On atheism!

Musings about truth, faith and reason.

One of the Christmas cards that we received said this:

So glad we are friends and neighbors. And I will pray you will have a year full of the peace, love and hope that Jesus promises.

With Love, Hugs and Prayers.

Now I understand to a degree why the sender, a neighbour of ours, would write that. But at the same time I do not. We are clearly atheists. Indeed, back in 2012 on first meeting I happened to say that I was not a believer and it produced a shock; a reaction that how could anyone not be a believer.

And I think yesterday’s post supports the view that the reality of the existence of our solar system, all 2.6 billion years of it, shows that religious beliefs of all forms come from an age where the world beyond one’s doorstep was unknown and scary. Things are different now.

But to go back to the age of things.

That existence of our solar system came about some 9.2 billion years, give or take some 60 million years, after the Big Bang.

In other words, the Big Bang, that started the whole thing off, came about three and a half times earlier than the creation of the solar system.

So read the following by Prof. Jerry Coyne. It makes perfect sense.

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Yes, there is a war between science and religion

   Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago

As the West becomes more and more secular, and the discoveries of evolutionary biology and cosmology shrink the boundaries of faith, the claims that science and religion are compatible grow louder. If you’re a believer who doesn’t want to seem anti-science, what can you do? You must argue that your faith – or any faith – is perfectly compatible with science.

And so one sees claim after claim from believers, religious scientists, prestigious science organizations and even atheists asserting not only that science and religion are compatible, but also that they can actually help each other. This claim is called “accommodationism.”

But I argue that this is misguided: that science and religion are not only in conflict – even at “war” – but also represent incompatible ways of viewing the world.

Opposing methods for discerning truth

My argument runs like this. I’ll construe “science” as the set of tools we use to find truth about the

The scientific method relies on observing, testing and replication to learn about the world. Jaron Nix/Unsplash, CC BY

universe, with the understanding that these truths are provisional rather than absolute. These tools include observing nature, framing and testing hypotheses, trying your hardest to prove that your hypothesis is wrong to test your confidence that it’s right, doing experiments and above all replicating your and others’ results to increase confidence in your inference.

And I’ll define religion as does philosopher Daniel Dennett: “Social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.” Of course many religions don’t fit that definition, but the ones whose compatibility with science is touted most often – the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – fill the bill.

Next, realize that both religion and science rest on “truth statements” about the universe – claims about reality. The edifice of religion differs from science by additionally dealing with morality, purpose and meaning, but even those areas rest on a foundation of empirical claims. You can hardly call yourself a Christian if you don’t believe in the Resurrection of Christ, a Muslim if you don’t believe the angel Gabriel dictated the Qur’an to Muhammad, or a Mormon if you don’t believe that the angel Moroni showed Joseph Smith the golden plates that became the Book of Mormon. After all, why accept a faith’s authoritative teachings if you reject its truth claims?

Indeed, even the Bible notes this: “But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.”

Many theologians emphasize religion’s empirical foundations, agreeing with the physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne:

“The question of truth is as central to [religion’s] concern as it is in science. Religious belief can guide one in life or strengthen one at the approach of death, but unless it is actually true it can do neither of these things and so would amount to no more than an illusory exercise in comforting fantasy.”

The conflict between science and faith, then, rests on the methods they use to decide what is true, and what truths result: These are conflicts of both methodology and outcome.

In contrast to the methods of science, religion adjudicates truth not empirically, but via dogma, scripture and authority – in other words, through faith, defined in Hebrews 11 as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” In science, faith without evidence is a vice, while in religion it’s a virtue. Recall what Jesus said to “doubting Thomas,” who insisted in poking his fingers into the resurrected Savior’s wounds: “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

Two ways to look at the same thing, never the twain shall meet. Gabriel Lamza/Unsplash, CC BY

And yet, without supporting evidence, Americans believe a number of religious claims: 74 percent of us believe in God, 68 percent in the divinity of Jesus, 68 percent in Heaven, 57 percent in the virgin birth, and 58 percent in the Devil and Hell. Why do they think these are true? Faith.

But different religions make different – and often conflicting – claims, and there’s no way to judge which claims are right. There are over 4,000 religions on this planet, and their “truths” are quite different. (Muslims and Jews, for instance, absolutely reject the Christian belief that Jesus was the son of God.) Indeed, new sects often arise when some believers reject what others see as true. Lutherans split over the truth of evolution, while Unitarians rejected other Protestants’ belief that Jesus was part of God.

And while science has had success after success in understanding the universe, the “method” of using faith has led to no proof of the divine. How many gods are there? What are their natures and moral creeds? Is there an afterlife? Why is there moral and physical evil? There is no one answer to any of these questions. All is mystery, for all rests on faith.

The “war” between science and religion, then, is a conflict about whether you have good reasons for believing what you do: whether you see faith as a vice or a virtue.

Compartmentalizing realms is irrational

So how do the faithful reconcile science and religion? Often they point to the existence of religious scientists, like NIH Director Francis Collins, or to the many religious people who accept science. But I’d argue that this is compartmentalization, not compatibility, for how can you reject the divine in your laboratory but accept that the wine you sip on Sunday is the blood of Jesus?

Can divinity be at play in one setting but not another? Jametlene Reskp/Unsplash, CC BY

Others argue that in the past religion promoted science and inspired questions about the universe. But in the past every Westerner was religious, and it’s debatable whether, in the long run, the progress of science has been promoted by religion. Certainly evolutionary biology, my own field, has been held back strongly by creationism, which arises solely from religion.

What is not disputable is that today science is practiced as an atheistic discipline – and largely by atheists. There’s a huge disparity in religiosity between American scientists and Americans as a whole: 64 percent of our elite scientists are atheists or agnostics, compared to only 6 percent of the general population – more than a tenfold difference. Whether this reflects differential attraction of nonbelievers to science or science eroding belief – I suspect both factors operate – the figures are prima facie evidence for a science-religion conflict.

The most common accommodationist argument is Stephen Jay Gould’s thesis of “non-overlapping magisteria.” Religion and science, he argued, don’t conflict because: “Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings and values – subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.”

This fails on both ends. First, religion certainly makes claims about “the factual character of the universe.” In fact, the biggest opponents of non-overlapping magisteria are believers and theologians, many of whom reject the idea that Abrahamic religions are “empty of any claims to historical or scientific facts.”

Nor is religion the sole bailiwick of “purposes, meanings and values,” which of course differ among faiths. There’s a long and distinguished history of philosophy and ethics – extending from Plato, Hume and Kant up to Peter Singer, Derek Parfit and John Rawls in our day – that relies on reason rather than faith as a fount of morality. All serious ethical philosophy is secular ethical philosophy.

In the end, it’s irrational to decide what’s true in your daily life using empirical evidence, but then rely on wishful-thinking and ancient superstitions to judge the “truths” undergirding your faith. This leads to a mind (no matter how scientifically renowned) at war with itself, producing the cognitive dissonance that prompts accommodationism. If you decide to have good reasons for holding any beliefs, then you must choose between faith and reason. And as facts become increasingly important for the welfare of our species and our planet, people should see faith for what it is: not a virtue but a defect.

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I would love to have your views.

29 thoughts on “On atheism!

  1. Religion starts with a conclusion, then works backwards trying to make reality fit that conclusion. Science starts with a question, then goes where reality directs. You really couldn’t get more diametrically opposed worldviews. Religion rests entirely on faith, and yet if religion were true there’d be no need for faith. Faith and evidentialism cannot coexist. If something can be believed based on evidence it cannot also be believed on faith, and yet faith is the cornerstone of all religion belief. They are antithetical. The minute evidence appears faith is cast aside in favour of evidence. Belief based on evidence is rational; it follows from the evidence and is justified by it. Conversely, belief without evidence (faith) is irrational and cannot be legitimised by reasonable human beings.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Can’t blame your American friend, though. They experience a very different world regarding religion than you (UK) and me (Aust) experienced.

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  2. To me, it really is very simple. It’s a belief .. and nothing more. One can believe in science, which is based on a belief that everything works to certain rules, and which cannot allow for circumstances of which we know nothing. or we can believe in the divinity.
    We can accept that a certain collection of volatile gases of the right types, all randomly came together in the precise volumes and at the correct temperature … to create an explosion which ultimately produced the universe which included a planet containing the right conditions for life as we know it to develop, or we can believe in a “super power”.
    We can believe that we are alone in our universe, or we can believe there is other life and, if we believe the latter … then is it more advanced than us or less? If we believe it could be more advanced, then we could believe that it is capable of creating life elsewhere.
    Given that a number of major religions have similar events documented “in the beginning” and regarding a “savior”, one cannot dismiss at least some degree of relevance to the coincidences, and we cannot dismiss the scientists who accept the possibility of a higher power.

    For the rational thinker, I would suggest that to believe in a God who does not exist is of no concern … but to not believe in a God who does exist? Just thinking! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. and which cannot allow for circumstances of which we know nothing

      With all due respect, but this is a nonsense statement. If it were true, science would never have discovered electromagnetism, or protons, or leptons, or probability fields, or radio waves. Science does not rule anything out. It is an open platform.

      And I’m sorry, but it seems you have absolutely no idea whatsoever as to what modern cosmology says regarding the origins of this universe, and the biological understanding of the emergence of life.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Then if science accepts that there are unknowns … it only has belief that it can eventually identify them. I really see no further point in this discussion, but it was interesting so thank you.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting post, Paul. Some religious souls have troubles to let others (not believers) live in peace. It seems like, they feel a need to pull us into their kind of understanding of life. I see this too.
    I view science and religion as two very different ways of believing. Some scientists are open-minded and recognize, that they don’t know everything, are willing to learn all life and others act contrary.
    As we are all living in our own little world mostly of the time, I find it important to show mutual respect for other souls and beliefs and expect the same.
    I hope, that life treat you well 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m sure no malice was intended (at least I hope not). It seems religious folk just can’t seem to not try to ‘convert’ non-believers. It’s part of their belief DNA. The more religious, the more fervent the desire to win you over. Whatever the belief, so long as people don’t make their circus, your monkey, I’m good with that. I think they call that respect. 😊
    Cheers and happy 2019.

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  5. Such an indepth post.. Its all a matter of Belief Paul, And we are all different, and all have free will to choose what we think and how we view Life. I no longer view God as this BEing who rules or judges who is this man with long white beard or who points a finger to your sins.. ..

    And Yes I studied the Bible deeply in my younger years, so I know a little about scriptures. Nor do I worship in any ‘Temple’ now a days, For we all are our own Temple, and All of us connect via our thoughts to the energy which resides within each of us Via Our God Force, Divine Self. Because as I have grown, My perception and awareness of our World and God have also changed.

    Your friend’s view is obviously strict Christian Beliefs.. And I know how I have come under fire from my own Spiritual Beliefs, and really does it matter except to what you yourselves want to believe.. Again its choice.. Given our experience and our education within this indoctrinated system of this Matrix..

    I now view differently how ‘GOD’ is the ‘field’ of Consciousness of energy that permeates ALL things .. But I believe in Prayer, it works, Meditation Works, Manifesting works, because we are connecting to the ALL… Thought/ Prayer is energy.. and we connect to The Source of ALL creation, which has the name of GOD.

    Gregg Braden explains it well here Paul..https://youtu.be/otdAAm30lT0 A short 3 min video on The Science of Miracles.. Science is all well and good, but much of Scientific community has not moved forward in its thinking in the last 150 years.. They still teach from the same text books even though they Know new ground has been broken.. They stay stuck in their ruts.. . Its a bit like our judicial system that still wears it wigs, still stuck in the same laws which some were made in the 1600’s, its not progressing..

    Now we are seeing how Quantum Physics is opening up new doors to our own beliefs about ourselves.. How by our BELIEFS we can change the very cells within our bodies and Self heal.. I am living proof of doing just this.. Belief, is connecting to that Divine Energy,it can go by many names, God, The Source, The Field.. We are all connected to it, whether we believe or not.. And isn’t that what Jesus Taught!.. Belief.. The Power Within.. The Mind..

    Jesus I believe came to teach wisdom . Have you read the Nag Hammadi Texts Paul? if you do, you get a different perspective of text. Which has not been manually distorted.
    Wishing you a very Happy New Earth Year Paul.. I am sure your post will spark a wide range of comments.. Loved reading and commentating . 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sue, I will deliberately avoid commenting specifically upon your post. Suffice to say that we wish you a very Happy New Year and I was delighted that you loved reading the post.

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  6. Very interesting post. I think it was rude of your neighbors to try and force their way on you. I lean in somewhat the same direction as Sue. Deeply spiritual but definitely not religious nor do I buy into the myths. I just believe in being kind at every given opportunity. Since Christmas was originally celebrated as the winter solstice and I like a good celebration with lights and good food, I’ll buy into part of it. I guess those are neighbors you won’t be spending quality time with. I have a few of those too.

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    1. And a very interesting reply. I think I am spiritual but am unsure. Partly because I don’t really know what it means. I look up at the night sky and become lost. Some days the clouds are mesmerizing. The natural world is captivating, deeply so. The dogs are our wonderful companions, most of the time. But is this a spiritual outlook? I don’t know.

      Our neighbor still can’t get her head around the fact that we aren’t believers but that’s OK. So long as she doesn’t try to convert us.

      Meanwhile I just try and make sense of the world while I still can. That’s the world we can put our arms around, you understand! There’s not a lot of time left! Sorry, I have gone on a bit.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I understand what you are saying. Which is why I titled my blog in search of it all. Still looking for answers that maybe we aren’t supposed to have. I just live my life as honorably as possible and hope for the best. We are all SUPPOSED to be different. Like snowflakes. :)) Just enjoy the journey. Have some fun on the way.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I don’t think most realize the significance. I’m not the preachy type. Just the asking questions type. Mom would call it being nosey. I call it curious. 🙂 The mind and the way the world works fascinates me. Always more questions than answers. 🙂

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  7. While we have long eschewed any form of religion – it has caused so much pain and suffering down through the ages – yet it has also helped people find something sacred in the world that they have, until that encounter, failed to ascertain. So I would say ‘it serves.’ If it makes someone a better person, so be it. If it fans the fires of their hatred, entitlement and bigotry, I see no use for it whatsoever.

    That being said, after many past years of counseling people both with a Depth Psych degree as well as intuitive gifts, I learned a lot. I did not ever suggest someone believe thus or so, but I did help them ferret out their own perceptions of what ‘god’ is, even if they accepted it was within themselves (as it is, albeit unknown or asleep to so many). Wherein lies the Mystery, without which we do have difficulty healing. Western medicine is well and good in its place. But it doesn’t make one whole. In my experience, what brings people into aligment with their own best health is (among other obvious things, like eating real food instead of junk and managing addictions in any form) to realize we are all part of something …. ‘ … No less than the trees and the stars, (we have) the right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to (us), no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.’ (quote excerpted from The Desiderata).

    Peace, Paul. Also we did watch the Blue Dot film, none of which surprised us at all. But I can see how it might be useful to someone who lacks a background in quantum theory or a basic understanding of that Mystery I just spoke of. Be well. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Re: Atheism
    I hesitate to label myself as an “atheist” because atheists, in general, “lack a belief in gods”. I don’’t ‘lack’ a belief in something that simply does not exist…there is nothing to believe in or not believe in-it just does not exist. (if that even makes sense) On the other hand, I will admit that I am an “anti-theist”, I do not believe in any religion, what so-ever. All 4,000 or so religions of the world are obsolete. They are archaic institutions that have become unnecessary and unreliable in their basic dogmas. So much so, that they do more harm than good. Re: Jerry Coyne’s article….he is absolutely correct,  “If you decide to have good reasons for holding any beliefs, then you must choose between faith and reason…people should see faith for what it is: not a virtue but a defect.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Sir, yes, precisely! We live in extraordinary times, when the reality of our existence must be held central to how we live. These are times when everything we do must be to change our relationship with our planet so that our future may be secure. These are not times when putting a faith in anything will serve as an alternative. We need cold, hard common sense!

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