Matthew Syed has a good piece in the Sunday Times today about the QAnon cult and it’s relation to more conventional religions. In it he is right to put the word “belief” in quotes when referencing to atheism. The point about being an atheist is that it means a lack of belief. Or at least a lack of belief in the random bundle of nonsenses that every religion, bar none, requires us to buy into.
The scientific method of study into anything requires us to seek truths , preferably verifiable ones. We seek evidence and then the deeper we get in we seek corroborating evidence. As a biographer I’m only going to relate a story if there is proper reason to think that it is true. I might record an anecdote but if the provenance is questionable I will say so.
Most religions have a requirement that we regard its central figure – Christ, Mohammed, Buddha – as a deity or close to being one. And the “teachings” of this (quasi) God figure are of course holy writ. The extent to which challenge to the writ is permitted varies – you can be a Christian or a Jew without buying in to the Old Testament creation myth. That said there are hundreds of churches in the United States where you have to “believe” that God created the Universe in seven days 6000 years ago.
The problem is God or gods. The monotheistic religions disagree about a lot of things but by definition they agree that there is one God, who they worship. This is the very beginning of the belief systems that you are required to buy into.
If our logic and reason requires us to deny the existence of God that’s pretty much it – we can’t pass the necessary threshold to become a religious believer. There are exceptions to this of course and some religions like Hinduism have a more spiritual element to them. And there are quite appealing movements like the Quakers which don’t require you to sign up to anything other than living a tolerant and “good” life.
When people like me express religious scepticism we are sometimes told about the need for “Faith”. This is the catch all word common to most religions which essentially means that even if the evidence is absent or weak we should still believe it by having faith that it is true. Science can’t really handle this – the “I can’t prove it but I believe it to be true” position is anathema to followers of the scientific method.
That there is a world outside of us – the “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” of Hamlet – most of us agree. Every day at a personal and more general level we learn new things. This enlightenment, whichever subset of science it is based on from archeology to quantum physics and everything in between, reduces the need for faith.
It is easy to debunk QAnon or Scientology with science but that of course is not enough. Education from the earliest years in the scientific method would be welcome and that surely requires that all schools are secular. It shouldn’t be, but it probably is, that this is a step too far.