A Brazilian Plea For Science, Religious Freedom And The Right To Samba As You Wish
An evangelic group has threatened to take legal action against a samba school because of its mix of religious iconography at the 2023 Carnival festivities. A Brazilian secular institute has a response.
SÃO PAULO — To celebrate religious diversity at 2023 carnival, the samba school Gaviões da Fiel in São Paolo combined Christian symbols with imagery from African religions — for example, Christ with Oxalá (a deity from Candomblé, an African diasporic religion).
Gaviões received a disclaimer note from the country's conservative Evangelical Parliamentary Front (FPE). In these politicians’ view, "one cannot compare Christ and Oxalá … under no circumstances", and there would only be one god, one Son, and one Holy Spirit.
Having interpreted this artistic syncretism as an immoral, vile act, the FPE is now threatening to take legal action against the samba school.
We are not theologians or lawyers. We are scientists. That is why, in order to position ourselves in favor of art, secularism and freedom of expression, we have prepared a simple "scientific response" to the FPE's evangelicals' threat.
If the samba dancers bothered the fundamentalist evangelicals by multiplying the entities, we will present a skeptical point of view that works with subtraction: the possibility that there is neither Father, nor Son, nor any Holy Spirit.
Origins of life
There are many cases where it is impossible to demonstrate the truth of a negative proposition. There is no scientific evidence that there is no life on other planets, or, as the British philosopher Bertrand Russell teased, that there is not a teapot orbiting the sun. After all, how could scientists prove all these "absences"? Similarly, gathering evidence that deities don’t exist would be a thankless, fruitless task – which is why researchers are more concerned with other questions.
But the thing is, from time to time, some of these questions stimulate studies whose answers have interesting theological implications. For example, God is often credited with creating all living things. But today, thanks to a series of scientific discoveries, we know that current life forms emerged gradually, derived from others that are already extinct, and that they all have common ancestors. There's no serious scientific questioning about it, and for a simple reason: the evidence of the evolution of species is absurdly numerous and consistent with each other (Dawkins, 2009; Pirula & Lopes, 2019).
We are not trying to prove the non-existence of deities. That wouldn't even be possible.
Religious narratives referring to our origins, in addition to being rationally and empirically fragile, are mutually exclusive and generally do not dialogue with advances in science. On the contrary, the theory of evolution refutes the existence of a deity who would have planned and created, in a short period of time, all species exactly as they are today. In fact, there seems to be no phenomenon – be it physical, chemical, biological or psychological – whose scientific/naturalistic explanation is less plausible than the religious/supernaturalistic explanation.
It should be noted that we are not trying to prove the non-existence of deities. That wouldn't even be possible. It may even be that some god exists and timidly interferes in the course of events, but his fingerprints have never been detected by scientists. Not even personal experiences – such as spiritual cures – are useful for investigating the existence of divine miracles, as they are rarely replicable, and we know that people often get confused or lie about it (Orsi, 2021; Shermer, 2011; Wiseman, 2020).
And, even if an inert or indifferent deity is hiding out there – like the one proclaimed by the deist philosophy of the 18th century, which proposed a god who would have “started” the Universe and then withdrawn – this does not conflict with the assumption of scientific belief that the world functions on its own, without the need for a Heavenly Father's supervision.
Searching for evidence
There is also no evidence that spirits exist. First, advances in neuroscience have increasingly strengthened the thesis that the mind is entirely structured by brain activity (Harris, 2015; Damásio, 2015; Wiseman, 2020). There seems to be no "ghost in the machine". We come from the dust, are dust, and we shall remain dust – that's the best guess science allows us to make, at least.
Second, the apparent manifestations of demons, spirits, and the Holy Spirit itself may be entirely psychological experiences. For example, in his "Book of Miracles", Orsi (2021) describes scientific hypotheses that aim to explain phenomena such as the gift of speaking in tongues, demonic possession and the appearance of Jesus to Paul on the road to Damascus.
Even if science still doesn't explain the full range of events commonly attributed to the supernatural, that doesn't even remotely mean that the religious alternatives are true.
The Cardinal Archbishop of Rio, Dom Orani Joao Tempesta, participates in procession of Saint Sebastian Day.
About Jesus, historians seem not to hesitate: he existed! But this does not mean that the claims of supernatural events associated with his life, such as the virgin birth, miracles and resurrection, are true. In addition to presenting accounts that are impossible to verify, the Gospels probably were not written by eyewitnesses. In this sense, there is only faith in the claim that Jesus was the Son of God.
We have every reason to believe that Jesus was conceived like any other human being.
As defended by researchers such as Bart D. Ehrman (2014a, 2014b), the Nazarene Jew was a prophet who did not even believe he had a divine nature. Only in John's Gospel does he seem to identify himself with the Father — but that is the "apostolic" text which has less historical reliability.
We have every reason to believe that Jesus was conceived like any other human being of his time, and there is no historical reason to accept the extraordinary claims attributed to him. When dealing with the Bible, historians try to carefully separate the wheat from the chaff.
There is a historical Jesus and a Jesus of faith. Leaving aside questions of personal taste, emotional attachment or cultural conditioning, the available evidence indicates that it is rational to accept only the existence of the historical one.
Christianity does not stand above everything and everyone. It is possible that there is only one Father, one Son and one Holy Spirit; it is possible that there are Fathers, Sons, Spirits and Saints; and it is possible that there is neither of the two truths. None of these positions should be silenced.
We need to ensure that there is space for all of the above: art, secularism, freedom of expression, science, religion and religious tolerance.