I’m seeing this trope a lot these days. “You can’t disprove religion. At least — not my religion.”
“Well, of course,” the trope continues, “many outdated religious beliefs — young-earth creationism, the universe revolving around the earth, the sun being drawn across the sky by Apollo’s chariot — have been shown by science to be mistaken. But modern progressive and moderate beliefs — these, you can’t disprove with science. These are simply matters of faith: things people reasonably choose to believe, based on their personal life experience.”
Then there’s the corollary to this trope: “Therefore, atheism is just as much a matter of faith as religion. And atheists who think atheism is better supported by evidence are just as dogmatic and close-minded as religious believers.”
The usual atheist reply to this is to cry, “That’s the God of the Gaps! Whatever phenomenon isn’t currently explained by science, that’s where you stick your God! What kind of sense does that make? Why should any given unexplained phenomenon be best explained by religion? Has there ever been a gap in our knowledge that’s eventually been shown to be filled by God?”
Which is a pretty good reply, and one I make a lot myself. But today, I want to say something else.
Today, I want to point out that this is simply not the case.
The fact is that many modern progressive and moderate religions do make claims about the observable world. And many of those claims are unsupported by science… and, in fact, are in direct contradiction of it.
I want to talk today about three specific religious beliefs. Not obscure cults or rigid fundamentalist dogmas; not young-earth creationism, or the doctrine that communion wafers literally and physically transform into the human flesh of Christ somewhere in the digestive tract, or the belief that the human mind has been taken over by space aliens. I want to talk about three widely held beliefs of modern progressive and moderate believers: beliefs held by intelligent and educated believers who respect science and don’t think religion should contradict it.
And I want to point out that even these beliefs are in direct contradiction of the vast preponderance of available evidence… almost as much as the obscure cults and the rigid fundamentalist dogma.
So let’s go! Today’s beliefs on the chopping block are:
1: Evolution guided by God.
Also known as “theistic evolution.” Among progressive and moderate believers, this is an extremely common position on evolution. They readily (and rightly) dismiss the claims of young-earth creationists that humanity and all the universe were created in one swell foop 6,000 years ago. They dismiss these claims as utterly contradicted by the evidence. Instead, they say that evolution proceeds exactly as the biologists say it does… but this process is guided by God, to bring humanity and the vast variety of life into being.
A belief that is almost as thoroughly contradicted by the evidence as young-earth creationism is.
Nowhere in anatomy, nowhere in genetics, nowhere in the fossil record or the geological record or any of the physical records of evolution, is there even the slightest piece of evidence for divine intervention.
Quite the contrary. If there had been a divine hand tinkering with the process, we would expect evolution to have proceeded radically differently than it has. We would expect to see, among the changes in anatomy from generation to generation, at least an occasional instance of the structure being tweaked in non-gradual ways. We would expect to see — oh, say, just for a random example — human knees and backs better designed for bipedal animals than quadrupeds. (She said bitterly, putting an ice pack on her bad knee.) We would expect to see the blind spot in the human eye done away with, perhaps replaced with the octopus design that doesn’t have a blind spot. We would expect to see the vagus nerve re-routed so it doesn’t wander all over hell and gone before getting where it’s going. We would expect to see a major shift in the risk-benefit analysis that’s wired into our brains, one that better suits a 70-year life expectancy than a 35-year one. We would expect to see… I could go on, and on, and on.
And it’s not just humans. We’d expect to see whales with gills, pandas with real thumbs, ostriches without those stupid useless wings.
We don’t see any of this.
What we see instead is exactly what we would expect to see if evolution proceeded entirely as a natural, physical process. We see “designs” of living things that are flawed and inefficient and just plain goofy: “designs” that exist for no earthly reason except the slow incrementalism that’s an inherent part of the physical process of evolution. We see anatomical adaptations severely constrained by the fact that each generation can only be a slight modification on the previous generation, with no sudden jumps to a different basic version. We see anatomical adaptations severely constrained by the fact that each new version has to be an improvement on the previous version (or at least, not a deterioration from it). We see a vast preponderance of evidence showing that evolution proceeds very slowly, very gradually, with the anatomy of each generation being only slightly altered (if at all) from that of the previous generation.
And that isn’t how things designed by a conscious designer, or even things tinkered with by a conscious designer, work.
Even when a designer is stuck with the outlines of a previous design, they can still make significant, non-incremental changes. They can tear out the cabinets and replace them with windows, and move the stove to the other side of the room where the fridge is now. They’re not stuck with moving the stove one inch at a time, once every week or year or twenty years. And they’re not stuck with a system in which every inch that the stove moves has to be an improvement on the previous inch. They’re not stuck with a system where, if the stove has been moving across the floor in a series of incremental improvements, it’s going to have to stop if it starts blocking the door… because blocking the door is a serious disadvantage.
And if a designer is omnipotent, they’re not even stuck with the outlines of a previous design. They’re not stuck with anything at all. Why on earth would an all-powerful and benevolent god, a god who’s capable of magically altering DNA, bring life into being by the slow, cruel, violent, inefficient, tacked- together- with- duct- tape process of evolution in the first place?
Now, it’s true that we do see some evidence for what are sometimes called “jumps” in the fossil record: evidence that evolutionary changes sometimes happen very slowly, and sometimes happen more rapidly. (It’s a controversial position, but it is one held by some respected evolutionary biologists.) And some believers in theistic evolution leap onto this hypothesis and hang on like it’s the last helicopter out of Saigon.
But the “rapid jumps” thing is very misleading. “Rapid,” in evolutionary terms, means “taking place over a few hundred years instead of a few thousand” (or “a few thousand years instead of a few hundred thousand.”) And as recent research has repeatedly shown, evolution can take place surprisingly rapidly, in a matter of decades… and still be an entirely natural process of small changes, incremental alterations in each generation from the previous one. Exactly as we would expect if evolution were an entirely natural, physical process of descent with modification. So even if this “rapid jumps” (or “punctuated equilibrium”) hypothesis is true, it still doesn’t point to theistic evolution. Not even a little bit.
Again: There is not the slightest bit of evidence supporting the idea of evolution guided by God. And there is a significant body of evidence that strongly suggests the contrary.
2: An immaterial soul that animates human consciousness.
I will acknowledge freely: We don’t yet understand consciousness very well. The sciences of neurology and neuropsychology are very much in their infancy, and the basic questions of what exactly consciousness is, and where exactly it comes from, and how exactly it works, are, as of yet, largely unanswered.
But research is happening. The foundations for our understanding of consciousness are beginning to be laid. There are a few things that we do know about consciousness.
And among the things we know is that, whatever consciousness is, it seems to be an entirely biological process. A massive body of evidence points to this conclusion.
When we make physical changes to the brain, it changes consciousness. Drugs, injury, surgery, sensory deprivation, electrical current, magnetic fields, medication, illness, exercise — all these things change our consciousness. Sometimes drastically. Sometimes rendering an entire personality unrecognizable. Even very small changes to the brain can result in massive changes to consciousness… both temporary and permanent.
This works vice versa as well. Magnetic resonance imagery has shown that, when people think different thoughts, different parts of their brains light up with activity. Changes in thought show up as changes in the brain…. just as changes in the brain show up as changes in thought.
And, of course, we have the drastic change in consciousness created by the very drastic change in the physical brain known as “death.”
All the available evidence points to the conclusion that, when the brain dies, consciousness disappears. (And by “when the brain dies,” I don’t mean, “when the brain is temporarily deprived of oxygen for a short time,” a.k.a. “near death experiences.” I mean when the brain dies, permanently.) The belief that consciousness survives death has probably been researched more than any other supernatural hypothesis — nobody, not even scientists, wants death to be permanent — and it has never, ever been substantiated. Reports of it abound… but when carefully examined, using good, rigorous scientific methodology, these reports fall apart like a house of cards.
Everything we understand about consciousness points to it being a physical, biological process. Physical changes cause observable effects. When we see that in any other phenomenon, we assume that what’s going on is physical cause and effect. We have no reason to think that anything else is going on with the phenomenon of consciousness.
And there is not a single scrap of good evidence supporting the hypothesis that consciousness is even partly a supernatural phenomenon. There are many gaps in our understanding of consciousness — that’s a massive understatement — but there is not one piece of solid, rigorously gathered evidence suggesting that any of those gaps can and should be filled with the hypothesis of an immaterial soul. There’s not even a good, testable theory explaining how this immaterial soul is supposed to interact with the physical brain. All there is to support this belief is a personal intuitive feeling on the part of believers that the soul has to be non-physical because, well, it just seems like that… plus thousands of years of other believers with a similar intuitive feeling, who have told it to one another, and taught it to their followers, and made up elaborate rationalizations for it, and written it into their holy texts.
Again: There is not the slightest bit of evidence supporting the idea of an immaterial soul that animates human consciousness. And there is a significant body of evidence that strongly suggests the contrary.
3: A sentient universe.
You might ask why I’m including this particular belief in my Big Three Targets. You might wonder why, among all the widely held religious beliefs in the world today, I’m aiming my sights at this New Age/ Neo-Pagan/ Wiccan belief in a World-Soul.
My answer: I live in Northern California. ‘Nuff said.
So that’s why I want to debunk this belief. And I’m pretty much going to repeat what I said in #2 above:
We don’t yet understand what consciousness is. But we do know that, whatever it is, it seems to be a biological product of the brain.
And the universe does not have a brain.
The universe does not have a physical structure capable of supporting consciousness. The universe does not have neurons, dendrites, ganglia. The universe has stars, and planets, and other astronomical bodies, separated by unimaginably vast regions of empty space.
And stars and planets and so on do not behave like neurons and dendrites and so on. They behave like stars and planets. They behave like objects that, as nifty as they are, are not alive, by any useful definition of the word “life.”
If consciousness is a biological process — as an overwhelming body of evidence suggests, see #2 above — then the universe, not being a biological entity, cannot possibly be conscious. To say that it is would mean radically redefining what we mean by “conscious.” And we have no reason to do so… other than a wishful desire to think of the universe as sentient.
Consciousness has, for a long time, been a mysterious and utterly ineffable phenomenon. So, before Darwin, was the tremendous variety and mind-boggling complexity of life. And like the variety and complexity of life, consciousness is no longer ineffable. It is being effed. The unexplainable is being explained. And it is being explained as a biological phenomenon — as physical cause and effect.
Again: There is not the slightest bit of evidence supporting the idea of a sentient universe. And there is a significant body of evidence that strongly suggests the contrary.
Why I Don’t Believe in the Soul (again)
Now. I can hear the chorus already. “How can you prove that? You don’t know that with absolute certainty! God could be intervening in evolution — just in ways that are indistinguishable from natural selection! There could be some sort of immaterial soul interacting with the biological process of consciousness, in ways we don’t yet perceive! There could be some weird form of consciousness that we don’t understand, one that’s generated by stars and planets and lifeless astronomical bodies! You can’t prove with absolute certainty that there isn’t! Your non-belief is just an article of faith!”
No. We can’t prove that with 100% certainty.
But neither can we prove with 100% certainty that the universe wasn’t created 6,000 years ago, by a god who deliberately planted the fossil record and the genetic record and the geological record and the laws of atomic decay, all to test our faith. (Or all of which was planted by Satan, to trick us and tempt us into disbelief.) We can’t prove with 100% certainty that communion wafers don’t turn into Christ’s physical body on contact with the human digestive system. Hell, we can’t prove with 100% certainty that the earth goes around the sun, and that all our senses and logical abilities haven’t been fooled by some trickster god into thinking that it does.
And it doesn’t matter. As I’ve said many times: 100% unshakeable certainty is not the objective here. Reasonable plausibility, supported by carefully gathered and rigorously tested positive evidence, is the objective. And there is no reason to apply the “Reasonable plausibility supported by evidence” standard to the belief in young-earth creationism… and still apply the “If you can’t disprove it with 100% certainty, then it’s still reasonable for me to believe it” standard to the beliefs in theistic evolution, and an immaterial soul, and a sentient universe.
If you’re going to accept that young-earth creationism has been conclusively disproven by a mountain of scientific evidence, even though we acknowledge a .00001% hypothetical possibility that it might be true… then, if you’re going to be consistent, you have to apply that same standard, that same willingness to accept the reasonable conclusions of science about which ideas are and are not plausible, to all religious beliefs.
Including your own.
Especially your own.
Not everything is a matter of opinion or perspective. Not everything can turn into something completely different if you just look at it differently. Some things are either true or not true. It is not true that the universe was created 6,000 years ago. It is not true that the sun goes around the earth. And it is not true that evolution is shaped by the hand of God, or that consciousness is animated by an immaterial soul, or that the universe is sentient.
These things aren’t true for exactly the same reason that young-earth creationism isn’t true. They aren’t true because the evidence simply doesn’t support them. They aren’t true because the evidence actively contradicts them.
If you’re going to be a moderate or progressive religious believer; if you’re going to be a religious believer who respects and supports science instead of treating it as the enemy; if you’re going to be a religious believer who wants their beliefs to at least not be directly contradictory with the available scientific evidence… then you need to be willing to consider the possibility that your own beliefs are every bit as contradicted by that evidence as the beliefs of the fundamentalist crazies.
And if the answer is “yup, that belief seems to be contradicted by the evidence”… then you need to be willing to let go of that belief.