The Primate Diaries

Allow me to lay it out as simply as I can. It is my view that religion and science are incompatible in a very specific and important way. I say this as someone who previously drank the Kool-Aid and spent countless hours studying what was described to me as the Holy Spirit. I have been confirmed in the Lutheran tradition and have recited the Nicene Creed so often throughout my life that, as an adult, I no longer paid any attention to what the words were saying. They came out of me as rote, like a wind-up monkey who clapped his symbols at the turn of a crank.

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth.
of all that is, seen and unseen.

I came to realize that this mantra the church elders were making impressionable youngsters recite over and over again throughout their lives was little more than brainwashing kids into an irrational faith in imaginary forces. I asked myself, “Why should I pledge my belief in all things unseen?” How do they know there is anything unseen? Why not pledge my belief in all things unheard or, for that matter, unsmelled? Why should I believe anything just because they tell me to?

Naturally, my questions didn’t go over so well in after school Bible study. I remember vividly Pastor Carl’s frustration when he couldn’t answer why, if every living thing was made for the benefit of man, do mosquitoes exist? He finally settled on an answer that, I would later discover, is an old favorite in shutting down inappropriate lines of inquiry.

“We can’t always understand God’s will.”

But wait, I thought, you claim to understand God’s will in all of these other areas. Why do you suddenly claim ignorance simply because I’ve noticed a contradiction? But I quickly learned to shut up. Certain questions weren’t welcome and, at that time, I wasn’t confident enough to rock the boat.

Where I did find these queries welcome were in my college science classes. There I would ask equally probing questions but, rather than being dismissed or made to feel like I was foolish, I would be rewarded with the response, “What a great question!” I was equally impressed that when my professors didn’t know the answer they said so, and showed me tools by which I could find the answer out for myself. I’ve been using those tools ever since and have never looked back to the arguments from unreason that defined my past.

Faith, as Gary Whittenberger discusses in Skeptic magazine, has multiple common uses.

“Faith” may refer to a religion or worldview, as in “My faith is Islam.” It may refer to an attitude of trust or confidence, as in “I have faith in my physician.” Or it may refer to believing propositions without evidence or out of proportion to the available evidence.

It is this latter use of faith that is incompatible with science. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (which has 140 Hare Krishna centers in Europe and North America alone), has been up front that he denies the evidence of evolution. Why? He didn’t argue that the methods employed may have biased the results and that he’ll reserve judgment until the studies are replicated. He didn’t dispute the sample size or suggest a separate interpretation of the observable facts. He completely disregarded the entire pursuit of such knowledge because it contradicted his faith in a prime mover. His faith told him that he is correct, regardless of what the facts may be. There is a word for that, when you prefer your own private fantasy to the real world. I think Richard Dawkins used it as part of the title to one of his more popular books.

Yes, religion is incompatible with science. This doesn’t mean, of course, that religious people are incapable of doing science. Far from it. There are certain questions that don’t probe too deeply into the foundations of a person’s faith and they have no problem employing their reason to its fullest in those cases. But when reason starts to get uncomfortably close (as it has for Francis Collins, Deepak Chopra and Michael Behe) well, that’s when the desperate appeal to fuzzy thinking becomes apparent. Because the assumption of God is so obvious to them (and I’m sure they feel it powerfully) the evidence suggesting that evolution follows natural mechanisms and has no need of a supernatural intelligence must therefore be wrong. They’ll bend over backwards trying to rationalize irrationality.

So for those of you who grew up being taught to believe in unseen and unknowable forces but are now feeling like you’ve been hoodwinked, don’t be afraid to say so. There’s a growing number of people who understand where you’re coming from. It can be a scary thing to let go of but, I can assure you, the confidence that comes with intellectual honesty and reason is far more rewarding than empty promises based on an unseen faith.

Related posts:

The Feeling of What Happens
Liberation Ecology


  1. #1 george.w
    August 23, 2009

    Wonderfully said. I strongly resisted the idea that teaching creeds to children was brainwashing or that it was appropriate to use the word delusion, but both have become inescapable.

    The bible describes faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”. In other words, it is a stand-in for substance and evidence when there is no possession of fact and no perception of reality.

    And before someone says we can’t see electrons, am I correct assuming that you use the term; “unseen” to mean “undetectable by instruments” and “not falsifiable in the first place” as well?

  2. #2 Eric Michael Johnson
    August 23, 2009

    @George: You are correct in assuming that. I refer you to Carl Sagan’s metaphor of the invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire from The Demon-Haunted World. A phenomenon must make some connection with observable reality for it to be useful in science.

  3. #3 jdhuey
    August 23, 2009

    Nice post. What really gets my goat is when religious apologists argue that sending impressionable children to, say, Camp Quest is just the atheists way of brainwashing their own children. As if, learning critical thinking skills is on par with learning how to say the Lord’s Prayer.

  4. #4 Troy
    August 23, 2009

    I always assumed the “Unseen” part referred to Grues…

  5. #5 Lorraine Coots
    August 23, 2009

    “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to.”
    Miracle on 34th st.

  6. #6 Braden McDorman
    August 23, 2009

    @Lorraine Coots:
    Just because something is counter-intuitive doesn’t mean it is faith. Evolution is about as counter-intuitive as it gets.

    Thanks for the great post.

  7. #7 Gray Gaffer
    August 23, 2009

    Thanks, Eric.

    @jdhuey: there is a fine line between teaching children what to think vs how to think. I might even go so far as to say the same techniques apply to both. As in: I was brainwashed into believing that paying attention to Reality and applying Reason to my problems is the proper way to think. Circular bootstrapping reasoning? Spiraling down the rabbit hole? I have no a priori axiomatic justifications for having that belief, but its utility is demonstrable. I guess the prime factor in choosing what to brainwash your children with is to whose benefit is the result: the kids, the parents, or the established power structure?

    @braden: I have no memories of ever finding evolution unintuitive. Obvious, no, but definitely in the class of ‘doh!’, slapping head, once shown its workings.

  8. #8 anti-supernaturalist
    August 24, 2009

    Natura naturans: atheists restore to nature its “innocence”

    The de-deification of western culture (including the sciences) is our task for the next 100 years.

    1. we free culture from the dead hand of near eastern mythological speculation

    A mishmash of near eastern magical texts makes spurious claims of being god-given. Their nihilistic dualism and androcentric understanding of the universe and of paternalist model of human nature are too damaging to contribute to a humane planet-wide ethos.

    2. we free culture from a death impulse characterized by “sin” and “guilt”

    The universe evinces neither affect, nor morality, nor intellect. Neither physical nature nor human nature say anything about a superordinate, supernatural realm populated by creators or law givers.

    Nature is silent. There is no concept of truth in nature. Indeed, there are no concepts whatsoever in nature. Nature knows nothing. Natura naturans. Nature acts.

    Nature is neither meaningful nor meaningless. Neither a source of comfort (natural theology) nor a source of despair (existentialism). Both are rooted in the same mistaken presupposition that supernatural meaning can be found by searching “the starry heavens” for gods or by quarrying human inwardness for moral laws.

    3. we show that religion is a cultural artifact

    Religions belong to cultures embedded in nature. And cultures are our distinctive human-all-too-human handiwork. Religions are obsolete, replaceable cultural artifacts.

    Any specific religion reenacts and institutionalizes cultic myth. It gets spread through recruitment, custom and conquest — financially supported by tax code and state funding — enforced by indoctrination, intimidation and violence. Too high a price for psycho-social comfort.

    5. alleged god-given morality is rooted in ancient imperial propaganda

    Xian mythology, like related big-4 monotheisms zoroastrianism, post-exilic judaism, and islam, posits a moralized universal order which never existed. No more can be found in “the starry heavens” than the ancestors put there. (Theology is fifth-rate fan fiction.)

    Some pseudo-meaning derives ultimately from Sargon I’s (2334-2279 BCE) imperial propaganda when the very first violent yoking together of disparate Sumerian city-state cultures occurred in what is now Iraq. Sargon I appears on a low relief sculpture as a god receiving a legal and moral code directly from a greater god enthroned above him.

    The first myth of divine origin of emperor and empire-spanning morality turns out to be ancient political spin. Still works today, doesn’t it?

    6. we present a “way” of knowing superior to world hating monster-theisms

    Adjust your understanding, adjust your expectations, and you will have a right relationship with the only total reality there is, natura naturans. Nature naturing — without any gods’ assistance.

    the anti-supernaturalist

  9. #9 cicely
    August 24, 2009

    But you weren’t being asked to believe in all things unseen; just the ones made by God. You’re perfectly free to disbelieve in all those man-made unseen things. 😛

    (Or, presumably, gerbil-made, or cat-made, or….)

  10. #10 anti_supernaturalist
    August 24, 2009

    Sorry about the length — but you are studying hst/phil sci after all — might as well have something to chew on.

    What’s faith got to do with it?
    What is empirically true? How do we know that? And so what?

    Fundies don’t ask Do you believe that evolution is true? They ask Do you believe in evolution? I’m not being pedantic here. When asked “Do you believe in evolution?” My answer No, I do not believe in evolution, I know that modern evolutionary theory is true.

    The difference is not mere semantics. But, if you find a detailed explanation too pedantic, stop reading now.

    1. Fundies speak from an irrational, non-empirical context: faith-based supernaturalism

    History matters. Distinctions in concepts matter. ‘Belief in’ or ‘Faith’ needs to be traced back to New Testament Greek before making sense of it. ‘Faith’ in English translates ‘fides’ in Latin. Biblical translators used ‘fides’ for ‘pistis’ in koine Greek, “common Greek” of canonic xian texts. A direct translation of ‘pistis’ into English is ‘trust.’ For skeptical ancient Greeks, pistis was lowest on the scale of trustworthiness for claiming a statement to be true.

    Having faith means my trusting that some belief is true. I trust not because I have any reliable evidence for that statement (of belief). I trust because I am someone who regards as authoritative some other person or written source who has said that the statement is true.

    The so-called great monotheisms (judaism, xianity, and islam) are authoritarian — authoritarian in power (as in Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Ameristan — the southern US). They are also authoritarian in matters of faith and morals (from infallible Benny16 to other monsters like James Dobson).

    Having faith especially when contradicted by evidence far beyond a reasonable doubt still marks the inverted elitism of xians. Or, as early church “father” Tertullian says, “I believe because it is absurd.”

    2. Empirical knowledge organized and refined is the sole domain of scientific inquiry

    With respect to science vs. near-eastern monotheisms, the relationship lies beyond any rational doubt in favor of science. When talking about nature, mythological discourse which may be psychologically comforting, long ago gave way to empirico-conceptual discourse, setting comfort aside in order to determine what can be known empirically.

    Science arbitrates which statements about the world, empirical statements, are or are not “known” — that is, are properly given the metalinguistic accolade, ‘is [empirically] true.’ Or as Tarski states it: [‘p’ is true iff p]. (Search: Tarski’s semantic theory of truth)

    Such statements are ‘methodologically fit’ according to the relevant testing procedures within science itself. (Note: Neither repeatability or quantifiability is a necessary or a sufficient requirement for hypothesis testing. See: Steve Gould. Wonderful Life)

    Methodological fitness belongs to a 400 year old, yet unfinished shift — the scientific revolution. In whom is evaluative power vested? Who shall decide what is true about nature? And by what criteria is truth ascertained?

    Neither ethical fitness as in Heraclitus and his Stoic followers nor theological fitness as in Plato and his xian followers is any longer considered a viable principle for assessing the truth of an empirical statement.

    Methodologically, whenever so-called sacred writings make claims about the natural world, they are subject to exactly the same forces of potential refutation as any other empirical claim. There is no Executive Privilege for God.

    3. Know the opposition

    “Christianity is the practice of nihilism.” — Nietzsche

    Fundie bible worshipers deliberately lie in their pseudo-scientific textbooks and they demand equal time for their lies in public education.

    For 2,000 years one vile hallmark of xianity has remained its hatred of natural knowledge and skeptical philosophy. The Stoics and Epicureans of Athens laughed Paul of Tarsus off the Areopagus when he proclaimed Christ’s resurrection.

    Paul’s quintessential, nihilistic rejoinder remains holy writ:

    27-But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28-He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are … (1st Corinthians: Chapter 1: verses 27-28 New International Version of the New Testament.)

    In his “On the genealogy of morals” (1886), Nietzsche cites Paul’s hatred of reason as the non plus ultra of xian resentment giving birth to values completely antithetical to those of Hellinistic-Roman thought. It took 500 years of very lucky breaks, imperial anti-pagan mandates, and destruction of libraries before xians finally destroyed most vestiges of humanism for the next 1,000 years.

    Xianity still appeals to those who believe themselves mistreated. To those in whom resentment surges. To those masochists who must punish their guilty selves. To those sadists who must project that guilt onto others and into nature. (The whole of 1Cor1 deserves reading.)

    Their death impulse directed inward, engenders hatred of self. Directed outward, hatred of others and the world. Know them by their fruits — they are revenge seekers acting on their fideistic falsehoods believed in as absolute truths.

    the anti_supernaturalist

  11. #11 Harley Bimple
    August 25, 2009

    Those wind-up monkeys usually clap cymbals, rather than symbols, unless in reciting the Nicene Creed you’re in fact clapping symbols. Which would be kind of symbolic.

  12. #12 Eric Michael Johnson
    August 25, 2009

    @Harley: Yeah, that was my attempt at a clever pun. Not all attempts are successful it seems.

  13. #13 John Gathly
    August 26, 2009

    @gary gaffer


  14. #14 Skeptico
    September 27, 2009

    Regarding this (with numbers added for clarity):

    [1] "Faith" may refer to a religion or worldview, as in "My faith is Islam." [2] It may refer to an attitude of trust or confidence, as in "I have faith in my physician." [3] Or it may refer to believing propositions without evidence or out of proportion to the available evidence.

    I would argue [1] and [3] are the same. [2] isn’t faith, it’s “trust” based on some kind of evidence.

  15. #15 Jambo
    February 27, 2010

    If you say so.

    Isaac Newton, being the idiot he was, disagreed with Eric Michael Johnson. But he is dead now. Too bad, because if he could have only read your blog his life’s accomplishments would have REALLY meant something.

    I can’t wait for your treatise on cosmology and dark matter (subtitled “the utter simplicity of primate poop and how smelling it proves that there is no god”) to hit the shelves! Eric Michael Johnson is the most brilliant human being to have ever lived and his words of hope, purpose & encouragement have changed my life forever. Keep up the good work. Enjoy the self actualization you’ll earn from spending your life proselytizing your fearless brand of “intellectual honesty”.

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