Harry Potter and the supernatural

The release of each new Harry Potter book or film bring out of the woodwork those religious people who are disturbed by them and decide they need to spam everyone and try to make money from it as well.

I received a spam email following the release of Deathly Hallows that recycled old warnings about the subversive nature of the books and asking me to buy a video to help combat the Potter menace. It said:
[Read more…]

The case against religion

In the previous post. I argued that more education did not necessarily lead to less religion and that if one thought that its net effect on humanity was negative, one needed to more actively campaign against it. But others disagree. Even those who accept that religion has done some truly evil things might argue that the good that it does compensates (at least partially) and merits preserving it. The mere fact that it is false, it might be claimed, should not be sufficient to cause us to undermine it. They could point to children believing in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, that these are examples of false but benign beliefs. What is to be gained by destroying such innocent illusions?

But the reason that beliefs in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy are benign is because children are deliberately weaned away from such beliefs before they reach adolescence. If we did not deliberately do so, who knows what might happen? We might end up having wars with armies of the followers of Santa Claus battling with those of the Tooth Fairy. Having adults who are capable of causing great harm believing in magical false things is usually not benign. We are unfortunately all too aware of the truth of Voltaire’s assertion “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities”.

In a comment to a previous post, Corbin Covault argued that even though religion may be a human construct, it can still serve important functions that merit preserving it. He draws a comparison with government:

One could argue that both [religions and governments] are human social constructions. Both manifest in institutions which may give some great sources of benefit to societies and individuals, but both have also been great sources of destruction and oppression. Would it be fair to say that the argument that the “militant atheist” makes that the world would be better off without _all_ religions analogous to the argument that the anarchist would make that the world would be better off without any governments?

I think that we will all agree that religion can be the source of many good things and of many bad things. We will undoubtedly disagree on whether the net result is positive or negative. But the key question is not how the balance sheet between good and evil comes out for any particular institution, but whether that institution is the only one that provides those benefits, so that we have no choice but to also tolerate the evils that accompany it. With religion, I have argued before that every benefit claimed for it can be provide by other existing sources. If we get rid of religion, while we will lose both the good and the bad, my point was that we can regain every good thing lost using other means and institutions, so in the end we need only lose the bad things caused by religion.

The question then becomes whether we can say the same thing for government. If the answer is yes, then we should undoubtedly get rid of government but currently it seems like the answer is no. We know that there always exists a tension between the existence of governments and individual liberty. But we strike a deal, accepting the restrictions on personal liberty as the price we pay for peace and the benefits of community living. We struggle to define the proper balance between freedom and order. Although we currently seem to need some institutions of government, we are not committed to any one form. We are free to change them if they prove to be evil. We tend to deplore dictatorships and admire democracies and no particular government has any claim to divine sanction. There may come a time when people feel that no government at all is better.

A similar good-evil comparison can be made for science. Science has given us great benefits but has also been responsible for some terrible evils. No scientist can avoid the fact that we are, to some extent, complicit in the many evils done in its name.

My own physics research involved studying what happens when a high-energy photon strikes a nucleus and produces a short-lived sub-nuclear particle called a pi-meson. There is no obvious link between this and any weapons system, but that is deceiving. The whole field of study in which it is embedded, nuclear physics, is an integral part of weapons research. It is not inconceivable that someone else will come along in the future and find that my small and seemingly innocent contribution to the field is important in developing a component of a deadly weapons system. If it happens, I cannot claim complete innocence. Although I may have not intended my work to serve evil ends, the fact that it has the potential to do so is inescapable. No scientist can ever have clean hands.

While it is impossible for scientists to have a perfectly clear conscience, scientists are usually able to figure out rationalizations to justify their actions because the immediate goals of scientific research are usually to benefit humanity. Even those scientists who deliberately choose to work on things that are clearly destructive (the development of agents for biological and chemical warfare or more powerful bombs) usually can find some reason to square their consciences, by appealing to in-group/out-group thinking (“The enemies of my country/race/religion may also be developing these weapons and so I am doing this in self-defense and to protect humanity against a greater evil.”).

This was the kind of thinking of many scientists who worked on the Manhattan project during World War II that resulted in the creation of the atomic bomb. There is no reason to think that they were any more evil than anyone else. In fact, I have met and spoken with Hans Bethe, the Nobel Prize winning physicist (for his work explaining the energy production in stars) who was the leader of the theory group on the project and instrumental in guiding and shepherding the many brilliant scientists who worked under him. Bethe struck me as a kind and gentle man, who after the war worked for peace and disarmament. Einstein was the same. Although they both advocated for the development of a nuclear weapons program prior to the war, and their own groundbreaking research was the basis for nuclear weapons, they were also consistently a voice for peace. And there is reason to think that the scientists working on the opposing German nuclear weapons program, led by another Nobel Prize winner Werner Heisenberg, were doing so for the same reasons.

It is possible for society to decide to make a judgment that science is too dangerous to continue and to shut it down almost completely. If governments refuse to provide funding for research and for agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, modern science as we know it would cease to exist, because we could no longer maintain a professional class of scientists. Of course, the spirit of scientific inquiry will remain and there will be amateur scientists whose thirst for knowledge will drive them along. But we have to remember that the emergence of the professional scientist, someone paid primarily to do research, is a relatively new invention. In England, such people only came into being around 1850, with Charles Darwin’s friends and colleagues Jacob Hooker and T. H. Huxley being two of the earliest. Darwin himself belonged to the earlier tradition of the amateur scientist who was independently wealthy enough to indulge what was essentially a hobby, or who had a job (clergyman or professor) that allowed them sufficient freedom and time to do so.

But in shutting down professional science, people would be aware that they would also be shutting themselves off from almost all the enormous benefits that science provides. And this is where the difference with religion arises. Although it can be argued that science and religion provide both benefits and evils, when it comes to science there is nothing else that we know that can be substituted to provide those benefits. We cannot keep the baby while throwing out the bathwater, so we make a Faustian bargain.

But in the case of religion, there is no benefit claimed by religion that cannot be provided by other institutions. The only real reason to continue supporting the idea of god is that it is true. Since there is no convincing empirical evidence at all in support of that proposition, religion becomes dispensable.

POST SCRIPT: Tortured logic

The Daily Show discusses the damage done to language by the ‘war on terror’.

The effect of education on religion

Voltaire was stinging in his criticisms of religion in general and Christianity in particular. He provided his own definition of a Christian as follows: “A good-natured, simple fellow; a true lamb of the fold, who, in the innocence of his heart, persuades himself that he firmly believes unbelievable things that his priests have told him to believe, especially those he cannot even imagine. Consequently, he is convinced that three x’s make fifteen, that God was made man, that he was hanged and rose to life again, that priests cannot lie, and that all who do not believe in priests will be damned without remission.”

Voltaire was being sarcastic when he made the statement that Christians are necessarily ‘good-natured’ because elsewhere he makes clear that he knows that religious people are capable of incredible evil. But he may have genuinely thought that one had to be simple (in the sense of naïve) to believe in god because he viewed the whole concept of god as requiring one to believe preposterous things. As he said: “The son of God is the same as the son of man; the son of man is the same as the son of God. God, the father, is the same as Christ, the son; Christ, the son, is the same as God, the father. This language may appear confused to unbelievers, but Christians will readily understand it.”

And to reiterate his view that to adopt religion involved the abandonment of reason, he said: “The truths of religion are never so well understood as by those who have lost the power of reasoning.” (Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary (1764), taken from Jonathon Green, The Cassell Dictionary of Cynical Quotations.)

The authors of the current crop of atheist books have attacked religion head-on by showing how untenable the claims of religion are, and how antithetical to rational thought. I have argued before that there are no mitigating benefits for religion that cannot be obtained from other sources. Since people should have the right to believe anything they want, the practical question becomes: What is the best way of making the unappealing aspects of religion better known so that more people will voluntarily relinquish it?

Since the liberal intellectual tradition holds that education leads to critical thinking, the solution is thus seen to lie in more and better education, the idea being that this leads to more reasoning minds, which in turn will lead to greater skepticism towards beliefs that fail the tests of reason and evidence, and hence to the decline of religion.

But this may be too optimistic a view of the power of education. I am not so sanguine that education holds the key. I think Voltaire was wrong in his belief that only the unreasoning could believe in god. As I have repeatedly pointed out, smart people are quite capable of believing weird things and finding reasons to do so, provided the desire to do so is strong enough. So more education will not necessarily lead to less religion. In fact, a longitudinal study of 10,000 adolescents actually found the opposite effect, that those who did not go on to college had greater declines in attending services, in the importance or religion, and in disaffiliation from religion.

This result was not a surprise to me, despite the widespread critiques by some people that universities are liberal hothouses, indoctrinating students away from ‘traditional’ conservative values such as religion. As a teacher of many years, I have found laughably naïve the notion that college teachers have such power over student beliefs.

It is true that students are likely to encounter faculty who are, in general, less religious than the general public. An interesting analysis of religious beliefs in academia finds that “academics in the natural and social sciences at elite research universities are significantly less religious than the general population. Almost 52 percent of scientists surveyed identified themselves as having no current religious affiliation compared with only 14 percent of the general population.”

But this may not be decisive. As I had said earlier, to some extent, the more education one has, the more one is able to find sophisticated reasons to hold on to whatever one wants to believe. As Michael Shermer says in his book Why People Believe Weird Things (2002, p. 283): “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”

What more education (especially in college) does to student beliefs may depend on what the students’ prior inclinations are. For those who arrive already doubting, the discovery in college that they are not alone, that there exist like minded students who share their views, and the general willingness of academia to treat doubt and skepticism as positive traits, could well speed them along the path to greater non-belief.

But for those who are determinedly faithful, college could provide them with better tools to defend their beliefs. Reason cannot easily overcome the will to believe. As Jonathan Swift nicely put it: “You cannot reason a person out of a position he did not reason himself into in the first place.”

So up to a point, more of traditional education actually aids belief, because much of it focuses on information and skills rather than deep learning. The point at which more education leads to disbelief is when people start really looking closely at evidence for beliefs, start trying to integrate different areas of knowledge into a coherent worldview, and begin to get in the habit of making reasoned judgments using incomplete knowledge. This becomes more likely to occur when students do more research-like activities because then the ability to form and defend judgments based on data and evidence and reason becomes paramount.

We see this in the fact that members of the National Academies of Science have far higher rates of disbelief in god than other scientists or the general public. “In a poll taken in 1998, only 7 percent of the members of the US National Academy of Sciences, the elite of American scientists said they believed in a personal God.” (Victor Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis, p. 10.)

Charles Darwin is a good example of both aspects of this phenomenon. We know that he was religious in his youth and obtained a degree from Cambridge University in the sciences. At the time of his education, the prevailing view of life was special creation, that god specifically created species to make the fit into particular ecological niches. Nothing he learned at university dissuaded him from this belief and in fact he was strengthened in them and was considering a life as a clergyman. In his autobiography, he discusses how on his round the world voyage on the Beagle, the plants and animals and insects he saw in South America, seemed to challenge the view of special creation. In order to deal with this, he said he started inventing increasingly complex reasons to sustain his belief in special creation. He took this to such an extent that the sailors on the boat, although far less educated than him, found his explanations highly amusing. In other words, those much less educated than he could see the problems with the theory of special creation that he could not because not only did he not want to see them, he had the tools to explain them away.

But as he became more and more absorbed in his studies, went deeper and more global in his thinking, and tried to create an integrated theory to explain his findings, his religious beliefs just could not be sustained and he abandoned them completely, ceasing to believe not just in special creation, but in god as well.

The long-term solution to religion may not be more education but creating a climate where more doubt and skepticism are prevalent and acceptable. It is only then that education has something to work with. The current crop of high-profile books arguing against religion are creating just such a climate and are thus to be welcomed.

POST SCRIPT: Storms in tea cups

Lewis Black lets loose his frustration with political grandstanding over non-issues.

Why can’t science and religion get along?

Much of the recent attacks on religion have come from those with a scientific background. But there are many atheist scientists (such as the late Steven Jay Gould) who have not wanted to criticize religion the way the current crop of atheists are doing. They have tried to find a way for science and religion to coexist by carving out separate spheres for religion and science, by saying that science deals with the material world while religion deals with the spiritual world and that the two worlds do not overlap. Gould even wrote an entire book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life based on that premise.
This is not a new argument. Such appeals from high profile individuals tend to recur whenever there is a science-religion flare-up, such as during the evolution controversy leading up to the 1925 Scopes trial concerning the teaching evolution in schools. Edward L. Larson in his book Summer for the Gods (1997) writes (p. 121-122):

When the antievolution movement first began in 1923 [James] Vance [pastor of the nation’s largest southern Presbyterian church] and forty other prominent Americans including [Princeton biologist Edwin G.] Conklin, [American Museum of Natural History president Henry Fairfield] Osborn, 1923 [Physics] Nobel Laureate Robert Millikan, and Herbert Hoover, tried to calm the waters with a joint statement that assigned science and religion to separate spheres of human understanding. This widely publicized document describes the two activities as “distinct” rather than “antagonistic domains of thought,” the former dealing with “the facts, laws and processes of nature” while the latter addressed “the consciences, ideals and the aspirations of mankind.”

This argument, that the existence of god is something about which science can say nothing so scientists should say nothing, keeps appearing in one form or another at various times but simply does not make sense. Science has always had a lot to say about god, even if not mentioning god by name. For example, science has ruled out a god who created the world just 6,000 years ago. Science has ruled out a god who had to periodically intervene to maintain the stability of the solar system. Science has ruled out a god whose intervention is necessary to create new species. The only kind of god about which science can say nothing is a god who does nothing at all.

As Richard Dawkins writes (When Religion Steps on Science’s Turf, Free Inquiry, vol. 18 no. 2, 1998 (pp. 18-9), quoted in Has Science Found God?, Victor J Stenger, 2001):

More generally it is completely unrealistic to claim, as Gould and many others do, that religion keeps itself away from science’s turf, restricting itself to morals and values. A universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without. The difference is, inescapably, a scientific difference. Religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims.
There is something dishonestly self-serving in the tactic of claiming that all religious beliefs are outside the domain of science. On the one hand, miracle stories and the promise of life after death are used to impress simple people, win converts, and swell congregations. It is precisely their scientific power that gives these stories their popular appeal. But at the same time it is considered below the belt to subject the same stories to the ordinary rigors of scientific criticism: these are religious matters and therefore outside the domain of science. But you cannot have it both ways. At least, religious theorists and apologists should not be allowed to get away with having it both ways. Unfortunately all too many of us, including nonreligious people, are unaccountably ready to let them. (my italics)

Victor Stenger in his book God:The Failed Hypothesis (p. 15) points out that the idea that science and religion occupy separate spheres is also in contradiction to actual practice: “[A] number of proposed supernatural or nonmaterial processes are empirically testable using standard scientific methods. Furthermore, such research is being carried out by reputable scientists associated with reputable institutions and published in reputable scientific journals. So the public statements by some scientists and their national organizations that science has nothing to do with the supernatural are belied by the facts.”

Dawkins and Stenger make a strong case. So why are some scientists supportive of such a weak argument as that science and religion occupy distinct and non-overlapping domains? Stenger (p. 10) suggests a reason:

Nevertheless, most scientists seem to prefer as a practical matter that science should stay clear of religious issues. Perhaps this is a good strategy for those who wish to avoid conflicts between science and religion, which might lead to less public acceptance of science, not to mention that most dreaded of all consequences – lower funding. However, religions make factual claims that have no special immunity from being examined under the cold light of reason and objective observation.

Is that it? Are scientists scared of criticizing religion for fear of upsetting the gravy train that funds their research? That is a somewhat cynical view but not one that can be dismissed easily.

Another possible reason may be (as I argue in my book Quest for Truth) that scientists are simply sick of arguing about whether science is compatible with religion, find it a time wasting distraction from their research, and use this ploy as a rhetorical escape hatch to avoid the topic whenever it arises.

Yet another reason may be that scientists do not generally know (or even care) what other scientists’ religious views are. A scientist’s credibility depends only on the quality of the science that person does, and all that is required for good science is a commitment to methodological naturalism within the boundaries of one’s area of research. A scientists’ attitude towards philosophical naturalism is rarely an issue. Because of this lack of relevance of the existence of god to the actual work of science, scientists might want to avoid altogether the topic of the existence of god simply to avoid creating friction amongst their scientific colleagues. As I said before, the science community has both religious and non-religious people within it, so why ruffle feelings by bringing up this topic?

But while I think that it is a good idea to keep religion out of scientific discussions since god is irrelevant when one is interpreting experimental results or comparing theories, there is no reason why scientists should not speak out against religion in public life. If we think that religion is based on a falsehood, and that the net effect of religion in the world is negative, we actually have a duty to actively work for its eradication.

I think that Baron D’Holbach (1723-1789) gave the best reason for campaigning against religion when he explained why he did so:

Many men without morals have attacked religion because it was contrary to their inclinations. Many wise men have despised it because it seemed to them ridiculous. Many persons have regarded it with indifference, because they have never felt its true disadvantages. But it is as a citizen that I attack it, because it seems to me harmful to the happiness of the state, hostile to the march of the mind of man, and contrary to sound morality, from which the interests of state policy can never be separated.

I agree with the Baron.

Next: Is more education the answer?

POST SCRIPT: Rationality and religion

“Rational arguments don’t usually work on religious people. Otherwise there would be no religious people.” From another great little video clip from the TV show House.

Does religion play a uniquely useful role?

The recent appearance of best-selling books by atheists strongly criticizing religion has given rise to this secondary debate (reflected in this blog and the comments) as to what attitude atheists should take towards religion. Some critics of these authors (including fellow atheists) have taken them to task for being too harsh on religion and thus possibly alienating those religious “moderates” who might be potential allies in the cause of countering religious “extremism”. They argue that such an approach is unlikely to win over people to their cause. Why not, such critics ask, distinguish between “good” and “bad” religion, supporting those who advocate good religion (i.e., those parts of religion that encourage good works and peace and justice) and joining with them to marginalize those who advocate “bad” religion (i.e., who use religion divisively, to murderous ends, to fight against social justice, or to create and impose a religion-based political agenda on everyone.)

It is a good question deserving of a thoughtful answer, which you are unlikely to find here. But I’ll give it my best shot anyway.

Should religion be discouraged along the lines advocated by these books, by pointing out that evidence for god’s existence does not rise above the level of evidence for fairies and unicorns, highlighting the many evils done in religion’s name, and urging people to abandon religious beliefs because they violate science and basic common sense? Or should we continue to act as if it were a reasonable thing to believe in the existence of god, thereby tacitly encouraging its continuance? Or should religion be simply ignored? The answer depends on whether one views religion as an overall negative, positive, or neutral influence in society.

If you believe, as atheists do, that the whole edifice of religion exists on the false premise that god exists, then it seems logical to seek to eliminate religion. As believers in the benefits of rationality, we should try to eliminate false knowledge since nothing is gained by having people wallow in delusion. In fact, there is much to be gained by eliminating belief in the supernatural since that is the gateway to, and the breeding ground for, all manner of superstition, quackery, and downright fraud perpetrated on the gullible by those who claim to have supernatural powers or direct contact with god. I offer TV evangelists as evidence, but the list can be extended to astrologers, psychics, faith healers, spoon benders, mind readers, etc.

Those atheists who argue against doing this and favor the other two options (tacit support or ignoring) usually posit two arguments. The first point is really one of political strategy: that by criticizing religion is general we are alienating a large segment of people and that what we should preferably do is to ally ourselves with “good” religion (inclusive, tolerant, socially conscious) so that we can more effectively counter those who profess “bad” religion (exclusive, intolerant, murderous). The second is that religion, even if false, can also be a force for good as evidenced by the various religious social justice movements that have periodically emerged.

I have touched on the counterarguments to the first point earlier and will revisit it later. As to the second point, that religion can be justified on the basis that even if not true it provides other benefits that make it worthwhile, discussions around this issue usually tend to go in two directions: comparisons of the actions of “good” religious people versus that of “bad” religious people, or comparisons of the actions of religious people with that of nonreligious people. But such discussions are not fruitful because they cannot be quantified or otherwise made more concrete and conclusive.

I prefer to argue against the second point differently by pointing out that every benefit claimed for religion can just as well be provided by other institutions: Provides a sense of community? So do many other social groups. Do charitable works? So do secular charities. Work for social justice? So do political groups. Provide comfort and reassurance? So do friendships and even therapy. Provide a sense of personal meaning? So does science and philosophy. Provide a basis of morality and values? It has long been established that morals and values are antecedent to and independent of religion. (Does anyone seriously think that it was considered acceptable to murder before the Ten Commandments appeared?)

Now it is true (as was pointed out by commenter Cindy to a previous post) that religious institutions do provide a kind of ready-made, one-stop shop for many of these things and new institutions may have to come into being to replace them. Traditional groups like Rotary clubs and Elk and Moose Lodges, that mix community with social service, may be the closest existing things that serve the same purpose. The demise of religion may see the revival of those faltering groups as substitutes. Some countries have social clubs that people belong to that, unlike in the US, are not the preserve of only the very wealthy. England has the local pub that provides a sense of community to a neighborhood and where people drop in on evenings not just to drink but to meet and chat with friends, play games, and eat meals. The US has, unfortunately, no equivalent of the local pub. Bars do not have the family atmosphere that most pubs do, though coffee shops may evolve to serve this purpose. It may be that it is the easy convenience of religious institutions that inhibit people from putting in the effort to find alternative institutions that can give them the cultural and social benefits of religion without the negative of having to subscribe to an irrational belief.

I cannot think of a single benefit that is claimed for religion that could not be provided by other institutions. Meanwhile, the negatives of religion are unique to it. We see this in the murderous rampages that have been carried out over thousands of years by religious fanatics in dutiful obedience to what they thought was the will of god. I am not saying that getting rid of religion will get rid of all evil. But it will definitely remove one important source of it. The French philosopher and author Voltaire (1694-1778) had little doubt that religion was a negative influence and that we would be better off without it. He said: “Which is more dangerous: fanaticism or atheism? Fanaticism is certainly a thousand times more deadly; for atheism inspires no bloody passion whereas fanaticism does; atheism is opposed to crime and fanaticism causes crimes to be committed.”

While the evils done in the name of religion are often dismissed as aberrations by religious apologists, they actually arise quite naturally from the very basis of religion. When you believe that god exists and has a plan for you, the natural next step is to wonder what that plan is, what god wants you to do. To answer this, most people look to religious leaders and texts for guidance. As political and religious leaders discovered long ago, it is very easy to persuade people to believe that god expects them to do things that, without the sanction of religion, would be considered outrageously evil or simply crazy. (As an example of the latter, recall the thirty nine members of the Heaven’s Gate sect who were persuaded to commit suicide so that their souls could get a ride on the spaceship carrying Jesus that was behind the Hale-Bopp comet that passed by the Earth in 1997.)

The belief that god is solidly behind you and will reward you for obeying him has been shown to overcome almost any moral scruples or inhibitions concerning committing acts that would otherwise be considered unspeakable. The historical examples of such behavior are so numerous and well known that I will not bother even listing them here but just look at some of the major flashpoints in the world today, where the conflicts (even if other factors are at play) are undoubtedly inflamed by perceptions that people are acting on behalf of their god: the vicious cycle of killings in Iraq between the Shia and Sunni, between Israelis and Palestinians, between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland (now thankfully abating), and between Hindus and Muslim in India.

Just recently, certain Islamic groups have called for the death of a Swedish cartoonist who is supposed to have drawn a cartoon disrespectful to Islam. This is yet another example of how religion seems to destroy people’s basic reasoning skills because for some religious people, it seems perfectly reasonable that they have to fight and kill to defend their god’s honor.

The obvious response to this call to avenge god by killing the cartoonist is to point out how absurd it is that humans think they have to protect their god’s interests by fighting and killing people. Do such believers think that god is some kind of mobster boss who has to have goons to carry out his wishes? Pointing this out would reveal the impotence of god and ultimately the absurdity of the idea of god. After all, any rational person should be able to see that if their god has the abilities they ascribe to him, he should be quite capable of taking care of himself. He can not only kill the offending cartoonist but even wipe the entire country of Sweden off the map to drive the lesson home that he will not be trifled with.

But our ‘respect for religion’ attitude prevents us from pointing out such an obvious truth, because it gets too uncomfortably close to revealing the absurdity of the underlying premise of religion. So instead what happens is some theologian is trotted out who argues that what their religious book is ‘really’ saying is that it is wrong to kill, despite the existence of other passages in the same religious books that have been used to argue to the contrary. And so we end up with yet another dreary debate between the so-called ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’ about what god is ‘really’ like and what he ‘really’ wants from us.

This is why religion is bad. Not only is it false, it is dangerously false. Believing in such a false idea requires people to abandon rational thinking and makes even murderous intentions seem noble to them. If, as I argue, all the claimed benefits of religion can be provided by other institutions, and it has negatives that are solely its own creation, then it is hard to see what utility religion has that makes it worth preserving. I think that the conclusion is quite clear. The best selling atheist authors are, in the long run, doing us all a favor by directly confronting religion and showing that we would all be better off without it.

Next: Why can’t we all get along?

POST SCRIPT: Silly talk shows

The Daily Show reminds me again why I long ago stopped watching the political analysis shows on TV.

Atheist/theist or naturalist/religious?

If one tries to categorize people by their beliefs about god, then there are many categories into which people fall (all definitions in quotes are from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary): the religious believe in the existence of a god who can and does intervene in the events of the universe; the deist is part of “a movement or system of thought advocating natural religion, emphasizing morality, and in the 18th century denying the interference of the Creator with the laws of the universe”; the pantheist “equates God with the forces and laws of the universe”; the agnostic is “one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god”; and the atheist is one “who believes that there is no deity.”

Most philosophical discussions about religion (and opinion polls that try to measure the prevalence of religious beliefs) tend to divide people along the theist-nontheist fault line, where a theist is one who believes “in the existence of one God viewed as the creative source of the human race and the world who transcends yet is immanent in the world” and nontheist consists of everyone else. If you divide people up this way, then the groups that I have labeled as religious, deists, and pantheists all end up on the theist side of the split; atheists fall on the nontheist; and agnostics straddle the divide.

While the theist-nontheist divide can lead to interesting discussions about important philosophical points, as a practical matter it usually goes nowhere, because there is no operational way of distinguishing between the deist, pantheist, agnostic, and atheist points of view.

The problem with the theist-nontheist division is that it depends on self-identification and all kinds of highly variable subjective factors come into play in deciding what label one assigns to oneself or to others. For example, almost all atheists will readily concede that the non-existence of god, like the non-existence of fairies and unicorns, cannot be proven and that therefore there is always the logical possibility that god exists. As a result, some atheists will prefer to describe themselves as agnostics, since the term atheist erroneously, but popularly, connotes the idea that such people know for certain that god does not exist.

Take the case of Charles Darwin. By the time he reached the age of forty, he was to all intents and purposes an atheist. The shift from belief to disbelief had been steady and inexorable. The more he learned about the laws of nature, the less credibility miracles and the doctrines of Christianity had for him. He considered the idea of a personal, benevolent, omnipotent god so illogical that he said it “revolts our understanding.” Darwin wrote that he:

“gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as divine revelation.” There was no smugness and no hastiness to his loss of faith; it happened almost against his will. “Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete.” (The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, David Quammen, p. 245, my italics)

After he lost his faith, he had no doubts or anxiety about it but when pressed to give a label to his religious views he said, “The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain Agnostic.” Darwin apparently shied away from the label “atheist” as being too aggressively confident, which went against his own cautious and non-confrontational personality, and he took refuge in the new word agnostic, which had been coined by his friend and colleague T. H. Huxley to meet the philosophical needs of just such people. I think many people who are functionally atheists share Darwin’s unease with calling themselves that. When I tell people that I am an atheist, for example, they often try to persuade me that I must “really” be an agnostic since I readily concede that I cannot be sure that there is no god.

Similarly, many people probably choose to call themselves deists or pantheists, not because they have any evidence for the existence of the deity, but because they seem to feel that if there is no god at all then there is no meaning to life. Since they desire their life to have meaning, the idea of there being a god is comforting and appealing to them and they seek to find some way to hold on to it, despite the lack of evidence. Deism and pantheism offers such an option without also having to accept the absurdities that formal religions require, like infallible texts and miracles. It allows one to have a god to give one’s life meaning for those who need such an external source, while not compromising one’s belief that the world behaves in accordance with natural laws.

I feel that a more operationally useful classification scheme would to sort people according to their answer to the question “Do you think that god in any way intervenes in the course of events contrary to natural laws?” In other words, we should ask what their views are on what people normally consider miracles. Those answering in the affirmative would be classified as religious, and those answering in the negative (atheists, deists, and pantheists) would be grouped under the umbrella term naturalist, with the name being selected because all these people see the world operating solely under the influence of natural laws. Most agnostics, other than those who are doggedly determined to not commit themselves, should also be able to answer this question definitely and decide which of the two groups they feel most closely fits them.

(If agnostics are still not sure how to answer, a more concrete version of the question might be to ask them: “If the person whom you respect and trust the most and know to be very religious said that god had spoken to him or her and had wanted a message conveyed to you to give away all your money and possessions to charity, would you do it?” If you do not think this could have happened and refuse the command with no hesitation, then you are operationally a naturalist. If you say you would do it or are not sure what you would do, then you are effectively a religious person. I suspect that most agnostics will fall into the naturalist camp, since agnostics do not usually expect god to actually do anything concrete.)

This kind of naturalist-religious divide provides a more useful classification scheme since it is based on whether there is any observable difference in the behavior of people as a consequence of their beliefs, rather than on their beliefs themselves. The members of the naturalist group (the atheist, the deist, the pantheist, and most agnostics) all live their lives on the assumption that god does not intervene in life in any way. None of them pray or ask for god to intervene. (Those who did pray would be switched from into the religious group because then they effectively believe in an interventionist god.) As I have said many times before, what people say they believe is of little consequence except insofar as it influences their actions.

So the religious-naturalist divide based on the answer to the question “Do you think that god in any way changes the course of events contrary to natural laws?” is, to my mind, a much better measure of the level of belief in god than the theist-atheist divide. It would be nice to see polls conducted on this question. My suspicion is that there are far more naturalists (i.e. functional unbelievers) than one might suspect.

Next: Should atheists seek to undermine religion or does religion play a valuable role that makes it worth preserving?

POST SCRIPT: Sputnik trivia

Last week saw the fiftieth anniversary of the launching into space by the Soviet Union of the satellite Sputnik, an event that galvanized the US space program. In 1999, a nice film called October Sky was released based on the true story of a group of high school students in a small mining town in West Virginia who were inspired by Sputnik to build rockets on their own. The film was based on the memoir Rocket Boys of one of the boys Homer Hickam, who later did become a rocket scientist for NASA.

A curious feature of this story is that the name October Sky is an anagram of the name Rocket Boys.

Atheism and meaning

People often think that atheists do not have a life affirming philosophy. They have sometimes taken the quote by prominent atheist Richard Dawkins (Scientific American November 1995, p. 85) that “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference” to argue that atheism leads to a philosophy of hopelessness and despair. I have heard several talks by intelligent design creationism advocate Michael Behe and he repeatedly uses the quote to get a laugh at the expense of atheism by saying that Dawkins must be a real downer at parties. But anyone who has seen interviews with Dawkins and read his writings will come away with the contrary impression, that he is a witty, courteous, and engaging man with a mischievous sense of humor. One can well imagine him livening up any party. Dawkins was merely making a factual observation about the nature of the universe, saying that it is futile to try and obtain our meaning and purpose externally from the universe, although we can observe it with awe and wonder. We can, and should, construct meaning and purpose for our lives.
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More religious needles in scientific haystacks

The arguments that I gave before against taking anthropic arguments seriously apply with even greater force when it comes to the whole intelligent design creationism (IDC) movement, whose advocates argue that a very few biochemical processes could not have come into being except by the actions of god and thus this is evidence of god.

If god exists but did not want to give us evidence because he wants us to believe purely on faith, then he surely would not have created the cases used by IDC advocates as examples of his interventions in the evolutionary process. On the other hand, if he wanted to show us he exists, he could have done so directly by stopping the Earth’s rotation or something dramatic like that. Instead, we are asked to believe that god wants to give us evidence that he exists but for some reason chooses to provide evidence that is so subtle and ambiguous that it takes professional biochemists to even get a glimpse of it. If that is true, maybe we should abolish the current priesthood and create a new Church of Biochemistry with IDC advocate like Michael Behe as the BioPope, since only biochemists can see god and it was Behe who first saw him.

Although the IDC movement seemed to have died after the Dover trial fiasco, Michael Behe has apparently written a new book The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits to Darwinism trying to resuscitate the corpse. Jerry Coyne (professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago), in his review the book says the following:

What has Behe now found to resurrect his campaign for ID? It’s rather pathetic, really. Basically, he now admits that almost the entire edifice of evolutionary theory is true: evolution, natural selection, common ancestry. His one novel claim is that the genetic variation that fuels natural selection — mutation — is produced not by random changes in DNA, as evolutionists maintain, but by an Intelligent Designer. That is, he sees God as the Great Mutator.

Coyne goes on to clarify an important misconception about the meaning of the word “random” as used in natural selection:

What we do not mean by “random” is that all genes are equally likely to mutate (some are more mutable than others) or that all mutations are equally likely (some types of DNA change are more common than others). It is more accurate, then, to call mutations “indifferent” rather than “random”: the chance of a mutation happening is indifferent to whether it would be helpful or harmful.

I haven’t read Behe’s new book but if Coyne’s description of its central idea (that the role of god (aka “intelligent designer”) is to create appropriate mutations so that they are not random but are designed to advance evolution towards a particular goal), then this is not even a new idea. This was proposed in the 19th century by eminent scientists such as Asa Gray, Charles Lyell, St George Mivart, and Richard Owen soon after Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. (Darwin: The Life of a Tortured Evolutionist Adrian Desmond and James Moore, p. 545). They, like Behe, were religious and were disturbed by the fact that Darwin’s theory that random mutations and natural selection were sufficient to explain nature seemed to make god superfluous. They too were anxious to find something for god to do. But at least in their defense, they lived before the discovery of genes and DNA as the mechanism for inheritance and the source of mutations. The flowering of Darwinian thinking known as the neo-Darwinian synthesis came long after they were dead. Behe has no such excuse.

What underlies all these people’s misgivings about evolution is that it seems to deny some special quality for human beings. They seem to be able to accept evolution for everything else but when it comes to humans think there must be some miraculous spark that is responsible for us. If there is no special plan for humans, then life for them will have no meaning.

But there is really no basis for this belief that we play any special role in the cosmos. What is remarkable is how inhospitable the universe is to human life. As Richard Dawkins, says (Stenger, p. 71, and Scientific American November 1995, p. 85) “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

If god does exist and humans are special in his sight, then he seems to have been extraordinarily wasteful by making, as far as we know, only this tiny Earth inhabitable, and creating enormous amounts of matter and space that we cannot reach or occupy. It seems like he really does not like us all that much and has essentially made us prisoners, destined to live forever in a tiny corner of the universe, with no chance of escape.

Next: Atheism and meaning.

POST SCRIPT: Remembering the Little Rock Nine

Last week was the fiftieth anniversary of the integration of Little Rock schools. This moving article profiles the story of one of them, Elizabeth Eckford, whose face was captured in an indelible image of that tumultuous day.

Fine-tuning arguments for god

Religious people sometimes complain that scientists do not take their arguments for god seriously. I think that the opposite is true, and that scientists have gone out of their way to argue within the narrow framework set up by religious believers, when it is the whole premise that should be rejected.

Take, for example, the so-called anthropic principle/fine tuning argument that goes roughly as follows: We know that the conditions on Earth are conducive to the creation of life. Small changes in initial conditions of the universe would likely have made life impossible. Furthermore, the laws of physics and the associated fundamental constants seem to have just the right values to enable life to exist. Such ‘fine tuning’ is highly unlikely to have occurred by chance and thus points to the existence of a god who must have chosen those values in order to allow for life as we know it to come into being.

Some scientists have argued against god while staying within this framework, saying that fine-tuning does not imply the existence of god. After all, we don’t know whether other and different forms of life exist on undiscovered planets in this vast universe. Changing the laws and constants may simply mean that different forms of life have come into being that were suitable for those constants on other planets. Others have pointed out that the fine-tuning argument rests on what happens when you change only one parameter slightly while keeping all the rest fixed. Victor Stenger points to studies (God: The Failed Hypothesis, p. 148) that show that if you allow all the constants to change simultaneously, even by orders of magnitude, then you can still construct cosmologies in which stars, planets, and intelligent life can plausibly arise.

The willingness of scientists to do all this work shows how far they are willing to bend over backwards to accommodate religious arguments. So rather than scientists disrespecting religion, people like Stenger and Dawkins are actually granting it excessive respect by to treating these technical questions seriously when the big conceptual questions expose the silliness of the whole premise.

I have never understood the appeal of the anthropic/fine-tuning argument for god. Think for a moment what it requires us to believe. We are asked to believe that god first created humans (or at least had the idea of what humans should be like), an organism that needed very special conditions (such as oxygen and water) in order to exist. God then had to solve the problem of how to create a planet that had the ingredients to support the existence of the preplanned humans, and then had to fine tune everything else in this vast universe to enable that planet to come into being a long time after he triggered the big bang. We are being asked to believe, in effect, that the entire universe was reverse-engineered by god to meet the needs of humans as currently exist.

Reverse engineering is what we mere mortals have to do because we have no choice. We have to take the universe and life on Earth as given, and the best we can do is try and figure out how they got to be that way. But why would god have to do this? If he was the original designer, present right at the beginning, surely it would have been easier for him to design humans who were robust enough to be able to survive in all kinds of environments. Why would he needlessly box himself in, as the anthropic/fine-tuning seems to imply?

As Stenger astutely points out (p. 154) “In fact, the whole argument from fine-tuning ultimately makes no sense. As my friend Martin Wagner notes, all physical parameters are irrelevant to an omnipotent God. “He could have created us to live in hard vacuum if he wanted to.” “

POST SCRIPT: George Bush, comedy writer

Some time ago, President Bush famously asked: “Is our children learning?” Well, he now has the answer.