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Occam's Razor

This essay was presented for Philosophy 105 "Values and Beliefs" at Australian Catholic University. It was marked by a Jesuit priest and received a High Distinction.

"Applying Occam's Razor To Religion"

This work proposes to argue that through elimination of un-necessary assumptions about religious faith, experience and membership, religion can be shown to be irrelevant in the modern world.

To do this the essay will apply Occam’s Razor, which can be summed up as “the principle [that] states that the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible, eliminating those that make no difference in the observable predictions of the explanatory hypothesis or theory.”1
This essay suggests that some human needs that have traditionally been met by religious belief may now be met by modern changes in society, science and social sciences. These changes have meant we can use Occam’s Razor to eliminate more assumptions about religious faith, such as that it is required to experience spirituality – either direct or indirect – or to provide answers to such as that of creation, to which science now provides an answer. Where references to religion are made they will, unless otherwise stated, be to Christianity.

The scope will not cover the disadvantages or even wrongness of religious belief, for that the works of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens are recommended.

Spiritual needs are perhaps the most pressing of religious needs. They include a desire for experience transcending the mundane; being given knowledge of, currently, unknowable matters such as meaning of life, life after death and existence of soul; experiencing direct divine intervention. What is spiritual experience?

Perhaps the most universal human experience attributed to spirituality is experiencing beauty and awe in nature, which I will refer to as an indirect spiritual experience. From a glister of dew in the morning sun to being subjected to the most violent extremes of storms and other natural disasters, humans have widely reported physical, mental and emotional sensations such as a lightness of the body, a sense of unusual mental clarity, indescribable joy, a sense of insignificance that is not always unpleasant but rather implies the presence of a higher power.

This kind of experience requires no basis in faith or assumption of the existence of any deity and seems to be common to all societies and does not provide any proof for the existence or non-existence of any deity. Clearly since this form of experience is available to the most devout atheist the belief in or practice of any form of religion is an un-necessary assumption. If one wants it more often, take up bushwalking.

In some areas modern technology has replaced the need for spirituality. Arguably television, spectacle in movies and computer games have replaced some of the need for the feeling of “magic” once reserved for Sunday sermons.

Another form of direct spiritual experience is one I shall refer to as the ecstatic, undergoing a profound and intimate sense of the numinous. In the context of believers this is most uncommon, usually related in the form of the stories of saints and famous religious figures such as the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus2 and the conversion of Constantine3. In sects where the experience is common, such as the Pentecostals talking in tongues, it usually occurs in a context conducive to mass hysteria, suggestion or altered states of consciousness. Practices that can induce an altered state of consciousness either individually or in a group situation include chanting, drumming, dancing especially swirling, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation or overload, meditation and drugs. While these practices are often associated with a quest for spiritual experience or enlightenment, the effects can be witnessed at any trance rave or even rock festival. If these experiences are desired, no religious affiliation or faith is required.

The need for answers to presently unanswerable questions such as creation, the meaning of life, the existence of god(s) and life after death is a common, but not universal, one once provided for by religion. Every religion provides its own answers, which vary considerably (even to the existence of god) and many conflicting views claim to be the only true one. It is reasonable to conclude that where beliefs claiming to be the one true one conflict, none of them are likely to be the one true one. Science never claims truth without proof and many of these questions seem unprovable, at this stage. However science can provide theories supported by a body of evidence which have yet to be disproved. The Big Bang Theory4 and Darwin's Theory of Evolution5 satisfactorily answer the questions of creation. Science has found no evidence for, nor has been able to disprove, the existence of god(s), the soul or any sort of existence of life after death. The evidence continues to mount though that no verifiable trace suggests no need for an assumption of their existence. Divine intervention, or miracles, similarly have either scientific explanations or can not be attributed to faith in any particular religion. This area can reasonably be razored.

The meaning of life is often considered to be the realm of philosophy, which the average person regards to be outside their ken, but can be summed up in an existential sense by the question “how to live well?”. Here we also address the religious need for ethics/morality. Answers to this can be provided to some extent by most religions, with less conflict between them. The Christian ideal of “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”6 Is a good start, although Christianity, as derived specifically from the Bible, does not address Green issues and much Christian law as delivered in the Bible is archaic and even savagely ignorant. “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.”7 “Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a sabbath of rest to the LORD: whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death.”8 “If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.”9 Sociology, anthropology and psychology provide answers not much more coherently or consensually than Christianity. Although consistently morality, values and ethics based exclusively on religious texts fail to engage modern advances in tolerance, pluralism and compassion. This aspect of religious need, from a sociological perspective, can not be decisively razored although “goodness” does not seem to be a result of faith in any religion any more than atheism.

Very briefly, people do often feel a need for a cultural and historical perspective, which can be well provided by Christianity and other religions. A particularly good example of this is to be found in “Why I Am A Jew” by Edmond Fleg10. This is probably the single aspect of religion that still has the strongest need and usefulness in a world that moves so quickly, geographically and in terms of information, that people find themselves alienated and disenfranchised.

The question can not be answered absolutely; however it is clearly a cultural and historical context for the individual, and not any other aspect, that provides the need for the continuing existence of religion in a world that belies the fundamental texts and practices of those religions.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Hunt, Arnold and Crotty, Robert, Set your heart on goodness : ethics of world
religions, Melbourne. 1976 .
Pohlsander, A., The Emperor Constantine, London and New York, 1996, pp 22.
Quilter, John G., Philosophy 105 Values and Beliefs Readings, Australia, 2008,
Item 6.
Whitmarsh-Knight, David, Myth, Archetype and the Sublime, Sydney, 1985.
Lecture Series at COFA

Comments

would you believe a Jesuit Priest gave me a High Distinction for this essay?
True.

cheers,
Jess, Neopoet Directors
Neopoet is a workshop. Poets take the time to read and think about your work and offer suggestions.
There is no obligation to make any changes however please acknowledge critique and comments.

author comment

Well done, Jess

Joe

is what has often been said to me after someone hears
that I'm an atheist. They can't believe it, most of my family
choose to disregard it, like it is some kind of disease that
will go away on its own. I feel that religions are all based on
racial borders, all with the same agenda, proving the other man
wrong, even in death.

enjoyed the essay Jess

is doing it without religion.

cheers,
Jess, Neopoet Directors
Neopoet is a workshop. Poets take the time to read and think about your work and offer suggestions.
There is no obligation to make any changes however please acknowledge critique and comments.

author comment

So, is this your new religion?

;-)

you helped teach me that, my dear Bodhisattva,
all I was is still me and all I will be is irrepressible.

cheers,
Jess, Neopoet Directors
Neopoet is a workshop. Poets take the time to read and think about your work and offer suggestions.
There is no obligation to make any changes however please acknowledge critique and comments.

author comment

Since then I've read Michio Kaku's "Parallel Worlds: A Journey through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos" (2004), and a bunch of other stuff on cosmology, physics, sociology, whatever seems interesting, my search for knowledge is insatiable.
A few that really stood out, highly recommended, were-
"Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software" by Steven Berlin Johnson,
"Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time" by Jay Griffiths
"On Anarchism" by Noam Chomsky.

So the multiverse and Big Bang as power source for our Virtual Universe did not come as screaming headlines to me. What shocked me to the core was your statement "Science in fact has determined nothing!". A terribly strange thing to say in the face of scientific achievements.

What I guess you are saying, correct me if I'm wrong, is that science hasn't provided immutable factual answers to the big questions. Of course not! Mathematics can do that, provide immutable provable facts, science deals in theories and evidence. Despite an overwhelming body of evidence The Theory of Gravity is still "just a theory" and if a better theory comes along to explain why things fall and the motion of most of the universe, it's out the window with poor old Theory of Gravity.

This is my prime objection to almost all religious thinking. It is based on immutable beliefs in an infinitely mutable universe. Easy, faith-based answers actively impair the quest for knowledge.

One of the greatest minds ever, Sir Isaac Newton, when calculating the movements of the planets got it nearly spot-on! With only the most rudimentary telescopes and no computers. However his maths did not quite fit the observable facts, retrospectively an elementary error, he had assumed the orbits were circular. If he had taken their elliptical nature into account it would have worked out fine. But what did he do instead? He fell back on caveman superstition- god did it. Yes, he actually argued that god made the necessary corrections to the planets orbits "by hand", so to speak. This is a prime example of how religious beliefs damage thought, knowledge and understanding.

I told you a bit of a fib before, when I said "I tend to the label 'atheist'. In fact I am an intolerant atheist, a profound sceptic and though I don't proselytise like many religious folk do, I argue back, fiercely, in an informed manner and with no respect whatsoever for their beliefs.

I'm afraid it is often like shooting fish in a barrel. I've read all the major religious texts cover to cover. Most Christians have maybe dabbled a little in the gospels. Wow, if every Christian read the whole bible, remembering that Jesus preached that all the old laws, that is the Old Testament, still held true, then the only remaining Christians would make ISIS look like saints. Have you read Deuteronomy? That is one nasty piece of work.

cheers,
Jess, Neopoet Directors
Neopoet is a workshop. Poets take the time to read and think about your work and offer suggestions.
There is no obligation to make any changes however please acknowledge critique and comments.

author comment

On a scale from 0 to infinity nothing is anything. Are you seriously saying that all accumulated knowledge, I won't speak to wisdom, amounts to nothing?

If you want absolute answers you need mathematics.

If you don't care if it's true, faith will do.

cheers,
Jess, Neopoet Directors
Neopoet is a workshop. Poets take the time to read and think about your work and offer suggestions.
There is no obligation to make any changes however please acknowledge critique and comments.

author comment

anything is nothing

I regard this as sophistry and nonsense anyway. We may well be self-immolatingly fucking up but we are a long way from fish.

cheers,
Jess, Neopoet Directors
Neopoet is a workshop. Poets take the time to read and think about your work and offer suggestions.
There is no obligation to make any changes however please acknowledge critique and comments.

author comment

I'll read great literature, philosophy and science. Ponder on it, watch a sunset, go to a concert. All sorts of non-fishy things and be grateful that I don't allow my inner rhetoric to lead me into blind alleys of epistemological nihilism.

cheers,
Jess, Neopoet Directors
Neopoet is a workshop. Poets take the time to read and think about your work and offer suggestions.
There is no obligation to make any changes however please acknowledge critique and comments.

author comment

I suspect stinko paralytico may be the order of the day.

cheers,
Jess, Neopoet Directors
Neopoet is a workshop. Poets take the time to read and think about your work and offer suggestions.
There is no obligation to make any changes however please acknowledge critique and comments.

author comment

and a lousy judge of character.
I thought I was having an informed, intelligent conversation with a reasonable person, but realise from your responses that you are an ignorant theist at heart, probably still in the closet, since you must know that religious and even spiritual beliefs have a devastatingly negative effect on human knowledge and growth.
Fuck the superstition man, you are better than that.

Let's try again, from scratch, just talking about the poetry., which you have great talent for.

You are playing with the big boys now when it comes to ideas, ideology, values and beliefs. Don't even go there unless you can back up your opinions with reputable sources and citations.

cheers,
Jess, Neopoet Directors
Neopoet is a workshop. Poets take the time to read and think about your work and offer suggestions.
There is no obligation to make any changes however please acknowledge critique and comments.

author comment

Peace.
I will look out for your poetry.

cheers,
Jess, Neopoet Directors
Neopoet is a workshop. Poets take the time to read and think about your work and offer suggestions.
There is no obligation to make any changes however please acknowledge critique and comments.

author comment

That you backed yourself into a corner of epistemological nihilism.

cheers,
Jess, Neopoet Directors
Neopoet is a workshop. Poets take the time to read and think about your work and offer suggestions.
There is no obligation to make any changes however please acknowledge critique and comments.

author comment

I would rephrase that now-
"All scientific theories are supported by a body of evidence and are just waiting to be disproved by a better theory. The Big Bang Theory and Darwin's Theory of Evolution provide better answers to the questions of creation than any religious creation myth."

cheers,
Jess, Neopoet Directors
Neopoet is a workshop. Poets take the time to read and think about your work and offer suggestions.
There is no obligation to make any changes however please acknowledge critique and comments.

author comment

Good to read this again! Technically he's right
Jess. What science has done though and continues
to do is push this hidden god into corners yet
uncovered ... yet.

no where to hide

There was an old god, Abrahamic
whose vengeance was scaled panoramic
but when the tides of science turned
the ignorant bugger got burned
by the first law, thermodynamic

cheers,
Jess, Neopoet Directors
Neopoet is a workshop. Poets take the time to read and think about your work and offer suggestions.
There is no obligation to make any changes however please acknowledge critique and comments.

author comment
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