Episode CCCXLVI: Long overdue »« Returning to normal

Why I am an atheist – Ed Kroc

I am one of the very fortunate who has never had to fight my family on religious matters. My parents raised me in a very secular fashion and did not speak of spiritual matters when I was young unless I brought them up.

I was 10 years old. And like any nerdy 10 year old, I was in love with dinosaurs, sharks and other monsters of biology. I decided that I would read “Jurassic Park,” all on my own without any parental assistance. It took months, averaging maybe 5 pages a day, but I was resolved.

Prior to that time, religious matters had barely crossed my mind, but I found myself grappling with the basic questions as I made my way through the book. (I have reread the book in adulthood and cannot quite place what passages brought this line of inquiry on. Perhaps it was the philosophical ramblings of Ian Malcolm?) I considered the possibility of a god or gods, whether such a thing was necessary for life or the universe to exist, and what would be a good way to uncover some proof. I asked my parents for their views on the matter. They answered honestly and simply, and their answers resonated quite sensibly with me (my father has been an atheist for most of his life while my mother prefers to remain agnostic). By the end of the book, the matter seemed settled. No evidence for god, and most importantly, no need for god to enter into the equation whatsoever.

I remained a resolved, but uninterested atheist for more than ten years. Who the hell could really care that much about god or religion anyway? There are just so many other things to spend your time and energy on. And even as I read Dawkins and Hitchens, and witnessed the renaissance of religion in American politics, I remained primarily uninterested in engaging people on the matter. Sure, there are whackos out there, but just let them be and they’ll let you be, for the most part. There are so many intelligent and honest people who devote their lives to science and the pursuit of truth. Their work is what makes the world work. Follow them and keep learning.

Then I entered graduate school, as a master’s student in pure mathematics.

It’s no secret that mathematicians are the most spiritual bunch in the sciences. There are many reasons for this, perhaps the most important being that it is entirely possible to be an amazing mathematician and still not know a thing about reality. Mathematics is abstraction, and although abstraction can motivate empiricism (just as the inverse is true), abstraction can also be isolated. Most survey data that I have seen suggests that about 1 in 2 mathematicians will tend to be religious. And this is not necessarily just some vague form of deism, this is largely true religion.

So after a year or two in grad school, surrounded by no one but other mathematicians, all toiling away in abstraction and relative anonymity, I found it rather hard to ignore the inconsistencies and incompatibilities in many of my colleagues’ work versus their beliefs. Questioning such people on these matters is not an easy endeavor, however. Everyone around is intelligent, highly educated and passionate about what they do. There is also no shortage of ego. And questioning the beliefs of better mathematicians than I has proven to be a near herculean task. However, I have found it more and more necessary to do just that.

To me, mathematics is nothing without science. It is philosophy and art, and of course it can be very beautiful and profound completely in its isolated abstraction, but it does not contain any power until it is utilized to describe, explain or predict reality. Too many mathematicians refuse to accept this and to accept all the implications of that reality. And those implications most certainly include the utter absurdity of believing in a god. I simply cannot sympathize, I cannot excuse it because, by and large, they are too smart to be excused. Mathematicians do not need to be scientists, but they do need to acknowledge that mathematics is only poetry without science. If they are going to care about truth too, then they have to embrace reality. The same can be demanded of scientists in general.

Which brings me to my point. There are three kinds of religious scientists (and mathematicians): cowards, liars and idiots. The cowards need to be reassured and rescued, the liars need to be challenged and contested, and the idiots need to be exposed. It is because of this that I have become an engaged atheist, outspoken and loud, a “new” atheist if that’s what you want to call it. As long as the cowards, liars and idiots are protected by our silence and general disinterest in anything not directly related to our research, they will continue to compromise the credibility of our fields. You can be a brilliant scientist and still believe in god, but you can’t do it sincerely. That’s a problem. Sooner or later will be a clash, whether it’s in the form of muddling research, deceiving students or misrepresenting reality in a public statement or lecture. If you’re going to devote your life to the pursuit of truth, then you better have enough guts to stomach the implications, all of them.

Ed Kroc
Canada

Comments

  1. piscador says

    Hear, hear!

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of the “Why I’m an Atheist” postings on PZ’s blog, but this one resonated with me more than any of the others for a couple of reasons.

    Firstly, your secular upbringing was very similar to mine, with minor differences (both my parents claimed to be agnostic; substitute Robert Heinlein for Jurassic Park).

    Your reasons for challenging the religious beliefs of scientists is, I think, the best articulation of not just why science and religion are incompatible, but why scientists should not be believers.

  2. nonny says

    I had a similar childhood. Dad was a ‘fundamentalist’ atheist before it was cool.

    ‘Jurassic Park’ is still one of my favourite books. Ian Malcolm is a great character; I enjoyed his philosophical ramblings.

    I admit I haven’t met many mathematicians. It’s interesting to hear that they’re more religious than other scientists. I wonder if the abstraction needed for science makes them ‘good’ at religion too? It seems to me there’s a lot of abstraction in religion- all the messy complexity of human behavior gets distilled into Good and Evil. Many early gods were just concepts personified.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Ysanne says

    +1 to Jurassic Park. I got it from my grandma when I was 12, and loved it.

    I’m a bit torn on the claim about mathematicians… being one of the pure variety myself. I found a lot of atheists among mathematicians, usually of the “isn’t it obvious to anyone who saw through the Santa Claus thing?” kind, some of the “not really admitting it but not acting as if they’re seriously believing in some god” kind. But then, there really are some fully religious ones (actually, Catholic) and for the life of me I cannot figure out how they can keep believing those explicitly stated total contradictions to reality.
    Yeah, they abstract a little from reality, but their arguments seem more like an effort to divert the question into technicalities and formalities, allowing them to avoid thinking about the actual contents of the religious stuff, and insulating them from their own cognitive dissonance.

  4. says

    I discovered Jurassic Park about that age too, and it got me intersted in fractal geometry. Thanks for sharing your story!

  5. martin_z says

    Obligatory xkcd.

    I like your argument (mathematics is only poetry without science) – but I think xkcd’s argument in the mouseover text is even better!

    I don’t entirely agree with either of you about maths vs science – I think there is a place for pure mathematics, outside of reality (unless you accept the argument that if it can be argued logically, it is real…) – but I do entirely agree that it makes to sense to have the logical mind of a mathematician and still have any truck with religion.

  6. martin_z says

    Urghhh…

    “…it makes NO sense to have the logical mind of a mathematician and still have any truck with religion.” is what I meant to say, of course.

  7. madtom1999 says

    Coward? I’m not sure thats really fair. Brainwashed into abject fear is probably closer to the mark.
    I was out walking on the cliffs with my daughter yesterday and she suddenly developed vertigo – given that a step to left could have plunged her 200 to her doom I’d call this a rational fear. Once the fear had set in she was scared in situations where there was no reason to fear.
    Religion deliberately does that to people – it makes them scared when there is no reason for it. I dont think those people are cowards. I can remember a few years after I knew absolutely that god was a human invention still being terrified of hell.
    Dont use the term coward for people who can get over their fear. I dont know what the term is but abuse is not called for here.

  8. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    I wonder if there’s some correlation between religiosity in mathematicians and certain math professors’ insistence on treating every calculus-level class they teach as though it’s comprised of people who are committed to getting a mathematics PhD some day. >.>

  9. delstardotstar says

    And how curious to recall Michael Chrichton went so far out of his way to lie and mislead about human induced climate change in State of Fear

  10. dogmeat says

    Thomas@7:

    As an historian, I constantly have to remind my students to avoid this pitfall, you cannot judge someone for their thoughts or actions based upon the criteria established in our time, you have to compare them to their contemporaries. In the seventeenth century it was extremely dangerous to be the wrong kind of believer let alone a none believer. The French religious wars had ended just a generation before he was born, the Thirty Year’s War was raging, and England would collapse into a bloody civil war during his lifetime. As a child/young man the argument that these “spiritual matters” were of supreme importance would have been drilled into his head multiple times a day. The scientific evidence that helped so many of us dismiss the silliness of religion had not yet been discovered, so in effect he was adrift in a sea of religiosity without a lifeboat or even a preserver of reason. Yes, his wager is idiotic and simplistic, perhaps even arrogant or dangerous, until you put it into the framework of a mind never really given the opportunity to question faith, then it becomes merely naive.

  11. paleotrent says

    @dogmeat – great point – Dawkins has argued in more than one of his books that there were perfectly good empirical reasons to be a deist, if not a theist, prior to Darwin. And I seem to recall watching a video posted here not too long ago of a debate between Dennett and D’Souza in which the former, in response to an audience member’s question, stated that he thought Pascal had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek when he made his wager.

  12. 'Tis Himself says

    Don’t bother to click on clcl’s link in #13. It’s just an anti-atheist blog (Galileo, Copernicus and someone else were good scientists and religious, therefore God!).

  13. clcl says

    Don’t bother letting ‘Tis Himself think for you. After all, this is supposedly a “freethought” blog, do we really need a shepherd?

    I’m not anti-atheist. I’m anti-bigot (among other things), and that extends to any and all bigots, regardless of (a)theism.

  14. clcl says

    Oh, if you do click the blog, you can also see how ‘Tis Himself completely misrepresented what George Henry Shaft said. Of course, this blog isn’t about a reasoned pursuit of truth, it’s “atheists good” and “theists bad.”

  15. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    After all, this is supposedly a “freethought” blog, do we really need a shepherd?

    Fair warning for godbotting and other idiocy is normal. What is your problem, you playing a bait and switch game like liars and bullshitters do?

  16. chigau (間違っていない) says

    clcl
    I see that it is your blog.
    FYI blog-whoring is frowned upon, here.

  17. says

    chigau,

    Every place has its norms. Personally, I don’t think leaving a single link to a pertinent response constitutes “blog whoring,” but that’s just my opinion. Suffice it to say, now that I figured out how to attach my URL to my username, chances are I’ll rarely need to post a direct link to my own blog.

  18. Owlmirror says

    Of course, this blog isn’t about a reasoned pursuit of truth, it’s “atheists good” and “theists bad.”

    *eyeroll*

    Yes, yes, of course. I’m sure that that’s what you tell yourself, so of course, it must be true.

  19. chiptuneist says

    I’m anti-bigot (among other things), and that extends to any and all bigots, regardless of (a)theism.

    Really? Perhaps you’d like to defend the following?

    While skimming through the “freethought” blogs I couldn’t help but notice they’ve given “Cristina Rad” a forum now. Anybody else sense the irony? To me, the subtext reads:

    “We’re sophisticated rational atheists and women should not be objectified!”

    “Hey, let’s give this hot, popular blonde a forum!”

    From this post on your blog.

    In case it isn’t clear, I’ll point it out: please explain why your apparent inability to think of any reason that Cristina Rad would have been invited to join this network other than, to use your own words, that she is a “hot, popular blonde” should NOT be taken as an expression of sexism on your part?

  20. chiptuneist says

    Perhaps you would also like to explain how THIS fits your claim of not being anti-atheist? Going to such extremes as claiming that child abuse “explains just about everything about Dawkins’ stance on religion” would lead me to believe that you are willing to use just about ANYTHING in an attempt to discredit atheism.

    Oh, and look at the comments to that very post! What the fuck is this?

    Yeah, that is hilarious! I must’ve read the original snippet wrong, because I remember thinking to myself, “How does a 19-year-old get fondled by somebody and not do anything about it?”

    Hilarious. Right. That is some fucking reprehensible victim blaming bullshit. You’re an asshole.

  21. srdiamond says

    Save your energy. Christian Loon (CL) never resolves his contradictions. Moreover, he brags bombastically about “free speech” on his blog, but bans atheist dissenters.