We're creeping up on you

By Sean Carroll | March 19, 2006 2:29 pm

Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje takes an unflinching look at a small, quiet community that seems to be gaining in numbers in the unsuspecting coffee shops of San Antonio — atheists!

She wears stylish glasses, and her thick black hair is swept up in a ponytail; the only hint of a slightly rebellious streak is the tattoo that peeks from under her shirtsleeve. He is a slight, soft-spoken man with a laid-back demeanor and a full beard.

Melissa and Chanse are young atheists. They don’t believe in God. As such, they’re part of a small but substantial minority that swims against the overtly religious mainstream of America, a spiritual tenor that has grown more strident in recent times as issues of faith increasingly become entangled with politics and public policy.

Of course they are stylish! And only slightly rebellious, at least on the surface. In fact it’s a very nice article, the point of which is that atheists and agnostics, despite being a tiny minority (about 3 percent), constitute the fastest-growing category of religious “belief” in the United States.

This cheerful demographic fact ties into a discussion between Chris Mooney, PZ Myers and others a little while back, on how we should speak about science and evolution and religion in the public sphere. Chris suggested that, since we live in a very religious culture, it’s to our own benefit to emphasize the compatibility of religious belief with a scientific worldview. PZ replied that there is no reason to dilute our message just to win some temporary battles. And the truth is that, while there are some staunchly religious scientists who also believe in evolution, and there’s no reason not to have such people be fighting for the cause of science, most scientists are somewhat agnostic if not downright atheist, and there’s no reason to hide that fact. Chris’s response correctly identified the underlying disagreement, which is completely about tactics. (Be sure to read Chris at Mixing Memory on the use of “framing” in this context, and John Rennie at Scientific American on the Dover trial.)

If I may put words into their mouths, Chris is a strategist, looking for the most politically effective ways of fighting the battle currently before us, which is defending evolution in schools. PZ is playing the role of the intellectual, for whom strategy and tactics will always take a back seat to telling the truth. If it makes a few people uncomfortable, that’s their problem. This is why Richard Dawkins generates such emotional responses among people who are clearly on his side when it comes to the truth of evolution; intellectuals admire his fierce determination to call it as he sees it, while strategists cringe at his blatantly anti-religious rhetoric.

I am on the uncompromising-intellectual side of this debate (big surprise there), but I think that the truth-telling attitude has its strategic benefits as well. The fight over teaching evolution in public schools is a tiny skirmish in a much broader cultural conversation. (See? We don’t have to call it a “war.”) We do live in a religious society, remarkably so when we are compared to similar countries elsewhere in the world, and there are complicated reasons for that. But increasingly, a lot of folks are wondering whether their supernatural beliefs are really warranted by the evidence, or whether they’re not just going along because that’s what everyone does. To young people wondering about the meaning of it all, it can be extremely powerful to hear someone say that it’s okay not to believe in God. Everyone always says that you will never talk someone out of their religious beliefs by lecturing about the scientific method; that’s certainly true for a wide range of people who are very confident in their positions, but there are also a huge number of people who are legitimately questioning what to believe. In the long run, the way to squelch the political effectiveness of the intelligent-design movement, the anti-abortion movement, the anti-gay-marriage movement, and so on, is to relegate them to insignificant minority positions within the populace, and one good way to do that is to undermine their supernatural foundations. It’s an extremely long-term project, to say the least, but one worth keeping in mind.

The only time I think the Stoeltje article stumbles is at the very end:

But what, exactly, do atheists believe in, if not in God?

In a nutshell, atheists believe in reason alone, in those things that can be arrived at through intellect and the scientific method. Concrete evidence for God, they argue, simply doesn’t exist. They don’t cotton to leaps of faith or anything that involves a supernatural being reaching into human lives. They believe you can live a happy, respectable life based on human ethics that were derived not from God handing down a tablet but from a code of rules that emerged naturally through an evolutionary process in which humans learned how to live together successfully.

The idea that atheists replace “religion” with “science” is an unfortunately common misunderstanding. Religion plays many roles — it tells a story about the workings of the universe, it suggest moral and ethical guidelines, and it provides social and cultural institutions and practices. Science does not play all those roles, nor should it pretend to; it talks about how the universe works, but is of no help with morality or culture. However, the moral and cultural roles of religion do not stand independently of its beliefs about the universe (existence of a caring supernatural being or what have you) — if that part of the story isn’t true, the other teachings of the religion (homosexuality is a sin, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven) aren’t necessarily any better or worse than any other set of non-religious cultural practices, and should be evaluated on that basis. Science can’t tell us how we should treat other human beings. What it can do is to free us from the mistaken idea that the correct way to treat other human beings can be found in scripture or in church teachings or in the contemplation of God’s will; we human beings have to solve this hard problem all by ourselves.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion, Science and Society
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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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