Quantum Theory and religion

Alain de Botton, “possibly the world’s richest philosopher” according to the Sydney Morning Herald, explains religion this way:

“There’s something called religion and it was invented a long time ago by people who felt very out of control with their lives, who didn’t know . . . why the sun always rose over the mountains. Nowadays people don’t find religion so convincing anymore.” Quoted from an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald, January 14-15, 2012

It’s clear to me how de Bottom has become rich. He makes millions of people feel comfortable by simplistic observations like the statement above. It’s as if a scientist were saying, “All you really need to understand is Newton’s Three Laws. They deal with real things that you can see. All the rest of Physics, like Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity is just theory.” De Botton misrepresents religion as badly as my hypothetical scientist misrepresents Physics.

I would like to break down de Botton’s statement above to start you on the path towards sharpening your critical thinking about religion.

  • “Religion was invented by people who felt out of control of their lives.” (I wonder how de Botton knows the motivation of people in prehistoric times, but I’ll let that pass.) Not all religions were invented by people who felt out of control. For example, Abraham was comfortably in control of his life when God called him to leave his native land and go to a strange land to the west. In fact, the Hebrews celebrated Abraham giving up control of his life to God as evidence of his faith.
  • The people who invented religion “didn’t know why the sun always rose over the mountains.” Doesn’t this ignor the most common reasons that people give for religion? Religion provides answers to the ultimate questions, eg, What does life mean? What is my purpose? Religion is not a scientific explanation for any phenomena but it is man’s inspired wisdom for why everything exists and what this means.
  • “Nowadays people don’t find religion so convincing anymore.” Which people is he referring to? Philosophers? There are many who do find religion meaningful. Scientists? Again, there are many who see no conflict between science and religion.

Intellectual honesty

First of all, hardly anyone ever becomes religious by reading a book. Religion is a response to an invitation, to join with people who share common beliefs. Many of us received this invitation when we were infants and our parents introduced us into the religious tradition our family practiced. At some point, perhaps, we have encountered philosophy and science — and perhaps this has raised questions about religion for us. I’d like to suggest that how we answer such questions is important. If we only read books like Alain de Botton writes or simply adopt the opinions of our friends,  I don’t think we can claim to being intellectually honest. None of these sources may be particularly even-handed about religion.

Let me use the example of how physicists might be intellectually honest when it comes to Quantum Theory. First of all, no first year student of Physics would claim they understood Quantum Theory by simply having conversations with their friends or reading the “Idiot’s Guide to Quantum Theory.” They realise how complex and deep this particular field of knowledge is, and the years of study required to attain a general grounding in the topic. Second, even the most advanced Physicists are tentative about the ‘truth’ of Quantum Mechanics, and its connection with “what is really going on.” There are debates about various ‘hard questions’ and ambiguities in Quantum Theory that no reputable scientist denies. Lastly, scientists of all types are always tentative about their beliefs in their theories, realising that future measurements or knowledge may invalidate their current understanding.

My sense is that each of us ought to be equally intellectually honest with ourselves about religion in general — whether we are believers or atheists. Understanding religion involves an enormously complex field of knowledge. Like the first year student in Physics, most of us should be aware of our limitations in drawing sweeping conclusions about religion based on a casual acquaintance with the topic. Second, there are also ‘hard questions’ and ambiguities in religious discussions. Things are not simple, when it comes to making responsible intellectual judgements about religion. Lastly, religion is not science so it is not a theory which can be invalidated — but religion also involves human knowledge, which evolves over time. How people regarded the Christian religion in the First Century is very different in most respects than how people think about it today. We must be ready to distinguish between the unchangeable focus of religion, which is God and His revelation to us, and what is changeable.

To return briefly to Alain de Botton, I’m sure that he wouldn’t strongly disagree with many of the statements in this post, even though he and I have almost completely divergent views on science and religion. Perhaps I was a bit harsh, picking on one phrase out of his vast body of work. I hope, somehow, that he sees this post and confirms how close our perspectives are when it comes to being intellectually honest. My concern is that Alain de Botton and others like him not mislead anyone, especially young adults, when it comes to the certainty of his position on religion.




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