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 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.

  2. #2 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.”

  3. #3 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.

  4. #4 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.

  5. #5 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 …

  6. #6 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 …

  7. #7 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.

  8. #8 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.

  9. #9 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?”

  10. #10 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.

  11. #11 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?

  12. #12 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)

  13. #13 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).

  14. #14 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!

  15. #15 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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