Pharyngula

Brent got asked a question by Vox Day: to list Christianity’s 10 greatest sins against science. He expands a little bit:

I’m reading all of these New Atheist books, I keep reading these condemnations of Christians being anti-science, but no one ever bothers to explain exactly what they mean by that. I mean, what the Hell does Galileo’s trial have to do with Christian attitudes today, except as some sort of analogy for… something current? But what?

I mean, if the worst thing people have done is put someone on trial 500 years ago, is it really such a huge deal? Now, I’m assuming that there are other things, such as opposing Federal stem cell funding and pushing for ID in the public schools, but there has got to be more. So, in what other specific ways are Christians endangering science? Is Galileo still a top ten grievance? What else is there?

Bleh. Day is looking for some specific list of incidents, like Galileo’s persecution by the church, or perhaps George Deutch’s arrogant attempts to hide scientific conclusions at NASA. That’s typically superficial of him; that’s not the objection at all. The problem is that religion instills odious patterns of thinking in large numbers of people, ideas about how the world works that actually get in the way of improving our culture. The problem isn’t Galileo specifically, but that religion provides institutions and a rationale for Galileo-like situations, and inculcates support for such decisions in the populace.

Here’s my quick list of objections to religion. Please note that I understand there will be individual variation, both between people in a sect and between sects themselves (Calvinists and Unitarians will have different views of destiny, for instance, and Buddhists seem less prone to the tyranny of authoritarianism). Also, the general public will embrace these sins a little less fervently than creationists and fundamentalists, but they’re all there to some extent—while sometimes I’ll mention creationists as extreme examples, that does not mean I am implying that all religious people are creationists.

Oh, and forget 10; this dial goes up to twelve.

  1. Theft. Atheists know this one on a daily basis: Tornado demolishes home, tearful survivor comes before news cameras and “thanks God” that she was spared. Football player scores goal, drops to knees and praises god for his touchdown. Cancer patient goes into remission, lies in bed surrounded by his expensive, highly trained medical team, calls it a miracle. What religion does is steal human accomplishment and bestows it on a fickle imaginary being. Modern medicine is not a product of religion, it’s the highly refined outcome of years of empirical science, yet people still babble about miracles and prayers.

  2. Literalism. We in the evo-creo wars know this one well. If the Bible says it, it must be literally true. There was a world-wide flood, there was an ark, the earth is 6000 years old, etc. One antiquated hodge-podge of a book becomes the arbiter of truth, with the added benefit that its clutter and inconsistency and diversity of authorship means you can justify anything with the right random quote.

  3. Authoritarianism. Once you’ve abandoned individual thought to the dictates of a book, you’re accustomed to surrendering intellectual autonomy…so you pass responsibility on to others. Religious history is a parade of petty tyrannies, where religious authorities, from your local parish priest to the pope and Pat Robertson, get to tell you what is right. Unfortunately, their credentials as authorities on righteousness always seem to rest on assertions about the words of prior religious authorities.

  4. Hierarchies. The pattern of authoritarianism leads easily to hierarchies. Secular organizations often fall into hierarchies, too, and often they’re an efficient way of getting things done; with religion, though, we go a few steps further, with the invention of an invisible, all-powerful being at the top who has everything but accountability. In addition, we impose this pattern on the world around us; our picture of the universe is colored by the scala naturæ, a false picture of our relationship to nature that distorts reality.

  5. Dominion. Near the top of the chain of being, just below that imaginary old guy with the beard, is us. We rule the world. It’s an interesting thought, but it’s false: we are part of the world, the rest does not obey us, and we are fools on the road to destruction to pretend that we can dominate. It’s a way of thinking that urges us to control rather than adapt, oppress rather than accommodate. It cheapens the complexity and beauty of the natural world that surrounds us.

  6. Predestination. I’ve had a few one-on-one conversations with creationists, and one of the weirder but fairly common discoveries is that they reject the concept of chance. Everything must have an intentional cause. A branch fell off my tree because the wind blew it down; similarly, if an ancient ape evolved into a human it must be because…? They’ve filled in the ellipsis with “God”, and they are not satisfied with explanations that do not invoke causes and intent. Try it yourself sometime; they have an almost allergic reaction to the notion of junk DNA, for instance, because there’s no way molecules could have a random element, it must all be for a purpose.

    This trait isn’t exclusive to religion, of course; you can see causality built right into the structure of our language, and it’s probably hardwired into our brains. Religion makes it difficult to oppose, though, because it provides a convenient catch-all repository of causality: god did it. It doesn’t matter that it’s a meaningless phrase, it seems to satisfy an intrinsic desire to wrap up loose ends with an explanatory purpose.

  7. Miracles. Religion’s universal lazy way out of anything. Forget evidence, forget logic, you got a problem explaining something? Poof. It was a miracle. It’s a cheap excuse to throw away the hard work of reason.

  8. Credulity. If you’ve got miracles, if you’ve got gods and devils and angels, who needs evidence and rigor? A chain of reasoning is going to be easily vitiated by a convenient miracle, so why bother? We are god’s creation, we are under his divine plan, so bad things can’t possibly happen to the world—a god will step in and make it all better. You don’t want to be sick, so if you wish hard enough, and if Benny Hinn hits you in the forehead, maybe that will fix your problems. It’s a strange phenomenon: we desire patterns of causality, but we also invent rationalizations for magical interventions that will take us off the track that natural causality puts us on.

    Religion provides a get-out-of-jail-free card for the consequences of our actions. That irrationality percolates through our brains, and influences more than just what we do in church on Sunday—it makes us susceptible to snake-oil of all kinds.

  9. Inflexibility. The first time I heard this argument I could hardly believe it: religion never changes, while science changes all the time, therefore religion is better. Its premise is false, for one thing — religion changes all the time, and I daresay that if we could use a time machine to gather together a group of Essenes with a matched group of Southern Baptists, we’d have us an entertaining bloodbath—but for another, why would inflexibility and absolutism be considered virtues? I have no illusions that any of us have perfect knowledge of all truth, so please, give me a philosophy that will adapt to the evidence and provides a path to perfecting our knowledge.

  10. Blasphemy. This is a thoroughly stultifying concept. The idea that there are thoughts that must not be expressed, ideas that must not be pursued, dogma that must not be questioned…what an evil constraint. The whole idea is antithetical to science, which is built on a foundation of constant questioning, of always challenging the established wisdom.

  11. Supernaturalism. One of the worst outcomes (or perhaps it is partly a cause) of religion is the willingness to invent a whole class of reality without evidence and without need. All the matter and energy, all the history and information of the entire universe is not sufficient, and we understand only a tiny fraction of it … so the religious invent a whole immense metaphysical realm of which they know even less, and pretend that it explains the lacunae in our knowledge of the world. It’s a lie, through and through. There is no credible evidence for ghosts, and the whole concept is incoherent—apparently, supernatural entities are not of this universe, so they are not bound by its laws, yet somehow they can interact with us, which actually does make them part of our universe. The supernatural is cloud cuckoo land, with inhabitants who conveniently wink into existence to carry out miracles for us, and with magical real estate to which we will retire when we die.

    Poppycock.

    If you want me to believe, show me. But of course, the religious can’t—the supernatural is not of this world, so I shouldn’t be demanding my narrow and inappropriate natural demonstrations. So how do the religious know about it?

  12. Faith. Faith is the greatest sin of religion. I despise it; I’m particularly appalled that it is so universally regarded as a virtue. Listen, if I ever call someone a “person of faith”, you should be aware that I have just insulted them terribly. It’s astonishing how easily that sails over people’s heads, though.

    Faith is this amazing idea that it is a good thing to hold incredible beliefs in the complete absence of evidence to support them; the more outrageous the belief and the weaker the logic behind them, the stronger your faith and the more virtuous your conduct. It short-circuits everything that works in the world and puts ignorance on a pedestal.

    Faith is the opposite of science, yet it is also one common element that you will always hear valued in religion. It is the number one most common excuse for holding peculiar superstitious beliefs in spite of the evidence against them, their violations of sense, and their foundation in wishful thinking and rhetorical vapor—it’s the one word non-answer to every criticism of religion. Faith. You might as well just say “gullibility” or “ignorance” or “delusion”— it’s all the same thing.

That was fun and easy. I suspect some of the commenters here will also have no trouble turning the dial way up beyond twelve, too.

Comments

  1. #1 Martín Pereyra
    May 10, 2007

    At risk of being pedantic:

    Nevermind the burning of the Mayan codices at Mani…

    That wasn’t a crime against science as much as a crime against another religion. If the books of Chilam Balam are representative of the content of Mayan codices at the time of Spanish conquest, they were probably full of magical, prophetic and religious crap. Even the excellent Mayan astronomy was developed only for astrological purposes.

    But of course, the lost of any testimony of a culture, even religious crap, is a terrible loss for the humankind.

  2. #2 NickM
    May 10, 2007

    Great. Right there you have the outline for a book, one that addresses topics not exactly covered by the Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Hitchens and other books.

    Just some food for thought!

  3. #3 Robert86
    January 6, 2010

    While I agree with most of these “sins”, I want to clarify whether you listed these things as universally wrong or not. I mean technically there is no scientific basis for certain cultural more such as morality. Yet we have “faith” in certain systems of morality.

  4. #4 John Morales
    January 6, 2010

    Robert86, if you read the post, PZ first sets the stage, then writes “Here’s my quick list of objections to religion.”

    The term “sins against science” was introduced by VD, not PZ; the usage in the post heading is clearly ironic.

    You also seem to have failed to note that morality is not in the list. :)

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