I swear, physicist and atheist Victor Stenger gets more “militant” with each new post in his HuffPo column, and I love it. The man speaks the unvarnished truth.
His latest is a strong and alliteratively titled discussion of the incompatibility of science and religion called “The fall of foolish faith.” Besides urging scientists to help rid the world of religion, Stenger adds a new twist: that non-scientists should go after scientists who coddle faith.
I want to urge those of you who are not scientists to try to convince those who are to stop pussyfooting around with religion and confront the reality of what it is and always has been — a blight on humanity that has hindered our progress for millennia and now threatens our very existence.
Scientists have to help the rest of the secular community to work toward reducing the influence of religion to the point where it has negligible effect on society. I don’t believe this is impossible. Astrology and the reading of sheep entrails are no longer used to decide on courses of events, such as going to war. Why can’t we expect the same for the imagined dialogues with an ancient tribal sky god that at least one recent president has used to justify his actions?
Much of his message concerns the influence of religion on preventing the development of an energy-efficient America, one that, he says, should be using liquid thorium nuclear reactors (I have to confess I know nothing about these). Instead, the rich people, armed with the club of faith, continue to fight solar power and other new technologies, deny global warming, and foster the continued use of fossil fuels:
So why don’t we move in these directions already clearly marked out by science? Because since the late nineteenth century we have lived in a plutocracy in which petroleum and other fossil energies dominate almost every sector of our economy by virtue of the enormous wealth they bring to their producers and distributers.
Now, what does this have to do with religion? Since prehistoric times religion has served as the handmaiden to those in power, helping them to maintain that power. Tribal chiefs, kings, and emperors always had shamans and priests at their sides to assure their subjects that they led by divine right.
In America today, petro-dollars fuel a giant Christian propaganda machine that works to undermine the efforts of scientists to find solutions to the problems that face us with overpopulation, pollution, and climate change. They use techniques that were pioneered 30 years ago by the tobacco industry to suppress the evidence that smoking causes cancer and heart disease. And these techniques exploit the antiscience that is inherent in religious belief.
A new technique that in recent years has been added to the arsenal of global warming denialism is to frame climate change as a theological issue. Global warming deniers say that God would never allow life on Earth to be destroyed. After all, he gave humans dominion over the planet. Besides, the world is coming to an end soon anyway, so it doesn’t matter.
Energy matters are above my pay grade, though it’s clear that religion is behind (or at least used to justify) much of climate-change denialism. There’s also a connection, says Stenger, though the kind of magical, nonscientific thinking fostered by faith:
While the petrocrats use science in every aspect of their businesses, they hypocritically exploit the antiscience that is inherent in religion in order to undermine any scientific findings that threaten their power and fortunes.
But my favorite part of Stenger’s longish piece is his no-nonsense pronouncements about the incompatibility of science and religion:
Most scientists do not realize that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. This is not because they have thought about it. It is because they prefer not to think about it.
Fundamentalists know science and religion are incompatible, since science disputes so much of what is in the Bible, which they take as the literal word of God. To them, science is simply wrong and must be Christianized. A well-funded effort exists to do just that, while most scientists sit on the sidelines because they prefer not to get involved.
But science and religion have always been at war, and always will be. One of yesterday’s speakers said that he did not like to use the word “religion” but rather called it a “belief system.” Well, there are different kinds of belief systems. Science is a belief system based on reason and evidence. Religion is a belief system based on bullshit.
I love the last sentence, which I wouldn’t have the guts to publish in a forum like HuffPo. He’s right of course, though I’d say “revelation and other forms of superstition” rather than “bullshit.”
And he’s absolutely on the mark with this:
Moderate Christians claim they support science, but they still hold to beliefs that have no empirical basis. Moderates will tell you that they accept evolution, but then they insist it is still guided by God. This is not Darwinian evolution. This is intelligent design. There is no guidance, divine or otherwise, in Darwinian evolution.
Yes, a hundred times yes! The National Center for Science Education should take this to heart, as should the Ken Millers, Francis Collinses, and the 38% of the American public who accept evolution, but only a form guided by God (only 16% of Americans accept naturalistic evolution, while 40% are straight-out creationists). Let us install this in our neurons: theistic evolution is not science, but creationism.
Among his other peeves is another I agree with: that science can indeed test the “supernatural,” or, if you don’t like that word, can test for the presence of a theistic god.
No doubt, science has its limits. However, the fact that science is limited doesn’t mean that religion or any alternative system of thought can or does provide insight into what lies beyond those limits. For example, science cannot yet show precisely how the universe originated naturally, although many plausible scenarios exist. But the fact that science does not–at present–have a definitive answer to this question does not mean that ancient creation myths such as those in Genesis have any substance, any chance of eventually being verified.
The scientific community in general goes along with the notion that science has nothing to say about the supernatural because the methods of science, as they are currently practiced, exclude supernatural causes. I strongly disagree with this position. If we truly possess an inner sense telling us about an unobservable reality that matters to us and influences our lives, then we should be able to observe the effects of that reality by scientific means.
If someone’s inner sense were to warn of an impending earthquake unpredicted by science, which then occurred on schedule, we would have evidence for an extrasensory source of knowledge.So far we see no evidence that the feelings people experience when they perceive themselves to be in touch with the supernatural correspond to anything outside their heads, and we have no reason to rely on those feelings when they occur. However, if such evidence or reason should show up, then scientists will have to consider it whether they like it or not.
So here’s one more thing to encode in our neurons: a theistic god is indeed a god that can be examined with the tools of science and reason. Every good theologian knows that—the people who don’t are the scientific organizations who have made the “god-is not-testable” statements: the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Center for Science Education.
If I go on, I’ll wind up reproducing Stenger’s whole article. So go read it: it’s all good.
Apropos of religion vs. the environment, reader Tom sent me a church sign from Syracuse, New York (Baptist, of course):