We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, March 25, 2013

Just Plain Wrong

In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time someting like that happened in politics or religion.

Carl Sagan, 1987 CSICOP Keynote Address

In reality, the history of science is littered with scientists who refused to change their mind even in the face of mounting research evidence to the contrary.  And in religion, at least, changing one's mind in the face of compelling arguments or experiences is a common experience.  It is called, "conversion," and it happens all the time.  Where people of faith don't go through full conversion experiences, there are those who still show an ability to learn, to think new thoughts, and to grow (change their minds) in their understanding of their faith.  There is no doubt that many religionists do not show any inclination to learn, think new thoughts, or grow in their understanding, but even many of them have at one time or another gone through a conversion experience.  And anyone who studies theology for any length of time knows that it is a highly creative field with new theologies being worked up all the time.

In the above quotation, which is found cited in various places on the Web, Sagan pulls an old, old trick that we "religionists" should be familiar with because we (probably) invented it.  I personally first became aware of it in my study of 19th century Presbyterian missionary history in Siam (a.k.a. Thailand).  In their sometimes virulent attacks on Thai Buddhism, the old time missionaries would often contrast the worst of that faith with the best of their own.  In much the same way, Sagan contrasts science at its best with religion at its worst.

Yes, yes, I'm saying that in this case Dr. Carl Sagan, renowned astronomer, displays the thinking of a 19th century Presbyterian missionary in Siam.  More to the point, in this brief quotation at least he virtually treats science as a religion without realizing that he does so.  It is for him the highest form of knowledge known to humanity and that approach to knowing that is most trustworthy.  It is his faith, and like other missionaries one of the ways he affirms the ultimacy of his own faith is by pointing out the failures of other so-called ultimate faiths, such as politics and religion.