Trouble Thinking

September 5, 2012

Science is Not Atheistic, Science is Not Theistic.

So I saw a couple bits of fluff about these signs getting taken down:

Yeah, 10 more of these and Christianity will fold.

Look, man. I get it. I get that you’re more than a bit frustrated. Being an atheist in a mostly-secular country is a weird mix of completely uninteresting and incredibly annoying. You don’t really need to change much, but the language and culture kind of presuppose you’re at the least “spiritual”, and that to be otherwise is a bit rude. There’s not really much in the way of direct antagonism because the average religious person is more Christmas/Easter than 3 Mass a week, but people consistently seem to rate atheists as being secretly evil moral black holes. Also, you can’t run for a higher office than dogcatcher in most states. But come the fuck on. This sort of shit isn’t changing minds. It’s not changing minds because it’s not designed to change minds any more than the “Left Behind” books. It’s tribalism. No one has ever successfully evangelized their position by mocking relentlessly the most deeply held beliefs of those they’re trying to convert, pausing only to high five other people who already agree with them.

But again, I get being angry. I mean I just watched this after seeing Dinesh D’Souza in the news for his stupid movie about the President:

This is a reasonably well-respected man discussing intelligent design and not being laughed at. Like, he’s legitimately discussing the possibility that Man did not evolve. I know, it’s not the position of most people who consider themselves religiously observant. I’m not going to tack his stupid bullshit onto every theistic person. But he does hit on something I think Atheists should be talking about instead of simply mocking people for being religious. A hell of a lot of his argument is about how religion answers questions well that science either doesn’t answer or answers poorly. Which is weird, because science isn’t actually atheism.

I know, it seems weird right?  They get said together so often. But science doesn’t relate to the presence or absence of a god or gods. It’s observational. If deities interact directly with the world in a manner that is able to be observed, scientific discussions will eventually note that it appears to be the case that the physical world is acted upon by sentience greater than our own. If deities don’t interact in an observable manner, science will be unable to comment on their presence or absence. The reason people tend to tie atheism in with science is that science does make many conceptions of gods seem less than likely. The standard idea of the ancient pantheon that we tend to have involves 10 foot tall physical incarnations of gods going around legitimately forging lightning or carrying the sky on their backs or tugging the sun across the sky. Scientific progress has made it clear that these events are unlikely. We should be able to see Atlas, he would have to be enormous. Because many people see science as having dis-proven ancient conceptions of deities, they decide that the ball is in science’s court to disprove modern deities! Atheists love to do this too. Ohhh man if only we can get everyone to understand Physics better we’ll totally get them to renounce religion.

But see, we never did disprove ancient religious beliefs. Ancient religious beliefs may have leaned much more heavily on animism and the direct intervention of individual gods, but they sure as hell weren’t honestly waiting for Zeus to come down and shake their hands. Their gods were as invisible and unknowable by direct observation as those worshiped by modern adherents. Religion has not been progressively winnowed by science, leaving only the most difficult to eliminate ones in the modern era. Science and religious belief have never truly interacted. Ancient cultures could understand metaphor too, man. “Of course Atlas doesn’t literally hold the heavens on his shoulders, he’s meant to demonstrate aspects of good behavior you dope” and so on. Attempting to disprove Heracles is more likely to make ancient peoples think you’re dumb than to rock the foundations of their faith. I think both theists and atheists have taken this process of scientific destruction of religious belief as a given and gotten some really shitty arguments out of it.

To put religion in direct conflict with science doesn’t do anyone a service except assholes. People like D’Souza will insist that if science cannot currently conceive of an answer to any given question such as “why are we altruistic” then it should be abandoned, leaving the current religious explanation to take its place for eternity because now he wins you’re not so smart now are you. That robs science of the only thing that makes it useful, which is the ability to continue observing new data and improving upon existing models. I have no idea why we’re altruistic. There are a couple of not very convincing theories floating around, but so far not a lot of concrete evidence. But I am pretty certain that at some point in the future someone more clever than myself will observe certain things and construct a model that provides a reasonably convincing explanation of altruistic behavior. Science is a process. We don’t know any answer to any question, really. We only know currently what is the best match to the data we’ve observed. Replacing this slow process with an eternally fixed explanation because you’re afraid of science turning on your religion is folly not only because that ain’t actually going to happen but because it robs you of potential benefits of a deeper practical understanding of whatever’s being studied.

On the other hand when people like Hitchens attempt to set up science against religion they do atheism a disservice. You’ve heard time and again that “science can’t tell us why we’re here” or whatever the heck. That is indeed accurate! But you know what can do a decent job? Atheism! Atheism is not a religious belief, but it is a philosophy. It does enter into the realm of questions about meaning and man’s place in the universe. It should be allowed to do so! Science will sit and wait and watch and if there is a second coming of whoever’s deity is correct scientists will measure the scope of the holy and atheists will be dis-proven. Science sure as hell won’t be, though. Making atheism the “religion of science” just de-fangs atheism by making every argument come back to the idea that you need to do the same thing to modern religious belief that was never actually done to ancient religious belief. It  also does a huge disservice to science. Science isn’t a weapon against other philosophies, it’s just something you like in addition to atheism. It’s about as relevant to the conversation as your love of baking or model trains. Atheism will evangelize itself effectively by being a good explanation for the sort of questions that science doesn’t address. It will not evangelize itself effectively by putting up signs saying “science proves that your current philosophy is dumb.”

Edit: There’s a good bit from the “opposite side” on Slacktivist, a dude who is evangelical but can’t stand the idea of “believing in theistic evolution” any more than I can stand the idea of “believing in atheistic evolution”.

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