an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘science v religion

the strange concept of faith and the basic concept of morality

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when did Jesus become so Western European?

The idea, therefore, that religious faith is somehow a sacred human convention – distinguished, as it is, both by the extravagance of its claims and the paucity of its evidence – is really too great a monstrosity to be appreciated in all its glory.

Sam Harris, The end of faith

Canto: Writing about religion and atheism, belief and unbelief, appears to have become unfashionable recently, after a spate of atheist tomes in the early-mid 2000s, which certainly had an impact. Christianity continues to decline, and we try to ignore the other religions as best we can. But with the current kerfuffle about Amy Coney Barrett, a woman described as being ‘of deep faith’ possibly being raised to the US Supreme Court, it seems to me that religion still has the power to shape the law in some countries that we would hope should know better.

Jacinta: Yes, we’ve long expressed the view that this term ‘faith’ has a strange cachet about it that doesn’t really stand up well to scrutiny – to put it mildly. Just considering the judeo-christian version, the claims, as Sam Harris wrote, are extravagant indeed. That the world – rarely very clearly defined  – was made by a single god, of whose essence and world-creating abilities we can have no understanding. We can only speculate, haplessly and hopelessly, as to why he created this world (he isn’t really male but we have to use some pronoun after all), and what his purpose is for us, though there are supposedly clues in a collection of writings over many centuries, which are said to have been inspired by him. Apparently, though, we are his special creation, ordered to go forth, multiply and subdue the earth and all that crawls upon it, presumably for our needs and purposes (Genesis 1:28). This set of beliefs, and of course there are many more, though they may vary between individuals, doesn’t fit well with what we know about the formation of this planet, its relation to the universe, and the story of human evolution, so thoroughly verified by genetics, which we learned about as a result of Darwin and Wallace’s theory of natural selection from random variation. 

Canto: Yes, the story of this creator-god and the creation story supposedly written by the god’s human agents some 2,600 years ago or so, is in no way compatible with what we’ve learned about the 3 billion-plus years of life on this planet and the few hundred thousand years of existence of our Homo sapiens ancestors. And yet belief in the existence of this creator-god still persists in the minds of otherwise highly intelligent people, including many of our primary makers and interpreters of law.

Jacinta: Especially in the USA – exceptional, as we’ve often complained, only in its religiosity and its jingoism. Which brings us back to Amy Coney Barrett, who is a ‘devout Catholic’. I think the word ‘devout’, like ‘faith’ and ‘sacred’, deserves scrutiny. An article in The Nation about her carries this sub-heading: ‘Her Catholicism is irrelevant. The worldview of the fringe right-wing sect she has grown up in definitely isn’t.’ This raises my ire. I know nothing of this fringe right-wing sect but I know plenty about Catholicism. The Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church is, in its hierarchy, the most profoundly patriarchal, misogynistic and homophobic organisation in the ‘western world’ – the world outside Islam and Hinduism. 

Canto: Well this fringe sect might be even worse, but granted the Catholic church has far greater reach. And Barrett will be the fifth Catholic on the court if promoted. Catholics represent about 22% of the US population. Interestingly, according to recent Pew Research, some 65% of Americans describe themselves as Christian, down from 77% only ten years ago, so we’re seeing big changes in our lifetime, though the political and judicial powers are at least a generation behind the trend. 

Jacinta: So let’s talk about faith and its untouchable nature. In some respects it’s like loyalty, as in keeping faith with the church, or our ancestors. The first type of religion was undoubtedly a form of animism – the wind, the sun, the rain, the ocean, these were moving, changeable elements which moved in mysterious ways, sometimes destructively, sometimes beneficially for humans. In our need to control our world we decided we needed to be on the side of these forces, to be loyal to them, bestowing gifts, sacrifices, bowing down. And when the sun shone mildly upon us, when the rain nourished our crops, it was because we were keeping faith with these godlike forces. But perhaps other less visible forces were operating, spreading sicknesses, killing our newborns – and so we created more abstract deities or forces, perhaps associated with places of danger or disease – the forest, the mountains, perhaps a particular lake or swamp. 

Canto: Yes, you’re talking about a pre-scientific era. Gods or supernatural entities – sprites or goblins – a thousand different terms used in a thousand different languages – these were explanations for unforeseen and unexpected events. And so you had to keep in with them, keep faith with them, through obeisance, sacrifices and the like. 

Jacinta: Gods and spirits as explanations – bad explanations. I believe that was what David Deutsch was on about in The beginning of infinity. I also like the idea of gods as memes. For example, I was sent to Sunday School at about 7 or 8 where I learned about the judeo-christian god from a guy in a Salvation Army uniform. He stood out the front and passed this story, this version of a god – a meme, essentially – to me and others. I was hearing it for the first time, and of course it passed, like any other meme, though my ‘interpretive apparatus’, my 7-year-old brain, and that’s how religion spreads, it seems to me. A universal message of sorts, individually interpreted, like many memes. But when this meme of a single god who made the world specially for us, etc etc, starts to fall apart as an explanation of anything – and this has been happening since the spread of far better explanations from at least the 17th century’s scientific enlightenment – the importance of faith has been emphasised to keep it all together. I think you’ll find that ‘faith’ was a very rare term in the millenium or so of medieval Christendom. It wasn’t faith, then, it was just the truth. Faith is like an enfeebled offspring of that truth. 

Canto: And what about ‘deep faith’, is that just more enfeebled? 

Jacinta: Stubbornly enfeebled perhaps. Actually, it’s probably more recent than the 17th or 18th centuries – it’s more of a 20th century concept, and it has gathered around it a kind of sacred aura, almost as a bulwark against the scientific age – which of course is ‘spiritually empty’. 

Canto: Thank god. But I think that even believers are cognisant that ‘faith’ has a dodginess about it. I recall years ago John Polkinghorne, the British physicist and theologian, expressing uneasiness with the word, and suggesting maybe ‘hope’ should be substituted. I suspect he regretted saying that – it surely weakens the religious position quite a bit. Then again, it seems more honest. 

Jacinta: Yes, and somehow more human. Many of us have hoped that this earthly existence isn’t all there is – this brief candle. And some, like the late George Harrison, have been entirely matter-of-fact about death being part of the eternal journey, though whether this was bravado or not we’ll never know.

Canto: We can also put our faith in the multiverse – an infinite series of universes in which we live longer, have better sex, make far more money…

Jacinta: Or die of an excruciatingly painful wasting disease… I’m not convinced by that one, whatever the maths says. Though it certainly is fascinating where current problems in physical theory can lead us. But to return to faith – it is what religion is about. The faith, or hope, that human life is special, that we are being looked after, watched over, judged. Gods are, I believe, integral to religion. It could be one, or many. They could be omnipotent, or fallible. They could be benevolent, or vindictive. But they must be interested, even obsessed, by us. That’s why I don’t think ancient philosophies like Buddhism, Taoism or Confucianism are religions, however ‘spiritual’ their teachings seem to be. Religions are unthinkable without gods. 

Canto: Yes, and religion doesn’t deal with the moral sphere, as Stephen Jay Gould used to think. Or rather, it might be moral, but it’s really about the morality of the god, or gods, and trying to second-guess it. Why have we been punished by bad weather? Because the god disapproves of something we’ve done. We need to change our behaviour as well as heaping praise upon the god for telling us about our wrong-doing and trying to correct us. So we obsess over the gods’ obsession with us, and round and round it goes, never getting to an answer about these inscrutable beings. Meanwhile real morality is about how we can thrive as the most socially complex, socially constructed mammalian species on the planet, and we’ve been engaging in that quest and that process since our beginnings. Trying to shed these imaginary gods and our notion of our specialness in their eyes is an important part of the process, I think. Science has discovered, really quite recently, our relatedness to every other species on the planet – and even more recently, how our behaviour is threatening so many of those species, as well as the less lucky members of our own species. That’s where we should be focussing our moral lens.  

Written by stewart henderson

October 15, 2020 at 9:15 pm

revisiting that old chestnut, the separate spheres of science and religion

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In any case, a most excellent book

In any case, a most excellent book

It always surprises me when I hear scientists who are otherwise extremely stimulating and admirable taking up the old S J Gouldian position on religion. I have in mind here V S Ramachandran, in his recent book The tell-tale brain:

When I make remarks of this nature about God… I do not wish to imply that God doesn’t exist; the fact that some patients develop such delusions doesn’t disprove God – certainly not the abstract God of Spinoza or Shankara [an Indian mystic philosopher of the eighth century]. Science has to remain silent on such matters. I would argue, like Erwin Schrodinger and Stephen Jay Gould, that science and religion (in the nondoctrinaire philosophical sense) belong to different realms of discourse and one cannot negate the other.

Mmmm. Always a bit of a problem when science is told what it ‘has to’ do. Or is it just me that doesn’t like being told that? I do, though, take Ramachandran’s point that science has nothing directly to say about the supernatural, the realm of the ‘non-evidential’. To say that there’s no evidence for the non-evidential seems rather beside the point. And yet…

The whole point of religion is supernatural agency, and this, it seems to me, involves these other-worldly agents acting in this world; answering prayers, performing miracles and so forth. After all, a god who does nothing is, arguably, not worth worshipping. Worshipping a god is, it seems to me, a quid pro quo sort of thing, though this is rarely made explicit. We expect something from these gods, they made us for a purpose, hence their obsession with us, their fatal flaw, it might seem. I’m talking about monotheistic gods of course, the ones without siblings or goddy communities to distract them from being our eternal lords and masters.

How these issues can be claimed to belong to different orders of discourse is beyond me. To me, as I’ve written, science is born of relentless questioning, with two aspects, curiosity and scepticism. And one of the biggest questions, obviously, is – how did we come to be here? It’s a question that science relentlessly explores – the origin of life, the origin of matter, the origin of universal laws and forces. It’s also a question that religion, particularly monotheistic religion, purports to answer. The answer being, a deity is responsible. A deity far too complex and ineffable for us to be capable of understanding or even beginning to explore.

I don’t see any difficulty in treating this as a theory, or more accurately a hypothesis, like any other, to be treated with the same sceptico-curious questioning as any other claim about our world and our experience.

I note that Ramachandran isolates religion ‘in the nondoctrinaire philosophical sense’ as the only religious ‘type’ that’s beyond the realm of scientific inquiry. Or perhaps he means beyond scientific proof, as I’m sure he agrees that the areas and pathways of the brain associated with religious or spiritual feeling are well worth probing. In fact, quite a bit of headway has been made in recent years in neurophysiology and in experimental psychology, in teasing out the forces contributing to religious belief. So such belief does fall within the scientific ‘realm of discourse’ or purview. When I first encountered the concept of a god in Sunday School as a seven or eight year old, the first thing that came to me was a whole heap of questions. Questions in which, as always, you can’t disentangle curiosity from scepticism. Who? What? Where? Says who? Can you really be serious? What are you getting out of this? How can this idea be possible? Where did it come from? Why is he male? What do you mean that he’s our father – isn’t one more than enough?

I believe these to be scientific questions, but then maybe I have a broader definition of science than most. I certainly hope so. And maybe these questions can’t negate gods, or belief in them, but they can certainly make it hot for this whole bizarro world of ‘faith’.

The other side of Ramachandran’s argument, though, I certainly agree with. Whatever religious discourse is, it has no hope of negating science.

Written by stewart henderson

January 31, 2013 at 6:08 pm