Sunday, January 2, 2011
How much science does an atheist need to know?
Over and over I see people claiming that the antidote (or antipode?) to religion is science, or perhaps the scientific method. For some of the Big Questions that religion is supposed to answer, that is indeed true. It's sad that so many religionists refuse to accept evolution as the answer to how humans became what we are, but if history is any guide they'll come around. Eventually they decided that the Earth does indeed revolve around the Sun.
The problem for theists, and especially Christians, is that even if they can accept advances in the "hard" sciences and biology, they cling to theology for the other Big Questions. And here they assume that because science threw out parts of Genesis that it will eventually displace everything else the Bible provides.
I think this science issue is why there seem to be so few female athiests. My generation was discouraged from studying science. In my case it was so extreme that my mother refused to give me permission to take AP physics & calculus because "what do you need to learn that stuff for? you're just going to get married and have kids." I also remember receiving such lovely gifts for holidays and birthdays as a Ouija Board, ESP cards, and other nonsense.
When I read blogs and books written by atheists the subject of Science vs Belief comes up quite often. I think you could easily throw out all the sciences and reject belief on your own, though the scientific method and a little logic would help get you there.
For instance, there are many religions in the world. Can they all be true? If you believe they're all true, then you are polytheistic, but most people reject at least some of the other religions as untrue.
If you want to take the position that some religions are true but not others, you need a basis for judgment. From the comments I've seen from theists posting to blogs, the most popular basis is the ad populum. Religions are valid if enough people believe in them. A billion Muslims can't be wrong, can they? So you could draw the line at 1% of the population or more being "right." Christians would of course make an exception for Jews because they are kissing cousins of Christians. They could dismiss Scientologists, Satanists, and Neo-Pagans without regret or further justification this way.
But the Judeo-Christian commandment to "have no other god before me" has been interpreted as "have no other god." So here we say to the Jew, Christian, or Muslim, of all the religions in the world, only one can be right. How do you know that yours is right? If you can't tell for sure which is right, shouldn't the default position be to believe they're all equally wrong?
Reading Randal Rauser's blog I found out that when pushed into this corner the academic wing of Christianity has resorted to calling belief (in their own version of religion of course) "properly basic." This means it requires no justification, just explanation. The everyday Christian resorts to the feeling they get when they worship or think about God as their justification.
While I respect their feelings, their position basically validates all other religions as well, since the adherents of those religions also "feel the spirit." It's not a big leap from "I feel the spirit" to "I feel something which I interpret as a spirit." So unless you're going to validate all other spirits and all other religions, there needs to be some justification for why only one spiritual experience is valid.
Some adherents get around this by acknowledging that other spiritis exist, but calling them "devils" or some such scary opposite of the spirit they like. This isn't quite like acknowledging other gods, since these devils' greatest power would be to drag the soul away from the preferred spirit. But it still doesn't say why one spirit that appears to be warm and fuzzy is superior to other warm & fuzzy spirits.
Coincidentally, the religious right a.k.a. evangelicals, rebel against religious "diversity," don't like having someone with the middle name "Hussein" running the government, and don't want their kids going to public schools. When faced with other religions, and seeing that the adherents of those other religions aren't trying to kill them, they have to admit that their belief is just one of many and not all that special.
Hassidic Jews and some Muslims also put their heads in the sand. In Brooklyn there are religious schools for all three traditions. The children never meet each other except in passing, and are instructed to not to talk to outsiders.
Religion can't exist without either a strong indoctrination program or cultural hegemony. It's a product of the human imagination, and the original stories are equal in validity to fairy tales or fables.
See? No science. One can conclude that religion is based on comforting fairy tales and promoted through cultural means, and that therefore one's own religion and those of others are all false, without any scientific background.
If you do decide that you have burning questions about the nature of the universe, you can read up on the best current thinking, bearing in mind that new information does sometimes change the "facts" as you learn them. There are books and wiki articles that aren't hard to absorb. You might need a dictionary for some of it, but that's part of learning and growing. But it's not necessary for non-belief.
"I don't believe" is all that atheism says about a person. There is no catechism, no reading list, no authority figure, no pithy quotations, and no sacred text. Being a "free thinker" is challenging, but it's also liberating. You can remain ignorant of some things if you want to. Christianity has its default position of "The Lord works in mysterious ways" to respond to the Unknown. My default position is "there's probably a good scientific explanation for this, but I don't have time to figure it out." Knowing that I could figure it out if I applied myself and had the inclination is much more comforting than imagining some fickle supreme being has decided not to reveal it for his own reasons.