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Are religion and science equally valid?

I have a friend from high school that I have been conversing with for a short while ever since we friended each-other and he has been reading this blog as I post links to them on facebook. He said, in a recent blog post of his, a number of things that I disagree with. I would, therefore, like to reply to it here. I hope he does not mind my quoting his blog entirely. The original post can be found here.

He starts off this way:

I have an old friend from high school that identifies himself as an “atheist, polymorous, geek” (if you’re like I was and unfamiliar with the term “polymorous,” best I can figure out, it means polygamy distinguished semantically from the baggage of Joseph Smith and the fundamentalist Mormons). Shaun keeps a daily blog in which he posts his thoughts in support of atheism and polymorism. At least once a week I open my web browser to find an intelligent, well written article about why atheism is the only possible rational conclusion to be drawn by carefully examining the facts about God.

Now, first off, polyamory has very little to do with polygamy. My partners are free to find other boyfriends or girlfriends as I am. Right now, I have no interest in starting a relationship with anyone else, as I am busy enough. Polyamory really is simple non-monogamy. I just don’t think that monogamy should be assumed. I’m glad he thinks my thoughts are intelligent, at least.

Seriously. He writes, “There is no God” every week, “just look at the facts.” Sometimes he writes this twice a week in essay form. As I read these short essays, I can’t help imagining what people’s reactions would look like if I were to write about the existence of God as much as Shaun writes about supreme being’s nonexistence. Certainly, the white upper-middle class politically left leaning liberal intellectual community in which both Shaun and I were educated would label me as a fundamentalist, religious freak. After all, who else would expend so much time and energy thinking and writing about God?

Clearly, this is hyperbole. I don’t say that there is no god. Why? Because that is not the atheist position as I use it. I say that I am not convinced that a god exists. I think the question is important, so I write about it. I am not really concerned if people look at me as some sort of fanatic. I am interested in what is true. If anyone else were to write bout it as much as I do, I would want to talk with them. Those who are not interested can read something else.

I’m no expert on God or Rationalism. I’m not a theologian. I’m not a philosopher. My field is Depth Psychology. I observe and write about the ways humans make meaning and the stories they tell to make sense of the world around them. I’m not interested, therefore, in discussing whether or not God exists. Using so-called rational science, the existence of an omnipotent being that resembles a carbon based earth creature is just as hard to disprove, as it is to prove. Instead, I’m interested in the concept of God: an undisputable fact.

OK. I’m waiting now for the punch line.

The very attempt to disprove God’s existence is simultaneously an acknowledgment of the concept’s structural existence and an attempt to replace the concept with another. In other words, God is an idea on which both believers and atheists expend mental energy. I agree, when the atheist labels the believer’s ideology a phantastic story that makes meaning out of chaos. However, I also label the atheist’s ideology a rationalistic story that makes meaning out of chaos.

Again, I’m not trying to disprove god. I’m talking about why I am not convinced that tthis being exists. I’m responding to the claim, the apologetics of it, and the proposed reasons to believe and showing why they do not add up.

I’m interested by the idea that we share the “acknowledgment of the concept’s structural existence”, as he says. This seems similar to a thought I have often. I do feel like I’m trying to wrap my mind around a concept of god (that concept depends on what type of theism I’m responding to), but find what concept I am able to glean unbelievable. And I’ll agree, provisionally, that I’m trying to make meaning out of chaos. How similar my method of meaning-making is from that of others I do not know.

Both the phantastic and the rationalistic are valid and real ways to approach the world. In both cases, however, imagining your own approach as “truth” is fundamentalist and dogmatic. There is space for approaching the world from both perspectives. Both perspectives (and the many other possible approaches) are fabrications or fictions that say more about the unique experience of the human species than they do about the universe’s material (or spiritual) reality.

This is where we clearly part ways. I do not accept the idea that all methods of approaching the world are equally valid. And while they are all fabrications, or at least artifacts, that does not mean that they are equally valid any more than the fact that a true and false story come from people make them both valid. Some methods are created such that they can be tested against shared experiences and be tested with the best methods we have. Others do not use these tools. Thus, some methods are clearly better at different things. In terms of discovering what is most-likely true, one stands above the others.

We live in a typhoon of positivist sound bites as dogmatic as the organized religions they criticize. Moralistic commandments with financial agendas are disguised as health tips; they are platitudes accepted as gospel. Our obsession with cleanliness and sanitizing, for example, can be seen as a remnant of a puritan believer’s attempt to wash away nature, to weed out the impure, to restore humankind to its Garden-of-Eden Godliness.

Positivism is no longer a perspective held by the majority of people, especially in science. It was a view derived from early works of Wittgenstein (and not sanctioned by him, as he later came back to academia and attacked positivism). The view is not that all metaphysical (or phantastic, as he calls them) claims are nonsense simply for being metaphysical in nature, but because they do not stand up to scrutiny. The ones that do stand up to scrutiny are then simply considered part of science’s conclusions. The skeptical community to which I belong does not have any dogmatic beliefs about such things, they have tried to test them and found that much of them do not stand up to testing.

We accept the scientific data on faith. Does the atheist examine the research on microbiology and “germs” before washing his hands? Doesn’t he see the inherent contradiction? He’s willing to take the leap of faith necessary to believe in evil creatures so small they are invisible to the naked eye but not a creator so large he cannot be comprehended by the human mind?

No. I accept the conclusions of science for two reasons. One, in some cases I’ve looked at the data myself. But the vast majority is because I understand the peer-review process. The scientific community is full of people who are clamoring for grants, respectability, and maybe even a Nobel prize. In order to get these things, you have to have your theory stand up to the rigor of hundreds or even thousands of others you are in competition with who are trying to use teh best methodology that they know of.

To accept what survives this onslaught is not faith. It is a rational acceptance based on the fact that if the theories proposed by the scientific method via the scientific community were not the best we have come up with, someone else would have proven otherwise. Theories such as the germ theory of disease, relativity, natural selection etc were all tested, retested, confirmed, re-confirmed, and so they are accepted. They are not believed in a technical sense, but accepted. And if a better idea were to replace any of these, what other method besides science could be used? No other method has proven itself to be as reliable, and so that’s why it is used by the experts in various fields…well, most of them, anyway. I’m sure young Earth creationists, for example, try different methods (yet then call it ‘science’, ironically)

We can see small organisms with tools like microscopes. The hypothesis of god has been used to explain many things in history, and as science processes in its understanding, the things some god was supposed to do are being pushed back by better understanding. In ancient times we thought gods made lightning, now we have a natural explanation. Now people think that a god is needed to design life, but science keeps showing that this is not the case necessarily. If a god exists, it is either working through nature (which does not seem parsimonious), or it is so vague a power and so insignificant that why would we continue to worship it or call it god?

So, god is so large it cannot be comprehended by the human mind? Perhaps. But then how do so many people seem to know so much about it? I don’t see a need for such a being to exist to explain anything in nature. It may exist, but I am not convinced. That’s what atheism is.

The microscope-wielding ministers of science at temples like Harvard and MIT may seem to have more clout than the doctors of deities at institutions like the Vatican and the Jewish Theological Seminary. But I think that assumption imagines the mainstream as the whole stream. Instead, I would argue that our rational-discursive oppositional world is dependent on the Science/Religion dichotomy. The conflicting perspectives exist symbiotically, the debate against one point of view feeding the other.

It is not a dichotomy. There is the methods of science and the various ideas of religions, conspiracy theories, new age weirdness, pseudoscience, etc. One method is better than the others. It will continue to give us better explanations while the others cannot compete in terms of methodology. Religion is not a single methodology. It is not a monumental and coherent competitor, but an alliance of people who share similar ideologies who stand opposed to, ignorant of, or philosophically naive in relation to the best methodology humans have yet come up with that tends to demonstrate the weakness of closely held ideologies, such as the dogmas of religions.

There may be something closer to a dichotomy in terms of the ways that we think. To think critically one must train the mind to be skeptical, rigorous, and be willing to tear down your own assumptions and beliefs. To try to rationalize beliefs held is to seek out data that supports the conclusion you want. Good scientists don’t do this, as this is not part of the scientific method. This method is neutral, skeptical, and perpetually bettering itself.

A religious ideology is rigid, and only changes when it needs to. It’s why religion had to give up the earth-centric view of cosmology, the flat Earth (there still is a Flat Earth Society), the 6000 year-old earth (some still don’t accept the much older earth). It seeks data that supports it, apologizes rather than is skeptical, and it feeds off of our desires to be more than mere biological machines. It was only when science came around, providing better methods and thus conclusions, that religions started to change.

These are not equally valid pursuits. This post-modernism is damaging philosophically, epistemologically, and methodologically. So, with respect I disagree with my fellow blogger. But I do look forward to more discussion with him and others.

One Guy’s Perspective On Unbelief

Hello, everyone.  I’m Tony, but blog as Midwestern Gent.  First, I’d like to express my appreciation to Chris and FSGP for the opportunity to write for this forum.  FSGP is a vital voice for reason in our region, and it’s great to have a chance to contribute to the conversation.

Chris introduced us all briefly, but I thought as an inaugural post (no, Rick Warren will not be featured), I’d share the post that started it all for me back in 2007. 

I am an atheist. I have concluded that God does not exist.

I use the word “concluded” intentionally. I do not “believe” that there is no God.  Statements of “belief” signal opinions lacking a foundation in investigation and thought.  I have rationally concluded that no supernatural deity exists outside of or above the natural realm after examining the evidence presented by science, reason, and my own experience.  Accordingly, my atheism is not a dogmatic “belief,” because I have not reached this conclusion uncritically.  Moreover, it is a conclusion that, as my life progresses, remains open to reexamination.  Although I do not foresee that further evidence will undermine my conclusion, I do not foreclose that possibility.

It took me a long time to reach this conclusion.  My life has been accentuated by long periods of weak or no belief followed by short, intense conversions — first to evangelical pentecostalism in high school, then to Catholicism as an adult.  I pushed down my persistent doubts, suspended my disbelief, and kept trying to convince myself that what the priests said was true, that I needed a god, that life was too big to handle without believing.  At last, I’ve managed to be honest enough with myself to acknowledge that I do not need a god, and never did.

I do not need a god to be a moral person.  Without consideration of eternal reward or damnation, I strive (though often fail) to treat others as I wish to be treated.  I love and am faithful to my wife; I do not kill, steal, cheat, covet, lie (aside from the white lies of daily life); I respect my parents; I pay my taxes accurately and on time; and I give to charity without expectation of recompense.  I do not seek to engage in licentious conduct and through atheism to justify such conduct – my conclusion is one of conviction, not convenience.

Religion possesses no monopoly on morality.  I categorically reject the idea that a life lived in hope of eternal reward or in fear of damnation is “moral.”  Morality imposed from without strips a human being of his or her moral agency.  Blind obedience to rules may be commanded of a dog through the inducement of a cookie or the threat of a scolding.  We rightly do not consider a well-behaved dog to be acting “morally.”  In the same way, the religious person who obeys not out of love and respect for other people, but in response to the promise of Paradise or the specter of Hell, acts not as an independent, moral person.  He is merely a trained animal seeking to please an unseen master. 

I do not need a god to feel safe and fulfilled.  I create my reality with the choices I make.  I chose my spouse, my job, my house; I choose what to read, eat, drink; I choose how to relate to others and to my community.  I acknowledge that life and nature are indifferent to my individual success or failure, life or death.  This is freedom – to live now, in the present, in possession of the trajectory of one’s life.  I will not surrender this freedom for the comforting delusion that there is an ultimate caretaker looking out for my well-being.

I do not need a god to explain the universe to me.  It is the province of small, lazy minds to look at all that is and require that it have an easily explainable source, a genesis in the mind of a designer.  The natural world needs neither a reason nor a purpose to be enthralling – it is astonishing simply because it is.  Even a basic knowledge of science discloses wonders enough to fill a lifetime – the unfathomable distances and forces of astronomy, the intricacy and diversity of biological life, the complexity of weather systems.  I stand in awe of all these things with only a very imperfect understanding of any of them.  The accumulation of scientific learning that permits us to know incrementally more about these phenomena marks our progress as a species.  Religious thinking about the universe poses a threat to that progress.

I am still working out how I will relate to others’ religious expression.  From a purely legal perspective, the First Amendment guarantees Americans the right to freedom of conscience.  If they choose to exercise that freedom by subjecting themselves to a fictional daddy figure, it is not the government’s place to prevent them doing so.  Nor does the First Amendment allow the government to favor one type of religious belief over another, or over non-belief.  However, religious expression should not be permitted an unfettered right to escape the reach of secular law by claiming a “free exercise” exception.  To the extent that neutral laws passed on secular bases impede in some non-targeted way the religious practices of this group or that, those practices, not the law, should give way.

From a non-legal perspective, my feelings are less charitable.  Religion is a pernicious force in American society.  To show “tolerance” or “respect” for irrational religious belief is to tacitly sanction its perpetuation to the detriment of everyone.  This I cannot, with any intellectual honesty, do.  American Christianity (the faith about which I know the most) is shallow and superstitious.  Most American Christians know very little about the scriptures that they claim are the infallible word of god.  The deity is largely viewed as some combination of an ethereal referree – keeping score of sins and forgiveness, meting out penalties – and the ultimate Santa Claus – intervening in the minutiae of individual lives to grant blessings, cure disease, and otherwise alleviate the sufferings of normal daily life.  Polls show more Americans believe in angels than evolution.  Human frailty is blamed on “the forces of satan” and the stain of “original sin” passing directly from Adam and Eve to all humanity.  Paradoxically, such forms of belief actually relieve the believer of responsibility for his or her behavior or lot in life – when blame may be assigned to supernatural forces and “god’s plan,” real self-awareness and “soul-searching” become unnecessary.

Expressions of this superstitious faith wedged into the public square cause us to regress as a people, and on this ground I anticipate writing and acting in my community to curb the undue influence of religious thought.  Religioius sentiments produce such absurdities as advocation of “intelligent design” and denial of the scientific proof of Darwinian evolution; inadequate sex education for kids coupled with restricted access to contraception and attempts to reduce the availability of abortion and other reproductive services; discrimination against gays and lesbians in the benefits of civil marriage; and a pervasive anti-intellectualism that threatens our economic and cultural competitiveness.  These are tangible threats to the freedom and well-being of Americans, and indeed all people, and as such, my conscience compels me to speak out against them.

Let me address some common rejoinders to expressions of atheistic thought.  First, my conclusion is not born of anger.  God has not wronged me such that I reject him out of spite.  I experienced that form of atheism as a teenager following the death of my grandfather, angrily rejecting any god that would permit my family to splinter as it did.  Possessed now of my full faculties as an adult, I reach my conclusion in the midst of what many would consider a “charmed life” – happy marriage, good job, nice home.  I don’t reject God because I hate him.  I don’t reject him at all.  I simply have not seen any evidence that he exists.

Nor is my conclusion born of disillusionment.  Not since I was a naïve young man have I believed that religion possessed the ability to lift man above his native state of self-regarding conduct.  True, there are examples of religious people motivated by their faith to embrace the poor and powerless in society, but those examples exist also among those with no faith at all.  It has been my experience that the highly religious are no more likely for their faith to place others before their own wants and needs.  Accordingly, I am not some “lost soul” whose desire to believe has been thwarted.

I can almost hear my childhood churchmates scolding me that the “wisdom of men” is foolishness compared to god’s wisdom.  If I must choose between imperfect human knowledge and perfect religious ignorance, I choose the former.  I will not limit my mind and hobble my conscience with the dictates of dead men, written down and collated in barbaric times.  The wisdom of reason and experience is a living force, adaptable and always growing to incorporate our ever-expanding store of knowledge.  I will follow where it leads.

I am an atheist.  I have concluded that God does not exist.