For Darwin Day, Roger Ebert wrote an article on Darwin and evolution. Most of it is pretty darned good; he’s writing as “an intelligent, curious person who years ago became fascinated by the Theory of Evolution because of its magnificence, its beauty, and its self-evident truth”, not as a biologist, and I think that is an important perspective. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in Abstract Biological Esoterica to appreciate evidence and reason and the elegance of evolution! This is one of the reasons I oppose religion so vehemently: I am optimistic that most people are entirely capable of grasping the principles of good science, but that what we have in our culture right now is an explicit ideological barrier that hampers understanding. I’ve said it over and over that most creationists are not stupid people, they simply have this unfortunate indoctrination in a weird belief that their beloved children will be imperiled for all eternity if someone shows them a shell that is more than 6000 years old.
So read Ebert’s article, it’s good, it expresses considerable common sense. However, you know me — there are bits that provoke me to draw out the razor-edged claymore of angry scientist and start slashing indiscriminately. Stand back, I have a blade and I don’t care how wildly I use it!
Ebert has to have a section in which he tries to gently chide atheists, and I will not be chidden. In particular, he has a list of points he makes in these kinds of arguments, and one is a special bête noir for me.
Science has no opinion on religion. It cannot. Science deals with that which can be studied or inferred by observation, measurement, and experiment. Religious belief is outside its purview, except in such social sciences as sociology, anthropology, and psychology, where even then not the validity of the beliefs but their effects are studied.
All right, I’ll sheathe the sword for a bit. I hear this argument so often that I mainly feel disappointed when someone drags it out anymore — especially when I can agree that that person is “intelligent and curious”. The premise that science can’t have a stance on the validity of a religion is like the tranquilizer dart of the debates with religion; someone is thinking and questioning, and suddenly, swooosh, thock, ouch…they hear this argument that you can’t question the premises of religion, they get all sleepy and soporified, nod a few times, and piously agree. Gould succumbed to this, too, and here’s Roger Ebert, hit by the same dart.
Think about it. Why can’t science address the existence of gods? Why should we simply sit back and accept the claim of apologists that what they believe in is not subject to “observation, measurement, and experiment”?
In the United States today, we have tens of thousands of priests, rabbis, mullahs, pastors, and preachers who are paid professionals, who claim to be active and functioning mediators between people and omnipotent invisible masters of the universe. They make specific claims about their god’s nature, what he’s made of and what he isn’t, how he thinks and acts, what you should do to propitiate it…they somehow seem to have amazingly detailed information about this being. Yet, when a scientist approaches with a critical eye, suddenly it is a creature that not only has never been observed, but cannot observed, and its actions invisible, impalpible, and immaterial.
So where did these confident promoters of god-business get their information? Shouldn’t they be admitting that their knowledge of this elusive cosmic beast is nonexistent? It seems to me that if you’re going to declare scientists helpless before the absence and irrelevance of the gods, you ought to declare likewise for all of god’s translators and interpreters. Be consistent when you announce who has purview over all religious belief, because making god unobservable and immeasurable makes everyone incapable of saying anything at all about it.
And what of those many millions of ordinary people who claim to have daily conversations with this entity? That is an impressive conduit for all kinds of testable information: a high bandwidth channel between the majority of people on Earth and a friendly, omniscient source of knowledge, and it isn’t named Google. All these queries, and all these answers, and yet, somehow, none of these answers have enough meaning or significance to represent a testable body of counsel. Amazing! You would think that in all that volume of communication, some tiny percentage of useful information would emerge that we could assess against reality, but no…the theologians, lay and professional alike, will all claim that no usable data can be produced that would satisfy a scientist looking for sense. It sounds like empty noise to me.
We have the supposed histories of these believers, and they are full of material actions. Gods throw lightning bolts to smite unbelievers, annihilate whole cities and nations, raise the dead, slay whole worlds of people, suspend the laws of physics to halt the sun in the sky, create the whole Earth in less than a week, help footballers score goals, and even manifest themselves in physical bodies and walk about, doing amazing magic tricks. Wow, O Lord, please do vaporize a city with a column of holy fire before my eyes — I can observe that, I can measure that, I can even do experiments with the rubble. I will be really impressed.
Oh, but wait: it can only be an unobservable, undetectable exercise in mass destruction? And he’s not doing that sort of thing anymore? How about pulling a rabbit out of this hat? No, sorry, all done. God can’t do anything anymore where people might actually notice, or worse, record the act and figure out how the tricks are done. This is awfully convenient.
This is where the “Science has no opinion on religion” argument leads us: to an atheist’s world, where there are no activities by a god that matter, where at best people can claim that their god is aloof and unknowable, admitting in their own premises that they have no knowledge at all of him.
I can accept that, as long as these people are aware of the import of what they are actually saying.