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.