That last post makes a nice lead-in to this post, from my fellow Science Blogger Rob Knop. This post is a follow-up to this previous post, in which Knop professed his own Christian faith, and protested what he perceives as a bias towards atheism here at SB. The present post is entitled, “What is the Purpose of Religion and/or Spirituality in a Scientific Age.”
Let’s have a look.
Referring to his earlier post, Knop writes:
In that post, I make it very clear that religion is no good at explaining the processes of the natural world. Once upon a time, that was a big part of what religion was for. We want to understand, to explain, how the world works. Until ancient Greece, at least Western thought didn’t even attempt to explain it without recourse to theology. In the last few hundred years, science has demonstrated tremendous power in explaining the natural world without recourse to theology– there’s just no competition. We don’t need religion to explain the natural world any more, and indeed it’s clear that religion does a terrible job at that, whereas science has done an impressive job, and there’s no reaspon to suspect that it will stop any time soon. (Italics in original).
Hard to argue with that. I suspect many Christians would retort that you at least need God to explain why there is a natural world at all, but Knop, as he make sclear later in the essay does not accept that either. One wonders, however, what it means to describe yourself as a Christian and then write a paragraph like the one above. But let’s move on:
Given that, is there any point to religion any more? For many, the answer is no. However, to some subset of those many, they think that the answer should be no for everybody. When somebody uses language like “The God Hypothesis,” there’s a good chance that they are taking a narrow view of religion as merely a “science substitute.” What I want to argue is that there still remains a point and a purpose to “God” even if there is no point or purpose to “God the Creator.” I would say that indeed the hypothesis of “God the Creator” has not stood up to observational scrutiny, for there is a whole host of other hypotheses that have stood up an awful lot better. While we can’t strictly rule out “God the Creator,” the role of that creation is shrinking into an ever decreasing set of gaps– that I full expect science will one day close. Despite the Discovery Institute’s senseless rambling, there’s no need to invoke any kind of God or Intelligent Designer to explain how humanity arose. We’ve got broad theories that get our Universe from a very early state, that produced our Sun and our Earth. I fully expect that one day we will even have scientific theories that satisfactorily address the creation of our Universe itself.
Remarkable stuff. Knop seems not to realize that in writing this paragraph he has conceded all of the major points raised by people like Richard Dawkins and Victor Stenger, which is interesting considering he is quite critical of both gentlemen. Dawkins and Stenger are quite explicit that the God they are talking about is a creator God, the one who created the universe with one act of His will. Both gentlemen explain why science reveals not a trace of evidence for any sort of designer, and reveals evidence against the specific notion of an all-powerful, all-loving God.
This is significant, you see, since most people do place God in the role of creator, and defend their belief with some version of the design argument. Dawkins and Stenger go to great lengths to show this argument is mistaken, and now Knop apparently agrees with them.
So what is Knop all worked up about? He next goes to relate an anecdote about the desire of the Church he attends to expunge the masculine language so prevalent in the Bible. In particular, they wanted to replace the phrase “Our Father who art in heaven,” with “Our Creator who art in heaven.” Knop then writes:
I have never liked that. The term “Father” encompasses so much more than the donation of some gametes; and, yet, we reduce the role to that by using the term Creator. What’s more, it’s the role that I have come to understand I think is the least important role, and indeed a role that doesn’t entirely fit with our understanding of the modern world.
Still good. Knop needs to realize, however, that in demoting God from his role of as Creator, he is excluding himself from most Christian denominations. Every declaration of Christian faith that I have ever seen has made “God as creator” a centerpiece of the faith. For example, here is the first sentence of The Catechism of the Catholic Church:
God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life.
I guess the Catholics didn’t get the memo about “God as creator” being an unimportant idea.
In the next paragraph Knop describes God’s traditional roles as Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer. He then states bluntly that he is ready to throw out “Creator.&rduqo; He then writes:
So we are left with Sustainer and Redeemer. Obviously, God does not provide physical sustenance. And, there are many out there who don’t need any kind of overt religion or spirituality for emotional, moral, or other sustenance; there are quite a number of agnostics or atheists who practice no religion, even private personal religion, but who live whole and fulfilled lives. But God can provide emotional or spiritual sustenance, and indeed does for many. Call it a crutch if you must, but many people find the strength to face the challenges in their lives, and find the will to do the things that they believe should be done, via their faith in God or gods. This isn’t delusion; this is how people get through their day. It is real to them. There do not need to be testable hypotheses that say that “if there is a God, then the intervention in the physical world will be detected in such and such a way” for the bolstering that many get from their religion to be very real to them. (Italics in Original, My Boldface)
Whoops. That’s pretty silly, I’m afraid.
Let’s start with that boldface remark. Here’s one definition of “delusion” according to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary.
b: a persistent false psychotic belief regarding the self or persons or objects outside the self that is maintained despite indisputable evidence to the contrary;
When a person believes in something that is real to them, but is not real for everyone else, that is the textbook definition of deluded. In fact, I’m reminded of the facetious definition of reality as “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” If Knop is correct, then it seems that God does go away as soon as you stop believing in Him.
If someone sincerely believes in an invisible, floating, incoroporeal dragon in their garage, and that belief helps him get through that day, I suspect that Knop would have more to say than simply, “The dragon is real to him.” In fact, I don’t think Knop would hesitate to say that person is deluded on a fundamental issue about reality. I’ll bet Knop is perfectly happy to declare that entities like Bigfoots, Nessies or unicorns do not exist, and base that conclusion on our sustained inability to find any evidence that they do. It is only God belief that he insulates from this conclusion.
(And no fair arguing that Bigfoots, Nessies and unicorns exist in the physical world whereas God exists outside all space and time. It is a triviality to conjure up ad hoc hypotheses to explain away why we find no evidence for Bigfoots and the like. Were I to go that route in a debate, Knop would surely roll his eyes at me).
Now, you might say at this point that a person is free to believe whatever they like, so long as that belief does not hurt anyone. You would certainly get no argument from me about that. To the extent that people keep their religious beliefs private, and make no attempt to force others to adhere to those beliefs, I have no quarrel at all with them. If all, or even most religious belief was of this sort, people like Dawkins and Stenger would not have bothered to write the books that they did.
But, of course, most belief is not of this sort. Especially not in the United States. Knop’s benign sort of religious belief is not the sort that has the ear of a major political party in this country. It is not people who say “God is real to me” who try to restrict stem-cell research, or prevent women from choosing to have an abortion, or teach creationism in science classes, or say in large numbers that atheists are inherently unworthy of holding public office, or any of the other countless ways that religious people in this country attempt to get the power of the state on their side.
It is this prevalent, entirely mainstream sort of religion at which people like Dawkins and Stenger direct their fire. They are right to feel threatened by this sort of religion. It is Knop’s version of theology that does not have widespread support. Consequently, it is rather unfair for him to complain that in writing their books they did not feel the need to address his views on the subject.
What about the rest of this paragraph? Knop tells us that God can provide emotional sustenance, but the rest of the paragraph does not bear that out. Instead, Knop merely argues that faith in God can provide emotional sustenance, as if there were anyone doubting that point. If God does not exist that obviously he can not provide any sort of sustenance, emotional or otherwise. And if you state bluntly that you don’t need to believe in God to explain the natural world, then one wonders what reason you have for thinking He exists at all.
Let’s move on. Knop writes:
Many scientists make the arrogant mistake of thinking that the only kind of human knowledge that exists is scientific knowledge. I see this all the time. I saw it a few times in the responses to my previous post. Consider, for example, art. Yes, there is science in understanding how materials combine to make sculptures, or how pigments combine to make colors. Yes, there is science in understanding what it is about human cognition and/or sociological predisposition that leads people to find some kind of art more pleasing than another. But the art itself– the creation of it, the appreciation of it, and the understanding of it’s meaning for what it is itself– that is not science. That can be very creative, it can be very deep, it can require tremendous intelligence, and it can involve scholarship… but it’s not science. This is what people are talking about when they talk about “other ways of knowing” besides just knowing the empirical results of scientific experiments and the additional predictions of theories supported by those experiments.
I’m afraid someone will have to explain to me Knop’s point. He writes that the creation and appreciation of art is not science. Indeed it isn’t. It also is not knowledge. What is it, exactly, that I can be said to know as the result of pondering great works of art?
I also don’t see how any of this is relevant to the matter at hand. In referring to science as the only legitimate route to knowledge, the implication is that you are referring to knowledge about the natural world. And the broader point is simply that when you make an assertion about emprical matters, you should be able to provide some sort of justification for what you believe beyond, “I believe it because it makes me feel good.” Or more precisely, you should expect to provide such a justification if you want other people to take your belief seriously.
Knop really goes off the rails with his next paragraph:
Richard Dawkins gave an interview to Salon last October in which there was this exchange (the interviewer in bold, Dawkins not):
But it seems to me the big “why” questions are, why are we here? And what is our purpose in life?
It’s not a question that deserves an answer.
Well, I think most people would say those questions are central to the way we think about our lives. Those are the big existential questions, but they are also questions that go beyond science.
If you mean, what is the purpose of the existence of the universe, then I’m saying that is quite simply begging the question. If you happen to be religious, you think that’s a meaningful question. But the mere fact that you can phrase it as an English sentence doesn’t mean it deserves an answer. Those of us who don’t believe in a god will say that is as illegitimate as the question, why are unicorns hollow? It just shouldn’t be put. It’s not a proper question to put. It doesn’t deserve an answer.
Here, Dawkins is showing exactly that arrogant and mistaken tendency of the scientist to assume that the only valid thought is that thought susceptable to the scientific method. Sure, “what is the purpose of existence” is not a meaningful scientific question. But it is a question whose answer can and will influence how we live our lives. The question “what should I do with myself today,” if thought about carefully enough, impinges upon the question “what is the purpose of my life.” Since science does not provide an answer, people look elsewhere. Some look to philosophy. Some don’t think about it too hard. Some deliberately and consciously create their own purpose. Some turn to religion. The point is that this is an extremely meaningful and important question; whether or not it can be answered, the attempt to answer it is absolutely crucial. And yet, Dawkins writes it off as a question that doesn’t deserve an answer. This is where he, and all of those who think that religion is bad because it’s no more than a failed hypothesis, are completely missing the point. This is where those who scoff at the notion of “other ways of knowing” and those who think that only scientific things are relevant to humanity are missing out on a large part of what it means to be a thinking creature.
Knop has a lot of nerve accusing other people of missing the point.
First off, it is perfectly obvious to anyone not looking for an excuse to feel superior that Dawkins is here being interviewed as a scientist. In casually acknolwedging that asking about purpose is meaningless scientifically he is once again conceding Dawkins’ point.
Dawkins is explicitly addressing the question of whether there is any ultimate purpose to the universe. And he makes the quite sensible point that even by asking the question you are assuming something that is very much in dispute.
What has that to do with the question of how people find meaning in their own lives? Which part of that leaves Dawkins exposed as someone who thinks that only scientific questions are important? Dawkins simply denies that you can point to one thing that is the purpose behind everyone’s existence. In this he differs from a fundamentalist Christian, for example, who would say the purpose of your life is to serve God in word, thought and deed. He would not deny that people have to find things that give them a feeling of fulfilment in their own life.
Aside from the fact that I think that’s obvious even in the intevriew Knop links to, Dawkins has also been quite explicit on these points in other venues. Here he is in an interview with The Guardian:
People frequently ask Richard Dawkins: “Why do you bother getting up in the morning if the meaning of life boils down to such a cruel pitiless fact, that we exist merely to help replicate a string of molecules?” As he puts it: “They say to me, how can you bear to be alive if everything is so cold and empty and pointless? Well, at an academic level I think it is – but that doesn’t mean you can live your life like that. One answer is that I feel privileged to be allowed to understand why the world exists, and why I exist, and I want to share it with other people.”
He elaborates on this later in the interview.
For all his talk about how Dawkins doesn’t get it about religion, in reality it is Knop who doesn’t get it about Dawkins (and atheists generally). Knop is so determined to paint Dawkins as a blinkered, robotic, passionless logic machine (in contrast to more sensible people who appreciate creativity and search for meaning in their lives and understand what it means to be a thinking creature), that he has simply presented a ridiculous caricature of what Dawkins actually believes.
Knop goes on for several more paragraphs in this vain, but let us fast forward to the end:
The one thing I really do hope I can accomplish by scribbling all of this is to let people who are uncertain or who are on the fence realize that you can fully accept all of the implications of modern scientific knowledge without having to completely throw out your religious faith. I think that is a tremendously important message, because so many people have religious faith. We don’t need to ask them to throw it out, or even to make fun of them for not throwing it out, in order to accept modern science–but I do think we need as many people as possible to accept modern science. I hope I can serve as an example of somebody who accepts modern science but is able to maintain some form of religious faith.
I think the emphasis is on the word “completely.” Sure, you can accept both faith and science. You just have to practice a faith that makes no empirical claims about the world and believe in a God whose existence can not be rationally defended. You have to be willing to believe things not because they are true or supported by evidence, but simply because you find them comforting.
Not only has Knop failed to provide any reason to think that Dawkins is wrong about anything, he has conceded every one of Dawkins major points. More than that, he has bluntly confirmed Dawkins portrayal of religious belief as something based on personal comfort and not empirical truth.
I suspect that few religious people will want to throw their hat in with Knop. He certainly seems to be promoting a version of Christianity so watered down and devoid of content that it becomes an abuse of language to describe it as Christianity at all. That notwithstanding, I look forward to reading his further blog entries on this subject. I do hope, however, that he takes a time-out from feeling put upon by atheists to understand what it is that atheists are actually claiming.