Sunday Sacrilege: Simple things

Have you noticed how religion is always telling you how simple the answers are, yet at the same time claims that the universe is too complex for science to explain?

Look at religion’s explanations. How was the universe created? A big man in the sky just poofed it into existence. Where did humans come from? Same big man created two people — just like a mommy and daddy — and everyone arose from them. What about our history? One chosen people, a remarkable population bottleneck (humanity was reduced to 8 people, all from the same tribe, four of whom were closely related!), all languages traceable to one Middle Eastern source and dispersal.

These are cartoon explanations. They’re the kind of thing a five-year-old might come up with…and not a very bright five-year-old at that. All of them are clearly drawn from simplistic assumptions about how the world works. They’re pathetic.

Inventing a cosmic superbeing who has infinite conjuring powers isn’t an explanation, it’s an excuse. It explains nothing, and creates a new complication, this deity, that demands further explanation. And any god that a religion invents is complex: if it’s capable of personal interest in humanity, if it can carry out specific, directed actions, if it’s intelligent, it has to be complex; and if it is simply a diffuse force of nature, a property of the cosmos, then all the anthropomorphisms and goals and desires of their imaginary deity are false. Attempts to rationalize away complexity by claiming “god is love” or other such vacuities are nothing but cop-outs that reflect my thesis: religion is about reducing explanations to childish simplicity.

Other stories, like the derivation of the human race from a pair at one point and a family of 8 later are simply efforts to reduce biology to all that they know, family and patriarchy and tribe. They aren’t just silly, they’re plainly wrong: we know in general how species arise from populations, not individuals, and the myth doesn’t fit the facts. If there had been such a narrow constriction in the human population at any point, it would show up in our genomes; the whole story has been falsified.

Even those followers of religion who are not creationists have their collection of phony simplifications that apply not just to the real world, but to their own religion. How often have you found yourself discussing some absurdity of doctrine with a believer, only to have them retreat to their universal fuzzy bunker of that meaningless word, “faith”? “Faith” is their get-out-of-jail-free card, their refuge, their always-handy tool for short-circuiting reason. Every intellectual difficulty is met with surrender — and they act as if everyone should be proud of them for lapsing into faith.

It’s particularly galling when they approach science with this same attitude. The most common excuse I hear for believing in a god is that the world is too complex to have arisen in any way other than by the intelligent action of a superman. Say, maybe the right way to understand a complex phenomenon is not to pretend that it’s simpler than it actually it is…maybe throwing away discipline, talent, and hard work to wave away difficulties with the excuse that you “just have to believe” doesn’t actually accomplish anything.

But most clearly, no one gets to claim that high complexity is a reason to think that only simple explanation can be right. This is the approach intelligent design creationists take, but it’s also the fundamental premise of theists.

Religion claims faith is the answer. Reality says mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology are. But those require effort to master, I know.