I will make any and all biases clear at the outset. I am an atheist. I do not believe in the existence of any kind of deity. I’m not saying it’s impossible, just that there needs to be irrefutable evidence of such a being before I change my mind.
I‘ve been watching the rather excellent new television series Cosmos, A Spacetime Odyssey, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. However, some creationists have been kicking up a stink that their “equally valid scientific theories” aren’t presented on the show. It seems that creationists are fighting the culture wars between science and faith, an argument I always imagined was settled long ago in favour of science and the gathering of evidence.
This is a seriously difficult topic to write about, because it’s one of those topics that infuriates, annoys, and tribalises like very few other debates. Well…apart from Holden/GM versus Ford or Drumstick versus Cornetto. But, here goes.
But you say: he’s an atheist!
Most modern day religions teach the same fundamental idea: don’t be a jerk.
When I was much younger, more impressionable and much less wise (basically, before I got married), I went to a religious school. There, we learned about The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit, the oral teachings of Christianity and even the history of the religion itself. The school also taught science, maths and all the other normal school subjects. Never was there any preaching about joining the flock. Ironically, the only encouragement to join the flock I’ve ever experienced is when I was in a government school, later on my academic career.
Now, I thought many of the principles of Christianity, the concept of humility, being nice to one another, don’t kill people, et cetera, et cetera, were marvelous concepts. As guiding principles for a young child, they formed the basis of many of the moral choices I have made from youth to adulthood. But these guiding principles, taught through parables and writings are not singular to any religion. Most modern day religions teach the same fundamental idea: don’t be a jerk.
As I said, I also went to a government school, where it was secular, but also included a broad church of students from all sorts of social and economic backgrounds. We didn’t learn about religion there, but we could choose what we wanted to learn and nobody ever judged anyone else for their beliefs.
I like asking the questions of “why” and “how”.
None of those experiences however, made me believe in a supreme, omnipotent being. I never have, and unless there is some provable evidence to convince me otherwise, I never will.
Why I don’t believe
The answer, in one short, simple response? Lack of evidence. Yes, I am a man of science and critical thinking, and I like asking the questions of “why” and “how”. Ultimately, by challenging the unknown and exercising our curiosity, by experimentation and passing down knowledge, humanity has pulled itself out of flame lit caves and into concrete towers glowing with electric lights.
It would be fine if the claims of religion were testable and empirical, measurable evidence could be found for a lot of things claimed by religion, especially the space magic parts. But, alas the space magic parts can’t be tested. Not just by scientists, but normal people, who need to be convinced otherwise. It’s fine to convince yourself that there’s someone or something watching over you in your own mind, but you’d be very hard pressed to isolate cases where that was in any way useful to you.
There is, in my mind, a cognitive dissonance from some quarters, resulting in the selective acceptance of scientific output. The problem is, science is not a pick-you-own adventure where you can choose to accept one portion as fact, and another as fiction. Rejecting reality and substituting your own is generally seen as a measure of insanity. The three major branches of science; biology, chemistry and physics are all interrelated and most of the knowledge from each branch rely on fundamental concepts from other branches in order to have been hypothesised, experimented on and the hypothesis confirmed or found to be baseless.
Times have changed and so have society and knowledge.
There are paradoxical and selective acceptances of science in both the modern day setting and in history. Look at Clair Patterson’s fight against lead additives in paint and petrol. Knowledge of lead’s toxic effects on life extends to Ancient Rome, yet all the world’s scientific evidence took years to persuade people that leaded petrol was a bad idea. It’s universally accepted that we have such an understanding of genetics and the chemistry of life, built upon amino-acids, proteins and DNA, that we can alter the genetic makeup of our crops safely for desired properties. Yet, there are people out there who will not accept evolution as the method by which individual species have accrued their unique properties on Earth, despite all of the known and understood evidence uncovered in fossil records.
Recently, I’ve argued against people who believed that evolution is a matter of “belief” due to a lack of “observable evidence” and therefore, was a lot like religion. That’s akin to saying that a yurt is a lot like the Empire State Building because they’re both on the ground. Faith in a deity, has, in historical situations, blocked scientific and social progress in various nations. Take, for example, the Roman Catholic church’s treatment of Galileo, who argued that the Earth was not the centre of the universe using observable and empirical evidence. Thankfully, people are not so easily cowed when facts and evidence are on their side.
When will the cows come home?
The biggest oddity resulting from the debate over science and religion is that not many people argue for a complete abolition of religion. Science is for the pursuit of knowledge of the universe. Yes, it will likely contradict (and has already contradicted) accepted “facts” of religion. Ultimately, all religious texts are written and rewritten by humans with (comparatively) little knowledge of how the universe functioned at the time of drafting and compilation. But what’s the big deal about that, given the context and limitation in which the book was written?
Times have changed and so have society and the way we increase our knowledge. We’re no longer bound by the limitations of fear of that which we don’t understand. We embrace that now, we daydream about the possibilities and wonders the unimaginable can bring to us. We’ve been fascinated by the adventures of Captains Kirk and Picard in Star Trek, the constant fight between good and evil in Star Wars, the politics and drama of Babylon Five. Even the tentative steps we’ve taken with robotic spacecraft to explore our Solar System has stolen people’s imaginations, run with it, and molded it into creativity and inspiration.
My overarching opinion is that whether our universe is the result of fortune or a whim of some long forgotten being, supernatural or not, the fundamental laws and boundaries of our universe, our home, are there for us to discover, understand and even exploit. This is, in many ways, the cold and calculating route of progress. Religion, through the teachings and experiences of people through the ages, could be a good moral guide, setting social boundaries to acceptance to temper the enthusiasm of uncontrolled advance. However, religion should never be the basis of stopping or questioning the discovery of new information or understanding of the universe.