Sunday, July 13, 2008

Beyond Belief - Food for Thought

In response to the recent books by people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, many theists are complaining about the tone of the debate. This also rankles some scientists who think that such arguments only serve to make the debate about religion more contentious and confrontational. I can see their point but I am with Sam Harris when he says that it is time to stop making it taboo to criticize religious dogma.

In 2006, Dr. Melvin Konner, the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology and Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology at Emory University, expressed a desire for more sensitivity in the debate between rational scientists and the theists of the world. Whether or not there is any real validity to this approach, even the most sensitive approach cannot avoid the conclusions below. These are the statements of accepted fact that were put forth by Dr. Konner.

  • There is no verifiable evidence to support religious claims and all testable claims fail.
  • Science continually closes all the gaps in knowledge that religion has been used to fill.
  • What is called the soul is just brain activity.
  • Religion is divisive and causes bigotry, violence, hatred and war.
  • Religion is the "opium of the masses."
  • God is the product of human yearnings for:
    • A perfect parent
    • Reward and punishment
    • Companionship
    • Meaning
    • Escape from death
    • and other human penchants for agency-detection and imagining other minds.
  • More generally in psychological and psychosocial terms religion is a product of human yearnings for:
    • Identity
    • Belonging
    • A sense of superiority
    • Blameworthy enemies
    • Narrative

  • All "sacred" texts are characterized by:
    • Errors and lies
    • Internal contradictions
    • Mutual contradictions
    • Supernatural (i.e. highly implausible) origins
    • Silly or cruel behavior of gods and religious heroes

  • To validate his contention that arguing with theists is pointless, Konner points out, and I'm paraphrasing somewhat:
  1. Most religious people don't care about and are not swayed by proof.
  2. They do not generally care that religion has been the cause of great harm and injustice.
  3. They do not generally care that religious texts are fatally flawed.
  4. They do not generally care that they cannot even define God.
  5. They have been developing rationalizations and subtly fallacious arguments against all these things for millennia.

For different reasons, Dr. Konner and I don't accept the notion put forth by Steven J. Gould that religion and science are simply areas of nonoverlapping magisteria. He says "Neither one is magisteria." I agree that neither is magisteria, partially because that is a religious term. I say that science and religion do overlap and that science is better because it is the only one of the two based on evidence.

Atheism is not a religion but it is a perfect substitute for religion when it proposes to explain purpose or origins. It may not be as comforting to some when confronted with harsh reality but I don't think the vacuous promises of religion are any better. I do not mean to imply that atheism per se explains the origins of life or that it ascribes purpose to the universe. What I should say is that when religion fails to explain origins and purpose, atheism is naturally the correct conclusion.

The aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom but to set some limits on infinite error. - Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo

It's also commonly imagined that atheists think there is nothing beyond human life and human understanding. The truth of it is that atheists are free to admit that there's much about the universe that we don't understand. I mean it is obvious we don't understand the universe. But it is even more obvious that neither the Bible or the Qu'ran reflects our best understanding of it. - Sam Harris