Can Science And Religion Co-Exist?

For a long while now I have argued that science and religion are bound to inherent conflict simply due to their respective natures. There are, of course, several scientists–many accomplished scientists in fact–who identify themselves with a particular faith. As an example, I recently saw a two hour video recording of Ken Miller lecturing on (the collapse of) intelligent design at Case Western University in northern Ohio. It was a wonderful presentation on what evolution is, the history of the conflict between evolution and creationism, and how it pertains to education in Ohio. However, there was one aspect of Miller’s talk that I found to be more than a little bit disquieting, and that was his proclamation of Roman Catholicism. The lecture event even opened up with a Catholic priest leading a prayer. I can’t help but wonder how such an accomplished biologist and proponent of proper science education can internally reconcile these two things, science and Catholicism, in his own personal life. An audience member asked about this issue during the Q & A session, but Miller offered little to no reasoning to justify his position.

It’s a curious thing, taking such efforts to hold on to religious belief, despite knowing that its teachings and doctrines are false.

But then, I found the following open letter from biologist and author Jerry Coyne posted on his own WordPress site addressing why it is no only acceptable for scientists to criticize religion, but in many ways it is essential to do so:

Dear comrades:

Although we may diverge in our philosophies and actions toward religion, we share a common goal: the promulgation of good science education in Britain and America–indeed, throughout the world. Many of us, like myself and Richard Dawkins, spend a lot of time teaching evolution to the general public. There’s little doubt, in fact, that Dawkins is the preeminent teacher of evolution in the world. He has not only turned many people on to modern evolutionary biology, but has converted many evolution-deniers (most of them religious) to evolution-accepters.

Nevertheless, your employees, present and former, have chosen to spend much of their time battling not creationists, but evolutionists who happen to be atheists. This apparently comes from your idea that if evolutionists also espouse atheism, it will hurt the cause of science education and turn people away from evolution. I think this is misguided for several reasons, including a complete lack of evidence that your idea is true, but also your apparent failure to recognize that creationism is a symptom of religion (and not just fundamentalist religion), and will be with us until faith disappears. That is one reason–and, given the pernicious effect of religion, a minor one–for the fact that we choose to fight on both fronts.

The official policy of your organizations–certainly of the NCSE–is apparently to cozy up to religion. You have “faith projects,” you constantly tell us to shut up about religion, and you even espouse a kind of theology which claims that faith and science are compatible. Clearly you are going to continue with these activities, for you’ve done nothing to change them in the face of criticism. And your employees, past and present, will continue to heap invective on New Atheists and tar people like Richard Dawkins with undeserved opprobrium.

We will continue to answer the misguided attacks by people like Josh Rosenau, Roger Stanyard, and Nick Matzke so long as they keep mounting those attacks. I don’t expect them to abate, but I’d like your organizations to recognize this: you have lost many allies, including some prominent ones, in your attacks on atheism. And I doubt that those attacks have converted many Christians or Muslims to the cause of evolution. This is a shame, because we all recognize that the NCSE has done some great things in the past and, I hope, will–like the new BCSE–continue do great things in the future.

There is a double irony in this situation. First, your repeated and strong accusations that, by criticizing religion, atheists are alienating our pro-evolution allies (liberal Christians), has precisely the same alienating effect on your allies: scientists who are atheists. Second, your assertion that only you have the requisite communication skills to promote evolution is belied by the observation that you have, by your own ham-handed communications, alienated many people who are on the side of good science and evolution. You have lost your natural allies. And this is not just speculation, for those allies were us, and we’re telling you so.

Sincerely,
Jerry Coyne

What a wonderful piece of writing this is! I think that it illustrates the point quite clearly.

What this issue really boils down to is the dichotomy of what religion has to offer in terms of understanding truth as opposed to science. I’ve heard several people make the argument that science and religion are simply two different methods of seeking out truth. If I were a less mature person, I’d be inclined to accept this seemingly peaceful explanation… but I’m not. In light of critical inquiry, I must challenge this idea.

How does science go about seeking truth? Through the scientific method. Hypotheses are formed, ideas are tested, data is collected, results are shared, tests are repeated, and the process repeats. The system that science utilizes is self-correcting in that ideas that don’t fit with data and observations are discarded without hesitation, even if they had previously been accepted. To be a good scientist is to live in strongly disciplined professional humility. Science is continually improving our understanding of reality. The knowledge and insight that science has provided humanity, even in merely the past 150 years or so, is nothing short of staggering.

Now, what does religion offer to the quest for truth? In a word, nothing. Religion offers explanations for why things are the way they are, but then leaves it alone. Another term for this type of rationality is ‘superstition’. Tests and experiments are not performed, and old ideas and practices are only set aside when they become socially unfavorable (i.e. witch burning, to cite one example). Rather than supporting their claims by empirical evidence, measurable observations and experimental data, religions instead focus on either apologetically attempting to justify these claims or simply ignoring the issue altogether under the banner of faith. Moreover, religions will use fear–the fear of an ever-watchful and judgmental god or eternal torment and despair in a mythical land called hell–to keep their followers in line. This should be plainly obvious to anyone who is brave enough to take a step back and see these institutions as they truly are. It is in this way that religion has served as a fantastically effective means of population control throughout the ages. This is in no way a means to discover truth. Religion is many things, but a tool to understand the nature of reality it is not.

‘One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion because religion makes men virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it.’ -Bertrand Russell, from Why I Am Not A Christian

Christopher Hitchens: Address to American Atheists

Renowned author and steadfast atheist Christopher Hitchens was recently forced to cancel his appearance at the American Atheists convention due to his esophageal cancer. He wrote to them the following letter, as was published on P.Z. Myers’ blog Pharyngula [link]:

Dear fellow-unbelievers,

    Nothing would have kept me from joining you except the loss of my voice (at least my speaking voice) which in turn is due to a long argument I am currently having with the specter of death. Nobody ever wins this argument, though there are some solid points to be made while the discussion goes on. I have found, as the enemy becomes more familiar, that all the special pleading for salvation, redemption and supernatural deliverance appears even more hollow and artificial to me than it did before. I hope to help defend and pass on the lessons of this for many years to come, but for now I have found my trust better placed in two things: the skill and principle of advanced medical science, and the comradeship of innumerable friends and family, all of them immune to the false consolations of religion. It is these forces among others which will speed the day when humanity emancipates itself from the mind-forged manacles of servility and superstitition. It is our innate solidarity, and not some despotism of the sky, which is the source of our morality and our sense of decency. 

      That essential sense of decency is outraged every day. Our theocratic enemy is in plain view. Protean in form, it extends from the overt menace of nuclear-armed mullahs to the insidious campaigns to have stultifying pseudo-science taught in American schools. But in the past few years, there have been heartening signs of a genuine and spontaneous resistance to this sinister nonsense: a resistance which repudiates the right of bullies and tyrants to make the absurd claim that they have god on their side. To have had a small part in this resistance has been the greatest honor of my lifetime: the pattern and original of all dictatorship is the surrender of reason to absolutism and the abandonment of critical, objective inquiry. The cheap name for this lethal delusion is religion, and we must learn new ways of combating it in the public sphere, just as we have learned to free ourselves of it in private. 

    Our weapons are the ironic mind against the literal: the open mind against the credulous; the courageous pursuit of truth against the fearful and abject forces who would set limits to investigation (and who stupidly claim that we already have all the truth we need). Perhaps above all, we affirm life over the cults of death and human sacrifice and are afraid, not of inevitable death, but rather of a human life that is cramped and distorted by the pathetic need to offer mindless adulation, or the dismal belief that the laws of nature respond to wailings and incantations. 

       As the heirs of a secular revolution, American atheists have a special responsibility to defend and uphold the Constitution that patrols the boundary between Church and State. This, too, is an honor and a privilege. Believe me when I say that I am present with you, even if not corporeally (and only metaphorically in spirit…) Resolve to build up Mr Jefferson’s wall of separation. And don’t keep the faith.

    Sincerely

Christopher Hitchens

And God Shook Japan!

Last year, a horribly tragic earthquake tore apart Haiti. The people there, who didn’t exactly have the most healthy or comfortable living conditions to start with, are still recovering from the disaster. The Haiti earthquake left over 316,000 people dead and approximately 1,600,000 people without homes. Try to wrap your head around those numbers, if you can. This is a monstrously huge population that was killed, and a nearly unfathomably larger population left to suffer in the wake of it all. Every single 1 of those is (or was) just as much a person as your own self. They take each day just as fully as you do, feel every bit or joy or pain just as severely as you possibly could. Each of these people is more alike with you than different. Take a moment to let this register in you mind.

Last Friday, March 11, a gigantic earthquake hit northern Japan, which was followed by an absolutely devastating tidal wave and at least two explosions at nuclear reactors. Death, destruction and despair are all these people have to look forward to for what will no doubt be a very long time. It pains me to say it, but this is the sad truth of the situation.

Want to see a bit of the extent of this damage? The New York Times has constructed an interactive set of images that illustrate what has happened. [link]

This shit is scary. Imagine what it must be like to live there, where over the course of one night your world is underwater, many of your friends and family are dead, and you are constantly struggling to stay alive yourself. This is reality for a great many people right now.

Here is some footage of the tragedy:

This all, of course, makes me terribly sad for those effected, but today I saw something that absolutely enraged me to no end. I mentioned the Haiti earthquake earlier partly to illustrate the extraordinary tragedy of it all, but partly also to call attention to the fact that immediately after it happened, celebrity televangelist Pat Robertson declared that the earthquake was a result of Haitians making a deal with the devil. ‘True story’, he called it. I have yet to hear of any such asinine remarks made by him in regards to this tragedy, but from other religious leaders I have. However, in today’s internet-driven world, pretty much any moron can post nearly anything they like, and they typically do. Earlier today, a friend of mine stumbled over this little gem:

Is it really fair to use the word ‘gem’ here? Would it be more fair to use the term ‘polished turd’ for this?

In all seriousness, this bitch needs to be slapped. Praying for the atheists to wake up? ‘Japan is a great place to start.’? She actually, honestly seems glad that so many people are dying, citing that it was God responding to prayers.

To the YouTube user who created this video, tamtampamela: Fuck you and the imaginary god you rode in on.

UPDATE: 3/15/2011

This video garnered quite a lot of attention. Too much for this little girl to handle, it seems. Within the past 12 hours she has closed her YouTube account. The video is no longer available.

How serious was she? Was she just trolling? Does it even matter anymore? I say it does not. Bitch is gone along with her hateful message, and as for myself I can be content with that.

UPDATE #2: 3/15/2011

Turns out she really was just a troll after all. I just don’t get how people could take such pleasure and enjoyment in deliberately pissing people off simply for the sake of doing so. Bitch still needs to be smacked.

Here’s another good article on this whole fiasco, which also happens to contain a mirror of the original video: [link]

Defining Atheism

It seems to me that a great many people have a somewhat inaccurate understanding of the term ‘atheist’, even many who themselves identify as atheists. In the discussions I’ve had with people, the popular definition of ‘atheist’ seems to be a person who adamantly refuses to acknowledge the existence of god. There is, of course, the gentler alternative to ‘atheist’, and that is ‘agnostic’. An agnostic, as it is commonly understood, is someone who does not accept the existence of god but is open to the possibility. These definitions are partially true, and I would like to take this opportunity to clear up the matter if I may.

The dictionary definition of ‘atheist’ is ‘one who denies the existence of God‘. Specifically, that’s from Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. ‘Agnostic’ is defined as ‘a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and prob. unknowable; broadly : one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or nonexistence of God or a god‘, in case you were wondering. These are a little bit closer, but I still think we could do better. First, let’s look at atheism. If you dissect the word, it is very simply the prefix ‘a’ meaning ‘not’ followed by ‘theist’. Therefore, I will argue that the term ‘atheist’ simply means someone who does not subscribe to any particular religious doctrine. It just means ‘non-theist’, nothing more and nothing less. When most people hear the word ‘atheist’, they typically do not think of the term as it actually is, but rather they conjure thoughts of an ‘anti-theist’. An anti-theist is a person who actively opposes religions and the notion of the existence of god or gods. This is a common mistake. People also misuse the term ‘antisocial’ in the same way. In this case, people really mean to say ‘asocial’, as an asocial person is simply one who is detached from society in the way that the speaker means, while an antisocial person is someone who is actively trying to disrupt society, an extreme example being a sociopath.

‘Agnostic’, in the same way, simply means ‘not knowing’. As it is traditionally applied to the question of the existence of deities or the supernatural, an agnostic is simply a person who recognizes that the human mind, magnificent as it may be, is still limited. I once heard a Christian apologist ask the question, ‘Have you ever tried to explain physics to a dog?’ This is the same idea. He was trying to justify God by saying that since the human brain is limited, and so that which exists beyond our understanding must be God. This is, of course, a logical fallacy, but the principle of agnosticism is still the same. There may very well be concepts which are beyond human comprehension. Would we be foolish to ignore this? I think so.

Atheism is a blanket term that encompasses agnosticism, anti-theism, and every other word used to describe people who do not identify with religions. Agnosticism is a form of atheism. So is anti-theism. Freethinkers, secular humanists, they all fall under the parent category of atheists. This may be an unfamiliar or uncomfortable concept to people, but I will argue that it is truth.

That said, I will declare that I consider myself to be all of the adjectives listed above. I am atheist in that I am not religious in any way (atheism, by the way, is not a religion and requires no faith as some people might have you believe, but that is another topic for another day). I am agnostic in that I recognize our species’ intellectual limitations, even among the most brilliant of us, but that this does not justify resorting to the notion of god simply by default. I am anti-theist in that I believe religious belief to be harmful and dangerous, as well as the single greatest hindrance to human progress. I am a freethinker in that I am not afraid to ask questions and approach any topic with a sense of honest criticism. I am a secular humanist in that I strive to better humanity’s prosperity and well being, as well as to help us better understand who we are in this world and what role we play in nature. I am generally not one to carry such personal labels, as I feel that this type of thing typically only serves to hinder one’s personal potential, but these are exceptions. These I wear with great pride.

Intolerance

A while back I posted a link to the following TouTube video on my personal Facebook site:

I accompanied this posting with the text, ‘The sooner we as a species can learn to live peacefully without the modern mythologies we call religions, the better off we will all be.’ An old friend of mine, who happens to be Christian, saw fit to leave a comment stating that I was ‘just intolerant.’ At first, I admit I was a bit taken aback by his remark. This was a person with whom there have never been unkind words of any kind between us. And yet, here was a comment meant to insult me.

I don’t generally like to dwell on thoughts that I feel are ultimately meaningless, such as personal opinions that I find discomforting. This comment, as it happens, seemed like something that I should just let glaze over me and then I would move on, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was only that way on the surface. In contemplating this remark, this declaration of my own lack of tolerance, it was not difficult for me to reach the conclusion that he was correct. I am indeed intolerant. Moreover, although he clearly meant it to be detrimental, I see it as a good thing.

My intolerance is directed not at the people who practice religion so much as it is the dishonesty that lies at the core of every religion’s doctrines. There are many things that I don’t believe are true, such as the existence of gods or the supernatural, but I do very strongly believe in the importance of honesty between people, in any context and at any scale. This is my essential grievance with religions: that it is demonstrably false and yet it insists that it is true.

Dishonesty is, at its core, among the most purely selfish of acts. When a person or organization is dishonest, it is ultimately to serve their own interests and agendas. In this way it is a practice that entirely disregards the well being of others. This is why I am intolerant of it. We as a species will only survive, let alone thrive, under the principles of honesty. The largest religions are based on superstitions constructed thousands of years ago, and newer religions are no different except that their superstitions haven’t lingered for quite as long. Superstitions are, by nature, dishonest. Thus, religions are revolved around lies. This is why I am proud to declare that I am intolerant of religions and the lies that they represent. I am in the right to declare this.

Lots Happening

There has been a LOT going on in recent weeks here in Stumptown. First, the Portland Humanist Film Festival was held from Oct 8-10 and was a big success, and then just last week we were visited by Sam Harris, who gave a talk on his new book The Moral Landscape. The book focuses on how science and secularism promote strong moral values. I was personally involved with the operations of both events, and am proud to say that I had the honor of introducing Mr Harris himself. Good things are happening!

Unfettered Thought

Yesterday, Friday August 27, local Portland radio station KBOO 90.7 aired a pilot episode for an atheist radio program. It is hosted by Maire Cullen and is called Unfettered Thought: The Atheist Show.

A downloadable mp3 archive of the show can be found at this site.

Happy listening!