Pharyngula

I’m proud to be non-human

Here’s a dilemma: I think Ron Numbers, the philosopher and historian of science, is a smart fellow and a net asset to the opposition to creationism, and I agree with him that a diversity of approaches to the issue is a good thing. My opinion could change, though, because I am experiencing considerable exasperation with the apologists for religion on the evolution side, and this interview with Numbers isn’t helping things. Here’s an example of the kind of nonsense that drives me nuts.

QUESTION: Are scientists in general atheistic?

MR. NUMBERS: The public often gets the impression that most scientists are non-believers. But, that’s not true. Just within the past year the journal Nature published a study that revealed even today roughly the same proportion of scientists believe in God as did 75 years ago. [The figure is almost 40%]

You know, I have faith that even philosophers can learn basic arithmetic and logic. A question about the frequency of atheists is not answered by saying that the proportion has been constant for 75 years. Denying that most scientists are non-believers when 60% are is just backwards. The situation is even worse than the statistics imply, I think; I know plenty of scientists who claim to be ‘spiritual’ and to believe in some vague kind of deity, and would probably be counted as believers, but their ‘religion’ is the kind that would have had them imprisoned or burned at the stake a few centuries ago, and certainly would be rejected by most of the modern advocates for religion.

Face it. Most scientists are irreligious, if not outright atheists, and apologists like Numbers are in denial. This is a central fact in the cultural debate; the creationists, who are not generally idiots (Numbers and I agree on that), know it. They know that embracing science, critical thinking, and any effort at objective historical analysis utterly destroys fundamentalist religion and greatly weakens the cherished myths of even liberal Christianity. Skepticism is the antithesis of faith, and a science that encourages people to question is the enemy of a religion that demands people accept.

You want to advance the cause of science and oppose ignorance in this country? Don’t start by contradicting reality and acting as if the philosophical position of the majority of your colleagues is something shameful. Don’t act as if the dogma of the opposition is a virtue.

Numbers is interviewed further in a Wisconsin alumni magazine. The article starts with a lovely and optimistic quote from John Tyndall, speaking to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1874.

The impregnable position of science may be described in a few words. We claim, and we shall wrest from theology, the entire domain of cosmological theory. All schemes and systems which thus infringe upon the domain of science must, in so far as they do this, submit to its control, and relinquish all thought of controlling it.

I read that and, while recognizing that science is denied by many, I have to say that Tyndall was right. Old myths have been superceded, there is no serious competition to the scientific method of understanding the universe, and theology has been demonstrated to be wrong over and over again. The author of the article, however, instead claims that science has not lived up to Tyndall’s expectation that science would “become the only way to understand life on a challenging planet,” and to support that contention, argues that “theology still matters, [and] religion remains one of the world’s most powerful forces.” Well, yeah…ignorance is a powerful force and will remain so. That doesn’t mean Tyndall was wrong: the only serious cosmology today is found in the field of physics, and I’m sorry, but the theological practice of making excuses for crude and primitive superstitious myths in old books is not a contender. The whole article, though, treats religious gobbledygook and falsehoods deferentially, as if they actually have some substance in reality. That’s our problem nowadays: this fallacious habit of giving undue respect to failed beliefs.

But of course, it’s all the scientist’s fault. Why? Because they’re so damned arrogant.

Those volumes weave a history of two worlds [science and religion] that have collided far more often than they have connected. A significant reason, says Numbers, is scientific arrogance, which neither began nor ended with Tyndall’s grandiose claims of a world illuminated only by science. Modern examples include the British geneticist Richard Dawkins, who routinely couples the words faith and ignorance, and the American philosopher of science Daniel Dennett, who recently told the New York Times that religious “belief can be explained in much the same way a cancer can.”

Listen, world. Dawkins and Dennett and Tyndall aren’t arrogant: they’re right. There is a difference. That’s a real problem for scientists, that they keep saying unpleasant things like “the planet is getting hotter” and “smoking cigarettes can kill you” and “unprotected sex can spread some very serious diseases” and then they back it up with statistics and measurements and scary photos of tumor-riddled lungs, and ruin everyone’s fun. Similarly, when Dawkins points out that religion is fueling terrorism and encouraging people to compromise our kids’ educations, he’s stating the obvious truth…obvious to everyone who isn’t blinkered by the false promotion of religion as a virtue. That’s being right.

You don’t find that much arrogance in science. If you want arrogance, you need to go to those uninformed, lying christianists who pronounce doom and destruction and declare who is evil and who is going to hell and whose country must be destroyed and its inhabitants converted to the One True Faith. When I hear people declare that Dawkins is the arrogant one, while they are surrounded by Robertsons and Coulters and Dobsons, I give up on them. They’ve just admitted that they lack any sensible perspective on the world.

I often see a related attitude in the comments at the Panda’s Thumb, too, and I’m beginning to find it wearing thin. The flip side of assuming a false virtue in religion is the denial of the power of science.

Alas, much as I enjoy hearing about the latest scientific findings, I also recognize that they are, in the evolution/creation “debate”, utterly irrelevant. The “debate” simply isn’t about science. IDers weren’t won to ID because of science. And they won’t be won away from it by science, either.

There is a strong cultural aspect to this struggle that is independent of the facts, I won’t deny that. But calling the science “irrelevant” is throwing away the sharpest tool in our toolbox. We are going to win people to the side of science and reason by promoting, well, science and reason. Stop running away from it! Stop being ashamed of the fact that the evidence is on our side! We aren’t going to win by engaging in theological debates, or by getting the right legislation, or by winning court battles—the way to win is by taking the ignorant by the scruff of the neck and dragging them outside and showing them that yes, the sky is blue, water is wet, the planet is round, and the earth is old. The science must be the linchpin of our strategy. When we teach people to think, science wins.

But back to Ron Numbers and this annoying article. Here’s how the author wraps it up.

But Numbers is a realist, and he recognizes that the bigger problem for science is something that John Tyndall never considered: if it came down to an either-or scenario between science and religion, the ultimate loser may be our own humanity. For all its illuminating power, scientific knowledge rarely leads to absolute certainty, and few of us would be satisfied with strict facts alone to help us comprehend our existence. As Albert Einstein famously noted, “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” If, as scientists argue, accepting intelligent design is choosing blind faith, is the alternative something more than lameness? “The will to believe is so strong,” says Numbers, “that it can trump any empirical evidence.”

Albert Einstein could be such an asshole.

Why should I, or anybody, accept such a silly assertion? Religion adds nothing to science, let alone sight. If he wanted to argue that we need to add ethics or social awareness to properly integrate the execution of science into culture, sure, I’d agree…but there’s a big difference between a proper perspective on societal issues and religion, and I find it extremely annoying that people so blithely and stupidly equate religion with morality and due regard for culture. Look way back at the beginning of this article; most scientists are operating sans religion, and to suggest that it’s only the ones indoctrinated into some religious dogma who are leading the way is (heh) arrogant.

Of course, Einstein’s arrogance has nothing on the author’s, who believes that religion is the source of our humanity, and that we need absolute certainty to find satisfaction in life. If that’s the case, I gladly renounce humanity, if humanity means ignorance and the dumb acceptance of superstition. I’ll happily embrace uncertainty, provisional truth, and a method that guarantees a lifelong search for new knowledge over the false certainty given by the liars for gods.

Comments

  1. #1 s9
    June 24, 2006

    More like this, please.

    Oh, and– “I’m proud to be non-human?” How are classified? Are you a meat popsicle?

  2. #2 RickD
    June 24, 2006

    Einstein was a great physicist, but we shouldn’t take his word as gospel on any other matter. Certainly not on religion. His most famous religious statement was “God does not throw dice”, and this kept him from accepting quantum mechanics for quite a long time.

  3. #3 complex_field
    June 24, 2006

    s9 — PZ is a cephalapod

  4. #4 theRidger
    June 24, 2006

    Even if it’s true, you can get a lot farther limping than you can blind.

  5. #5 maha
    June 24, 2006

    We are going to win people to the side of science and reason by promoting, well, science and reason. Stop running away from it! Stop being ashamed of the fact that the evidence is on our side! We aren’t going to win by engaging in theological debates, or by getting the right legislation, or by winning court battles–the way to win is by taking the ignorant by the scruff of the neck and dragging them outside and showing them that yes, the sky is blue, water is wet, the planet is round, and the earth is old. The science must be the linchpin of our strategy. When we teach people to think, science wins.

    That makes sense, except that most of the time religion is a deeply engrained habit of mind as much as it is (most of the time) a belief system, and what you want to do amounts to a complete overhaul of cognitive machines — teaching people to not only think different things but to use their brains in a whole new way.

    Plus, generally in religious people religion is interwoven into their entire personal cosmology — who they think they are and how they think they relate to everything else. What you’re asking people to accomplish is an all-systems paradigm shift. And this is something people rarely do unless they are personally motivated to do so. And even then it’s very hard and takes a certain amount of wandering in the wilderness, so to speak.

    People whose self-identity is interconnected to religious dogma perceive a threat to dogma as a threat to themselves. Giving it up religion amounts to an existential death for them. So the well-meaning and rational scientist who tells them their religious dogmas are wrong scares the stuffing out of them. Many people will react by retreating even further into the dogma, where they feel safe.

    I think Mr. Numbers may be taking a “baby steps” approach, first persuading the religious that science won’t bite them and they don’t have to be afraid of it. I think if you can accomplish even that much in a single generation, you’ve done something remarkable.

  6. #6 Theo Bromine
    June 24, 2006

    Agreed that Dawkins and Dennett and Tyndale are right, but I think it is still fair to consider Dawkins, at least, to be arrogant (eg the “Brights” movement). However, I think the statements cited in the article (regarding religion, ignorance, and cancer) are not arrogant, though they very well may be insulting. I recently realized that now that I am not a theist, I no longer need to figure out how it is that God would allow so many very intelligent people to come to such a variety of different conclusions about life, the universe, and everything.

  7. #7 coturnix
    June 24, 2006

    PZ ir right. Maha is right, as well. Truth in itself will not let you free if you are telling it to an unprepared mind, even less if you are telling it to a frightened mind. But truth is, in the end, the most potent weapon, once you are done with all the mind-preparing first (as well as marginalizing those whose minds cannot be prepared).

  8. #8 saltyC
    June 24, 2006

    I’d like to see a comparison of how many scientists are a-religious with how many violent convicts in federal prison are believers.
    (PS there are a LOT of believers in jail, as far as my anecdotal experience goes)

    Just correllation, I know.

  9. #9 odysseus
    June 24, 2006

    I strongly agree with Tyndall’s statement.

    At the same time, in my view, each individual has a personal view of sorts, a worldview if you wish, one which may be in certain respects more basic and fundamental to how they view the world and themselves in relation to it which is not reducible to matters of empirical science. A certain part of it has to do with the fact that we must take for granted certain assumptions and normative principles simply in order to interact with the world. Such worldviews may be philosophic or they may be religious. I don’t believe it matters so long as an individual fully acknowledges the truth of Tyndall’s statement. Moreover, I suspect that pluralism is itself a defense of sorts against the dangers of a monocultural culture.

    And of course, you are right: many scientists who regard themselves as religious are not religious in any traditional sense. Many are essentially pantheists who regard God as nothing more nor less than the impersonal, unitary, lawful nature of reality. Albert Einstein was one of these individuals, Stephen Hawking is another, and according to recent biographers, it appears that Charles Darwin was yet another. (However, publicly Darwin would take the position of agnosticism with respect to the existence of a personal god.) For such individuals, references to the mind or intelligence of God can only be a metaphor, as in the statement below:

    “The scientist’s religious feeling takes the form of rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.”
    – Albert Einstein

    Interestingly, much of the idea behind this statement is echoed in the following thought:

    “I do think that a thinking person can both be one who believes that science, rigorous science, is the way to understand the natural world and that god is the way to understand the spiritual world. And when you marry the two together, as I get to do, your appreciation of science, of a new discovery, takes on a new meaning because it’s a glimpse of what god knew all along and at that moment it’s a moment of worship.”
    - Francis Collins

    In either view, curiousity and a sense of wonder might be viewed as the highest forms of worship one can express towards God — and I have heard the sort of thought expressed by atheistic scientists, except with them, they choose to regard the object of curiosity and wonder as reality, existence or the universe. Collins, however, believes in a personal god of sorts and will not rule out the existence of miracles. Whether this is simply a matter of diplomacy or not is hard to say.

    *

    Likewise, I agree that modernity will ultimately lead to the extinction of Fundamentalism. The Fundamentalists recognize this (at least at some level) which is why they are making this desperate attempt to control science and bring an end to modernity itself.

    *

    In any case, I am looking forward to more Evo Devo. There is clearly a great deal going on nowadays, and from what I understand, it is accelerating to an extent that would have seemed quite impossible only a few years ago.

  10. #10 Gracks
    June 24, 2006

    I find it amusing that all the wrong people dislike all the right people. Dawkins and Dennett make me proud to be human.

  11. #11 Y.B
    June 24, 2006

    “The geneticist Richard Dawkins”? Last I checked, he was a zoologist.

    But I agree that the majority of scientists are atheistic, or at most deist/pantheist types. IIRC, only about 7% of those evil people in the hard sciences believe in a personal god.

    (That was pretty much the only fact that, that… creature, Jonathan Sarfati got right in his awful propaganda book “Refuting Evolution”.

    Dawkins and Dennett should drop the “Brights” thing, though. Seriously.

  12. #12 Foggg
    June 24, 2006

    Religion adds nothing to science, let alone sight.

    You inverted Einstein’s metaphor. Should be “…, let alone uncrippled mobility.”

  13. #13 cm
    June 24, 2006

    a) Let’s keep in mind that being arrogant and being right are not mutually exclusive. Maybe Dawkins is a tad arrogant–but I can look the other way considering he is a brilliant man and on the side of rationalism.

    b) Yeah, you’re right on the complete disregard for 6th grade math…and the man’s name is Numbers!

  14. #14 Russell
    June 24, 2006

    This is about the simplest thing: “faith” means precisely where one stops thinking. Scientists who have faith practice compartmentalization. What they accept in their religious life, they never would accept in their professional life.

    It is not arrogant to deny faith. It is arrogant to ask someone to believe something on its basis.

  15. #15 Rey Fox
    June 24, 2006

    Oh, and– “I’m proud to be non-human?” How are classified? Are you a meat popsicle?

    Perhaps he’s one of the Lovecraftian Old Ones. Or Deep Ones. Or maybe he’s a vamprire! Er…reverse vampire!

  16. #16 Y.B
    June 24, 2006

    Irreversible cephalopod vampire!

  17. #17 Caledonian
    June 24, 2006

    I’ve read the text by Einstein from which that quote was taken. And do you know something?

    He was using a very nonstandard definition of ‘religion’. Essentially, he was trying to get people to accept atheism by talking about the philosophy while using a term that wouldn’t cause people to reject the ideas outright.

  18. #18 Jonathan Badger
    June 24, 2006

    Why should I, or anybody, accept such a silly assertion? Religion adds nothing to science, let alone sight. If he wanted to argue that we need to add ethics or social awareness to properly integrate the execution of science into culture, sure, I’d agree…but there’s a big difference between a proper perspective on societal issues and religion

    I’d suspect Einstein would agree with you. Remember this is the same guy who responded to a letter with “It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

    So “religion” for Einstein is not what most people would call religion.

    I suspect that theists looking for support didn’t understand that a statement like “God doesn’t play dice” isn’t any different from a statement like “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!” — they simply refer to personifications of nature.

  19. #19 maha
    June 24, 2006

    Einstein’s 1930 essay “Religion and Science” provides an analysis of religion that divides it into three basic phases. The first is primitive — appealing to gods to protect one from frightening things, for example. In the second phase the concept of God takes on social or moral significance. There is a third phase, however, “which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man’s image.” He called it a “religious feeling,” which seems unsatisfactory to me, but then English wasn’t Einstein’s first language.

    After saying that he finds this “feeling” in Schopenhauer, Spinoza, and Francis of Assisi, among others, he continues,

    “We thus arrive at a conception of the relation of science to religion very different from the usual one. When one views the matter historically, one is inclined to look upon science and religion as irreconcilable antagonists, and for a very obvious reason. The man who is thoroughly convinced of the universal operation of the law of causation cannot for a moment entertain the idea of a being who interferes in the course of events – provided, of course, that he takes the hypothesis of causality really seriously. He has no use for the religion of fear and equally little for social or moral religion. A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable to him for the simple reason that a man’s actions are determined by necessity, external and internal, so that in God’s eyes he cannot be responsible, any more than an inanimate object is responsible for the motions it undergoes. Science has therefore been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust. A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death.”

  20. #20 Chris
    June 24, 2006

    If that’s the case, I gladly renounce humanity, if humanity means ignorance and the dumb acceptance of superstition.
    Well, I for one welcome our new meta-human overlords. It’s about time we evolved beyond the species that invented religion and used it to justify murder, torture, slavery and genocide. If that’s the religious moral compass, I can do without it.

    Am I the only one irritated with Einstein’s name being dragged into every discussion, whether it has anything to do with physics or not? Get this straight: science doesn’t have prophets or popes. Nobody’s word is infallible. Einstein was wrong about some things. So was Darwin (that’s why no scientist calls evolution “Darwinism”). So is Dawkins. So is PZ. So am I.

    Einstein’s belief that X is true has some value as support for X if X is a statement about theoretical physics, which Einstein was an expert at. Even then, it’s not unchallengeable holy scripture – science doesn’t have any of that. Einstein’s belief that X is true if X is unrelated to physics isn’t really evidence for anything; it’s just a biographical fact about Einstein.

    Scientists don’t worship Einstein. The media shouldn’t either.

  21. #21 Scott Hatfield
    June 24, 2006

    PZ: I haven’t seen the program (my local PBS affiliate somewhat mysteriously scheduled this at 4 AM)…however, when I peruse the full transcript available at the site you linked to the 40 percent figure cited from Nature refers to those scientists whom (according to the host, Margaret Wertheim) “believed in a personal God to whom they can pray.”

    If that’s the context, one might well conclude that the total number of those surveyed might well have described themselves as “believers” in something, if not a personal God, and that this group might well have been in the majority. In which case Mr. Numbers, in the context of the program, did not misspeak.

    Of course, I’m just speculating here and this caveat has nothing to do with the general point, which is that science as a formal matter excludes the supernatural and that scientists as a group are more likely to describe themselves as non-believers. That’s obviously true. Does anyone have a copy of the full article from Nature to supply the desired context, or is there any reason to believe that Numbers et al. are presenting the results of that article out of context?

    Curiously….Scott

  22. #22 VisualFX
    June 24, 2006

    Thanks P.Z. That was a great commentary and one I whole heartedly agree with. I am quite delighted to see that the majority of scientists are “nontheists” (I do like that term). I had always gone on an assumption, perhaps from wrong information I had heard once, that a small majority of scientists were believers of some sort.

    I agree that science does directly trump religion as far as explaining the world and the universe goes. I also agree that having a sense of morals and ethics does not require religion on any level. Religion is, at best, a way of creating a sense of community; at worst, the root cause of much of the death and destruction we have incurred on each other as humans. As far as I am concerned, the bad far outweighs the good.

    I think one of the main reasons we are seeing such a strong push by the religious right in this country right now is because they are running scared, scared of the fact that science is, on a daily basis, disproving their long-cherished beliefs. As more and more people learn scientific knowledge, more and more of those people begin to reject superstitious beliefs from their musty old books. The religious right are trying, desperately so, to shut science out of the public arena to prevent as many people – especially our kids – from learning science to keep them ignorant thus believing in the superstition.

    This is a fight that they will ultimately loose but, how long will it take and how much damage will they do before the public tide finally comes the way of science and reason? How many wars, how much ignorance, how much truly awful decision-making and policy-setting will we have to endure before this happens? That is the question and I fear the answer.

  23. #23 quork
    June 24, 2006

    Andrew Dixon White published the fullest treatment of this in 1896 in a two-volume work called “A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom”.

    If any of you wish to seek out that book, the name is Andrew Dickson White, and the full text is available on-line.

  24. #24 quork
    June 24, 2006

    MR. NUMBERS: Well, it’s hard to write counter-factual history about what might have happened if, but there seems no reason to believe that Galileo at any point faced the threat of death. There was never any indication in the court records of death being a possible penalty, and no other scientists were put to death for their scientific views.

    QUESTION: Is it the case then that there had been no scientists killed for their scientific views?

    MR. NUMBERS: I can think of no scientist who ever lost his life for his scientific views.

    *Cough* Giordano Bruno. I suppose Numbers has some sound explanation, such as Bruno was killed for his religious activities, not his scientific views. I’m sure the distinction was a comfort to his family. Since at the time, stating a true scientific fact was considered blasphemy, a religious violation, the distinction escapes me.

  25. #25 quork
    June 24, 2006

    Numbers is interviewed further in a Wisconsin alumni magazine.

    Mmm-hmmm. The title of that piece is Putting Faith in Science.
    Gag me.

  26. #26 quork
    June 24, 2006

    MR. NUMBERS: In the United States, roughly one-half of Americans continue to believe in the special creation of the first human beings no more than 10,000 years ago. There are many reasons why they do this. But for most of them, they don’t see their embracing of special creation as a rejection of science…

    What a relief. They don’t view their rejection of science as a rejection of science. That sure makes me feel better.

    MR. NUMBERS: The primary theory underlying creation science is something called flood geology, which attributes virtually all of the geological fossil bearing strata to Noah’s flood, a timsespan of about one year. Now, this means that all of the history of life on Earth can be telescoped down to a mere six, seven, or ten thousand years. The most vocal advocates of this position have been scientists themselves, especially in recent years, and they see this as an alternative scientific model, rather than as a refutation of science.

    Hoo boy. He makes it sound like those *** ****** are a sizable fraction of real scientists, doesn’t he?

    MR. NUMBERS: I think there’s a powerful mythology today suggesting that science and religion are enemies, and it is fueled by some of the most public and popular of scientists, such as Carl Sagan in the United States, or Richard Dawkins in Great Britain, who have gone out of their way on occasions to present that view.

    How old is this interview? I think Sagan is still dead.

  27. #27 Caledonian
    June 24, 2006

    A powerful mythology?

    Let’s see here: science is founded on rational thought, religion on blind faith. Rational thought is incompatible with blind faith: check.

    That’s not mythology, that’s reality.

  28. #28 Jonathan Badger
    June 24, 2006

    I suppose Numbers has some sound explanation, such as Bruno was killed for his religious activities, not his scientific views. I’m sure the distinction was a comfort to his family. Since at the time, stating a true scientific fact was considered blasphemy, a religious violation, the distinction escapes me.

    Nobody knows exactly why he was killed (the Inqusition records are lost), but a reading of his “Cena da la cenari” shows that Bruno was not a particularly scientific thinker, even for the times. He does bring up Copernicanism at one point in his mystic diatribe, but gets the reasoning all wrong — rather like M. Scott Peck’s mangling of evolution in “The Road Less Traveled”. Which while not justifying Bruno’s execution, makes him a martyr to proto-Newage beliefs rather than to science.

  29. #29 Pierce R. Butler
    June 24, 2006

    MR. NUMBERS: I can think of no scientist who ever lost his life for his scientific views.

    Here’s one who was murdered for her scientific views: http://www.ideamarketers.com/library/article.cfm?articleid=86951&wherefrom=RESULTS

    Hypatia (370? -415) of Alexandria was the most eminent neo-platonic philosopher and mathematician. Her fame as a teacher traveled as far as Libya and Turkey. She was renowned before the age of thirty and taught geometry, mathematics, the works of Plato-Aristotle, neo-Platonism, astronomy and mechanics for 15 years. She is known for expanding and editing the mathematical work on conic sections (introduced by Appolonius). This concept developed the ideas of hyperbolas, parabolas and ellipses. … A Christian leader spread virulent rumors against Hypatia. In 415 AD, while returning home, a mob attacked and stripped her, dragged her through streets and killed her with pieces of broken pottery!

    Oddly, wikipedia has no entry for her (though there is one for the ’80s porn star working under that name, whose renown also floods google searches for her nominal predecessor).

  30. #30 kaleberg
    June 25, 2006

    1) Wasn’t there just an article in Nature on narrative in which one researcher noted that humans automatically believe narrative and that we have to learn and work to be skeptical. So much for the willful suspension of disbelief. No wonder real science is hard work.

    2) Also, remember that even religious people get sick and tired of two bit ideologues who think that they can boss god around. I mean, what kind of piss poor god takes orders from the likes of Billy Graham or Jerry Falwell.

  31. #31 Owlmirror
    June 25, 2006

    (regarding Hypatia)

    Oddly, wikipedia has no entry for her (though there is one for the ’80s porn star working under that name, whose renown also floods google searches for her nominal predecessor).

    I see no porn star here.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypatia_of_Alexandria

    Not even at the disambiguation page. And the first entry revision dates to Feb 2002.

    The first 10 Google hits are also for Hypatia of Alexandria.

  32. #32 G. Tingey
    June 25, 2006

    Faith is DEFINED as belief without evidence.
    Science cannot operate witout evidence.

    Therfore the two are mutually incompatible, at the philosophical level, at least.

  33. #33 NelC
    June 25, 2006

    I can’t help mischievously pointing out that just because only 40% of scientists believe in God, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the remainder are atheists. If Numbers means world-wide, there going to be Hindus, Buddhists, Shintoists, Animists, maybe even Wiccans included in that proportion. Might be Numbers being sloppy, talking about belief in God when he just means religious belief, or it could be that he just discounts non-Abrahamic belief systems.

  34. #34 Torbjörn Larsson
    June 25, 2006

    Numbers feels somewhat like an apologist. He dismisses the growing conflict between religion and science and notes the source of it as “a sense among some parties”. I don’t know the the study in Nature that he says “revealed even today roughly the same proportion of scientists believe in God as did 75 years ago”, but generally the numbers have gone down from nearly all to a minor percentage.

    He is a historian, but I note that what he says there clashes with what Wikipedia says. Galileo had a long conflict with the church starting 1612 and a priest denounced him 1614. He published “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” 1632! “Simplicio is a dedicated follower of Ptolemy and Aristotle, who presents the traditional views and the arguments against the Copernican position. He is modeled after Ludovico delle Colombe (1565 – 1616?) and Cesare Cremonini (1550 – 1631), both of whom were conservative philosophers. The character’s name is not “Simpleton”, but is taken from the sixth-century philosopher Simplicius, who wrote notable commentaries on Aristotle.”

    He forgets Hypathia and Bruno. On the later Wikipedia says: “The numerous charges against him included blasphemy, immoral conduct, and heresy in matters of dogmatic theology, and involved some of the basic doctrines of his philosophy and cosmology.”

    I don’t know if there is more to say on Numbers (and Einstein) than already told. One thing perhaps – the Einstein quote is quote mined as PZ, Caledonian and others notes. The whole quote is:

    “Now, even though the realms of religion and science in themselves are clearly marked off from each other, nevertheless there exist between the two strong reciprocal relationships and dependencies. Though religion may be that which determines the goal, it has, nevertheless, learned from science, in the broadest sense, what means will contribute to the attainment of the goals it has set up. But science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason.

    I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

    I agree with PZ, Einstein is an asshole as he thinks an aspiration for understanding must be based in religion. And he is wrong about needing faith to see that science works – all it takes is observing it work. Einstein was quite an apologist too.

  35. #35 Torbjörn Larsson
    June 25, 2006

    What I wanted to say on Galileo was of course that Numbers assertion that “Galileo’s problems with the church stemmed far less from his astronomical and physical views than from his lack of diplomacy” doesn’t seem so certain in the view of the history Wikipedia relates.

  36. #36 quork
    June 25, 2006

    What I wanted to say on Galileo was of course that Numbers assertion that “Galileo’s problems with the church stemmed far less from his astronomical and physical views than from his lack of diplomacy” doesn’t seem so certain in the view of the history Wikipedia relates.

    Suppose he had undiplomatically declared that he like a certain brand of light beer because it was less filling, not because it tasted great. Would that have gotten him into trouble with the church? No. (OK, I’m guessing here.) It was the content of his undiplomatic statements, i.e. his scientific views that caused the trouble. That he didn’t kowtow sufficiently to the bully Church is to tacitly assume that the Church has some right to demand that he kowtow.

  37. #37 quork
    June 25, 2006

    Faith is DEFINED as belief without evidence.

    Says you, and me, and my dictionary.

    Christian apologists however, love to use different definitions of faith.
    (BTW, that first link is to an Intelligent Design blog, so you might legitimately ask what Christian apologetic arguments are doing there, because as we have all been repeatedly told, ID has nothing whatsoever to do with religion.)

  38. #38 ralbin
    June 25, 2006

    Scientists killed for their scientific views.

    Bruno doesn’t count because he was probably killed for his anti-trinitarianism, much more important to his contemporaries than any of his scientific writings.
    There have been scientists killed in the 20th century for aspects of their work. The best example is Nikolai Vavilov, the great Russian botanist who was killed by Stalin’s henchmen for his attachment to Mendelian genetics. In general, biologists supporting real, as opposed to Lysenkoist genetics, fared poorly in the Soviet Union, along with everyone who exhibited a shred of independence.

  39. #39 Keith Douglas
    June 25, 2006

    quork: I suspect Numbers’ out is that Bruno wasn’t a scientist. Which of course makes no difference to his the murder for expressing his mind – as appalling whatever his profession.

    I noted on Panda’s Thumb other problems with Numbers’ remarks.

  40. #40 Gary Hurd
    June 25, 2006

    I wrote the following after reading the Deborah Blum article and in light of the comments by PZ. I am more or less in accord with PZ’s position on this topic, and so I limited this a point he didn’t mention. (I’ll post this at PT as well, but it will become lost in the flame wars).

    When Kansas convened public hearings to discuss the merits of intelligent design, most scientists stayed away, thinking that if they refused to testify, it would be obvious that the idea wasn’t even worth discussing. They were shocked when the decision went so clearly against them.

    This is absolutely wrong. Because the results of the so-called hearings were a foregone conclusion, science education professionals encouraged scientists to boycott the pretended “hearings.” Instead, scientists and educators were made directly available to news media representatives to offer factual counter arguments to the claims made by the creationist controlled “hearings.”

    At the same time, Elliott Sober hopes the next generation of scientists will learn to better communicate what they do and what it means. “Scientists didn’t show up in Kansas, and they now realize that was a mistake,” he says. “There’s a growing awareness in the scientific community that they need to better communicate with the public, do a better job of explaining. They need to show up and make the case.”

    Again this is not supported factually. There would have been no other result from the so-called hearings if scientists or education professionals had appeared. This second guessing and revisionism is as needless as it is irritating. In fact the creationist far right were furious that they had been blocked and that their creationist testimonies were so effectively skewered by the careful questioning of Pedro Irigonegaray.

    I would have hoped that a Pulitzer Prize winning science writer/reporter such as Deborah Blum might have done a little background work. Particularly as this is neatly laid out by The National Center For Science Education.

  41. #41 Loren Petrich
    June 25, 2006

    I wonder if Ronald Numbers is trying to be conciliatory. But I think that these endless efforts to argue that there is no conflict seem forced — there are some fundamental conflicts between modern science and traditional Xian theology. Unless, perhaps, one is willing to believe that God’s best choice of a Universe to create is a godless, materialistic one.

    This may be evident from Stephen Jay Gould’s widely-hailed solution of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA). It claims that there is no conflict between science and religion because the two have different, non-overlapping territories. Interestingly, Galileo himself had proposed an early version of NOMA, claiming that the Holy Spirit tells us how to go to Heaven, now how the heavens go.

    And much science does indeed avoid conflicts with various theological beliefs. But not some very critical parts of science. Galileo’s Jesuit colleagues were good astronomers, but they meekly went along with the Church when it proscribed heliocentrism.

    The Church had stated that it’s OK to discuss heliocentrism as a speculative hypothesis with no special claim to truth, and such fictionalism was often used as a way of presenting controversial idea. Copernicus’s friend Osiander had described Copernicanism in that fashion also. But Galileo got impatient with that, and while he complied with the letter of the Church’s decrees on that, he did not comply with the spirit. And he was anything but meek, making cruelly sarcastic remarks about his critics.

    And some early modern scientists did mix up science and theology in odd ways; Sir Isaac Newton claimed that God had to intervene from time to time to fix the Solar System. Newton was very interested in theological issues. He concluded that God is not a Trinity — and kept his opinions secret, lest he be disqualified from important positions because of it. And he was very interested in interpreting Biblical prophecies like in the Books of Daniel and Revelation.

    And I wonder if Ronald Numbers next argue that there is no real conflict between astronomy and astrology, because many early astronomers had been astrologers. Or that modern chemistry completely supports medieval alchemy, because chemistry had grown out of alchemy — complete with its name.

  42. #42 Chance
    June 25, 2006

    it doesn’t necessarily mean that the remainder are atheists. If Numbers means world-wide, there going to be Hindus

    Hindus believe in God.

  43. #43 Chance
    June 25, 2006

    when I peruse the full transcript available at the site you linked to the 40 percent figure cited from Nature refers to those scientists whom (according to the host, Margaret Wertheim) “believed in a personal God to whom they can pray.”

    If that’s the context, one might well conclude that the total number of those surveyed might well have described themselves as “believers” in something, if not a personal God, and that this group might well have been in the majority. In which case Mr. Numbers, in the context of the program, did not misspeak.

    Scot-

    I don’t see your angle here at all. I read the transcript and it appears to me to say exactly what it said. 40% acept some form of God belief whether they can pray to their chosen deity or not. The majority clearly do not support such views.

  44. #44 SebastianW
    June 26, 2006

    Einstein was a great physicist, but we shouldn’t take his word as gospel on any other matter.

    On the contrary. We should take everything he says for gospel – i.e. for unsubstantiated hearsay, written by someone who is more interested in making you believe something than in recording facts.

  45. #45 Keith Douglas
    June 26, 2006

    Loren Petrich: “lest he be disqualified from important positions because of it” – Newton even was educated and worked at Trinity College, Cambridge! (That’s what you call one of those weird historical accidents.)

  46. #46 Shadow32
    June 26, 2006

    According to most accounts I’ve read, Hypatia was killed for being a pagan philosopher, not for science.

    Stalinism did purge a lot of scientists, but that’s hardly an argument against religion.

  47. #47 Paladin165
    June 27, 2006

    “I have faith that even philosophers can learn basic arithmetic and logic”

    First of all, arithmetic and logic are properly part of philosophy, never mind where they put math departments these days. Second, the word “most” is often used in English to mean “almost all” as in “I’ve got most of the job done.” Only in technical contexts does it mean “more than half.” Still you have a point, the message he is trying to send is a distortion.

    PZ, you say you can’t figure out what religion adds to people’s lives that science doesn’t provide. For you, it adds nothing, but for many people, it apparently adds a great deal. There is a subjective component to the religious worldview that you are missing, just as there is a subjective component to the scientific worldview that they are missing. That is why the two sides are always talking past one another.

    To make matters worse, the average theist’s feelings towards science are much the same as the average scientist’s feelings towards metaphysics: they don’t really care about it, don’t think it matters, and find that worrying about it gets in the way of living their lives. They are interested in growing their business, going to church, being with their family, etc. Taking on a scientific epistemology and adding all those millions of new scientific beliefs about the world to their worldview is far too burdensome.

    I’m afraid science is cut out of the average theist’s worldview by a practical Occam’s razor. The problem is, when you start adding scientific knowledge to your belief system, it doesn’t really “replace” the old beliefs (which you still need to maintain to get along with your family and such), it just adds new ones and makes things vastly more complicated. There is simply no need for them to maintain all those more true scientific beliefs, when their simpler but more false beliefs serve them just fine.

  48. #48 reason
    June 27, 2006

    Well to add my personal anecdote my father was both a scientist, an avid believer in science and a staunch practicing catholic (at least on most things). Having taught is children the importance of logic, looking at evidence and scepticism we always found his position on religion rather strange. My sister concluded it was part of his discipline (he WAS extroardinarily disciplined).

    He just seemed to compartmentalise it. He seemed to think of religion as an obligation, neither a passion nor a philosophy. Perhaps that is something new in the post-war generation – we have no deep seated sense of duty.

    I still think though in his heart he was a good humanist.

  49. #49 Torbjörn Larsson
    July 2, 2006

    The midsummer holiday was long and eventful, apparently so was this thread.

    “This may be evident from Stephen Jay Gould’s widely-hailed solution of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA). It claims that there is no conflict between science and religion because the two have different, non-overlapping territories.”

    Two problems with NOMA is the appeal to dualism and special pleading for religion as not being in contact with facts.

  50. #50 Joe
    July 8, 2006

    Seems to me that Dawkins, Dennett, etc. are both right *and* arrogant. One doesn’t preclude the other.

  51. #51 Instigator
    November 17, 2006

    I totally agree with maha. While I thoroughly enjoyed the article, I disagree with the passage he quoted for the same reason. Science will do what it has done for the past century. Prove wrong religious superstitions and create awesome new technology. Free markets will deliver that technology to believers, who will use it lovingly, ignoring that it was invented through the scientific method that they so despise. Science will become a mysticism among the enlightened (yes, I am aware that sounds arrogant) and the religious will continue to believe and attack the science that lit their worship buildings, purified their water, preserved their food, gave them the news, cured their cancer and euthanized their pets. All because it doesn’t say the world was created in six days.

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