To that end, I offer the following thought experiment, which I call the Mass Amnesia Event.
When the hypothetical Mass Amnesia Event (let’s call it MAE) occurs, you and I, and every single human being on the planet will forget absolutely everything. We forget our names, who are relatives are, how to communicate. We can’t read books, we can’t use computers. We don’t even know that we’ve forgotten anything. The effect of the MAE is permanent and irremediable. The slate of civilization has been wiped clean.
Such an event, I’m sure, would lead to death and chaos just as soon as the post-MAE humans figured out how to beat one another with sticks and stones. So, let’s make a couple of assumptions. First, some humans will survive the chaos; their natural desire for basic needs will lead them to eat and survive and multiply. Let’s also assume that, eventually, some humans will pool their resources; they’ll re-invent language, cooperate to increase their chances of survival, and rebuild societies.
Now here’s a question. In the post-MAE societies, which stands a better chance of being reconstructed to exactly its former (pre-MAE) status: faith or reason?
I would think that both faith and reason would make a comeback. I think it’s likely that we would see syllogistic reasoning appear; in turn, I think mathematics and geometry would be re-discovered; maybe even scientific method would develop again and usher in a new age of physics, chemistry, biology, etc. At some point, it seems quite possible that the logic, mathematics, and science after the MAE would be indistinguishable from (or, at least, very similar to) its counterparts before the MAE.
But the religions that emerge after the MAE would be very different. Perhaps some of the properties of religion would be the same: blood sacrifices, the need for atonement, the imposition of impossible rules (e.g. “Thou shalt not covet”). However, what will be entirely different is the content of religion, the stuff one actually has faith in: the gods, the prophets, the scriptures, the messiahs, etc.
To put it another way, some of the contents of science and reason, as they stand today, have arisen from their social and historical antecedents. Still other discoveries were quite accidental, such as: Teflon, penicillin, radioactivity. But might some of these discoveries have yet arisen in different historical contexts? There are many instances of discoveries that were converged upon independently by people of different social and historical backgrounds. For example, both the Mayans and the Hindus discovered the number zero, both Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz invented calculus.
On the other hand, the contents of religion are entirely dependent on social and historical antecedents. Arabia and Persia did not independently discover the “truth” of Islam. Muhammad said that the Qu’ran was revealed (conveniently enough) to him and him alone by Allah. Most of you reading this probably think that Muhammad just made the Qu’ran up as he went along. So, if there was no Muhammad, there’d be no Islam, and no one else would have independently discovered its truths (save by divine intervention).
Yesterday I posted a poll asking readers to erase one of the following great works from history: Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni, or Gustave Eiffel’s Eiffel Tower.* By now it should be obvious that the only one that can be safely consigned to oblivion is Newton’s Principia, because it is the only one whose contents would have been rediscovered by someone else (and without divine intervention).
So, I judge religious beliefs based on what I know about reason and science. If I seem to make a false idol of them, it's because of their relative consistency compared to religions, and not because of any act of faith my part.
* I ripped this question from the pages of Daniel Dennett’s book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995, Simon & Schuster). He, in turn, had borrowed it from an article by British psychologist Nicholas Humphrey (1987, “Scientific Shakespeare.” Guardian, August 26).