Pharyngula

The power of nonsense

Forgive me, readers, but Madeline Bunting has raised up her tiny, fragile pin-head again, and I must address her non-arguments once more. Well, not her non-arguments, actually, but the same tedious non-arguments the fans of superstition constantly trundle out. She was at some strange conference where only people who love religion spoke and came away with affirmations of the usual tripe. It’s as if the “New Atheists” have provoked a counter-attack by critics armored in pudding and armed with damp sponges.

…the Archbishop of Canterbury was brisk, and he warned, “beware of the power of nonsense”. Science’s triumphalist claim as a competitor to failed religion was dangerous. In contrast, he offered an accommodation in which science and religion were “different ways of knowing” and “what you come to know depends on the questions you start with”. Different questions lead to “different practices of learning” – for example different academic disciplines. Rather than competitors, science and religion were both needed to pursue different questions.

We’re quite aware of the power of nonsense — and I agree that it certainly has a powerful draw on some people, from those who frolic with fairies to the Archbishop of Canterbury. That’s the frightening element of this whole argument, that people get sucked into spiritual fol-de-rol and think they’re suddenly deep and perceptive thinkers, and that waving a little fluff at the atheists will make them run away.

We often get this vague claim that religion is a different methodology and a different way of knowing things, and that judging religion as a science is a category error. Very well: different way of knowing what? What are these different questions that they are asking, how do they propose answering them, and why should we think these questions are even worth asking, and that their answers are valid? They never seem to get around to the specifics.

I mean, religion might well be the only avenue for addressing the question of how many bicycles are being peddled by angels right now, but that’s because it’s an irrelevant question that doesn’t affect our lives or the universe in any way, doesn’t have any way of being answered, and is built around imaginary referents, “angels”, for which we don’t even have evidence of their existence. But if religion is a way of knowing, how do they know what the answer is? What is their methodology? How do they verify their answers? Why is it that every religion, and even every individual within a religion, comes up with different answers?

That’s an example of a trivial question, but the same problems apply to the big questions central to their beliefs. How do we even know that we need redemption from sin? Is sin even a valid concept? They can’t answer these questions in an independently verifiable way.

Even when they try to get specific, they are hopelessly vague.

The second question from the audience – from the philosopher Mary Midgley – was what comes next? What both science and religion needed, argued Conway Morris was a more fruitful conversation. He raised the possibility that religion might be needed to help develop understanding into questions which have baffled scientists such as the nature of consciousness. The future of science is a series of imponderables, he concluded, and it may require a set of scientific skills “of which we have no inkling at the moment.”

I think the fruitful conversation we need between science and religion is more of a loud roar from the science side to silence the lies of the faithful. This argument that we need more input from religion comes almost entirely from those already committed to the superstition — personally, I think we could use entirely less babbling gobbledygook from the apologists.

But Conway Morris’s suggestion is pointless. How will religion help us understand the nature of consciousness? Having someone assert that it is the product of ghosts, spirits, or other such invisible manifestations from some non-place outside our universe is, it has turned out, a useless, unproductive, and old, dead hypothesis. Just to suggest that we may need new ways of thinking to approach a complex problem does not imply in any way that a very old way of thinking has some utility.

People like Conway Morris keep claiming that science and religion are not only compatible, but that both are necessary. I don’t buy it. I have two simple questions for those who claim that the two are complementary.

  1. What specific fundamental principles of your religion do you actually use in your science? I don’t mean just general ethical principles, because atheists also have those, but tell me something specific about how you apply your religion to science?

  2. Do you apply scientific principles to your religion, and do you do so consistently? Do you, for instance, test religious claims with experiment?

When you put it that specifically, most of the religious scientists I know would unashamedly and rightly say that no, they practice science in the lab or field without expectation of an intervention by Jesus to change the results, and that no, turning the skeptical tools of science against their faith would be inappropriate, or that god is not subject to our scrutiny. This is not compatibility. This is tergiversation. The only way they can claim compatibility is by pointing out that some individuals practice both religion and science, like Simon Conway Morris, but that says nothing, since people are damned good at encompassing contradictions.

For a terrifying look at what we get with religion, turn to this a review of Karen Armstrong’s What Religion Really Means. What a promising title! We godless atheists are always being told that we don’t really understand the depth of religion, so a book that promises to clearly state what it is sounds like a welcome addition to the debate. Until, that is, you read what she says it means.

She draws on 2,000 years of Christian theology and mysticism to demonstrate rich alternative ideas of the divine. Back in the 4th century AD, long before Wittgenstein and Derrida, Bishop Basil of Caesarea understood all about the limits of language, and stated them rather more clearly, too. “Thought cannot travel outside was, nor imagination beyond beginning.” God is, by definition, infinitely beyond human language. Earlier still, the Christian scholar Origen (185-254) discussed the “incongruities and impossibilities” in scripture. The fact that Dawkins et al think that pointing out the Bible’s imperfections undermine Jewish or Christian belief only demonstrates their ignorance of the traditions they presume to undermine. Of course it’s not meant to be understood literally, the early Christians seem to sigh across the centuries.

Armstrong further shows how even the words “I believe” have changed, and become scientised, to mean “I assert these propositions to be empirically correct.” Yet the original Greek pisteuo means something much more like “I give my heart and my loyalty.” In the gospels, she says, quoting the great German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus himself sees God not as “an object of thought or speculation, but as an existential demand”.

What a sodden pile of words rendered meaningless by the attempt to bloat their meaning.

Yes, we know that many rarefied theologians believe in a lot of airy nonsense, but let’s not pretend that the vast majority of Christians would not reject those claims out of hand — they are far more literal. Or, rather, they claim to be more literal, but actually hold a body of faith that is just as subjective, just as highly evolved and refined, as the set of beliefs held by the most opaque and obfuscatory theologian. There really isn’t much difference in the methodology of Rudolf Bultmann or Ken Ham — both are piling up the subjective bullshit as fast as they can shovel it, they are just using different conventions and different language tailored to their different audiences. It’s simply different…framing.

As an example of Bunting’s different way of knowing and different kinds of questions and different practices of learning, though, what do I learn from that slippery gemisch of pious protestations? One thing and one thing only: the power of nonsense.

I think we’ve all mastered that lesson by now. It’s time for the theologians to grow up and move on to questions with some heft and meaning, that are actually applicable to our lives and our culture.