Free-thinker’s forum: Basic spiritualism:the placebo effect?
June 5, 2007
Editor’s note: The Tahoe Daily Tribune, in keeping with its open editorial policy, is extending its columnists in the Religion section by adding the point of view of a scientist and secular humanist. Damian Sowers graduated in biochemistry from the University of Colorado at Boulder and went on to work at the Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory on the NASA Genesis Mission. He grew up in South Lake Tahoe and recently moved back.
We live in a scary time. The world is becoming Balkanized, so to speak, by incompatible religious dogma. If humans are to coexist peacefully, serious compromises will have to be made. But, is cooperation even tangible when dealing with sacred and tightly held beliefs? Will people be willing to expunge cherished ideologies in the name of peace? Some outspoken atheists think so. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, two of the more prominent atheists of our day, are saying that humans can exist with belief in the divine.
Although I tremendously respect Dawkins and Harris, for their claims are extremely provocative and very needed in a society that is dominated by Judeo-Christian politics, I can’t endorse the optimism in their books. When 90 percent of the American population believes in some form of a higher power, it is somewhat futile to hope that the overwhelming majority will simply dismiss their religious beliefs when battered with rationale and science. As Melvin Konner, author of the “Tangled Wing,” pointed out, “Most religious people don’t care about proofs. It is not news to them that religion has caused great harm. Or that their sacred texts are flawed. Or that science explains most things. They have been meeting these objections with aplomb for centuries.”
And, as much as I would like to see contemporary faith in our Abrahamic God go the way of Zeus, Poseidon and Apollo, the breadth of this desire is a little unrealistic. Not to mention the fact that faith, in its purest form, does actually help some people out. As a strict atheist this realization took me a long time to come to terms with. When I speak of faith in its purest form, I am talking about faith without dogma – faith devoid of any sort of religious doctrine, commandment, prophecy or priest.
An atheist might ask me, “Why would widespread ‘naked’ faith be good for society?” It is likely that basic spiritualism works in the same way that a doctor-prescribed placebo helps a patient to become healthy again. This celestial placebo offers a clear definition of life and, therefore, it can often bring peace to a troubled mind. Faith is an omnipotent god; even if it is without merit, it is an effective prescription for despair.
So, if faith does actually function as a placebo, and I suspect that it does, then perhaps we shouldn’t be trying to abolish it. Dogma has no place in modern civilization, yet naked faith might be needed. The malignant passages in the sacred texts of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and the other major players in the business create unbridgeable rifts among people and nations, but basic spiritualism is usually very benign.
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Of course, the exorcism of dogma from faith is not exactly an easy task. But, it is slightly more tenable than the ambitious approach marshaled by Dawkins and Harris. If you are full of doubt, take notice that European nations like Norway and Sweden have already demonstrated that faith without religion is possible.
For a good, intelligent argument among atheists, I invite you to watch clips from the “Beyond Belief” conference. It can be found at http://beyondbelief2006.org/Watch/.
– Damian Sowers can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.