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 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).

  2. #2 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!

  3. #3 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!