People like Elaine Ecklund are always urging scientists to “dialogue” with the faithful, expecting that it will benefit both of them. (What people like her really want, of course, is not benefits to science but more tolerance of religion.) I haven’t been averse to such dialogue. Although I certainly don’t think it’s going to improve my science, and have no illusions that I’ll convert religious people in a short conversation, it is a learning experience. And I just had one yesterday, participating in a discussion group at the First United Methodist Church of Chicago. A while back, senior pastor Phil Blackwell emailed me that the church’s reading group would be discussing Why Evolution is True, and invited me to join in. I did so gladly.
The church itself, located in the Loop of downtown Chicago, is pretty amazing. It’s actually a skyscraper about twenty stories high, with a steeple on top!
I’ve never seen a building like this. The church itself, the oldest Methodist congregation in Chicago (founded in 1821), now occupies a couple of floors in the building, renting out the rest of it for office space. Scopes lawyer Clarence Darrow—a vociferous atheist—once had his office on the sixth floor! And Phil and his family live in the steeple—what a great job perk! There’s also a “sky chapel” at the top, said to be the highest place of worship in the world.
As I said, the discussion was supposed to be about my book, so I expected to talk a lot about evolution. It didn’t turn out that way.
The discussion group actually has a topic: the interface between science and religion. And that’s what we talked about. (It always turns out that discussions of my book, when not rigorously guided away from the topic of religion, always wind up dealing with science and faith. That’s been my experience talking not just to laypeople, but also to college and high school classes. That’s fine by me, for thanks to the Gnu Atheists religion is on many people’s minds, and I welcome the chance to speak my mind. Besides, I’ve given elebenty gazillion talks on my book and it’s boring.)
Before I showed up I had resolved to keep pretty mum about my views on religion—after all, I was addressing twenty religious people who were kind enough to buy and discuss my book. But that resolve lasted only about thirty seconds! How could I sit by when people made the familiar arguments that science and faith are separate magisteria, that atheism and science were responsible for Nazi Germany, that parts of the Bible were metaphorical fictions while others weren’t, and so on? To not say my piece would have been intellectual dishonesty. But, to be sure, I tried to be calm and respectful.
The discussion lasted two hours, and while a rapprochement obviously wasn’t reached, I did learn a lot. Here are some of my outtakes:
- Because the church members were liberal, urban Methodists, apparently well off, they were obviously not raving fundamentalists. Their approach to faith was far more “nuanced” (I hate that word!) and circumspect. Several of them struck me as being a hairsbreadth from atheism, seeing God as some kind of distant entity who neither concerns himself with the world nor was even involved in creating it. In fact, they spent a fair amount of time denigrating fundamentalists like Southern Baptists, reassuring me that they disliked those folks more than I did!
- It was obvious that for these folks, one of the most important aspects of church membership was a sense of community—and the opportunity to do something to help other people. The church has various intellectual activities (like the reading group), outreach programs like an ecology group, and it feeds the homeless. All of this is obviously good: this is one of those churches for which it’s hard to say that, on balance, they create more harm than good. But the question, as always, is this: is the doctrine that brings these people together really true? I think for some of them it doesn’t matter, but I wonder how many of these people would even belong to the Church if they knew absolutely that Jesus was not the son of God and that the Resurrection never happened.
All atheists recognize that one of the vital functions performed by churches is social—to bring people together and make them feel part of a movement greater than themselves, or simply to be part of a community whose members care about each other. It also enables them to work together to help others. I appreciate this function, and realize that—as Phil Kitcher always emphasizes—any viable atheist community must somehow satisfy the need for this kind of social interaction. In the discussion, several people implied that religion was the only way to provide that. I responded that Europe is doing pretty well without religion, and that Europeans have somehow met the need for community without a need for God. (Greg Paul’s work suggests that simply having a secure society, one with medical care, social security, low crime, and the like, serves to dissolve the need for faith.)
- With respect to the inevitability of religion, a couple of people claimed that “religion will always be with us,” since it’s been part of humanity ever since the Neandertals buried their dead with ornaments and ochre pigments. I think the idea was simply that religious belief is inherent in the human brain (having either been directly instilled by evolution or as a byproduct of our complex brains and intelligence). My response was that, of course, much of the world is not religious. The work of Phil Zuckerman, surveying belief around the world, shows that in many countries the incidence of atheism is between 40% and 85%. Countries like France, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Japan can be taken as largely secular, and they’re not appreciably more immoral or insecure than America. I pointed out that religion appears highly correlated with both poverty and insecurity, and perhaps reducing those will help “get rid of religion”.
- One of the discussants asked me how I’d deal with a fundamentalist who simply rejected evolution outright because it contravened the Bible. I said that in such a case that there was nothing to do. My own strategy for promoting evolution, I said, had evolved into trying to “get rid of religion,” which is the source of creationism, and far worse things besides. I believe that statement shocked some folks, but I hastened to add that the types of religion I was most concerned with eliminating were those that promoted Biblical literalism or had invidious effects on society, like promoting suicide bombing, repression of women, and prohibition of birth control. I doubt that these Methodists fit into those categories!
- The discussion was generally pleasant. The only distressing part was one woman who insisted that Hitler and the Nazis could be directly traced to prewar Germany’s emphasis on science and math, and its pervasive atheism. I made the standard counterarguments: that Hitler really wasn’t an atheist, that math and science are big in Japan and Denmark but there aren’t any Holocausts there, that the persecution of the Jews can be traced directly to religion, and so on. The woman was apparently one of those folks who see religion as a bulwark against immorality and persecution. My response was simply to point again to modern Europe. When I got home last night, I found an email from one of the other discussants, thanking me for my presence and adding, “I beg of you, please do not write that Methodists believe math and science led to Nazi Germany!” So let me add that only one person espoused that view!
- The “different ways of knowing” trope arose several times. One person compared religion to poetry (i.e., an emotional response to the world) and science to prose (a rational and empirical approach to the world). I mentioned—and this was difficult to say before such a group—that I didn’t think that religion was a way of knowing anything: that different religions had different dogmas and different answers to questions like “What is the proper place of a woman in society?” What, then, is the “knowledge” to be gained? If any of the church members read this post, and I suspect some of them will, I’d ask them to consider what religion really helps us “know”, and how can Methodists be confident that what they “know” is true while the different things “known” by Muslims, Hindus, and Southern Baptists are wrong.
- The same lady who blamed science and math on Hitler raised the point that there was a commonality to the “truths” of faiths—they were monotheistic. I pointed out that many faiths, like Hinduism, were not monotheistic, so even that is not a “truth”. Moreover, when you get beyond the “one god” idea, faiths rapidly diverge in their other “truths”. Yes, they all pay lip service to the Golden Rule, but clearly Muslims don’t treat all other Muslims as they want to be treated themselves! And religions diverge on many important issues like sex, birth control, and treatment of gays and women.
- To me, one of the most interesting parts of the discussion involved interpreting the Bible. One gentleman claimed that, of course, stories like Genesis were metaphorical fiction, an attempt of preliterate people to make sense of the world without empirical tools for studying it. I agreed with him (adding that he probably also believed that Adam and Eve and the story of Noah were metaphors), but pointed out that he may have been treating the Bible unequally. Why are stories like Genesis and Noah so obviously fictional, and yet stories like the divinity and resurrection of Jesus are seen as true: the bedrock foundations of Christian belief? To me, this is the most difficult question for liberal religious folks. In fact, one woman asked Pastor Blackwell to respond to this point. Phil basically confessed, I think, that he didn’t have good reasons to think that Jesus’s divinity and resurrection were true in a literal sense, but that even if they were fictional they did not (and I quote him here) “affect the timeless and boundless truths around the life of Jesus.” Of course I’m not sure what those truths are, but so be it.
- Finally, one thing that impressed me very strongly about the group was its sense of doubt. Just as we scientists can’t be absolutely confident that what we discover are timeless and unalterable truths, so several of these Methodists said they weren’t so sure about the “truths” of the Bible, or, importantly, about the nature of God. (The difference between scientific and religious doubt is, of course, that scientists have good ways to resolve doubt.) While this doubt was not ubiquitous, I’m sure I wouldn’t have sensed it in, say, a confab with Southern Baptists.
In the end, it struck me that the harmful and destructive nature of faiths may be correlated with how much doubt resides in their adherents. These Methodists, unsure about the nature—or perhaps even the existence—of God, are certainly not wreaking much harm on the world. Indeed, with their outreach programs, help for the poor, and so on, their net effect on the world may be positive. (Also, they seemed like nice people—people trying to live their lives according to the morality they derive from faith). This is not the kind of faith that I spend a lot of time attacking, even though I consider their religious beliefs—insofar as they even have religious beliefs—largely irrational. And I’m not sure how much their own belief enables beliefs of more harmful faiths, like Islam or fundamentalist Christianity. My impression is that most of these people are not enablers in that sense.
The destructive nature of faith stems from certainty: certainty that you know God’s will and God’s mind. It’s that certainty that leads to suicide bombing, repression of women and gays, religious wars, the Holocaust, burning of witches, banning of birth control, repression of sex, and so on. The more doubt in a faith, the less likely its adherents are to do harm to others. These Methodists seem riddled with doubt, and that defuses potential harm. But though they may doubt the nature of God and the truth of scripture, they do not doubt the value of helping others, and that prompts their many charitable acts.
At the end, I was asked by Pastor Blackwell to provide a “topic sentence,” a short precis of my view on the discussion. I said something like this: Everyone claims that a dialogue between scientists and the faithful will be useful to both of them. I’m not sure I agree. Certainly my own scientific research is not helped at all by talking to religious people. How could it be? And while scientists do have something of value to say to the faithful, that is only our empirical research that disproves religious dogma. Nevertheless, these discussions are of value, if only to inform each other where we stand. I, for one, learned some useful things about liberal Christianity and was glad I went.
Thanks to Pastor Blackwell and his group for inviting me! If any church members read this, do feel free to comment below; you can do so anonymously if you wish.