Dealing with religious believers

Last Friday I was invited to speak to a group of Cleveland Freethinkers. I chose to speak about the new phase of the science-religion war. The old phase dealt with opposition to the teaching of the theory of evolution in schools and ended (more or less) with the drubbing that the intelligent design creationism forces received in the Dover trial in 2005. (Shameless plug coming up! My new book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom deals with this war and will appear in September.)

The new war is between two groups who were on the same pro-evolution side in the old war, the so-called ‘accommodationists’ (those who either believe that science and moderate forms of religion are compatible or that even if incompatible, the incompatibility should not be pointed out for fear of offending the sensibilities of moderate religionists) and the so-called ‘new atheists’ (those who think that science and religion are incompatible and have no hesitation in saying so).

The accommodationist position is nicely satirized by the cartoon below from the website Jesus and Mo, a terrific comic strip that features Jesus, Mohammed, and Moses as buddies and roommates conniving to foist their religions on their respective believers, and sometimes engaging with an unseen atheist barmaid. You really should visit the site regularly because it wittily captures much of the absurdity of religious apologetics.

jesusandmo1.jpg

After speaking for about 20 minutes or so explaining what this science-religion war entailed and advocating for the new atheist approach, I opened up the floor for discussion and a lively one ensued, debating the merits of the two approaches with arguments given in favor of both sides.

Then, in the middle of the discussion, a woman who had hitherto been quiet spoke up and said that she had listened to everyone and that it was clear that most (if not all) those present were skeptics of some sort but that she herself was a devout Christian who had been through much personal trouble (she implied that some of that involved recovery from a serious illness) and that she believed in Jesus and the Bible and had been blessed by him, and that all of us too should realize that we too had been blessed by him. She was clearly emotionally invested in what she said because she started to cry and had to wipe away tears several times.

The group was taken aback by this unexpected turn of the conversation and gave her the floor to let her fully have her say. They did not challenge or contradict or even interrupt her. When she was done with her extended comments, several people gently said that they could understand where she was coming from but that she should realize that the kinds of personal experiences that were meaningful to her may not be equally so to others who sought more empirical evidence for their beliefs.

After some time, the conversation returned to its original focus of which approach one should take, the accommodationist or the new atheist, and in the process we discussed what light, if any, might be shed on this topic by scientific theories such as quantum mechanics and the indeterminancy principle.

Although I claim to be a new atheist, I too did not directly challenge the devout Christian’s beliefs, which might seem to make me an accommodationist in practice. But there is really no contradiction. As I have explained before, there is a difference in the way that one deals with people’s religious beliefs in the private sphere and in the public sphere. I have no hesitation in the public sphere, which includes public talks like my initial remarks to the Cleveland Freethinkers group, of saying that I think that there is no rational basis for believing in god. I can be, and often am, quite uncompromising in my critiques of religion, not indulging in the polite fiction that some religious beliefs are credible or that the beliefs of religious people have some sort of immunity from criticism. But in the private sphere, which is what the discussion became when the Christian spoke to me and the rest of the group about her deeply held personal beliefs, one has to handle things differently.

In this particular case, the public/private line was not easy to draw because the group was about 30 people seated in a room in an informal setting. But I think the group as a whole was able to navigate that line, which speaks well for their sensibilities. I think the devout Christian was made to feel at ease and even welcome, even as it was clear that most of the people did not share her beliefs. But there is a disturbing undercurrent to such emotional outbursts by religious people that I will address in a fresh post later this week.

The Cleveland Freethinkers is a lively and friendly group that, as you can see, welcomes and accepts people with all kinds of beliefs. You can learn more about their meetings here.

POST SCRIPT: Why are there four conflicting gospels?

God tries to explain to Jesus how there came to be four different scripts for the part Jesus is to play on Earth.

More on the new atheist-accommodationist split

As I wrote last week, quite a scuffle has broken out between the so-called ‘accommodationists’ (who feel that we should not offend ‘liberal’ religious people by pointing out that science and religion are incompatible) and the so-called ‘new atheists’ (who feel that this accommodationist strategy has been pursued for a long time with no success and should be abandoned).

New atheists like Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, P.Z. Myers, and others have argued that there is no justification for the belief that science and religion are compatible, and that professional science organizations like the National Academy of Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Center for Science Education should refrain from making statements to that effect and stick to simply advocating good science, avoiding all questions of religion altogether. The undoubted fact that there are many scientists who are religious and that there are many religious people who support science (and oppose fundamentalist versions of religion) only provides support for the uncontroversial idea that it is possible for people to simultaneously hold contradictory views in their minds, nothing more.

The ‘new atheists’ have been criticized by other nonbelievers like Chris Mooney and Barbara Forrest who believe that the real danger to science comes from the ‘bad religion’ of religious fundamentalists, and that scientists should seek common cause with religious moderates who advocate ‘good religion’, and not alienate them by implying that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible.

As I wrote last year, what this argument reveals is a misunderstanding of the basic nature of coalition politics. In a coalition, people come together to advance one set of issues they agree upon while staying true to their positions on other issues where they could well differ strongly. So it should be quite possible for the ‘good religion’ group to join forces with the new atheists to combat the bad social and political influence of the ‘bad religion’ group, while at the same time disagreeing with each other as to whether science and religion are compatible.

For the ‘good religion’ group to ask the new atheists to not debunk the idea of compatibility (for the sake of political expediency) makes as little sense as the new atheists asking the ‘good religion’ group to stop talking about their religious beliefs in order to avoid offending atheists. Each group should come into the coalition for the sake of an articulated common good (in this case combating the immediate and manifest evils of ‘bad religion’) while retaining the right to disagree on other issues. As veterans of coalition politics know, a united front always hides a divided rear. We just have to live with it.

The reason that this well-known aspect of coalition politics is not understood in this particular context is because for far too long, religion has been granted a privileged place in public discourse. There has been an exaggerated ‘respect for religion’ trope, which has been interpreted as requiring that one should not critique those religious beliefs that are strongly and sincerely held by ‘good’ people. This tradition has shielded mainstream religion from the kinds of deep critiques received by other irrational belief structures, like astrology or witchcraft. Because of such criticisms, neither of those latter beliefs is deemed to be intellectually respectable anymore.

H. L. Mencken deplored this practice of deference to religion way back in 1925, when he wrote in The Baltimore Evening Sun in the wake of the Scopes trial:

[E]ven a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred.

The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion. A dunderhead gets himself a long-tailed coat, rises behind the sacred desk, and emits such bilge as would gag a Hottentot. Is it to pass unchallenged? If so, then what we have is not religious freedom at all, but the most intolerable and outrageous variety of religious despotism. Any fool, once he is admitted to holy orders, becomes infallible. Any half-wit, by the simple device of ascribing his delusions to revelation, takes on an authority that is denied to all the rest of us.

I do not know how many Americans entertain the ideas defended so ineptly by poor Bryan, but probably the number is very large. They are preached once a week in at least a hundred thousand rural churches, and they are heard too in the meaner quarters of the great cities. Nevertheless, though they are thus held to be sound by millions, these ideas remain mere rubbish. Not only are they not supported by the known facts; they are in direct contravention of the known facts. No man whose information is sound and whose mind functions normally can conceivably credit them. They are the products of ignorance and stupidity, either or both.

What should be a civilized man’s attitude toward such superstitions? It seems to me that the only attitude possible to him is one of contempt. If he admits that they have any intellectual dignity whatever, he admits that he himself has none. If he pretends to a respect for those who believe in them, he pretends falsely, and sinks almost to their level. When he is challenged he must answer honestly, regardless of tender feelings.

Salman Rushdie wrote something similar more recently:

At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: You cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

Despite Mencken’s protests, religion still retains, because of the strong pressure to not make criticisms of it, some of its standing as something that reasonable and rational people can believe in. But what Mencken hoped for is now beginning to emerge. The new atheists are making a concerted effort to end the false notion that ‘respect for religion’ means freedom from criticism. It is a good sign that skeptics are getting more numerous and outspoken. Their voices are breaking through the protective veil that religious beliefs have shrouded themselves in for so long.

POST SCRIPT: Michael Jackson

Just after I heard the news of Michael Jackson’s death, I realized that although he was a pop phenomenon who had an enormous number of fans, I was not even faintly familiar with even a single song of his. Somehow his entire music oeuvre has passed me by, showing just how out of touch I am with some elements of popular culture, which is a little odd since I know a lot of the music of his contemporaries, and grew up with the Motown sound.

Jackson was undoubtedly a tragic figure, and yet retained a curiously childlike innocence that was somehow appealing. Ishmael Reed describes the awful treatment Jackson received from the media, which seemed to delight in tearing him down just as they once built him up.

The new atheists vs. the accommodationists

An interesting discussion has broken out between those scientists and philosophers of science (labeled ‘accommodationists’) who seek to form alliances with religious believers by finding common ground between science and religion, and those who think that such an exercise is a waste of time, that scientific and religious viewpoints are fundamentally incompatible, and that what the accomodationists are doing is trying to make religious beliefs intellectually respectable by covering it with a veneer of highly dubious interpretations of science.

While this debate has been going on for some time, the latest resurgence was triggered by Jerry Coyne, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago and the author of a new book Why Evolution is True (which is on my reading list), who wrote a scathing review of two new books by scientists trying to reconcile science with religion: Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution by Karl W. Giberson and Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul by Kenneth R. Miller. The review, titled Seeing and Believing: The never-ending attempt to reconcile science and religion, and why it is doomed to fail, contains arguments and conclusions that will be familiar to regular readers of this blog, but it is all in one place and very well-written, well worth reading.

In the accommodationist camp are people like biologist Kenneth Miller, philosopher Michael Ruse, journalist Andrew Brown, and chemist Francis Collins. (You can read my detailed nine-part review of Collins’s appalling book The Language of God here.)

There have always been religious scientists who manage to find reasons to hold on to their faith in the face of the challenge posed by science. Michael Shermer puts it well when he says that the people who believe weird things are not stupid: “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.” (Why People Believe Weird Things (2002), p. 283). More problematic is the accommodationist view taken by prestigious scientific organizations like the National Academy of Science (NAS), which I will examine at a later date.

In the anti-accommodationist camp (sometimes referred to as the ‘new atheists’) are people like Richard Dawkins, biologist Jerry Coyne, biologist P. Z. Myers, and philosopher Daniel Dennett. Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that my sympathies lie entirely with this latter group. (Also see here and here.)

The accommodationists argue that it is a mistake to insist that science is antithetical to religion because if science is determined to be an intrinsically atheistic enterprise, then even so-called moderate religionists will turn away from science and not support efforts to oppose the teaching of religious ideas such as intelligent design in science classes. This kind of mistaken solicitousness for the sensitivities of religious people, the fear that they will take their ball and go home if others are mean to them, is not new. During the run up to the Scopes Monkey trial in 1925, there were many accommodationists of that era who did not want Clarence Darrow to defend Scopes because they felt that his scorn for religious beliefs would alienate potential religious allies. We now view Darrow’s performance in that trial as one of the high points in opposing the imposition of religious indoctrination in public schools.

Andrew Brown, a columnist in The Guardian newspaper, sees an even greater danger:

Suppose we concede that the new atheists are right, and no true, honest scientist could be anything other than an atheist. If that is true, the teaching of science itself becomes unconstitutional. For it is every bit as illegal to promote atheism in American public schools as it is to promote religion. Again, there are recent judgements from the heart of the culture wars to make this entirely clear.

In particular, the footnote on page four of Judge Selna’s ruling in the recent case of a science teacher censured for calling creationism “superstitious nonsense” in class makes this clear. He says The Supreme Court has found that:

the State may not establish a “religion of secularism” in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion.” School Dist. of Abington Tp., Pa. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963). This is simply another way of saying that the state may not affirmatively show hostility to religion.

That is the point that Ruse has been making, and one which PZ finds either incomprehensible or repulsive. None the less, it was Ruse, not PZ, who testified in both the big trials against creationism. It is a legal and political argument, not a philosophical one; and legally it seems to me fireproof. If Ruse can make it, so can creationists.

But Brown and Ruse are wrong. The argument is not legally “fireproof” as I discuss at length in my book God vs. Darwin: The War between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom, to appear later this year. It is not even a new argument. William Jennings Bryan was making it all the way back in 1922 in an essay published in The New York Times, where he said:

The Bible has in many places been excluded from the schools on the ground that religion should not be taught by those paid by public taxation. If this doctrine is sound, what right have the enemies of religion to teach irreligion in the public schools? If the Bible cannot be taught, why should Christian taxpayers permit the teaching of guesses that make the Bible a lie?

The First Amendment has long been interpreted as requiring neutrality between religion and nonreligion, even before the 1963 Schempp case. Justice Hugo Black, in his majority opinion in the landmark 1947 case Everson v. Board of Education (that expanded the Establishment Clause to cover the actions of state and local governments), said “[The First] Amendment requires the state to be a neutral in its relations with groups of religious believers and nonbelievers; it does not require the state to be their adversary. State power is no more to be used so as to handicap religions than it is to favor them.”

The first case involving evolution to reach the US Supreme Court was the 1968 Epperson v. Arkansas where the court ruled unanimously that prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools is unconstitutional. But Justice Black, while agreeing with the ruling, said in his concurring opinion that he disagreed with the reasoning that it was an Establishment Clause violation, and resurrected the concerns that Bryan had in 1922 and that seem to worry Ruse and Brown now.

A second question that arises for me is whether this Court’s decision forbidding a State to exclude the subject of evolution from its schools infringes the religious freedom of those who consider evolution an anti-religious doctrine. If the theory is considered anti-religious, as the Court indicates, how can the State be bound by the Federal Constitution to permit its teachers to advocate such an “anti-religious” doctrine to school children? The very cases cited by the Court as supporting its conclusion hold that the State must be neutral, not favoring one religious or anti-religious view over another. The Darwinian theory is said to challenge the Bible’s story of creation; so, too, have some of those who believe in the Bible, along with many others, challenged the Darwinian theory. Since there is no indication that the literal Biblical doctrine of the origin of man is included in the curriculum of Arkansas schools, does not the removal of the subject of evolution leave the State in a neutral position toward these supposedly competing religious and anti-religious doctrines?

But while this concern did not sway the majority in the Epperson case, the issue raised by Black was well and truly settled in the 1971 case Lemon v. Kurtzman when the Court promulgated what is now called the “Lemon test” that says that for any law to pass Establishment Clause constitutional muster, it must satisfy a three-pronged test:

First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose (the purpose prong)
Second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion (the effect prong);
Finally, the statute must not foster “an excessive government entanglement with religion” (the entanglement’ prong).

In other words, to satisfy the Establishment Clause, the intent of the law must have a secular basis. In addition, simply because some law had the incidental effect of advancing or inhibiting religion did not automatically disqualify it. It also added a third criterion, requiring that the law must not result in the government getting too mixed up in the affairs of religion. Failure to meet any one prong would imply a violation of the Establishment Clause.

The guidelines set out in Lemon implies that even if a scientific theory like evolution undermines a religious belief, teaching just that theory and not the opposing religious belief does not violate the neutrality requirement of the Establishment Clause because teaching science has a clearly secular purpose, since the goal of teaching science is to advance scientific knowledge and not to undermine religion. If religion happens to be undermined because of teaching a particular scientific theory, that is an incidental, not primary, effect. By contrast, it would be unconstitutional to teach a theory whose only purpose or primary effect was to undermine or foster religion.

Since 1971, the ‘Lemon test’ has been the bedrock standard for measuring constitutionality under the Establishment Clause, with a few wrinkles added later. Teaching any theory that is well established scientifically would easily pass muster under its provisions, whatever its implications for religion.

The reason why creationists have not advanced this argument is not because they are not as smart as Ruse and Brown to have discovered this potent weapon. After all, the founder, godfather, and leading tactician of the intelligent design movement (Phillip Johnson) is a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, and the whole intelligent design concept was invented to try and get around the Establishment Clause restrictions imposed by the Supreme Court and other courts. Their lawyers must have told them that the Ruse/Brown argument is a sure loser.

POST SCRIPT: Biblical marriage

Those who oppose gay marriage like to say that it is against the Bible but there seems to be some confusion about exactly what a Biblically appropriate marriage consists of. Mrs. Betty Bowers, America’s Best Christian, makes it all clear.

The end of god-23: The false equivalence of science and religion

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In this final post in this series, I want to address the attempt to bring down science to the level of religion by arguing that science and religion are equivalent because there exist questions that neither can answer. This approach is illustrated by Lord Winston (emeritus professor of fertility studies, Imperial College London) in his debate with Daniel Dennett.

Winston does this by setting up a straw man version of science as that which consists of certain knowledge. He says: “Dennett seems to believe science is “the truth”. Like many of my brilliant scientific colleagues, he conveys the notion that science is about a kind of certainty.”

Winston then attacks that straw man, using the Biblical story of Job as a basis for specifying questions that he claims science cannot answer.

God asks Job where he was when He laid the foundations of the Earth? Do we understand where we come from, where we are going, or what lies beyond our planet?

The problem is that scientists now too frequently believe we have the answers to these questions, and hence the mysteries of life. But, oddly, the more we use science to explore nature, the more we find things we do not understand and cannot explain. In reality, both religion and science are expressions of man’s uncertainty. Perhaps the paradox is that certainty, whether it be in science or religion, is dangerous.

Winston’s idea, that scientists believe that scientific knowledge is synonymous with certain knowledge, is hopelessly outdated. It was something that originated with Aristotle when he tried to find a way to demarcate between science and non-science, but fell out of favor by the mid-to-late 19th century as a result of the repeated overthrow of long-held and widely believed scientific theories, such as the Ptolemaic geocentric solar system and the phlogiston theory of combustion. It is now generally accepted that all knowledge is fallible. In fact, it is only some religious believers who still cling to the idea that some knowledge is infallible, because they think that their religious texts are directly from god and hence cannot be wrong. To argue, as Winston does, that it is science which thinks of itself as infallible is to wrongly impute to science a claim that is made about religious beliefs.

Winston’s other argument, that there are questions (“where we come from, where we are going, or what lies beyond our planet”) that neither science nor religion can answer with certainty and hence that gives both equivalent status in terms of knowledge, is absurd. It ignores the fact that science has produced vast amounts of useful and reliable knowledge over the centuries and continues to do so, while religion has produced exactly zero. Secondly, even for those questions, it is only science that has given us any insight at all as to what answers to them might look like. Religion has only given us myths that have to be re-interpreted with each new major scientific discovery. Religious knowledge always lags behind science and keeps falling farther and farther back. How can anyone plausibly claim that the two knowledge structures are of equivalent value?

Religion and science are clearly not equivalent. Science is always searching for answers to questions and its knowledge evolves as old questions get answered and new questions emerge. I don’t know what future research in science will bring forth but I am pretty sure that the science of a hundred years from now will be quite different from the scientific knowledge we have now. Religion, on the other hand, is stuck in the past, still recycling the ideas of five hundred years ago.

Also, we can do perfectly well without religion. All the alleged benefits it provides can be provided by alternative secular sources. We cannot do without science because whatever its faults and deficiencies (and there are many), there is no other knowledge that can replace the benefits it provides.

One final point is about the use of reason and evidence. Religious people like to use evidence and reason when trying to defend their faith and challenge their critics, but turn around and argue that their own beliefs are based on faith and transcend evidence, logic, and reason and so those things should not be used against them.

Daniel Dennett in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995, p. 154) says that if, in a debate with a religious believer, you assert that what he just said implies that god is a ham sandwich wrapped in tinfoil, your opponent will be indignant, saying it means no such thing and demanding that you supply reasons and evidence to justify your assertion. But if you ask religious believers to justify their assertion that god exists, they will invariably end up saying that the existence of god has to be accepted on faith, that this is a question that is outside the bounds of evidence and reason.

Because of this, Dennett says, arguing with religious people is like playing tennis with an opponent who lowers the net when he is playing the shot and raises it when you are. But religious believers shouldn’t continue to be allowed to have it both ways. They have managed to do so for centuries because of the idea that ‘respect for religion’ means not posing hard questions. If religious believers deny a role for reason and evidence in arguing for the existence of god, then anything goes and they are obliged to accept any nonsensical response. (This is the clever premise of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and its Pastafarian members who demand to be treated with the same respect as the older religious traditions.) Of course, such a discussion would be a waste of time for all concerned. That is why any worthwhile discussion must involve reason and evidence on all sides.

What I hope this series of posts has done is convince the reader that advances in knowledge in science and other fields over the last two centuries has made god obsolete and redundant. That is a good thing because if we are to have any hope for humankind to overcome its petty tribal differences, it is essential that religion and its associated superstitions be eliminated from the public sphere and religion be categorized along with astrology, alchemy, and witchcraft as beliefs that may have some interest as cultural and historical phenomena but which only the naïve and gullible accept as having any lasting value.

God is dead. Sooner or later, religious people will have to move past their current stage of denial of this fact and accept that reality.

POST SCRIPT: Lewis Black on the economic stimulus package</strong

The end of god-22: Playing with words

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous post, I said that some scientists (like Einstein) used to use god as a metaphor even though they were not believers, and that this caused some confusion as to what they truly believed.

There are, of course, some scientists who really do believe in god and try to find ways to reconcile their beliefs. Biologist Francis Collins, recently retired head of the National Human Genome Research Institute and an evangelical Christian, has written a book The Language of God where he apparently argues that the structure of DNA reveals god at work. (I plan to read his book in the very near future and will report on what his argument is.) Biologist Kenneth Miller, a Catholic, wrote a book Finding Darwin’s God that argues against god’s involvement in the evolutionary process (he is an opponent of intelligent design creationism) but tries to use the uncertainty principle as a gateway for god to act in the world without violating the laws of science. John Polkinghorne, a physicist who later became an Anglican clergyman, argues in his book Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship that both science and religion use similar truth-seeking strategies.

Quantum physics has been a real boon to those people trying to find some room for god in science. Such people have exploited some of the admittedly strange properties of quantum physics to make some fairly strong metaphysical claims. while ignoring the fact that it is a materialistic theory that can be used to make precise predictions without requiring any mystical elements. Yves Gingras takes to task those scientists who have exploited this longing for mysticism among the general public, calling, for example, Fritjof Capra’s very popular book in this vein The Tao of Physics a ‘monumental joke’.

As Gingras says:

What these books do is try to wrap modern scientific discoveries in an allusory shroud that insinuates a link between cutting-edge science and solutions to the mysteries of life, the origins of the universe and spirituality. They depend on cultivating ambiguity and a sense of the exotic, flirtatiously oscillating between science and the paranormal. This is X-Files science – and The X-Files is science-fiction.
. . .
It seems to me that scientists involved in popularisation have an obligation to present science as the naturalistic enterprise it is, instead of attempting (cynically or naively) to stimulate interest in science by associating it with vague spiritual or religious notions. This eye-catching genre can only generate bitter disappointment among those motivated by it to pursue the study of science; for they will quickly learn that they will never meet God in a particle accelerator or in a DNA sequence.

The essence of science is a naturalist vision of the world that makes it understandable without any appeal to transcendental intelligence, be it Zeus, Poseidon or any other God.

Physicist Paul Davies is one of the scientists most guilty of creating the kind of ambiguity that Gingras deplores. Davies is a ‘Templeton scientist’, 1995 winner of their award for attempts to reconcile science and religion, and author of numerous books liberally sprinkled with the words god, spirit, miracle, etc in the titles and the text. Recently Davies wrote an op-ed suggesting that scientists have faith too and that this makes science and religion somehow equivalent.

[S]cience has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. . . And so far this faith has been justified.

Therefore, to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You’ve got to believe that these laws won’t fail, that we won’t wake up tomorrow to find heat flowing from cold to hot, or the speed of light changing by the hour.
. . .
Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too.

Davies argues that because we don’t know why the laws of science have the form they do, science is inadequate. He says “until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.”

Davies’ claim that science falsely purports to be ‘free of faith’ is itself a bogus argument. What he is doing is conflating two different meanings of the word ‘faith’, the way I warned against doing for the word ‘believe’ in my own An Atheist’s Creed. Physicist Bob Park gives the appropriate rejoinder.

It’s time we had a little talk. The New York Times on Saturday published an op-ed by Paul Davies that addresses the question: “Is embracing the laws of nature so different from religious belief?” Davies concludes that, “until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.” Davies has confused two meanings of the word “faith.” The Oxford Concise English Dictionary on my desk gives the two distinct meanings for faith as: “1) complete trust or confidence, and 2) strong belief in a religion based on spiritual conviction rather than proof.” A scientist’s “faith” is built on experimental proof. The two meanings of the word “faith,” therefore, are not only different, they are exact opposites.

When I or any other scientist says that we have faith in the law of gravity or the conservation of energy or the laws of thermodynamics, we may invoke the same word as religious believers when they say they have faith in god, but we use it in a completely different sense. We have faith because the laws have been tested over and over in very carefully controlled conditions and have never let us down. They have always worked as advertised and thus we have ‘complete trust and confidence’ that they will continue to do so. Does this mean they always will? We cannot say. There is always the possibility that there is a subtlety in those laws that we are not aware of that may reveal itself under unusual circumstances as a seeming failure. That is why we say that we have ‘faith’ in those laws instead of absolute certainty. But that tiny residual uncertainty is a concession that scientists make in acknowledgment of the fact that we never know anything for certain.

This is a far cry from religious people having faith in god when they have absolutely no reason for doing so apart from some vague yearnings that are largely the residue of childhood indoctrination. To conflate the evidence-rich use of the word ‘faith’ by scientists to the evidence-free use by religious people is to be naïve or to willfully mislead.

Even though scientists and religious believers use the same words ‘faith’, ‘belief’, and even ‘god’, they view those words and the world in quite different ways. Scientists should consistently point out this difference so that merely verbal manipulation can be removed from the discussion.

POST SCRIPT: Rewriting history

The publication of a self-serving book by former White House Press Secretary and Bush confidante Scott McClennan that castigates the behavior of everyone in the White House (except Bush and McClennan) and the media (for its gullibility about its unquestioning acceptance of propaganda and its cheerleading for war with Iraq) has produced a flurry of historical revisionism on the part of the media. McClennan seems to see no irony in charging the media with not asking hard questions when he did nothing but stonewall and lie to the same media.

Much of the media defense has taken the form that everyone at that time believed that Iraq had WMDs.

Not so fast, say Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel of McClatchy (formerly Knight-Ridder) news syndicate. That news group was one of the very few in the mainstream American media who expressed some skepticism and backed it up with solid reporting.

Of course, many of us outside the American media Village bubble never bought the case for war either, seeing the whole enterprise as an illegal and immoral fraud from the beginning.

The end of god-21: God as metaphor

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous post I made the point that scientists can, and should be able to, translate between colloquial and scientific descriptions of phenomena but religious believers sometimes get misled into thinking that the looser language represents what is believed by scientists.

The worst example of the misuse of metaphors in science is the word ‘god’. Scientists commonly used to use the word ‘god’ as a metaphor for the inexplicable. So you found people like Einstein saying things like “God does not play dice with the universe”, Leon Lederman writing a book about the search for the Higgs boson called The God Particle, and Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time which uses the word god repeatedly. It is not at all unusual for scientists who have made a major discovery or seen something spectacular (like the photographs taken by the Hubble telescope of the far reaches of the universe) to be struck with such awe that they strive for a superlative metaphor that can capture the magnitude of their experience. Religious language forms such a major part of our cultural heritage that its words and phrases evoking images of majesty and awe easily spring to mind when we seek such superlatives.

So it should not be surprising that god makes his appearance in the popular works of scientists, though never in technical scientific literature. (Scientists have also found, like many others, that talking about god sells more books.) But when such scientists talk of god, they are well aware that it is a metaphor. It no more signifies a belief in god than when someone says “Thank god!” upon hearing some good news or “Bless you!” when someone sneezes. For Einstein and Lederman and Hawking, god is the name they give to an as-yet-undiscovered set of laws or mathematical equations, not an intelligent entity. Thankfully, the practice of using god as a metaphor in science is falling out of favor.

Einstein’s actual view of god and religion is one of contempt as can be seen in a letter he wrote just a year before his death: “The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.”

But religious apologists seize upon the use by scientists of words like ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ and ‘design’ to argue that scientists are either secretly religious and inadvertently revealing their beliefs in their use of such words, or that science and religion are equivalent belief structures.

For example, Dr Pete Vukusic, of the School of Physics at the University of Exeter once wrote: “It’s amazing that butterflies have evolved such sophisticated design features which can so exquisitely manipulate light and colour. Nature’s design and engineering is truly inspirational.” The IDC people seized upon his use of the word ‘Nature’s design’ to suggest that this implies that there must have been a designer of those butterflies, and that ‘nature’ was a euphemism for god.

Because these kinds of wordplay confuse the issue of what scientists really think about god, some have suggested that we should be more careful in how we use language and not be so cavalier in invoking religious metaphors. As a result the use of god as a metaphor in popular scientific writing seems to be declining and that is a good thing. Some people advocate going further, suggesting that the use of words like faith and belief be banished from the vocabulary of scientists since they can give the wrong impression and are misused by religious apologists. A letter writer to the May 2008 issue of Physics Today even recommended abandoning the use of the word theory.

I don’t agree with this approach. The words belief and faith have perfectly good secular meanings and there is no reason why we should cede them for exclusively religious use. I have also written before that I am doubtful of the effectiveness of trying to restrict the use or meanings of words. While we should strive for precision and accuracy in our choice of words to express scientific ideas, words and meanings evolve and that is what makes language so alive and fascinating. We can no more control linguistic evolution than we can hold back biological evolution. It is better to create a greater awareness amongst the general public that words mean different things in different contexts and when used by different people, and that those should be weighed in the balance when trying to figure out what people are saying.

For example, in my attempt at outlining what I believe in An Atheist’s Creed, I used the word ‘believe’ repeatedly and some other atheists suggested that I should not do so since it made the creed look like a religious affirmation. But I had anticipated this objection and took pains to explain my use of the word in the preamble:

When the word ‘believe’ is used in the creed, it is in the scientific sense of the word. Scientists realize that almost all knowledge is tentative and that one knows very few things for certain. But based on credible evidence and logical reasoning, one can arrive at firm conclusions about, and hence ‘believe’, some things such as that the universe is billions of years old or that the force of gravity exists. It is in this sense that the word ‘believe’ is used in the creed below, as an implicit acknowledgment of our lack of absolute certainty.

This use is in stark contrast to the way that the word is used by religious people. They not only believe things for which there is little or no evidence or reason, but even in spite of evidence to the contrary, and defying reason.

Some religious apologists try to exploit the fact that the same word belief is used in both situations to suggest that atheism is as much an irrational act of faith as belief in god. This is sophistry and is simply false.

As an aside, I saw some interesting responses to my creed when it was reposted on some discussion boards. I had meant it as a merely descriptive statement of the things that I, an atheist, happen to believe. It was not meant to be a statement of what all atheists believe or should believe. Indeed, some of the beliefs I listed did not even derive from atheism. And yet, some readers took my creed as an attempt to be normative and disagreed with some or all of it, going to the extent of saying that for atheists to have a creed is a contradiction.

They are of course right. Each atheist will believe different things because we have no unifying doctrine, except a shared conviction that there is no evidence for the existence of god. Although I thought I was being clear about my intent, the misunderstanding illustrates the truth of a statement attributed to Karl Popper: “It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood.”

POST SCRIPT: Gonzo journalism

Matt Taibbi of the Rolling Stone is one of the funniest political journalists around. Here he describes to Jon Stewart his experiences as a member of John Hagee’s church, before the latter became famous because of his McCain endorsement fiasco. Hagee seems to be even wackier than I had thought.

The end of god-20: Science and scientific language

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous three posts in this series, we saw the failure of attempts to raise religious beliefs to be on a par with science. The second line of defense taken by the new apologists against the attacks of the new atheists is to try and lower science to the level of religion.

This attempt mostly uses plays on words. Apologists have tried to take advantage of the fact that words can have multiple meanings and nuances depending on the context. What they have done is, whenever scientists use certain words in the scientific context, to interpret that statement using an alternative interpretation that is advantageous to their cause.

The most obvious example is the word ‘theory’. When the scientific community labels something as a theory, say the theory of evolution or the theory of gravity, they are actually paying it a huge compliment. They are saying that this knowledge encompasses a wide array of phenomena, has a powerful explanatory structure, and has been subject to some testing. The theory of gravity and the theory of relativity are powerful bodies of knowledge. A theory in the scientific context is not a guess or hypothesis but it is in the latter senses that this word is used by lay people. Religious apologists who dislike some particular scientific theory use the lay meaning to imply that such a theory has no merit.

This argument is, of course, purely semantic and has been countered so much and so often and so thoroughly, and the use of the word theory in science has been explained with such care, that anyone who still continues to use this argument to discredit a scientific theory they dislike (like some religious people do with the theory of evolution) can justly be accused of being either deeply ignorant or willfully deceptive.

But that hasn’t stopped religious apologists from still trotting out this old chestnut. But in Florida recently, that attempt boomeranged badly. What happened is that in February of 2008, that state revised its science standards and for the first time actually included the word evolution in it, a century and a half after Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace’s theory took its bow. Of course, this made the religious people in Florida upset and they adopted the usual strategy of demanding that the word evolution always be prefaced by the word ‘theory’, thus in their minds making it seem less credible. But in a clever countermove, the pro-science forces agreed to this provided that evolution be referred to as ‘the scientific theory of evolution’ and that for the sake of consistency, every scientific consensus theory also carry the same preamble. So now the standards refer to ‘the scientific theory of electromagnetism’, ‘the scientific theory of gravity’, etc. as well as ‘the scientific theory of evolution’.

The religious opponents of teaching evolution did not seem to realize that they have not only strengthened public awareness of the power of the word theory in science, they have also conceded that evolution is a scientific theory and put evolution on a par with other well-established scientific theories, something that they have been strenuously opposing all this time. Their strategy had been to argue that the theory of evolution was a bad theory, not worthy of inclusion alongside the ‘good’ theories of science, but the exact opposite has now happened, at least in Florida.

Other words that have been exploited by religious people to imply that scientists secretly do believe in god are ‘design’ , ‘create’, and ‘believe’.

Scientists are partly responsible for this confusion. Scientists use words that seem to imply external intelligence and intentionality to things, even though they don’t believe it, because it makes for livelier language. For example, they will say things like “a bird’s wings are designed to enable it to fly” or “a gene wants to propagate itself” or “the electron tries to move towards the positive nucleus”.

For example, in the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), Michael Pollan writes:

The existential challenge facing grasses in all but the most arid regions is how to successfully compete against trees for territory and sunlight. The evolutionary strategy they hit upon was to make their leaves nourishing and tasty to animals who in turn are nourishing and tasty to us, the big-brained creature best equipped to vanquish the trees on their behalf. (p. 129)

Language like this gives the impression that grasses have minds and will, although the author believes no such thing and is merely indulging in a rhetorical flight of fancy. But there is a danger when people use language like this because it can be wrongfully interpreted to imply that these things have human-like intelligence and agency and that there is some purpose behind their actions, or worse, have an external intelligence or agent acting on their behalf. Of course, scientists speaking this way do not intend any such thing. For them, this is just a convenient shorthand language and if necessary the same ideas can be expressed in more accurate but verbose intentionality-free language that removes the hint of a designer.

In his wonderful book The Selfish Gene (1989), Richard Dawkins repeatedly shows how to translate such metaphorical language into a more precise scientific one. For example, it is well known that cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. When the baby cuckoos hatch, they chirp very loudly, enough to attract the attention of dangerous predators. Therefore the foster mother bird gives the baby cuckoo more food than it gives her own chicks in order to keep it quiet and not attract predators that might attack her own chicks. Biologists speak of the baby cuckoo ‘blackmailing’ its foster mother with the threat of revealing the location of its nest to predators in order to get more than its fair share of food. But that description, although vivid and memorable, seems to ascribe all kinds of human-like thoughts and motives to birds.

Dawkins shows how to translate this loose talk into respectable, scientific language.

Cuckoo genes for screaming loudly became more numerous in the cuckoo gene pool because the loud screams increased the probability that the foster parents would feed the baby cuckoos. The reason the foster parents responded to the screams in this way was that genes for responding to the screams in this way had spread through the gene pool of the foster-species. The reason these genes spread was that individual foster parents who did not feed the cuckoos extra food, reared fewer of their own children – fewer than rival parents who did feed their cuckoos extra. This was because predators were attracted to the nest by the cuckoo cries. Although cuckoo genes for not screaming were less likely to end up in the bellies of predators than screaming genes, the non-screaming paid the greater penalty of not being fed extra rations. Therefore the screaming gene spread in the cuckoo gene pool. (p. 132)

You can see that being scientifically precise takes more words, is less vivid, and is much harder to sustain all the time. As a result, scientists tend to use the looser style whenever possible although they can, and should be able to, translate between metaphorical and scientific descriptions of any phenomena.

But religious people sometimes take the metaphorical language literally, and from there it is a short step to envisaging some intelligence acting in nature, and seeing intentional design and causation to what are merely the results of the working out of the laws of probability and natural selection.

POST SCRIPT: We are all atheists about many things

In this short video clip, Richard Dawkins makes a simple but important point.

The end of god-19: Why religious institutions do not seek evidence for god

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous post, I said that sometimes the argument is made that the scientific community should pursue even tentative clues for the existence of god or the paranormal because the people who originally stumble over them do not have the kinds of resources and expertise to mount the kind of sophisticated studies to validate them.

It is true that good studies require resources, knowledge, and skill. But it is not as if the scientific community has a monopoly on these things and that believers in god have no access to them. After all, religion is probably the world’s biggest industry. (I am tempted to use the word racket.) Billions of people all over the world, even among the world’s poorest, are persuaded to give vast amounts of money to religious organizations. If there is one institution that has the money, the interest, the skills, and the expertise to pour into finding conclusive evidence of god, it is organized religion and its associated institutions.

So why don’t the Catholic and Protestant and Orthodox churches and Jewish synagogues and Muslim mosques around the world set up research institutes to find evidence of god, instead of expecting others to do their work for them? Even if a very tiny fraction of their annual revenues were set aside to fund such institutes, those bodies would have huge budgets, enabling them to staff and resource them at a very high level, unimaginable to any secular research organization. People who have tentative evidence for god can send it to these research institutes for more thorough investigation instead of pestering scientists who have many other things to do.

So why don’t religions do this? Why don’t they go full throttle to research and find conclusive evidence once and for all for the existence of god?

I think it is because the leaders and theologians of all religions already know that they will not find any evidence and they are scared that such an effort would reveal to the world the total bankruptcy of the idea of god. They would prefer that this be a secret known only to them and atheists. That way they can continue to delude people that these non-existent gods exist, and more importantly, keep persuading people to contribute money to keep the churches and clergy and assorted hangers-on in the style to which they have grown accustomed. This would explain why religious leaders raise ‘faith’ to such high esteem when it comes to religion, while praising reason and critical thinking in all others spheres of human activity. When it comes to religion and religion alone, they insist that it virtuous to strongly believe in something in the absence of any credible evidence whatsoever, behavior that would be considered madness in any context other than religion.

A telling example of this desire to actually avoid doing any research that might reveal the bankruptcy of their ideas can be seen in the behavior of the intelligent design creationism (IDC) people. In the Templeton Foundation, they have an organization that has a lot of money and is eager to fund research into finding evidence that belief in god is compatible with a scientific outlook. Physicist Bob Park gives some background into the foundation and its founder and what it seeks to achieve.

It was initially the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, and the first winner in 1973 was Mother Teresa. Winners have included Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists. Billy Graham got it in 1982, Charles Colson of Watergate fame in 1993 and Paul Davies in 1995. But in 1999 Ian Barbour, a student of Fermi, was the recipient. A professor of physics and theology at Carleton College, Barbour was credited with initiating a “dialog between science and religion.” Templeton admired Barbour, and coveted his dialog. The scientific revolution, after all, led to the fantastic growth in the world economy that made him a billionaire. Templeton believes God has chosen him to show the world that, as he put it, theology and science are two windows on the same landscape. So he changed the name to the Templeton Prize for Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities. It is the largest prize for intellectual accomplishment in existence, chosen to be bigger than the Nobel. Since that time, six of the last eight winners of the Templeton Prize have been physicists. They all relied on the anthropic principle in their Templeton Prize statements.

There are 8 physicists among the 34 recipients so far of the Templeton Prize, and Park says that a couple more had degrees in physics.

The Foundation is currently running a series of dialogues on the question “Does science make belief in God obsolete?”. The answer is, of course, a resounding “Yes!” as this series of posts has pointed out, but clearly the foundation is hoping that the answer they get is no.

So did the IDC people submit proposals to the Templeton Foundation asking for support for investigations to find evidence for an intelligent designer? Well, no. As this news report said:

The Templeton Foundation, a major supporter of projects seeking to reconcile science and religion, says that after providing a few grants for conferences and courses to debate intelligent design, they asked proponents to submit proposals for actual research.

“They never came in,” said Charles L. Harper Jr., senior vice president at the Templeton Foundation, who said that while he was skeptical from the beginning, other foundation officials were initially intrigued and later grew disillusioned.

What the IDC people want to do is run a purely public relations campaign, consisting of books, articles, debates, films, all of them whining about how scientists are being mean to them and ignoring the evidence of a designer. But when it comes to doing actual research to back up their claims of having evidence, they refuse to even ask for money to pursue this line of research from an organization eager to fund them.

The major religions and their theologians and religious apologists also show this strange reluctance to do any actual research to find evidence for the existence of god while simultaneously seizing on anecdotal reports of crying statues and visions and stains on highway overpasses as evidence.

There is, of course, a simple explanation for this seemingly contradictory behavior. I have said before that I think that the Pope and other high-ranking clergy and theologians of all religions are very likely to be secretly atheists. They are smart people who have thought a lot about all the arguments against the existence of god that have been raised by the new atheists and elaborated on in this series of essays. Unlike for ordinary people, these arguments cannot be new to them and they are smart enough to recognize their force. They must know in their hearts that they have absolutely no basis for believing in god. The most charitable view I can assign to them is that they believe they believe because they desperately want to believe, a form of self-delusion. The more cynical view is that these high-ranking church dignitaries are laughing all the way to the bank, amazed that there exist so many suckers in the world willing to believe in the pious platitudes they put out, and to donate money to support them and their parasitic institutions.

I am not referring to ordinary worshippers or their local clergy, many of whom are likely to be genuine believers. My cynicism is directed at those occupying the top rungs of the hierarchy, who have the means and ability to truly investigate the evidence for god but refuse to do so and instead prattle on about the virtues of evidence-free faith.

Thus the first approach of apologists, to try and elevate religious beliefs to the level of science has failed. In the next post we will look at the second approach, and see how they are trying to lower science to the level of religion.

POST SCRIPT: On being happy

We can learn a lot from the Icelanders about how to be happy.

The end of god-18: Passing the buck

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

When it is pointed out that religious people have never provided any credible evidence for the existence of god, some religious apologists argue that the evidence for god is not definitive at present but only tentative and preliminary and needs to be pursued further to become more conclusive. They claim that scientists who have such tentative evidence are unwilling to go public with it for fear of being scorned by the rest of the academy and even losing their jobs, because of the opposition of the scientific community to anything that challenges their dogmatic materialistic worldview. This is an argument that is popular with the intelligent design creationism movement.

But a close look at that argument reveals how absurd it is. The first obvious question is why god is so coy about revealing evidence for his existence. Either he wants to reveal his presence or he does not. If the former, then surely it would be easy for god to conceive of ways to do so that would be unambiguous and incontrovertible and could not be denied by even the most ardent materialist. On the other hand, if god does not want to reveal his presence then surely he would be able to easily hide the evidence, so that no tentative evidence should exist.

To overcome this problem, we are asked to accept that god is like one of the criminals one finds on TV shows like Columbo or Monk, someone who makes really careful plans to hide his tracks but then inadvertently leaves some subtle clues behind that a scientific detective stumbles over. It seems highly implausible to have a god who wants to hide evidence of his presence but then inadvertently drops clues here and there that reveal his existence. How could god be so careless?

But religious apologists counter that objection with another variant. They say that god is inscrutable in his actions (this is the favorite argument when apologists cannot explain some thing) and so he must have his reasons for wanting to leave just tantalizing clues to his existence. Maybe he likes to leave us puzzles to solve. It is not up to us to ask why he does what he does but simply investigate and go where the evidence takes us.

This argument is usually accompanied by the complaint that the scientific community is not picking up on these clues and using its expertise and resources to do the necessary follow up. This argument is echoed by those people who believe that psychic and paranormal phenomena should also be more vigorously studied by the scientific community. The reluctance of the scientific community to do so is again taken as a sign of their dogmatic opposition, based on their materialist philosophy, to believing that such phenomena exist.

This is a really curious argument. If some people believe that they have tentative clues that point to the existence of god (or other psychic and paranormal phenomena), then they are the ones who should be investigating it further to find conclusive evidence. What they are saying instead is that they want other people to devote enormous amounts of time, expertise, and resources to investigating their idea. The obvious response to this is: why should they?

The reasons for scientists not taking up this challenge are quite simple. Let me give an example. I (like almost any other scientist whose name somehow becomes known to people outside academia) occasionally hear from people who are convinced that they have some paranormal power or have some evidence of god and want me to look into it. Just recently I heard from someone who claims that she can, using her mind alone, relax a person’s bladder muscles. Really. I declined her offer for a demonstration, the way I always decline these invitations, and it was not out of fear that I might wet my pants in her presence.

The reason that scientists are unwilling to participate in things like this is for purely practical reasons, not dogma. Past experience has shown that all these investigations have produced exactly zero credible evidence for the existence for god or the power of prayer or other paranormal phenomena, so why should we waste our time pursuing what is almost certainly yet another wild-goose chase? Come to us when you have credible evidence and then we can talk. For example, perhaps the bladder-relaxing woman can go to a Cleveland Browns football game and cause every one of the spectators and players in the stadium to release their bladders at the same time. That would certainly get a lot of attention. Or if her power doesn’t extend to more than one person at a time, she could go to one public event after another and cause the chief guest (maybe even the President if she can get in to such an event) to release his or her bladder while making a speech. Such serial public urination by high profile people would surely result in calls for investigations.

I believe that the scientific community is perfectly justified, based on the record to date, to refuse to be drawn into any further investigations for the existence of god or the power of prayer or psychic or other paranormal powers. When scientists have done so in the past, most notably with claims of the power of prayer to heal people, nothing has come of it. It has proven to be a waste of time.

But that does not mean that such phenomena should not be investigated at all. So who should do the work?

Next: Who should investigate the evidence for god

POST SCRIPT: California gay marriage ruling

Glenn Greenwald has studied the California Supreme Court 4-3 ruling that gay couples should have the same marriage rights as heterosexual couples gay marriage.

He points out that the ruling is at once both very significant in its implications for the long term future of gay marriage but less significant in its immediate impact on the rest of the country, since the Defense of Marriage Act passed by Congress and signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996 allows states to not recognize marriages certified by other states. So gay people in Ohio cannot go to California and get married and then return and expect full rights. As a result, we may see a loss of gay people from Ohio and other states as they move to states that don’t have discriminatory laws on their books.

As usual, Greenwald is well worth reading. He makes an important point:

The Court did not rule that California must allow same-sex couples the right to enter into “marriage.” It merely ruled that if the state allows opposite-sex couples to do so, then same-sex couples must be treated equally. The Court explicitly left open the possibility that the state could distinguish between “marriage” (as a religious institution) and “civil unions” (as a secular institution) — i.e., that California law could leave the definition of “marriage” to religious institutions and only offer and recognize “civil unions” for legal purposes — provided that it treated opposite-sex and same-sex couples equally. The key legal issue is equal treatment by the State as a secular matter, not defining “marriage” for religious purposes.

I have long thought that it makes sense for the government to only be involved in creating civil unions for all couples. If religious institutions want to have something symbolic called marriage and restrict those to only heterosexual couples, then they should of course be free to do so. But such a status should not confer any additional legal benefits.

The end of god-17: The god who loves playing peek-a-boo

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

There used to be a time when religion and belief in god reigned supreme and science was secondary. It was believed to be incontrovertibly true that god existed, and one did not really need to argue in favor of that proposition. Scientists of the period earlier than (say) the 18th century took the existence of god for granted and saw their research as shedding light on how god worked. True knowledge was believed to be derived from god. Some religious apologists use the views of religious scientists of that time (like Newton) to support the contention that science supports the existence of god, since those scientists believed in god.

But all that has changed dramatically. Scientific knowledge has advanced greatly since that time while religious knowledge has remained static and this has resulted in the link between science and religion being severed. Beginning with the theory of evolution, science first shed its role of being subservient to religion and later abandoned even the pretence of trying to show that the two knowledge structures were consistent with each other. This liberation from the constraints of religious dogma has led to the dramatic advances in science and of our knowledge of how things really work. And what has become clear is that the concept of god is totally irrelevant to understanding anything about the world. Science has made god obsolete and redundant.

It is now the knowledge created by science that is supreme. Although this knowledge is not infallible and is constantly subject to change and revision, there is nothing else that comes close to it in terms of reliability and usefulness. The achievements of science are unquestionable. Science is also truly universal. Its principles transcend narrow sectarian divisions of ethnicity, religion, and nationality. Anyone who rejects modern science and its methods of evidence and reason to create new knowledge is increasingly being seen as someone who is living in the past.

As a result, religion and belief in god is being increasingly revealed as little more than an irrelevancy, a bunch of superstitions, belief structures that children are taught and might find credible while they are still young but which are childish to cling on to when one has reached adulthood.

Faced with this new reality, and not having any new evidence to produce in their favor, what religious apologists have done is try and reframe the debate. One approach that is taken by advocates of intelligent design creationism (IDC) is to argue that science is dogmatically burying its head in the sand and deliberately avoiding, ignoring, or suppressing evidence for the existence of god. The second approach is to argue that science is just like religion because they are both faith-based, and that thus they are equivalent knowledge structures that each person can accept or reject on the basis of which faith they prefer.

In the first approach, believers try to elevate religion to the level of science while in the second approach, they try to bring science down to the level of religion. Both approaches try to equate science with religion.

The first argument, that scientists, because of a dogmatic commitment to materialistic explanations for phenomena, are deliberately ignoring the evidence for god, is really rather ridiculous. The reason that scientists seek materialistic explanations is not because they have received an edict that they must do so but simply because such an approach has been extraordinarily successful for doing research

It is undoubtedly true that scientists can be and have been dogmatic. There have undoubtedly been instances where individual scientists who have been the passionate originators or supporters of some theory have ignored or even suppressed evidence for alternative theories. Scientists are all too human and can fall prey to the same kinds of failings as other people. A scientist may well suppress evidence of a rival theory that challenges his or her own work out of petty ambition or jealousy or fear of failure.

But to extend this to saying that the community as a whole is suppressing evidence of the existence of god is preposterous. After all, this is god we are talking about. You know, lord of the universe, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible, etc. A scientist who suspected that he or she had evidence of such a being would be mad to try and suppress it. After all, god could presumably easily thwart the pathetic attempts of any mere mortal to throw a cloak over him. Besides which, a scientist who tried to do that would presumably be inviting everlasting torments in hell. Scientists may be dogmatic but they are not that stupid.

It is far-fetched to think that a scientist would not reveal evidence that is unearthed for the existence of god or even the supernatural and the paranormal. After all, such a thing would be the biggest discovery in the history of the world. We live in a world so steeped in religious superstition that there are billions of people who so desperately seek a sign from god that they are even willing to accept as evidence pieces of burnt toast that seem to show an image of Jesus, despite the fact that no one knows what Jesus looked like, assuming he even existed. A scientist who revealed convincing evidence for god would be guaranteed to receive fame and fortune beyond imagination. The scientist would be even bigger than Oprah, if you can imagine that. Why would they not reveal the evidence for god? It makes no sense.

To counter this objection, religious apologists have a variant of this scientific dogma argument and that is to argue that perhaps the evidence that some scientists have for god is not definitive enough but at present is somewhat tentative and preliminary and needs to be pursued further to become more conclusive. The scientists who have such tentative evidence are unwilling to go public with it for fear of being scorned by the rest of the academy and even losing their jobs. This is the premise of the film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.

In the next post I will examine the plausibility of this argument.

POST SCRIPT: More religious craziness

As if his other views were not problematic enough, new audio clips of his sermons have emerged where John McCain’s buddy John Hagee claims that Hitler was used by god as a ‘hunter’ to hunt the Jews in order to encourage them to go to Israel.

And of course, this craziness has to be true because Hagee says he got it from the Bible. You wonder how the Bible can say that since it was written before Hitler? You are ignoring the magic interpretive glasses that all deeply religious people have that enables them to see precisely what they want to see in their religious texts.

The Hitler sermon was apparently too much for McCain who has now rejected Hagee’s endorsement.

The kind of thinking that religious people like Hagee exhibit has its own weird logic. They believe in a god who is a micromanager. Hence any major event (hurricane, genocide, war) had to be planned and implemented by god. They also believe that the Bible is the blueprint for god’s plans for the world. Once you accept those premises, then it’s off to the races, trying to infer the reasons for god’s actions by combing through the Bible.

Meanwhile, another McCain backer, a major evangelical pastor Rod Parsley has been preaching violently anti-Muslim sermons.

So now that Catholics, Jews, and Muslims have been targeted, McCain only needs to add anti-Hindu and anti-Buddhist backers to his roster to have the Grand Slam.