumption but contradicts it directly on a regular basis.

The radical novelty of modern science lies precisely in the rejection of the belief, which is at the heart of all popular religion, that the forces which move the stars and atoms are contingent upon the preferences of the human heart.
- Walter Lippman, quoted in 2000 Years of Disbelief, by James A. Haught

Lippman's observation above is important because it addresses people's feelings about the world around them and the manner in which they interact with it. This is, after all, a fundamental reason why both religion and science developed in the first place. We all want to know why we are here and what our place in the universe should be. Both science and religion attempt to deal with such questions, but in radically different ways.

What Lippman describes as the attitude of traditional religion is also true of many paranormal beliefs we see today and he is, I think, pointing out a fundamental desire that drives both paranormal and religious beliefs: the desire to influence the very nature of the universe around us to suit our desires. People pray for hurricanes to turn away and they visit astrologers who tell them how to avoid problems. Why? Because they believe that the movement of stars and atoms can be affected merely from the desire that it be so.

People also turn to science in order to influence the world around us, but not simply through wishful thinking. Science actually undermines the human conceit that the universe is or should be structured according to human whim. Almost everything we learn about our universe through science reinforces the conclusion that we aren't special:

  • Our species evolved alongside every other organism on this planet and from the same ancestors
  • Our planet is both unremarkable and one of countless billions in our galaxy alone
  • Neither we nor our galaxy are the center of the universe
  • The universe is wholly indifferent to us, our desires, and even our suffering
  • In fact, much of the universe is hostile to our existence

Whereas religion and superstition tend to offer placebos to deal with realizations like this, science provides the means by which we ourselves can cause changes or alleviate suffering — but only by working with nature and with the way the universe is structured. Science doesn't offer to help solve our problems through wishful thinking but rather than a sober understanding of what is and is not possible.

We cannot, for example, turn away a hurricane simply by wishing it would go somewhere else and hurt others who are more wicked, but we can use science to predict hurricanes and build structures better able to withstand the onslaught of the storm. We cannot tell the future by looking at the configuration of the stars and imagine that the future is fixed, but we can use statistics and other scientific tools to make reliable estimates about what is and is not likely, choosing our current actions based on facts.

As a consequence, we are presented with a stark choice about how to approach the world around us. On the one hand we can continue with the prayers that arise out of wishing that the order of the universe might rearrange itself according to the preferences or our hearts. On the other hand, we can move forward with the scientific project of learning more about the universe and, therefore, learning how we can better make our homes with what we have.

Religion has never cured a disease, protected people from a storm, or saved anyone from the ravages of old age. Science, however, has made tremendous gains with all of these and more. There is a reason for that.

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