You’ve probably all heard about the Beyond Belief series, in which scientists give talks about the conflict between science and religion, as well as the science of religion. I’ve only watched the cognitive scientists (and Dawkins, for reasons I’ll mention below), so far, and that’s probably all I’ll watch. If you’re looking for them, V.S. Ramachandran is in Session 4, Patricia Churchland is in Session 5, Elizabeth Loftus is in Session 6, Mahzarin Banaji and Scott Atran are in Session 7, Atran is in Session 8, Paul Churchland participates in the discussion in Session 9, and Ramachandran is in Session 10. Tellingly, perhaps, the only scientist on the list who actually studies religion is Scott Atran (there are a couple philosophers who study religion), and in the talks I’ve seen, it shows. I did like this quip from Banaji, when she was discussing surveys measuring the religiosity of various groups (the rest of the talk is about how we don’t always know where are beliefs come from):
I remember being somewhat surprised at the large number of believers in both the humanities and the physical scientists, and i thought to myself, “You know, so the humanists, when you read a beautiful poem or listen to great music you fall to your knees and believe; if you’re a physical scientist, you look at the cosmos and you fall to your knees and believe. But those of us who are social scientists, who deal with human beings… uh, when you do that, there is very little reason to see God.”
Richard Dawkins’ talk in Session 7, which is sandwiched between Banaji’s and Atran’s, is also interesting because it’s representative of the discussion currently taking place on ScienceBlogs and elsewhere in the blog world. In that talk Dawkins sounds, at times, like a 5-year old with the vocabulary and factual knowledge of a world-renowned scientist. Take, for example, his comparison of religion with economic beliefs. He argues that talking about the religion of young children is child abuse, and to make this point, he suggests we think about children in a photo as Monetarists, Keynesians, and Marxists, instead of Sikhs, Muslims, and Christians. Labeling the children by their economic theories is obviously absurd, so labeling them by their religious affiliations must be as well. If religions and economic theories were analogous in any interesting way, this would be a wonderful argument, but since they aren’t, it’s just silly.
I’ve tried several times to write posts about the post-God Delusion blog clustersomethingorother, with all the reviews of Dawkins, reviews of reviews of Dawkins, and reviews of reviews of reviews of Dawkins, along with the side debates that discussion has spawned, but each time the posts came out sounding really nasty, so this is all I’ll say about it. I find it hypocritcal and, as an atheist, more than a little embarrassing that these fundamentalist, Dawkinsian, scientistic, self-styled free thinking atheists, who know jack about the history of religion, or serious philosophy and theology, feel that they can criticize religious fundamentalists for saying things about science (in the evolution-creationism debate, for example) when those religious fundamentalists are clearly ignorant of the science, but have no problem making grand claims about the rationality of religion or its practical implications. I can’t help but think that they feel they’re justified in this because they have a distinct sense of intellectual and, perhaps, moral superiority over the religious. This sense of superiority is reflected in the make up of the “Beyond Belief” panel, which is comprised, for the most part, of scientists who study things that are completely unrelated to religious doctrine and faith (except in superficial ways, such as the fact that modern cosmology and evolutionary biology rule out a literal interpretation of Genesis). If creationists had put together a panel of theologians to talk about the science of modern cosmology and evolutionary biology, these same atheists would write post after post about how ignorant and dishonest the whole thing was.
I firmly believe that science has absolutely nothing to say about the validity most theology, and most theology has absolutely nothing to say about the validity of science. Furthermore, I recognize, unlike Dawkins’ epigones, that “evidence” is not something that exists outside of an interpretive framework, and that it’s possible to rationally interpret the “facts” of the world as providing evidence for the existence of God or gods. The same is true when it comes to logical and moral arguments for and against the existence of God. Whether you buy those arguments generally depends on whether you accept their premises, and whether you except their premises generally depends on whether you’ve already accepted their conclusions. The only irrational position is to say that there is no other rational position other than your own, or no empirical evidence for any position but your own. That’s why I find it perfectly acceptable to call the atheists who adopt those positions “fundamentalists,” because their attitudes are indistinguishable, in form, from those of religious fundamentalists.
OK, one more thing, because I can’t resist. Banaji’s talk is about the fact that many of our beliefs, including our religious beliefs (though she doesn’t present any data about religious beliefs) are held for reasons of which we’re unaware. The implication of this is that the religious may hold their religious beliefs for reasons that have nothing to do with theological arguments or evidence, but are instead more due to more accidental causes (socialization, for example). When atheists think about this, I hope that they are well aware that the same thing applies to their own beliefs. Even when they’ve rationalized their atheism with arguments and interpretations of the evidence, chances are, unconscious motivations and biases are really to blame.