Keeping an open mind

By Peter Arnold

There may seem to be a tendency in medical research to regard the body as a machine whose unpleasant symptoms indicate faulty parts, most doctors know that many of these symptoms will fade away as the body repairs itself. Ones general practitioner may keep an open mind on homeopathy, acupuncture, herbalism and other alternatives even though various reports insist that these are unscientific, so alternatives may actually do no harm and might even prod a repair system to start working. So the word ‘alternative’ does not need to mean the rejection of ‘conventional’ medicine. There could be something similar in religion when an atheist insists that there is no reliable evidence for the existence of anything supernatural. If we ask our neighbours they will perhaps insist that at least their beliefs make them feel better and lack of religious belief would not. Many regard the multitudes of improbable religious stories as metaphors rather than history, and for most people whose religion is an active ingredient; it can help them to prod their conscience into working more in harmony with the natural world and therefore, because we are part of it, with each other, though there is little evidence that Christians love their neighbour any better than non-Christians.

This parallel between attitudes towards medicine and religion is not precise. Hypothesis in medicine has to be tested. This is the scientific method. The trouble with religious statements is that they cannot be tested by reason and logic. A creed is not unlike statements from Chairman Mao’s little red book. Taken as poetry it might have some merit for the reader, but when interpreted as instructions the Little Red Guards regarded it as authority to cause misery just as some religious zealots are doing today by believing that a book gives them the authority to force their beliefs on other people. Atheism may appear to some religious people as a terrible insult to their god, but the atheist only says that for him/her self there seems to be no reliable evidence for the existence of gods or any other supernatural beings, not that a hypothesis which cannot be tested necessarily has no merit. Where an atheist differs strongly with religious believers is where they or their priest believes that they have the authority to insist that other people should live according to their rules. An atheist is essentially a believer in the merits of democracy, that we attempt to persuade others by logic and example, just as do good religious believers.

Religion has an advantage over scepticism because most people seem to feel uncomfortable with uncertainty, and religions offer supposed certainties, just as political ideologies do. People used to believe what they are told by authorities, religious or secular, and some still do. Fortunately in genuine democracies we are encouraged to question authorities and to keep demanding that they justify their statements. In a theocracy or a dictatorship one is liable to be punished by the leadership for being critical, consequently over time their followers have tended to become intellectually backward, irrational and open to political manipulation.

I would like to be in a position to recommend that we continue to encourage active scepticism and the questioning of authority on all beliefs, religious or secular, and that you, who are reading this, are perfectly at liberty to believe in anything you like so long as you don’t insist that I must share your belief.

Peter Arnold (Alderney, CI, part of Southampton and Portsmouth MM)

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