In the previous post. I argued that more education did not necessarily lead to less religion and that if one thought that its net effect on humanity was negative, one needed to more actively campaign against it. But others disagree. Even those who accept that religion has done some truly evil things might argue that the good that it does compensates (at least partially) and merits preserving it. The mere fact that it is false, it might be claimed, should not be sufficient to cause us to undermine it. They could point to children believing in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, that these are examples of false but benign beliefs. What is to be gained by destroying such innocent illusions?
But the reason that beliefs in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy are benign is because children are deliberately weaned away from such beliefs before they reach adolescence. If we did not deliberately do so, who knows what might happen? We might end up having wars with armies of the followers of Santa Claus battling with those of the Tooth Fairy. Having adults who are capable of causing great harm believing in magical false things is usually not benign. We are unfortunately all too aware of the truth of Voltaire’s assertion “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities”.
In a comment to a previous post, Corbin Covault argued that even though religion may be a human construct, it can still serve important functions that merit preserving it. He draws a comparison with government:
One could argue that both [religions and governments] are human social constructions. Both manifest in institutions which may give some great sources of benefit to societies and individuals, but both have also been great sources of destruction and oppression. Would it be fair to say that the argument that the “militant atheist” makes that the world would be better off without _all_ religions analogous to the argument that the anarchist would make that the world would be better off without any governments?
I think that we will all agree that religion can be the source of many good things and of many bad things. We will undoubtedly disagree on whether the net result is positive or negative. But the key question is not how the balance sheet between good and evil comes out for any particular institution, but whether that institution is the only one that provides those benefits, so that we have no choice but to also tolerate the evils that accompany it. With religion, I have argued before that every benefit claimed for it can be provide by other existing sources. If we get rid of religion, while we will lose both the good and the bad, my point was that we can regain every good thing lost using other means and institutions, so in the end we need only lose the bad things caused by religion.
The question then becomes whether we can say the same thing for government. If the answer is yes, then we should undoubtedly get rid of government but currently it seems like the answer is no. We know that there always exists a tension between the existence of governments and individual liberty. But we strike a deal, accepting the restrictions on personal liberty as the price we pay for peace and the benefits of community living. We struggle to define the proper balance between freedom and order. Although we currently seem to need some institutions of government, we are not committed to any one form. We are free to change them if they prove to be evil. We tend to deplore dictatorships and admire democracies and no particular government has any claim to divine sanction. There may come a time when people feel that no government at all is better.
A similar good-evil comparison can be made for science. Science has given us great benefits but has also been responsible for some terrible evils. No scientist can avoid the fact that we are, to some extent, complicit in the many evils done in its name.
My own physics research involved studying what happens when a high-energy photon strikes a nucleus and produces a short-lived sub-nuclear particle called a pi-meson. There is no obvious link between this and any weapons system, but that is deceiving. The whole field of study in which it is embedded, nuclear physics, is an integral part of weapons research. It is not inconceivable that someone else will come along in the future and find that my small and seemingly innocent contribution to the field is important in developing a component of a deadly weapons system. If it happens, I cannot claim complete innocence. Although I may have not intended my work to serve evil ends, the fact that it has the potential to do so is inescapable. No scientist can ever have clean hands.
While it is impossible for scientists to have a perfectly clear conscience, scientists are usually able to figure out rationalizations to justify their actions because the immediate goals of scientific research are usually to benefit humanity. Even those scientists who deliberately choose to work on things that are clearly destructive (the development of agents for biological and chemical warfare or more powerful bombs) usually can find some reason to square their consciences, by appealing to in-group/out-group thinking (“The enemies of my country/race/religion may also be developing these weapons and so I am doing this in self-defense and to protect humanity against a greater evil.”).
This was the kind of thinking of many scientists who worked on the Manhattan project during World War II that resulted in the creation of the atomic bomb. There is no reason to think that they were any more evil than anyone else. In fact, I have met and spoken with Hans Bethe, the Nobel Prize winning physicist (for his work explaining the energy production in stars) who was the leader of the theory group on the project and instrumental in guiding and shepherding the many brilliant scientists who worked under him. Bethe struck me as a kind and gentle man, who after the war worked for peace and disarmament. Einstein was the same. Although they both advocated for the development of a nuclear weapons program prior to the war, and their own groundbreaking research was the basis for nuclear weapons, they were also consistently a voice for peace. And there is reason to think that the scientists working on the opposing German nuclear weapons program, led by another Nobel Prize winner Werner Heisenberg, were doing so for the same reasons.
It is possible for society to decide to make a judgment that science is too dangerous to continue and to shut it down almost completely. If governments refuse to provide funding for research and for agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, modern science as we know it would cease to exist, because we could no longer maintain a professional class of scientists. Of course, the spirit of scientific inquiry will remain and there will be amateur scientists whose thirst for knowledge will drive them along. But we have to remember that the emergence of the professional scientist, someone paid primarily to do research, is a relatively new invention. In England, such people only came into being around 1850, with Charles Darwin’s friends and colleagues Jacob Hooker and T. H. Huxley being two of the earliest. Darwin himself belonged to the earlier tradition of the amateur scientist who was independently wealthy enough to indulge what was essentially a hobby, or who had a job (clergyman or professor) that allowed them sufficient freedom and time to do so.
But in shutting down professional science, people would be aware that they would also be shutting themselves off from almost all the enormous benefits that science provides. And this is where the difference with religion arises. Although it can be argued that science and religion provide both benefits and evils, when it comes to science there is nothing else that we know that can be substituted to provide those benefits. We cannot keep the baby while throwing out the bathwater, so we make a Faustian bargain.
But in the case of religion, there is no benefit claimed by religion that cannot be provided by other institutions. The only real reason to continue supporting the idea of god is that it is true. Since there is no convincing empirical evidence at all in support of that proposition, religion becomes dispensable.
POST SCRIPT: Tortured logic
The Daily Show discusses the damage done to language by the ‘war on terror’.