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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Making Room for Secular Alternatives

The following was written late at night, so the flow is off.
Religionists often argue that only through religion can a human being cope with existential issues. I believe that religionists believe this because the special place that society has preserved for religion. Generally, the institution to provide the general public a direction for their lives has been religious in nature resulting in the dogma that only religion can provide this. Those working outside the intellectual framework of religion have come to the sciences and philosophy for answers, yet privilege for most of human history has restricted for the most part these secular realms of human endeavor from the general public. Recently, with the advent of mass literacy and internet resources, people from lower and lower social circumstances have begun to break through the glass ceiling and separate from the social and intellectual support of the local ecclesiastical authority.

Globalization has brought with it growing awareness of other ways of coping with life, mostly in the form of other religions. The recognition of possibility of being born in another situation, I believe, is the first step in understanding epistemic issues in relying on local authority for the most difficult questions. This is not enough, however. Without access to a good education, especially in philosophy and the sciences, the recipient will have to go through great difficulties to reinvent methods for thinking clearly, which most people lack the time to do. This means that those who have left one religion can often find themselves in another one.

Access to information, especially via the internet, allows for these tools of understanding the world to have general access. Finding this information, thus, is the second step in coping with life without religion. The local ecclesiastical authority needs a replacement or the source of psychological and educational nourishment will lead a mental starvation. Internet access to a great deal serves that purpose; however, it also has a weakness: there is lots of competition between superstition and credible sources of information. Even those that seem to have journalistic integrity have fallen the way of entertainment or appealing to target groups. This means the universal standards of credibility for answering questions about the nature and society that exists strictly for the critical methods of sciences and philosophy must remain as a safeguard against the inexhaustible competitors for the public’s educational needs.

Finally, people around the world need access to professional help from counselors and psychiatrists in times of crisis. While secular existential theories can provide some of the foundations for understanding how to make sense of human purpose, depression is something that one cannot cured in the philosopher’s armchair alone. What some religions provide is someone to which to confess and an idea of forgiveness. While these of course are not optimal cures that medical practitioners seek, some religious practices do have a temporary benefit to the patient or victim (depending if the religion is the source of the ailment). In places where religious institutions are the sole provider of mental treatment, those seeking leave of religion suffer without aid or return to those institutions for some degree of comfort.

Secular organizations, specifically atheist and ex-religionist ones, have made great strides in all these areas, except perhaps educational reform. New community groups are spreading providing that which religion left behind. While I do not expect everyone to become scientists or philosophers, I do expect the use to critical thinking aided by knowledge gain by experts to guide our everyday life. There is always the chance of empirical evidence coming along and conflicting with one or more of my beliefs, so I expect an evolving debate in philosophy and science over those questions people find very important. In my opinion, philosophical theism is not a threat but an intellectual position in which humans ought to work together in discerning (though I fall strictly in the atheist camp). The debate is undermined, however, by the competition of religious institutions in presenting themselves and their methods as being as credible as or more credible than scientific method and critical thinking.

Author’s notes: There a few things I would like to include which may clarify my position on related topics connected to this paper. First, I do not reject all traditions.  Festivals and eating together are often to a great benefit for people. Second, I do not want to suggest that the state ought to coerce people into believing anything, whether religious or nationalistic or sexist or what have you. Freedom of consciousness allows individuals to self-actualize, while coercion of the mind can lead to destruction of the ego. Third, I am not arguing for the forced destruction of traditional institutions, but rather the best modern science and education also become available to everyone. People need to learn about sex, science, world religions, philosophy, and practical skills in order to function optimally. Fourth, I realize this paper is a bit distant from the emotional issues, but I have written about emotional things before and will again soon.

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