Religion, science, and nonbelief

So you know that thing?  That thing when you see a link and you know reading it is going to infuriate you, but you click on it anyways and end up even more frustrated and angry than you expected?

Well, an acquaintance on facebook posted a link to a New Yorker op-ed entitled “All Scientists Should be Militant Atheists.”  (Trigger warning for casual Islamophobia.)  The author introduces his argument by saying “as a physicist, I do a lot of writing and public speaking about the remarkable nature of our cosmos, primarily because I think science is a key part of our cultural heritage and needs to be shared more broadly. Sometimes, I refer to the fact that religion and science are often in conflict; from time to time, I ridicule religious dogma.”  Really, I should have just stopped there, but sometimes you just can’t not make yourself angry by reading the internet.

I think I’m going to do a separate ‘talking to imaginary Islamophobic strawmen’ post about the casual Islamophobia and the tendency to fall back on ‘but Islamic extremism!’ as a trope.  In this post, I want to focus instead on the related assumptions that 1.) science is essentially rational/unbiased and that 2.) this essentially rational/unbiased nature means it can’t not come into conflict with religion.

But first, a short disclaimer: I don’t care if you’re an atheist.  If you consider nonbelief the best expression of your personal beliefs and experience of the day-to-day world, that’s great.  You do you.  However, it’s different to say “I’m an atheist and shouldn’t experience undue social or legal pressure because of that identity” and “everyone should be an atheist and here’s why.”  The author of this piece is clearly making the second argument, and that’s what opens his argument up to public scrutiny.  I think it’s important to state this distinction clearly because many apologetics (which is essentially what the second argument is, a claim of superiority for a specific community that invites others to join in order to be correct) get away with occupying space in public discourse without scrutiny by falling back on “these are my beliefs and I’m entitled to my beliefs” as a defense.  So again, just to be clear – you’re entitled to your beliefs about you.  You’re not entitled to make claims about what everyone else ‘should’ do without expecting a response to and/or rejection of those claims.

The author clearly identifies himself with the problematically-named ‘militant atheist’ movement, and here I actually agree with him – I don’t think the term ‘militant atheist’ is helpful because, at least as far as I’ve experienced this community, they’re not militant.  I’ve never read or heard anything from Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Penn Jillette, or any of the other recognizable leaders of this movement calling for organized, violent intercession.  What they are, however, is missionizing, a term I suspect they might resist even more.  It is the case that the term ‘missionizing,’ and the related terms of ‘prostelytizing’ and ‘indoctrinate’ all carry Christian connotations – that’s due in large part to the English language’s historical connection to English Christianity – but these terms still come the closest to expressing what this particular community is trying to do.  Again, they’re not just asking for fair treatment and respect for their identity as atheists; they’re telling everyone else to be atheists.

I think placing this atheist movement in the broader history of missionizing movements is also helpful because many of their core arguments are not original, but rather characteristic of missionizing as a tradition, in particular the claim to be the most rational approach to the divine.  As someone who studies apologetics, I’ve read works explaining why Christianity is more rational than Greek polytheism, why Greek polytheism is more rational than Christianity, why Christianity is more rational than Judaism, why Christianity is more rational than Islam, why Islam is more rational than Christianity or Judaism, and why atheism is more rational than Christianity or Islam[1].  Reading a whole lot of these works together, it becomes much clearer how authors use and reuse the same rhetorical tricks to make their point.

I think the use of ‘rational’ as a defense for your beliefs is powerful for the same reason it’s problematic – it feels like it should be a good guideline, but trying to define it is essentially impossible.  If we take ‘rational’ to mean “based on reason or logic,” we’re immediately faced with the problem that in real logical arguments, you have to define axioms and work within them.  There is no naturally-occurring logic – it’s a set system of rules that the user then chooses to work within.  In arguments about religion, the two participants (or, more often with apologetics, the author and their made-up opponent) are often using two completely different set of assumptions, so the fact that one side can build a rational argument for their faith from those assumptions really isn’t significant – it just demonstrates that those assumptions are capable of sustaining a rational argument, not that the opposing set of assumptions are any better or worse at sustaining a rational argument.

More often, this claim of ‘rational’ is used more generally to mean something like ‘common sense,’ the idea that we, as humans, are able to sense what’s a more or less logical idea, and that this carries with it some kind of value judgment.  This is an even more problematic assumption because 1) plenty of true concepts are really difficult to comprehend (more on that below) and 2) if ‘common sense’ did exist, people would just default to agreement, which is clearly not the case.  I think point number 2 is particularly well illustrated by atheism – religions can claim divine inspiration to explain why some (seemingly intelligent) people believe in them and some (seemingly intelligent) people don’t, but for nonbelief, if your argument is that the nonexistence of God is obviously true, everyone should eventually revert to that idea, in the same way we all eventually learn ‘I shouldn’t touch hot things’ or ‘chewing on foil hurts your teeth.’  Common sense ideas are just that – common.  Either you know them from testing them yourself or from hearing about someone who did.  

This gets us back to point number 1, and the fundamental flaw with the idea that science is essentially rational/unbiased – common sense ideas are generally pretty simple because many complex but true things are really hard to comprehend, and often counterintuitive.  Common sense tells me that things fall down because of something that’s below me dragging them down.  I can also kind of see how there could be something above me pushing them down.  But the reality of general relativity is far more complicated than that, and Einstein’s Newton in an elevator thought experiment still blows my mind just a little bit.  Similarly, common sense evolves over time as our understanding evolves – that germs make you sick makes perfect sense if you grew up knowing what cells and molecules are, but without that knowledge, it’s a completely insane idea that every surface is covered with tiny, invisible, creepy crawlies.

Science is rational in that it’s based off an agreed system of rules and axioms, but that’s the exact opposite of saying that “science holds no idea as sacred.”  No scientist starts their work by retesting ever established assumption – it would be ridiculous to expect to them to, as this would take lifetimes, but this is also why untrue assumptions can survive for so long (like that ulcers are caused by stress, or that your BMI effectively correlates to your long-term health).  Scientists themselves are also not unbiased – ask any woman, person of color, queer person or person with a disability working in STEM if racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and ableism are still present in science, and they will give you a laundry list of experiences and first-hand accounts.

Religions are, similarly, systems built on agreed rules and axioms, and as such, they can sometimes bump uncomfortably into science.  But it’s important to understand that that’s not the intrusion of something artificial and manmade (religion) on something stalwart and unchanging (science).  It’s also not the interaction of two competing monoliths – there are scores of religions with hundreds of sects that all work off slightly different systems and rules, and there are dozens of kinds of science with hundreds of different theories, each giving a slightly different interpretation of how to work within their established system and rules.

When the author of the op-ed says he “from time to time, ridicules religious dogma” as part of his physics lectures, I’m guessing he’s referring to Christian beliefs about the age of the earth and age of the universe.  Firstly, those aren’t doctrines in and of themselves – they’re outcomes of the larger doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, the belief that all understanding can be derived from the Bible.  Biblical inerrancy is only found in Christianity, and then only in a small minority of evangelical and fundamentalist sects, predominantly those that originated in the US.  I’d guess that even the majority of Christians don’t hold to Biblical inerrancy, and no other religion even considers the New Testament and Christian Bible to be divinely inspired.  So most religion doesn’t have any problem with this guy’s physics lectures – he’s choosing to focus on the one group that does, and then assume that every other religious person believes the same thing.  (He is also choosing to ridicule people for not agreeing with him, instead of just ignoring them and carrying on with his life, which, I think it’s important to point out, was also always an option.)

In actuality, and apparently much to this guy’s chagrin, thousands of people identify as both scientists and believers, and I don’t see any reason to assume these people are either lying or suffering from split personalities.  More likely, these people understand both systems to occupy separate or even complementary spaces – someone who believes in Biblical inerrancy probably wouldn’t make a good astrophysicist, but someone who understands the Genesis stories as analogies, a common interpretation among many Christian and Jewish denominations, might not only see no contradiction, but might see confirmation of their faith in their science.  I’d argue that this isn’t that dissimilar from any ideology or opinions – someone who keeps vegan probably wouldn’t want to be a taxidermist, but that’s not because either veganism or taxidermy is ‘irrational,’ they’re just not complementary.  They are also both personal choices, same as religious belief (or nonbelief) and if, as a society, we’re serious about freedom of religious expression, we need to become more sensitive to the difference between “I don’t want to face undue legal or social burden due to my choices” and “I want everyone to do as I do” for religious choices, every bit as much as if someone was trying force everyone to be vegan or to become taxidermists.  Some things just don’t fit all people.

[1] See, for example, Against Celsus, Celsus’s True Word, Doctrina Jacobi, a letter from al-Kindi to his friend al-Hashimi, and the works of Abu Isa, and Richard Dawkin’s God Delusion, respectively.

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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1 Response to Religion, science, and nonbelief

  1. In that theists don’t agree on what is metaphor and what is literal, this is what causes the problem, they don’t all believe in the same god that you might. Believers themselves aren’t complimentary and each is sure that those who don’t agree with them, though they might share a “god” are utterly wrong and irrational, to the point of needing to be punished for this disbelief.

    Somethings just don’t fit all people, that is for sure. The problem is when theists claim that their beliefs are the absolute and unquestionable “truth” and that it does fit all people.

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