What Does Science Have To Do With Atheism?


Atheism
What does science have to do with atheism?

Atheists and atheist writers yak about science a lot. Myself included. If you read a lot of atheist writing, you might think atheists are laboring under the delusion that atheism is a prerequisite for practicing science… and/or that science has somehow proven religion wrong.

For the record: I don’t think either of those things is true. (And neither does any other atheist I know.) I know that good scientists can be religious believers; in fact, until this century, almost all scientists were religious believers. And I am under no illusion that science has conclusively disproven the existence of God.

But I do think there’s a real — and strong, and completely valid — connection between atheism and science.

What is it?

Why do atheists talk so much about science? Why do we act as if science is our natural ally? If atheism isn’t necessary to practice good science, and if science doesn’t prove atheism right, then what’s the connection between the two?

Here’s the connection. It’s actually pretty straightforward.

1: Science disproves specific religious claims.
2: Science makes religion unnecessary as a way to explain the world.
3: Science provides an alternate method for understanding reality.

Let’s take these one at a time, shall we?

1: Science disproves specific religious claims.

The_origin_of_speciesScience will probably never be able to prove all religion to be unquestionably mistaken. (If for no other reason, it’s notoriously difficult to conclusively prove that something doesn’t exist.)

But if your religion claims that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago? That there was, in recorded human history, a gigantic planet-wide flood that wiped out almost every living thing? That humans were created in one shot out of whole cloth — or whole dirt — and plonked down on the earth by the hand of God in basically the same form we’re in now?

Science sure has something to say about that.

“No” is what science has to say about that.

Got soul
And that’s not just true of the more extreme wackaloon claims of religious belief. If you believe evolution happened but God nudged it along in the direction he wanted? Science can’t definitively disprove that… but in pointing to the deeply flawed, seemingly pointless, Rube Goldberg nature of so much of the “design” of living things, it sure can make the idea look wildly implausible. If you believe you have an immaterial soul that’s the ultimate recipient of your perceptions and the ultimate source of your choices and actions? Science can’t definitively disprove that — yet — but in pointing to all the ways that physical changes to the brain shape our perceptions, our choices, our actions, our sense of self, everything we think of as the soul, the sciences of neurology and neuropsychology sure are putting a dent in it. Etc., etc., etc.

And in doing all this, science doesn’t just disprove specific claims of specific religions. It repositions religion as just another hypothesis about the world. It pushes religion into the marketplace of ideas, as just one other idea among many, with no special privileges and no automatic right to any unusual respect. And then it sits there expectantly, waiting for religion to defend itself. (At which point, atheism swoops in to actually do battle with religion… in an arena where religion has never really had to stand on its own.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s actually a point all its own, and I’m not quite there yet. For now, let’s move on to:

2: Science makes religion unnecessary as a way to explain the world.

Lightning in hand
Once upon a time, hundreds and thousands of years ago, there really wasn’t any better explanation for the world than religion. There were all these questions, like: Where does weather come from? Where do the seasons come from? Where did people come from? Why does the sun rise and set? Why do people get sick? Why do children look like their parents? We didn’t have good answers to these questions, and for millennia, the best answers we came up with came from religion. Of course all this happened because of gods and spirits. Like, duh.

But now, almost all the major questions that religion once answered have gotten far better answers from science. Over the last few hundred years, science has given us a relatively coherent picture of the world and the universe we live in — a picture that’s enabled us to explain, predict, and shape the world, with an astonishing degree of precision and accuracy.

Question_book.svg
Sure, there’s a handful of those old questions that are still unanswered. What exactly is consciousness and selfhood? How did the process of life begin? What is the origin of the universe itself? But these are being worked on by science even as we speak. And given the track record of scientific explanations for things replacing supernatural ones thousands upon thousands of times, versus supernatural explanations for things replacing natural ones exactly never… well, let’s just say that if you’re betting on religion over science to answer these questions with any degree of certainty, you’re really not playing the odds.

In other words:

When it comes to explaining why the world is the way it is, science doesn’t conclusively disprove religion.

It simply makes it unnecessary.

Which is a pretty important connection.

And now we come to what I think is the biggest, bestest, most important connection of all between atheism and science:

3: Science provides an alternate method for understanding reality.

Cave painting
Once upon a time yet again, the method we had for figuring out what was and wasn’t true about the world was a combination of basic observation, personal intuition, basic analysis based on pattern recognition and past experience, believing what everyone else believed, and trusting in authorities who had lived longer than us, and studied harder than us, and presumably knew more than we did. Or else trusting in books and texts written by long-dead versions of those authorities. (A method that, I feel compelled to point out, did keep us fed and sheltered and safe from tigers, for a very, very long time.)

Galileo
But over the centuries and millennia, we began to figure out that this method was limited at best, and prone to gross, flat-out errors at worst. We began to figure out that our senses could not always be trusted. We began to figure out that past experience couldn’t always predict future performance. We began to figure out that our minds tend to see patterns even when no patterns exist. We began to figure out that our intuition could easily lead us astray; that it tended to make us think what we most wanted to think, and see what we most expected to see. And we began, very importantly, to understand that neither crowds nor authority figures could automatically be trusted as reliable sources of information.

And we developed — and are continuing to develop — a systematic method for sorting out good information from bad; useful theories from mistaken or useless ones. We developed a slow, painstaking, rigorous method of testing our ideas about how the world works, to see how well they represent reality. We developed, in a word (okay, three words), the scientific method.

Scientific_method
This is the crucial thing about science that many folks fail to grasp. Science is not, primarily, a collection of theories and facts and data. Science is, primarily, a method. It’s a method that uses, among other things, large and carefully selected sampling sizes, careful control groups, double- blind and placebo- controlled testing, transparency of results and methodology, peer review, the expectation that results be replicable, the expectation that theories be falsifiable, yada yada yada. All to ensure that all the flaws I just talked about, all the traps and pitfalls we can fall into when we try to understand the world, are minimized, as much as is humanly possible.

Now.

Compare, please, to the method of religion.

Bible_old
Religion is also, among other things, a method for understanding the world. And it’s a method that relies almost entirely on one or more of the following: personal intuition, the authority of religious leaders, the authority of religious books and texts, our tendency to think that if everyone around us thinks something then it must be true, our predisposition to believe what we already believe, our predisposition to believe what we were taught as children, and our tendency to see both patterns and intentions regardless of whether they exist.

And we know — as well as we know anything — that every single one of these sources is profoundly unreliable.

Which brings me back to the whole “marketplace of ideas” thing.

I said before that science — the very existence of science — pushes religion into the marketplace of ideas. It takes religion off its pedestal as the One Thing We All Have To Believe If We Don’t Want To Be Called Heretics Or Get Condemned To Hell (or, in the pedestal’s more modern incarnation, the One Idea We All Have To Treat With Respect And Veneration, Even If We Don’t Agree With It). It pushes religion off its pedestal and onto the playing field, to fight it out with all the other hypotheses about how the world works and why it is the way it is.

But it doesn’t just do this by comparing claim against claim: by comparing penicillin to faith healing, say, or meteorology to prophecy.

It does this by comparing the methods themselves.

It does this by saying, “Yeah, sure, you can try to understand the world with the methods we used tens of thousands of years ago, when we were hunkered around campfires in caves. Or you can try to understand the world using this systematic method we’ve come up with, where we rigorously test our ideas and reject the ones that don’t work. Let’s see which method works better — shall we?”

And when that comparison is made, religion doesn’t stand a chance.

Armor_3
When religion has to fend for itself on a level playing field; when it can no longer resort to any of the “Shut up, that’s why!” arguments that it’s used for so long to armor itself against criticism; when it has to defend not only its hypotheses but its methods of arriving at those hypotheses… then that’s the beginning of the end.

No, science can’t tell us with 100% certainty whether or not religion is true. (As if that mattered.) But it does shed hard, serious light on the question of whether or not religion is plausible. Science doesn’t just offer alternate explanations for the world. It offers an alternate method for figuring that world out. It doesn’t just offer different — and better — answers. It offers a different and better way of asking the questions.

And that’s why science is relevant to atheism… and why atheists can’t, and shouldn’t, shut up about it.

Comments

  1. says

    Thanks for another nice post.
    It’s bad enough for religionists to compete in a marketplace of religious ideas. The only good thing for them in that situation is that all religions are pretty much equally handicapped, so no one wins or loses – it’s all one big draw. But, to compete in a broader marketplace of ideas in which all propositions and conclusions are not equally handicapped, and in which a draw is impossible – whoa, baby, they’ve got trouble now.

  2. says

    I was just thinking furiously about the same thing, and I must admit that you covered all my thoughts much more eloquently that I did. I’m currently participating in an Alpha Course (intro to Christianity) with my wife, and I think science vs theology will be touched on briefly next class. FYI: the course believes that science is basically a “second bible” in that it explains God not through words but through the natural world, but it equally supports theology. I think they call theology “the queen of the sciences” or some such nonsense.

  3. says

    There are different philosophical positions on this account, even among the scientists. Rationalists think that science cannot prove anything, since they deny proof by induction, but most empiricists and realists are quite certain that there are no gods, based on the available scientific evidence.

  4. says

    The one question I’m left with after reading this post is “What has taken the place of religion on the Pedestal of Respect and Veneration?” Political correctness seems like a good candidate, but even that is losing its hold in some circles.

  5. Kaci says

    Awesome post. Your writing is captivating. I love you. Was that awkward when I said I love you just then? I should probably take that out. Anyway, awesome post.

  6. Shane van der Poll says

    Try telling that to rastafarians! That said, ever met a rastafarian scientist, or is that an oxymoron?

  7. Shane van der Poll says

    Try telling that to rastafarians! That said, ever met a rastafarian scientist, or is that an oxymoron?

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