Axioms and fear

So it is around the time when I’m taking part in religious ceremonies that I question my religion, or lack of it. That’s when I need to interact with priests regularly, and sometimes talking to them is frightening. What is most frightening is their level of belief in certain things that I find absurd.

Every major religion is founded on a basic set of axioms. These axioms are designed in a way that they cannot be disproved scientifically.

Sure, there is no way to prove these axioms either, but then given that religion is the “defending champion” it has fallen upon the atheist to disprove the religious axioms. But the way these axioms are stated makes it extremely hard to disprove them. The best that most rational people can do is to call the axioms “absurd” and leave it at that, but that does nothing to convert people on the fence.

For example, take this concept of rebirth and reincarnation which forms the basis of a lot of Hindu thoughts. I find it absurd, and there is no scientific way to prove it (especially since the “universe” is so large since you could be reborn as any species). But there is no scientific way to disprove it either, which is what gives the proponents of this axiom more mileage.

The other thing I observe is that the easiest way to propagate religious thoughts is to create a sense of fear. Stuff like “say your prayers daily else god will punish you”. And then there are some selective examples (with heavy bias in selection) given of people who didn’t make the right religious noises and hence had to suffer. When faced with all this, the young child has no option but to comply with what the religious elders are telling him.

Then I realize that the way you are “taught” religion is extremely absurd. Growing up, you are simply taught a set of processes that you need to go through, without ever going to the significance of any of them. Even the axioms that form the basis of the religion are not exactly taught. In some cases, even the parents would have simply “mugged up the religious practices” and are in no position answer when kids ask them questions about these practices.

For example, when I read Dawkins’s book a couple of years back, I was shocked that there are people that actually believe that there was some “god” who created the universe. I’d always taken evolution as a given. Similarly while talking to priests yesterday (my mother’s first year death anniversary ceremonies are going on) I was shocked to find they actually believe in rebirth, and life after death. Of course, I do believe in Live After Death and think it’s an awesome album.

I just hope I’ll be able to inculcate a sense of questioning and rational reasoning in my kids, and help them protect themselves from blind faith.

6 thoughts on “Axioms and fear”

  1. I often wonder if there is any difference at all between people who take evolution as a given and people who take any of the creationist theories as a given. A lot of us “believe” in evolution because it is respectable to do so. Not because we understand it from first principles.

    Even after 150 years of evolutionary science, I’m not sure if there is a consensus among scientists on many of the finer points of evolutionary theory. Both Phyletic gradualism and punctuated equilibrium models have their votaries.

    My point is that ideas about evolution of species are pretty complex and cannot possibly be readily understood by everyone. Why are we so desparate to democratise science?

    Suppose a Gallup poll in the US throws up two numbers
    – 98% of Americans are unaware of Theory of Relativity
    – 70% of Americans are unaware of Theory of Evolution

    I’m sure we’ll take the first statistic in our stride. After all, the guy on the street isn’t “expected to” understand Einstein. Yet, a similarly nonchalant attitude is seldom seen vis-a-vis the second statistic. I wonder why. “Getting” Evolution, to my mind, is no more important than “getting” E=mc2.

  2. With regard to rebirth fundae, I think Krishna’s theory of reincarnation is more sophisticated than it is given credit for being. I was reminded of it while reading Fooled by Randomness in which Taleb discusses “Alternative histories”.

    It’s the only religious idea that I know which attempts, albeit clumsily, to come to terms with randomness that afflicts human designs and warns us of “negative black swans”. What it effectively says is – “Pay as much attention to the means as the ends. Inappropriate means may pay off in this life, but they may not work in a different life”. I think that’s quite brilliant for an idea that’s atleast 2000 years old.

  3. One point I would like to make. This is both a comment on the post and as a response to Shrikanth’s comment.

    There are quite a few instances of rebirth/reincarnation claims in the world, some with even a level of validity. But the fact that religion is the only thing talking about it doesnt necessarily make it the right explanation. And with regard to ‘not getting’ evolution or any other theory, it can always be pointed out that any scientific theory is ALWAYS peer reviewed before being accepted- without exception. And it can always be verified repeatedly based on actual proof. ( )

    Also, NoenthuDa: Have you seen the 4 Horsemen video on Youtube- a discussion featuring Dawkins, Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, & Sam Harris?

    1. Akshay: The idea behind my previous comment was not to defend “re-incarnation” in the literal sense (wouldn’t dream of doing such a moronic thing) , but to appreciate the philosophical nuance in it.

      Consider this statement – “You can get away with murder in 9 lives, but will pay the price for it in the 10th”. It is no different from saying “You can get away with writing a naked option on several occasions, but will pay for it sooner or later”.

      1. it can always be pointed out that any scientific theory is ALWAYS peer reviewed before being accepted- without exception. And it can always be verified repeatedly based on actual proof

        Well yes. But then it is pointless to use this argument to defend science against an idea like “re-incarnation” which is basically a philosophical musing and not a scientific theory. Science and religion don’t need to overlap. I am reminded of Stephen Gould’s concept of NOMA in this regard.

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