by Harold Williams
Published in Sunday Times (Malawi) March 6th, 2011
As people become more intelligent they care less for preachers and more for teachers.
Robert G. Ingersoll
Most of us will have learnt at school that scientific knowledge is the result of investigation, scrutiny and testing. We had the opportunity at school to test some of this knowledge by way of experimentation. We learnt that each successful experiment can be replicated time and again without any difference in outcome.
We cannot expect to put to the test all of the knowledge which we receive. We learnt that our ‘authorities’ – well-qualified teachers – and our reference books are so trustworthy that we could unquestioningly put the knowledge to practical use.
I learnt that water boils at different temperatures depending upon atmospheric pressure which varies with altitude. At sea level water boils at 100 Degrees Celsius. On Sapitwa, the summit of Mulanje Mountain at 3000 metres above sea level, water boils at 89.947C. Food cooked in boiling water will cook faster at higher temperatures. When I bought a pressure cooker I knew that the build up of pressure in the sealed pot would result in a higher cooking temperature. The pressure in these cookers is 1.03 bar (1 bar being the normal atmospheric pressure at sea level) and cooking temperature is 120C. Repeatability and reliability is my daily proof of useful knowledge that takes the mystery out of my kitchen.
At the time of our regular schooling we are exposed to another sort of ‘education’ at the hands of different ‘authorities’ – religious leaders and instructors. These ‘specialists’ ride on the back of the trust that we built up in other ‘authorities’ such as our parents and secular teachers. The so-called ‘knowledge’ that religion imparts comes from revelation and ‘sacred’, unchallengeable texts such as the Bible or the Quran. Whereas our secular teachers demonstrated tests for the accuracy and reliability of the knowledge which they were imparting, our religious teachers discouraged any questioning or testing. You cannot remove mystery, the inexplicable, from the mystery that is religion. Without ‘mystery’ there can be no religion. Religious ‘knowledge’ is myth and superstition with no useful application - the enemy of scientific enquiry.
In my childhood I was exposed to many religious superstitions. Children who died before being baptised went to a place called Limbo, denied the everlasting bliss of Heaven. Limbo has now been outlawed by the same clerical ‘authority’. Was it there previously or was it never there? Have all those poor children now gone to Heaven? What of Purgatory? What of Hell? And what of that little personal Guardian Angel who sat by my shoulder telling me what was right and wrong, helping me to fend off Satan’s temptations? What tests do we have for such beliefs? How reliable are our ‘sacred’ texts? How much of this ‘knowledge’ can we trust? What test of the ‘power of prayer’?
And of what use are such beliefs except to give churchmen power over us?