“Every one of the world’s “great” religions utterly trivializes the immensity and beauty of the cosmos. Books like the Bible and the Koran get almost every significant fact about us and our world wrong. Every scientific domain — from cosmology to psychology to economics — has superseded and surpassed the wisdom of Scripture.” – Sam Harris
Let’s consider the development of human knowledge.
First, that is certainly an enormous topic. The most expansive topic in the world, right? It’s all-inclusive. But we won’t be taking the whole thing on, thankyouverymuch.
Instead I want to consider the one-way nature of human knowledge. While it’s certainly not perfectly linear, humanity is unique on this earth in that we accumulate, store, and propagate knowledge external to our own experience, and that the sum total of knowledge generally grows with each generation. Our view of all of existence gains clarity with each discovery. Our understanding of life, the universe, and everything (to borrow a phrase) grows more accurate with each generation of scientists. We don’t have to go back and learn everything by personal experience. We gather the knowledge of past scientists and use that knowledge to continue to advance whichever field we’re studying. We stand on the shoulders of giants.
While we recognize the revolutionaries of science, the paradigm-shifting discoverers like Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and the like, we also recognize that today’s leading experts are more able to explain and clarify the truth about the nature of the universe than their predecessors because of the totality of knowledge built upon the foundation those revolutionaries discovered.
That’s the key point. Today’s leading experts are the best source of knowledge in every field of study. There is nobody who has written in the past whose writings, all so thoroughly vetted, will be a better source of overall clarity. True, these writings are still referenced, but because they are often the impetus for the current track of study and experimentation. They provide the framework or definition for accepted current knowledge on which today’s scientist will build their theoretical case.
Let me say it another way. In every aspect of human life, we know more and more about the way things work, macro to micro. While there is still much to learn, our aggregate knowledge is far more complete and detailed than at any other time in history. 500 years from now it will likely be much more so, barring some apocalyptic event such as a thermonuclear war or asteroid collision.
Accepting this is true for every aspect of our experience, why do the religious (me included during my 26 years) assume that the most accurate information about the meaning of life, the existence of a god or gods, the nature of humanity, and all things spiritual, come from books 1300 to 2500 years ago?
Why is it so believable that everything there is to know about god was recorded by middle-eastern nomads two millennia ago? Two thousand years. People – well, men – who knew but a tiny fraction about our world and universe of what we know now.
We wouldn’t ignore modern scientists and instead try to find out what Newton would have written on Quantum Physics or String Theory. We would seek out the aggregate knowledge from people who know, who can tell us what we do know, what we’re still guessing at, and what is still a complete mystery.
Two thousand years ago, what the ancient books said about the cosmology of our universe was pretty reasonable to most. It reflected limited human experience. It sure looked like the sun went around the earth. The earth was flat. It was covered with a giant dome upon which were a myriad lights their god or gods had placed there during creation.
But we know so much more now that demonstrates that our ancestors, bless their little hearts, didn’t know jack. They didn’t have the means to learn, and the aggregate knowledge they did have was of the same quality of their own observations. Not to say that there weren’t some interesting scientific observations made before the Common Era. But they were relatively few, not understood by most, and, most importantly, probably contrary to much religious thought, which was taken by most societies to be the ultimate truth of everything.
If those ancestors were truly hearing from a god who was relating to them and speaking through them the truths of the universe, the account of his creating the world, and so on, one could reasonably expect them to have gotten a few things right. Why would god tell them fairy tales when he could just as easily inspire them with the truth? Why would there be so much wrong within those scriptures?
What is special about relatively uneducated nomads that they should somehow hear the whole truth from their god, yet in this day and age, nobody hears from any god? The miracles that once took place happen no longer. The sun stopping, talking donkeys, parting seas, and so on. If god is the same yesterday, today, and yes, forever, why does he not interact with his people in the same way?
Oh, I know, I was taught in a dispensationalist tradition too. But dispensationalism isn’t a clearly expressed biblical truth. It’s one of several excuses designed to answer my question.
It is more reasonable to think that even spirituality could be better understood as we better understand the nature of man, the mind, belief, emotion, community, and so on. Accepting the accumulated knowledge of the centuries is the obvious means of understanding everything else in life. We should expect to approach spirituality the same way. There is no reason to think that somehow the superstitious, ancient desert people somehow have a lock on the nature of God, simply based on the testimony of their prophets whose behavior would have them committed to an asylum in the modern world, because of how much we now know about conditions that cause people to hear voices.
What could a shepherd know about our modern world? Not much.
It makes no sense to assume special knowledge in ancient, prescientific people. It makes no sense to assume that we cannot know truth without the input from those undereducated men.
Religion should not get a free pass. Instead we should apply our ability to reason and to bring the weight of accumulated knowledge to bear on every single aspect of our existence.
Including that part of us that seeks meaning and purpose in this life.