Note: Please excuse the spacing, or suspicious lack thereof. This internet thing is hard sometimes.
It’s time for a discussion about religious beliefs. This isn’t a conversation I often have outside the company of close friends, but I found a perspective this week that quite appealed to me, and I figured this would be a good place to share my thoughts.
I am not religious. Nor would I consider myself particularly spiritual. That said, I’ve never particularly identified with the labels ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’. My language of choice is science, and there’s a certain immaterial beauty to science that doesn’t fit nicely into any of the above categories.
It’s often said that science and religion are antitheses to each other, opposing views of the world that cannot be reconciled. The ‘debate’ crops up from time to time in the news (as if there’s new information we weren’t previously aware of) and in social media, cycling in its popularity, but always present in some corner of the collective consciousness.
The culprit, I think, is the innate human tendency to distinguish ‘us’ from ‘them’. Our minds naturally classify and categorize, as any socially driven beings are hardwired to do. The result is a predisposition towards polarization, born through heated discussions in neighbourhood pubs and escalated by an overabundance of free time.
Like so many questions, occasional discussions about the nature of the universe have their place, but not in the arena of sensationalized media. As far as I’m concerned, as soon as an issue is pitched as a ‘debate’ by television, radio, or print, the battle is already lost. Discussions of climate change and religious beliefs are as much debates as today’s weather is influenced by a suggestion box.
I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that we get over our petty bickering and focus our attention on substantive issues that don’t revolve around ‘he said, she said’.
In the spirit of camaraderie and generally moving on with life, I’d like to present my discovery of the week: Possibilianism. The term was coined by neuroscientist David Eagleman, who has recently emerged as one of my new-found scientific heroes. (He also recently delivered one of the best TED talks I’ve ever heard on creating new senses for humans, which I highly recommend watching.)
In Eagleman’s words, “our ignorance of the cosmos is too vast to commit to atheism, and yet we know too much to commit to a particular religion. A third position, agnosticism, is often an uninteresting stance in which a person simply questions whether his traditional religious story (say, a man with a beard on a cloud) is true or not true. But with Possibilianism, I’m hoping to define a new position — one that emphasizes the exploration of new, unconsidered possibilities. Possibilianism is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind; it is not interested in committing to any particular story.”
There are traditional atheists, such as author Sam Harris, who have dismissed the concept as “just a piece of performance art”, an attempt at a crowd-pleaser rather than a substantive idea in and of itself.
Since this is my blog, I obviously get the last word, based (perhaps excessively) on self-professed authority. My response to critics would be to consider Possibilianism not on its philosophical merits but on pragmatic considerations. The concept offers us a chance to extend a much overdue olive branch and move on with our lives, recognizing the futility and, frankly, stupidity of the ‘debate’ at hand.
Possibilianism is as much a statement on religious belief as it is a stance on the divisions we create within society. It brings to the table a positive focus on discovery and exploration, rather than a simple-minded preoccupation with winning a fundamentally flawed and needlessly destructive argument.
Let’s put this ‘debate’ in perspective, re-evaluate our priorities, and try to act less like squabbling idiots and more like civilized adults. There’s a place for petty fighting, and that’s in a bingo parlor. If we channeled half as much energy into addressing social and environmental issues as we do into trivial arm-waving, we might be in danger of actually making some sort of progress.
I’ll leave you with this lovely gem from Douglas Adams:
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.