Nudge Religions Toward Reality

Jeff T. Haley

The conflict between religion and science is often described in two very different ways. Some believers insist that the conflict is nonexistent—that religion and science can and do coexist perfectly, often by claiming that religion and science do not overlap. At the other extreme are some of the “New Atheists” who consider the conflict both real and utterly insoluble by any means short of the end of religion.

This article describes a third path, one that acknowledges the problem and offers a solution that doesn’t require the (highly unlikely) dismantling of religion. Instead, it relies on a practice that already exists: the ability of religions to adapt—to evolve their positions in light of new knowledge. Atheists who scoff at such an idea have failed to recognize the profound changes in many religious expressions in recent decades. This includes both a liberalizing of social positions and a growing awareness of the importance of embracing scientific truth (“naturalism,” which we propose to rename “evidism”). The best way forward includes promoting and encouraging the expansion of this crucial process within contemporary religion—a process that happens first for individual members of religions before it is embraced by religious leaders.

Humans are social animals, and they will always form social groups, some of which will continue to call themselves “religious.” The prediction made over a century ago that religion would fade away has turned out to have been wrong. However, religions will change and adapt to avoid conflict with science. The open question is how long it will take.

In the United States and Europe, in recent decades, the percent of people not affiliated with any religious group has been growing dramatically, and new social organizations have been growing. Some of these new social organizations call themselves “religions,” as discussed below, and some do not. However, the western world is still far from devoid of religion and other parts of the world are far behind these trends. To date, there is no credible basis to predict that “religion” will ever fade from the world. We are predicting that many religions will change to accept all of science (naturalism/evidism) and some of these will be with us long into the future.

We will explain how those with religious beliefs can further evolve their thinking to be consistent with science while retaining some of their religious beliefs about values and why it is important to do so. We’ll look at how much humans have progressed through cultural evolution and make specific suggestions for furthering cultural evolution through the spread of secularism, science, and naturalism (evidism) from one person to another and through media and culture.

Because religions offer many benefits to their adherents, they cannot be eliminated. Some New Atheists ask everyone to leave their religions. This is unachievable and unnecessary. We should help all religions evolve to be consistent with a modern understanding of both political and scientific reality by directing our sharing of secularism and science to both religious people and their leaders. We should change the definition of religion so that any group that accepts all the conclusions of science can also call itself “religious,” even if the group’s beliefs are atheistic and naturalistic (evidistic).

Some authors who have given this issue much thought strongly disagree with us. For a detailed explanation, read the piece coauthored by Tom Flynn, Ronald A. Lindsay, and Nicholas J. Little published as the lead editorial in the February/March 2015 issue of Free Inquiry. We understand these authors do not want their organization or congregations to be considered “religious” for reasons based on history—religions have caused a lot of distress for people who are secular or atheists and they do not want to be associated.

However, their approach perpetuates unhelpful tribalism—the religious tribes against the nonreligious tribes. Under their approach, the only way to ever end this tribalistic divide is to persuade all people to leave their “religious” congregations and then, if they want a congregation, join a “nonreligious” congregation.

It will be much easier to persuade individuals to change their congregations from within to be secular and naturalistic (evidistic). To do this, we must define the word religion broadly enough to encompass all humanist groups and any group, leaving each group latitude to call themselves “religious” or not.

Although Flynn and his colleagues vehemently do not want to “come to religion,” we propose that, instead, “religion” should come to them. Instead of a tribalistic divide between the religious and the nonreligious, which is a vague dividing line because there is no agreement on the meaning of the word religion and never will be a consistent definition of the word, we will then have a tribalistic divide between naturalists (evidists), both religious and non-religious, and non-naturalists (non-evidists). This is a good divide to have. There is little doubt where the dividing line lies, and, for culture to move forward, it is important to highlight this dividing line.

For a persuasive argument that we will never be able to find a clear dividing line between “religion” and non-religion, see The Impossibility of Religious Freedom (2007) by W. F. Sullivan and The World until Yesterday (2012), by Jared Diamond, chapter 9.

In addition, there are already naturalistic (evidistic) groups that call themselves “religious” (e.g., Satanists), and we will not be able to persuade them to stop doing so, in part because they get benefits of religious privilege laws and they will not want to give up these benefits. If enough new groups claim religious privileges under the law, it will take away political support for the religious privilege laws.

Cultural Evolution Is the Engine of Human Progress

Through the sharing of art, stories, education, and advancement in science, humans are making progress through cultural evolution that promotes knowledge and spreads values that improve human life. That’s why life is better, longer, and safer now than ever before.

Genetic evolution has given us a strong sense of empathy and moral care toward people within our own families and tribes, but little sense of empathy toward people of other groups. As for those with whom we feel the least in common, genetic evolution has inclined us toward fear, distrust, and outright conflict. A major challenge for cultural evolution is to overcome or offset the naturally evolved genetic tendency toward tribalism that continues to cause considerable suffering and death, based in part on religious tribalism.

An important contributor to the problem of tribalism derives from the tendency of different groups to cut themselves off from outside input, preferring to hear and repeat the same assumptions, ideas, and perspectives as the like-minded group members around them. Such groups can develop a shared understanding of the important “facts” of reality that differ from the actual facts. Most people are either born into a given group—religiously, culturally, or otherwise defined—and accept the “facts” of that group, or they later choose to join a group and accept its “facts.” Differing factual beliefs can cause or exacerbate conflict between groups and between individuals such as within a family.

Why Promote Acceptance of Science?

To dislodge false beliefs, we need to promote acceptance of the only effective fact-determining engine yet devised—science. Science is simply the collective term for all methods that have been found over time to be reliable in determining facts about the world, plus the facts that have been assembled.

We can’t effectively spread secularism to everyone without spreading acceptance of the sc
ientific way of knowing and the scientific consensus on the facts (evidism). People who have a false understanding of important facts will tend to generate disputed values from those false “facts” and will often try to force their disputed values on others, which violates a principle of secularism. They will deny that they are violating a core value of secularism because they claim to be acting on the truth. To put it simply, everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts.

The benefits of promoting secularism and science (evidism) extend beyond the problems of religiously motivated oppression. They also address a host of other problems, including death and disease from willfully ignoring or denying health science and environmental destruction.

Our goal here is to articulate a campaign to educate the world not about science broadly, as that would be too ambitious, but about the power of people simply accepting the scientific consensus on the facts and understanding the imperfect nature of knowledge. We seek to get different tribes to accept the same facts and thus reduce the mutual “otherness” that leads to conflict. Spreading acceptance of science (evidism) offers greater benefits for mankind than spreading of atheism. If people want to hold on to a belief that there is or was some kind of god or source of morality outside of humanity that did or does something, this lingering unscientific belief will cause relatively little harm compared to other science denials.

Natural and Intuitive Ways of Knowing Facts

Not all knowledge results from education. A crucial feature of our own evolution has been the development of intuitive ways of knowing. These range from the useful disgust response that keeps us from eating rotten meat to pattern recognition that allows each person to quickly assess his or her environment and make decisions. The beliefs of early humans would have formed individualized worldviews, but eventually language gave us the ability to share our beliefs, leading to shared worldviews with lots of false beliefs.

Our very helpful and adaptive tendency to find patterns in the world around us sometimes misfires, and we give meaning to patterns that are in fact meaningless. Over time, such beliefs, reinforced by false pattern recognition, can result in entire false systems of thought such as astrology, energy healing, and karma.

The Best Way of Knowing Facts Is the Scientific Way

The evolution of human culture has produced a superior way of knowing facts called “science.” This way of knowing does not come naturally for humans. It requires education—learning from the pool of knowledge assembled by the collective efforts of others over hundreds of years. It is a collaborative process. No “fact” is added to the collection of scientific knowledge until it has been vetted and verified by many people engaged in the scientific process.

The scientific way of knowing facts does not dismiss contributions from the “humanities” as contrasted with the “sciences,” provided those contributions are not based on false factual beliefs. There is no clear boundary between scientific and humanistic scholarship. What we call the “sciences” and what we call the “humanities” is largely a matter of practicality. Any method that works to achieve a broad peer-reviewed consensus on objective facts is valid as science. The humanities provide the most effective way to address the subjective experience of the human condition—the essence of being human—while the sciences are limited to objective facts.

Of course, everyone must make decisions every day based on intuition, inspiration, or tradition with no scientific basis. The scientific way of knowing does not suggest that the natural and intuitive ways of knowing facts are useless. They are necessary to all life functions. But a person who accepts the scientific way of knowing (an evidist) remains ready, upon learning the scientific consensus on a topic, to amend his or her beliefs based on intuition or tradition and replace them with current scientific thinking.

To Build Good Values, Start with Genuine Facts

Determining what values each person should live by is the most important project of human cultural evolution. How to determine what values are best is a difficult topic beyond the scope of this article. We decline to comment on what values people should adopt other than the value of discovering and accepting truth (evidism) and the three core values that are essential to secularism.

Some argue that whether people have a true understanding of facts is not important—we should merely try to lead them to good values and let them believe any “facts” they like. It’s certainly true that the values people act upon are far more important than the facts that people believe. Determining what values are preferable is not easy under the best of circumstances, and it is difficult to persuade people that particular values are better than others. Except for the core values of secularism and the scientific way of knowing (evidism), there are no objective standards for finally deciding which values are best.

By contrast, there are objective standards for determining facts. These objective standards are what we call science. Large numbers of people claim to base their values on beliefs about facts that are demonstrably wrong. If people accept the conclusions of science, it is easy to reach agreement on all facts of consequence, and it is easier to set aside poorly founded values based on false “facts.” Getting the facts right will reduce the challenge of leading people to agree on values.

But using science to achieve universal agreement on facts will not automatically lead people to agree on values. Some have argued that when people abandon traditional religion due to conflicts with science, they naturally adopt the values of humanism, a philosophy that commonly replaces religion and includes no supernatural beliefs. While this may be true of a majority, it does not automatically follow. All statements of what it means to be a humanist that have been published include particular values. People who agree on all the important facts by adhering to science can still disagree on many values, including politics, economic systems, punishment of criminals, education policy, polygamy, prostitution, gender equality, abortion, contraception, environmental issues, treatment of animals, proper eating practices, and more. Getting the facts right is necessary for selecting good values, but it isn’t sufficient.

Each person moving to accept the conclusions of science (becoming an evidist) will make a major contribution to the positive evolution of human culture and reduction of suffering. This will require evolution of each religion to accept the scientific consensus on all important facts, even as the religion retains other aspects of its values, culture, and tradition.

You may feel yourself pulling away at this point, shaking your head, convinced we’re proposing a pie-in-the-sky idea that simply can’t be done. And who could blame you? The history of the intersection of science and religion is hardly encouraging. But that history to date has largely been written from two extreme perspectives: the false assumption that there is no conflict between religion and science and the false assumption that religion is fixed and cannot change without being destroyed. This article explains a third option: an evolution of our discourse, and of religion, to bring the two spheres of human experience into a cooperative relationship.

Just as several religions have evolved to accept the principles of secularism, religions can also evolve to accept the scientific consensus on all facts (evidism). We know this is possible because, as we detail in our book, several religions have evolved to do exactly that. The typical path is to first accept all of science except for the conclusion that there is no sufficient evidence for any belief in a god. Achieving this step provides huge benefits. The final step is for them or their children to finally dispose of this last unscientific belief.

Explain that Traditional Ways of Knowing, Including Religions, Are Natural and Often Wrong

As pre-humans developed, the brain evolved intuitive ways of assembling and retaining beliefs about everything relevant to making decisions that affected survival or thriving. The intuitive ways of knowing that evolved naturally over hundreds of thousands of years work well enough in such creative fields as visual arts, music, dance, and storytelling. Unfortunately, evolution also gave our brains intuitions that, if unchecked by education, lead us naturally to believe “facts” that aren’t true.

From the perspective of educated people today, many naturally evolved forms of “knowledge,” both religious and nonreligious, appear clearly to be illusory and ill-founded. It’s easy and common to suggest that, in the absence of a reliable means of knowing, we should simply say “I don’t know” instead of filling that space with false knowledge. But for most of human history, nothing would have felt more vulnerable than an empty hole where knowledge should be. Intuitive false knowledge would rush in to fill that vacuum.

Science as a formalized way of knowing is only about 500 years old, while the prescientific, naturally evolved, intuitive ways of knowing “facts” have dominated human culture since the beginning of culture itself and continue to do so in all cultures today. That’s a weighty tradition to overthrow.

Teach the Three Minimal Elements of Scientific Understanding: (1) Science Is Reliable, (2) Anyone Can Look Up What Is Known, and (3) Nothing Is Known for Certain

To accept the scientific consensus on the facts does not require an understanding of scientific methods or any ability to practice them. Acceptance can be taught by rote, such as by parents or teachers. Here are the three minimal elements of scientific understanding that should be taught to everyone.

(1) Science is reliable because it is vetted, and (2) you can look up the answers.

Some science-minded readers will gasp at this. Look it up?! Science is about rigorous, repeatable experimentation, careful observation, and presenting one’s findings to competent peers for review and critique! You’re right, of course. That’s exactly what the practice of science is about. But most people do not need to understand this or be able to practice it.

Most of the knowledge you and I have about the world and universe around us was not gained by firsthand experimentation and peer review. It was gained by accepting the findings of others who demonstrated their own respect for and adherence to the methods of science by putting it through the gauntlet of rigorous peer review.

The first and most important step in accepting the scientific consensus on facts is understanding that the facts determined by science have been developed by the collective efforts of large numbers of people who have checked and criticized each other’s work to achieve a reliable consensus. This makes the scientific consensus on facts worthy of reliance by everyone. But the longer the chain of intermediaries between you and the science—in other words, the longer the game of telephone that takes place in passing the information down to you—the greater the chance of introducing errors and misinformation.

Fortunately, we live in an age of unprecedented access to information via the Internet. It’s hard for many people to recall a time before Google made its stunning mission to “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” a practical reality.

The second important element to teach about science is that anyone with an Internet connection can easily look up the scientific consensus answer to nearly any factual question using resources such as Wikipedia or the simplified Wikipedia pages. You don’t need a strong scientific education to do this, so there is no longer an excuse for being a science denier.

(3) There is no 100 percent certainty for any fact.

The third element for accepting the scientific consensus on the facts is understanding that each “fact” has an associated probability of being correct, and no facts are known to 100 percent certainty. Human knowledge is a constantly improving fuzzy approximation of reality. Each “fact” reflects a “model” or “theory” of reality and each of our models of reality might turn out to be not quite right.

Well what about simple and obvious facts—that your body exists, for example, and that you are reading this article? It’s fair to be extremely confident in these things, but can you really say you are absolutely 100 percent certain? The existence of your body and your reading of this article might be taking place in a dream. That’s not at all likely. The chances that your body exists and you are reading this article are very, very high—but they are still not 100 percent.

Thus, for people who accept the scientific way of knowing (an evidist), the words “true” and “false” are not absolute as they seem but merely shorthand for particular probabilities. We accept as “true” those facts that have a very high probability of being true—likely enough that we rely on them—and we dismiss as “false” those proposed facts that have a low probability of being true.

For example, there is a very small but larger than zero probability that leprechauns exist. If you happen to believe in leprechauns, to get an idea of how small the probability is, substitute “Flying Spaghetti Monster.” Both are equally unlikely. For any proposed “fact” with such a small probability, we can describe it as “no more likely than leprechauns” and the shorthand is “false.”

Of course, science does not have an answer for all factual questions, and there are areas of factual inquiry where the present best answers are tentative and of moderate probability. These are areas where there is honest difference of opinion and we assign middling probabilities to each possible answer (the realm of “maybe”). However, in the past 100 years, science has reached the point of having clear answers to nearly all factual issues relevant to understanding the reality of human experience.

It is important for everyone to understand that nothing is known to 100 percent certainty. Failure to understand this causes endless failures of communication on the subject of knowledge and great difficulty for students who just want answers. When we say we “know” something or that something is certain, we are speaking in shorthand. What we mean is that it is almost certainly true, likely enough true that we rely on it, not that it is impossible for it to be untrue. In our shorthand, anything that is no more likely than leprechauns is said to be “false” even if it might in fact be true.

Accepting the Truth about All Facts Is Important—Mere Critical Thinking, Secularism, Skepticism, and Atheism Are Not Enough

It is not enough for evangelists of cultural evolution to lead people merely to secularism and away from god beliefs—it is more important to also lead them to accept the scientific consensus on all facts, not just facts relating to deities and spirits. Unless people come to understand and accept whatever scientific consensus has been established on all aspects of reality, they will not understand why the scientific way of knowing (evidism) is better than each of the theistic ways of knowing. The choice will appear arbitrary to them.

The scientific way of knowing is more than just a secular and atheistic outlook. Homeopathy, astrology, and vaccine denial are generally considered to be secular rather than religious. However, science shows the chance of each of them being valid is no more likely than leprechauns, and they are each just as incredible as any religious claims. Likewise, if you believe in omens or lucky or unlucky numbers or days, you can still be an atheist, but you have not fully accepted the scientific consensus on facts and you are not an evidist.

Unlike atheism and skepticism, the scientific way of knowing (evidism) is not merely a negation of invalid sources of knowledge. It is a positive view that affirms valid sources of knowledge on all factual topics. It exults in the prospect that there is no part of reality that cannot be discovered through inquiry consistent with science.

The scientific way of knowing isn’t natural or intuitive for humans. Evolution did not wire our brains to intuitively know that some authorities are wrong or that hundreds of years of testing, retesting, and sharing observations and conclusions will yield results far more accurate than our intuition, or that nothing can be known with 100 percent certainty. Education in the scientific way of knowing is needed before a person can overcome the siren song of intuition and fully accept the scientific consensus. Those who lack that education can, with the best of intentions, refuse to vaccinate their children or vote against fluoridation of water supplies or, without adequate reason, take other actions that are harmful to the interests of others. They can even do these things while being secularists and atheists.

It is not enough to be a secularist and a skeptic and an atheist—it is even more important to also fully accept the scientific way of knowing (evidism), for the sake of other people in your society and for your own happiness.

A False Understanding of Facts Impedes Development of Good Values

When the scientific way of knowing is accepted, established values that were erroneously based on wrong “facts” fade and are replaced with other values based on a more accurate understanding of facts. The quantity of values that each person holds is not reduced by acceptance of the scientific way of knowing—the values are merely adjusted.

The scientific way of knowing facilitates good decisions on the important issues of values, including morality and ethics, because people no longer base these decisions on answers they believe are provided by a deity or some other source outside of humanity.

Urge Each Member of a Religious Congregation to Accept the Scientific Consensus on Facts

Religions flourish because they serve human needs—for community, for guidance, for a sense of purpose, to focus a sense of personal wonder and gratitude, and for a source of rapture. None of these needs require false claims of fact, and all can be fulfilled by social organizations, including religions, without the slightest mention of such claims. We should encourage each religion to get out of the business of spouting bogus facts and instead focus on promoting good values, offering community, offering rapture through practices such as music, dance, yoga, and meditation, and doing whatever can honestly be done to help people feel they have a purpose.

But encouraging religions to change does not have a long and glorious history of success. Stasis is woven into the very fabric of religious institutions. Most of the change in religious attitudes and beliefs has come not through institutions but through individuals.

So instead of relying on churches to change their doctrines, we need to continue encouraging a process that is already underway—urging individual members of religious congregations to adopt the scientific consensus on all facts (become an evidist) as an overriding amendment to the teachings of their religion. They can continue to accept their religion’s teachings on values that are not based on false “facts” and continue to enjoy the benefits of community.

If most of the members of a religious congregation accept the scientific consensus on all facts, their leaders will soon follow out of self-preservation. To avoid becoming hopelessly disconnected from the perspectives of their own members, each religion will evolve to accept the conclusions of science. In our book, we explore some religious organizations that have formally evolved to embrace complete acceptance of the scientific consensus on facts.

Though many atheists see the acceptance of all conclusions of science as a way of knowing embraced solely by atheists, this is false in two respects. First is the fact that many religious people accept all the conclusions of science, even when it conflicts directly with some of the doctrines of their churches. The second reason atheists cannot lay sole claim to accepting reality is that some atheists do not fully accept the scientific way of knowing. They are inconsistent in their application of evidence-based belief formation. They may, for example, accept the evidence against existence of any gods while ignoring evidence against unscientific healthcare practices such as homeopathy or certain conspiracy theories.

You may be saying to yourself that this is a pipe dream. Churches don’t change, you say. Don’t believe that for a minute. They can and they do. Most churches in the United States were grounded in biblical literalism two generations ago. Now most have dropped literalism. It didn’t happen because their leaders accepted scientific findings—it happened because their congregants left the congregations or dragged them along. Biblical literalism in the United States dropped from 66 percent in 1963 to 30 percent in 2008, and many churches quietly amended their doctrines to keep up. The same has happened as popular acceptance of human evolution, women’s rights, civil rights, and LGBT rights have outstripped the outdated views of the churches.

Use the Word Religion in Ways That Allow Consistency with Scientific Consensus on the Facts

Because most traditional religions rely on facts that are not supported by evidence, the scientific way of knowing (evidism) undermines most traditional religions. However, there are religious leaders and congregation members who call themselves “religious” and yet fully accept the scientific consensus on the facts (are also evidists). All of them are agnostics, and most of them also consider themselves to be atheists. The scientific way of knowing is not inherently inconsistent with religion, depending, of course, on how religion is defined.

Philosophers and social scientists have grappled for centuries with suitable definitions of religion and have yet to reach consensus. In any field of inquiry, effective definitions of terminology should further understanding by helping people keep distinguishable concepts separate in their minds. In their efforts to further this objective, some authors consider Confucianism and Buddhism to be religions, and other authors do not. In our book, we discuss five recently developed religions that most of these authors would consider to not be religions. However, to help cultural evolution move in a good direction, we should broaden our definition of religion for marketing reasons and to promote equality, and these reasons for choosing a definition are more important than reasons of philosophical or sociological analysis. When they want to express a meaning that is limited to religions with supernatural elements, the philosophers and sociologists can call them supernaturalist religions, in contrast to naturalist (or evidist) religions.

We should change the common definition of religion to make it easier for most people to come to fully accept the facts established by science while still calling themselves religious. Specifically, we should broaden the definition of religion to encompass any group that wishes to call itself “religious,” no matter their view of facts or what values they encourage. That is, any group with any kind of mission or purpose or philosophy could call itself “religious,” and we would not say they are wrong to do so. If we do this, it will give space for religions to evolve to change their positions on facts to be consistent with science. This will make it easier for religions to get
out of the business of opining on facts and limit themselves to opining on values. Several religions that we discuss in the book have already done this and they still call themselves religious. For sociologists or philosophers or politicians or secular activists to contradict them and tell them that they are not “religious” will hold back cultural evolution.

A person can accept the scientific way of knowing the facts and become a naturalist (evidist) as an overriding amendment to their preferred religious or values affiliation whether it is religious Humanist, Unitarian Universalist, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Confucian, vegan, environmentalist, New Age, pacifist, socialist, or other. When they do this, what is left of his or her religion are the values that are not based on false “facts.”

Many New Atheist authors bash all religions. They shouldn’t. They should only bash religions that are inconsistent with the scientific consensus on the facts. It’s all about how we choose to use and define the word religion. Adopting the usage of religion that we urge, which some New Atheist authors already follow, will help move humanity toward the scientific way of knowing and secularism.

Most New Atheists want everyone to abandon the religion of their heritage. This is both unachievable and unnecessary. Although large numbers may leave the traditional religions, for those who do not, our only option is to lead each religion to change to accept the conclusions of science, including atheism and agnosticism.

Jeff T. Haley

Jeff T. Haley is an inventor, entrepreneur, chemist, clinical researcher, patent lawyer, public interest advocate, and former civil rights lawyer.

To reconcile religion with science, we should begin by ceasing to require that all religions worthy of the name must embrace the existence of the supernatural.

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