A recent post at The Intersection has praised the one-sided dialogue on faith and science recently sponsored by The American Association for the Advancement of Science (and funded, of course, by Templeton). Scientists, so the post says, should approach the faithful with humility, because, after all, even though the tenets of faith are wrong (the author is an atheist), it can offer consolation in time of trouble. Because of this, we should refrain from not only trying to convert the faithful, but from criticizing their faith at all:
Still, surely the New Atheists must on some level recognize the critical importance religion plays in many people’s lives–which implies that we can hardly expect believers to discard their faith based on philosophical considerations, no matter how persuasive these may seem to many secularists or scientists.
At the AAAS event, the pastor David Anderson told an unforgettable story underscoring this point–the story of a single mother who just lost her husband, and has two poorly behaved kids, disciplinary problems who keep getting in trouble at school. Does this woman care about the latest scientific discoveries about, say, asteroids? No, explained Anderson, “because an asteroid has just hit her family.”
Science, alone, is no consolation in this context. Religion gives this single mother something she can lean on. Religion, explained Anderson, provides one with inspiration, whereas science provides information (and science fiction provides entertainment).
So how do you get into true dialogue with religious believers when you’re coming from the scientific perspective? Once again, Anderson had an answer. He said his church would certainly welcome scientists who wanted to come and visit, and talk to the attendees–and added that many churches, and many pastors, feel the same way.
But, Anderson added, that will not be the case if the scientists show up wanting to convert, or deconvert, or debunk, or whatever. Or if they give off an air of superiority, the sense that they are smarter than everybody else. That won’t fly. It will shut down dialogue, rather than encouraging it.
It is not only in the science-religion context, of course, that humility is called for, and where superiority is counterproductive. The same is true of any dialogue, almost by definition. But again, that shouldn’t be a problem for science–is not the scientific method itself fundamentally based on a kind of humility before nature?
I think it shows far more respect for the faithful to engage their arguments honestly and openly than to pat them on the back and say, “There, there—even though I don’t share your beliefs I won’t risk upsetting you by questioning them.” But Mooney’s post is not about any kind of constructive dialogue. How could it be, if one side is forbidden to have its say? The post is about why scientists should give more respect to religion.
Further, the claim that “we can hardly expect believers to discard their faith based on philosophical considerations, no matter how persuasive these may seem to many secularists or scientists,” is ridiculous, of course. This is a deliberate distortion in service of the notion that, despite the claims of those horrid New Atheists, science and faith are compatible.
There are in fact many, many people who have discarded their faith because its tenets were either philosophically insupportable or came into direct conflict with the palpable facts about the world. You know many of these folks, who include Dan Barker, Russell Blackford, all the preachers who, as documented by Dennett and LaScola, lost their faith, and many commenters on this website (chime in if you’re one of them).
And me. As Jeremy Manier wrote a while back in The Chicago Tribune, I was brought up in a Jewish household believing in God, and accepted His existence without question, until, in 1967, I suddenly realized that there was no evidence for any of the claims of faith and became an instant atheist. It literally happened in a few minutes.
Yes, it may be too much to expect most religious people, steeped in faith from birth, to reject religion. But there are the children, too. Keep them from being brainwashed, and see how many voluntarily choose faith over atheism when they reach majority. I would guess that if religious brainwashing of children were prohibited, atheism would increase drastically within a generation. The vast majority of people are religious not because they chose their faith voluntarily—because it made more sense than other faiths—but simply because they were brought up that way. It is not too harsh to call this brainwashing.
To those who say, “Religion will be with us always,” I respond, “Look at Europe.”
Speaking of converts to atheism, many of us know of Eric MacDonald from his posts on this and other websites. He was once an Anglican priest, but now writes eloquently of the problems with religion. One of his posts, which I want to highlight here, appears in a good discussion of the Intersection post at Butterflies and Wheels:
This is bizarre! What is the matter with that man?! [Chris Mooney, author of The Intersection post]. He may be an expert at communication, but all he seems able to communicate — and he does it well — is his own lack of understanding, his resolute inability to understand what anyone else is saying.
One of the things that bothers me more than anything in the absurd assumption that is being made when people talk about the compatibility of religion and science is the sheer diversity, and, so often, perversity, of religious belief. Religions come in so many different shapes and sizes, that the claim that religion is consistent with science is almost certainly false for most religions and for most religious beliefs. If the claim is being made that practicing a kind of cumulus shaped spirituality, without any clear ontological commitments, is consistent with doing science, then, of course the answer is, yes, there is no problem. You can even do it and take an interest in collecting match boxes. But if the religious belief happens to be that someone, somewhere, has authority to speak in the name of a transcendent being for which there is no evidence, that this transcendent being speaks to and communes with, human beings, that it has made an appearance in various guises in the world, that it causes miracles to happen and bodies to rise, or brings luck and good fortune to the favoured, punishes the wicked (for any given religious definition of what that word mean ins its various religious iterations) and authorises outrageous immoralities and injustices in its name, then it is not compatible, and it fatuous to suggest otherwise. Nor is there room for dialogue with this sort of thing. Until people start to recognise that when they speak about religion they are not speaking only about the nice people in the church across the street, who seem so culturally warm and fuzzy, and probably pretty fuzzy minded too about what their beliefs imply, they are also speaking of pretty distressing forms of belief and the injustices and inhumanities that flow from then. And just repeating some slogan about the compatibility of religion and science does a great disservice, not only to science, but to the victims of so much religion.
For, religion, despite all the warm and fuzzy notions that it seems to connote for so many people, is not warm and fuzzy. It misleads and misdirects. It abuses children, not only by deforming their lives with physical and emotional and sexual abuse, but by much of the religion that is taught, which is of an incredibly destructive sort, very often indelibly so. It ruins lives and imaginations, it binds them to forms of thinking that are the product of ancient cultures, when people banded together on the side of their god against others on the side of theirs, and while it may have given them protection, it also required their submission and all the hatreds that are born of it. This is still being demanded. There is no other way to teach religion. It is a form of authoritarianism, and even those who attempt to convey a more humane, even secular form of religious thought, will be constantly undermined by people who, in faithfulness to tradition, return people to the faith once delivered to the saints, or whatever group happened to be first and therefore the model of faithfulness.
And it is really tiresome that someone like Chris Mooney, who obviously knows nothing whatsoever about religion and its claims, continues to blight the world with his assinine slurs that he vainly makes about an imagined group of people whom he calls the New Atheists, without any understanding of them either. (He seems a remarkably uninformed person.) I say we adopt the name, because it’s a good way of making a distinction between people who think that religious believers have something to contribute to the future of the world other than theocracy and injustice, and those who think that religion has had its chance, and needs now to be opposed in the name of more effective ways of knowing about and changing the world. The trouble with Chris Mooney is that he really doesn’t know about religion or atheism. And that’s why he can’t have a dialogue, but I have read so much good stuff on Jerry Coyne’s site, here on B&W and on Pharyngula and Dawkins.net, etc., that really is dialogue, and he’s not paying attention. But I suspect that, even if he was, he would not be able to understand. That’s the difference between someone who knows about framing, and those others who know how to put something in the frame.