My “Blind Faith” in Science

 I am accused of having all sorts of faiths and religions. Not believing in God is one of my religions (they say)  counting the things I see, hear, and taste as evidence is among my faiths. Opining the divisive nature of Holy Books is a further article in my faith-pantheon — being willing to express that opinion is my zealous religiosity. Defending unbelievers’ rights to advertise their views makes me an intrusive and righteous missionary — criticizing the dangerous beliefs of others casts me as an agent of intolerance and a fanatic for my faith.    

Interestingly, these accusations come from those who openly have (and feel free to express) their faith in God — that is, from people who have religion. Now I don’t want to make too much of this, but I do wonder, why do minds prepared and conditioned to think religiously find in all other minds religious thinking? The response to a belief about the non-existence of God? Religion they say. An opinion about the role of religious belief in a modern society? That’s nothing more than a faith position.

And here’s the topper — they say these things to denigrate the unbelieving view. It is as if they are saying, “Your position is a load of crap because it’s just like mine.”

Er… what?!

But okay, I hear ya…  I mean, we’re talking about positions that are (at least for the moment) pretty darn unprovable. Sure, God could step-up and kill the debate should He, in His eternal wisdom, choose to do so — but then, that’s difficult to do if you don’t exist…  I mean, not for God of course — He could prove His existence while not actually existing, He is, after all, God 

Anyway, my point is that they can call my unbelief in God “faith” — that’s cool, but can’t we just stop there? Do believers really need to stretch the term faith to include what is (and ought to be) the antithesis of faith? Do they have to render in faith-terms the discoveries and successes of science? More and more I see references to the “Church of Darwinism” or the “Temples of Science.” Not only do religious folks wish to categorize any belief statement as faith, but also those statements that are grounded in the most rigorously and fully-tested discoveries of science.

Why does this way of viewing science persist? In my opinion it stems primarily from peoples’ lack of awareness as to how science “is done.” It is not obvious to people that a free-market of ideas goes on in science (for grant money, for status, for fame). As in other fields of human endeavor, scientists are working to be first — they often treat fellow scientists as foes and are competitive even among those with whom they are in agreement There is no monolithic “science” — it is a profession whose participants have distinct and various personalities, ethics, motivations, desires, etc…

But from the perspective of regular people (non-experts, non-professionals) it is difficult to know where to put one’s trust — especially with all this competition and non-aligning motivations that crowd the laboratory (and the newsroom) of science. Meanwhile the language and ideas of the professionals have become so specialized (and will only become more so) that even those who wish to untangle the “truth” can become hopelessly lost without the guide of a PhD. In other words, the folks who believe in “science” may know no more about a given topic than folks who have blind faith in their religion — adding to this quandary, sometimes science gets things wrong.

Yet key and fundamental differences separate science and religion. First, when science does get it wrong, it works to get it right — even when it gets it right, it works to getting it righter. Science never sleeps — science, as a foundational principle, is never satisfied. Furthermore, upheavals and overthrows in science, though common in media headlines, are rather rare. The achievements of science are more like a camera further ratcheting down its lens — bringing things (most often called reality) into a sharper and tighter focus. Newton’s theory of gravity worked for the level of clarity the science of his day was able to achieve. Einstein’s theory replaced Newton’s — the focus was tightened — but Newton’s math is still “right” for the kinds of objects he was working with.

The kind of trust that many have in science and scientific achievement is deserved in a way that cannot be paralleled by religion. Every day we enjoy the fruits of science, that is, technology. We know that science has proved itself — modern medicine has doubled our life-expectancy, we’ve got plasma TV and robot-vacuums, we can communicate anytime and everywhere (though we sometimes wish to be out of touch), we can fly across the ocean doing open-heart surgery on cloned sheep — we have the proof of millions of technological advancements that science, generally, makes accurate predictions and give us the ability to gain (at least some) control over our lives and the things in it…

So what of the original question — is this faith?

It seems to me that faith (as I have stated elsewhere) is belief in something without or in-spite-of evidence. While I call what we have in science trust — that is, belief based on past evidence of success. Science has been successful at making predictions and understanding our world far more than Priests, Shaman, Rabbis, Ministers, or Witch Doctors ever have. One may reply, however, that no scientist can give comfort to a dying woman or a man searching for his “spiritual” center. I disagree.

A scientific understanding of the world does not include merely wires and machinery. It includes psychiatry and psychology, sociology and anthropology. It includes an understanding of how biology impacts our moods and thoughts — and it includes therapies to affect them. I really and truly find comfort in understanding my evolutionary past and the effects of environment on young children — that is, why I feel how I feel, why morals become dilemmas, and why emotions give my life meaning. Understanding the history behind the being that I am helps me to be more complete, and it helps me to be more patient and understanding of others. I am almost certain that I fear death no more than the most eager martyr for Islam or Christian hungry to be with Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. 

Trust in science is not faith because science gives us a reason to trust it, and it is not blind because it lets us see, should we look. Science produces for us, whether we comprehend the technicalities or we just “accept” them. Science does not lurk behind vestments, and the only truths it hides are those I am not willing to work toward understanding. We should not have blind faith in science — nor in anything, and though I cannot evaluate every claim made in every field of study, I don’t need to. I can see the results of our efforts, I enjoy them every day, and not see those successes takes the kind of blindness one usually finds only in religion.

 

Hate the Tenets, Not the Teneteers

Folks frequently make the following distinction: Respect the religion, but condemn the “bad” things people do for it.

Recently I have spoken out against religion and its tenets of faith for various reasons, among them are terrorism, denying medical care to children, racism (as found in the Christian Identity movement), and missionary work (which, among other things, too-often separates members of the same family into believers and others).

I also sometimes harp on religious beliefs that I see as highly acidic to a cohesive society. I am thinking here, for example, about the doctrine of hell — which I find troubling whether it causes division of not. Let’s say my Christian neighbor wont let his kid play with mine because “that atheist family is going to hell!” Or let’s say that Christian family treats me kindly and neighborly all the while thinking that I, my wife, my child will, eventually, be roasting eternally in torment… I mean, which one is more disturbing?

Then there are the many admonishments in both the Koran and the Bible concerning non-believers — casting them out as evil, unsaved, lost, and damnable…

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Image Credit

I find this whole respect thing to be both unwarranted and a little bit dangerous. A recent article by Johann Hari in The Independent exposes how “the forces of respect” are lining up to erode freedom and to institutionalize prejudice, chauvinism, and certain kinds of violence. The article centers on efforts by some Muslim nations to alter The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which 60 years ago declared that “a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief is the highest aspiration of the common people.” They claim it is simply not “respectful” to religion. 

And because the UN has bowed to this religious cry of disrespect, the objections have spread. Hari writes:

The Pakistani delegate recently demanded that his job description be changed so he can seek out and condemn “abuses of free expression” including “defamation of religions and prophets”. The council agreed – so the job has been turned on its head. Instead of condemning the people who wanted to murder Salman Rushdie, they will be condemning Salman Rushdie himself.

Anything which can be deemed “religious” is no longer allowed to be a subject of discussion at the UN – and almost everything is deemed religious. Roy Brown of the International Humanist and Ethical Union has tried to raise topics like the stoning of women accused of adultery or child marriage. The Egyptian delegate stood up to announce discussion of shariah “will not happen” and “Islam will not be crucified in this council” -– and Brown was ordered to be silent.

Hari also points out that a quick perusal of last week’s news can give us plenty of good reasons not only to disrespect religious beliefs, but to actively oppose them:

In Nigeria, divorced women are routinely thrown out of their homes and left destitute, unable to see their children, so a large group of them wanted to stage a protest – but the Shariah police declared it was “un-Islamic” and the marchers would be beaten and whipped. In Saudi Arabia, the country’s most senior government-approved cleric said it was perfectly acceptable for old men to marry 10-year-old girls, and those who disagree should be silenced. In Egypt, a 27-year-old Muslim blogger Abdel Rahman was seized, jailed and tortured for arguing for a reformed Islam that does not enforce shariah. 

So yeah, I’m pretty much all for not respecting religious beliefs. As many others have claimed, no one has a right not to be offended — I needn’t stop talking because you don’t like what you hear. I will continue to challenge. Here is a nice closing quote from Hari’s article:

All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do. I don’t respect the idea that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead. I don’t respect the idea that we should follow a “Prophet” who at the age of 53 had sex with a nine-year old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn’t follow him…  I don’t respect the idea that we may have lived before as goats, and could live again as woodlice. This is not because of “prejudice” or “ignorance”, but because there is no evidence for these claims. They belong to the childhood of our species, and will in time look as preposterous as believing in Zeus or Thor or Baal. 

If Faith in God to Heal your Child Is not Faith – What Is It?

On a couple of my previous posts, particularly this one, How Religion Does Not Save (about the children of “faith-healing” parents), and this one, “Because I Love Her” Is a Rational and Logical Response, the discussion seems to return to “what really qualifies as faith.”

I defined faith as belief in something without or in spite of evidence.

Once when I was  in conversation with a Catholic missionary discussing this topic, he said his faith coincided with reason and that his religious worldview was more rational than mine as a result. He said that he loved learning about new scientific discoveries because they increased his faith. I asked him a simple question. “Is there any sort of discovery that would result in a decrease of faith?” He looked at me puzzlingly for a moment. Then he replied, “No!” I said, “So your faith only slides one way, whether discoveries are made, not made, and regardless of the results of the discovery — the faith-slider simply goes toward increase?” He agreed. So my question is… is this faith? And if it is, doesn’t this deny any room or role for reason?

Now I am an advocate for recognizing emotion as a source of our knowledge and as a large part of our decision-making faculty (that was the subject of my last post). I think that “evidence” comes in a wide array of flavors (such as intuition or instinct). But again, simply recognizing that we may intuit an aspect of “truth” and then allow that intuition to influence our logic, I do not think that is faith… I call that normal human decision-making. What do you call it?

How Religion Does Not Save

Quite frequently when I speak out against faith-based thinking or “ways of knowing,” I get the response, “What other people believe is not your business, it doesn’t hurt anyone, why do you care?” Of course the easy response is simply to say “9/11” or point a finger toward Mecca, but the insidious nature of absolute faith infects us at home, just more quietly and behind closed doors.

This New York Times article highlights an example of our own, homespun, religious tragedy:

About 300 children have died in the United States in the last 25 years after medical care was withheld on religious grounds.

That’s death. Can you imagine the thousands of kids who merely suffer — but do not die — as a result of their brainwashed parents’ prayers to an unseen and mysterious God? Not to mention the times, all fired-up on holy ghost and righteousness, they may decide just to whip the devil out of some unruly child:

“Many types of abuses of children are motivated by rigid belief systems,” including severe corporal punishment, said Ms. Swan, a former Christian Scientist whose 16-month-old son, Matthew, died after she postponed taking him to a hospital for treatment of what proved to be meningitis. “We learned the hard way.” 

Yes, it matters what people think. Whether they are chauvinist, racist, or monotheist — I see no harm in challenging other people’s positions. We are free to think what we want, sure — but we are not free to remain unchallenged for it.

Rank Your Offendedness

atheist-sign This is the Atheist sign being displayed in Washington State’s Capitol building alongside various religious displays… it has been stolen — and returned — and is now being picketed… 

I can see how, if one was keen to be offended, one could be offended by such a sign… it doesn’t offend me at all, but does it offend you?

Please rank your level of offendedness on a scale of 1-10 (10 being absolute, unspeakable outrage!)

I should rush to add, however, I fully agree that if the government is going to allow religious ornamentation on public sites, atheists have a right to post such signs. If religious organizations don’t like it, then they shouldn’t seek to have their displays on public grounds.

I lay in bed last night thinking, “Hmm… how could atheists do it ‘better’?” Could they find some sort of wordless symbol to represent them — to put a more positive spin and avoid the controversy. And I realized — no, they can’t. And if they could, they shouldn’t. That is to say, the more atheists bend their message to appear like a religion, to follow the methods and traditions of religion, the more atheists are going to be accused of “having just another religion.” And as any regular reader of this blog will know, that is something I am keen to avoid. 

Atheists stand in rejection of the predominate, theistic (“religious”) worldview. For me, it is a position outside of the cycle of the creation of new gods and faith-based “ways of knowing.” And while we could certainly debate the finer points of what constitues faith, suffice it to say, I am eager to avoid a labelized “Atheism” that coopts symbols and/or consolidates it’s “tenets” in any fashion.

And yes, I realize this is a great marketing deficiency for atheism. I am told with great regularity that people, “need somethign to believe in.” 

But atheism should not be that “thing.”

What’s the Right Answer!?

So I went to this site and took their test. It’s supposed to tell you how well you measure up to God’s judement. Of course I failed. 

So I went back.

When I went back I answered the questions as I thought I was “supposed” to answer them. 

I was found guilty again! I mean, WTF?

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Can someone “better” than I figure out what’s going on here?

True of False?

“If atheism is a religion, then NOT collecting stamps is a hobby.”