The crying game

On Tuesday, I wrote about my discussion with the Cleveland Freethinkers group. Today I want to spend some time on the issue of the Christian woman at the meeting who, right in the middle of a lively discussion on the relative merits of the accommodationist versus the new atheist positions, suddenly and tearfully interjected an extended statement about her strong belief in Jesus based on some unspecified personal experience.

While we were sympathetic with her and treated her outburst gently, it is precisely this kind of reaction that is used by religious believers to shut down criticisms of their beliefs. I am not suggesting that this was a devious plan of the woman in question. In fact, I think she was being genuine and spontaneous. But it is symptomatic of the problem of frankly discussing religion. Religious people have become so used to their views being given undue deference that they cannot deal with having them clinically analyzed and thus become upset.

When someone tearfully says in the midst of a rational discussion on science and religion that “I truly believe that Jesus is my savior” or gives as the basis of some crackpot belief (like the Earth is 6,000 years old) that this is what his faith tells him is true, and is clearly upset because the rest of us are not taking such beliefs seriously, what are we supposed to do? What has been expected of us in the past, and which is what I am afraid that the accommodationist position encourages, is to treat such outbursts as either a sensible contribution to the conversation and try and soothe the person’s wounded feelings or change the subject to avoid having to contradict someone’s sincerely held beliefs, thus effectively ending the discussion. This is precisely how religious beliefs have shielded themselves, by expecting us to accommodate the emotional beliefs and feelings of religious people, and treating them as things that cannot be directly challenged.

What we should really do when people say such things is say something like “Good for you! But what you sincerely believe in the absence of any credible evidence is not really pertinent to this discussion, so let’s move on, shall we?” In essence that is what the Cleveland Freethinkers group eventually did, although they took some time to do so because initially it was taken aback and spent some time trying to cater to the feelings of the Christian and not hurt them

The philosopher Richard Rorty grappled with this same question in a 1994 essay titled Religion as Conversation-stopper that I wrote about earlier. Rorty says that the silence that usually accompanies someone’s fervent statement about their religious beliefs “masks the group’s inclination to say, ‘So what? We weren’t discussing your private life; we were discussing public policy. Don’t bother us with matters that are not our concern.’ This would be my own inclination in such a situation.”

I think that is precisely what happened at the Freethinker’s meeting. The Christian’s outburst hijacked the discussion away from general policy to solicitousness for her feelings. Most of us clearly felt that the Christian woman’s testimony was not relevant but struggled to find ways to tell her so without making her cry even more, thus taking time away from the main focus.

What happened is the religious equivalent of what has been sarcastically referred to within the feminist movement as the ‘white woman’s tears‘ phenomenon, “the tendency of race and gender discussions among feminists to be derailed by white women into the pain the discussion is causing non-POC [person of color].” It is elaborated on in this poem by Native American poet Chrystos in the context of internal struggles within the feminist community.

That is precisely the response that we new atheists get when we criticize all forms of religion, moderate and fundamentalist. When we do so, the feelings of religionists are hurt and they start to cry. Not literally of course in the case of sophisticated religious moderates, because that would look obviously whiny and pathetic. Instead they cry in a metaphorical sense, by leveling the charge that the new atheists are ‘contemptuous’ of other people’s beliefs or ‘militant’ or ‘rude’ or ‘extreme’ or ‘shrill’ or ‘strident’ or ‘obnoxious’ or similar epithets.

These charges are rarely backed up with concrete examples of such alleged bad behavior or language, or that it is any more common than the disdain with which atheists are routinely portrayed by religious people. Their function is once again to seek to shift the discussion away from the credibility of religion and to soothing the wounded feelings of the person claiming to be aggrieved by the allegedly harsh rhetoric against religion, and to make the new atheists apologetic and on the defensive. The excellent comic strip Jesus and Mo has something to say about this.

jesusandmo2.jpg

Sorry, but new atheists have caught on to this crying game rhetorical gambit and it is not working any more. This does not mean that we will simply dismiss those who get upset but it is not going to mute us. The new atheists are here to stay and will continue to make their critiques of religion because the fact that science and religion are incompatible is backed by an overwhelming preponderance of evidence and logical arguments in its favor, while religious apologetics and theology is becoming increasingly desperate in its special pleading.

Religious moderates are just going to have to suck it up and deal with criticisms of their beliefs like adults.

POST SCRIPT: The Thinking Atheist gives us The Story of Suzie

(Thanks to onegoodmove.)

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.
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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.
[Read more…]

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.
[Read more…]

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.