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Thursday 31 March 2016

Not How The Heavens Go

From ClickHole, so chances are she never said that.
Atheism is a subject about which I have Views. If you've even glanced at the sheer length of the post in the link, you might be wondering what the hell more I could possibly have to say on the subject. Well, there is one aspect which I didn't really cover : the supposed conflict between science and religion.

If you take everything literally, then there's a massive conflict between science and religion. The Earth isn't flat, it wasn't constructed in six days, it certainly isn't 6,000 years old, species not even mentioned in religious texts have gone extinct, and there's no real evidence for the soul or an afterlife. The two systems of thought seem like fire and ice : the one cannot permit the other. One takes its knowledge unquestioningly from ancient texts, the other from empirical evidence. Surely the two are completely mutually exclusive !

The problem is that this is a very narrow and simplistic view of both science and religion. True, there are some things that science has established with near-as-dammit certainty and some religious followers dismiss these findings. There is a conflict in some cases. The difficulty here is that you can prove whatever you want to prove with extreme examples, which is why Godwin's Law is a pretty sensible one. But not all religious people are thoughtless minions, and not all scientists are paragons of objectivity. Far from it.

Believing In A Deity Does Not Automatically Make You Unable To Think Rationally

Literally, like, a shitton of scientists and rational thinkers throughout history have also happened to believe in deities. There was Socrates, who loudly and proudly declared that he heard a voice in his head which told him what not to do, and violently declared himself a theist. He also said that the wisest man was the one most aware of his own ignorance, that self-examination was "really the very best thing that a man can do", that wealth does not bring goodness, and that the good of his fellow citizens was more important than his own life. All in all, he was just about the extreme opposite of Ralph Wiggum.

I'm pretty sure no-one's made that comparison before.

Yes, mystical voices can and do tell people to do ridiculous, dangerous things. But consider the possibility that they can also tell people to do entirely sensible things. Doesn't really matter where the voices are coming from.
Then there are actual scientists. I've covered examples of these in the Muslim and Christian worlds before. The pagan Greeks are littered with examples : Anaxagoras, who realised that the Moon shines by reflected light, but also thought the Earth was flat), Leucippus (who came up with the idea of atoms and vacuum), Aristotle (who got just about everything wrong and set back science for about the next thousand years, but at least attempted to analyse things rationally, bless his little cotton socks), Archimedes (a mathematician famous for taking baths and who sunk a Roman battle fleet as a hobby), Eratosthenes (who first measured the circumference of the Earth), to name but a few.

Not that the ancient world was a lost Utopia when science and religion were besties until those nasty Christians (read that link) came along. There were occasional conflicts : Socrates was accused of atheism, which smells like a trumped-up charge, while Anaxagoras was actually sentenced to death for his impiety (specifically the idea that the Sun is a burning rock). He escaped by going to another Greek city, but since there's no particular reason to assume that Lampsacus was a hotbed of atheistic freedoms, it's entirely possible the charges were political. Clearly though there was some conflict, because otherwise the charges could not have been used at all. But it's hardly as though everyone was at each other's throats the whole time. Maybe, overall, it was more like this :

Still, there's also no reason to think that many of those early scientists were secretly atheists. Some were, it's true - but many were not. Anaximander, who has been called the "Father of Cosmology", was certainly influenced by his faith, while Pythagoras' belief in the soul didn't stop him from coming up with a famous equation about triangles. Although it's hard to be certain, it's probable that at least some of these early thinkers were directly motivated by their faith, rather than seeing any kind of conflict between the two.

Arguably, the Celtic world provides even stronger evidence of faith motivating science - albeit more circumstantially. Celtic culture is awash with ritual and superstition, with at least some archaeologists ascribing every petty action to religious beliefs. Yet they were also undoubtedly capable of rational thought and precise astronomical measurements - the alignments of Stongehenge and other neolithic monuments, and more controversially the Coligny Calendar, makes it clear that these people were neither stupid nor devoid of spirituality. Similar examples can be found in ancient EgyptBabylonia, and Mesoamerica (the latter having some of the most bloodthirsty cultures and religions of all time).

Of course, we don't really know if the ancient cultures were really practising anything like modern science. It's entirely possible that they merely wanted precision measurements of astronomical events for ritualistic purposes, and never sought rational explanations for any phenomena. Accurate measurements are an important first step, but we shouldn't get too carried away.

It's to the medieval world, where far more documentation has survived, where we must go to find really clear examples of individual scientists who would be baffled by the modern idea that religion means surrendering all curiosity. To re-iterate, Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa postulated that the Universe should be infinite - not for any rational reason, but purely because he thought it would make God seem even better. Brahe, Kepler, and later Newton were all Christians. And for all his conflict with the Church, Galileo doesn't seem to have had any problems with religion at all.

Ours Is Not To Reason Why

It's the medieval theologians who exemplify why there needn't be a conflict between science and faith. One might think that if one says, "God did it", then one needs no further answers. One might think that this crushes one's curiosity, and that religion is inherently opposed to scientific inquiry. Maybe, one might think, I've only been citing extreme, unusual examples thus far. One should stop talking about oneself in the third person, for starters, and anyway one would be quite wrong. And importantly, my point is only that science and religion aren't always in conflict - whether this is true in general is quite another matter.

The medieval world had an elegant answer that allowed them to have their cake and eat it. God, they said, was indeed the primary cause of all things. But he didn't meddle in the affairs of men directly : he'd invoke some secondary action to do whatever it was he wanted. These secondary effects (plague, lightning, volcanoes, good weather, etc.) could all obey strict physical laws. Make no mistake : you couldn't cheat God. Those secondary effects always did exactly what God wanted - so if you survived a lightning strike, God only wanted you to be taught a lesson.

This meant there was tremendous freedom for the medieval mind to examine how the world worked. Taken to extremes, God could be seen as the reason for all things, but not necessarily the direct cause. It's the difference between asking the questions why and how. That completely avoids the whole "God of the Gaps" problem - the idea that God is always the cause of things we don't understand, which are then invariably revealed by scientific inquiry to require no direct supernatural intervention at all.

It's a bit like saying, "I've got some money in my wallet because I'm going to buy myself a pet porcupine" versus, "I've got some money in my wallet because I've just come from the bank". One tells you the mechanism by which the money found itself in your possession, the other tells you its purpose. Both are true. If someone asked you, "how did you get that money ?" and you said, "because I want a pet porcupine", they'd rightfully shuffle away nervously. But if you said, "because I work hard and have a savings account", that would be acceptable. How and why are sometimes completely different questions.

I promise to feed him every day !
Such an approach diminishes neither science nor religion. Indeed by keeping the two so clearly separated it strengthens both of them. Religious texts have no business in the science classroom, and science texts have no business in theology lessons. By abandoning all physical evidence of God, religion arguably requires an even bigger leap of faith.

Not that this approach is without limits, of course - there's only so much a porcupine is good for. It solves nothing about which is the "right" faith, if such a thing is possible. Nor does it answer anything about why bad things happen. You might still very well ask why God has apparently designed a Universe so that is manifestly unsuitable for us. And that would be a tough question indeed for theologians. Maybe God isn't even a designer, I don't know - I'm not a theist.

Of course, you can get a continuous spectrum of ideas in this approach : from a fat lazy God who exists but does bugger all, to God having direct control over every atom in existence. It's really only toward the extreme "total control" end that science and religion start to unfriend each other on Facebook.

Not Believing In A Deity Does Not Automatically Make You Rational Or A Scientist And It Certainly Doesn't Automatically Make You A Nice Person

Being religious clearly does not equate to being stupid or irrational. But we should also look at the opposite case. Many of those arguing most passionately that religion holds science back are not scientists themselves, yet they seem convinced that they are more rational because they believe deities don't exist.

That is probably the most dangerous fallacy of all. There are all kinds of secular ideologies that can lead to barbarism, not least of which is communism. The Khmer Rouge were explicitly anti-religious and anti-intellecutal, and committed some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. But then, communism in general hasn't really enjoyed a great reputation for creating happy societies. While Marx's views on religion may have been rather more sophisticated, making people into atheists is nowhere near enough to make people better.

Absolutely none of which says that atheists are better or worse as scientists, of course. The point is that if you say, "religious people are bad, they do all these irrational things and stand in the way of science", you are so far wrong it's not even funny. Atheists are just as capable of being stupid as anyone else. It makes exactly as much sense to say, "Stalin was a nasty man, therefore all atheists are evil" as it does to say, "the Crusades weren't very nice, so all religious people are jerks." Citing examples of atheist scientists does not mean that atheism is either better or inherently more rational.

Now, just to be fish-slap-in-the-face clear, if you're thinking that I'm somehow implying that atheism makes you worse, you need a good spanking. Because I'm not - religion doesn't have a monopoly on morality. I am saying that the human condition - our ability to get along with people we disagree with, to build particle accelerators, to massacre people by the million or sacrifice ourselves for others - is infinitely more complex than whether or not someone believes in a deity or thinks the Bible is a good read.

Someone's been a bad atheist.
Just to continue to rub the point home, it's always worth remembering that even some of the very best scientists are capable of stupid mistakes. Hoyle continued to believe in the Steady State long after it was utterly discredited. Einstein, conversely, fudged his equations to make a Steady State possible. He was also no fan of quantum mechanics, despite being one of its founders. Only two years before Einstein's first paper on relativity, Michelson was proclaiming that all the underlying principles of physics had been solved !

And some self-proclaimed atheists really aren't anything of the sort. Instead of supernatural deities, they believe in aliens, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, and a host of other powerful entities beyond their control and utterly lacking in sensible evidence. Of course, their faith is utterly different from religious faith, because they have real proof, sheeple...

There's something deep in the human psyche that demands to control other people, or insists that it's under the control of something else. We seem to desperately want to believe that someone is actively "in charge", even if we don't want to think that's a supernatural entity. A willingness to accept one's purposelessness in the face of Creation appears to be rather rare - even those who insist there are no higher powers so often insist that everyone else must accept this "fact" whether they want to or not (let alone whether it would actually make them better people). People are, in short, complicated. I don't know why this is such a hard concept for some people to grasp. You just can't reduce people to their spiritual beliefs.


Religion and science clearly don't have to be in conflict, but sometimes they undeniably are. Those who think that ancient tomes or voices in their head or magical leprechauns can tell them how the world works even when hard evidence says otherwise are likely destined to be cheerleading the protests against teaching evolution, anti-vaccines, insisting the Earth is flat, and that sort of thing. Which is a pretty awful sort of cheerleading, really.

Except... this article claims that there isn't really a "war on science" at all. It quite correctly notes that those opposed to even very robust scientific findings often try and use other scientific results to dispute them. Judging by the responses when I posted this on Google+, I have to say there's probably something in that. While there was a response by a Creationist nutter, there were also responses by two intensely rational people who are skeptical of mainstream scientific ideas. One is sympathetic to UFOs. Another is skeptical of climate change. Both are extremely intelligent human beings, so I hope they managed to bury the hatchet.

That said, if you dispute the findings of science you're being scientific. But if you insist that a conclusion must be wrong because you don't like it - not because science actually says so - then even if you manipulate other science to show that it's wrong, you're not being scientific. If you're not actually declaring war, you're at least perverting the course of science.

Another recent article - which motivated this post as I found it somewhat unsatisfying - has the interesting note that surveys may be "creating Creationists". That is, if your survey questions are over-simplified, you'll miss important nuances about what people really believe, and conclude that things are considerably more black and white than they are :
One 2006 poll conducted by the BBC, for example, asked respondents to say if they believed in atheistic evolution, creationism or intelligent design theory. No option was offered for those believing in God as well as accepting evolution. In this way, such surveys effectively “create creationists” in the way they frame their questions... The problem with this poll is that it tends to imply all people have clear and internally coherent views on the subject.
Similarly, people sometimes say that you can't pick and choose which bits of a religion you want to believe. That is complete nonsense. People do this all the time whether you think they can or not. To take an extreme example, my grandmother called herself a Christian but didn't believe in the afterlife.

And yet while that particular example may be rather silly (it's literally true though, I'm not exaggerating), there's a virtue in picking and choosing. It demonstrates that religious followers are not all blindly unquestioning sheep. Far more complex examples can be found in theology, which would be completely unnecessary if everyone took their religious texts literally. There may be comfort in blind obedience to a set text, but there's no safety - for yourself or anyone else. It would indeed be an absolutely ghoulish world if people followed their religious books to the letter, so why on Earth are you trying to make people do this ? Fortunately, they don't - which, incidentally, also means that it's pointless to judge people by what their books say.

Although occasionally judging them by their hair is permitted.
Galileo was pretty close to the whole notion of God being the reason for the world, not the mechanism, when he said (slightly paraphrasing), "the Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go". More than a thousand years earlier, even St Augustine realised that the Bible shouldn't be taken literally in all things. Modern thinkers too have espoused the view that contradictions in the Bible indicate it's not supposed to be a history book. And yet devout atheists continue to act as though all Christians - and by extension all theists - have this utterly ridiculous, uber-simplistic view of the world.

I suppose it may be nice to think that other people are worse as a way of making yourself feel better, but deep down I think we all know who the real enemies are : Nickleback fans. Obviously.

I mean seriously WTF is wrong with these "people".
Science and religion have a far more complicated history than is generally taught, and a far more complex relationship today than is often assumed. Yes, at times there have been some gruelling clashes. And today there are certain extremists who take their holy writ as being literally true, even though this was known to be stupid thousands of years ago. The mistake, however, is to label all religious people in some sort of big homogeneous group. This is as wrong as the European Southern Observatory's repeated claim to be building the world's largest telescope. Err, yeah, optical telescope, but omitting the world "optical" is not a simplification. It's just plain wrong.

Atheists, I totally get your anger at religious fanatics. I'll back you all the way on that. But all religious people ? Nope. Nope nope nope nope nope. Conflict can occur not just because of religious fanatics, but because of scientific fanatics too : my way of looking at the Universe is the only valid one, only scientific knowledge is true. Anything unmeasurable isn't real. Most of the time, there's just no need for this starkly black-and-white view of the world.

When it comes to those who say, "God does everything", the atheists are correct. It's when they step outside the remit of science and try and say that all notions of divinity are definitely wrong and damaging that I have a problem.
Irrationality requires far more than a mere belief in a deity. It requires a subscription to a much larger and more broad-ranging field of thought. You have to surrender your own reasoning and outsource your knowledge to someone or something else, be that a religious textbook or a scientific one. Religion can do this. So can other ideologies. You can be a devout acolyte of science who takes the half-mad theories of some scientists as gospel. But it is not the slightest bit necessary that this happens. As Jesuit astronomer Guy Consolmagno puts its (01:08:40) :
I can't allow my experience to try to determine your life, nor do I, nor have you heard me do that. What I do hear is a description of religion that you guys have rejected that I would reject as well. And if that's what you think religion is, then by all means get rid of it - that's a horrible idea of religion.... A lot of people think religion is what they thought they heard when they were 11.
I suspect that Gauss, Newton, Maxwell,  al-Haytham and Al-Biruni would have shared similar sentiments. Religion and science don't always get along - sometimes through the fault of the religious, and sometimes through the fault of the scientists. Yet it doesn't have to be this way. It is only the peculiarly extreme forms of religion and science ("mine is the one true way") that force a conflict where none need exist.

1 comment:

  1. Great Post Rhys! It really gets to the heart of things (ie: Multiverse versus Intelligent Design). Like the school dance with the boys on one side and the girls on the other, no one wants to make the first move but everyone is listening to the same music...In our 14 billion year process of becoming, it was a universe of feeling long before it was ever a universe of thinking which entrenches these egos we carry around. To become a universe of knowing will require our "broad-ranging field of thought" to change and with the way it looks now, along the spectrum of fiercely defended views getting in the way of what the real answer is, we appear content to continue chasing our collective tail as we write the script for the Great Filter/Fermi Paradox. All the while, it remains quite tragically ironic that the one thing we all share is the one thing we barely recognize, and until we comprehend that the key to our phenomenal physical reality is in the light of our consciousness we will forever remain in the dark. We are the universe trying to understand itself and this is where all roads will meet.
    David J. McKnight


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