There is no evidence for gods. It really is that simple. That is not proof that there are no gods, but it does imply that we ought to be cautious and limited in our interpretations of supernatural explanations — do not multiply the number and magnitude of unevidenced entities in your explanations of observed phenomena. It is genuinely easy, in an intellectual sense, to be an atheist, while believing in any gods is outrageously difficult because it requires positing an extremely complex root cause for everything with no supporting observations at all (in an emotional sense, it’s the reverse: it can be comforting to short-circuit the difficult path to knowledge by simply saying that “God (whatever the heck that is) did it.”)
But here’s the problem: how do you get that across to the majority of believers? And even more fundamentally, why should you bother? The argument is that if someone believes in UFOs or Jesus or that the Earth is flat, they aren’t hurting anyone else, and we atheists, as human beings, also all hold personal beliefs that might not be true — are atheists who like Justin Bieber wrong? — but again, if they aren’t hurting anyone else, so what? Do we have an obligation to be silently tolerant, or do we have an obligation to speak out?
I tend to favor the side that says we should publicly disagree with religious belief, but that it does need to be a responsible disagreement. You do not create a deeper understanding of how the universe works by going after the believers with a baseball bat, or by getting them fired from their jobs, or by requiring students to profess atheism in order to pass your philosophy class (which you may recognize as the absurd premise of that bad movie, God’s Not Dead).
But there are two legitimate concerns that suggest that maybe a strong response is appropriate. One example is this essay from a Christian on how moderate religious belief can suck you right down into violent fanaticism.
In my teenage years, I asked questions, of course. I had doubts. But when I reached the age at which young people feel a drive to do something significant with their lives, I still turned to the Bible for answers — because I had been primed by eighteen years of religious upbringing, moderate though it was, to do so.
I remember it clearly. Just after graduating from high school, I decided to open the Bible that my church had given me when I entered the third grade. I started with the Sermon on the Mount, and I found it intoxicating. My first thought was that the words were truly divine. And my second was that I had to follow them at all costs.
It soon occurred to me that my church, precisely because it was moderate, was failing to adhere faithfully to Christ’s teachings. What was needed, I thought, was a return to the fundamentals. And that was my first step down a potentially dangerous road. It was entirely logical — after all, if you really have a divine book on your hands, you’d be stupid not to devote yourself to it.
That’s where religious experience goes dangerously wrong. It’s not because of stupidity, quite the opposite: if you accept the base premise that the Holy Book was written by an omniscient super-being, then the danger lies in intelligent people who can derive what logically follows, and who then make a personally consistent and rational decision about what to do next. You also have to worry about the sheep who are led by the aggressive shepherd who then instructs the masses to commit atrocities.
But this is fundamentally a slippery slope argument. The majority of religious people do not take the path of terrorism, although part of the reason for that is that they’re very good about setting themselves up in insulated enclaves where they can be comfortably complacent about their beliefs. It’s when those sheltered groups face novelties that they become problems, as we’re seeing as immigration brings uniformity in conflict with diversity.
My second concern is one that bothers me more: there are people who are wrong! This leads them down a path of error that makes them wronger and wronger, and leads them to disrespect honest methods of inquiry. They’re missing out on wonderful stuff in favor of bland reassurances that they don’t really need to use their brains.
An example: I made a weak joke above about Justin Bieber. I have to confess that it is an uninformed bias — I’ve heard a song or two, but I couldn’t even name a single song by the guy, and I didn’t care for them. My personal dislike is not a sound basis for judging him, though, and it’s really a diss that can be safely made because of the opinions of all the other people in my bubble.
But if I cared more about the Bieber influence (I don’t, actually, you don’t need to write a dissertation), the opinions and evidence of musically informed people would be important. If there are good, strong, reliable reasons to claim that Bieber is derivative and untalented, a solid, detailed explanation for why a musician would think that would make me more informed about pop music, and I’d be better for it. On the other hand, maybe I’m wrong, and a musician would make a good defense for why he’s popular, what he does that is unique and interesting, and I’d be richer for that, too. Exploring dissent is a good thing that makes us stronger and better informed.
This is a subtler problem than the concern that moderate religious belief puts you on the slippery slope to terrorism. It’s that moderate religious belief is bad, lazy thinking and you should feel obligated to improve your understanding.
Which leads me to another concern, these misbegotten efforts to marry religion and science. There has been another conference at Oxford, a joint meeting of scientists & theologians, at the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, an institution with a name that already makes me queasy. If that’s bad enough, the reports of the event make me positively nauseous: Scientists, theologians ponder if ‘new biology’ is more open to religion. Ugh. I am willing to try and be better informed about what people are trying to reconcile here, but everything I read looks like more lazy, sloppy misinterpretation of biology to fit religious preconceptions.
The “new biology” they’re talking about is epigenetics, gene regulation, pattern formation, and environmental influences on genes. This is old familiar stuff that is merely coming to the attention of the previously uninformed, but it’s no new than the New Atheists are novel. It also doesn’t challenge the naturalistic perspective on biology — it’s a consequence of the continued application of scientific methods, and has nothing to do with any input from religion. But a few characters see a few words that they can misinterpret to fit their biases.
To theologians who see a “new biology” emerging, this knowledge points to a more holistic system than scientists have traditionally seen, one more open to some divine inspiration for life.
In this view, the fact that epigenetic markers can bring outside pressures to bear on the genome deep inside a human means genetics is not a closed system, but part of the wider sweep of nature in which they, as religious thinkers, also see God’s hand.
Nature is so complex and rich and that prompts questions about why on earth is this the case? If you’re an atheist, how do you explain a universe that seems to have the capacity to produce these things in the first place?asked Alister McGrath, an Oxford theologian who is director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion that hosted the conference.
This, in turn, opened a space for theologians to augment the discussion about the “new biology,” he said.
This is so familiar. Biology is complex. The more we know about biology, the more complex it gets. Therefore, god.
“Holistic” is not shorthand for supernatural. Despite a tendency for some people to get overly reductionist, always a danger in science, we’ve been well aware that environment and organism are intertwined. I just got done teaching a course on exactly that, in ecological development. I did not feel the need to throw in gratuitous magic and supernatural explanations for natural phenomena.
Epigenetics seems to be the buzzword du jour, but seriously, “God’s hand” is not part of the story. Epigenetics would be dead boring if we were filling in gaps in our understanding with handwaving from an invisible entity.
Alister McGrath makes it explicit:
Nature is complex, therefore he needs to bring in an incomprehensible, ill-defined magical ghost to explain it. This is a non sequitur, par for the course in theological thinking. It’s the Intelligent Design creationism rationale, to assume that complexity implies conscious intent.
So there’s another reason atheists have an obligation to address religious beliefs. I have no reason to think Alister McGrath would ever turn into a bomb-throwing terrorist for his faith — his specialty is mush-mouthed pseudo-intellectual noise making — but here he is, trying to poison a rigorous scientific discipline with bullshit. I commend the theologians for making a superficial effort to understand the science, but what I see emerging from this conference is nothing but pretense, an effort to slather some poorly interpreted science on the outside of a core of mythological mysticism.
If he’s to be free to believe whatever invalid crap he wants, the rest of us acquire the responsibility to point to the fraud.