Pharyngula

In a thread that will not die at the Panda’s Thumb, the argument has settled into a more reasonable back-and-forth on the issue of the entanglement of atheism and science. There are a number of people, including many of the contributors to the Panda’s Thumb, who are adamant that evolution must maintain a plausible deniability from atheism—that atheism is not a necessary consequence of accepting good science (a point with which I agree), and that atheism is basically a scary thing that will alienate many potential supporters (a point with which I strongly disagree). One comment, though, highlights the problem with the atheist-averse strategy.

Distinguish between whether you are speaking as a scientist or as an atheist. If the two labels are not necessarily linked, then it helps to minimize the confusion by clearly stating on a particular matter, whether you are pissed off as a scientist, or as an atheist.

If you must say, “Religion is irrational,” I think a theist would like to know if you are speaking as a scientist or an atheist. Scientist: Is irrationality a scientific concept? On what quantitative measure do we evaluate irrationality? Atheist: Why do I reject God premises? Why is materialism a superior philosophy?

As I was puzzling over how to answer such an odd question, I realized why I thought it was odd. The scientist and atheist positions are the same. It doesn’t matter which hat I’m wearing, the answers won’t change.

What should a scientist expect from an idea? That it be a reasonable advance in knowledge; that it be built on a foundation of evidence; that it be testable; that it should lead to new and useful questions and ideas. If we look at religion from that perspective, it doesn’t help. At best, the hypothesis of the supernatural and/or a supreme being is vague, unfounded, and inapplicable in any practical fashion—deistic views, for instance, are so abstract and so carefully divorced from risk of challenge that they represent an empty hypothesis, and the most flattering thing you can say about them is that they’re harmless. At worst, religion is confused, internally contradictory, and in conflict with evidence from the physical (and near as we can tell, only) world.

The one thing you could argue that would help religion is that another thing scientists have to do is prioritize—you can’t go haring off after any old hypothesis in front of you, many are timewasters, and you could say some are simply too unproductive to be considered. It’s fair to say that the majority of the world’s scientists feel that way about religion, even those who personally believe. They just can’t bother to argue for or against something so…unscientific. That’s a fair point, and I have no problem with others bowing out of the debate. But some of us do think it is an important issue, one that is affecting not just society, but the execution of science itself.

This does not mean that scientists can’t be religious. We can encompass irrational beliefs without regret and without obligation—I can, actually, look at my kids in a different way than I would an experimental subject under my microscope. I also do not pretend that I view my children rationally and objectively, untainted by emotion or history, and I’m not ashamed of that at all. So, a scientist should have no problem demanding one standard of logic and evidence in the lab, and dropping that demand when they go to church on Sunday.

Of course, that means the commenter’s question above is completely backwards. Atheist scientists are consistent, and don’t need to announce whether they are speaking as a scientist or an atheist—those two voices are the same. Religious scientists are the ones who have to be careful, because they are the ones who are living with two very different worldviews. They are also the ones with incentives to blur the boundaries, not just to promote preferred religious ideas with the credibility of science, but because groups like the Templeton Foundation pay hefty bribes to get scientists to cross that line.

And this gets to the root of the problem I was pointing at. Science does erode faith, because faith is not part of the scientific worldview. When you accept a scientific position for scientific reasons, you are dividing yourself if you are trying to simultaneously accept a religious belief that contradicts scientific principles. People can do that, but it takes work. It’s far easier to maintain consistency by rejecting one or the other of the conflicting ideas, although certainly many people do manage to keep religion and science tidily partitioned.

I think this is a deeper conflict in the evolution-creation wars than most people, including many at the Panda’s Thumb. When making excuses for and accommodating religion, we are doing something common and normal and compatible with the usual conflicting chaos of human ideals, but we are doing something contrary to scientific thinking. The short term political expediency of making theists comfortable with evolution by hiding its implications undermines what should be a greater, more substantive goal of reconciling people’s beliefs with reality. If we insist on treating people like four-year-olds who mustn’t be told that Santa isn’t real, what we get is people with the wisdom and attention spans and screwy ideas about how the world works of four-year-olds.

Don’t take my word for it. Mitchell Stephens has found a provocative article by EO Wilson that advances some similar ideas. He also brings up something that might be relevant to the debate about the public role of the atheist.

Both of these worldviews, God-centered religion and atheistic communism, are opposed by a third and in some ways more radical worldview, scientific humanism. Still held by only a tiny minority of the world’s population, it considers humanity to be a biological species that evolved over millions of years in a biological world, acquiring unprecedented intelligence yet still guided by complex inherited emotions and biased channels of learning. Human nature exists, and it was self-assembled. It is the commonality of the hereditary responses and propensities that define our species. Having arisen by evolution during the far simpler conditions in which humanity lived during more than 99 percent of its existence, it forms the behavioral part of what, in The Descent of Man, Darwin called the indelible stamp of our lowly origin.

He’s a bit more of a genetic predispositionist than I am, but the interesting idea is that there are two kinds of atheism: the dogmatic kind that we see in Communism, and this emerging scientific humanism, where the atheism is implicit in the scientific view of the world. It’s an extraordinarily common slander that any time an atheist expresses his views unambiguously, he will be instantly greeted with shouts of fundamentalism, evangelism, and dogma. There is a refusal to recognize that someone might arrive at atheism as an appropriate way to see the world because it is consonant with a scientific way of seeing it, and in fact we often get the rather strange message that scientists shouldn’t talk about atheism because it isn’t scientific. Au contraire, I would say, as would Wilson or Dawkins.

So, will science and religion find common ground, or at least agree to divide the fundamentals into mutually exclusive domains? A great many well-meaning scholars believe that such rapprochement is both possible and desirable. A few disagree, and I am one of them. I think Darwin would have held to the same position. The battle line is, as it has ever been, in biology. The inexorable growth of this science continues to widen, not to close, the tectonic gap between science and faith-based religion.

Rapprochement may be neither possible nor desirable. There is something deep in religious belief that divides people and amplifies societal conflict. In the early part of this century, the toxic mix of religion and tribalism has become so dangerous as to justify taking seriously the alternative view, that humanism based on science is the effective antidote, the light and the way at last placed before us.

Many Christians and Muslims are going to squirm uncomfortably at that, and there will be howls of protest that science must not lead people towards godlessness…but I say it’s about time. All that’s holding up religion now is the privilege and power that is artificially granted those who adhere to it; that should be enough, and I see no reason anyone should grant the religious the false notion that their beliefs have a basis in logic or evidence. Most importantly, shying away from the fact that it is a god-free scientific worldview that makes evolutionary biology powerful and persuasive impairs our ability to promote good science.

Comments

  1. #1 plunge
    June 29, 2006

    I think you’re a little off course here, though your point about how its religious folks that must accomodate science and their beliefs is certainly correct.

    But you do seem to be implying that science isn’t just a method, isn’t just empiricism, but that it’s the superior method and epistemology period. While I may agree with you on that for any number of reasons (the prime one being moral: making the right choices means striving always to know what the consequences and implications are), I don’t think that view is itself scientific at all. People with faith aren’t doing something contrary to scientific thinking: they are doing something outside the scope of science. Unless they pretend (as many creationists do) that they are applying science, then the fact that faith is not part of the scientific method, and contrary to scientific practice, just isn’t particularly relevant. Having sex with your lab partner isn’t part of the scientific method either: that doesn’t mean that it’s meaningfully described as “contrary to scientific thinking.” It never claimed to be working in that realm in the first place. It’s only when creationists conflate science with their own nonsense that we gets the trouble.

  2. #2 RickD
    June 29, 2006

    OK, I started my life indoctrinated into a religion, but have since left it. Part of the “let’s not talk about atheism” attitude seems to rely on one of two things. Either the person taking this attitude somehow things atheism is not a respectable intellectual stance to take for some reason (“It’s just another kind of dogma!”) or they respect atheism but think that somehow their acceptance is a sign of their own personal superiority and that it will never be accepted by the public at large. I really don’t have any respect for the former attitude, and I think the second attitude is simply arrogant. Am I supposed to think my intellectual evolution from a Catholic to an atheist is somehow unique? That other people wouldn’t come to the same conclusions?

    The unifying philosophy behind atheism and scientific work is an insistence on preferring empiricism over dogma. That’s it.

    I don’t think scientists do themselves a favor by running away from atheism in the search for more politically palatable public faces for science. Anybody who really wants to understand science needs to understand how scientists think about science. Also, I kind of resent the implication that any possible ambassadorship on my part (so to speak) which be frowned upon due to my lack of religious affiliation. Given that lack of religious affiliation is extremely widespread in science, the attitude that prefers religious spokespeople to talk about science seems like a kind of tokenism.

  3. #3 Steve LaBonne
    June 29, 2006

    Plunge is correct that there really is no “scientific method”; it’s just empiricism, with an admixture of rationalism- the best approach humans have yet found for gaining knowledge while refraining from fooling themselves. What makes science science is simply the application of this mental attitude to study of the natural world.

    But he’s incorrect in not drawing the obvious conclusion to the above: that “faith” is a blatant contradiction to the mental habits that our species has gradually and laboriously discovered to be the only useful road to real knowledge. The tired old “nonoverlapping magisteria” argument may be a useful fiction for smoothing over social relations but it’s not seriously tenable by anyone who values intellectual consistency. I agree with every word of PZ’s post, and indeed I would nominate it as one of his best atheism posts ever.

  4. #4 Julia
    June 29, 2006

    “I see no reason anyone should grant the religious the false notion that their beliefs have a basis in logic or evidence.”

    I agree. Most of the religious people I know best have no desire to be burdened with any such false notion.

    “I can, actually, look at my kids in a different way than I would an experimental subject under my microscope. I also do not pretend that I view my children rationally and objectively, untainted by emotion or history,. . . . Science does erode faith, because faith is not part of the scientific worldview.”

    Do you think that science sometimes erodes those non-rational, non-objective human relationships that are, I suppose from your description, also not part of the scientific worldview? Or are they more resistent to erosion than religious faith? (Or am I simply not understanding you – if so, sorry.)

  5. #5 MYOB
    June 29, 2006

    Prior to the recent turn of political events polls as recently as 2004, prior to the NSA and WMD revelations, showed that a majority of Americans continued to think that Saddam had nukes(WMD), that he had associations and outright cooperation with Osama Bin Laden, that he took part in the planning of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and that a majority of the terrorists on that day were Iraqis.
    What is funny about this is that anyone with access to a computer could have found that there were no iraqis on the 9/11 hijacker lists, and that the overwhelming majority were in fact Saudis who the Bush admin loves, admires and whose princes Bush loves to hold hands with when visiting.

    So when we see polls showing that a majority of the nation still does not believe evolution is proven, or are not certain of it, we can assume that these people don’t know what a f*cking thing about the subject. This is one item that does not always make the polls. Whether or not the people polled about evolution know even the slightest f*cking thing about it.

    So when we talk about the conflicts between science and religion is there any doubt that these conflicts are brought about mainly because the people being polled don’t know enough to judge, along with the chance that some who do know a lot about it are too arrogant or partisan to accept it, choosing to call it lies or liberal Dem party tricks??

    It seems to me that by trying to reconcile religion and science we are trying to take one step forward then two steps back. We help nothing.
    I can understand that we all love our grandmothers and grandfathers, and when they talk about hoping that when they die they can finally be with the other who died long before, is it not easy for us to say “Sure grandma, when you die I just know you’ll go to heaven and see grandpa after all these years.” The same applies to just about any relative, and our dependence on religion is simply a check against fear and hopelessness. Would anyone deny a loved one the hope of seeing loved ones passed away long ago?
    Do we not hold some hope in the chance that though there is no god or heaven, that there still exists some chance that there is a form of life or consciousness after death during which time we can either see and meet with friends and family or at least know that they, like you, are still in some ways ‘alive’ after a sense and are out there for you to find and catch up to along the way?

    I do not know if there is an afterlife. Because of this I have no fear whether there is no afterlife. If there isn’t then I won’t exist in which to care. If there is then I will not have spent my life in fear and hopelessness.

    I think the atheist view, the atheist but objective view is the right way to go simply because if handled correctly and understood can still provide the same level of hope that the faithful possess without the irrationality and fanatic zealotry that marks all past and modern religions.

    MYOB’
    .

  6. #6 Alan
    June 29, 2006

    “Many Christians and Muslims are going to squirm uncomfortably at that, and there will be howls of protest that science must not lead people towards godlessness…”

    The presumption behind this and similar reactions is that morality originates from gods, and that those who do not believe in these gods will not share the moral judgements of believers. This, in general, is false. We atheists may not share those morals which are demonstrably irrational (i.e. disputable via rational evaluation) or arbitrary constructs based on religious assumptions, but we are quite likely to share many ideals which arise from a shared biology and culture (i.e. those which are based on shared emotional predispositions leading to some level of consensus). We can obviously also agree on some moral judgements which arise from correct rational evaluation of consequences.

    Religionists need to get past this offensively stupid assumption that atheists must be broadly immoral. It would be even better if one of our highest shared moral convictions was that it is wrong, without good reason, to force ones moral judgements on other people, especially those which are arbitrary and inconsequential such as that one should believe in some god or gods.

  7. #7 PZ Myers
    June 29, 2006

    Do you think that science sometimes erodes those non-rational, non-objective human relationships that are, I suppose from your description, also not part of the scientific worldview?

    No, not usually, because they generally do not contradict science, and are instead apart from it. Similarly, people can adopt some ethical philosophy like Buddhism or Taoism, or that Deism that was popular in the early days of the Enlightenment, fairly easily — that kind of stuff coexists independently of science.

    The problem lies in beliefs that demand you accept the existence of invisible immortal superbeings that nonetheless manage to impregnant young women, for instance. That should make a mind used to thinking scientifically sputter and choke and seize up…so you have to really maintain a dichotomous way of thinking.

  8. #8 udargo
    June 29, 2006

    The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’m convinced there is a fundamental conflict between science and religion. Because they are not simply two separate laundry lists of beliefs, they are two contradictory ways of being human. They each have at the core a different idea of what constitutes Truth. For the scientist, Truth is what can be shown to objectively exist. For the religionist, Truth is what feels right subjectively. Scientific thinking destroys religious Truth, and religious thinking destroys scientific Truth.

    I think everything you are rests on this basic assumption of what constitutes Truth. Everything you “know” is built up from there. And these two “ways of knowing” couldn’t be more fundamentally antagonistic. They are the basis of two antogonistic ways of being human.

    The interesting question is what you would do if you had to choose. If people are forced to confront the contradiction and choose one Truth over the other, where does that leave them? Can a sane person really deny scientific Truth?

  9. #9 charlie
    June 29, 2006

    Isn’t the issue one of being? Is a scientist always, every second of his life, a scientist? Or is it more like a job? When you do science, you are a scientist, otherwise you might be characterized as something else. In this latter way of being, science and theism and co-exist nicely in an individual. In the former, science and theism in an individual would cause a bit of dissonance.

    Of course, shifting from one mode to another is not clean or always easy. I think that someone trained in the sciences would start to wonder about the evidence behind their theistic beliefs over time.

    Essentially, the question is, “Is science a world view or is it a job?”

  10. #10 Caledonian
    June 29, 2006

    Precisely, udargo. Religious beliefs may or may not conflict with the findings of science, but they necessarily conflict with the scientific method, and as such are incompatible with science.

    There is no middle ground here. It would be nice if there were some way to keep our thinking rigorous and correct while also being ‘nice’ and ‘fair’. There isn’t.

    We have to choose. And most people choose religion.

  11. #11 David Harmon
    June 29, 2006

    ” Do you think that science sometimes erodes those non-rational, non-objective human relationships that are, I suppose from your description, also not part of the scientific worldview?”

    “No, not usually, because they generally do not contradict science, and are instead apart from it.”

    I would also add that science is perfectly capable of examining such relationships — and so far, it’s generally been *confirming* that there really is a good basis for them! Human not only love their children and other family, but form strong caring relationships even with non-kin, because we’re a sort of creature which does that. It’s part of our lifestyle, our survival strategy, and even our developmental needs.

    By comparision, if (say) octopi advanced to intelligence and developed science, they’d probably come up with a fairly similar approach to our scientific method. They would certainly agree (eventually) with out particular findings about natural laws. But they wouldn’t share our social mores, because octopi aren’t that sort of creature — they’re predators with almost no social structure, much further towards the “r” side of the r/K axis. On another tentacle, if they studied our habits as we’ve studied theirs, they’d certainly recognize that we have those social relationships, and that having those relationships is normal and beneficial to us. They’d probably also note that if they want to interact with humans on a non-hostile basis, they’d better learn something about how our social behavior works!

  12. #12 Bronze Dog
    June 29, 2006

    And this gets to the root of the problem I was pointing at. Science does erode faith, because faith is not part of the scientific worldview.

    B-But you have to respect my beliefs! 😉

  13. #13 Glen Davidson
    June 29, 2006

    I’m not one who thinks that we should go to any trouble to accommodate religion, but I also don’t think we should (ordinarily) go to any trouble to antagonize religion.

    Yes, it is all the same to PZ whether he is a scientist or an atheist. But I would maintain that for some theists there is also no difference between being theistic and being scientists, and their universal search for knowledge is based on logical/universalistic notions gained from their religion.

    It has not gone unnoticed that science benefitted from the Greek/Xian belief that unities and numbers exist across the phenomena that we see in the universe. Some scientists still believe in this in a religious way, and at that point, at least, religion and science are not different for them.

    Some theistic scientists wouldn’t dream of controverting the evidence from science because they do science to know something about God. This was especially true in the past, when many scientists essentially saw science as another avenue to find out about God.

    Religious scientists will add on religious ideas to the beliefs found through evidence, but the most honest ones are not going to make the same claims about religion as about evidence-based science.

    Wes Elsberry has written that one of the reasons why he opposes creationism/ID is that it is so dishonest, something contrary to his religious–and personal–sensibilities. Is this not a happy coincidence between a kind of theism and science?

    After all, Nietzsche was willing to bite the bullet and ask why we even want “truth”, as if we were adherents of Xianity. He really was more than a little willing to point out that desires for truth, and other attributes of the scientific endeavor, are a legacy of Xian beliefs and attitudes (he seems not to have paid enough heed to the fact that we all desire “truth” in some manner or other, but the push for “truth” was emphasized in Xianity more than it has been in many religions, almost certainly to science’s benefit). This is not as true today, I would claim, however the aims and ethics of science often do coincide with those of the most honest and open religious folk.

    The fact of the matter is that religion is just a collection of human thoughts and beliefs of a bewildering variety and form. Some of those varieties share the ethics and beliefs necessary for science, while a good many do not. Any theist whose honesty requires acceptance of the evidence and its implications should be able to do science.

    That is to say, a metaphysical basis for a scientist’s work is adequate for science, and indeed a number of past scientists, and even some present ones, have had a kind of religious/metaphysical drive to discover “God’s creation”.

    Some theists have simply accepted a metaphysical view of the world and they do science with it (others, no doubt, are religious but not wedded to metaphysics). The “mistake” that they make is that they have never questioned their a priori beliefs, because Xianity (and presumably all other religions) cannot be justified philosophically from the ground up. However, within their limited range of views, they are combining their morality, honesty, and desire to know, as a kind of religious/scientific endeavor to know the world/god.

    I wrote more about these things here:

    http://www.pandasthumb.org/archives/2006/06/ron_numbers_int.html#comment-109053

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

  14. #14 G. Tingey
    June 29, 2006

    “God-centered religion and atheistic communism, are opposed by a third and in some ways more radical worldview, scientific humanism”

    A VERY interesting idea – and almost correct!
    Communism, is, of course, a classic religion, complete with warring sects and persecution of deviamt believers, and the propaganda, and the death camps.
    Which is why it and the catholic church are/were so at war with each other.

    ANd, yes a “Scientific Humanism” will be fundamentally opposed, philosophically to either of those murderous churches, and to islam as well, of course.

    What we must fear is a temporary accomodation between islam and fudie xtianity, to suppress humanism, before that fall on each other.
    Think Nazi-Soviet pact here …..

  15. #15 sdanielmorgan
    June 29, 2006

    Atheist scientists are consistent, and don’t need to announce whether they are speaking as a scientist or an atheist–those two voices are the same. Religious scientists are the ones who have to be careful, because they are the ones who are living with two very different worldviews. They are also the ones with incentives to blur the boundaries, not just to promote preferred religious ideas with the credibility of science…

    Exactly. And this is where those same religious scientists, not being perfect, will not be careful enough, and give to the desperate something to play on, who will then think the Jeebus hypothesis is a scientifically-supported one.

  16. #16 Sastra
    June 29, 2006

    I think that in general people who attempt to ‘reconcile’ science with religion tend to
    1.) Redefine “religion” into secular terms — and try to shoo in anti-materialist possibilities under the cover
    2.) Protect religion by placing it into a non-scientific domain through bad analogies to morality or values.
    3.) Make religion scientific by doing poorly designed studies which come up with results which don’t stand under legitimate scrutiny.

    What falls under the domain of things science can study? Mind-brain relationships? ESP and psychokensis? There goes God. Ghosts? Reincarnation? There goes the afterlife. What about religion itself?

    Or maybe look at it this way. Could someone be a good chemist and endorse homeopathy? Perhaps — if he admits the explanation is garbage and redefines ‘homeopathy’ as ‘the placebo affect.’ Or he can place ‘homeopathy’ into the category ‘something which can’t be examined by science’ by making clear that it’s got nothing to do with empirical discoveries about water and what it remembers. Homeopathy is a matter of faith, and therefore he never lets his views about homeopathic chemistry run into his practice of regular chemistry. That’s #1 and #2.

    About all he can’t do — and remain a ‘good chemist’ by the criteria of many defenders — is #3.

  17. #17 Ed Darrell
    June 29, 2006

    It seems to me, as a person of faith, that a person of faith who will not admit that faith is not a rational position — call it irrational if you want to — is a person who lacks either guts or honesty to make such an admission.

    Science has little need for either failing. Atheists may suffer from similar failings, and science has little need for such failings from atheists, also. The interests of honest and sincere people on all sides of the discussion are best served by those who understand that faith is a faith position, and not one of reason. Why is that so difficult to understand?

    If we had the evidence to “prove” faith, we would be agnostics with evidence. A leap of faith is required, and that should be understood. Those who deny that such a leap is required have missed the point of the faith, as well as science.

    So, where’s the conflict? It’s between people who accurately see the difference and those who don’t. Atheists are not alone on the side of rationality, nor is rationality opposed to religion. Seeing things as they are enables us to see where and how to make change, especially in human relationships.

    The debate has been framed incorrectly, IHMO.

  18. #18 jeffw
    June 29, 2006

    “All that’s holding up religion now is the privilege and power that is artificially granted those who adhere to it”

    Holding up religion in what domain, the scientific community or the world? Science thoroughly disproved most religions 150 years ago. Certainly if you’re a serious scientist, it must be very difficult to maintain any kind of religious belief. But scientists are a tiny percentage of the population, and it’s a battle over minds, not facts. Do you really think the rest of the world cares? Those who have no scientific background are more likely to trust their own family, or pastor, or church group, rather than scientists who they don’t know, and knowledge and methods they don’t understand. If science could kill religion, it would have already done so hundereds of years ago.

  19. #19 Steve LaBonne
    June 29, 2006

    I do understand that, Ed. But why should anybody be respected for making an irrational leap of faith? It may be humanly understandable, but worthy of respect or any sort of deference (which is what is involved in feeling a total lack of conflict with someone)- sorry, that requires an argument that you haven’t given. Because I do have a conflict with people who insist on taking a “leap of faith” into a belief in the tooth fairy or what have you, even though in practice of course I’m not at all inclined to bother them just so long as they don’t bother me.

    Care to try again? So far, you haven’t made any progress toward showing that PZ framed these questions incorrectly. I think he nailed it.

  20. #20 stevie_nyc
    June 29, 2006

    Isn’t a leap of faith… just accepting something irrational to be true?

  21. #21 stevie_nyc
    June 29, 2006

    The reason science doesn’t beat out over religion is the same reason people play the lottery.

    The chance of payout is so attractive that people are willing to believe they might win.

    Except someone does actually win in the lottery.

  22. #22 Ed Darrell
    June 29, 2006

    Oh, and lest I be unclear: One of the chief values of religion is in it’s holding us to a higher standard of honesty, to agree that fundamentally, the powers of the universe (whom we Christians name as God) put great value in our looking at things rationally, without illusion. Contests between gods once were entertaining, but are rarely useful in sustaining a lasting peace between different peoples.

    P.Z. quotes Wilson:

    In the early part of this century, the toxic mix of religion and tribalism has become so dangerous as to justify taking seriously the alternative view, that humanism based on science is the effective antidote, the light and the way at last placed before us.

    That’s what the religious pray for. That it may come on a silver platter of rationality, even rationality compatible or derived from atheism, is no reason to reject it. God not only works in mysterious ways, ways queerer than we do imagine; God works in ways queerer than we can imagine. Christians are commanded to seek the good, whatever its origins.

  23. #23 stevie_nyc
    June 29, 2006

    Science’s goal isn’t to kill religion. Support rational thought and arguments.

    Religion’s goal is for people to keep the faith. Suspend disbelief.

  24. #24 PZ Myers
    June 29, 2006

    So, where’s the conflict? It’s between people who accurately see the difference and those who don’t. Atheists are not alone on the side of rationality, nor is rationality opposed to religion.

    I agree in part. Theists can support rationality and can see the difference between their faith and reality — no problem. That doesn’t change the fact that part of their perspective, that belief in a god, is irrational. That’s all I’m saying, and there is no conflict with theists who willingly and in full knowledge of the limitations remove their beliefs about religion from the table when considering real world problems.

    Holding up religion in what domain, the scientific community or the world?

    The world. There are a great many people in America, for instance, who are probably at least agnostic…but aren’t going to stop going to church because they’d lose the networking and would get screwed over by the godloving mob. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

  25. #25 RavenT
    June 29, 2006

    The interesting question is what you would do if you had to choose. If people are forced to confront the contradiction and choose one Truth over the other, where does that leave them? Can a sane person really deny scientific Truth?

    I don’t think there is any “if” there, udargo–we all have to choose whether we confront the contradiction or not. A lot of people choose to bury that awareness is all.

    The question that particularly interests me is “can a person who–for whatever reason–feels the need to deny scientific truth be persuaded to let go of that perceived need?”.

    For a lot of people, clearly the answer is no: Dembski, for one example, has too much invested in what he does to turn his back on it now. Hard-core “alties” like Kevin Trudeau are another example. And one of my students, who was extremely disfigured in an accident, has found that he gets his emotional and relationship needs met in a charismatic denomination. I can’t promise him that if he rejects that fundamentalist sect in favor of becoming a scientist, that he’ll meet a woman who’ll accept him as he is in a sexual relationship because his disfigurement is “science’s will”. And so, for him, given his priorities, I could even be persuaded that rejecting science for his religion is the rational choice for him, even though it never would be for me.

    But none of those people I described above will ever transform their attitude toward science, and so what I am most interested in is the people (mostly in the complementary and alternative medicine community) with “science-phobia” through no fault of their own. They didn’t “get” science coming up through school (maybe their teachers were cowed from discussing evolution by aggressive fanatic parents in the community, or simply didn’t have resources through lack of funding for a too-large class, or they were tracked out of science and math early and told they were “stupid” or whatever). They have constructed a worldview in which science is foreign and scary, based not on a philosophical investment that it must be that way, but on their previous bad experiences.

    I like ameliorating their bad experiences and helping them discover that it’s not so bad and scary after all. And I find often that if I make that effort, their receptivity to rethinking their previous worldview increases. I can’t make them change, but often, by presenting it in a non-threatening way, they change on their own.

    I don’t lie and pretend to them I’m a believer or share their “spirituality” or anything. Since I am a teacher, it’s not about me, but about them, although if they bring it up or want to know, then I tell them the truth. But by not overtly confronting or “flooding” them with the contradiction, either, it’s possible to encourage people to gain the confidence to stop burying the confrontation. Perhaps that’s what Steve means when he refers to the social utility of NOMA. Of course, just because I don’t feel the need to “flood” my students in no way means I’d tell anyone else to be in the closet, and I find certain leftists’ willingness to go along with that call (like Amy Sullivan) rather icky.

    Naturally, this is anecdotal, and it’s a highly-self-selected (therefore, skewed) population, so this may or may not have any applicability to anyone else’s experiences or the population at large. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this is a really corner case (outlier), and so it’s probably not very representative. But what I think is generally extrapolable is that we all have to confront the contradiction, and decide how we handle it. For a lot of people–given their life experiences–burying that confrontation is a rational (and not necessarily permanent) response (your “sane person”) to their previous experiences. If encouraged, that same urge to rational response can persuade them to let go of that previous reaction.

  26. #26 PZ Myers
    June 29, 2006

    Careful there: “higher standards of honesty” than who? Us godless heathen?

  27. #27 Chance
    June 29, 2006

    Ed Darrell:

    I agree with this and have said it many times myself:

    It seems to me, as a person of faith, that a person of faith who will not admit that faith is not a rational position — call it irrational if you want to — is a person who lacks either guts or honesty to make such an admission.

    then you lapse into this:

    God not only works in mysterious ways, ways queerer than we do imagine; God works in ways queerer than we can imagine. Christians are commanded to seek the good, whatever its origins

    How could you possibly know this and then make a statement about it? How do you know how God works?

    What it boils down to is why accept an irrational position at all? At the end of the day all faiths are then equal. You can have faith in quite literally anything.

  28. #28 stevie_nyc
    June 29, 2006

    I only need Carlin’s Two Commandments. That standard is plenty high for me.

    I think I have higher standards than many christians.

  29. #29 C Faubell
    June 29, 2006

    “The scientist and atheist positions are the same. ”

    I think this comment strikes to the heart of the Religious Right’s efforts to infiltrate science classrooms.

    Once you have accepted the scientific method and its evidentiary based method of examining the world, holding religious beliefs becomes intellectually dishonest. While it may possible to reconcile the scientific pursuit of knowledge with religious beliefs I was not able to withstand my hypocrisy.

    Despite my initial resistance to questioning my religious beliefs and the subsequent guilt and fear of damnation, my atheist views came about as a direct result of my exposure to scientific ideas.

    This is the Religious Right’s nightmare and I believe explains their desperate attack on both science education and scientific ideas in America.

    PZ, this comment explains it better than I ever could:

    “Science does erode faith, because faith is not part of the scientific worldview. When you accept a scientific position for scientific reasons, you are dividing yourself if you are trying to simultaneously accept a religious belief that contradicts scientific principles. People can do that, but it takes work. It’s far easier to maintain consistency by rejecting one or the other of the conflicting ideas”

    Well said.

  30. #30 Steve LaBonne
    June 29, 2006

    Let’s let David Hume make a contribution to this discussion (especially in regard to Ed’s rather offensive comment about a “higher standard of honesty”):

    To which we may add, that, after the commission of crimes, there arise remorses and secret horrors, which give no rest to the mind, but make it have recourse to religious rites and ceremonies, as expiations of its offences. Whatever weakens or disorders the internal frame promotes the interests of superstition: And nothing is more destructive to them than a manly, steady virtue, which either preserves us from disastrous, melancholy accidents, or teaches us to bear them. During such calm sunshine of the mind, these spectres of false divinity never make their appearance. On the other hand, while we abandon ourselves to the natural undisciplined suggestions of our timid and anxious hearts, every kind of barbarity is ascribed to the supreme Being, from the terrors with which we are agitated; and every kind of caprice, from the methods which we embrace in order to appease him. Barbarity, caprice; these qualities, however nominally disguised, we may universally observe, form the ruling character of the deity in popular religions. Even priests, instead of correcting these depraved ideas of mankind, have often been found ready to foster and encourage them. The more tremendous the divinity is represented, the more tame and submissive do men become his ministers: And the more unaccountable the measures of acceptance required by him, the more necessary does it become to abandon our natural reason, and yield to their ghostly guidance and direction. Thus it may be allowed, that the artifices of men aggravate our natural infirmities and follies of this kind, but never originally beget them. Their root strikes deeper into the mind, and springs from the essential and universal properties of human nature.

  31. #31 Memo from Turner
    June 29, 2006

    sdanielmorgan, thank you for posting that link to the religious “witnessing” from our scientist friends.

    It’s hilarious, though, that Dembski tries to use the words of those scientists to bolster a bogus argument re evolution. I’m sure that Miller and Collins would agree that Dembski is one of the least credible and most pathetic players in the ID propaganda campaign.

    I note that Collins also is honest to a point: he clearly recognizes that his faith in a God who is watching over him has NOTHING to do with reason or rationality and everything to do with simply believing, not because of the evidence, but in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For what it’s worth (very very little, in my personal opinion), that view is consistent with the teaching in the New Testament (e.g., the resurrected Jesus’ admonition of Thomas).

    The real issue I have with scientist Christians witnessing in this way is that they fail to make it clear that (1) they are knowingly and willfully playing a mental game which gives them comfort and (2) the ID peddlers who use religion as a platform from which to attack science are truly vile human beings. Not confused. Not “prone to exaggeration.” But disgusting propagandists for whom lying is second nature.

    Ken Miller will go out of his way to praise the charlatans at the ID institute for their “gentlemanly” and “civilized” behavior. That’s appalling and dishonest and the only reason I can see for behaving that way is that it is shorthand for “We’re all Christians here and at the end of the day we’ll both be in Heaven despite our disagreements. God bless!”

    Otherwise, why pretend that these lying creeps are anything but lying creeps?

  32. #32 lloydletta
    June 29, 2006

    Focus on the Family blames atheism and evolution on violence….

    http://headlines.agapepress.org/archive/6/282006h.asp

    …A Christian pro-family advocate is linking youth violence to a godless, Darwinist worldview. Focus on the Family vice president Bill Maier says atheistic beliefs have led to an alarming increase in youth violence. Young people are more aggressive than ever, he asserts, with many participating in fight clubs and posting violent videos on the Internet. But that is what you get from Darwinist evolution, the Focus on the Family official contends. “If we have a prevailing worldview that teaches that, basically, human beings evolved from the slime and we have no intrinsic worth or value or meaning,” he explains, “then naturally we are going to see individuals begin to gravitate toward behavior such as this. It’s basically Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ concept carried to its logical conclusion.” Maier says parents need to help kids learn to distinguish between necessary defense and excessive violence and can do this, in part, by limiting their children’s exposure to media violence. [Natalie Harris]

  33. #33 Memo from Turner
    June 29, 2006

    PZ wrote

    Science does erode faith, because faith is not part of the scientific worldview.

    I agree with much of you’ve written here, PZ, and the general thrust of your argument, but I would avoid using this term “worldview” simply because the term is so loaded now with evangelical Christian baggage that, whatever it once meant, it now means something very close to “religion.”

    As others have pointed out, we humans are bound to our emotions to some extent and simply to remain sane and functional we do not think every one of our actions through “logically” before taking them.

    I think a less divisive way of putting your statement is that “science erodes faith, generally speaking, because most people who spend increasing amounts of time thinking about understanding the world in terms of science discover that their need to believe in the supernatural is diminished.”

    Yeah, it’s less catchy. But as we’ve seen the underwear of religious theists tends to get knotted up really quickly.

  34. #34 Memo from Turner
    June 29, 2006

    A Christian pro-family advocate is linking youth violence to a godless, Darwinist worldview. Focus on the Family vice president Bill Maier says atheistic beliefs have led to an alarming increase in youth violence.

    Classic.

    And here’s a prediction: a prominent Catholic church leader is not going to stand up and issue a seering denouncement of this garbage and on Focuse on the Family generally or on the fundamentalists who give money to Focuse on the Family so they can disseminate this anti-science garbage.

    And the The Panda’s Thumb weblog won’t do these things either.

    Go figure.

  35. #35 plunge
    June 29, 2006

    “But he’s incorrect in not drawing the obvious conclusion to the above: that “faith” is a blatant contradiction to the mental habits that our species has gradually and laboriously discovered to be the only useful road to real knowledge.”

    Ah, and here’s where you basically toss in the cards. Suddenly, you’ve decided what “useful” and “real knowledge” must mean. Those are all _judgements_ external to science.

  36. #36 Memo from Turner
    June 29, 2006

    But as we’ve seen the underwear of religious theists tends to get knotted up really quickly.

    That should be “theists” (including “theistic scientists”).

  37. #37 Tim Hague
    June 29, 2006

    I think there is a problem in this piece. I think it’s here:

    “As I was puzzling over how to answer such an odd question, I realized why I thought it was odd. The scientist and atheist positions are the same. It doesn’t matter which hat I’m wearing, the answers won’t change.”

    I think this is fundamentally incorrect. I think you are projecting your atheism onto science PZ.

    Because I don’t think the answers to questions of morality and faith and belief and love are the same for a scientist and an atheist. Science is restricted in nature and there are some topics that fall outside the realm of science, such as the ones above.

    An atheist’s “I don’t believe in any gods” is different to an scientist’s (or agnostic’s) “we have no evidence/knowledge of any gods”. An atheist’s lack of belief can be informed by the lack of scientific findings, but a theist’s belief is also not contradicted by the (lack of) evidence. After all absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

    You PZ yourself touched upon an area of human irrationality that you have experienced – the unconditional love of your children. Even if you think that religion is irrational, you are only talking about grades of irrationality between religious people and non-religious. We’re all irrational to some extent. And we all turn off our irrationality when we step into a lab, in order to do science properly.

    Some people have a bigger switch than others, that’s all.

  38. #38 Memo from Turner
    June 29, 2006

    And we all turn off our irrationality when we step into a lab, in order to do science properly.

    In some respects, the irrationality is turned on because — let’s face it — the salary is not that great. 😉

  39. #39 Alex
    June 29, 2006

    Supernaturalism is constantly being marginalized by the real, tangible, results being produced by the scientific process, rational thought, and logic. This is a historically demonstrable fact. As long as Religions keep clinging to supernatural concepts they will increasingly be viewed as irrational, end eventually, distrubed ideologies.

  40. #40 Jake B. Cool
    June 29, 2006

    Steve–
    I don’t think Ed’s comment was offensive. What I understand him to mean in “holding us to a higher standard of honesty” is ” . . . than we as believers would otherwise have”. I didn’t read it as being intended to compare believers to nonbelievers. Of course, I could be wrong.

    Ed, however, should recognize that he may well be in a minority.
    As Sam Harris pointed out somewhere in _EOF_ and others have here, there’s a reason that so many believers have taken up science (in whatever perverted form) to attempt to illustrate that God exists–it’s because science gets so much (and deserves so much) respect as a way of determining what is real or not. Those efforts come from people who would be much happier without having to make that leap of faith.

  41. #41 Corkscrew
    June 29, 2006

    WRT science eroding faith, Julia said:

    Do you think that science sometimes erodes those non-rational, non-objective human relationships that are, I suppose from your description, also not part of the scientific worldview? Or are they more resistent to erosion than religious faith? (Or am I simply not understanding you – if so, sorry.)

    Science deals with the “is” of the world. In this area, its success is unparalleled.

    However, it has nothing to do with the “ought” of the world – it gives you the predictive power to mould the world to your will but tells you nothing about what form you should mould it into. The behaviours you mention fall very firmly into this category, and it would thus be quite hard for science to erode them (except insofar as geekiness in general has a corrosive effect on social skills :P).

    Religion overlaps both categories, and hence is in some sense a legitimate target for science.

  42. #42 stevie_nyc
    June 29, 2006

    The reiligious believe they are morally superior because of their faith. Thus the supposed HIGHER standard. Seems backwards to me. Maybe I’m wrong.

    ID makes the mistake of trying to prove there is a god through science. Just accept there’s no reason to believe in god other than faith. That’s it. They believe because they want to. It’s insanely simple. Why do people forget that?

    You choose to believe. I choose not to.

  43. #43 jeffw
    June 29, 2006

    “If we have a prevailing worldview that teaches that, basically, human beings evolved from the slime and we have no intrinsic worth or value or meaning,” he explains, “then naturally we are going to see individuals begin to gravitate toward behavior such as this. It’s basically Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ concept carried to its logical conclusion.”

    It’s only by understanding “Darwinism” that we have any chance of escaping it. As Richard Dawkins puts it:

    “Much of the message of my first book, “The Selfish Gene,” was that we must understand what it means to be a gene machine, what it means to be programmed by genes, so that we are better equipped to escape, so that we are better equipped to use our big brains, use our conscience intelligence, to depart from the dictates of the selfish genes and to build for ourselves a new kind of life which as far as I am concerned the more un-Darwinian it is the better, because the Darwinian world in which our ancestors were selected is a very unpleasant world. Nature really is red in tooth and claw. And when we sit down together to argue out and discuss and decide upon how we want to run our societies, I think we should hold up Darwinism as an awful warning for how we should not organize our societies.”

  44. #44 Russell
    June 29, 2006

    Tom Hague writes, “You PZ yourself touched upon an area of human irrationality that you have experienced – the unconditional love of your children. Even if you think that religion is irrational, you are only talking about grades of irrationality between religious people and non-religious.”

    It seems to me that we’re blurring two very different kinds of irrationality. A father’s love for his children does not entail any particular belief about the world, not even that his children are good and admirable. It is an emotional response and a committment to a relationship, not the adoption of a creed or ontology. And because it doesn’t require any credal statement, it can be the kind of thing that doesn’t even enter the same arena as science. In contrast, the Christian’s or Muslim’s leap of faith precisely is that of thing, having as its base a belief about the nature of the world.

    Admittedly, a parent’s love can lead to irrationality in the second sense, as when a father refuses to believe that his child committed some crime, even though all evidence says otherwise. But that isn’t necessarily a part of parental love, and not all parents are capable of that kind of irrationality, regardless of how much they love their child.

    “An atheist’s ‘I don’t believe in any gods’ is different to an scientist’s (or agnostic’s) ‘we have no evidence/knowledge of any gods.'”

    Barring a leap of faith, it’s pretty much identical. Such a leap is pretty much dismissed in the science lab or classroom or colloquia, so the only distinction then becomes the domain in which some people want to make such leaps. “It’s alright, when it’s about religion.”

  45. #45 Daryl McCullough
    June 29, 2006

    PZ, perhaps rather than having an article about science versus religion, it would be nice for you to write an article about what you think that science is. The way that I understand the word, it is a process for investigating claims, and it is not any particular set of claims. There is no such thing as a scientific belief, there is only a scientific argument laying out the evidence for or against a particular belief.

    When you say the scientist and atheist positions are the same, you are in error. For one thing, in the same way that a religious person can also be a scientist, an atheist can be completely unscientific. The fact that someone doesn’t believe in gods doesn’t imply that they have any allegiance to the scientific method, or that they care about evidence. It doesn’t imply that the person will not be prey to homeopaths or global warming deniers.

    Perhaps you want to say that a scientific worldview implies atheism, not that they are the same.

  46. #46 Chance
    June 29, 2006

    Because I don’t think the answers to questions of morality and faith and belief and love are the same for a scientist and an atheist. Science is restricted in nature and there are some topics that fall outside the realm of science, such as the ones above.

    This is the kind of twaddle that always make me grimace. Morals are a direct link to the social structure of our species. They most certainly are not outside the realm of science and we need to stop fostering this false idea.

    Love isn’t either. We are a social species and the hormones that regulate that behaviour again fall squarely in the realm of science. And just because we don’t understand all the workings of either yet doesn’t put them in some netherworld.

    And the entire question is a false dicotomy anyway as it presumes religion has an answer to either anyway. Which of course witht he 1000’s of forms it takes it doesn’t. It just conflugates the problem.

  47. #47 udargo
    June 29, 2006

    If we have a prevailing worldview that teaches that, basically, human beings evolved from the slime and we have no intrinsic worth or value or meaning, then naturally we are going to see individuals begin to gravitate toward behavior such as this.

    I agree with this statement completely, and this illustrates my point about science and religion being incompatible ways of being human.

    If you teach kids that there is no value in being human unless you are a faithful servant of an ancient Near-Eastern war god, then when those kids learn that the god is a myth, they’re going to lose the basis for their belief in the value of the human being.

    If you teach kids that moral codes only have value if they are backed by the authority of the Great Cosmic Fairy-King, then when the kids realize there is no Fairy-King, they will question the value of morality.

    But if you drop all that nonsense and teach kids to just pay attention to others and develop a healthy sense of empathy and a deep personal appreciation for the intrinsic value of justice and fairness in a world of interdependent people, then the Fairy-King becomes irrelevant and their sense of dignity, morality and fairness are not built on unreliable mythic vapors.

    The problem is that religion keeps telling kids that the Fairy-King is essential to their worth and their goodness, and that they are essentially shitty creatures without the saving grace of the Fairy-King, and science keeps telling them the Fairy-King doesn’t exist. Put those two things together and you’ve got a problem raising kids to be healthy, responsible, moral adults.

    It’s obvious that many religious people cannot conceive of morality outside of religion. And since their religious beliefs are nonsense, and they are inevitably going to be confronted with that miserable reality on a daily basis, the moral foundations of our society are weak and unreliable.

  48. #48 Russell
    June 29, 2006

    Hear! Hear! Udargo said it just right.

  49. #49 stevie_nyc
    June 29, 2006

    Is it any wonder that religious people often have so little empathy for their fellow man?

    Empathy is what matters not a fear of hell.

  50. #50 Memo from Turner
    June 29, 2006

    stevie

    “Is it any wonder that religious people often have so little empathy for their fellow man?”

    What the fxck are you talking about?

  51. #51 Alex
    June 29, 2006

    Well said Udargo.

  52. #52 Alex
    June 29, 2006

    That’s just it Stevie. They don’t look at non-believers (of their religion) as fellow man. They look at them as witches and infidels….less than man. It’s classical psycological dehumanization. It’s easier to hate that way.

  53. #53 George
    June 29, 2006

    Why do people adopt any belief religiously, that’s what I don’t understand. Why aren’t people comfortable with a more provisional, tentative belief system? We should be able to change as we grow older, not become more set in our ways.

  54. #54 Tim Hague
    June 29, 2006

    Chance says:

    “This is the kind of twaddle that always make me grimace. Morals are a direct link to the social structure of our species. They most certainly are not outside the realm of science and we need to stop fostering this false idea.”

    This is kind of twaddle that irritates me. Just because we may some day understand exactly where all our morals came from and what biochemical signals make them click in our brains – does that scientific understanding tell us anything at all about WHICH morals we should choose? Nope.

    “Love isn’t either.”

    PZ was describing his irrational feelings of love. Even if we fully understand all the workings of what make us feel love, are we going to stop having these irrational feelings? I for one certainly hope not.

    “And the entire question is a false dicotomy anyway as it presumes religion has an answer to either anyway. Which of course witht he 1000’s of forms it takes it doesn’t. It just conflugates the problem.”

    I wasn’t presuming anything like that at all.

  55. #55 udargo
    June 29, 2006

    For a lot of people–given their life experiences–burying that confrontation is a rational (and not necessarily permanent) response (your “sane person”) to their previous experiences. If encouraged, that same urge to rational response can persuade them to let go of that previous reaction.

    I pretty much agree with everything you’ve said. And I’m not advocating that, in the current environment, everyone be forced to choose. I know plenty of people who are better off in a religious haze than they are sober. I accept it like I accept the value of medical marijuana and high-blood-pressure medication. For some people the only thing holding them together is their desperate belief in the Great Cosmic Fairy-King. I just think they would be in better shape if their reality were constructed in a way that gave them more rational options. And I wish they wouldn’t vote.

  56. #56 Alex
    June 29, 2006

    George, we cling to our beliefs. Evolution selected that trait as necessary for our successful beginnings. Ironically, evolution is now, I feel, selecting it as detrimental – as exemplified by all the havoc that irrationality continues to espouse.

  57. #57 stevie_nyc
    June 29, 2006

    Why would religious people so viciously fight against gay marriage?

    Lack of empathy. IF you can’t look at people who are different from you and understand why they want to get married when marriage is SO important to you. Well.

  58. #58 Memo from Turner
    June 29, 2006

    Why would religious people so viciously fight against gay marriage?

    Oh, you mean the rightwing fundies. Why not just say so? Most Americans — even most religious Americans — don’t fight viciously against gay marriage.

    I think religious people, generally speaking, have about the same level of empathy as non-religious people. Fundies are in a class by themselves. Although many loud-mouthed people would love for us to believe otherwise, the most obnoxious fundamentalists in this country hold decidedly minority viewpoints on most of their pet subjects (abortion, stem cells, equal rights for gay people, teacher-led school prayer, ten commandments in courthouses, keeping vegetables alive indefinitely).

    Most religious people, in fact, don’t approve of the fundies and their garbage. The problem (and this is sort of a key to understanding PZ’s points, in my opinion) is that relatively reasonable religious people don’t speak up enough.

    And the other problem is folks making lazy statements like “religious people lack empathy.”

  59. #59 stevie_nyc
    June 29, 2006

    I did say often, not always or all.

    But I don’t think religion really teaches empathy past “do onto others…”

    I think “the god will judge you” message is promoted just a wee bit more.

  60. #60 Daryl McCullough
    June 29, 2006

    George writes: Why do people adopt any belief religiously, that’s what I don’t understand. Why aren’t people comfortable with a more provisional, tentative belief system?

    For that matter, why do people need beliefs, period? One could in principle be a Bayesian, and rather than ever choosing to believe one thing or another, he could maintain nonzero posterior likelihoods for any number of mutually contradictory claims simultaneously. Then when he makes a decision (such as whether to take this drug or not), he can take the course of action that maximizes the expected benefit (where the expectation is computed by taking into account all nonzero posterior probabilities).

    The reason that people don’t do this is, I think, that it is a royal pain (if not computationally intractable) to keep track of competing hypotheses and their running posterior likelihoods. Having beliefs is a heuristic approach that works pretty well.

  61. #61 HP
    June 29, 2006

    I think that irrationality is a red herring in this discussion. As a humanist and an artist, I can say that my humanism is very much informed by my appreciation for irrationality: PZ mentions how irrational love is, but so is humor, beauty, a sense of the absurd….

    Theists love to credit God with beauty and creativity. To me, however, the realization that a brilliant performance or a delightful painting is the work of a thoroughly human being, and that through these works of human creativity I can reach out and identify with other humans on a deep, irrational level, just confirms in me a sense of deep and abiding humanism.

    Theism is just as destructive of healthy unreason as it is of healthy reason. If we credit God with what is good in every irrational work of human culture, then we degrade and disparage some of the best of humanity. And I have too deep an identification with human creativity to countenance that.

  62. #62 alienward
    June 29, 2006

    Ed Darrell wrote:

    “One of the chief values of religion is in it’s holding us to a higher standard of honesty, to agree that fundamentally, the powers of the universe (whom we Christians name as God) put great value in our looking at things rationally, without illusion.

    God not only works in mysterious ways, ways queerer than we do imagine; God works in ways queerer than we can imagine.”

    …and this is a rational way of looking at things because we Christians are more honest because we say we are, and we can’t imagine how God put himself in a woman as a zygote or why he came to the planet disguised as a cultist who could do some nifty magic tricks but couldn’t write.

    Ed, your comments are a pretty clear illustration of the irrationality of religion, don’t you think?

  63. #63 Chance
    June 29, 2006

    ‘does that scientific understanding tell us anything at all about WHICH morals we should choose? Nope.’

    Why not? We are a group species surely a greater understanding of that fact would lead to better understanding of our choices and what they mean.

  64. #64 Daryl McCullough
    June 29, 2006

    HP writes: I think that irrationality is a red herring in this discussion. As a humanist and an artist, I can say that my humanism is very much informed by my appreciation for irrationality: PZ mentions how irrational love is, but so is humor, beauty, a sense of the absurd….Theism is just as destructive of healthy unreason as it is of healthy reason.

    I think that’s a good point, and I think it shows that PZ’s formulation Atheist/Scientific vs. Religious/Irrational is off the mark. Atheists aren’t necessarily hyperrational, and religious types are often the least tolerant of whimsy and creative irrationality.

    The appeal (to me, anyway) of secular humanism is not its rationality, but its focus on what is in front of us—living things, humans, society, the world—rather than distant abstractions of gods and the afterlife. It isn’t the lack of rational evidence, so much as the lack of relevance. Even if God does exist, why should I care about him above my fellow creatures?

  65. #65 DarwinCatholic
    June 29, 2006

    It seems to me that there’s a certain mis-use of the term ‘irrational’ going on here. There is, it seems to me, a distionction between ‘irration’ as in ‘illogical’ or ‘clearly contrary to reason’ as opposed to ‘not proved with sufficient rigour to please the speaker’.

    While faith may be a choice to accept as true something which cannot be conclusively proven, there are many things that we accept without complete rational proof simply because to do otherwise would render us intellectual basket cases. For instance, there is a certain sense in which we have no sure knowledge that the universe acts according to constant physical laws. All we know is that so far, in all the situations we have observed, the universe has acted as if there are constant physical laws. Yet if we sat around keeping our minds open that gravity might cease to work tomorrow, we couldn’t do anything. Instead, we grant the assumption (or make a leap of faith, if you will) and move on from there.

    Now, many may feel that this leap of faith is _useful_ while a leap of faith to believing in a form of God is not. That is, however, to an extent an emotional judgement.

    As far as rationality and theism goes, for 2500 years or so philosophers have generally agreed that a universe in motion suggests one of three things:

    -That the universe (however one defines that) is itself in some sense eternal and self-moving.

    -That some ‘unmoved-mover’ created the universe.

    -That the universe is the one and only thing (leaving aside for a moment the question of virtual particles) in our experience which is capable of sponaneously springing into existence by no cause at all.

    Each of these beliefs has good and bad points which can be examined rationally, but the adoption of any one of them is, to an extent, a matter of faith, regardless of how one chooses to analyze what has transpired since.

  66. #66 PZ Myers
    June 29, 2006

    I think there’s an overemphasis on the word “rational” here in the comments. My concern is more pragmatic. I said that what we expect from science is “That it be a reasonable advance in knowledge; that it be built on a foundation of evidence; that it be testable; that it should lead to new and useful questions and ideas.” This business of “rationality” is a component running throughout that, but it’s not the biggest element of the story.

    You could argue that if you’ve been brought up with tales of a Big Daddy sky god who is going to burn you forever if you don’t obey him, then maybe it is a rationality of a sort to bow down in fear and do as your pastor tells you. This is about more than just rationality — it’s about questioning.

  67. #67 PZ Myers
    June 29, 2006

    Oh, no. Not Aquinas’s ‘proofs’. That unmoved-mover crap is such tired old nonsense — claiming that god is a halt command in an infinite regress is not proof of anything.

  68. #68 Daryl McCullough
    June 29, 2006

    Chance writes: We are a group species surely a greater understanding of that fact would lead to better understanding of our choices and what they mean.

    Do you really think that’s true? What’s an example of a moral choice facing us today that we would handle better by considering the role evolution played in the development of morals? Here’s an important issue: How to balance the needs of society to protect itself versus the privacy rights of individuals. I’m sure you can explain, evolutionarily, why people care about privacy, and why other people think that snooping on their fellow citizens might make them safer. But how does that evolutionary knowledge tell us about how to do this balancing act? I just don’t see it.

  69. #69 Chance
    June 29, 2006

    DarwinCatholic-

    Your argument essentially is about the existence of God not a particular version or the myriad of irrational doctrines that spring forth from each.

    ‘That some ‘unmoved-mover’ created the universe’

    who is of course all knowing. I think Hume did a number on this one.

  70. #70 stevie_nyc
    June 29, 2006

    Not knowing the exact physics of the moment of the big bang is very different than
    believing there is an omniscient all knowing god that sits in judgement of you.

    Gravity exists. There’s not leap of faith.

    God hears my prayers. Where’s my parachute?

  71. #71 Chance
    June 29, 2006

    Daryl:
    ‘Do you really think that’s true? What’s an example of a moral choice facing us today that we would handle better by considering the role evolution played in the development of morals?’

    I don’t think I ever said evolution but rather the social structure of our species. Although evolution can certainly help.

    Here’s an important issue: How to balance the needs of society to protect itself versus the privacy rights of individuals. But how does that evolutionary knowledge tell us about how to do this balancing act? I just don’t see it.

    I’m not certain you will ever find absolutes as human socities vary as much as individuals do. I think you can eventually determine provisional areas that would benefit most societies most of the time.

    In some ways your question is not dissimiliar to a lion trying to keep it’s hunting area or kill from the intruders who wish to kill her and take her prey.

    But this is a deep and broad topic and we’d need pages and pages to discuss it.

  72. #72 Ichthyic
    June 29, 2006

    PZ started this thread by stating:

    In a thread that will not die at the Panda’s Thumb

    Dr. Myers, that thread is only alive as long as you keep it so.

    You created it, you can end it whenever you wish.

    It sure looks to me like it’s become something more of a soapbox (and soap opera) than anything remotely resembling something of content and substance.

    but then, regardless of intent, that’s pretty much how it started anyway.

  73. #73 stevie_nyc
    June 29, 2006

    Evolution science explains biological evolution. You can’t look to it for explanantions on the innerworking of societies and democracies.

    But you can’t look to the bible for answers to issues of privacy and freedom either.

  74. #74 stevie_nyc
    June 29, 2006

    Thanks for adding your post Ichthyic!

    PZ also said that it became an interesting discussion.

    It’s been civil so far. No trolls yet.

  75. #75 Chance
    June 29, 2006

    Evolution science explains biological evolution. You can’t look to it for explanantions on the innerworking of societies and democracies.

    I’m not sure I wholeheartedly agree here.

    Althoughy I agree in priciple as per modern practice. Why would evolution have nothing to say about why we structure our societies as we do. We are group primates and if you follow the chain back far enough why wouldn’t it prove enlightening?

    It’s not as if society appeared from a vacuum.

  76. #76 DarwinCatholic
    June 29, 2006

    stevie_nyc,

    Gravity appears to exist — and it’s paralyzing to bother thinking about the fact that that might simply be a mis-interpretation based on incomplete data — but that doesn’t mean that it _does_. It appears to. If you want to make statements that are unquestionably factual, you’re pretty muct stuck with abstract math and nothing else –since math is true by definition and doesn’t require observation.

    Chance,

    I didn’t make any claims for what attributes a God might have. All I said is that one’s choice to believe in an eternal universe, a spontaneously self-generating universe, or a creator is (however rationally informed) essentially a leap of faith. One cannot ‘prove’ any one of those.

  77. #77 stevie_nyc
    June 29, 2006

    I think societies adapting to their environments and innerworking form rules and practices that maintain the cohesive whole.

    But evolution science deals more specifically with the transformation of an organism through time.

    Why don’t we have an Emporer of the Americas? It’s not about biology.

  78. #78 Memo from Turner
    June 29, 2006

    It sure looks to me like it’s become something more of a soapbox (and soap opera) than anything remotely resembling something of content and substance.

    So what? It’s a blog. That’s the beauty of these things.

    It’s hilarious to see how excited the fundies get over it. It’s almost as if they think they are going to be able to cite passages from the blog in Their Next Big Court Battle to prove … what? What the fuck does it prove that is going to help turn their obnoxious bogus smears against science into facts? What does it show about Big Bad Science that they didn’t know before?

    Answer: absolutely nothing.

    The real question for them (as usual) is: where is this “intelligent design research” that we were promised? Why is Dembski blogging instead of publishing papers showing that his “explanatory filter” has utility, as pathologically lying turds like Salvador Cordova love to pretend?

  79. #79 stevie_nyc
    June 29, 2006

    Gravity wasn’t always unquestioned as was the earth revolving around the sun.

    Evolution is STILL being questioned. By the religious.

    My point is valid.

  80. #80 DarwinCatholic
    June 29, 2006

    stevie_nyc,

    If your point is that gravity can be known with a greater degree of certainty than that a prayer would be answered, your point is not something I would in any sense dispute. But it’s also not relevant to what I said.

    All I’m trying to point out is that there is not some hermetically sealed set of ‘rational’ knowledge which one can hold to and believe nothing else. All of us (theists, atheists, agnostics, deists and devotees of the spagetti monster) take certain unproveable statements about the world to be true.

  81. #81 Chance
    June 29, 2006

    I think societies adapting to their environments and innerworking form rules and practices that maintain the cohesive whole.

    But evolution science deals more specifically with the transformation of an organism through time.

    Yes I agree BUT by the study of these societies and their ‘innerworking rules’ we can learn alot. Which is all I said. But I also think studying the evolution of primates would lend alot of credence as to why.

  82. #82 Caledonian
    June 29, 2006

    All of us (theists, atheists, agnostics, deists and devotees of the spagetti monster) take certain unproveable statements about the world to be true.

    Oh, really? What are mine?

  83. #83 stevie_nyc
    June 29, 2006

    I think you’re trying to say there’s little or no difference between believing certain scientific theories or findings and believing in god.

    I think there is.

    There’s nothing rational about believing in an omniscient god. There’s no evidence one even exists.

    The universe is expanding… very different.

  84. #84 Caledonian
    June 29, 2006

    This is kind of twaddle that irritates me. Just because we may some day understand exactly where all our morals came from and what biochemical signals make them click in our brains – does that scientific understanding tell us anything at all about WHICH morals we should choose? Nope.

    To paraphrase a famous biologist, if we were bees, we’d think it entirely appropriate that, after reaching maturity, the first contender for political power to gain sufficient resources would murder the others. We’d also think it appropriate that most of the population be composed of fanatical, sterile workers who would slave ceaselessly for the good of the group until they died.

    Our concepts of justice, of fairness and equality, are inherently tied to our evolutionary history. To say that science cannot inform our understanding of the purpose and function of morality is absurd.

  85. #85 DarwinCatholic
    June 29, 2006

    stevie_nyc,

    I think you’re trying to say there’s little or no difference between believing certain scientific theories or findings and believing in god.

    No, I didn’t mean to say that at all. Perhaps I confused the issue by making to very different examples.

    My first point was that scientific knowledge, even really basic scientific knowledge like gravity, assumes certain things which are not necessarily rational, although they are very strongly supported (how strongly depends on how you look at things). That was my point with the constant laws example — that we assume the universe to work according to laws even though in fact we only know that it _appears_ to act according to laws.

    The other separate related point is that (unless you simply profess total indifference and refuse to take a position on such issues) there are certain issues on which any position you take is to an extent a leap of faith rather than a ‘proof’ either of reason or of science. The cause of the universe (as distinct from how it happened — I have every confidence we shall learn much more about the big bang than we know now) is one of these, I think, for the reasons I laid out. Someone can get around this by saying that he really doesn’t care about _why_ there is a universe so long as he can study what’s happened in it since there was one. But if you choose to be interested, it seems to me that any degree of physics about the big bang still leaves open the fundamental question: do you consider an eternal universe, a created universe, or a spontaneously generated universe to be more likely? You can make rational arguments about which is most likely, but which one you choose to accept is pretty much a matter of faith rather than proof.

  86. #86 DarwinCatholic
    June 29, 2006

    stevie_nyc,

    I think you’re trying to say there’s little or no difference between believing certain scientific theories or findings and believing in god.

    No, I didn’t mean to say that at all. Perhaps I confused the issue by making to very different examples.

    My first point was that scientific knowledge, even really basic scientific knowledge like gravity, assumes certain things which are not necessarily rational, although they are very strongly supported (how strongly depends on how you look at things). That was my point with the constant laws example — that we assume the universe to work according to laws even though in fact we only know that it _appears_ to act according to laws.

    The other separate related point is that (unless you simply profess total indifference and refuse to take a position on such issues) there are certain issues on which any position you take is to an extent a leap of faith rather than a ‘proof’ either of reason or of science. The cause of the universe (as distinct from how it happened — I have every confidence we shall learn much more about the big bang than we know now) is one of these, I think, for the reasons I laid out. Someone can get around this by saying that he really doesn’t care about _why_ there is a universe so long as he can study what’s happened in it since there was one. But if you choose to be interested, it seems to me that any degree of physics about the big bang still leaves open the fundamental
    question: do you consider an eternal universe, a created universe, or a spontaneously generated universe to be more likely? You can make rational arguments about which is most likely, but which one you choose to accept is pretty much a matter of faith rather than proof.

    If it helps explain things at all, I’m a classicist by training (though a database programmer by profession), so one of the things that gets my goat is when people ignore tha fact that there are certain basic philosophical questions that human have wrestled with for the last 2500 years (at least) and which have not, in any serious way, changed during that time.

  87. #87 Fangz
    June 29, 2006

    I call bullshit on that. There is pretty much zero evidence that there is any sort of genetic encoding for morality, and there is a pletora of contrary evidence from the varied interpretations of ‘equality’ etc that have been around through time. Morality is far more likely to be derived primarily from social reinforcement – you take on the morality of your parents/friends/comrades/government.

    And in any case, this does not at all inform the core moral question – the *should* question, instead of the *why* question. The fact that something is natural does not make it good – something we skeptics endlessly remind altie medicine proponents, and it is similarly absurd to suggest that we *should* base morality just on evolutionary precedent.

    Science can inform our knowledge of the origin of morality, it may even inform us of the biological/psychological mechanisms in which it functions. But there’s a big difference between knowing how a car works and learning to drive one.

  88. #88 Caledonian
    June 29, 2006

    There is pretty much zero evidence that there is any sort of genetic encoding for morality,

    Enhhhhhh! Wrong.

    Concepts of fair resource distribution are quite similar across cultures, appear at predictable stages of development in children, and as far as we can tell are innate.

    The ‘genetic encoding’ thing is just a red herring. We don’t know how lots of complex neurological phenomena are encoded, yet we know they’re biologically determined and heritable.

  89. #89 George
    June 29, 2006

    PZ said: I think there’s an overemphasis on the word “rational” here in the comments.

    When I hear the word rational, I think of the rationalism of Spinoza and Descartes. Lots of analysis going on in the head (with the goal of developing a coherent system of ideas), not much concern with empirical evidence.

    If science is concerned with the empirical, then I think science has to be atheistic, because no evidence of God exists in the empirical world. There is evidence of God-talk, and evidence that God-talk is comforting, and evidence that God-talk is infectious, and evidence that it is difficult to talk people out of their God-talk, but no evidence that the thing referred to by God-talk exists in any way, shape, or form anywhere outside of people’s heads.

  90. #90 Steve LaBonne
    June 29, 2006

    Re rationality (especailly with regard to George’s comment above)- while I have minimum high regard for Popper in general, I’ve always liked his phrase “critical rationality”. I think that encapsulates pretty well what PZ was trying to get at.

  91. #91 Fred the Hun
    June 29, 2006

    “Essentially, the question is, “Is science a world view or is it a job?”

    As someone who doesn’t have a degree in science but has a very clear understanding of what the scientific method entails I can unequivocally state that science at least for me is definately a world veiw. And that there is absolutely no room for any religion within that veiw. So IMHO even if you hold an advanced degree in a scientific field and are employed in a position with the title of scientist but you happpen to subscribe to some form of religious belief, you can not by definition hold a scientific world view. Granted you may still be instrumental in producing sound science.

  92. #92 Memo from Turner
    June 30, 2006

    Just a note: has anyone seen the disaster that Allen McNeill’s “Evolution and Design” course at Cornell has already become?

    Sal Cordova’s little flesh robot, Hannah, is blogging on each class, essentially spinning the whole course into a grand exercise in “They tried to indoctrinate me with materialist evolutionism, but I saw right through it!”

    It’s truly revolting. Well done, Perfesser McNeill. Between this and the ivory billed woodpecker hoax, Cornell’s scientific reputation is going down the tubes faster than than yesterday’s cream corn.

    http://evolutionanddesign.blogsome.com/

  93. #93 Ed Darrell
    June 30, 2006

    Hmmm. I regret that some interpreted my phrase, “higher standard,” as suggesting that any religion has that standard exclusive to science. What I meant was that we all strive for a higher standard, in honesty, for example, than most religionists are comfortable with. The higher standard is simple honesty, and as we’ve seen, creationists (to pick one sect) are incapable of sticking to it.

    P.Z. said:

    think there’s an overemphasis on the word “rational” here in the comments. My concern is more pragmatic. I said that what we expect from science is “That it be a reasonable advance in knowledge; that it be built on a foundation of evidence; that it be testable; that it should lead to new and useful questions and ideas.” This business of “rationality” is a component running throughout that, but it’s not the biggest element of the story.

    You could argue that if you’ve been brought up with tales of a Big Daddy sky god who is going to burn you forever if you don’t obey him, then maybe it is a rationality of a sort to bow down in fear and do as your pastor tells you. This is about more than just rationality — it’s about questioning.

    I agree exactly. I think anyone of faith should also agree. I’m not sure where so many got off the rails in thinking that religion requires one to bow down in fear to a pastor, or to God. Questioning is a right in Christianity and Judaism, even questioning God. Those who argue otherwise should reread the stories of Abraham, for instance, and the several times he argued with God (and changed God’s mind, according to scripture).

    What else is science but a questioning of the fundamental forces of nature?

    In any case, I regret that I was unclear before. I don’t think PZ misframed any debate. It seems to me that religion is inherently irrational and is intended to be; and that claims that religion is based on “evidence” are hooey. The modern fight between science and faith is prompted largely by the misunderstanding of Christians that faith should based on hard scientific evidence, and the envy they have for science, which does have evidence. The error is in trying to make an argument for God that contradicts Darwin, or Newton, or Einstein.

    The traditional view of science up to about the 19th century was that all of creation is a testament to God. Consequently, anything science finds is simply another view into God’s work. It’s impossible, it seems to me, to make an argument that science is contrary to the faith without conceding that creation does not manifest God’s work. That would be blasphemy to the traditional Christian or Jew, but it is an article of faith for fundamentalists.

    My plea is, don’t accept the view of the creationist as the standard view of anyone else of faith. Anti-science views are not founded at all in western religious tradition, and they do damage to the church and faith, in the opinion of many of us.

    One cannot reason one’s way to heaven, we believe. Don’t ask for evidence to back that claim — there is nothing rationally available. Asking for evidence is contrary to the faith. Live with it.

  94. #94 Memo from Turner
    June 30, 2006

    Ed

    Anti-science views are not founded at all in western religious tradition, and they do damage to the church and faith, in the opinion of many of us.

    So you say. Here’s my problem: if these anti-science views are so damaging to “many of you” then why is the response from religious leaders to the self-identifying Christians at the Discovery Institute and elsewhere so weak???

    Why is it that “prominent” atheists are willing to call these ignoble charlatans what they are and slap them in their fat fundie faces but the best we can get out allegedly pro-science religious leaders is “we’re not like them”???

    I’m sorry but I’m not buying it. On some level the fundie “extremists” and their God-peddling does in fact benefit from the relative complacency of the less militant Christians and vice versa. It may appear different to you if you hang around with professional scientists and atheists but then we’re not exactly “mainstream” Americans, are we, nor have we been particularly generous to religion for the past couple of hundred years.

    Religious leaders who are pro-science need to jack up the intensity of their rhetoric more than a few notches if they except us atheists to take them or their minions seriously about their commitment to stamping out this fundamentalist crap.

  95. #95 udargo
    June 30, 2006

    Questioning is a right in Christianity and Judaism, even questioning God. Those who argue otherwise should reread the stories of Abraham, for instance, and the several times he argued with God (and changed God’s mind, according to scripture).

    Excuse me, Ed… changed God’s mind? I think you’ve rationalized your God so much he isn’t even a god anymore. How can an omniscient being change his mind? That doesn’t even make sense. And even less that he might change his mind because a mortal made a cogent argument he apparently hadn’t thought of before. That’s just nonsense.

    What is it, I wonder, that compels you to cling to this idea of God even after you’ve beat the poor guy into an illogical, inconsistent pile of goo?

    I recommend an evening with the Book of Job. God ain’t your monkey.

  96. #96 Chance
    June 30, 2006

    Ed,

    I appreciate your comments but I think your stance is a weak one.

    One cannot reason one’s way to heaven, we believe. Don’t ask for evidence to back that claim — there is nothing rationally available. Asking for evidence is contrary to the faith. Live with it.

    We believe? Who is this we? In the church I was raised in we sought out a reasonable faith. I agree there is nothing rationally available but you can use reason to look at doctrine.

    And despite all that you’ve said here you think YOUR version of faith is superior to the myriad of others including the fundies and even make excuses for why they are wrong and you are right. Why are they wrong? Because they don’t use reason to find truth.

    Perhaps you aren’t either. I mean are you being truthful and honest when you think your version of a particular faith will allow you to live forever when others who choose a different faith or none won’t for no real rational reason whatsoever?

    How does that even make any sense to an obviosly kind and intelligent human?

  97. I partially disagree.

    I do not think believing in a God is irrational – I think it is merely nonrational.

    The “homeopathic chemist” someone mentioned is irrational, because the definition of homeopathy is such that it is testable, and it fails the tests.

    A religious physicist, say, is not irrational; if he believes that the Big Bang was caused by God… this belief lacks support, but it also is consistant with the evidence. There is no rational reason FOR the belief, but there is no rational reason (short of value judgements about “usefulness” of belief or the like) against it, either.

    A belief that violates Occam’s Razor, but is consistant with all the observed evidence is not irrational, merely nonrational.

  98. #98 Chance
    June 30, 2006

    not irrational, merely nonrational.

    These are just words games. No one would seriously consider it otherwise.

    A religious physicist, say, is not irrational; if he believes that the Big Bang was caused by God… this belief lacks support, but it also is consistant with the evidence. There is no rational reason FOR the belief, but there is no rational reason (short of value judgements about “usefulness” of belief or the like) against it, either.

    This is not true. It is not consistent with the evidence to posit a being making it happen. Simply because there is no evidence for it. What you arguing makes it not irrational to think a flying spaghetti monster started it all, hence the joke.

  99. #99 woofsterNY
    June 30, 2006

    PZ, I don’t know if you read this far into comments, but I have to say, I think you passed through a major threshold with this post.

    I know you’ve made many of these points before, but it feels to me you’ve done something special this time — put the ideas together in an especially unique way, and taken an extra step into clarity.

    I may have said this once before, but … I don’t think I can thank you enough for being who you are, and doing what you’re doing.

  100. #100 G. Tingey
    June 30, 2006

    People have been talking about defining the conflict between science and religion – ok.
    And some, at least have been suggesting (apart from the definition of “Faith” as belief without evidence) that religion is somehow outside science’s remit.

    Well, here we go again …

    Here are some falisfyable, testable propositions concerning religion and religious belief.
    I have yet to see any “believer” take any notice – probably because they know they would lose.

    Of course, until falsified, the propositions may be taken to be true 9as usual) …

    Here we go:

    1. No “god” is detectable (even if that “god” exists)
    2. All religions have been made by men.
    3. Prayer has no effect on third parties.
    Corollary: 3a ] There is no such thing as “Psi”.
    4. All religions are blackmail, and are based on fear and superstition.
    Corollary: 4a ] Marxism is a religion.
    5. All religions kill, or enslave, or torture.
    Corollary: 5a ] The bigots are the true believers.

    (Copyright to me, but freely available, if acknowledged. )

  101. #101 Tim Hague
    June 30, 2006

    Caledonian says:

    “Our concepts of justice, of fairness and equality, are inherently tied to our evolutionary history. To say that science cannot inform our understanding of the purpose and function of morality is absurd.”

    Of course. And I wasn’t saying that it couldn’t ‘inform’. What I was saying is that even if we have all the data in, there are many other factors – outside of science – that come into play when we are making our informed decision about which set of morals to use.

    Fred the Hun says:

    “As someone who doesn’t have a degree in science but has a very clear understanding of what the scientific method entails I can unequivocally state that science at least for me is definately a world veiw.”

    As someone who does have a degree in science I can state that for me at least science is a method (and a body of results obtained from applying that method). It’s an extremely useful method – for doing science.

    There are many areas of my life where I choose not to apply the scientific method – sex, sport, music, food and art to list just a few. So I would have to say that science is not a ‘world view’, at least certainly not for me.

  102. #102 Fred the Hun
    June 30, 2006

    “There are many areas of my life where I choose not to apply the scientific method – sex, sport, music, food and art to list just a few. So I would have to say that science is not a ‘world view’, at least certainly not for me.”

    Whether or not you personally study any of the items on your list by employing the scientific method is not in my opinion the issue. I’ll grant you that I too can enjoy a good glass of wine while listening to music as a prelude to a quite evening with my significant other and not think of it as an experiment. However I beleive there isn’t a single item on your list that is not in some way amenable to scientific investigation. So unless you are saying that something on your list can not be investigated scientifically because it is beyond the scope of such investigation I have to disagree with you and continue to hold that science is indeed a world view.

  103. #103 Woesinger
    June 30, 2006

    The OED defines atheism as “the theory or belief that God does not exist.”

    It’s not right to say that atheism and science are entirely congruent, since there’s nothing in the strict definition of atheism that constrains the atheist to use scientific principles to come to his conclusion about god. An atheist could, in theory, hold his belief irrespective of any evidence or observation on his part (this, btw, is the stereotype that a lot of religious people appear to tar all atheists with – that their conclusion about god is a belief not based on evidence).

    Presumably, when PZ says he is an atheist he’s arrived at that (reasonable, IMO,) conclusion through the scientific method of observation, hypothesis, prediction. I’d therefore describe him as a scientific atheist.

    Scientific atheism is based on at least the first three of G. Thingy’s propositions – that there is no detectable evidence for a god or gods, that all the evidence we have suggests that all religions were invented by humans and that there’s no evidence that prayer has any effect (the other principles aren’t necessary to doubt the existence of a god and, while broadly true, may not be true in 100% of cases – there might be religions out there that aren’t a form of blackmail and which don’t kill, enslave, torture or imply bigotry among their followers).

    It is possible to argue that absence of evidence for god isn’t evidence of absence of god. That’s very true. However, applying Occam’s Razor, if it has left no evidence of its presence, why should anyone believe that it exists? If you rigorously apply scientific thinking to the question of the existence of god, the very best you can do is accept the possibility of an undetectable god as first cause, since the ultimate cause of the expansion we observe in the universe appears to be unknown and unknowable and even this god of first cause is only a god of the gaps.

    An undetectable and unknowable god gives no comfort to followers of any religion, since, by definition, it gives absolutely no support to the tenets of their creed beyond the possibility that god created the universe. An undetectable and unknowable god does not live on mountains in northern Greece randomly striking down people with lightning bolts; it does not speak to men on mountains in Arabia; it does not impregnate virgins to manifest itself as flesh in order to be killed, raised from the dead and then vanish again. To believe that a god did do those things, though there is no evidence to substantiate those claims, requires you to abandon scientific thinking and move into the realm of faith. If a religion purports that their god exists within the universe, that god should be amenable to detection and study by science. If science cannot verify this god’s existence, scientific thought demands that the most reasonable conclusion is that the god does not exist.

    So while scientists don’t have to be atheists to do good science, if they are believers in anything beyond an undetectable and unknowable god or god as first cause, they have to realise that their belief is not scientific.

    While some religions do (generously) appear to allow doubt, it’s always in the context of reaffirming the tenets of the faith and never rigorously attacks the core assumptions and beliefs of the faith. It’s not scientific questioning.

  104. #104 paleotn
    June 30, 2006

    Ed wrote…..

    “I’m not sure where so many got off the rails in thinking that religion requires one to bow down in fear to a pastor, or to God.”

    Well, because it says so in black and white. A god who could destroy my life on a whim, such as poor Job, scares the bejebus out of me. (That story always reminds me of the movie Trading Places) A god who could send me to eternal damnation simply because I didn’t do exactly what he says is rather frightening, don’t you agree? Given his penchant for utter destruction from Genesis to Revelation or throughout countless sacred texts of all kinds, it would only make sense to bow in fear to the almighty sky daddy, and those who have a direct line to the mean ole cosmic man.

    At its root, Christianity, like all religions, is based upon fear of the unknown. Fear of natural forces. Fear of death. Fear of “the roll of the cosmic dice” for lack of a better way of putting it. Among other things, it’s a means for primitive homo sapiens to deal with the unknown. Shrink our brains to that of a chimpanzee and we don’t think in those terms, thus god disappears. On the other side of the spectrum, with the advent of modern science and its philosophical descendants, god is again shrinking year by year; shrinking to the point where he is not longer needed or useful in the modern world. Just as my dogged belief in a “cosmic ether” would be antiquated and irrational so is continued belief in god or gods of any form. For once in our existence as a species, the answer “we do not know, yet” is sufficient in and of itself. It need not be plastered over with make believe explanations. Because history tells us we soon will know. Maybe not in our lifetimes, but the reasons for all things in the natural world are knowable. Outside of the technical details, in a greater sense, science is a worldview, replacing that of fanciful, spiritual beings of all sorts.

  105. #105 Steve LaBonne
    June 30, 2006

    It’s a real puzzle to me why someone like Ed, who rightly- and for reasons that are a tribute to his good sense and high ethical standards- rejects a large proportion of historical Christianity, doesn’t go on to carry his questioning to its logical conclusion and reject the idea of invisible friends altogether.

  106. #106 Lya Kahlo
    June 30, 2006

    paleotn – exceedingly well put.

  107. #107 Caledonian
    June 30, 2006

    What I was saying is that even if we have all the data in, there are many other factors – outside of science – that come into play when we are making our informed decision about which set of morals to use.

    Just because people rely on other factors does not imply that their doing so is valid.

    As someone who does have a degree in science I can state that for me at least science is a method (and a body of results obtained from applying that method). It’s an extremely useful method – for doing science.

    There’s a reason the word ‘science’ is derived from the Latin meaning ‘knowledge’. There IS no discrete and hermetic boundary between science and the rest of life. ‘Science’ is what we call the disciplines of rationality that lead to correct thinking. Decide that you’re not going to apply the techniques of science, and you’ve chosen to accept shoddy, weak, and just outright wrong thinking.

    When people try to figure anything out, the strategies that lead to actual answers are those that we call ‘scientific’. People naturally seek them out whem they want answers because rationality naturally leads to them.

  108. #108 Chance
    June 30, 2006

    outside of science – that come into play when we are making our informed decision about which set of morals to use.

    Nothing in your head and the decisions that eminate from that location is anything but biology. Your neural net which causes you to choose one choice or the other could very possibly be very well understood one day. As such it will possibly be open to our understanding as knowledge of the brain increases.

    This entire argument that morals are not subject to science is just patently silly.

    As someone who does have a degree in science I can state that for me at least science is a method (and a body of results obtained from applying that method). It’s an extremely useful method – for doing science

    Not just for doing science. Well essentially everything can be science in some form. Not to say we all you it all the time but the point of the matter is the method of thinking has uses in all walks of life.

  109. #109 Arun
    June 30, 2006

    Science really has nothing to say about things that are outside the experimental domain. The phrase “expanding frontiers of science” refers to the fact that as technology improves, more and more things enter the experimental domain.

    It is a statement of faith to assume that science encompasses all of the world. However, it is no more true today than it was in 1900.

    “Rational” and “scientific” also do not mean the same thing. Theology is rational given its assumptions; at least one of its assumptions is not scientific, but that doesn’t make the enterprise irrational any more than mathematics about objects with no analog in the real world is irrational.

    I don’t think Prof. Myers is doing anyone a service by confusing these concepts; he is here writing like any other ideologue.

  110. #110 stevie_nyc
    June 30, 2006

    How is believing in an omniscient god in any way rational?

    It’s irrational. That’s why it takes faith to believe it. It defies logic.

  111. #111 Russell
    June 30, 2006

    Arun writes, “theology is rational given its assumptions.”

    Everything said and done by the fellow committed to the insane asylum is sensible, given his assumption that he is Jesus Christ.

    Or to put it another way, those assumptions that are required to do theology are exactly what we call irrational. And what you would call irrational, in another context. Like all who make a leap of faith, you want to bracket off that leap, your leap, from how similar leaps are viewed.

  112. #112 poke
    June 30, 2006

    I think the questions of the scope of methodological application and demarciation are red herrings. If you simply accept the results of science, which most claim to do, you’ve already painted yourself into a corner where some form of deism, pantheism or agnosticism is, at most, the only reasonable view. (This is why, I think, most apologists for the compatibility of science and religion turn out to be closet instrumentalists.)

    Even this is not really true, however, since if you accept the results then you should accept that every statement is either (a) empirical, (b) a spontaneous psychological production or (c) a mix of a and b. (I assume here that the “results of science” include conservation of energy and that vitalism and dualism are not true.) The obvious result being that the philosophical arguments that support deism, pantheism and agnosticism are all fallacious and that only empirical science can tell us anything about anything (i.e., there is not a plurality of knowledge/truth).

    That’s how far just the factual statements of physics, biology, neuroscience and evolution can get you. Taken together they call the possibility of (philosophical) rationalism into reasonable doubt and it becomes unreasonable to rely on such purely philosophical arguments. It is, I think, then entirely reasonable to accept atheism, materialism/physicalism and metaphysical naturalism, and all three can be said to follow directly from the results of science.

  113. #113 Uniqueuponhim
    June 30, 2006

    As an agnostic and a scientists, I have a few points I would like to make, first in response to PZ’s initial post, as well as to some of the comments. The first and foremost has to do with the following quote:

    So, will science and religion find common ground, or at least agree to divide the fundamentals into mutually exclusive domains? A great many well-meaning scholars believe that such rapprochement is both possible and desirable. A few disagree, and I am one of them. I think Darwin would have held to the same position. The battle line is, as it has ever been, in biology. The inexorable growth of this science continues to widen, not to close, the tectonic gap between science and faith-based religion.

    While I will not disagree that there is a battle line drawn in biology between scientific and religious thinking, I will say that the fact that it is there is completely irrelevant in the context of that quote. The reason is that science and religion can and are “divided into mutually exclusive domains”, and biology is a scientific domain no matter how you look at it. The problem is that religious fundamentalists have been systematically attacking science in this domain, rather than staying within their own.

    The question then asked is, which domains belong to science and which to philosophy? The answer, quite simply and obviously, is that all aspects of nature which are presently able to be adequately explained scientifically belong within the domain of science. These include biology, evolution, physics, chemistry, astronomy, cosmology, and so on. Those aspects of nature that cannot be explained presently by science (human consciousness, the origin of the universe [beyond the big bang], as well as the various aspects of ethics and morals) belong within the domain of philosophy, which is the only one in which there is room for religious interpretation.

    Any sort of theism belongs in this domain, including atheism: an atheist has as much belief and faith that human consciousness and the origin of the universe can be explained naturally without resort to a supernatural deity as a theist has in the opposite, and neither has a single iota of evidence in support of their beliefs. Neither theism nor atheism is in any manner scientific, but is rather merely a form of speculation into the answers of those questions. A truly scientific person interests themselves not in philosophy at all, (because, as PZ so astutely points out, such interests inevitably lead to belief and faith, neither of which have any place in science.) and is therefore agnostic.

    (I don’t mind of course, if a scientist indulges himself in either theism or atheism, as long as he does not allow it to cross over to his scientific work.)

    In response to RickD’s initial post:

    The unifying philosophy behind atheism and scientific work is an insistence on preferring empiricism over dogma. That’s it.

    Replace the word atheism with agnosticism and you’re band on. Leave the sentence as it is, however, and you are dead wrong: you have no empirical evidence supporting your hypothesis that the universe exists without having been created by a “god”, so why, if you are scientific should you believe in that hypothesis despite the complete lack of evidence?

    I’ll leave it at that for now, since it’s lunchtime and I’m starving. I’ll come back and read the rest of the comments and add responses later.

  114. #114 Glen Davidson
    June 30, 2006

    How is believing in an omniscient god in any way rational?

    It’s irrational. That’s why it takes faith to believe it. It defies logic.

    Actually, a lot of it is hyper-rational, the result of rationalists like Plato to try to explain movement arising, and how it is that we can know things (like logical relations) exactly and reliably.

    Now I don’t want to go on about all of this, because of the non-empirical assumptions needed for Platonic philosophy and for scholasticism. With the rise of science, the bases for the ancient extrapolations from the transient to the eternal went out the window.

    What is important is that many of the same faulty assumptions and reliance on logic to the neglect of the empirical continues in ID. Dembski unabashedly resurrects “necessity” and “chance” from their well-deserved graves in the scholastic cemetary, and proclaims that he is doing “science” by eliminating “necessity” and “chance”, leaving only “design” (“design” is a recent addition).

    It is no accident that Dembski’s poor “science” is produced by a metaphysical philosopher rather than by anyone competent in actual science. He means to work out in his head why god (er, the “Designer”) is needed to explain life, and he uses math and logic, almost to the exclusion of empiricism (he does lift a few select facts to do a pretend science), to “prove” that the “Designer” in the gospel of John produced all life.

    I’m glad that PZ backed off of his apparent “strict rationalism”, because that is more the realm of transcendental religion.

    Now I’m not saying that there is no illogic in Dembski’s system, or in Plato’s (at least the latter’s was an intellectually honest attempt). The leaps to their assumptions are indeed breathtaking and absurd (apparently arrived at through verbal argumentation in Plato’s case). What I’m pointing out is that once they have their unwarranted assumptions, they use a logical progression that seems unassailable to them. They think in ways “clear and distinct” (to themselves, that is), the old criterion for knowing that one has arrived at “truth”.

    This, among many other reasons, is why they are unable to think in alternative ways, for they have what seems to them to be very clear and logical reasons why their “Designer” must have created life (don’t forget that Dembski actually thinks that the mind cannot be “material”, and if that assumption prevails evolution and matter really are illogical explanations for its existence). The messiness, the “pathetic level of detail”, of actual science is an illogical step backward, in their minds.

    The fundamentals of metaphysics, Platonism, and of religion, are indeed arrived at illogically–because these bases are not compatible with our sensory world (“necessity” and “chance” are only meaningful according to contextual definitions and usage, and are not fundamental aspects of the phenomenal world itself (not, that is, in the senses used by the scholastics)). However, to tackle the many mistakes made by IDists and other theists, one has to recognize and deal with the fact that once their faulty assumptions are locked in, the theists are often very rational indeed. Too rational, in fact, so that they prefer their “clear and distinct” fictions to the messiness and level of detail of real science.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

  115. #115 Keith Douglas
    June 30, 2006

    plunge: That would be fine, except that at least in my experience (and I have done this for quite some time – nearly 15 years, actually) all religious believers and all credal statements seem to make claims about reality. Some of these come close to being true from time to time; the issue is not so much the truth value but the epistemology in question. How do religions change their credal statements or individuals change their religious viewpoints? Nothing like what one does in science, science-oriented philosophy, or even sober English literature studies.

    As for the purported lack of scientific method, it depends on what you mean. I’ve defended (see my website and other postings here and elsewhere) for a while the idea that there is (at any given historical stage) a (proto)scientific metamethod, which constrains and shapes specific methods of specific sciences. (Note, of course, that these are not methods in the pseudoCartesian infallibilistic sense.)

    charlie: There are scientists who only adopt science as a career (and similarly for philosophers, and so on). But it seems looking at many of the “greats”, it led to a strong component of their world view, too. I think this is why so many of the “greats” were heretics. This is true in the more philosophical tradition, to the extent that it is different. (Think of Socrates, who tried to “live his philosophy” and was killed for it.)

    Glen Davidson: Nietzsche, of course, was also inconsistent on the point, since he does seem also to want to understand how the world works, and so on. (What else is the “will to power”?) Compare this with, say, Kierkegaard, who seems to think that understanding anything except perhaps one’s own relationship to god, is a waste of time. I am not sure this interpretation is right – perhaps it is merely that this is the most worthwhile of understandings, something like a Pascal’s Wager in the epistemic realm, complicated by the fact that the relationship i nquestion is a baffling, “absurd” one. (Speaking of K., I regard him as one of the most honest of all Christians.)

    G. Tingey: There is a perverse alliance of sorts already, after a fashion. See that movie, The Power of Nightmares. The George Bushes and Osama bin Ladens of the world need each other in a twisted symbiosis.

    Sastra: Worse, there are disciplines which actively study religion, which I regard as an interesting component of any consistent secular thinker. (I took sociology of religion as an undergraduate, for example.)

    DarwinCatholic: Democritus guessed the solution (without any faith) 2400 years ago. Newton (again a heretic) demonstrated it, more or less. There is no faith required in acknowledging that the universe (note: not the local Hubble volume) is eternal.

    stevie_nyc: Evolution may not be sufficient to understand social matters, but that’s what social sciences are for, to the extent that they are scientific. (I have argued for quite some time now the refusal to do rigorous social research is a great way to promote a strongly conservative agenda.)

    George: Of course, Descartes was not the rationalist he is often portrayed to be – he did experimental (or at least hands-on) work in several areas, too.

    Michael “Sotek” Ralston: Believing that god caused the big bang is contradicted by the evidence, since gods are contradicted by the evidence. (If you imagine a creature in another hubble volume able to start big bangs, sure, that could be, but that creature is not a law-defying, transcendent god, either.)

    stevie_nyc: Indeed. Patrick Grimm (and myself, but I’ve never published it, so give the credit to him) has an argument that shows via Cantor’s theorem that omniscience is self-contradictory.

    Uniqueuponhim: I find it funny that you’d post on a blog hosted by a neuroscientist that there is no evidence against mind-body dualism …

  116. #116 Keith Douglas
    June 30, 2006

    plunge: That would be fine, except that at least in my experience (and I have done this for quite some time – nearly 15 years, actually) all religious believers and all credal statements seem to make claims about reality. Some of these come close to being true from time to time; the issue is not so much the truth value but the epistemology in question. How do religions change their credal statements or individuals change their religious viewpoints? Nothing like what one does in science, science-oriented philosophy, or even sober English literature studies.

    As for the purported lack of scientific method, it depends on what you mean. I’ve defended (see my website and other postings here and elsewhere) for a while the idea that there is (at any given historical stage) a (proto)scientific metamethod, which constrains and shapes specific methods of specific sciences. (Note, of course, that these are not methods in the pseudoCartesian infallibilistic sense.)

    charlie: There are scientists who only adopt science as a career (and similarly for philosophers, and so on). But it seems looking at many of the “greats”, it led to a strong component of their world view, too. I think this is why so many of the “greats” were heretics. This is true in the more philosophical tradition, to the extent that it is different. (Think of Socrates, who tried to “live his philosophy” and was killed for it.)

    Glen Davidson: Nietzsche, of course, was also inconsistent on the point, since he does seem also to want to understand how the world works, and so on. (What else is the “will to power”?) Compare this with, say, Kierkegaard, who seems to think that understanding anything except perhaps one’s own relationship to god, is a waste of time. I am not sure this interpretation is right – perhaps it is merely that this is the most worthwhile of understandings, something like a Pascal’s Wager in the epistemic realm, complicated by the fact that the relationship i nquestion is a baffling, “absurd” one. (Speaking of K., I regard him as one of the most honest of all Christians.)

    G. Tingey: There is a perverse alliance of sorts already, after a fashion. See that movie, The Power of Nightmares. The George Bushes and Osama bin Ladens of the world need each other in a twisted symbiosis.

    Sastra: Worse, there are disciplines which actively study religion, which I regard as an interesting component of any consistent secular thinker. (I took sociology of religion as an undergraduate, for example.)

    DarwinCatholic: Democritus guessed the solution (without any faith) 2400 years ago. Newton (again a heretic) demonstrated it, more or less. There is no faith required in acknowledging that the universe (note: not the local Hubble volume) is eternal.

    stevie_nyc: Evolution may not be sufficient to understand social matters, but that’s what social sciences are for, to the extent that they are scientific. (I have argued for quite some time now the refusal to do rigorous social research is a great way to promote a strongly conservative agenda.)

    George: Of course, Descartes was not the rationalist he is often portrayed to be – he did experimental (or at least hands-on) work in several areas, too.

    Michael “Sotek” Ralston: Believing that god caused the big bang is contradicted by the evidence, since gods are contradicted by the evidence. (If you imagine a creature in another hubble volume able to start big bangs, sure, that could be, but that creature is not a law-defying, transcendent god, either.)

    stevie_nyc: Indeed. Patrick Grimm (and myself, but I’ve never published it, so give the credit to him) has an argument that shows via Cantor’s theorem that omniscience is self-contradictory.

    Uniqueuponhim: I find it funny that you’d post on a blog hosted by a neuroscientist that there is no evidence against mind-body dualism …

  117. #117 Fred the Hun
    June 30, 2006

    Uniqueuponhim,

    According to Webster’s dictionary we have the following definitions.

    Belief: conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence.

    Faith: belief in something for which there is no proof.

    Atheism: disbelief in the existence of deity.

    Agnostic: one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god.

    Hypothesis: a tentative assumption made in order to draw out and test its logical or empirical consequences.

    Let’s just say that based on the lack of any available empirical evidence I hypothesise that there are no deities. Since there is no evidence I can not believe until such evidence has been provided. Therefore I have no faith in deities until one of them calls to me from a burning bush. So I’m not agnostic I’m an atheist.

  118. #118 Glen Davidson
    June 30, 2006

    Glen Davidson: Nietzsche, of course, was also inconsistent on the point, since he does seem also to want to understand how the world works, and so on. (What else is the “will to power”?) Compare this with, say, Kierkegaard, who seems to think that understanding anything except perhaps one’s own relationship to god, is a waste of time. I am not sure this interpretation is right – perhaps it is merely that this is the most worthwhile of understandings, something like a Pascal’s Wager in the epistemic realm, complicated by the fact that the relationship i nquestion is a baffling, “absurd” one. (Speaking of K., I regard him as one of the most honest of all Christians.)

    Nietzsche’s main consistency is that he generally was inconsistent, which seems to have been a virtue in his mind.

    Naturally he was indeed interested in “truth”, or he wouldn’t have had anything with which to argue that “truth” is meaningless, of no value, etc. I think that partly the real message was in the smearing around of “truth” claims, in order to show that “truth” (even in the lesser sense) didn’t mean what people thought it did, and that “truth” may generally be questioned.

    Regardless of all that, he does have a point that Xian virtues became to some extent scientific virtues. A keen observer of history such as Nietzsche recognizes the overlap of scientific virtues and goals in a way that PZ has yet to do.

    Kierkegaard was quite an admirable thinker, though with some disturbing nihilistic tendencies. I can only go so far into his adaptations of Hegelianism before my mind starts refusing to process it, however. He does appear to be trapped in dialectical thought (no matter how little he liked Hegel), while having some interesting sidebars.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

  119. #119 Uniqueuponhim
    June 30, 2006

    Fred, first let me thank you for patronizing me with your dictionary definitions. Second, in response to the meat of your post:

    Atheism: disbelief in the existence of deity.
    Agnostic: one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god.

    Let’s just say that based on the lack of any available empirical evidence I hypothesise that there are no deities. Since there is no evidence I can not believe until such evidence has been provided. Therefore I have no faith in deities until one of them calls to me from a burning bush. So I’m not agnostic I’m an atheist.

    I believe you have your own definitions confused: there is a significant difference between disbelief and non-belief. According to your statement, you are not commited to believing in the existence of god, but neither do you actively disbelieve god’s existence, thus making you an agnostic, not an atheist.

  120. #120 stevie_nyc
    June 30, 2006

    He could be saying I don’t believe there is a god. But I will if he pokes me in the eye with a burning stick.

    You can believe that there is no god based on the evidence. But are willing to say “but if he appeared to me I might change my mind.”

  121. #121 Uniqueuponhim
    June 30, 2006

    Well, that’s no different than saying “I believe (for no rational reason) that god doesn’t exist, but I could be wrong”, which at best is half-way between atheism and agnosticism, and in any case requires some sort of irrational belief.

    In fact, that statement is not very different from me saying “I believe that there aren’t any planets orbitting Wolf 359. But if someone finds a planet there then I’ll amend my beliefs. The only difference is that it is actually possible to detect a planet (if one exists) or go there and determine that there isn’t one. Such is not the case when it comes to god. So an atheist/theist claiming disbelief/belief in God has no more rational reason for that disbelief/belief than I would if I claimed disbelief/belief in a planet orbitting Wolf 359. So for the same reasons that I remain agnostic to the existence of a planet orbitting Wolf 359, I remain agnostic to the existence of God, and stand firm in my position that both theism and atheism are wholly irrational and unscientific.

  122. #122 Fangz
    June 30, 2006

    Concepts of fair resource distribution are quite similar across cultures, appear at predictable stages of development in children, and as far as we can tell are innate.

    As far as we can tell? The point is – we can’t tell. There is very little opportunity for information into what the ‘natural’ morality of children would be without social contact, and so the above facts are equally consistent with a model where morality is learnt by social pressure and mimicry. Cultures themselves rarely occur in isolation, and ‘fair distribution’ is in fact fairly anomalous, historically speaking, given the long dominance of societies based on inheritance, slavery, etc. A pretty strong position can be raised that fair distribution is only prevalent these days because history has shown that the oppressed can fight back.

    Back to the main argument…

    Can we stop the argument over definitions already? It’s fallacious to seek to attack someone’s position by redefining the label with which he identifies with. It doesn’t even matter who is right – it is far more meaningful to deal with exactly what people believe in. In my experience, the vast majority of self-described atheists identify themselves with the softer position of lacking belief in a god as opposed to the positive belief in the absence of a god. If your definition of atheism and agnosticism does not use atheism in this way, then qualify your statements as describing a specific type of atheist. And be well aware that you are attacking a mostly imaginary entity.

    And on the original question, my opinion is that yes, religion is most certainly an irrational belief. But science is itself not totally disjoint with irrationality – the basis of probability, the idea that past events should inform future ones, is essentially an irrational concept. And so on. In a Godelian way, science itself isn’t scientific. So a scientist can think about religion whatever way he wants.

  123. #123 stevie_nyc
    June 30, 2006

    What? There’s no evidence or proof of God.

    It is COMPLETELY ratonal.

    It’s also completely rational to say if something is PROVEN to be real. THEN I will believe it.

    I’m agnostic on alien life existing. It’s likely but still isn’t proven. God however. Not gonna happen.

  124. #124 Fred the Hun
    June 30, 2006

    Uniqueuponhim,

    “I believe you have your own definitions confused: there is a significant difference between disbelief and non-belief. According to your statement, you are not commited to believing in the existence of god, but neither do you actively disbelieve god’s existence, thus making you an agnostic, not an atheist.”

    My apologies for I was not trying to be patronizing.

    I was trying to make clear that I am committed to disbelieving in any deities based on the fact that there isn’t any evidence for their existence. That doesn’t disprove their existence. It is just what I believe and why.

    BTW just for the sake of clarity, Webster’s has this to say about disbelief: : the act of disbelieving : mental rejection of something as untrue

    So what I am saying is that I have mentally rejected as untrue the notion of deities existing, which I still think puts me in the atheist’s camp.

    In other words I don’t beleive you will deposit a million dollars in my bank account. You might, but unless you present me with evidence to the contrary I have no reason to beleive it. Of course if you want to prove me wrong I can give you my account number…

  125. #125 Uniqueuponhim
    June 30, 2006

    Uniqueuponhim: I find it funny that you’d post on a blog hosted by a neuroscientist that there is no evidence against mind-body dualism …

    While I may be wrong about the mind-body problem being a philosophical rather than scientific issue (although I doubt it), that is rather beside the point, as it was merely one of many examples of elements of nature which fall into the category of philosophy and not science. My placing the mind-body problem in the category of philosophy is not an argument for or against mind-body dualism, and such an argument is wildly off-topic, and not the point of that section of my post at all. The point of my post was that philosophy and science are two completely separate domains, and that any form of theism belongs squarely in the philosophical domain.

    That said, I will indulge myself in responding to your comment by saying that if you or PZ or anyone else does have any evidence for or against mind-body dualism which is not purely philosophical rhetoric, and which does not ultimately depend on a particular philosophical view in order to be relevant, I would love to see it.

  126. #126 Uniqueuponhim
    June 30, 2006

    Fred: I don’t think your analogy really holds up. The difference is, that as a result of all of the statistical evidence you have seen – for one thing, the probability of a random person even having a million dollars to give is fairly low, for another, you’ve probably never had a million dollars put into your account by a stranger before, nor I’m sure have you ever heard of it happening to anyone else – you know that the probability of me depositing a million dollars into your account is very low, and it isn’t so much that you disbelieve that I will deposit that million dollars as it is that you accept the extremely low probability that it will happen, in the same way that I accept the extremely low probability that when I shuffle a deck of cards, it won’t be shuffled into a perfect arrangement of Ace through King of each suit in order, and in the same way that you accept that there is an extremely low probability of me donating a million dollars to you, I accept that there is an extremely low probability of shuffling the deck into perfect order.

    On the other hand, we have no statistical evidence on whether or not god exists: We can’t just go back and look at a few thousand other universes to see whether or not each one was created by a god, and from that deduce the probability that this universe was created by a god. We have no evidence, empirical, statistical or otherwise which would indicate that god does not exist, and therefore, any belief that god does not exist is as irrational as one that god does exist (and, as I stated before, as irrational as believing or disbelieving in the existence of a planet orbitting Wolf 359).

  127. #127 stevie_nyc
    June 30, 2006

    Uniqueuponhim: I remain agnostic to the existence of God, and stand firm in my position that both theism and atheism are wholly irrational and unscientific.

    Argh!

    There’s no difference between the TOOTH FAIRY and GOD.
    Tell me I’m being irrational again.

  128. #128 Uniqueuponhim
    June 30, 2006

    Umm, Stevie, sorry, but “There’s no difference between the TOOTH FAIRY and GOD” is false for one thing, and a completely irrelevant statement regardless. I don’t see any argumentation or refutation to my own arguments in your post. You wanted me to tell you you’re being irrational, well: you are.

    If you do want to discuss this topic rationally, using real arguments, then I would be very glad to do so: I’ve already made several posts about it, and you can feel free to pick apart the individual statements and arguments I have made, as others have already been doing. Thank you 🙂

  129. #129 Ed Darrell
    June 30, 2006

    Steve LaBonne, I reject a large portion of what is claimed to be historical Christianity (but is not); but I reject less than the creationists, who, as I noted, ultimately come down on the side of belief that there is something inherently wrong with God’s creation, and so pit God’s creation against scripture — and solely on their misunderstanding of both, IMHO.

    Look at it this way: I reject belief in the Norse gods, the Roman gods, the Greek gods, the Egyptian gods, and whatever odd idol Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have on their dashboards — I believe in only one deity more than an atheist. We’re almost kin in belief!

    More seriously, someone asked how I, an almost-rational guy, can believe in a god who wins adherence by threat. I don’t buy that view of God. I think that portraying God as a threatener, as an angry being who holds us from hellfire only on a whim, is a mischaracterization. I am repulsed by those who claim that they tend toward morality only out of fear of that deity — they lack the moral fiber of the average atheist, it seems to me, and they are no tribute to any faith they claim.

    Jefferson had it about right, I think: Jesus was a heckuva philosopher, and if one cuts out all the supernatural mumbo-jumbo, there are solid teachings there (many arrived at earlier, by Confucius, by Hill-el, and others). Jefferson believed the doctrine of Jesus was distorted by clergy and the church.

    I think that’s still true.

  130. #130 Caledonian
    June 30, 2006

    That’s not the point. How do you justify your belief in the outlandish claims made about Jesus? How do you justify your belief in this deity of yours? Logic and evidence only, please — “because I *know* it” does not constitute evidence.

  131. #131 stevie_nyc
    June 30, 2006

    Explain to me:

    A: How the tooth fairy is different than god.

    B: How that statement is irrational.

    C: How it is false.

  132. #132 Fred the Hun
    July 1, 2006

    Uniqueuponhim,

    “On the other hand, we have no statistical evidence on whether or not god exists: We can’t just go back and look at a few thousand other universes to see whether or not each one was created by a god, and from that deduce the probability that this universe was created by a god. We have no evidence, empirical, statistical or otherwise which would indicate that god does not exist, and therefore, any belief that god does not exist is as irrational as one that god does exist (and, as I stated before, as irrational as believing or disbelieving in the existence of a planet orbitting Wolf 359).”

    Occam’s Razor:

    one should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything.

    There has so far not been one single shred of empirical evidence uncovered by any of the sciences to indicate the need for the existence of deities to explain any natural phenomenon.

    If anything science has consistently managed to show exactly the opposite. Which by the way is precisely why all arguments trying to use irreducible complexity as proof of a designer are considered vacuous by the scientific community.

    The designer guy just ain’t necessary! The wonderfully complex eye is perfectly capable of evolving by natural processes all by its lonesome and we are quite capable of understanding those processes. Well some of us anyway…

    So why exactly would you consider my application of Occams’s razor to the question of whether or not I believe there are deities to be irrational?

    I would accept a talking burning bush as evidence but if I happened to encounter one I might at that point legitimately have my rationality questioned.

  133. #133 Fangz
    July 1, 2006

    Let me play devil’s advocate a bit…

    A: How the tooth fairy is different than god.

    There’s actually a good case here. The belief in the tooth fairy is somewhat scientific as a hypothesis, because it makes a concrete claim about a specific miracle that is testable. A particular religion’s god – much less the overarching concept of ‘a god’ does not.

    Occam’s Razor:

    Occam’s razor is a rule of thumb. It isn’t a law. (Entities, in particular, is a very vague statement, almost analogous to the ‘kinds’ that ID proponents use endlessly. E.g. a naive implementation would prefer an arbitary god determining *everything* rather than a body of scientific laws.) It’s a useful rule to use in a process of investigation, but it’s really more a philosophy than a fact.

  134. #134 Caledonian
    July 1, 2006

    (Entities, in particular, is a very vague statement, almost analogous to the ‘kinds’ that ID proponents use endlessly. E.g. a naive implementation would prefer an arbitary god determining *everything* rather than a body of scientific laws.)

    Not exactly. An arbitrary god determining everything makes it impossible to predict anything with reasonable confidence. It is not an explanation, it is sweeping the need for an explanation under the rug.

  135. #135 Fred the Hun
    July 1, 2006

    Caledonian,

    To clarify:

    As a fluent speaker of three latin languages I sometimes have a tendency to assume that everyone uses words in the same way that I do. I took “entity” in this statement to mean “existing thing” which is what the latin root means.

    I.E. Global warming may be caused by many interacting entities, the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide may be one of the causative entities.

    I didn’t think of it as a “Being” though it could also have that meaning in the Anglo Saxon vernacular.

    I’ll grant you that Occam’s Razor is rule of thumb and not a law.

    My back and forth with Uniqueuponhim is about my disagreement with him, in that my application of said rule of thumb to the question of whether or not my personal disbelief in any deities is a rational process. I claim that being an atheist is a rational position and he claims it can not be so.

    When I apply Occam’s razor to to the question of whether or not deities are necessary to explain natural phenomenon the conclusion I come to is that they are not.

    Granted my conclusion may even be wrong. Though my point is that I fail to see why my particular thought process should be construed as being irrational.

    If you could point out the fallacies in my thinking I’d be happy to concede the point.

  136. #136 Fred the Hun
    July 1, 2006

    Oops the above was to be addressed to Fangz.
    Time to shut down the computer and take off to the beach!

  137. #137 Keith Douglas
    July 1, 2006

    Uniqueuponhim: Why do you think there is any dividing line between philosophy and science? A science-oriented philosophy recognizes that philosophical hypotheses are simply very general scientific ones. Specifically, what makes you think that research on cognition, perception, motivation, will, action, attention etc. is irrelevant to philosophy? For example, where is the dividing line in Patricia Churchland’s recent Brain-Wise? Or where do I go wrong in my own paper on the subject? The evidence in favour of materialism on the m-b question is every successful understanding in neuroscience, and every succcesful use of the technologies (e.g. psychopharmocological drugs) that derive from such. For example, it is possible to improve the quality of life of schizophrenics by interfering in certain ways with their brain processes. This is exactly what one would assume to be possible only if the mind is what the brain does. (This, BTW, is compatible with several philosophical positions. See my paper. But not any form of idealism, including dualism.)

  138. #138 Chris
    July 1, 2006

    Not exactly. An arbitrary god determining everything makes it impossible to predict anything with reasonable confidence. It is not an explanation, it is sweeping the need for an explanation under the rug.

    An arbitrary god determining everything *would* be expected to have that effect, but we observe that in fact it *is* possible to predict many things with great confidence and accuracy. Therefore, there is not an arbitrary god determining everything.

    This leaves open the possibility of an arbitrary god that acts rarely enough to be difficult to detect, or a god that always or almost always adheres to established natural laws and whose acts are therefore indistinguishable from the operation of such laws, or no god at all. The second possibility is more or less Deism, as I understand it.

    The statement that the universe proceeds largely according to consistent and uniform laws is not an assumption. It is an observation.

  139. #139 arensb
    July 12, 2006

    It seems to me that the word “irrational” carries almost as much baggage as “godless” does to many people. But just because something is irrational does not mean that it’s bad: art is irrational; music is irrational; love is, like pi, irrational and very important.

    I think we all hold irrational opinions — I happen to have an irrational fondness for cheesy movies and an irrational dislike for Tom Hanks. The goal should not be to banish irrationality from our lives, but to practice self-awareness and know what about us is irrational, and when it is appropriate to give in to our irrational desires and when it isn’t.

  140. #140 Tiffer
    January 31, 2008

    A well reasoned and helpful article. I would raise the objection (as I am sure may have been raised by someone above) that the irrational/rational behaviour of a scientist that you talk about – rational when looking at things in a lab or in an academic paper etc but irrational about God and relationships (to a degree) extends to the athest/scientist dichotomy. I believe that someone ceases to be scientific when they are being irrational about relationships or about God, and I would argue that being a Christian, Muslim or athiest is aways going to be less than rational from a scientific point of view, because scientists must always be open to things not proved yet (Dawkins documentary about alternative medicine is a good example of that, it wasn’t just an expose he was trying to assess it on its merits).

    Therefore I would argue that when someone says anything from an athiestic point of view they are not doing so from a scientific point of view, although perhaps not vice versa.

  141. #141 kmarissa
    January 31, 2008

    Tiffer, I’m not sure I understand how you’re defining an “atheistic point of view.” I very much doubt that you’re defining it the way most atheists would.

  142. #142 AJS
    January 31, 2008

    This is where I think theistic scientists have a problem:

    When one puts on the “scientist” hat, one is working on the premise that everything is explainable in terms of natural intrinsic properties and behaviours (calling them “natural laws” is only giving ammunition to the funda-mentalists). But when one puts on the “theist” hat, one is working on the premise that some things are not explainable. (Blah blah Proof denies Faith blah blah mysterious ways blah blah miracle blah blah not for mortals to fathom blah blah).

    These are irreconcilable positions. If you accept the existence of the supernatural, then you cannot be a scientist; if you deny the existence of the supernatural, then you must be an atheist!

    So the question that I think we should ask of every theistic scientist is: “Which hat are you talking through today?”

  143. #143 Tiffer
    January 31, 2008

    Kmarissa I mean the same as the author of the first quotation in this article, that one can speak as an athiest or one can speak as a scientist. I essentially disagree with Myers on his belief that athiests who are scientists (or vice versa) necessarily speak as one or the other.

    It bothers me, for example, that Christian leaders are so influential in the politics of the US, despite not necessarily having much expertise in politics itself. However here in the UK when the established church wants to influence politics (usually through the house of Lords where a number of Bishops sit) they usually choose clergy and laity with a background in the relevant issues to form committees which discuss and then report on certain issues. The question needs to be asked even of these committees, are they speaking as scientists/sociologists/educators/medical ethicists/medical practitioners or as Christians? It does make a difference, because one is irrational and one is rational.

    I see no difference between basing your life on an irrational belief where that is belief in God or belief in the absence of a God. I know there are distinctions between weak and strong athiests, but I don’t see much practical difference between the two, both live their lives as if there were no God/supernatural world/fairies at the bottom of the garden. Therefore if someone is going to speak as an athiest, I want to know that, because it makes what they say subject to bias from an irrational belief even if athiesm is arrived at rationally. If someone is going to talk as a scientist I can be assured that they will be as rational as possible.

  144. #144 kmarissa
    January 31, 2008

    I know there are distinctions between weak and strong athiests, but I don’t see much practical difference between the two, both live their lives as if there were no God/supernatural world/fairies at the bottom of the garden. Therefore if someone is going to speak as an athiest, I want to know that, because it makes what they say subject to bias from an irrational belief even if athiesm is arrived at rationally. If someone is going to talk as a scientist I can be assured that they will be as rational as possible.

    I’m sorry, but I’m still confused. If atheism is arrived at rationally, then why is it “subject to bias from an irrational belief”? By this argument, aren’t all understandings/viewpoints that are “arrived at rationally” subject to this same “irrational belief”? If not, why not? I really have no idea why an atheist should have to state his or her position on God any more than his or her position on ghosts, fairies, bigfoot, alien abductions, or any other thing for which there is no verifiable evidence before speaking on any subject for which verifiable evidence is important. And I have no idea how that position would be different between a scientist and an atheist…which, I believe, is part of the point of this posting.

    Imagine asking a microbiologist whether she was speaking as a scientists, or as an no-little-demons-make-you-sick-ologist, when she comments on viruses. If she doesn’t believe in little demons that make you sick, she’s in danger of being subject to bias from an irrational belief based on her rational observation! And you’d want to know that up-front, right?

    It almost sounds like you’re arguing that atheists are irrationally reliant on rationalism to be trusted to take a rational position. Huh?

  145. #145 Tiffer
    January 31, 2008

    No you misunderstand me, sorry. For a start I do believe that athiesm is irrational, although I recognise that there are different types of athiesm. However the point made by the author of the quotation is that it is helpful to know which hat an athiest scientist has on when they tell us stuff. I don’t need to know they are an athiest/Christian/pixiest, unless they are speaking with that hat on. I have an athiest friend who often waxes lyrical about topics of a scientific nature, and although he has no formal training in any of the sciences (I think computer science) he cannot be called a scientist, so I would usually assume he was talking as an athiest. If he could call himself a scientist (getting a job as a researcher or something) then I would like to know when he tells me stuff if he is talking as a scientist or as an athiest (the latter being an irrational position IMHO)

  146. #146 thomas r arnold
    July 14, 2008

    I stumbled over your site accidentally, but I just love it. I have always felt that if your religion requires you to believe things that are contradicted by reality, then perhaps it is time for you to change religions, or perhaps even disguard religion completely. As a bacterium living on a grain of sand on the beach of the universe, I am humbled and amazed at the vastness of it all, and the relative smallness of me. I do not need a god to be kind to my neighbors, nor fear of damnation to make me a moral person. Keep being rational! Preserve sanity. Fuck Sanctity and all those sanctimonious fools who are being shilled by the religious con-men (and women).

  147. #147 jose jacobs
    August 2, 2008

    It is easier for GOD to transubstantiate unleavened
    bread and become Jesus, then it is for a universe to create itself by chance!

    Common sense amongst so called intellects is too uncommon.

    Jesus just may convert you! Look what he did to Paul.

    Myers may become a great Cardinal?

    Don’t mess with GOD!

  148. #148 Rev. BigDumbChimp, KoT
    August 2, 2008

    Jose

    It is easier for GOD to transubstantiate unleavened
    bread and become Jesus, then it is for a universe to create itself by chance!

    Yes I agree. It is easier for an imaginary being to perform an imaginary ceremony that transforms a cracker into another imaginary being then it is for for a strawman version something to be true.

    All you have to do is just Imagine!

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