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The Danger of Using Science as a God Killing Machine
Rick Searle   Mar 31, 2014   Utopia or Dystopia  

Big news this year for those interested in big questions, or potentially big news, as long as the findings hold up. Scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics may have come as close as we have ever ever to seeing the beginning of time in our universe.  They may have breached our former boundary in peering backwards into the depth of time, beyond the Cosmic Microwave Background, the light echo of the Big Bang- taking us within an intimate distance of the very breath of creation.

Up until now we have not been able to peer any closer to the birth of our universe than 300,000 or so years distance from the Big Bang. One of the more amazing things about our universe, to me at least, is that given its scale and the finite speed of light,  looking outward also means looking backward in time. If you want to travel into the past stand underneath a starry sky on a clear night and look up.  We rely on light and radiation for this kind of time travel, but get too close to beginning of the universe and the scene becomes blindingly opaque. Scientists need a whole new way of seeing to look back further, and they may just have proven that one of these new ways of seeing actually works.

What the Harvard-Smithsonian scientists hope they have seen isn’t light or radiation, but the lensing effect of  gravitational waves predicted by the controversial Inflationary Model of the Big Bang, which claims that the Big Bang was followed by a quick burst in which the universe expanded incredibly fast. One prediction of the Inflationary Model is that this rapid expansion would have created ripples in spacetime- gravitational waves, the waves whose indirect effect scientist hope they have observed.

If they’re right, in one fell swoop, they may have given an evidential boost to a major theory on how our universe was born, and given us a way of peering deeper than we ever have into the strobiloid of time, a fertile territory, we should hope, for testing, revising and creating theories about the origin of our cosmos, its nature, and ultimate destiny. Even more tentatively, the discovery might also allow physicists to move closer to understanding how to unify gravity with quantum mechanics the holy grail of physics since the early 20th century.

Science writer George Johnson may, therefore, have been a little premature when he recently asked:

As the effort to understand the world has advanced, the low-hanging fruits (like Newton’s apple) have been plucked. Scientists are reaching higher and deeper into the tree. But with finite arms in an infinite universe, are there limits — physical and mental — to how far they can go?

The answer is almost definitely yes, but, it seems, not today, although our very discovery may ironically take us closer to Johnson’s limits. The reason being that, one of the many hopes for gravitational lensing is that it might allow us to discover experimental evidence for theories that we live in a multiverse- ours just one of perhaps an infinite number of universes. Yet, with no way to actually access these universes, we might find ourselves, in some sense,  stuck in the root-cap of our “local” spacetime and the tree of knowledge rather than grasping towards the canopy. But for now, let’s hope, the scientists at Harvard/Smithsonian have helped us jump up to an even deeper branch.
For human beings in general, but for Americans and American scientists in particular, this potential discovery should have resulted in almost universal celebration and pride. If the discovery holds, we are very near to being able to “see” the very beginning of our universe. American science had taken it on the chin when Europeans using their Large Hadron Collider (LHC) were able to discover the Higgs Boson a fundamental particle that had been dubbed in the popular imagination with the most inaccurate name in the history of science as “the God particle”. Americans would very likely have gotten there first had their own and even more massive particle collider the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) not been canceled back in the 1990’s under a regime of shortsighted public investments and fiscal misallocation that continues to this day.

Harvard and even more so the Smithsonian are venerable American institutions. Indeed, the Smithsonian is in many ways a uniquely American hybrid not only in terms of its mix of public and private support but in its general devotion to the preservation, expansion and popularization of all human knowledge, a place where science and the humanities exist side- by- side and in partnership and which serves as an institution of collective memory for all Americans.

As is so often the case, any recognition of the potential for the discovery by the scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics being something that should be shared across the plurality of society was blown almost immediately, for right out of the gate, it became yet another weapon in the current atheists vs religious iteration of the culture war. It was the brilliant physicist and grating atheists Lawrence Krauss who took this route in his summary of the discovery for the New Yorker. I didn’t have any problem with his physics- the man is a great physicist and science writer, but he of course took the opportunity to get in a dig at the religious.

For some people, the possibility that the laws of physics might illuminate even the creation of our own universe, without the need for supernatural intervention or any demonstration of purpose, is truly terrifying. But Monday’s announcement heralds the possible beginning of a new era, where even such cosmic existential questions are becoming accessible to experiment.

What should have been a profound discovery for all of us, and a source of conversations between the wonderstruck is treated here instead as another notch on the New Atheists’ belt, another opportunity to get into the same stupid fight, with not so much the same ignorant people, as caricatures of those people. Sometimes I swear a lot of this rhetoric, on both sides of the theists and atheist debate, is just an advertising ploy to sell more books, TV shows, and speaking events.  

For God’s sake, the Catholic Church has held the Big Bang to be consistent with Church doctrine since 1951. Pat Robertson openly professes belief in evolution and the Big Bang. Scientists should be booking spots on EWTN and the 700 Club to present this amazing discovery for the real enemy of science isn’t religion it’s ignorance. It’s not some theist Christian, Muslim or Jew who holds God ultimately responsible, somehow, for the Big Bang, but the members of the public, religious or not, who think the Big Bang is just a funny name for an even funnier TV show.

Science will always possess a gap in its knowledge into which those so inclined will attempt to stuff their version of a creator. If George Johnson is right we may reach a place where that gap, rather than moving with scientific theories that every generation probe ever deeper into the mysteries of nature may stabilize as we come up against the limits of our knowledge. God, for those who need a creating intelligence, will live there.

There is no doubt something forced and artificial in this “God of the gaps”, but theologians of the theistic religions have found it a game they need to play clinging as they do to the need for God to be a kind of demiurge and ultimate architect of all existence. Other versions of God where “he” is not such an engineer in the sky, God as perhaps love, or relationship, or process, or metaphor, or the ineffable would better fit with the version of  reality given us by science, and thus, be more truthful, but the game of the gaps is one theologians may ultimately win in any case.

Religions and the persons who belong to them will either reconcile their faith with the findings of science or they will not, and though I wish they would reconcile, so that religions would hold within them our comprehensive wisdom and acquired knowledge as they have done in the past, their doing so is not necessary for religions to survive or even for their believers to be “rational.”

For the majority of religious people, for the non-theologians, it simply does not matter if the Big Bang was inflationary or not, or even if there was a Big Bang at all. What matters is that they are able to deal with loss and grief, can orient themselves morally to others, that they are surrounded by a mutually supportive community that acts in the world in the same way, that is, that they can negotiate our human world.

Krauss, Dawkins et al often take the position that they are administering hard truths and that people who cling to something else need to be snapped out of their child-like illusions. Hard truths, however, are a relative thing. Some people can actually draw comfort from the “meaninglessness” of their life, which science seems to show them. As fiction author Jennifer Percy wrote of her astronomy loving father:

This brand of science terrified me—but my dad found comfort in going to the stars. He flees from what messy realm of human existence, what he calls “dysfunctional reality” or “people problems.” When you imagine that we’re just bodies on a rock, small concerns become insignificant. He keeps an image above his desk, taken by the Hubble space telescope, that from a distance looks like an image of stars—but if you look more closely, they are not stars, they are whole galaxies. My dad sees that, imagining the tiny earth inside one of these galaxies—and suddenly, the rough day, the troubles at work, they disappear.

Percy felt something to be missing in her father’s outlook, which was as much as a shield against the adversity of human life as any religion, but one that she felt only did so by being blind to the actual world around him. Percy found this missing human element in literature which drew her away from a science career and towards the craft of fiction.

The choice of fiction rather than religion or spirituality may seem odd at first blush, but it makes perfect sense to me. Both are ways of compressing reality by telling stories which allow us to make sense of our experience, something that despite our idiosyncrasies,  is always part of the universal human experience. Religion, philosophy, art, music, literature, and sometimes science itself, are all means of grappling with the questions, dilemmas and challenges life throws at us.

In his book Wired for CultureMark Pagel points out how the benefits of religion and art to our survival must be much greater than they are in Dawkins’ terms “a virus of the mind” that uses us for its purposes and to our detriment. Had religion been predominantly harmful or even indifferent to human welfare it’s very hard to explain why it is so universal across human societies. We have had religion and art around for so long because they work.

​Unlike the religious, Percy’s beloved fiction is largely free from the critique of New Atheists who demand that science be the sole method of obtaining truth. This is because fiction, by its very nature, makes no truth claims on the physical world, nor does it ask us to do anything much in response to it. Religion comes in for criticism by the New Atheists wherever it seems or appears to make truth claims on material existence, including its influence on our actions, but religion does other things as well which are best seen by looking at two forms of fiction that most resemble religion’s purposeful storytelling, that is, fairy tales and myths.

My girls love fairy tales and I love reading them to them. What surprised me when I re-encountered these stories as a parent was just how powerful they were, while at the same time being so simple. I hadn’t really had a way of understanding this until I picked up Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales As long as one can get through  Bettelheim’ dated Freudian psychology his book shows why fairy tales hit us like they do, why their simplification of life is important, and why, as adults we need to outgrow their black and white thinking.

Fairy tales establish the foundation for our moral psychology. They teach us the difference between good and evil, between aiming to be a good person and aiming to do others harm. They teach us to see our own often chaotic emotional lives as a normal expression of the human condition, and also, and somewhat falsely, teach us to never surrender our hope.

Myths are a whole different animal from fairy tales. They are the stories of once living religions that have become detached and now float freely from the practices and rituals that once made them, in a sense, real. The stories alone, however, remain deep with meaning and much of this meaning, especially when it comes to the Greek myths, has to do with the tragic nature of human existence. What you learn from myths is that even the best of intentions can result in something we would not have chosen- think Pandora who freed the ills of the world from the trap of their jar out of compassion- or that sometimes even the good can be unjustly punished- as in Prometheus the fire bringer chained to his rock.

Religion is yet something different from either fairy tales or myths. The “truth” of a religion is not to be found or sought in its cosmology but in its reflection on the human condition and the way it asks us to orient ourselves to the world and guides our actions in it. The truth of a faith becomes real through its practice- a Christian washing the feet of the poor in imitation of Christ makes the truth of Christianity in some sense real and a part of our world, just as Jews who ask for forgiveness on the Day of Atonement, make the covenant real.

Some atheists, the philosopher Alain Botton most notably have taken notice that the atheists accusation against religion- that it’s a fairy tale adults are suckered into believing in- is a conversation so exhausted it is no longer interesting. In his book Religion for Atheists he tries to show what atheists and secular persons can learn from religion, things like a sense of community and compassion, religion’s realistic, and therefore pessimistic, view of human nature, religions’ command of architectural space and holistic approach to education, which is especially focused on improving the moral character of the young.

Yet Botton’s suggestion of how secular groups and persons might mimic the practices of religion such as his “stations of life” rather than “stations of the cross” fell flat with me.There is something in the enchantment of religion which resembles the enchantment of fairy tales that fails rather than succeeds by running too close to reality- though it can not go too far from reality either. There is a genius in organic things which emerge from collective effort, unplanned, and over long stretches of time that can not be recreated deliberately without resulting in a cartoonish and disneyfied, version of reality or conversely something so true to life and uncompressed we can not view it without instinctively turning away in horror or falling into boredom.

I personally do not have the constitution to practice any religion and look instead for meaning to literature, poetry, and philosophy, though I look at religion as a rich source of all three.  I also sometimes look to science, and do indeed, like Jennifer Percy’s father, find some strange comfort in my own insignificance in light of the vastness of it all.

The dangers of me, or Krauss, or Dawkins or anyone else trying to turn this taste for insignificance into the only truth, the one shown to us by science is that we turn what is really a universal human endeavor, the quest to know our origins, into a means of stopping rather than starting a conversation we should all be parties to, and threaten the broad social support needed to fund and see through our quest to understand our world and how it came to be. For, the majority of people (outside of Europe) continue to turn to religion to give their lives meaning, which might mean that if we persist in treating science as a God killing machine, or better, a meaning killing machine, we run the risk of those who need such forms of meaning in order to live turning around and killing science.

Rick Searle, an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET, is a writer and educator living the very non-technological Amish country of central Pennsylvania along with his two young daughters. He is an adjunct professor of political science and history for Delaware Valley College and works for the PA Distance Learning Project.



COMMENTS

“For God’s sake, the Catholic Church has held the Big Bang to be consistent with Church doctrine since 1951. Pat Robertson openly professes belief in evolution and the Big Bang.”

Which is why nobody believes in outright poison such as creationism anymore, right?

“Other versions of God where “he” is not such an engineer in the sky, God as perhaps love, or relationship, or process, or metaphor, or the ineffable would better fit with the version of reality given us by science, and thus, be more truthful, but the game of the gaps is one theologians may ultimately win in any case.”

So theologians started out by pulling unsubstantiated claims out from inappropriate crevices,  had them repeatedly laughed out of the room, so were forced to gradually move the goalposts to something as nebulous as “God is love” and then proclaimed this as victory. Under what warped criteria is this demonstrative of “winning”? As this process merrily careens across its centuries-long course and the gap within which we can shove our anthropomorphized totem of ignorance recedes into singularity, at what point can we declare the theists having finally “won”?

“For the majority of religious people, for the non-theologians, it simply does not matter if the Big Bang was inflationary or not, or even if there was a Big Bang at all.”

Here you are describing the dreary epistemic disconnect that shows the utter indifference to reality that should serve as motivation for improving the situation, but you seem to use it to imply that we should indeed be fostering this basic lack of curiosity.

“Had religion been predominantly harmful or even indifferent to human welfare it’s very hard to explain why it is so universal across human societies. We have had religion and art around for so long because they work.”

Nobody is disputing the fact that religion is a successful memetic replicator. The relevant question here is what you mean when you say “they work”. I don’t think you’re trying to make the claim that the mere persistence of a given belief, behavior or institution is demonstrative of its goodness, are you?

“​Unlike the religious, Percy’s beloved fiction is largely free from the critique of New Atheists who demand that science be the sole method of obtaining truth. “

This conflation of base scientism with NA is just plain lazy falsehood. Even Dawkins goes on at length about how the Bible is a rich tapestry of human literature with much to offer us.

“Religion is yet something different from either fairy tales or myths. The “truth” of a religion is not to be found or sought in its cosmology but in its reflection on the human condition and the way it asks us to orient ourselves to the world and guides our actions in it. The truth of a faith becomes real through its practice- a Christian washing the feet of the poor in imitation of Christ makes the truth of Christianity in some sense real and a part of our world, just as Jews who ask for forgiveness on the Day of Atonement, make the covenant real.”

I agree, intentionally acting out any sort of belief makes it “in some sense real and a part of our world.” I also have a hard time seeing such loose crieria as being particularly useful.

@ SHaGGGz:

“Which is why nobody believes in outright poison such as creationism anymore, right?”

Creationists are a minor sect, the problem, at least in the US, is that a large number of people hold creationists or creationists like ideas even though the churches they belong to do not hold such ideas. That is, NA have misidentified the enemy, something that is largely a consequence of their religiously illiteracy which confuses them into fighting a cartoon.

How do you solve that? Better science education both by the schools and the churches. One of the major problems I have with the NA is that they make this impossible by going after religious ideas that have nothing to say about science and are not experimental questions. It’s a disservice to the well being of science, as in an erosion of its public support to go around asking people to “mock” Catholics for believing in transubstantiation as Dawkins does here: 
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dq7rHRplZKU

“So theologians started out by pulling unsubstantiated claims out from inappropriate crevices,  had them repeatedly laughed out of the room, so were forced to gradually move the goalposts to something as nebulous as “God is love” and then proclaimed this as victory. Under what warped criteria is this demonstrative of “winning”? As this process merrily careens across its centuries-long course and the gap within which we can shove our anthropomorphized totem of ignorance recedes into singularity, at what point can we declare the theists having finally “won”?”

The idea of God as an engineer isn’t much older than the scientific revolution which makes a lot of sense because the scientific revolution was largely launched by men who had reconceived God as a celestial mechanic- think Newton.  Other ideas of God have always been out there, it was St. Paul who said “God is Love”- it’s not a hat trick. Returning to it would just mean returning before a time when God became a scientific concept rather than something non-material which many human beings nevertheless professed belief in- like justice. 

I don’t think it’s an idea with integrity to cling to a strategy of a “God of the gaps” which many people who think of God as a celestial engineer do. It became the strategy once science showed and continues to show that there was/is no need for this Newtonian God. I might not think it a good strategy, but that’s different from my suspicion that it will ultimately work that at some point a stable unclose- able might emerge and that people will stuff their a celestial mechanic there.

“Here you are describing the dreary epistemic disconnect that shows the utter indifference to reality that should serve as motivation for improving the situation, but you seem to use it to imply that we should indeed be fostering this basic lack of curiosity.”

I have admitted elsewhere that this shrinking of the world that comes from deliberate blindness to science is a very sad affair:

http://utopiaordystopia.com/2013/11/16/caves-creationism-and-the-divine-wonder-of-deep-time/ 

I myself am secular and find the world shown me by science more one for wonder than despair, but it’s just recognition of the reality around me that most people are with good reason more concerned with the world immediately around them. For an impoverished alcoholic belief in a personal God that helps him to stop drinking is a thousand times more relevant to his life than our latest theory on how everything came to be. This is what I mean by saying religions “work”.

“I don’t think you’re trying to make the claim that the mere persistence of a given belief, behavior or institution is demonstrative of its goodness, are you?”

No, I am following Pagel in saying that, on balance, religious “memes” need to promote survival otherwise a) there would have been huge selective pressure to make people unsusceptible to such concepts or b) religious societies would be short lived. 

“This conflation of base scientism with NA is just plain lazy falsehood. Even Dawkins goes on at length about how the Bible is a rich tapestry of human literature with much to offer us.”

Dawkins position on the Bible is that it should be read ONLY as literature- that is it should not be the basis for any truth claims- including moral ones:

http://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/may/19/richard-dawkins-king-james-bible

But his comment on the Quran best reveals his general contempt for religious traditions:

“Of course you can have an opinion about Islam without having read Qur’an. You don’t have to read Mein Kampf to have an opinion about nazism.”

https://twitter.com/RichardDawkins/status/316101862199791616

“I agree, intentionally acting out any sort of belief makes it “in some sense real and a part of our world.” I also have a hard time seeing such loose crieria as being particularly useful.”

I think it is useful for the people practicing the religion and sometimes the people on the other side of them. Think Christian charity, Buddhist compassion etc…

@instamatic:

“Real point is, via Christian scripture, for instance, Jesus of course wasn’t materialistic—yet we are in fact materialistic. No bridging that gap. Which is where the bad faith and double-think comes in.”

I think if religious people stopped justifying their truth claims on materialist terms e.g. “Proof of Heaven” and materialists stopped making spiritual claims based on science e.g. Kurzweil, the gap would be closed, which does not mean I think it will happen.

@Rick:

“Dawkins position on the Bible is that it should be read ONLY as literature- that is it should not be the basis for any truth claims- including moral ones”

That seems reasonable. One can read a work of fiction and analogize from it to real life, without pretending that the depicted fiction is real or the basis for truth claims.

I’m not sure what you’re trying to demonstrate with his quote on the Koran.

“I think if religious people stopped justifying their truth claims on materialist terms e.g. “Proof of Heaven” and materialists stopped making spiritual claims based on science e.g. Kurzweil, the gap would be closed”

I’m not sure what you mean here. As a materialist, I don’t base my spiritual claims on science, nor Kurzweil. Science describes our morality as it apparently exists, and Kurzweil provides a set of observations about material reality as it apparently exists.

@ SHaGGGz:

“That seems reasonable. One can read a work of fiction and analogize from it to real life, without pretending that the depicted fiction is real or the basis for truth claims.”

Certainly, but he’s also claiming something he can not know or demonstrate- that the Bible is not an adequate pivot around which a person could live a moral life or a community could be a just community. That is, he is making claims to be in possession of a form of knowledge that is not in his remit and that is non-demonstrable through science. 

“I’m not sure what you’re trying to demonstrate with his quote on the Koran.”

If you (Dawkins) are commenting upon something you deliberately
make no attempt to study you are not a scientist, social or otherwise, you are a pundit. 

“Kurzweil provides a set of observations about material reality as it apparently exists.”

Kurzweil’s extrapolations aren’t science but faith masking itself as science. You can’t know before hand where an exponential curve ends, or better, almost all exponential curves we know of don’t just keep going but plateau or crash. He’s in good company with other millenarians- religious, marxists etc because he shares the same source.

@Rick:

“Certainly, but he’s also claiming something he can not know or demonstrate- that the Bible is not an adequate pivot around which a person could live a moral life or a community could be a just community. That is, he is making claims to be in possession of a form of knowledge that is not in his remit and that is non-demonstrable through science.”

You seem to be attributing to him an absurd scientism that I doubt he would subscribe to.

“If you (Dawkins) are commenting upon something you deliberately
make no attempt to study you are not a scientist, social or otherwise, you are a pundit.”

I doubt that he claims to be a scientist in his dealings outside of biology, and to insist that one must have read a work of fiction in order to have the opinion that the atrocities it inspires are atrocious is ridiculous.

“Kurzweil’s extrapolations aren’t science but faith masking itself as science. You can’t know before hand where an exponential curve ends, or better, almost all exponential curves we know of don’t just keep going but plateau or crash.”

He’s quite upfront about the fact that there’s a limit to how much computation physics can accommodate. I think he even provides a rough figure, iirc.

I guess I’m wondering what problem we’re actually trying to solve here. Rick complains that the so-called “New Atheists” (maybe we should just drop that label?) have turned an exciting new discovery into another salvo in the culture war, and - lo and behold - that has start another argument about religion here.

Nobody will be surprised to know that SHaGGGz’s comments are the ones that resonate most closely with my own view, but in a sense that’s neither here nor there. We’ve rehearsed these arguments so many times before. Perhaps the best question to ask is: suppose it were true that Kurzweil (who as far as I know is not much of a religion-basher in any case, so why are we targeting him?) is “making spiritual claims based on science”, whatever that’s supposed to mean,  and suppose it were also true that if he stopped doing that the “gap” between the religious and the secular were to be closed. Would that even be a good thing?

I guess we can all agree that it would be good if we could reduce the level of acrimony in such discussions, and especially if people stopped killing each other over such issues (at least the New Atheists don’t do that, do they?), but personally I don’t really mind there being a “gap” between what I believe and what others believe. In fact I find it rather interesting.

@SHaGGGz:

“You seem to be attributing to him an absurd scientism that I doubt he would subscribe to.”

Perhaps the problem with I have with Dawkins as opposed to other NA such as Harris or the late Hitchens is that he is a scientist who is also acting as a cultural critic. He seems to deliberately blur that line and does not adopt the kind of skepticism regarding the limits to his own knowledge and uncertainty regarding what we already know that are characteristic of science. He kind of uses his status as a scientist to give him “authority” to comment on everything under the sun including things he only understands or even tries to understand on a superficial level. 

“...to insist that one must have read a work of fiction in order to have the opinion that the atrocities it inspires are atrocious is ridiculous.”

There are 1 billion Muslims in the world and very very few of them engage in violence, where is colonialism, imperialism, the destabilization of modernity, false borders imposed by outside powers, inequality? To claim that by knowing that a small number people who commit acts of violence justify themselves based on the Koran is like saying you can know why Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon by reading The Catcher in the Rye without reference to his psychology, biography, environment- now that’s ridiculous.

“He’s quite upfront about the fact that there’s a limit to how much computation physics can accommodate. I think he even provides a rough figure, iirc.”

His graphs are still a faith based exercise because he professes to know how far we can reach into those limits- and when.

@Peter:

“Perhaps the best question to ask is: suppose it were true that Kurzweil (who as far as I know is not much of a religion-basher in any case, so why are we targeting him?) is “making spiritual claims based on science”, whatever that’s supposed to mean,  and suppose it were also true that if he stopped doing that the “gap” between the religious and the secular were to be closed. Would that even be a good thing?”

I think “gap” was an inappropriate metaphor used in response to
instamatic perhaps a better one would be friction. I think this friction between secularists and the religious would ease somewhat if members of each was actually up front about what they can actually know and in which plane they were speaking. I am looking for epistemological humility of the kind neither Dawkins or Krauss or Ken Ham or Kurzweil manifests.

That sounds ominously like Gould’s magisteria, which we’ve discussed before. I no more see a lack of “epistemological humility” in Kurzweil than SHaGGGz does. It’s not that I wish to rally to the defence of “secularists” (which is in any case a rather vague category, which presumably includes both of us?) - Kurzweil et al certainly don’t need me to defend them - but if we are indeed worried about “friction”, then let’s clarify which kind of friction we should be most worried about.

Personally I’m far more worried about genuine persecution and conflict than statements like “For some people, the possibility that the laws of physics might illuminate even the creation of our own universe, without the need for supernatural intervention or any demonstration of purpose, is truly terrifying.” If someone disagrees with this, they can say so (though frankly I don’t see much to disagree with). If they are upset by it, then the problem is with them, not with the statement.

@Peter:

Oh, as always this just goes round and round.

I wouldn’t use “ominously” and Gould nor his NOMA in the same sentence….. in any case the point is not the Krauss sentence you quoted that is significant in itself so much as that he uses it to prove his own “religious” position of existential meaninglessness not to mention sell his books, speaking engagements etc.

Of course I would be more worried about real open conflict than such debates, but we don’t really see such conflict except rhetorically finding a way to negotiate such divisions intellectually now might help us avoid open conflict later.

I have a problem with anyone whether NA or religious persons stretching science to make claims that science itself does not justify. It’s a kind of logical coercion. If science says something and you deny it you are being irrational. not facing the truth—- for that reason we have to be very careful about what exactly it is science has told us rather than using it inappropriately to back up a case that we have already adopted in our own mind.

@Rick: “He kind of uses his status as a scientist to give him “authority” to comment on everything under the sun including things he only understands or even tries to understand on a superficial level.”

I’m only aware of him actually using his credentials in this way on issues that are entangled with his area of expertise, such as evolutionary biology as it intersects with religious claims. The fact that he doesn’t put on the robes or engage in the pantomime of serious critical engagement (or “theology”) with a work of fiction that has repeatedly shown itself to not be worthy of the level of reverence it receives, nor the kid gloves with which it is criticized, is kind of the point.

“There are 1 billion Muslims in the world and very very few of them engage in violence, where is colonialism, imperialism, the destabilization of modernity, false borders imposed by outside powers, inequality? To claim that by knowing that a small number people who commit acts of violence justify themselves based on the Koran is like saying you can know why Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon by reading The Catcher in the Rye without reference to his psychology, biography, environment- now that’s ridiculous.”

I agree that the movement would benefit from a richer awareness/discussion of complex political history (what wouldn’t?), but only up to a point. We cannot predict the actions of a lone madman based on his particular interpretation of a work of fiction, but when we are dealing with a billion people acting on the dictates of a book with pretenses of cosmic significance, a few million of whom will also be driven to violence (largely legitimated by their more moderate counterparts), it makes more sense to examine the phenomenon as being causally related to the book in question.

“His graphs are still a faith based exercise because he professes to know how far we can reach into those limits- and when.”

By that definition, any exercise in using graphs to predict future conditions based on present ones is an exercise in “faith.” I’m not aware of practices here that go beyond the pale into “faith without/despite evidence,” just some uncomfortably radical conclusions, but you’re welcome to enlighten me.

“I think this friction between secularists and the religious would ease somewhat if members of each was actually up front about what they can actually know and in which plane they were speaking. I am looking for epistemological humility of the kind neither Dawkins or Krauss or Ken Ham or Kurzweil manifests.”

Do you not see how one of those names is not like the other? You are using the scythe of epistemological humility to cut down men using reasoned analysis of and extrapolation from data into extrascientific conclusions (which are, let’s not forget, still a valid domain of human endeavor) down to the level of one blatantly shitting on the entire edifice of centuries of incremental achievements because, as he would love to tell us, “we weren’t there.”

@Rick
I agree about being careful about what science tells us and what it doesn’t, and the division I always find most helpful is normative vs empirical. Essentially, science tells us what is (or to be more precise, provides the most convincing methodology available for building models of reality on the basis of evidence). And part of that reality is normative beliefs, so science can also tell us what normative beliefs are likely to survive and thrive. But it cannot tell us which ones we should espouse, or how we should live our lives. It can’t even tell us we have to be rational: that’s a choice (to the extent that we actually control it).

Of course, using “science” to back up pre-existing beliefs is something we do. We are all guilty of it. The tendency to do so is hard-wired. We adopt beliefs that work for us, and then filter evidence so as to reinforce them. Knowing this can perhaps make us more tolerant when we see other people doing it: patience is usually a better response than mouth-foaming.

Re open conflict, my contention is that already exists: people have been killing each other over religion virtually since civilisation began, so it’s a real issue that needs to be tackled. So I think finding a way to negotiate divisions intellectually is important not only to avoid open conflict later but to reduce already existing violent conflict. Furthermore, focusing on the latter can perhaps help to focus our minds on what is important. I certainly don’t mind Krauss wanting to sell his books.

To be clear, I in no way want to blame all violence on religion. That would be silly. I just bristle somewhat when I see endless complaints about New Atheists and other critics of religion being too vociferous in their criticisms, when violence perpetrated by the religious against those who don’t happen to share their faith seems to be a far greater problem. Religion works so well in part precisely because it conflates what is with what we would like, so that “this is what I would like” becomes “this is God’s will”. I think we need to get away from this, and find other sources than religion - as you yourself have done - for guidance and inspiration. By all means let’s continue to draw inspiration from our religious heritage - I do as well - but really I think we should welcome people exposing the dangers of taking religion too seriously rather than quibbling with their arguments, not least given the grip that religion still has over such a large portion of the planet’s population.

@Peter:

“…science can also tell us what normative beliefs are likely to survive and thrive. But it cannot tell us which ones we should espouse, or how we should live our lives. It can’t even tell us we have to be rational: that’s a choice (to the extent that we actually control it). “

Couldn’t agree more.

Here’s where we diverge:

“Re open conflict, my contention is that already exists: people have been killing each other over religion virtually since civilisation began, so it’s a real issue that needs to be tackled.”

People have been killing other people for many reasons since our beginnings, but this statement is without nuance, lacking historical context, and does not hold up to logical scrutiny. Three of the most murderous regimes of the 20th century- Stalin’s USSR, Mao’s China, and the Khmer Rouge were all avowedly atheists regimes which did indeed kill people because they were religious, but I would never make the claim that atheism leads to violence and some of the most horrible violence at that- as some religious conservatives do. I know atheism doesn’t of itself lead to violence because, hell, I am one. But in the same way I know religion doesn’t of itself lead to violence because the majority of humanity is religious and if it did so the world really would be on fire- which it is not.

Scratch the surface of either atheists or religious violence and what you’ll find is some kind of political conflict. We certainly can’t get rid of political conflict but what we can do is make sure such conflict doesn’t turn violent. “New Atheists” is indeed a label, one that replaced a very good old one- militant atheists- which we perhaps should not have got rid of because it captures the problem. You don’t see me writing critical post about atheists in general people like Alain de Botton and the like because I do not think being an atheists or openly declaring ones atheism or making an account of why atheism has something over theism or religion in general holds any risks. What I have are problem with statements such as this of Sam Harris which taken in conjunction with Dawkins’ statement I find highly dangerous:

“It is time we admitted that we are not at war with “terrorism”; we are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran.”

He seems to have forgotten how we keep bombing and invading their countries.

These guys give atheists like myself a bad name. I look at much of what they say as akin to late 19th century anti-Semitism people dismissed it as just rabble rousing and a way to sell books but it ended up being much more dangerous. We don’t know how history will play out, it’s necessary to stand up for what we think is right now.

It may have been overkill to hone on Krauss comments which were not at all inflammatory. I actually like his work and style a lot. It was more frustration at the New Yorker for not being like “hey man, we know you’re promoting an atheists movie with Dawkins and all, but this is kind of leaping to conclusions, is tangential to the science, and besides the experiment was paid for through their tax dollars by a lot of religious people”. Instead the editors feed the beast because it sells magazines and in the process risk undermining the public support for science.


“ Religion works so well in part precisely because it conflates what is with what we would like, so that “this is what I would like” becomes “this is God’s will”. “

Have you never heard of hell? 

@SHaGGGz:

“a few million of whom will also be driven to violence “

Is there a world war going on and I’ve missed it or do you have some scientific means of predicting global conflagration- sarcasm intended.

“By that definition, any exercise in using graphs to predict future conditions based on present ones is an exercise in “faith.””

Yes, most of them are, unless you can establish firm causation that allows you to make detailed predictions, graphs are the astrological charts of the power point era.

“Do you not see how one of those names is not like the other? You are using the scythe of epistemological humility to cut down men using reasoned analysis of and extrapolation from data into extrascientific conclusions (which are, let’s not forget, still a valid domain of human endeavor)...”

All of these figures claim a certainty that is beyond our capability.
It’s this false certainty I am against whether it comes in a secular wrapper or a religious one.

Actually I see atheist violence against the religious as an example of “people killing each other over religion”. Once again, it’s not that I’m trying to take sides here. But indeed, focusing on the open conflict that already exists today, or has done so in the past, seems to be helping us to focus on what’s important. For example, you refer to the New Yorker “feeding the beast”; that is indeed what journalists do, it’s market forces at work, and if it ‘s dangerous it needs to be addressed.

Your last point about hell also raises interesting questions, and in particular: why DO the some religious people believe in it? Why was that meme invented in the firstlace. What is clear is that if someone believes I am going to hell because I don’t happen to share their faith, then that’s because they are at least somewhat comfortable with the idea. Nobody believes something that makes them utterly uncomfortable. Is it a good thing if some people have managed to get comfortable with the idea of other people going to hell? I don’t think so.

The fact is that, like it or not, Sam Harris has a point. Whether it’s a helpful one to make will depend very much on the context (in fact it might be better not to draw so much attention to such statements), but I personally dislike the obfuscation involved in claiming that these revered religious texts are all peace and love. It’s a lie, and on the whole I think it’s better to be honest about these things. Apart from anything else, if one keeps saying that the Bible and the Koran and so on “really mean” the things we want them to mean, rather than what they actually say, this invites people to pay more attention to them than they deserve. I think this is what Harris is driving at. And, of course, people can read.

Fundamentalism is in some ways a very understandable reaction to the lies and obfuscation that tend to prevail in non-fundamentalist religion.

@Peter:

“Nobody believes something that makes them utterly uncomfortable. Is it a good thing if some people have managed to get comfortable with the idea of other people going to hell?

This is why they often try so hard to convert you.

“Actually I see atheist violence against the religious as an example of “people killing each other over religion”.

And:

“The fact is that, like it or not, Sam Harris has a point.”

This is nothing personal, Peter, but I believe you are as blinded by your atheism as some are by their religion. I can not “convert” you and do not think your “soul” is in danger, so let’s move on to other things or pick this up again when I write on this topic again, which is bound to happen sometime.

No problem, Rick. I will only say this: when I express views here I do so primarily out of intellectual curiosity, and especially curiosity as to what counter-arguments those I disagree with can come up with. This is how we learn, right? Through clarity of discourse and listening to each others’ point of view?

It’s not only intellectual curiosity, though. It’s also a sense that these discussions are actually important, and that it’s worth trying to clarify why we disagree. As you said, Rick, finding a way to negotiate these divisions intellectually can help to avoid open conflict later - and also, as I later added, reduce existing conflict.

So let’s focus on what we have in common. We are both currently atheists, for all practical purposes. For the moment I just don’t have much use for a concept of God, except of course insofar that He exists (and yes, he does tend to be male and capitalised) in people’s minds. So whatever might be “blinding” me to the truth you are advocating (namely, if I’ve understood you correctly, the utter unhelpfulness and even inaccuracy of some anti-religious statements made by more prominent atheists), it cannot be atheism per se, otherwise it should be blinding you as well.

Perhaps it’s different sensitivities? Perhaps it’s different experiences? Perhaps it’s that on the whole I tend to prefer relatively literalistic interpretations of texts, because of the linguistic precision it fosters, and therefore tend to see obfuscation where you see poetry and flexibility?

In any case, if the two of us can’t figure it out I see little hope for healing more fundamental divisions.

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