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Jun 25 2013

Do You Science?

It’s a well known “fact” that a lot of atheists are involved in the sciences and that scientific reasoning has it’s roots in rationality and leads to scepticism which in turn can lead to atheism.

After all, if one is sceptical about ghosts then why should one not apply that same scepticism to the existence of a god?

Normally people don’t challenge that statement. They may point to historical scientists who were not atheist but then we point to the various churches being squarely opposed to scientific progress.

Many Christians also play the “These Scientists were Religious” forgetting that for a long time, the only way to do science was through applied theology.

We must remember, that Gregor Mendel considered his work a failure. He didn’t see the value of his research because while his pea plant experiments provided results he could understand, he couldn’t understand continuous traits (like height in humans) or multi-factoral ones. It’s why his research languished away before coming to light later. Had the Church realised he was discovering the evidence of a method of variation and therefore evolution, do you think he would have been allowed to continue?

The Christian Post’s Confident Christian takes it’s latest swing at the problem.

Oftentimes atheists claim that the overwhelming majority of scientists are unbelievers and attempt to support their position by pointing to a number of polls that query the religious temperature of scientists, which have been conducted over the past decade or so. By offering such data, atheists try and argue that immersion in science dispels the supposed superstitious and fictitious beliefs of those who believe in God.

No. Immersion in science requires a certain amount of ideas. One does not do science with the notion that it helps understand the mind of a creator.

Both science and religion work on assumptions. Science assumes that the world is real. That everything in it can be explained through natural and testable explanations.

The assumptions of science mean that in order to explain how the world works through science we have to exclude the super-natural. And that includes god. Now many religious scientists have no qualms in having god “work” through science. However many scientists realise that it’s a stretch. It’s allowing one piece of religion to keep faith.

And that is why a lot of scientists are atheist, agnostic or lapsed. They may be Christian but they do not adhere to the rules or actively believe.

Polling the Unbelievers

In the recently released movie, The Unbelievers[1], atheists Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss state how science is “beautiful” while religion is “not beautiful”, with the pair doing little to hide their contempt for any person who believes there is more to reality than just the material universe. Do the vast majority of Dawkin’s and Krauss’ colleagues share their opinion?

I disagree with them.

As a piece of literature? Religion has it’s merits.

However, we don’t regard these texts as literature. We treat it as a vital source of information. Many people would rather believe the writings of 2000 year old people who would consider our technology to be magic than the people who made the technology.

Let us take both Science and a “Natural World” as a hypothesis vs. Religion.

We are left with a mountain of evidence for a Natural World where as Religion requires repeated suspension of belief, no proof and requires the existence of a complex entity that raises MORE questions. Questions that religion does not answer with any proof.

In that sense as a hypothesis, Religion is inelegant and not “beautiful” while Science is.

There may be more to reality than the material universe. I can accept that there is a possibility that I am wrong.

However the writer of this article probably won’t accept that he is wrong. And  there lies the difference between Scientific Thought and Religious Fervour. Science works on “not knowing” but “seeking to know”. Most major religions claim to understand the world thousands of years ago.

The survey highlighted another very interesting fact along the lines of scientists and unbelief. While atheists often argue that advances in science throughout the last century are eroding religious faith, the data in the Pew Research survey showed that that the percentages of believers/unbelievers among scientists was actually unchanged from about 100 years ago.

That maybe the case.  However, many people are “culturally” religious. They revel in the trappings of religion while themselves remaining quite secular. Their belief in a god is merely to belong and they don’t follow all the rules, regulations or even beliefs of that faith.

They are “Lapsed” or “Casual” believers. To them, atheism lacks a “culture” that religion does. We don’t have atheist bake sales in the same way that the Church does. We offer less of a sense of community. And people want that so often are part of religious groups solely for that.

These are the Catholics who believe in birth control. These are the Christians who don’t go to Church. This was me years ago.

AND a lot of people who  believe are these.

The Motives Behind the Numbers

Atheists point to statistics such as those in the Pew Research survey and argue that more scientists are unbelievers because their scientific education has caused them to dismiss any belief in God. But can that correlation be proven?

Rice University sociologist Dr. Elaine Ecklund conducted research from 2005-2008 in order to answer this very question, with her investigation resulting in the 2012 book Science vs. Religion – What Scientists Really Think. While Ecklund notes that some scientists do not believe because of their scientific studies, she sums up her overall findings this way: “In fact, for the majority of scientists I interviewed, it is not the engagement with science itself that leads them away from religion. Rather their reasons for unbelief mirror the circumstances in which other Americans find themselves: they were not raised in a religious home; they have had bad experience with religion; they disapprove of God or see God as too changeable.”

Which doesn’t explain why 50% of scientists are out and out atheists while only around 5% of the USA is.

Science may draw more atheists to it, it may also “create” atheists in a different way. Some of us pay attention in schools to our science classes and some of us are sceptical. I started doubting my religion early but the real spine to my lack of belief comes from the scepticism of science.

While it may be true that atheism may not be caused by science, it’s no coincidence that the rise in the accessiblity of science to all has reduced the grasp of religion over it’s populations by creating a skeptical population and eroding the claim that “Religion Knows Everything”. So much so that modern religious faith has had to retreat it’s gods into the metaphysical and supernatural where science does not tread. The most elegant arguments for a god rely on this because the moment you start giving gods physical qualities you expose him to the firepower of scientific scepticism and frankly it’s painful to watch.

A god has ceased to be a physical concept to be feared and a philosophical concept. He is no more real than Occam’s Razor.

An Interesting Conversation

Seeing Ecklund describe some scientist-atheists as not believing because “they disapprove of God” reminded me of an interesting conversation one of my seminary professors had over dinner with a biologist who was an atheist. As the dinner progressed, my professor respectfully confronted his dinner mate with the flaws and fallacies of atheism where God is concerned.

Some of us are polite. I may call your religious beliefs idiotic here but should my patient point out the flaws and fallacies of atheism, I will not engage him. It’s neither the time or the place for a debate. I don’t dress myself in a Beat It style Michael Jackson leather jacket and trawl the mean streets of Manchester looking for some priests to throw down with in intellectual debate.

We may argue on the Internet but most of us are “polite” and don’t wish to engage in brawls.

Surprisingly, the atheistic professor said at the end of their dinner, “What you’ve said makes a lot of sense. That said, I’m still going to teach evolution and remain an atheist.” Baffled, my professor asked why. “Because I want to sleep with who I want and keep living how I’m living”, came the reply.

I bet he didn’t . That’s such a non-sequitur. I am going to teach Germ Theory because I like my ears nibbled! It’s a non-statement. If anyone said this I assume they just wanted the conversation to be over or were being sarcastic.

You can’t just “be an atheist” in the same way that you can’t just believe in a god. I cannot see my old gods as real. I see them like we see the gods of the Greeks. Or the way we see Superman. They are characters that sometimes we can learn something from or at least entertain ourselves with.

I can’t put away atheism any more than religious people can simply stop believing in a god. Because it would require a shift in the way I think and what I understand about the world.

In other words? Someone will have to overcome my scepticism about the existence of a god with proof of one and then proceed to prove that the god that exists is a particular one with it’s own foibles and demands.

And vice versa, people who become atheists usually do so because they have an incident that shakes their belief and makes them question the existence of such a being. Most find answers that maintain their faith but those that don’t, cannot keep believing in something they don’t think exists.

If an atheists has made this above argument then I am truly sad. Atheism is NOT about doing what you want. The consequences of action are real. In that way my ex-faith in Hinduism has helped me because it too has a similar belief system. Where the quality of your actions i judged by effect rather than mere intent and that acts are not inherently evil or good but what they do and how they affect people are.

You may think you are doing great good but be in fact perpetrating great evil.

I bring this up not to say that atheists are immoral while Christians are more ethical, but instead to argue that there are motivations beyond pure rational and evidential arguments as to why people reject God. For example, in addressing the Christianity’s influence in society, Aldous Huxley wrote, “We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom”.[5]

Except Aldous Huxley never believed in a god. He didn’t reject god because it interfered with his sex life. He rejected god earlier. He rejected RELIGIOUS INFLUENCE. The idea that the mere belief in a god gives you the right to dictate what others may or may not do. That the beliefs of 2000 year old Bishops was being used to dictate what modern man may or may not do.

We do not fear the Tiger, the Tiger fears us. We keep them as pets. We have tragically eliminated the monster in the dark that feasted on us. What the Hammer? What the Chain? In What furnace was thy brain? What the Anvil? What dread Grasp? Dare it’s deadly Terrors clasp? When the Stars threw down their spears, and watered the heavens with their tears. Did he smile, his work to see? Did he who made the lamb make thee?

THIS Tiger. This beast that inspired such awe and fear. Is nothing compared to the men of iron and steel and chemistry who kill them for sport. This fearful beast of power pales in comparison to what we can do.

Our predator, is now our prey. Our prey is now our pet and now kept solely for the sake of saving the animal from ourselves. The biggest battle humanity has now over the Tiger is one of survival, not for us but for the Tiger. We are it’s “protectors” when we were once it’s food.

And that is how far we have progressed. Empires rose and fell and we are to still listen to the fears and superstitions of the Tribe of Jews, Aryans and Mohammedans? What hammer, chain and anvil forged us?

Evolution made the tiger, but it also made a hairless, weak ape who was clever. And in the end the clever ape one.

Various scientists have not been shy in admitting that it isn’t science that brought them to atheism nor is it science that keeps them there. Atheist George Klein wrote: “I am an atheist. My attitude is not based on science, but rather on faith. . . . The absence of a Creator, the non-existence of God is my childhood faith, my adult belief, unshakable and holy.”[6]

Except that “faith” in the lack of a god is held up by evidence. We continue seeing a world that functions without magic.

The person who scientifically proves the existence of a god will go down in History alongside such greats as Newton, Galileo and Einstein.

Or listen to atheist Thomas Nagel admit: “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope that there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”[7]

And I am fully aware that religious people can be intelligent. If anything recent events have shown that atheists themselves are capable of believing in stupid things. I often mention Pat Condell and his quite disturbing right wing talking points. I have repeatedly had to correct other atheists on false beliefs about Islam.

I too hope there is no god. The universe ruled by the gods of religion is  frightful callous place. Where I can be killed for the actions of myself in a previous life. Where my suffering is due to my actions in a previous life. Where I live in hell rather than heaven.

OR if a Christian god existed? Where Gandhi would burn in hell alongside Elton John but the Crusaders would be in heaven.

That is a frightful universe. Where one of the greatest evils we face is the dictator who once excused genocide, slavery and rape.

A frightful universe where we as Humans would have to become LESS moral as people to fit in.

“The Patrician took a sip of his beer. “I have told this to few people, gentlemen, and I suspect I never will again, but one day when I was a young boy on holiday in Uberwald I was walking along the bank of a stream when I saw a mother otter with her cubs. A very endearing sight, I’m sure you will agree, and even as I watched, the mother otter dived into the water and came up with a plump salmon, which she subdued and dragged on to a half-submerged log. As she ate it, while of course it was still alive, the body split and I remember to this day the sweet pinkness of its roes as they spilled out, much to the delight of the baby otters who scrambled over themselves to feed on the delicacy. One of nature’s wonders, gentlemen: mother and children dining upon mother and children. And that’s when I first learned about evil. It is built into the very nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior.””

It is simplified but that is the sort of world we live in. Should a god exist, he is not moral or good for his creation would bear the hallmark of evil. Of designed pain. Should  we believe in Jehovah, one must accept that he was the creator of the Black Death. Of smallpox and polio. Of Cancer and Strokes and Alzheimers.

Two Errors

In the end, we see atheists make two errors in their implied argument of science causing people to become unbelievers. First, they offer a false dichotomy of either embracing science or faith in God. Accepting both is certainly possible, with history and our present day showcasing numerous examples of brilliant scientists who are believers.

I agree. However, in order to believe in a god, one must ignore science for one crucial question. One must set aside the engine of human progress and think like that first proto-man who feared the dark. That in a place where we don’t know anything about, there must be a god (and his name is Jehovah! Not Allah! Or Shiva!). You must place a truce and say that God exists because science isn’t “allowed” to deal with a god.

Second, atheists build on a false assumption of believing that scientific education causes faith in God to disappear and in doing so they commit the post hoc propter hoc logical fallacy of assuming the scientist’s current unbelieving state was caused by their scientific training.[8]

Which is why I ask people who believe to provide empirical evidence for a god and routinely told “Science doesn’t know everything”.

It doesn’t. Otherwise it would stop.

So why are some scientists atheists? The truth is, some scientists are atheists for the same reasons that cause other unbelievers to reject God, and most times, it has nothing to do with a scientific education, a supposed lack of evidence or anything similar.

And none of this offered a plausible hypothesis for a reason  why atheists are so heavily represented in science.

7 comments

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  1. 1
    remuss

    Avicenna,
    I have a question to ask. What virtue is it to say that you acknowledge you might be wrong? I don’t get that take on agnosticism. Whether one’s wrong or not is not derived from the degree of humbleness one holds. What purpose does that humbleness serve?

    I mean, the mere fact that we don’t know (and ignorance is the fundamental human condition) doesn’t in and of itself mean that we might be wrong on the (myriad contradictory and sometimes outright illogical) god notion(s). From “I don’t know” the only conclusion one can draw is “I don’t know.”

    Now, should evidence and reason be found to support this particular nonsense (and so it currently stands), and were we to deny it, by digging our fingers in our ears and saying “NONONONONONONO!”, then, sure, we’d be in the wrong. But up until that point, I don’t find that I’m under the obligation to entertain hypotheticals, all for the purpose of appearing “humble.”

    What am I missing here?

    Sorry, I realize it’s off topic, really, but, meh, ill informed Christian quote mines to denigrate …isn’t exactly news.

  2. 2
    Kevin

    Well, since I became an atheist quite a number of years prior to developing any interest or understanding of the scientific method, I think his reading of the situation is quite wrong.

    I just lacked the credulity of my young peers. They thought it was plausible that every animal on the planet could walk to a big boat in order to escape a worldwide flood, and I thought the story ridiculous.

    I was 8 at the time.

    Perhaps children develop credulity (or not) along a bell-shaped curve. Those with low credulity scores gravitate toward the occupations where such a trait is favored — eg, the sciences.

  3. 3
    remuss

    Kevin:
    Wouldn’t credulity be the default?
    So, wouldn’t kids develop skepticism?
    :)

  4. 4
    dogfightwithdogma

    …routinely told “Science doesn’t know everything”.

    Religion knows far less than does science, but believers delude themselves into thinking they know more, or know something that science does not. There is a difference between knowing something and believing something. Their belief in God is not knowledge. Saying you believe in God is not making a statement of knowledge.

  5. 5
    Stacy

    I have a question to ask. What virtue is it to say that you acknowledge you might be wrong?

    I’m not Avicenna, but I’ll offer my take:

    There are cognitive biases in play that incline us all toward wanting certainty, wanting to be right, and rationalizing our mistakes.

    Science and skepticism are disciplines that try to correct for those biases.

    Saying that you might be wrong is a sort of verbal shorthand that acknowledges those biases and indicates you’re trying to be open to evidence that would undermine your position. When I say it (or think it) at least part of the reason is, I’m reminding myself to bear in mind that yes indeedy, I might be wrong.

  6. 6
    remuss

    I’ve already acknowledged that I dunno, that ignorance is the fundamental human condition.
    I get that.
    However:
    I don’t see that the “purity pledge” inclines me actually be open to evidence, etc. And, I know you’re not saying this, but the implication is that I’m dishonest, because I’m not acknowledging a particular hypothetical scenario. I don’t appreciate that idea, that I’m somehow not “pure” enough, and must “debase” myself in order to evaluate properly. That I do debase myself is irrelevant to my skills as an evaluator, isn’t it?

    To the mantra of “Keep an open mind” I’ll say: “Show me the evidence before you accuse me of possible wrongdoings.”

    How ’bout that?

    And like I’ve said, I don’t see how it follows, that, since I’m ignorant, this particular theist proposition might be true. Truth doesn’t follow from my attitude towards it.

  7. 7
    remuss

    One more thing, Stacy:
    science corrects for the experimenter’s biases not by having only “pure” experimenters do experiments. Scientific experiments are set up double blind, so as to actually remove bias, not to wish it away.

    So, no, attitude, and humbleness…are rather irrelevant to facts in this case.

    Why do you believe you might be wrong? What information ….uhh…informs that conclusion?

  1. 8
    I Get Mail – Science and Correctness » A Million Gods

    [...] one is in response to a comment made on the “Do You Science” [...]

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