John Wilkins is Making Sense

By Chris Mooney | June 27, 2009 9:38 am

Go read a brilliant accommodationist argument here. And I give this recommendation even though there are some things about the post that I don’t even agree with! (John, I reject point 4, for reasons I’ll explain at some point).

But Wilkins’ very best point, I think, is this one:

Only those who are completely without self-knowledge think they are entirely rational on every subject, and that this licenses attacking others for their perceived failings in that respect.

I even tried to Tweet those words, but they were too long!

Anyway, Wilkins’ post stirs up something that, especially as a journalist, has always made me wonder about the New Atheists–how are they so confident?

Don’t get me wrong: I shared their mindset very vigorously in college. Indeed, my atheist activist antics of those days are well documented (and will probably always prevent me from running for public office!).

But then I met a lot of moderate religious people, in the course of my life, who were anything but irrational or fundamentalist. And they changed me.

Never fear: They didn’t make me less of an atheist. Indeed, they didn’t even try. But they certainly made me less of an absolutist. They made me less confident that I had all the answers, that my way was the only way–not just for finding out the truth, but for getting through life.

At the same time, I was becoming a journalist, which requires regularly meeting and talking with people who you may think, deep down, are the arch-enemy. Usually, when you actually hear their voice or shake their hand, you find out that they’re actually not imps of Satan–that what had looked black and white from a distance was actually very gray at close range.

Much the same is true for the science-religion issue, and Wilkins is very much with me on this. Go read his whole post.

Comments (101)

  1. Jon

    Point 5 seems to be the main point all these very smart people aren’t getting.

  2. Very good article by Wilkins. I find he encapsulates the argument nicely, though I’d probably question what “knowledge” religion can impart.

  3. MadScientist

    Well, I’ll have to say that the “absolute best point” is absolute rubbish. Christopher Hitchens had addressed that canard in his book “God is not great”.

    Point 1 isn’t even a point. No one is telling the religious how to harmonize their religion with science. It’s a simple straw man which Wilkins stuffs, beats the stuffing out of, then sets ablaze.

    Point 2 is also a load of rubbish – “don’t upset religion or you’ll regret it; religion will win! We’ll reject your science!”

    Point 3 is another canard that the religious love to regurgitate. Where is the evidence for the claim that *most* scientists are religious?

    Point 4 is something I agree with. Scientific institutions should not make the unsupportable claim that science is compatible with religion. I would go so far as to say that to claim that science is compatible with religion is an outright lie. If religious people want to work in science, that’s fine. If they want to tell themselves the two are compatible, that’s their prerogative. Telling other people that science and religion are compatible is just a lie.

    In Point 5: “So what religion knows, if anything, is its own domain and topics, not those of science.” I agree; I also assert that religion knows nothing of substance and cannot ever reveal the truth about anything at all.

    Point 6: I never agreed with S.J.Gould’s NOMA either; I always saw it as an awkward way to squirm out of situations. The rest of the “point” is a jumble of lies attempting to ‘spin’ phrases and confuse people. Religion has in historical fact opposed science. Even if we go back almost 2000 years and look at the writings of “saint” Augustine we can see a deliberate hostility towards education in general – except of course where that “education” is actually dogmatic indoctrination. It is clear from history that religion has for the most part had a morbid fear of learning about the natural world. Gregor Mendel was rather fortunate that his endeavors did not earn him a burning pyre. If you look at the works of many religious and secular citizens through the ages the wording is often rather peculiar and discoveries are sometimes credited as being a merciful revelation of some sky fairy. We see evidence of this even as recent as in Charles Darwins’ books.

    In summary, the apologist Wilkins has nothing but LIES LIES LIES.

  4. Matti K.

    Unlike Mr. Mooney, Dr. Wilkins seems to think that a a strategic sordino is not needed in the discussion.

  5. John Kwok

    Along with Lawrence Krauss’s Wall Street Journal essay, John Wilkins’s essay may be among the very best I have read with respect to “accomodationism” and whether religion and science can – or should – be compatible. His best point is, as Jon has noted, Point 5, which could be summarized succinctly by Vatician astronomer and planetary scientist – and Jesuit brother – Guy Consolmagno as this: science is understanding in search of truth; religion is truth in search of understanding (This, incidentally, is virtually the exact quote I heard Consolmagno say at the World Science Festival panel discussion on Science, Faith and Religion, which also included both Lawrence Krauss and Ken Miller.).

    Where I disagree with Wilkins, not surprisingly, is with regards to Point 4, and that, I believe, is rather odd, since he acknowledges the importance of religion in American society and culture. Moreover, I have yet to see any evidence of a substantial nature which points to
    serious efforts at demonstrating religion’s compatibility with science with science advocacy and professional scientific organizations like the National Center for Science Education, World Science Festival, National Academy of Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Paleontological Society, Society for the Study of Evolution, the Ecological Society of Americas, or others, period.

  6. John Kwok

    @ J. C. Samuelsom –

    For someone who is devoutly religious – which I am not – the answer would be that religion imparts knowledge that is moral and spiritual in nature. Eminent philosopher of science Philip Kitcher believes that religion is important as a means of creating and binding communities together, via a shared sense of ethics and morals. Too often, I believe, atheists – especially militant atheists like Coyne, Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Myers, for example – ignore this possibility that religion can be seen as important for the very reasons that Kitcher states (Though I am aware of some, most notably, philosopher Austin Dacey, who has argued persuasively that secular humanism must create a “secular conscience” comprising of ethics and morals, as a means of demonstrating why it can be regarded as a credible alternative to mainstream religions.).

  7. Good post, sums up my own experiences, and I’d wager others, rather well .

  8. In San Jose, CA, the Santa Clara County Council of Churches is holding a Panel and Conference on the subject: Torture is a Moral Issue.

    I would personally describe myself as an agnostic, rather than an atheist. I know that my own psychological interpretation of the world can never be based on absolute rationality. However, when the religious impulse leads to taking positive stands on moral issues, then I am not going to be the one to fault them. I am waiting for the next rational atheist conference on the same subject. I may have to wait for a long, long time.

  9. Susan

    It’s really organized religion and the need to nail down the imponderable that is the problem. People who don’t question themselves and their social environment, with limited understanding of others, tend to use religion as a justification for insularity. American exceptionalism has its roots in a faith that equates material success with affirmation by the deity in charge.

    I don’t think human nature will change. Despite supposedly being based on 4 short basic repetitive texts, the accumulation of power, wealth, and absolute domination takes over most of the older religions. People use religion to control others (consider Palin’s message of hate against the actual text of the Sermon on the Mount). Iran is providing a classic example of how power corrupts. Men have used religion to justify regarding others, particularly women, as inferior.

  10. Bill C

    It’s a good point, Susan, but I can almost count the seconds until someone retorts a variation of “Well those people aren’t practicing what is REALLY in their holy books, they’re hypocrites” except of course that much of the negative behavior IS in those holy books, and all of those people earnestly believe in the rightness of what they do.

    I’m all for religious reformers trying to inject a dose of humanism into their dogma and practices, but I still fail to see why anyone would begrudge the atheist her encouragement to move toward a totally different alternative altogether.

    One argues to protect fundamental supernatural beliefs, the other argues to tear them down, both want the same behavioral results. Objecting to the latter over the former just seems an extension of the attitude that people’s religious beliefs are by definition too personal for anyone to have a right to challenge. I, like many others, call B.S. – not least of all for the fact that having my own religious beliefs challenged caused me to discard them.

    And frankly, if you’re going to wade into the waters of post-modern, subjective Truth, the atheist and moderate alike have no firmer leg to stand on than the fundamentalist – to look at it through a Christian lens, if you can accept the miracle of the Resurrection, why not accept the rest of it, from God’s command to kill Isaac to the righteous condemnation of Sodom and Gomorrah and the related salinization of Lot’s wife? They’re all ultimately just miraculous, one-off interventions, unprovable and undisprovable by any kind of outside inquiry, perfectly acceptable to be held to or not. Right? Sigh. Dawkins has been over this.

  11. Jon

    I also assert that religion knows nothing of substance and cannot ever reveal the truth about anything at all.

    Nothing makes a New Atheist flip out more than the idea that there are other ways to know things than the physical sciences, the Enlightenment empiricists, etc. :

    http://berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/published_works/ac/divorce.pdf

    (Sorry, again, this is something that I’ve linked to before, but the material about Vico toward the end of the essay says a lot that is helpful here…)

  12. Jon

    I agree with Susan, above, but spreading shallow caricatures about all religion categorically is not the answer.

    Oh no, Obama has been reading theology!!!:

    http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2009/06/18/the-niebuhr-connection-obamas-deep-pragmatism/

    New Atheist FREAK OUT!!!!!!1!!1!!!!!1!1!1!!

  13. Wilm Roget

    Comments like this one “I also assert that religion knows nothing of substance and cannot ever reveal the truth about anything at all” remind me of a parallel situation, equally domineering and ridiculous.

    When I studied piano, my primary interest was in the classical repertoire, but I also loved ragtime and jazz. The last piano teacher I had insisted that one could not reconcile the classical repertoire with “garbage music” like that composed by Scott Joplin or George Gershwin.

    Someone who makes the quote above knows nothing of substance about the experiences that people of faith have, and cannot ever reveal the truth about those experiences.

    Additionally, the position of summarily dismissing the experiences of people of faith – historically, the largest segment of human population, is the antithesis of sound science. Someone who truly respected science as a way of looking at the world and drawing conclusions about the world – would not, cannot simply dismiss evidence he/she does not like, understand, or respect.

    In other words, real scientists do not dismiss and bad-mouth religion, they acknowledge that it represents evidence and experience that may or may not fit their understanding of the world. Those who do dismiss religion out of hand are not scientist or even truly science-minded, they have simply co-opted the language of science to veneer their prejudice against religion.

  14. – Gregor Mendel was rather fortunate that his endeavors did not earn him a burning pyre. Mad Scientist

    Considering his work was certainly known within his AUGUSTINIAN community and by church authorities, and was made the Abbot of his monastery after his paper was published. Your assertion is the kind of fiction the new atheism largely consists of. You do know what century Mendel lived in, don’t you?

    –We see evidence of this even as recent as in Charles Darwins’ books.

    What are you talking about? The guy was buried in Westminster Abbey, for crying out loud. That’s a cathedral if you didn’t know. He was never even kicked out of the Anglican Church. What specific incident are you talking about?

    “nothing but LIES LIES LIES”?

    I hope your science isn’t as bad as your history. But then, you are citing Christopher Hitchens.

  15. – When I studied piano, my primary interest was in the classical repertoire, but I also loved ragtime and jazz. The last piano teacher I had insisted that one could not reconcile the classical repertoire with “garbage music” like that composed by Scott Joplin or George Gershwin. Wilm Roget

    I teach quite a bit of Scott Joplin and a little George Gershwin along with other classical composers. Both of them are worth teaching, especially Joplin. I thought of Scott Joplin’s New Rag when I named my last blog. You should have gotten a different teacher, most of the other classical music teachers I know of would have no problem teaching them. William Bolcom, certainly among the most distinguished living composers respects them.

    I agree with your last paragraph, I don’t think the new atheism has much to do with science.

  16. Wilm Roget

    Susan,

    You wrote: “People use religion to control others” Some people do. Some people use science to control others. Some people use philosophy to control others. Some people use wealth to control others, other people use idealize poverty to control others. The fact that any idea, system, belief, or accumulation of knowledge, or any construct, invention, or product of human experience has been abused, does not prove anything.

    There simply are people who are willing to use anything to control others. The argument could be well-made that new atheism is nothing more than a method of attempting to assert control over others.

    One of the forms of fallacy that is used all too frequently on the internet is the idea that since something is occasionally abused, it is always and intrinsically wrong, bad, evil, etc. The problem with this argument is that abuse of something, anything, including religion, only indicates two lessons – that thing thing can be abused, and that the person involved is an abuser. Of the two, only the second lesson is particularly relevant, since any thing – any idea, any school of thought, any tool, can be abused.

    Jon wrote “spreading shallow caricatures about all religion categorically is not the answer” and he’s dead on target. The vilification and verbal abuse by some “new atheists” only parallels the vilification and verbal abuse coming from some religionists, particularly fundamentalists. Since one of the premises is that the abusive behavior by some religionists, for example fundamentalists, proves that religion is a sham and a threat to humanity – the abusive behavior by some “new atheists” proves the same about “new atheism”.

    Of course, the premise is false, and the atrocious behavior by any kind of extremist only testifies about them as individuals, and makes no useful statement at all about religion, or science, or musical genre’s, or art, or any other element of human experience that people fight over.

  17. I’ve seen many “let’s all be nice to each other” posts like Wilkins’ many times over and each one of them has leaves out a very important point.

    Religious fundamentalists, the ones who try to force creationism in schools, to control how we reproduce and insist on treating science as an enemy have absolutely no regard for what any other person has to say about their efforts. None. And they’re the ones who are doing the most damage by whipping up an anti-science frenzy and using the social acceptance of their beliefs as a battering ram. They’re the ones who shout form the rooftops that anyone who doesn’t believe as they do is amoral, evil, stupid and wrong. And they foster the same angry reaction from hardcore atheists who are already a minority that’s treated with ridiculous pity at best and distaste at worst.

    Those fundamentalists may be nice in person and have a very sincere and genuine belief in everything they say but ultimately, their actions make them a menace.

    Moderate religious people who try to reconcile their science with their faith aren’t the ones who are trying to eject science from the classrooms. So we can talk all day long about how nice they are (and they are very nice and know the boundary between fact and belief) but we won’t address the real problem of how to keep the integrity of science education and popular science.

    What accomodationists do is unwittingly act as agents for the hardcore fundamentalists, the Ken Hams and Ray Comforts, helping them corrupt the public understanding of science for their selfish need to affirm their beliefs, sometimes enticed by the likes of the Templeton Foundation which does nothing less than bribe people to cram religion into scientific knowledge. There’s a reason modern science is secular and people like me would much rather keep it that way.

  18. “real scientists do not dismiss and bad-mouth religion, they acknowledge that it represents evidence and experience that may or may not fit their understanding of the world.”

    The belief that there’s a supernatural force watching over you is not evidence. It’s an idea that was upheld by societies, an idea which offers no falsifiable tests. How you feel only proves how you feel and your awe at the natural world only proves that you’re awed.

    Going on angry rants about religion is a matter of personal tact but the point is that just because a lot of people believe something, it doesn’t make it true. How many religious deities and religious practices are now long gone? A whole lot of people believed in them too.

    I don’t think religion is going anywhere or anytime soon, but it will change while its priests keep chanting that it’s been constant through the ages.

  19. Wilm Roget

    “You should have gotten a different teacher, most of the other classical music teachers I know of would have no problem teaching them.”

    Agreed. I was still a minor at the time, so ended up quitting lessons altogether, since my father, who was paying, like the exclusionist classist teacher.

    And you know, for that teacher, Joplin and Beethoven may very well have been completely incompatible. But they were not for me, and as you mentioned, many people who are well-exposed, well-educated in music, appreciate and even love a wide range of allegedly incompatible styles of music.

    The same happens in other areas of human experience as well – there are battles in the art world that match the science vs. religion war in acrimony and fire, and not just over issues of style, but even over such niggling details as materials and media. And in dance, and in theatre, and in literature – in any field of endeavor there are people who insist that their experience or lack thereof, their beliefs or lack thereof, their tastes are superior to those of anyone and everyone else. There are fundamentalists in any sphere of human activity – including science and atheism. I’ll even cop to being a bit of a fundamentalist about art, but I do my level best not to inflict my taste on others.

    I frankly am tired of people telling me that my experiences are wrong, delusional, a threat to humanity – simply because they don’t enjoy, or appreciate or experience what I do – whether it is a fundamentalist screaming about sex, a “new atheist” screaming about religion, or a Bartok’ fan denouncing Barber.

  20. Matti K.

    Wes (8):

    Since atheists do not tie moral questions to a god or to the lack of it, why should they address them as a group? Morality of torture can be and is discussed on many secular arenas. Some atheists do even more than discuss:

    http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2008/08/hitchens200808

  21. Jon

    Greg Fish: What accomodationists do is unwittingly act as agents for the hardcore fundamentalists…

    I think the other argument is much more compelling: that the New Atheists are ideal foils for the fundamentalists. They want a fight with “godless liberals.” They’ve got one.

    Meanwhile this essentially identity-politics fight (it almost never gets into the real philosophical issues, instead favoring posturing and lazy caricature) threatens to suck up all the public oxygen we need for other urgent issues that deal with science.

  22. – the Templeton Foundation which does nothing less than bribe people to cram religion into scientific knowledge. Greg Fish

    I wish someone would come up with a list of the egregious stuff that the Templeton Foundation has done with links so people can see how much of a problem it is. I’ve heard little other than generalities. Has anyone posted a list with links to the actual material so people can judge for themselves? I’ve heard enough so I want to see the evidence. I’ve critisized them on one occasion but that was after looking at those “prayer studies”. I concluded that it’s not possible to study prayer scientifically, either way. When I posted a piece about that I seem to recall it was the atheists who went into a swivet because I said you couldn’t draw any conclusion either way. Seems when the bad science supports their POV, they’ve got no problem with bad science.

    And there really should be a distinction made between formal science and popular stuff. It’s not as if all kinds of junk gets mixed in with pop-science. You get it all the time on the new atheist blogs, especially in the comment threads. I don’t recall people getting into a swivet when Carl Sagan used to mix some really silly stuff, including a few historical myths, into his sciency stuff. But, then, he was an atheist so I guess that gave him a plenary indulgence

    — I frankly am tired of people telling me that my experiences are wrong, delusional, a threat to humanity – simply because they don’t enjoy, or appreciate or experience what I do – whether it is a fundamentalist screaming about sex, a “new atheist” screaming about religion, or a Bartok’ fan denouncing Barber. Wilm Roget

    I think people spend entirely too much time worrying about what other people believe, like and do that really isn’t any of their business because it doesn’t hurt anyone else. I like both Bartok and Barber, Particularly Nashville Summer of 1915, there’s a You Tube of Eleanor Steber singing it to a piano accompaniment I’ve never known about before.

  23. Matti K. you think this makes up for Hitchens’ support for Bush II as they were torturing people?

    I wonder if I can find Hitchens waxing eloquent on the virtues of cluster bombs, I wonder if anyone ever published a transcript of that.

    Christopher Hitchens as a new atheist voice of morality. What more does anyone need to know.

  24. Wilm Roget

    Greg

    Thanks for providing validating evidence of my position for me.

    “The belief that there’s a supernatural force watching over you is not evidence. ”

    You’ve demonstrated the fallacy of false definition. Religion is not just ‘belief’, and the particular one you articulated is not the sole testimony about religion.

    People have genuine experiences that science cannot explain, but which some ‘new atheists’ simply dismiss out of hand, and those summary dismissals, like yours, are the antithesis of good science. Where would science be today, if scientists habitually dismissed as imaginary any experience – and all data is in essence experiential – that didn’t fit their preconceived theory?

    Experiencing a transcendent interaction with the Divine is evidence – something happened, what is a matter for exploration and discussion. Empty dismissals though, are simply abusive and dehumanizing.

    “the point is that just because a lot of people believe something, it doesn’t make it true.”

    As science has found out many, many times. I am of an age such that I’ve seen tremendous changes, and reversals, in a number of sciences, from the rejection and eventual acceptance of plate tectonics, to uproar back and forth about Big Bang vs. Steady State, the ever-changing line in the sand about the conditions for life to exist, the dinosaur/bird business.

    “How many religious deities and religious practices are now long gone? A whole lot of people believed in them too.”

    How many scientific theories, practices, dogmatically taught and asserted positions are now long gone as well? A whole lot of people thought the continents were fixed in place, not so long ago. A whole lot of people thought there was no water on Mars, not so long ago. A whole lot of people thought life could not exist in the deeps of the oceans, or buried in rock.

    The perk, and challenge, that science has over religion, is that most religions have closed their canon, their source data set, while science, for the most part, continues to embrace new data. If religions continued to grow and evolve and incorporate new experiences, new data, the way science does, the war between science and religion would be even more ridiculous than it already is.

    “an idea which offers no falsifiable tests” For most people – you know, the 99.99999% who do not have access to particle accelerators, or x-ray telescopes, or electron microscopes, or any of the advanced technology of modern science – most of modern science is not falsifiable. While science, so far, has not been able to falsify Joe Everyman’s experience of the Divine, Joe cannot falsify the data coming from CERN, either. Yet Joe is expected to believe the testimony coming from the researchers at CERN, and mocked if he does not, yet his own testimony is routinely dismissed as delusion.

    Greg, you also wrote, in your misrepresentation of my posts, the following:
    “Religious fundamentalists, the ones who try to force creationism in schools, to control how we reproduce and insist on treating science as an enemy have absolutely no regard for what any other person has to say about their efforts.”

    Of course, the same can be said of some scientists as well – men and women of science who tried to force their science – eugenics, for example, on societies with absolutely no regard for what any other person has to say about their efforts. What about the concerns regarding genetically modified food plants, or those who simply disregard completely the objections to lines of research involving cloning?

    Having attempted to dismiss all of religion because of the abuse of it by some, you also dismiss all of science as well, for it has been just as frequently used for harm. Take a single, ancient example – the invention, through trial and error and observation (science) of bronze – increasing the scope and scale of human war exponentially.

    What you’ve really done in your post 17 is argue in support of prejudice – arguing that because some people in a defined group have harmed others, everyone in that group is not only suspect, but judged and condemned.

    One could easily take your entire second paragraph, and reframe it as racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or to endorse any prejudice, simply by changing the nouns involved, without altering the core premises at all. You probably don’t realize just how strongly your two posts parallel, tactic for tactic, argument for argument, those of fundamentalists who oppose abortion or homosexuality, or conservatives railing against undocumented workers.

    If someone has a prejudice against religion they should at be honest about it, claim it for what it is, and not pretend that it is rational or reasonable or superior. Those tactics, after all, are precisely how religious fundamentalists respond to the things they are prejudiced against.

  25. Jon

    Morality of torture can be and is discussed on many secular arenas. Some atheists do even more than discuss…

    The whole thing reeks of identity politics:

    Atheist: “Atheists are too moral.”

    Heartland Fundie: “No you’re not, you’re a threat to my white bread American Way of Life.”

    This is an *identity* fight. These tend to go on and on and generate a lot more heat than light. Meanwhile, the adults in the room would like to get some actual business done when it comes to science and public policy.

    I’d argue that when you do that, the identity politics tends to take care of itself. People realize who are the adults.

    Not to say that there aren’t occasional separation of church/state and civil rights issues to deal with w/r/t atheism. But if thats all you care about, get a life!

  26. Wilm Roget

    “I think people spend entirely too much time worrying about what other people believe, like and do that really isn’t any of their business because it doesn’t hurt anyone else.”

    Agreed. I have begun avoiding an ever growing segment of the internet, and the news, simply because it has become too fixated on telling others that what they believe makes them bad, evil, subhuman. What started as simply avoiding Rush and Fox News, has expanded to include many religious blogs, forums and sites, many art and music forums and sites, and an increasing number of science blogs, forums and sites.

    Fundamentalists in every arena seem intent on using the internet to turn every subject into a ‘my way or else’ situation. Many people have or are leaving conservative religions, as congregations, denominations and faiths have become defined by their extreme ‘we have the only allowable answer’ idealogy. The same has happened in art and music, and could certainly happen to science as well. I think there is a real problem in the way some people, ‘new atheists’ might be the correct term, are trying to define all of science as exclusionary and ‘we have the only allowable answer’ exactly as fundamentalist Christians have tried to do with Christianity, exactly as fundamentalist Muslims have tried to do with Islam.

    The condition for abuse and harm lies not in the set of ideas – religion, art, music, science, but in the use of any set of ideas, including atheism and science, to subjugate and malign others.

  27. JK: …religion imparts knowledge that is moral and spiritual in nature.

    I suppose that depends on how one defines “knowledge.” And surely, problems arise when one considers the variety of conflicting moral precepts of various faiths (and within them), and what it means to be “spiritual.”

    The fact is we don’t find consistency in what various faiths offer in terms of either morality or spirituality. Where there is accord, there are gradients, and differences in emphasis. Moreover, we can find people behaving in moral ways who have not had religious instruction, and people who pick and choose which moral precepts are important within each faith, which suggests there is something else at work.

    This is not to say that moral consistency is to be had. It is just to say that it isn’t what we find.

    JK: Philip Kitcher believes that religion is important as a means of creating and binding communities together, via a shared sense of ethics and morals.

    Indeed. That is religion’s greatest strength – creating and sustaining community. However, there is no evidence to suggest that religion is required to create or sustain a community. Looking at some of the countries that are less religious in character is instructive in this regard. Norway & Sweden are two great examples, and Japan too.

  28. John Kwok

    J. C. –

    Aside from being a Deist, I don’t see myself as being quite religious. However, I have met clergy from moderate mainstream faiths who have demonstrated substantially more rational thought than what I have read from militant atheists (One of whom happens to be an uncle, a retired Methodist minister, who graduate from the University of Chicago’s theological seminary.). While I won’t pretend to speak on behalf of Philip Kitcher, I believe that he is quite sincere in his assertion that religion is important in the establishment and endurance of communities via a shared sense of ethics and morals.

  29. “Greg, Thanks for providing validating evidence of my position for me.”

    I would’ve provided one regardless of whether I supported your stance or not. If I agreed, you’d find validation in that. If I disagreed, you would just spin it around to say I provided it, just like you’re doing now.

    “People have genuine experiences that science cannot explain”

    Scientists have been explaining them for years through neurology and psychology. Those who want to believe that their experiences are very special and have to fall outside our realm of understanding simply repeat that maxim and ignore that there are a lot of very good explanations about what happens during religious experiences in the brain.

    “For most people – you know, the 99.99999% who do not have access to particle accelerators, or x-ray telescopes, or electron microscopes, or any of the advanced technology of modern science – most of modern science is not falsifiable.”

    So just because you can’t do it at home, it’s not falsifiable? Science deals with topics more complex than stuff you can try in your kitchen. To validate some studies even requires up to a decade of specialized training. But just because it’s hard to verify something and you need special tools to do it, doesn’t make it unfalsifiable. To be blunt, this argument is downright nonsensical, straight out of the realm of “if I can’t do it or don’t know it, it must be false.”

    “How many scientific theories, practices, dogmatically taught and asserted positions are now long gone as well?”

    Dogmatic is an adjective you applied and one that could be true for schools where students are taught just to memorize and regurgitate information. Science by itself is constantly churning and people involved with scientific ventures know full well that everything we learn today can be overturned with the next big discovery. We anticipate the change, embrace it, learn from it and award those who successfully challenge the paradigm.

    Religions cast people like that out and call them heretics.

    “Having attempted to dismiss all of religion because of the abuse of it by some…”

    I’m just curious exactly what you were reading. Was there anything about me eating puppies in there by any chance? Because never did I even try to say that religion will ever be gone or should be. Actually, I said the exact opposite. You’ve built a strawman argument, soaked it in kerosene and left a blowtorch a few steps away.

    “One could easily take your entire second paragraph, and reframe it as racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or to endorse any prejudice, simply by changing the nouns involved”

    Sort of like you did with the whole thing already? It’s as if you’ve read the comments with no sense of context and nothing more than an intention to twist them into something for you to refute.

  30. Jon

    We anticipate the change, embrace it, learn from it and award those who successfully challenge the paradigm. Religions cast people like that out and call them heretics.

    That statement sounds a lot more Manichean than most religions are. Hello? Prophets? Theologians? MLK? Gandi? In my mind they easily measure up to any paradigm changers in science.

  31. Jon

    Sorry, “Gandhi.”

  32. Walker

    “People have genuine experiences that science cannot explain”
    Scientists have been explaining them for years through neurology and psychology. Those who want to believe that their experiences are very special and have to fall outside our realm of understanding simply repeat that maxim and ignore that there are a lot of very good explanations about what happens during religious experiences in the brain.”

    I weep for undergraduate education in this country. Statements like this are indicative of the decline of philosophy departments over the past three decades. The problems with the above statement are covered in afreshman philosophy course.

  33. – Scientists have been explaining them for years through neurology and psychology. Those who want to believe that their experiences are very special and have to fall outside our realm of understanding simply repeat that maxim and ignore that there are a lot of very good explanations about what happens during religious experiences in the brain. Greg Fish

    Where are your citations to back this up? I’d like the actual studies to see if that’s what the researchers are claiming in those. I don’t want any of the new atheist extrapolations, I’ve seen some of those that contradict exactly what the researchers have said.

    I’d love to see someone in a scientific paper who said that they can explain away religious experience as being false.

  34. Jon

    Another article I keep linking to on this site–by a neurologist working on brain experiments done on contemplatives:

    http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2008/08/22/is-this-anything-or-is-this-nothing/

    The upshot is that it’s basically impossible to draw metaphysical conclusions from physical evidence. (Please ignore if you read this when I posted last.)

  35. Jon

    Not that it’s impossible to draw conclusions, but they won’t be definitive.

  36. Jon, I think the new atheism is a good symptom that the ground level understanding of what science can and can’t do is about entirely missing from the education of scientists and the wannabees on the blogs.

  37. Wilm Roget

    “you would just spin it around to say I provided it”

    The empty dismissal, not very scientific.

    “Scientists have been explaining them for years through neurology and psychology. ”

    No. Some scientists, relatively recently, have hypothesized that some experiences, by some people, that were described in religious terms, may have neological or psychological explanation. Dismissing something as a delusion – all your mind – is not science. Your characterization of the motives of people who have, and trust, their experiences, exactly parallels the arguments used by fundamentalist Christians to denounce people who do not share their beliefs. Your argument ‘there are a lot of good explanations” is self-defeating, and not particularly scientific, a lot of ‘good explanations’ is really a lot of guesses. So you like the guesses that label billions of people delusional. That doesn’t invalidate anyone else’s experience.

    “So just because you can’t do it at home, it’s not falsifiable? Science deals with topics more complex than stuff you can try in your kitchen.”
    Another standard tactic of fundamentalists, including the fundamentalist Christians that so many “new atheists’ rail against, is the strawman argument.

    You’ve ducked my point, by focusing on the detail, rather than the substance. The point is that the test of falsifiable cannot trump every other consideration, when so much of science is not, in practice, completely unfalsifiable for most people. Religion deals with topics more complex than stuff you can try in your kitchen, in fact, many of them deal with subjects more complex than stuff you can try in the perceived universe. Just because science cannot test and disprove the experiences of some person of faith does not mean that their experiences are false, it only means science cannot test those experiences.

    There was a point in time, not to long ago, when none of the assumptions about particle physics could be tested, quantified, repeated and observed. Yet only a fool would conclude that quarks and neutrino’s did not exist until they were quantified. In the same way, some people are being equally foolish about religion, arguing as you have that if it cannot be falsified, it is intrinsically false.

    So, you wrote: “But just because it’s hard to verify something and you need special tools to do it, doesn’t make it unfalsifiable. To be blunt, this argument is downright nonsensical, straight out of the realm of “if I can’t do it or don’t know it, it must be false.””

    And this applies to the rejection of spiritual experience as well. Yes, it can be extremely difficult to recreate a religious experience, and with current technology, impossible to quantify. Yet some atheists insist, as you appear to, that religious experiences are false because science cannot do it or know it. In fact, that heart of atheism is ‘I haven’t experience God, so there is no God’. You’ve essentially demonstrated the nonsensical basis for much of atheist argumentation.

    While my point was that for both religion and science, for most people, there is a huge component of trust involved. Non-scientists, people who do not work at CERN for example, have to trust the testimony, the conclusions, the interpretation of data, coming from those who do have access to the equipment and opportunities to explore particle physics, or all but inaccessible regions of the last rainforests. And people who have not had religious experiences have to trust those who do. One of the characteristics of this irrational war between science and religion, is that some atheist advocates of science insist that testimony from scientists is credible, but automatically and reflectively dismiss the testimony of people of faith.

    Now, I pointed out that your argument against religion – that some have died, again completely ducked the issue. You used at test – the impermanence of some religious beliefs, to challenge the validity of all religious belief. By that test, science fails as well, for many of its cherished beliefs in the past, have been subsequently found false.

    “Religions cast people like that out and call them heretics.” Using false generalizations is unscientific, Greg. Some religious people, particular people using religions as a tool for political authority have cast out those who brought new data, but then, the same has happened in science, and the arts. Once again, you offer up a standard to criticize and disprove religion that is equally applicable to every other field of human experience.

    In fact, much of the religions available today, reflect the heretics of earlier cultures, just as a lot of science today was dismissed as scientific heresy at some point.

    “I’m just curious exactly what you were reading.”
    Your dismissal of my remarks, even though I provided a direct quote, indicates to me two things. First, that you have no substantive rebuttal to my analysis of your post and its overtly prejudice affirming argument, and second, that in this instance, you see no harm in pre-judging billions according to the actions of some.

    It is funny though that you accuse me of a strawman, right after you employ one. I used the word ‘dismiss’, which you falsely responded to as ‘religion will ever be gone or should be’ – though perhaps that is more of a Freudian slip than a strawman argument.

    I realize, your last couple of paragraphs are more avoidance; misdirection in place of addressing what I actually commented on – the striking parallels between your arguments, (and the arguments of fundamentalist atheists in general), and the arguments used by fundamentalist Christians, or racists, or misogynists to defend their ‘we have the only truth’.

    But it is a valid expression of process of science – when the same phenomena are observed in different things, it is a reasonable to hypothesize that the same basic process is involved. Some atheists produce the same phenomena as fundamentalist Christians, or racists, or anti-Semites, even though the object of their criticism is different. It is reasonable to hypothesize that the same process is involved in fundamentalists atheists and fundamentalist Christians, in racists and anyone else articulating a prejudice. The next step, of course, would be to seek funding for a controlled experiment, perhaps a double-blind study.

    Frankly, the professional atheists about in the media these days remind me of the professional moralizers, professional ex-gays, and right-wing tele-evangelists so much,

    that I expect we will be treated to photo’s of some prominent “new atheist” engaging in a little anonymous Eucharist in a darken church all too soon.

  38. AM: I’d love to see someone in a scientific paper who said that they can explain away religious experience as being false.

    I personally know of no study in which the author claims religious experiences are false. In fact, quite the contrary. Religious experiences are measurable. You can read a nice summary here.

    But does this prove god’s existence, or does it suggest that religious experiences are a byproduct of the brain’s material processes?

    No one knows. But, we can guess that if neuroscientists ever artificially induce religious experiences in the brain, it will perhaps demonstrate that such experiences are nothing special from a cosmic perspective.

  39. Tell it to the new atheists, J.C.S. They’re the ones who don’t seem to get it.

    You don’t seem to understand that I don’t believe you can prove things about the supernatural, for clearly obvious reasons. We have no idea if what we can use to make proofs in the natural universe would apply. Equally, you can’t know if religious experiences are the byproduct of the brains material processes, so the assertion is not scientific.

    Religious experiences which don’t impinge involuntarily on other people or harm people unable to give adult level consent, are the entire property of those having them. Anyone who believes they know better than the person who had the experience is arrogant and irrational, since they don’t have any basis to make that claim. They couldn’t possibly observe the experience.

  40. Mel

    “No one knows. But, we can guess that if neuroscientists ever artificially induce religious experiences in the brain, it will perhaps demonstrate that such experiences are nothing special from a cosmic perspective.”

    I seem to recall recent research where exogenous stimulation of certain regions of the brain have induced religious-like experiences. I think that you are correct that such experiences are not “special from a cosmic perspective” in an objective sense, but they are obviously quite special in an experiential and subjective sense. These experiences change people’s lives, give them a sense of meaning, and can be quite helpful to those who have them. So what if they are internally generated? I don’t see why they should be dismissed for that reason. That would be like dismissing love or any other human cognitive experience as merely brain activity. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t study them and try to better understand how they occur (indeed, I would like to see much more research, as I am a scientist and I find such studies fascinating), just that coming to a better objective understanding of them as phenomena does not negate the subjective significance of them to the people who experience them.

  41. I forgot this:

    – But, we can guess that if neuroscientists ever artificially induce religious experiences in the brain, it will perhaps demonstrate that such experiences are nothing special from a cosmic perspective. JCS

    I don’t think there is any reason to believe that an “artificially induced” experience is comparable to one which isn’t artificially induced, to begin with. But even if you could convince the person who had it that it was the same thing, that still wouldn’t tell you anything about the experience. Afterall, contemplatives have reported that they have been able to induce these experiences for thousands of years now. What wouldn’t be special is if science caught up with them.

  42. Jon

    we can guess that if neuroscientists ever artificially induce religious experiences in the brain, it will perhaps demonstrate that such experiences are nothing special from a cosmic perspective.

    But if a scientist “artificially induces a religious experience in the brain” then it’s a fake, right?

    Along the lines of experiencing a drug not being real euphoria, because you’re chemically hacking the brain’s wiring, instead of experiencing euphoria by doing something genuinely pleasing in life (through altruism, aesthetic experience, sharing something with a friend, etc.).

  43. sdn

    @ Wilm Roget

    People have genuine experiences that science cannot explain, but which some ‘new atheists’ simply dismiss out of hand, and those summary dismissals, like yours, are the antithesis of good science.

    The scientific process and the knowledge it has produced are two separate things. The fact that science can’t give us an answer the minute we want it doesn’t mean it can’t or it never will. It means there’s a lot more work to be done before we know what’s going on–but eventually the work will be done, and we’ll have an answer*, and that objection will fall apart. If it proves not be valid when we’ve got more information then it wasn’t valid in the first place; it was just an argument from ignorance.

    It’s also not fair to let religion jump the line between fact and faith and then claim persecution when things get dicey. When these people you mention make their claims, whether to a New Atheist or someone else, they should not expect their statements to be accepted without question. They’re making a statement of fact: “The religious experience happened,” and whoever is listening should always be free to say it didn’t. If someone claims to believe something, science has nothing to say about it because the fact being tested is just whether the person holds that belief. But as soon as they claim something is true, they must be prepared to defend their assertion using the most effective and powerful method of inquiry we have–science. (It’s a matter of history. Religion has derived no equations of state, built no bridges, taken no one to the moon. That isn’t what it’s for.)

    *Assuming the question should have gone to science in the first place.

  44. In Point 5: “So what religion knows, if anything, is its own domain and topics, not those of science.” I agree; I also assert that religion knows nothing of substance and cannot ever reveal the truth about anything at all.

    Well, I’d say yes and no. When it comes to the supernatural, those of us who are atheists have to assume that it’s got nothing of use to say in terms of reality (metaphor and allegory could be a different story) – to use Roget’s comparison, this isn’t a an issue of battling movements within the art world, but rather of a bunch of people crowding into a hushed museum hall to stare at a blank canvas* while exclaiming how beautiful the painting is, and what marvelous images they see, and how rude of that person over there to keep insisting that there’s nothing there!

    But on the other hand, there’s the somewhat Burkean observation that religions – as traditions centuries or millenia old which in their time often attracted some of the more contemplative people in their societies – are likely to have accumulated a fair amount of wisdom about the human condition (along with some absolute nonsense, of course, and measures of naked control (tho’ that’s not mutually exclusive with wisdom), and developed powerful ritual/psychological/social technologies. (As has already been touched on in this thread). Sure. But it’s rare that religious folk will describe their faith as only thus – which, fair enough.

    Roget – witchcraft in colonial-era Salem: real or delusional?

    In fact, that’s somewhat of an oversimplification; certainly various experiences of a demonic incursion from “the invisible world” was very real to the folks that experienced them (some of the accusers may have been lying to get attention/cause trouble/whatever (in the beginning), as a result of torture, or to save their own skins (later, for suspects who basically turned colony’s evidence), but for others it seems to have terrifyingly convincing). It also was laden with meaning, enmeshed within a complex web of belief, expectation, history, and cultural stresses (as various historians have noted, what happened in Salem was very much patterned in distinctive ways. Yet when it comes to explanations, we have if anything an embarrassment of riches – and even if many of them are more or less accurate, we clearly don’t have anything like a whole integrated picture, something which would involve a much better understanding of everything from neurology to protocapitalist transitions in late 17thC New England. And it would doubtlessly be philosophically incorrect to say that ‘Science proves that there weren’t actual, Satanic witches afflicting Salem’ (both re: “”proves” and the issue of metaphysical claims). Yet from where I stand, it’s obvious that there weren’t, for reasons that could be somewhat poorly glossed as “science says . . . “.

    Or take possession, whether by Christian demons or Yoruba/-derived loa or 100 other entities. I suspect you’d agree that these entities are not real in and of themselves, yet to say that they’re merely a delusion, if not exactly wrong, is a deeply impoverished and very dull statement. (If one often, and unfortunately, a lot more palatable to those who will forever insist that the subjective spiritual experiences of their culture or tradition can’t simply be reduced to stuff happening in the brain). Of course, we certainly don’t really understand the phenomena of possession yet – and no matter how much we learn about (for example) auditory driving and embodied history and creative yet culturally patterned responses to social/personal stresses, I’m sure it genuinely would be philosophically incorrect to draw metaphysical conclusions from physical evidence. (And who is to say that all this isn’t how the spirits communicate?) And yet . . .

    Perhaps we can have a long multi-blog argument about whether Eshu’s hat is red or black, next?

    * yes, yes, I know.
    ——-

    It is reasonable to hypothesize that the same process is involved in fundamentalists atheists and fundamentalist Christians, in racists and anyone else articulating a prejudice.

    Well, I’m not saying there’s nothing to this, but it just sounds a little too close to “affirmative action is racist-style arguments to me.

    Frankly, the professional atheists about in the media these days remind me of the professional moralizers, professional ex-gays, and right-wing tele-evangelists so much,
    that I expect we will be treated to photo’s of some prominent “new atheist” engaging in a little anonymous Eucharist in a darken church all too soon.

    Ok, that’s funny.

  45. Religious experiences which don’t impinge involuntarily on other people or harm people unable to give adult level consent, are the entire property of those having them. Anyone who believes they know better than the person who had the experience is arrogant and irrational, since they don’t have any basis to make that claim.

    How about ones that do involuntarily impinge upon/unconsensually harm people? We can agree that at least in those cases that these experiences aren’t their sole property, since they’ve got them all up in people’s faces (or possibly body cavities), but I’m thinking more of the second sentence about how “Anyone who believes they know better than the person … is arrogant and irrational“. Who are we to judge? Maybe God did tell them that women/doctors who performed late-term abortions/cats/liberals/’sinful’ works of art/etc. were evil and had to be destroyed. (There are many more cheerful and helpful messages people understood themselves to have heard from God, etc., but you specified harm, so…) Imagine someone from late 17C Salem who had the experience of being bewitched or seeing frightening apparitions,understood them to be the products of witchcraft but kept quiet, and so didn’t harm folks. Where these experiences real? Sure. Are we arrogant and irrational for believing that we know better than they did?

    (Amusingly, I had a pretty powerful ‘religious’ (or mystical) experience, which I understand to have been a product of my brain. Who are you to think you know better than I!? How arrogant and irrational!!)

  46. I like John a lot but he misunderstand the debate and characterises himself as an accommodationist when he is clearly an anti-accommodationist, as that term has been understood throughout the debate. He says:

    =====

    Accommodationists hold, for various reasons, that when defending science, such as evolution (but not always), defenders should not assert that science is in opposition to religion. Instead, they should merely defend science.

    Exclusivists, on the other hand, hold that science and religion are incompatible, and that to defend science one must, perforce, assert this incompatibility.

    =====

    But that is not how it works. The correct situation is this:

    Anti-accommodationists hold, for various reasons, that when defending science, such as evolution (but not always), defenders should not assert that science is compatible with religion. Instead, they should merely defend science.

    Accommodationists, on the other hand, hold that even if science and religion are incompatible, it is politically expedient to deny this incompatibility when defending science. Moreover, for reasons of political expediency, no one should bring up the incompatibility even while doing things other than defending science.

    If John’s definition were correct, I’d be an accommodationist (so would Jerry Coyne). But I’m not. The position that I take is the one I’ve just set out as anti-accommodationist. The position that I keep criticising is the one I’ve just defined as accommodationist. An accommodationist will, for example, say that the incompatibility of science and religion should not be mentioned even if one is doing something other than defending science, such as writing a book review or criticising the political influence of religion.

    I am certainly not what John calls an exclusivist, and I find it difficult to think of anyone who is. Perhaps they can identify themselves. The only person I can think of who MAY be is Sam Harris, but even he might deny taking such a position (I don’t know him, except for having exchanged a tiny number of emails on a different subject, and obviously can’t speak for him).

  47. NewEnglandBob

    MadScientist @3 got it exactly correct!

  48. Jon

    But as soon as they claim something is true, they must be prepared to defend their assertion using the most effective and powerful method of inquiry we have–science.

    That’s open for dispute, to say the least. Science studies physical reality. Period. What if there are things that aren’t best studied by processes devised to study physical reality? (By the way, there *have* been brain studies done on contemplatives. See my link above.)

    Just one example of something the physical sciences is unsuited for is the arts. You can’t study what’s good/beautiful in the arts using the physical sciences. (You could say that you study people’s physiological responses, blah blah blah. But it’s not the same.)

    It’s a matter of history. Religion has derived no equations of state, built no bridges, taken no one to the moon. That isn’t what it’s for.

    This is a typical New Atheist rectal pluck. Augustinian theology built medieval Europe. Luther built Reformation Europe. There would have been no flowering of European sciences without Maimonides. Cold War politics would not have been what it was without the influence of Reinhold Neibuhr, who also influences our current president (see the link above). Many of the terms in modern psychology were originally taken from medieval theology. The writers of our constitution were heavily influenced by theological notions of original sin… The list goes on and on.

  49. Jon

    If you say so, New England Bob, it must be true !!!!!

  50. John Kwok

    @ Russell Blackford (@ 46) –

    Your intriguing analysis misses one key point which Chris Mooney, and several others, including yours truly, have been emphasizing. There is the Dalai Lama’s position on the compatiblity between Buddhism and Science, in which he has observed that Buddhism must change if it’s in error with respect to science (And not the other way around). In a similar vein I heard Ken Miller declare that those belonging to faiths hostile to science should terminate their memberships in such faiths ASAP during a private talk last month given before our fellow college alumni here in New York City.

    In attempting to paint with such a broad brush, I believe you, Coyne, Myers and others representative of militant “New Atheism” are missing some of the more nuanced – and indeed compelling – arguments put forth by theologians and devoutly religious scientists who insist that religion should conform to what we recognize as valid science.

  51. @ AM (#39)

    I do believe I would give you the label of “militant agnostic”; Unhappy with either religious or scientific answers, you seem to cling to a postmodernist version of truth, as ironic as that is. In other words, there is no truth that can be known with certainty, so all claims are equally valid or equally faulty.

    Would that be about right? Just curious.

    @ Mel (#40):

    So what if they are internally generated? I don’t see why they should be dismissed for that reason. That would be like dismissing love or any other human cognitive experience as merely brain activity. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t study them and try to better understand how they occur (indeed, I would like to see much more research, as I am a scientist and I find such studies fascinating), just that coming to a better objective understanding of them as phenomena does not negate the subjective significance of them to the people who experience them.

    I would not argue for their dismissal, even if it were proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they absolutely cannot come from a divine source. In fact, this hints at one of the key problems I have with some of the polemical rhetoric; We should not summarily dismiss religion as being utterly worthless. We rightly reject its truth claims and question its version of morality, but I do not think we rightly dismiss how it speaks to human needs, regardless of its lack of scientific validity. Therein lies its appeal, and no amount of railing against it as being based on myths will eliminate that appeal.

    Instead, we should study it, just as you say. Perhaps someday we could apply what we’ve learned to harness whatever emotional benefits it may have divorced of its mythological underpinnings.

    @ AM (#41):

    I won’t speculate whether an artificially induced experience would or wouldn’t be comparable. I rather suspect that an EEG or fMRI wouldn’t be able to distinguish between the two, for whatever that’s worth.

  52. @ Jon (#42):

    But if a scientist “artificially induces a religious experience in the brain” then it’s a fake, right?

    Well, what would you say constitutes an “authentic” religious experience? How do you know it’s authentic in the first place? Does it matter? I personally don’t know if a recipient would be able to distinguish between an alleged “real” experience and one successfully induced in a lab. As I said in #51, I suspect equipment used to measure the experience would fail to show a difference.

    Of interest may be the fact that Ketamine has been used to reproduce near-death experiences, though no studies I know of have been conducted using subjects who claim to have had an NDE without it having been induced.

    Along the lines of experiencing a drug not being real euphoria, because you’re chemically hacking the brain’s wiring, instead of experiencing euphoria by doing something genuinely pleasing in life (through altruism, aesthetic experience, sharing something with a friend, etc.).

    It’s interesting that you used the term “hacking.” Would you say that someone who hacks into a computer to remotely access its data store is having an “fake” experience logging on to that computer as compared to, say, a domain administrator logging in remotely for the same purpose? Certainly you could say the hacker is having an illegitimate (or dishonest) experience, but that doesn’t mean the experience isn’t real, or its effects (using the computer and retrieving data) are any different.

    An imperfect analogy, to be sure, but perhaps useful.

  53. Mel

    @J.C. Samuelson (51)

    Okay, I think we largely agree. I do, however, disagree that we would want to essentially bottle religious experience to be able to use it without myth. I think you are dismissing myth out of hand. Have you done any reading of Joseph Campbell or others on myth? Myth is really very powerful and seems to be quite necessary for humans. Mythic thinking is really a matter of coming to an understanding of the universe and one’s place within it in through metaphor, story, and poetry, as well as by analogy to story and poetry. I think human experience would be very cold if we were to do away with myth. The problem we need to overcome is the conflation of mythic and scientific approaches to the world that has plagued western civilization since the rise of science. Myths are not objective descriptions of the universe. They are a way to understand the universe, but not know about it (save to the degree that they are a way of knowing about life as a human), as opposed to science, which is both a way of knowing about the universe and understanding it. They are not attempts to know about the universe as it is in itself, and thus cannot (or should not) be approached or understood as such. They are subjective by their very nature in that they have no inherent meaning outside of human experience, but that does not mean that they are not important. It seems very clear that fundamentalists err by trying to interpret their myths as actually describing the universe, while too many in the rationalist camp dismiss myths as nothing more than flawed attempts at trying to describe the universe. Essentially the same mistake, in other words. Taken as they should be taken, myths can be and are very valuable and useful, which is why they have persisted as long as they have.

    On a side note, it is easy to see the extremes of misunderstanding of myths on the part of fundamentalists, which can be quite amusing, but there are those who go to the opposite extreme on the rationalist side. I once met a German biology grad student who told me that he never read, watched, or listened to anything fictional because all fictional works were just shoddy myths that were irrational and detrimental to a proper, scientific way of approaching the world. Now that is a person who has taken pursuit of rationality to very irrational extremes. I am rather glad that I have never met anyone else who goes that far. I think it just goes to show that no extreme is very healthy.

  54. @ Russell Blackford (#46):

    Based on the rest of his article, Wilkins seems to understand and encapsulate the issue very well. I think perhaps (though I’m only speculating) that the unfortunate wording was merely a mistake.

    Plus, I’m not sure why the quibble over “anti-accommodationist” rather than “exclusivist.” Seems the same thing, doesn’t it? Maybe “exclusivist” is just a bit too stark for some tastes?

    Of course, it’s almost 2:30 AM, and my faculties may be failing…

  55. – I do believe I would give you the label of “militant agnostic”; Unhappy with either religious or scientific answers, you seem to cling to a postmodernist version of truth, as ironic as that is. In other words, there is no truth that can be known with certainty, so all claims are equally valid or equally faulty.

    Would that be about right? Just curious. JCS

    No. I’m a New Englander who thought militant atheists didn’t want people to impose their religious beliefs on them. I wish you guys would make up your mind on that.

    Usually by this time in the conversation a new atheist starts accusing me of being a biblical fundamentalist, so at least you haven’t guessed that wrongly.

    I just can’t stand it when people who are pretending that they are the epitome of logical thinking continually demonstrate they don’t have a clue, especially when they mix in bad science and massive arrogance.

  56. Jon

    JCS: Well, what would you say constitutes an “authentic” religious experience?

    As I said above, context can be important. Again, I think if you feel good because you did something good, that has a benefit for everybody, and chances are you will do more good in the future. If you feel good because some sort of chemical or mechanical contraption made you feel good, then the dependence is on a physical thing, not any sort of altruism. It’s like a crutch. Also, the social blessings of a community do mean something. A community is not always right, but it has, to some extent, accumulated wisdom (collected prejudices in some cases too, of course…)

  57. – How about ones that do involuntarily impinge upon/unconsensually harm people? We can agree that at least in those cases that these experiences aren’t their sole property, since they’ve got them all up in people’s faces (or possibly body cavities), but I’m thinking more of the second sentence about how “Anyone who believes they know better than the person … is arrogant and irrational“. Dan S.

    First, you certainly don’t mistake this issue as a scientific one, do you? I know that the cultists of scientism like to pretend that all questions are scientific ones, but this is clearly one of law, in the worst cases, or manners, for mild ones.

    Clearly, people don’t have the right to violate the rights of other people. I believe you’ve read my short essay ” I Won’t Be Fair to Fascists I Won’t Be Nice To Nazis”, so you know I am pretty well on record on that issue. I’ve written others which you might have seen.

    People who violate other peoples’ rights using their religious assertions as a pretext have made those the business of other people and can’t use that as a defense when called on it. But it’s the violation of other peoples’ rights that are the more legitimate issue in preventing further violations, not the beliefs themselves. If the violator had kept those to themselves and others, in the absence of acting on them, they aren’t really important. I don’t care if the new atheists fuss and fume among themselves, as you know they first came to my attention because I thought they were publicly obnoxious in mixed company and could constitute a political problem if not encouraged to put a sock in it. Just like those other gay men I told to cut the bigotry back in the 1970s. A number of them would have had no problem of harassing you on the street as a “breeder” back then. How would you have liked that?

    — Anti-accommodationists hold, for various reasons, that when defending science, such as evolution (but not always), defenders should not assert that science is compatible with religion. Instead, they should merely defend science. Russell Backford

    Science can’t use religion but there is no reason that religion can’t use science. And there is no reason for religious people to talk about science in public, it’s not the sole property of atheists, which apparently even distinguished physicists believe, even as they present clearly contrary evidence in the Wall Street Journal.

    I would really like to pin Lawrence Krauss down on the clear fact of history that it was among Jews, Christians and Moslems that modern science arose. That, friends, constitutes evidence in the real world, which I’d always been taught was what the scientific method was developed to deal with as opposed to the scholastic practice of trying to apply logic minus that real life evidence.

    Funny way to defend science.

  58. Michael Neville

    “I would really like to pin Lawrence Krauss down on the clear fact of history that it was among Jews, Christians and Moslems that modern science arose.”

    That was almost in spite of the respective churches, not because of them. Galileo was tried by the Papal Inquisition (it was less than 20 years ago that Galileo’s excommunication was lifted). Both Catholics and Protestants denounced Kepler as a heretic.

    I will grant that Judaism is not and never has been anti-science.

    Islam, once associated with exceptional scientific and technological progress, has today fallen so far behind that it doesn’t even register on the scientific map. Science and the scientific method are essentially founded on the belief that humans can learn more and improve, ideas which many traditionalist Muslim clerics reject as heresy. Even in relatively secular Turkey the situation is deplorable. Turkey is the home for the largest creationist movement outside of America. It’s an anti-science movement that draws from Christian creationists and reworks the material to suit a Muslim audience. As bad as Turkey is, though, it gets worse as one travels elsewhere through the Islamic world. Any Muslim truly interested in science has to go abroad to study or do research.

  59. it was less than 20 years ago that Galileo’s excommunication was lifted)

    As usual, you get it wrong. He was never excommunicated, in fact he supported his daughter in a convent the entire time he was in trouble with the pope.

    You haven’t refuted my point that it was within Jewish, Christian and Moslem cultures, the very ones Lawrence Krauss said were incompatible with science, that modern science arose, and, as Krauss points out, many of the ablest scientists were full fledged members of those religions. That, MN, is called real world evidence that his proposition is deeply flawed.

  60. John Kwok

    @ Michael Neville –

    You obviously don’t know that Judaism has its own anti-science adherents, primarily within its ultra Orthodox sects. All three of the great Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) have substantial minorities which are either apathetic to – or openly hostile – to science.

  61. John Kwok

    @ Anthony –

    One of the reasons why modern science arose in Western civilization may be the Protestant Reformation, in which the Bible was translated from Latin into vernacular languages, and, in so doing, inspired interest among some to study more closely GOD’s creation (the natural world).

  62. Thinking about it more, I wonder if the reason that as smart a person as Lawrence Krauss makes this mistake is because he’s trying to apply the habits he so successfully used and became accustomed to using in his work as a physicist, to the areas of history, culture and personality to assert his proposition about the compatibility of science and these three religions. I think he is doing what so many here have done, trying to ignore the clear fact that the cultures in which these religions predominate was exactly the same cultures that produced modern science. But that’s the fact that is right in front of him as he does that.

    He tries to understand what he takes to be a problem by unrealistically reducing very complex histories and changing cultures into something you can pin down, which might be similar to some of the worst practices of the social sciences. You can reduce some problems in physics that way in order to come up with the truth, you can’t reduce human history and culture in the same way to arrive at a reliable truth.

    He can’t deny the existence of individual scientists who are Christians, Jews and Moslems. He might be polite enough to not second guess their sincerity, though many new atheists aren’t. But that doesn’t keep him from trying to reduce the reality of their situation to try to fit it to his already arrived at “logical” conclusion that it’s an impossibility for these three vast, varied and hardly unanimous religious traditions ” can’t be compatible with science” when all of the evidence is that they can and have been.

    It relates to the subjectivity-objectivity issue that was brought up on the last thread. You can seem like you’re coming to an objectively logical conclusion if you ignore the real world, but what that produces is a subjective and unsupported conclusion you’d already reached.

    I wonder if that’s the case, but I can’t tell you it is the case. It’s what we call a hunch.

  63. Michael Neville

    Anthony McCarthy wrote:

    it was less than 20 years ago that Galileo’s excommunication was lifted)

    As usual, you get it wrong.

    For once you got it right. Galileo wasn’t excommunicated, he was convicted of heresy, censured and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life. I apologize to you for defaming your favorite church and bringing the Inquisition into disrepute.

    So I amend my original statement: It less than 20 years ago that Galileo’s censure was lifted.

    So, does that meet with your approval, Anthony? Do you think the sanctimonious, lying Catholic church will now be able to raise its head high, knowing that I understand that among all its other crimes and sins the church didn’t actually excommunicate Galileo but merely censured him for thinking the Earth went around the Sun?

  64. Michael Neville, on the political blogs I usually frequent, someone might mention pearls just about now.

  65. Clearly, people don’t have the right to violate the rights of other people. . . People who violate other peoples’ rights using their religious assertions as a pretext have made those the business of other people and can’t use that as a defense when called on it.

    Agreed!

    But it’s the violation of other peoples’ rights that are the more legitimate issue in preventing further violations,
    This gets more complicated, but it’s a free country, so sure. What I still don’t see – look, you go harm someone (because of your subjective experiences) and it’s become a public matter with consequences, no question. And I think there’s a fair amount of merit in New England-style tolerance, with people’s beliefs being their own affair otherwise. But how does public harm remove the kind of epistemological shield that you want to place around such non-harmful beliefs? Again, with harm it becomes a public matter, one that requires action. But if it’s “arrogant and irrational” to judge religious experiences 1 second before the person, as a result, starts to discourage condom use in Africa/shoots people/burns down a girl’s school with students inside/etc., if we have no basis to make this claim, how are we able to to do so 1 seond later? By their fruits? That’s a good practical stance, and again, there need to be consequences – but how, given what you say, can we make any wider claim than: causes harm and has to be stopped? What basis do we have to judge their experience in any other way? Or take two people who have identical religious experiences. One causes harm as a result; another doesn’t, because of differences in temperament or opportunity or who knows what. Do you mean to say that in one case it’s appropriate and right to judge this experience (even tho’ dealing with the violations of rights is the more important matter), and in another it’s “arrogant and irrational” to imagine you know better than that person, even though the experiences are identical?

  66. – But if it’s “arrogant and irrational” to judge religious experiences 1 second before the person, as a result, starts to discourage condom use in Africa/shoots people/burns down a girl’s school with students inside/etc., if we have no basis to make this claim, how are we able to to do so 1 seond later? Dan S.

    And awful things like that aren’t ever excused by things other than religion, are they.

    The idea of preemptive action is extremely complicated and fraught with difficulty. Where to draw the line if you start down that path is one of those. You might be wrong about someone’s potential for dangerous action, you might be wrong about the ideas dangerousness.

    If you start doing that kind of thing you would hand those who would like to do everything from silencing the expression of some ideas for reasons of political or economic expediency to killing people who don’t, actually hold those ideas. You might exaggerate what ideas they hold and attribute more dangerous ones to your political or ideological opponents – sort of like Harris and Dawkins do, no?

    Maybe saying that it might be morally justified to kill someone for an idea they hold with no actual action taken, might be an idea dangerous enough to justify killing the person who holds that idea. Have you ever thought of that? Has Harris?

    We take risks in allowing freedom, because the alternative is to try to have security without liberty, to paraphrase Jefferson. But as every despotic government shows, you’re just replacing private, casual danger with the guarantee that the despot will enforce order through regular violence. So we have freedom under a democracy, with common decency the responsibility of us all in a civil society. It’s not an iron clad guarantee of either but it’s probably as good as we can get.

    Of course, we can use other forms of persuasion and encouragement to behave decently and tolerantly, not lying about other peoples’ intentions and ideas.

    I think the common thread that actually runs through just about all the bad stuff people intentionally do is selfishness and greed, ideology, religion, “honor”, patriotism, are just the cover story.

  67. Susan

    I have to thank all the people who took time and trouble to respond to my point. Raised atheist, a long spell with eastern mystical practice (which I recommend to believers and nonbelievers alike, minus the deity), another spell of unbelief, an instructive decade with some tolerant left-leaning born-agains, and have returned via unbelief to mystical agnosticism. I strongly object to attributing human qualities to the universe. You cannot “friend” nature; objectivity is important. Science tries to observe and learn; some branches of all religions do so too, but they are in the minority. Scientists are good at separating the search for the ineffable/numinous from their work, which is focused on reality.

    I explicated my point of view at some length in the earlier post #27.
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2009/06/26/lawrence-krauss-on-sciencereligion/#comment-21279

    I think Chris Mooney’s point that we don’t and cannot know is important. Being willing to live with ambiguity is to me a sign of intelligence and tolerance. On the extremes we have the prayer klatsch (I believe not all of these were believers, but used it for manipulation) who influenced Bush, and the Bin Laden/Ahmadinejad set. I think a modern Jesus would be sent to Gitmo.

    re Christianity, I’ve always found it striking the change in tone in the gospels. The message of tolerance and love is very strong, though Isaiah is also, considered as poetry, beautiful. The golden rule runs through quite a few texts, new and old, but is more dominant in the new. Unfortunately, Paul injected a rather nasty note.

  68. Susan, I was an agnostic before I really believed in a God. That’s why I know that science and logic don’t produce either religious belief or atheism, because they can’t find either God or the knowledge that God doesn’t exist. I like what William Sloane Coffin said about religious fundamentalists, but I think it applies to the anti-religious ones too.

    Liberals contend that we should sharpen our minds, not narrow them. We understand that…. faith, far from clearing up uncertainty, makes it possible to live with uncertainty. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, cannot bear uncertainty. They indulge in what psychiatrists call ‘premature closure.” …. Liberals contend that one of the most wonderful things about life is to act wholeheartedly without absolute certainty.

  69. But I didn’t say anything about killing somebody for an idea they hold….! ( in fact, I oppose killing anybody for anything, unless required for self-defense, etc.) All I’m saying, in response to you and Wilm Roget, is that personal subjective religious experience doesn’t have this sort of weird epistemological invulnerability, that these claims can be criticized in general (and in specific, although I agree that getting in someone’s face and screaming, ‘Hey, moron! That experience of transcendental oneness with the universe? That was just your brain, idjit! Haw Haw Haw!’ is generally kinda unpleasant and uncalled for). No, we don’t have absolute certainty (kinda like everything else in life), but there’s some pretty good reasons to think so. And in fact, I’m pretty certain y’all agree with me. If someone close to you began to act in a bizarre and frightening manner , and insisted that they were being possessed by a demon or evil spirit, would you first seek to get them professional help – counseling and probably medication – or an exorcist? Now, the reality [= extreme likelihood] that religious/mystical/spiritual experiences happen in the brain, either by themselves or in response to natural stimuli, doesn’t mean that such experiences aren’t ‘real’ – they are, just not supernaturally so – or not powerful, meaningful, practically possibly even able to give us helpful ways to deal with/talk about/ carry on with the experience of being human. But that doesn’t mean the person’s interpretation of them is correct. And Anthony, yes, I actually do have every right – not necessarily requirement, but right – to dispute such interpretations, just as others have every right to support them and you have every right to argue what sounds like to me as postmodernish-sounding nonjudgementalism. (Just finished reading Miller’s Only A Theory, and this sort of thing features pretty heavily in the last chapter…) . Yes, tolerance, coexistence and basic decency begs us to do so within limits, but I can’t see any reason to support the drastic and illogical self-censorship you seem to be proposing.

  70. Loc

    Mooney says:

    Anyway, Wilkins’ post stirs up something that, especially as a journalist, has always made me wonder about the New Atheists–how are they so confident?

    I find it disturbing that someone as intelligent as Mooney and the other accomodationist completely miss the point. ‘Militant Atheist’ are not the ones making extraordinary claims. We are the default position. On the contrary, its the religious crowd that makes obnoxious, unwarranted claims about reality (and beyond), and then the likes of Mooney et al. come to the rescue and defend them against critics claiming them to be 1) absurd and 2) superfluous (especially by scientific journal such as Nature).

  71. I think I meant to quote something from #67 at the beginning of my previous post.

  72. — And Anthony, yes, I actually do have every right – not necessarily requirement, but right – to dispute such interpretations, just as others have every right to support them and you have every right to argue what sounds like to me as postmodernish-sounding nonjudgementalism. Dan S.

    When you include things like shooting people and burning up school children as examples of actions you’d want to object to ‘a second before’ they happened, you can hardly be surprised when someone figures you’re talking about preemptive force up to and including taking out the person you suspect is going to do it. If that’s not what you meant you should be a bit less dramatic in your choices of examples.

    Like the point about it being too big a risk to let those who hold Harris’ big idea live? Why wouldn’t that be justified under his own doctrine?

    — ‘Militant Atheist’ are not the ones making extraordinary claims. We are the default position. LOC

    I’m becoming more certain that most atheists would disagree with you, as would just about everyone who isn’t an atheist. I’d think most thinking atheists might see the new atheism as an obnoxious dead end with little promise of good and a lot of risk of bad. I’ve spoken with several who do.

    That’s something I’m pretty confident of.

  73. Loc

    Anthony McCarthy:

    I’m becoming more certain that most atheists would disagree with you, as would just about everyone who isn’t an atheist. I’d think most thinking atheists might see the new atheism as an obnoxious dead end with little promise of good and a lot of risk of bad. I’ve spoken with several who do.

    That’s something I’m pretty confident of.

    Thanks for all your anecdotal evidence in support for your claim. I hope your argument is still to come…

  74. Loc, and where would the scientific documentation of your claims of being “the default postions” be?

  75. John Kwok

    @ Loc (@ 71) –

    Well if militant atheists such as yourself, Coyne, Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and Myers are really the “default position”, then you’re in a lot of trouble. Especially when I have heard several prominent philosophers and historians of science like Philip A. Kitcher, Ed Larson, Ronald Numbers and Janet Browne (I heard them speak at several events commemorating the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the original publication of “On the Origin of Species” here in New York City in the past few months) contend that Dawkins and his “flock” aren’t being helpful in explaining why religious people should accept evolution as valid science; instead their behavior has been more like IRA or PLO terrorists aiming rhetorical bombs at the religiously devout, and, paradoxically in their own peculiar ways, being as irrational as delusional creationists emanating from the Dishonesty Institute, Answers in Genesis, Institute for Creation Research, and other organizations of that ilk. I think the frequently cogent, quite rational, comments from the likes of atheists like Genie Scott, Barbara Forrest, and, of course, Chris Mooney are far more useful than the often absurd, quite inane comments, of someone like Jerry Coyne, or especially, PZ Myers.

  76. Bill C.

    @ Wilm:

    Fundamentalists in every arena seem intent on using the internet to turn every subject into a ‘my way or else’ situation. Many people have or are leaving conservative religions, as congregations, denominations and faiths have become defined by their extreme ‘we have the only allowable answer’ idealogy. The same has happened in art and music, and could certainly happen to science as well.

    The nice thing about science, though, is it really does not need people to believe it to be true.

    The cynic in me just wants to smirk and sneer, “Hey, that’s fine, if hurt feelings are so much more important than understanding to the point that people will take their ball and go home – reject science – then awesome. The remaining minority of us who do understand how reality works can go on exploiting that knowledge to our ever-more-exclusive advantage.”

    That’s the sticky thing about “science.” It’s quite far removed from the endeavors of personal taste and expression that constitute religion, art, music or politics. Sorry. Ho hum.

  77. – The nice thing about science, though, is it really does not need people to believe it to be true. Bill C.

    No one can read everything or master the evidence of everything in science.

    Any topic or holding of science that someone has not had the time or ability to go through the argument behind it, could only be accepted on the basis of belief. I’d like you to explain how this isn’t obviously true. And I’m talking about scientists here. I’d like to know how much of the evidence in genetics and the huge range of other specialized disciplines, say, a really fine physicist, would have read before accepting what is said about them in the context of evolution. That is if they even understood some of it. And that’s not to mention the rest of us who believe the science behind them is sound.

    Science rests on a number of beliefs, that the processes of science yield reliable information, one of the foundational ones.

    How much of the literature of science have you mastered, Bill C.? On what basis do you accept those parts of science which you haven’t gone over the evidence and the analysis that comes to those conclusions? Please be very specific in how you could accept what you haven’t mastered except on the basis of belief in something or someone.

  78. Loc

    @75 – Hmmm. If requiring evidence for supernatural claims is not the default position, than we definitely are in trouble. Or, are we to choose one religion’s claims over the others (or deism in your case). You, or other religiously inclined, rely on faith precisely because there is no evidence for support.

    @ 76 – interesting. You wrote nearly 200 words, accused us as behaving “more like IRA or PLO terrorists aiming rhetorical bombs at the religiously devout” and still forgot to entail any rational argument why Mooney et al positions are 1) logical or 2) more politically expedient. I’ll look forward to that post, but in the meantime I’ll remained locked in my ‘dorm’ composing rhetorical napalm to toss in your direction when it’s complete.

  79. Loc

    @75 Actually, I just reread your statement and I’ll take that as conceding the argument. If you’re confused; it’s because I have a invisible lizard performing an exorcism on a purple donkey drinking the new G2 intermittently while giving a speech on the Declaration of Independence. What, you don’t believe me?? It’s not the default position??

  80. Loc, you are a silly. And clearly have got nothing.

  81. Loc

    Ahhhh. Nevermind. I’m done with you.

  82. John Kwok

    @ Loc (@ 79) –

    I have seen polling data – that you can find yourself elsewhere online – indicating that approximately 40% of Britons reject Darwin’s work and evolution as scientific fact. Those historians and philosophers of science I’ve cited in my last post believe that militant atheism as practiced by Dawkins and Hitchens is helping to persuade some religiously devout people that “belief in evolution EQUALS denial of GOD”. Instead of trying to use persuasive logic to appeal to the public, you and your cohorts believe instead in rhetorical flamethrowing. That’s not going to get much accomplished positively IMHO.

  83. Bill C

    @ Anthony –

    That’s all irrelevant, really. My point rests here: “The remaining minority…who do understand how reality works can go on exploiting that knowledge to…ever-more-exclusive advantage. That’s the sticky thing about “science.” It’s quite far removed from the endeavors of personal taste and expression that constitute religion, art, music or politics.”

    In other words, the nice and sticky thing about science is that it works and it’s true.

    I believe in the methods of science, surely. One of those methods is a vigorous attempt to prove any proposition wrong. Could my faith be misplaced, could a human being fail to uphold that tenet? Surely. Could many, many humans over many years? Less surely, but quite possibly. But even so, the nice thing about science is its methods, evidence and conclusions are public and easily accessible, and even better, it changes without compunction (though perhaps with a bit of grumbling) when reality proves its conclusions wrong. That’s what’s so frustrating about skepticism, it’s kind of teleologically immune from criticism – it’s already beat you to the punch.

    Even acknowledging the ephemoral and ever-changing face of so many churches (well they sure do whirl about in their conclusions the way science seems to over time), I still can’t buy into what I find a ludicrous bit of wordplay over “belief” because, again, science works and deals with things we can see, detect and/or test in universal terms. Religions do not.

    And blah blah blah, yes, we can raise the same semantic arguments, but, in my view, and it is a personal view, organizations which congregate exclusively to appreciate human knowledge are no religions at all. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    Perhaps my inclusion of the term “us” was used in hubris, as I am not a science specialist. But that was hardly the context of the comment. The context was – those who are interested in pursuing, appreciating and learning science are in a far, far better position in the twenty-first century than those who are not. So anyone who would throw up their hands on all of it over some harsh language is hurting no one save themselves.

    As I said, Anthony, ho hum.

  84. Bill C. Well you do, actually, believe quite a bit of what you believe about science. Even within someones’ specialty within science they have to accept a lot of what they work with on the basis of belief. Unless someone has mastered the entire range of proofs within the math necessary for their work, they accept what they use on the basis of belief.

    —- ” My point rests here: “The remaining minority…who do understand how reality works can go on exploiting that knowledge to…ever-more-exclusive advantage. Bill C.

    Not in terms of the arguments we’re having here, your failure in understanding that kind of a distinction puts you farther from reality on those.

    I know it’s subtle but that’s exactly the kind of point this discussion hinges on. If you think anyone with a moderately good grasp of theology wouldn’t be able to realize that, many of whom are excellent scientists in their own right, you are too ignorant to get involved.

  85. I think differences of opinion become overestimated when accomodationism is discussed in general terms. How well religious beliefs can be combined and harmonized with scientific knowledge depends on the religion. Christian fundamentalist beliefs are in contradiction with scientific knowledge. Christian deists who interpret the Bible more metaphorically and do not think of the account in Genesis, the virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus, etc. as historical events are in a much better position to harmonize their beliefs with science. Exactly which and how many traditional Christian beliefs can be harmonized with science is probably a matter of debate, but surely when phrased in these terms the difference between accomodationists and non-accomodationists become just a matter of degree?

  86. @ Mel (#56):

    I do, however, disagree that we would want to essentially bottle religious experience to be able to use it without myth. I think you are dismissing myth out of hand…I think human experience would be very cold if we were to do away with myth.

    If I’ve understood your post correctly, we might express it this way: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” (Joan Didion). Would that be about right? If so, I won’t disagree.

    Myths, and the poetry, music, and art based on them could be important to appreciating what it means to be human in an other than physical way. Of course, I’m skeptical that religious myths are essential to that purpose, but I as I said I would never argue that such myths should necessarily be done away with. They’re an important part of our heritage as humans, and in that sense may be able to add something to a more comprehensive appreciation of who we are in relation to the universe.

    Of course, more research in this area may be called for.

    By saying that “we could apply what we’ve learned to harness whatever emotional benefits it may have divorced of its mythological underpinnings,” I was merely referring to the fact that myths are not a method of knowing and understanding truth in the same way that science is, and myths may not be necessary to creating or sustaining how we understand or appreciate ourselves and the universe. That is, we might be able to “cherry pick” the positive aspects of myths, stories, poetry, and so on without attaching mystical significance to them or asserting that myths are an appropriate path to learning about the world; an epistemology comparable to science.

    So, yes. I think we pretty much agree, but I think you said it better.

    Having said all this, in the context of accommodationism, I think it’s a mistake to insist on compatibility simply because learning myths might have some supplemetary or tertiary benefit to us as a species. In other words, science and religion are epistemically incompatible, even if they may complement one another in some, as yet undetermined, respect.

    @ Jon (#56):

    As I said above, context can be important.

    That may be true. As I said, I don’t know if a “real” experience would be comparable to an “artificial” one. Some follow-up questions might be: What if it could be induced without a person knowing about it? What if both types of experiences produced the same results? And what kinds of moral questions does that raise?

    Also, I’m not sure altruism is dependent on feeling good, or that it necessarily needs reinforcement by doing “good works.” I suspect its more subtle than that, because the avoidance of pain is also present. Not just our own personal avoidance, but helping others (such as family, friends, and sometimes total strangers) to avoid it too.

  87. John Kwok

    @ tom w –

    Yours is an excellent assessment, but sadly, one that’s being ignored by Militant Atheists.

  88. @ tom w (#86):

    Exactly which and how many traditional Christian beliefs can be harmonized with science is probably a matter of debate, but surely when phrased in these terms the difference between accomodationists and non-accomodationists become just a matter of degree?

    Harmonization may be possible (I once thought theistic evolution fit nicely with my faith at the time), but even harmonization does not mean compatibility or comparability.

    Religion offers an epistemological approach to learning about the world that simply does not square with that of science. Indeed, even with respect to those eminent scientists of history who were religious, it’s notable that they had to employ a completely separate and more rigorous method to do their work. The two methods, in other words, are not compatible.

    Are they comparable? I don’t think so, and for the same reasons.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean religion needs to be eliminated, as much as some might like it to.

  89. Dave2

    J. C. Samuelson,

    I doubt anyone is saying that religious myths should be “done away with” or “eliminated”. Myths can be charming or inspiring or hilarious or revealing. Who doesn’t like a good myth? The problem is when they are taken seriously, the way religions call upon us to do.

  90. Dave2

    tom w, John Kwok,

    But even something like simple deism can come into conflict with science, just in a different way. For if one posits some grand creative intelligence simply because it’s personally comforting to do so, or because one is struck by the beauty in nature, or whatever, one is violating the epistemic norms constitutive of scientific practice.

    This is the point made by Coyne, et al. when discussing people like Ken Miller, so I think it’s unfair to say that “militant atheists” ignore the different ways and degrees in which religious belief can come into conflict with science.

  91. Do Forrest and Mooney really think that avoiding criticism of theistic evolutionism by atheists would prevent the courts, legislatures, and school boards from siding with the fundies in the future?

  92. Dave2

    Anthony McCarthy,

    I’m not sure what you’re suggesting, but I’m getting suspicious.

    Consider the average commenter’s uninformed trust in the scientific community when it comes to, say, continental drift. Now consider the average Mormon’s trust in the LDS church’s claims concerning the ancestry of Native Americans. Are you suggesting that these are on an equal footing?

    I mean, it looks like you’re equating the most reasonable kind of trust to the least reasonable kind of trust.

  93. John Kwok

    @ Dave2 –

    You may be surprised to know that, when it comes to science, Ken Miller stresses the primacy of science over religion with respect to scientific issues. Indeed, if Jason Rosenhouse is honest about his encounter with Ken Miller in Cincinnati last Thursday during the 9th North American Paleontological Convention, then he will tell those reading his blog that Ken did emphasize this to him. So does Jesuit brother – and distinguished Vatican astronomer and planetary scientist Guy Consolmagno. So does Jerry Coyne’s eminent colleague, a former Dominician monk , notable evolutionary geneticist Francisco J. Ayala. And this is true too of eminent ecologist Michael L. Rosenzweig – a devout Conservative Jew – and countless others who are religiously devout scientists.

    Now I will admit that I agree more with Massimo Pigliucci’s excellent refutation of Ken Miller’s religiously-inspired “weak version” of the anthropic principle than with Ken’s promotion of it (which you can read in the February 2009 entries at Massimo’s “Rationally Speaking” blog), which I am sure, will come to a surprise to many who perceive me as Ken Miller’s “toy poodle” (which is noted over at Jerry Coyne’s blog by one of his enthusiastic sycophants). But though I find an atheist’s (Piglucci) analysis of Miller’s thought acceptable, I don’t quite go anywhere near the risible, often hysterical, commentary I have read written by Jerry Coyne and his favorite “first class mind”, PZ Myers. In attacking Ken Miller, NCSE, World Science Festival, and similar scientists, science advocacy organizations and professional scientific organizations, Coyne, Myers and their fellow militant atheists are demonstrating – and this is quite ironic – that those who are really on the side of rational thought are such thoughtful religiously-devout scientists like those of cited, not these Militant Atheists, whose online behavior etc. more closely resembles those of irrational Xian creationists like Dembski, Ham, Luskin and Nelson.

  94. J.C. Samuelson, philosophers also apply different non-scientific methods in their theorizing. This does not mean that all philosophy is incompatible with science.

    Dave2, we’re not in agreement. There seems to be no compelling reason to posit a grand creative intelligence, but there’s no conflict with science. The epistemic norms of science concern model-building, not metaphysics. Theories that make identical empirical predictions are not distinguished in science. Metaphysics is underdetermined by science and this gives philosophers and religious thinkers a lot of freedom in their theorizing (though philosophical principles may reduce the freedom).

  95. Dave2

    John Kwok,

    I don’t see how any of that addresses the question of whether “militant atheists” can fairly be charged with ignoring the point made by tom w.

    tom w,

    We might actually be in agreement, though obscured by sloppy thinking and writing on my part. For my main point, I did not need to endorse the claim that simple deism can come into conflict with science, or the reasoning often adduced on its behalf. I merely needed to draw attention to it, since that alone suffices to defend “militant atheists” against the charge of ignoring your point. Indeed, I don’t recall having endorsed anything, though upon review it appears I did.

    But I’m of two minds about whether the claim and the reasoning are on the right track. On the one hand, I’m inclined to agree with you that science and its norms are silent on any reality lying beyond any possible broadly empirical detection—in which case even the most gaga bonkers “What the Bleep Do We Know” nonsense can be believed on utterly insane grounds by scientists, all without any strict departure from scientific norms.

    But on the other hand, I do not agree that science remains silent on questions of what really exists (or at least I do not agree with the surely-far-too-authoritative tone with which you deny realism in the philosophy of science). I mean, if a scientist discovers a new planet, but then denies its real existence, this must be deemed extremely psychologically unusual, if not flatly incoherent. Scientific practice certainly seems to be of a piece with a broader realist epistemic practice, where we seek good reasons for holding beliefs about reality, not merely empirically adequate models which have no bearing on our beliefs about reality.

    Indeed, you yourself appear to vacillate between two positions here. The stronger (and less plausible) view is that science says absolutely nothing about reality (it “concern[s] model-building, not metaphysics”). In that case, once a scientist avows the real existence of Neptune, she has stopped doing science—and this is pretty hard to swallow. The weaker (and far more plausible) view is merely that “[m]etaphysics is underdetermined by science”, which can be set aside as undisputed common ground.

    But then, given some sort of realism about scientific practice, there appears to be at least a serious psychological conflict between (i) carefully applying scientific norms in order to uncover truths about reality, and (ii) wildly positing truths about reality with madcap epistemic abandon. If someone goes in for the latter, this rightly raises our suspicions about their facility with the former. If someone eagerly swallows every last thing they see in “What the Bleep Do We Know”, though it is logically possible they might still do excellent scientific work, there is a genuine conflict worth our concern.

    And then, to the extent that religious belief is like that (a separate and important question), we have a genuine conflict on our hands.

  96. @ tom w (#95):

    This does not mean that all philosophy is incompatible with science.

    Of course not, but problems can arise when both science and philosophy (or religion) posit something about the same idea, even if it is indirectly. This is often the case with religion, because most religions make claims that science can address.

  97. John Kwok

    @ Dave2 –

    By mentioning Ken Miller’s beliefs as an example, I am merely trying to demonstrate why the differences defined by the militant atheist crowd should, as tom w, has perceived correctly, should be a matter that is far more nuanced than they themselves would admit.

  98. – Consider the average commenter’s uninformed trust in the scientific community when it comes to, say, continental drift. Now consider the average Mormon’s trust in the LDS church’s claims concerning the ancestry of Native Americans. Are you suggesting that these are on an equal footing? Dave2

    I’d never thought of it, if both are based on no information, I don’t see how you could escape that conclusion. In that case you’d be talking about the person doing the believing and not on what’s being believed.

    Is there a difference in the quality of the belief in, say, continental drift, between someone who has read a large chunk of the published science literature and actually understands it as opposed to someone who watched a ten minute mention of it on some sciency TV show? I’d think so.

    I wasn’t addressing the quality of what’s believed but the fact that no one has mastered the background of every idea they accept as established fact. I’d hate to have to master the parts of the Principia that comes before the 1+1 proposition, especially what happened after it was published.

  99. Dave2, the “militant atheist” remark was not mine. I do suspect that Coyne and Mooney (and the respective camps that agree) overestimate the differences of opinion, but I intended to present it as an observation or a question, not an accusation that something is being ignored. I don’t think there is any tension between my claims about “model-building, not metaphysics” and underdetermination. Even obviously phenomenological scientific models (e.g. the ideal gas law) provide some constraints on metaphysics: whatever else your metaphysical hypotheses say, they better not make other empirical predictions than the successful predictions made by scientific models. I think someone who is creative enough could come up with some alternative empirically equivalent theory according to which Neptune does not exist. But we do not only use science when we evaluate the metaphysical status of Neptune, we also use philosophical principles and the theory that Neptune does not exist would be dismissed on philosophical grounds.

  100. John Kwok

    Dave2 and tom w –

    For the record, I suppose I deserve some credit for the term “militant atheists” as a more accurate description of “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne, to name but a few. All of them regard religion as a ridiculous human activity that deserves eventual extinction. They also are adamant – which is why I refer to them as “militant” – in their demand that, under no circumstances, should science be seen as compatible to religion. However, what they don’t realize is that there are many “theistic evolutionists” and other religi0usly devout scientists who recognize that science must, and should be seen, as having substantial priority over religious faith on issues that pertain directly to science. For example, I have heard this for years from devout Christian and Jewish scientists. This is why these scientists do regard themselves as methodological naturalists, who suspend any religious thinking while they work as scientists. I believe that this is an important distinction that appears to be lost on the likes of Coyne and Myers, especially with their lamentable and risible charges of “accomodationism” aimed at science advocacy and professional scientific organizations like NCSE, NAS and AAAS.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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