Victor J. Stenger: “Freedom and the Spiritual Life”


I can see few advantages of the so-called spiritual life. Religion may provide comfort, but that comfort comes at the price of freedom. Personally, I would rather be free than a slave to supernatural forces. While there may be dangers in unbridled freedom of behavior, as the AIDS epidemic demonstrates, constraints placed on human behavior should have a rational basis, rather than be simply commands from on high, passed on by self-appointed messengers, to be obeyed without question.

When humans were ignorant, superstitious primitives, alleged supernatural command probably served a purpose. Taboos, such as those against incest, divorce, and unhealthy foods helped tribes survive when their members lacked the intellectual tools to grasp the practical necessity for the taboos.

But now we have advanced to where we possess substantial intellectual tools, and are quite capable of examining the evidence to determine what behaviors should be discouraged – for the benefit of both individual and society. We are sufficiently competent to determine, by trial and error if necessary, the optimum systems by which we organize ourselves in society.

We no longer gullibly accept the word of higher authorities telling us that we must be ruled by a hereditary monarch, arguing that God must have intended it to be so when he placed the King on the throne. We can figure out for ourselves, from historical observation, that hereditary monarchies have provided the worst of governments.

With its many deficiencies, democracy has proved the most successful form of government applied so far. This conclusion is based on data, not the assertions of self-proclaimed authorities. And despite attempts by many religious figures to tie democracy to their spiritual teachings, no form of government ever proposed is less consistent with the instructions of religion. Democracy arose from the rejection of religious authority, intolerance, and corruption. Far from being a Christian nation, the U.S. was founded on the notion of separation of Church and State. The word God appears nowhere in the U.S. Constitution.

Similarly with our economic systems, the rapid collapse of socialism empirically demonstrated that freedom of the individual still provides the best basis for a viable economy. Socialism was a theoretical ideal, a kind of wholistic system where the simultaneous cooperation of every element was required for successful operation. The results of the attempt to apply this ideal speak for themselves: The perfect cooperation required by socialism, as nice at it sounds in theory, has never been achieved in practice and is probably impossible.

Certainly some cooperation is necessary in society, but the system in which that cooperation is based on mutual individual benefit, agreed to by all participants because of recognizable self-interest, has proven itself to be the best by its own success. As a scientist, I am guided by the rules of pragmatism and parsimony. Free enterprise and democracy demonstrably work, satisfying the rule of pragmatism. They also satisfy the rule of parsimony, by requiring the least artificial control.

And so freedom, in the political, economic, and personal sphere, are natural outcomes of a rational, scientific perspective. At the same time, the religious, spiritual perspective has proven the bankrupt basis for the enslaving of human beings. By telling people that they are ultimately subject to forces beyond themselves, religion has always paved the way for the despots and dictators who would rule us all.

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