Image: Wikipedia. An estimated 1.6 million Russians and citizens of the Soviet Union died in the Gulag or “Camps.” In addition to mass executions and brutal violence aimed at stamping out religious belief, Russia and the former Soviet states have the highest number of people who identify as Christian. The past century saw concerted efforts of governments as well as cultural leaders to stamp out religion, particularly Christianity. Why have these efforts failed so spectacularly?
Image: Wikipedia. The Greek god Zeus, king of the gods. The worship of the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods continued well into early days of Christendom after Constantine’s edict. The pejorative term “pagan” can be translated “country bumpkin.” Is the physicalist belief that the stubbornness of Christian and other beliefs in transcendence is similar to the reluctance of the rural communities of ancient Rome to give up their ancient beliefs? Have Christians become today’s “pagans”?
Image: unsplash. Human caused climate change is just one of many reasons why many are rethinking the idea of human progress through science.
Stubbornness of Beliefs in Transcendence
Gerald R. Baron
Dec 14, 2020 · 9 min read
The second in a series challenging the beliefs of physicalism. While ardent defenders blow off believers as ignorant, misguided rubes, the stubbornness of belief raises questions that physicalists have failed to adequately answer.
The universe is more than the sum total of particles and the forces that dictate how they interact.
The vast majority of people in the world today agree with that statement, as have most everyone who lived on this earth since homo sapiens became capable of such thoughts. What that “more” is varies widely. But even among the ranks of scientists and philosophers who spend their lives attempting to answer the question of what is real, there is a general agreement that the physicalist account of reality is at best incomplete and possibly quite wrong.
Truth is not determined by vote — although coming to scientific consensus sometimes looks that way. So, just because perhaps something like 95% or more of the 107 billion homo sapiens who have walked the dust of this earth disagree with the physicalists who firmly declare there is nothing more, does not make it true.
Where does this conviction come from? And why so universal?
Physicalists have offered several explanations for this nearly universal phenomena of belief in transcendence.
One claim is that belief is taught. It’s true that belief in a particular faith or religion such Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Scientism or any other is typically based on the family and culture where one was born and raised. In this view, the near universal acceptance of belief is simply because that’s what those stubborn believers have been taught. Given enough time, all will be enlightened and the outdated idea of transcendence will disappear.
The main problem with this is that belief persists in our Western culture despite the dominance of atheistic physicalism at the cultural and political leadership level for much of the past 200 years. This dominance was enforced by the Nazi system and its fascist allies, and the Communism of Lenin, Stalin and Chairman Mao. The Marx-inspired regimes not only required universal atheistic teaching and strict adherence to atheistic ideas throughout their cultures, they conducted a vicious effort to exterminate vestiges of belief and the structures that helped maintain them.
Despite this strenuous effort to remove religion — Christianity in particular — from Russia and the Soviet states the number of religious adherents there today is higher than in the United States. About 74% of Russians are adherents of the Christian faith in various forms while in the US that number is 65%. If the number of those considering themselves Christian in Russia is high, it is even higher in former Soviet states such as Georgia where over 85% of the population identifies as Christian. In Ukraine those numbers appear to be even higher.
The real story is in the number of atheists. In Russia that number is about 13%. In the US atheists number about 4% and another 5% who say they are agnostic. One might expect far higher numbers among Russians and the former Soviet states given the decades of violent effort by the Communist leaders to eradicate religion and faith.
Christians are today’s pagans
Another reason given by physicalists for the stubbornness of belief is that believers are simply backwards country folk, uneducated and ignorant of the changes in the world that have made religion and faith outdated. This seems to be a very common attitude among the physicalist-atheist “evangelists” and those who share their anti-religion or specifically anti-Christian perspective. Their mode of expression in dealing with those who disagree demonstrates an attitude of superiority consistent with the idea that they believe that at least they have progressed far beyond the uneducated rubes who just don’t get the picture. It is one reason why they seem to hold in particular contempt the highly educated and thoughtful dissenters such as David Berlinski, Thomas Nagel, the late Anthony Flew, or David Gerlernter.
The word pagan can be translated as “country bumpkins.” It became a derogatory term for those who continued to cling to the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods after the Greco-Roman world was converted to Christianity. After the persecutions, the cultural elite of the Roman world championed the new faith of Christianity following the conversion of Constantine and his edict making the new religion the official one of the Empire. This elite dominated the fading Roman world and attached the pagan moniker on the declining few who held to the traditional pre-Christian beliefs. The old beliefs remained for much longer in the rural areas after being driven out of the cultural centers.
There is some irony in the fact that the cultural elites who dominate our culture with the quasi-religion of physicalism demonstrate the same superiority that the Christian world once did to those who continued to cling to the old beliefs. In the view of the “priests” and “prophets” of physicalism, Christians and other stubborn believers are now the country bumpkin pagans of old.
Science, progress and the end of faith
Physicalists naturally revert to the argument that the remarkable success of science proves there is nothing more than matter and natural forces. The argument is strong. No one questions the world-transforming success of the scientific method with its emphasis on empirical evidence and falsifiability.
Scientific progress has brought us technological change at an accelerating and dizzying pace. One of the books I’m currently reading is The Future is Faster Than You Think by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler. It’s a comprehensive view of the various technologies that are emerging and converging in ways that will transform our lives that are already spinning from recent mega-innovations. It’s a breathless, exhilarating ride that, like most books along this line, present these technologies in a mostly optimistic light. Life will be better with flying cars, cyborgs, greatly expanded life spans, and human-machine bodies and brains.
But, along with this enthusiasm for science-based technological progress, there are emerging doubts about the very idea of progress.
A belief in the value of progress is baked into our science-based culture at a most fundamental level. It takes a serious step back into the thoughts, ideas and beliefs of previous times to understand how deep the idea of progress is in our “social imaginary” (in Charles Taylor’s term) and how much we all buy into its underlying assumptions. The inevitability of human progress and the unstinting commitment to bringing a new and better world into existence wasn’t always the dominant way of thinking that it is today.
Greek philosophers and a large percentage of the Greek citizens engaged in the most profound questions not just of their day but of our day and every day. Their ideas and observations seem to go out of fashion then return to be rediscovered and found relevant again over and over. Have we progressed in investigating the most profound questions facing humans in the past 2500 years?
The thousands of years of early American tribal life with its compatibility with the earth, the seasons, the flora and fauna, and the ebb and flow of their own essentially unchanging lives provides a glimpse into culture without the presumption of progress. This anti-progress perspective may be one reason for the growing interest in these peoples and their ways of living, especially among our younger generations.
Medieval thought focused attention toward a world beyond this that gives meaning and purpose to this life. It was no escape but it represented a very different idea of progress. Improving life was not just about installing sewage systems and developing culinary skills, it was about pursuing progress in the souls of those who would spend a few short years here in this often disappointing existence and then an eternity in our promised home.
Eastern religions and philosophies also provide powerful examples that reveal our view of the inexorable march of progress as an aberration. The Buddhist philosophy of emptiness can be seen as anti-progress in that all that we invest in, believe in, depend on and endow with meaning will be stripped away. It is an undoing. Essential to this necessary rejection is the putting away of our common idea of progress.
But evidence of our commitment to progress is all around us. In our politics, science, philosophy and ethics. It remains the water we swim in; we can conceive of no replacement.
The unquestioned belief in progress and the role of science in it is probably a main reason why physicalists are so frustrated with stubborn belief. Progress demonstrably brings us a world with conditions conducive to human flourishing. The purists among physicalists are convinced the end of belief in the Abrahamic God and all other forms of spiritual powers and forces will eventually be followed by the acceleration of the progress of science and the improved world it delivers. Religion is understood as a great obstacle to this progress. Some are eager to hurry this natural evolution along and so write books such as The God Delusion, The End of Faith, and God is Not Great. The impatience to push the last remnants of faith into the dustbin of history even led Richard Dawkins to purchase billboards in London declaring that “There probably is no God.”
But, today there are rising doubts about the progress that science and technology have provided. We face a rapidly changing climate. Every NatGeo or BBC nature program aired has the obvious purpose of highlighting the devastation the human footprint has left behind on our small, blue planet. Our crowded cities may be the culmination of the idea of progress, but they also reveal the detritus that seem to be an inevitable accompaniment to this progress. The growing interest in and support for indigenous peoples and cultures demonstrates that the great American myth presenting the pioneers and their military protectors as ennobling conquerors bringing progress and a better way of life to the conquered is no longer the only way of looking at that history. It may even be the wrong way.
Physicist Steven Weinberg said, the more we learn about the universe the more pointless it all becomes. Pursuing progress in science with the goal of improving existence on this small blue planet appears to many to be a counter-productive exercise, even a fool’s errand. A devastating circle appears to be created: more progress, more pointlessness. The response of physicalist/philosophers is not to question the meaning and value of all this, but to suggest that if we try hard enough we can squeeze some meaning out of the “miraculous” fact of our existence in an accidental universe headed to extinction.
As desperate as that search for meaning appears, it is likely the only possible answer to our human quest for meaning when progress is the ultimate good. But, such a search for purpose and meaning appears as pointless as the universe and the commitment to progress. When everything is random and determined and the end is the cold, slow death of entropy, where can meaning be found if we cannot successfully manufacture it? I’ve dealt with this more in this earlier post).
Let’s be clear: just because the vast majority of people of all time believe something does not make it true.
Most believed in a cosmos very different from our understanding including a flat earth. And the fact that most today in our North Atlantic Western World still believe in God, a Higher Power or some form or spirituality — something more or transcendence — does not prove physicalism wrong. But neither does the conviction of physicalists that this belief is the sticky remains of a dying culture make physicalism true.
Physicalists committed to the empty pursuit of meaning in a meaningless universe and confronted with the urgent questions of the validity of progress seem overly anxious to defend their position as we saw in the previous post. Their response is exactly what one would expect of believers in a system that looks evermore unpromising as progress continues.