I may not be perfectly rational, but my magic invisible monkeys are!

John Wilkins has tried to make some arguments for accommodationism. I am unimpressed. He makes six points that I briefly summarize here, with my reply.

  1. It’s the job of the religious to reconcile their beliefs with science, and atheists don’t get to “insist that nobody else can make the claim that their religious belief is consistent with science.” The first part is obvious — we aren’t going to compromise science with superstition, nor are we going to make excuses for them. The second part makes no sense. Nobody has been making that demand…but we will point out how silly the excused people make are.

  2. The usual excuse that making nice with religion is strategic, coupled with the claim that religion is always going to be around. Other people can be strategic. Scientists just ought to be honest. As for the tired argument that religion will always be around — no. Some of us have shed the old myths. More will follow. I don’t have any problem seeing a coming future where religious belief is an irrelevant minority position. Of course, if you start out with a defeatist attitude, it becomes a bit more difficult.

  3. Some scientists are religious, and we don’t have the right to insist that they give it up. I have not heard a single atheist insist that anyone must give up their religion. I can imagine a majority voluntarily giving it up, but my imagination fails at the idea of going up to some believer and ordering them to stop believing. How do we do that? So, sorry, Wilkins — it’s another complaint about something no one is proposing.

  4. Scientific institutions shouldn’t be asserting that science is compatible with religion — let the religious do that themselves. That’s the very same thing the atheists have been saying all along.

  5. Religion has always been wrong about the natural world, but religion is seeking knowledge of something different. Again, first part fine, second part weird. What knowledge? Can you even call it “knowledge” if it’s nothing that anyone can know? Why should we accept any claims by religion?

  6. NOMA is wrong, and there is no war between religion and science. Wilkins continues his pattern of being half right. I agree that NOMA was a false attempt at reconciliation. I disagree that there is no conflict between religion and science. Religion is an archaic, failed mode of thinking that continues to demand greater respect than it deserves, and exploits tradition, fear, and emotion to maintain its undeserved position. Wilkins tries to compare it to two dancers jostling for space on a dance floor, I prefer to think of it as one dancer, humanity, afflicted with lice, religion, and twitching and squirming unpleasantly while struggling with a persistent parasite.

So, a resounding “eh”. However, then he tosses out this bizarre bit of philosophical insipidity that irritates, like an annoying bit of grit in my shoe. It’s one of those superficially reasonable comments that, with just a little thought, looks awfully stupid.

Only those who are completely without self-knowledge think they are entirely rational on every subject, and that this licenses attacking others for their perceived failings in that respect. I know I won’t change their mind either.

Grrr. Once again, we’ve got a caricature of the atheist position: who among us claims perfect self-knowledge and flawless rationality? We’re human beings, last I looked. However, to imply that we can therefore have no license to criticize irrationality is to claim that no one can say anything ever against foolishness. It’s an abdication of intellectual responsibility.

If I were to announce that I were absolutely rational and that I had perfect knowledge, I would expect to be rightfully attacked by people like John Wilkins for my obvious failing. Hey, he just did — even though I’ve never made such an assertion. But I think we’d both agree that such an extravagant claim would most definitely be an astonishing foolishness that ought to be smacked down. What a crazy idea!

John clearly thinks some philosophical claims are wrong. But the curious thing is that he thinks certain other claims are beyond our capacity to criticize.

If, for instance, someone believes that a god gave us magical absolution by turning into a man and dying temporarily, well, heck—that may not be an irrational, wacky idea at all. If this someone claims that they have a magical communication line to an omniscient superman who assures him that the 36-hour death absolution was really, really true, we should step back, take a charitably philosophical view of the idea, and abstain from calling him a very silly man.

There are limits to what we can attack as bad ideas.

But, apparently, there are no limits to the absurdities that the religious can advance.

It’s an asymmetrical situation that will be maintained as long as we have people insisting that we grant religious ideas a specially protected status. I reject that — I’m going to insist that it is fair game to attack the obvious failings of religion. And it’s not because I am unaware of the limitations of my knowledge, or because I believe I’m flawlessly rational.

It’s because the invisible monkeys in my pants dart out every once in a while to whisper the truth in my ear, in the ancient language of omniscient primates. And that is a source of knowledge nobody can attack me on, by Wilkins’ rules.

The last radio reminder

Sad (in some ways) to say, Atheists Talk radio will make its last broadcast Sunday at 9am Central time. They will continue, but they’ll be moving to a podcast format rather than continuing to be sandwiched in between woo-woo altie nonsense programs, which is a good thing.

The show tomorrow will feature Greg Laden discussing missionaries. He doesn’t like ’em. Neither do I. It should be a very good last hurrah.

Nice ankles

It took a while to convince the Trophy Wife to let me take pictures of her feet and post them on the internet. Wait, that’s not as kinky as it sounds! She’s been loafing about in these nice socks she was sent by our very own Patricia, OM, using yarn colors based on the Spanish Shawl nudibranch, and I just think they need to be acknowledged — but maybe you haven’t noticed, but she likes to avoid the whole interwubbley fanfare. Finally, though, I caught her with her toasty warm tootsies atop an ottoman and snapped this shot, so there you are: beautiful socks and a rare image of the Trophy Wife.


Thanks, Patricia!

Jodi and Jason

In case you missed the trail of links that magically appeared on several blogs this morning, here it is:

Almost DiamondsSkepchickGreg Laden’s BlogWhitecoat UndergroundTraumatized By TruthMy Fair ScientistNeurotopiaA Blog Around the ClockPharyngula

What it all led up to was a marriage proposal from Jodi Haynes to Jason Thibeault, which would have been a bit of a bummer if he’d said “No”, but we’re all pleased to hear that he said “Yes!”

A few people seem to be baffled by the business of a pair of proud atheists going through this “marriage” stuff. Isn’t that a religious ritual?

No! It’s an example of human values and human commitment that has been coopted by religious institutions — just as they want you to think you can’t be born and you can’t die without an attending parasite from some superstitious dogma, they also want you to believe you can’t stand up and declare your love for another person without a holy gatekeeper. No gods intervene, no priests can sanctify, and no government can dictate when two people care enough about each other that they willingly and publicly declare that they have a lasting bond. Nothing else matters.

So good godless congratulations to Jodi and Jason, from one happily married pair of atheists to another.

Sally Kern is at it again

Oklahoma’s bible-thumpingest congresscreature has issued a Proclamation of Morality.

WHEREAS, the people of Oklahoma have a strong tradition of reliance upon the Creator of the Universe; and

WHEREAS, we believe our economic woes are consequences of our greater national moral crisis; and

WHEREAS, this nation has become a world leader in promoting abortion, pornography, same sex marriage, sex trafficking, divorce, illegitimate births, child abuse, and many other forms of debauchery; and

WHEREAS, alarmed that the Government of the United States of America is forsaking the rich Christian heritage upon which this nation was built; and

WHEREAS, grieved that the Office of the president of these United States has refused to uphold the long held tradition of past presidents in giving recognition to our National Day of Prayer; and

WHEREAS, deeply disturbed that the Office of the president of these United States disregards the biblical admonitions to live clean and pure lives by proclaiming an entire month to an immoral behavior;

NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that we the undersigned elected officials of the people of Oklahoma, religious leaders and citizens of the State of Oklahoma, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world, solemnly declare that the HOPE of the great State of Oklahoma and of these United States, rests upon the Principles of Religion and Morality as put forth in the HOLY BIBLE

Notice that the only solutions she proposes to her perceived problem of immorality is 1) pray for a day, and 2) read her holy book. Even if you grant that her declared problems are real moral problems (and I do not: I find it incredibly offensive and obtuse that she would lump same sex marriage together with sex trafficking) these are solutions that do not work. If you want to find a hotbed of divorce, illegitimate births, child abuse, alcoholism, etc.…just look for a high density of churches.

Auf wiedersehen

Tomorrow, I get to spend a very long day traveling to the Lindau Meetings, which will be great fun, and you can expect some science blogging from that event (Bora will also be attending, so Scienceblogs has you covered).

However, I am seeing some troublesome stirrings here. A certain demented ex-commenter is morphing to avoid his banning, we’ve just had a flood of weird spam (a dental office using spam tools? Tsk, tsk), and I just know my ability to police the site is going to be hampered by meetings…or good Bavarian beer. So just be warned: I may have to turn user registration on again. I know you hate that, but I also hate accumulated spam.

I’ll think about it overnight, but I may have to put the handcuffs and ball gag on you guys tomorrow. For a while.

Christian faith is at odds with science

Yesterday morning, I was in a discussion on UK Christian talk radio on the topic of “Is Christian faith at odds with science?”, with Denis Alexander of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. It’s going to be available as a podcast at sometime in the next day, but I may not be able to link to it right away — tomorrow I fly away to Germany for a week, so my schedule is going to be a bit chaotic for a while.

Don’t expect fireworks. It was the usual feeble accommodationist claptrap, but I had my nice man hat on and actually tried to get across some basic ideas. To no avail, of course, but at least I tried.

I have now discovered that I was trying to make the same points Lawrence Krauss is doing in the Wall Street Journal: religion is wrong. It’s a set of answers, and worse, a set of procedures, that don’t work. That’s the root of our argument that religion is incompatible with science.

That word, “incompatibility”, is a problem, though. The uniform response we always get when we say that is “Hey! I’m a Christian, and I’m a scientist, therefore they can’t be incompatible!” Alexander was no exception, and said basically the same thing right away. It’s an irrelevant point; it assumes that a person can’t possibly hold two incompatible ideas at once. We know that is not true. We have complicated and imperfect brains, and even the most brilliant person on earth is not going to be perfectly consistent. When we talk about incompatibility, we have to also specify what purposes are in conflict, and show that the patterns of behavior have different results.

For instance, if you just like to go to church because you enjoy the company, then the purpose of religion to you is to reinforce social bonds — so of course there is no incompatibility between science and religion there. If you go for the choir (as Stephen Jay Gould was known to do), you’re there to enjoy the music, and science does not dictate that human beings are not allowed to enjoy music. For that matter, science doesn’t say that someone is not allowed to enjoy the perverse circumlocutions of theology, so if someone attends for the religion sensu strictu, no problem.

But in a debate about the compatibility of science and religion, we have to put the argument in an appropriate context and define a specific shared purpose for both science and religion — it’s the only legitimate ground for discussion. In this case, what we’re trying to do is address big questions (remember, the Templeton Foundation says they’re all about those “big questions”) about the nature of the universe, about our history, about how we function, and then we encounter a conflict: religion keeps giving us different answers. Very different answers. They can’t all be right, and since no two religions give the same answers, but since science can generally converge on similar and consistent answers, I know which one is right. And that makes religion simply wrong.

We have to look at what they do to see why. In order to probe the nature of the universe around us, science is a process, a body of tools, that has a long history of success in giving us robust, consistent answers. We use observation, experiment, critical analysis, and repeated reevaluation and confirmation of events in the natural world. It works. We use frequent internal cross-checking of results to get an answer, and we never entirely trust our answers, so we keep pushing harder at them. We also evaluate our success by whether the end results work: it’s how we end up with lasers and microwave ovens, and antibiotics and cancer therapies.

Religion, on the other hand, uses a different body of techniques to explain the nature of the universe. It uses tradition and dogma and authority and revelation, and a detailed legalistic analysis of source texts, to dictate what the nature of reality should be. It’s always wrong, from an empirical perspective, although I do have to credit theologians with some of the most amazingly intricate logical exercises as they try to justify their conclusions. The end result of all of this kind of clever wankery, though, is that some people say the world is 6000 years old, that it was inundated with a global flood 4000 years ago, and other people say something completely different, and there is no way within the body of theology to resolve which answers are right. They have to step outside their narrow domain to get an independent confirmation — that is, they rely on science to give them the answers to the Big Questions in which they purport to have expertise.

So what theistic scientists have to do is abandon the operational techniques of religion and use science to address those questions. The “theistic” part of their moniker is nothing but useless baggage which, if they take it at all seriously, would interfere with their understanding of the world. That is what I mean by an incompatibility between the two.

Krauss uses a marvelous and well-known quote from J.B.S. Haldane to make that point more briefly.

My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.

I got Alexander to agree that he does not use religion in the laboratory — I don’t know anyone who would say that they do, other than creationist kooks — but it didn’t seem to sink in that that is an admission of incompatibility. Religion doesn’t work to answer questions in science, which always leaves me wondering…if you accept that, why do you go on thinking it might be giving you correct answers in ordinary daily life? It has an awfully poor track record.

Now one way the defenders of religion like to get around this empirical problem is to change the game in mid-play: one moment we’re talking about tools for understanding the world, where there is a conflict, and then they switch to a completely different purpose, that of establishing a common morality, or appreciating art, or falling in love. I would be the first to admit that science does not and should not dictate morality: the cases in the past where this has happened (eugenics comes to mind right away) have been disastrous. Science is good at explaining what is and how it works, and not so great at telling us how it should work. I also wouldn’t use the scientific method directly to determine whether I like some music or poetry or not.

However, I’m going to have to say that religion doesn’t do a good job at that either. SJ Gould tried to partition the domains of authority for science and religion by explicitly setting a boundary, and saying religion should have the job of defining what is right and good…but I think he failed, because he gave far too much credit to religion for being able to discern and act on a reasonable morality. It’s foundation on authority and its role in defining in and out groups means it is too exclusionary, too narrow and inflexible, and also too willing to ignore empirical evidence. It’s why we have religion behind such immoral acts today as trying to restrict civil rights to people who have only a certain range of sexual behaviors, or facilitating the spread of sexually transmitted disease in Africa by damning sex education and condom use.

And when it comes to other questions than the cosmic ones about the nature of existence, I prefer that we apply just about any discipline other than religion to the problem: at least they are evidence-based, where religion is not. I’d rather consult a philosopher than a theologian on morality; they’ve been thinking about it with a broader scope than the pious promoters of sectarian belief, anyway, don’t restrict their principles to worshippers of one particular idol, and usually don’t invoke magical rewards and punishments that have never been seen to justify decisions. If I’m in love I’m better off pulling a book of poetry off the shelf than consulting a celibate. I’d rather hear about economics from an economist than from a ouija board or a pulpit, and I like the idea of policy decisions being evaluated for effectiveness, rather than ideological purity. When we’re looking at communities and interactions between individuals, give me a psychologist or a sociologist over a priest any day. The only useful priests in those matters are the ones who understand the principles of psychology and sociology, and apply those, rather than pulling a quote out of their holy book.

Accommodationists are a problem not because accommodation is bad, but because they are pushing for the wrong kind of accommodation. Science doesn’t need to conform, religion does. Religion demands a special kind of privilege in these discussions because if we actually get down to assessing views fairly and objectively, on the basis of what works, it fails. I say, let it.

This is also why so many of us object to the Templeton Foundation. Their agenda consists solely of mixing up science and religion, to the detriment of the former. They just want to compromise…but asking us to compromise science that works with faith that doesn’t is a fool’s bargain. Why should we?