Monday, August 20, 2012


"I shall cast terror into the hearts of the infidels. Strike off their heads, strike off the very tips of their fingers."
--Sura 8:12 (Quran)

"America is all about speed. Hot, nasty, bad ass speed,"
--Eleanor Roosevelt, 1936 (from the film, "Talladega Nights")

People like sound bites. Witty quotes and catchy sayings make us feel like we know what we are talking about, by borrowing the certainty of others. It is a form of the age old logical fallacy: an argument from authority. As a society we value those who can convey ideas better than ourselves. But do big words or poetic rhythms a true statement make? How about proclamations by famous people?

A couple of weeks ago I engaged in a long conversation with a person who did not know I had left the Mormon church. At least, for the first 3 hours or so. After hitting a few preliminary topics like gay marriage, masturbation, and social services within the Mormon church, we finally hit the topic of reconciling religion with science. This is sort of a pet topic for me as I have written about this numerous times and is one of the things which led me to atheism. The person mentioned a few things which I want to discuss here. First, as philosophers like Friedrich Niche (an atheist) have asked, "What does society do if there is no god?"; science is a belief system, just like religion; and most importantly, they admitted to not being able to reconcile religion and science completely, but they believe in god anyway.

About the first point: asking the question "What does society do if there is no god?" assumes that religion fills some kind of social need. We didn't get into what that need is exactly, but often times this argument leads to the argument of objective morality. So, perhaps the question should be rephrased, "From where do we get our morals, if not god?" This question is as common as it is important. My stance is that morals are a result of empathy for our own species. This deals with the evolutionary development of human psychology. Species which tend to look out for each other will tend to survive more easily than those which isolate themselves (compare the populations of deer, seagulls, baboons and ants with tigers, lions, bears, or sharks). It can be mutually beneficial. As a social species, humans empathize and seek out interactions with other humans. This is where morality starts.

In a broader context, this leads to bigger questions which affect society as a whole. Or it can affect interactions between societies. Either way, this informs social norms. And, as we can see through any number civil rights campaigns over the last century, social norms can change. Furthermore, those who claim to get their morals from god, often have conflicting morals. Just to name a few modern-day examples of such conflicts, we can look at religious divides with regards to gay marriage, feminism, abortion, welfare, contraception, abstinence, pornography, prostitution, and premarital sex. And these are just in America. Extend this to religions like Islam in the middle east and we can include things like witchcraft, blasphemy, and apostasy--all of which call for a death sentence.

So, to answer the question, "What does society do if there is no god?" The same thing we have been doing all along. We will continue to discuss and discover our own morality and use this to build our societies.

About the second point: This person believes that science is a belief system, like religion, which puts the two on equal footing with regards to determining truth. This is based on the idea that religion is subjective, and science, although attempting to be objective, is a result of collective subjectivity. The problem with this is, of course, that it is false and absurd. Science is a process. That's it. Nothing more. Science uses observation, it is true, and this is likely where the idea of "collective subjectivity" comes from. But each observation is tested and challenged by others.

If I measure the length of the first digit of my left index finger to be slightly less than 1 inch, others can also measure it and we can compare the results. Let's say 100 people measure the digit on my finger. Some may measure the same as I did, and some may get results which vary, but most of them get results close to 1 inch. Suppose one person measures my digit at one mile long. And another measures it at one millimeter long. Clearly an error would have had to occur in the face of the overwhelming evidence by the other 98 people that the digit is only about an inch long. This is not subjective.

The essence of subjectivity is that it is personal and cannot be demonstrated to others. Conversely, objectivity can be demonstrated, which makes it falsifiable. Science uses this as a way of determining how the natural world works. This makes it useful. At best, personal experiences only concern those who have experienced them. A person may claim to have been abducted by UFOs, but without any evidence to support the claim, it is useless to anyone else. This is why we do not convict people of murder based solely on eye-witness testimony. Objective evidence is always more compelling than subjective experiences.

Science is a self-correcting process. Claiming that it is a belief system shows a lack of understanding of what beliefs actually are. Beliefs are unsubstantiated truth claims, which means a system based on beliefs is also unsubstantiated. They may have some supporting evidence, but not enough to justify a statement of certainty. Yet, religions are quite certain about a great many things for which they have no evidence. Science does not deal with truth claims--at least, not in the same sense--and can always be challenged and corrected by anyone so inclined. The reason some ideas are accepted in the scientific community over others, is because they have undergone this process of scrutiny. There is no dogma in science, and no sacred cows. If someone presents evidence that evolution is incorrect and that another theory better explains the diversity of life, everyone in the scientific community would drop Darwin's theory for the superior one. This might take time, but if the new theory truly is better, then this would happen. This is exactly what happened to Newtonian Physics when Einstein presented the Theory of Relativity. Science is as much a belief system as mathematics.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the difference between science and religion is how they make determinations. Science makes observations, collects and analyzes data, and builds a theory based on this data. Religion makes dogmatic claims of truth (i.e. god created heaven and earth in six days) and seeks out information which supports these claims. In other words, religion is rife with bias, while science seeks to eliminate it.

This leads me to the third point: belief in god despite having no evidence or evidence to the contrary (I know, I rephrased it). The reason I rephrased the point is because this is where our conversation eventually led to. You see, after I gave my own story of trying to reconcile my religious beliefs with what I had learned through science, and how this lead me to atheism, the other person admitted to being in a similar intellectual place, but still held on to their beliefs because of personal experiences which they can only explain through god.

Maybe I should have challenged this idea that personal experiences prove the existence of anything supernatural, but I decided to stay more on the point of reconciliation. You see, both of us acknowledge the conflicts between religion and science. And we both understand that in order for a given religion to be true it must coincide with science. The problem, though, is that only one of us sees that holding a belief in conflict with science is irrational. Or, at least, one of us is not willing to hold a belief on faith and despite having no evidence.

What really spurred this discussion was this person's claim that Richard Dawkins is a "militant atheist." Militant atheism is a vague term which is often used by theists for anyone who publicly challenges the idea of faith or irrational beliefs. I would hope everyone would be a militant atheist based on this definition. But the derogatory nature of the term makes many people apprehensive about accepting it. I get it. And really it doesn't bother me that people don't like it. I see a bigger problem with people who call vocal atheists militant, but call those who act out violently in the name of religion simply "fundamental."

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