Thursday, July 20, 2006

The God Problem

Natalie Angier has a provocative and insightful article published by the Council for Secular Humanism, accusing scientists of hypocrisy and intellectual double-standards over the free-ride they give religion.

In other words, for horoscope fans, the burden of proof is entirely on them, the poor gullible gits; while for the multitudes who believe that, in one way or another, a divine intelligence guides the path of every leaping lepton, there is no demand for evidence, no skepticism to surmount, no need to worry. [...] How can a bench-hazed Ph.D., who might in an afternoon deftly purée a colleague's PowerPoint presentation on the nematode genome into so much fish chow, then go home, read in a two-thousand-year-old chronicle, riddled with internal contradictions, of a meta-Nobel discovery like "Resurrection from the Dead," and say, gee, that sounds convincing? Doesn't the good doctor wonder what the control group looked like?

Angier points out that scientists' silence, even accomodation, to the superstition and magic of "mainstream religion" is understandable as a survival reflex. Even if atheists don't get lynched in the USA (yet), the scientists fear for their jobs and their research grants.

But there is another, rational, reason why some scientists might choose to rip into astrology and Breatharianism while giving a nod and a wink to (say) the Rapture: choose your battles. The US is one of the most religious countries in the world. It is hard enough to get the average American to think naturalistically about everyday things with little emotional importance. But give up little baby Jesus?

They'd sooner give up their guns.

Well, some of their guns. One or two or the smaller calibre handguns. If they don't need them any longer.

Frankly, I don't see that strategy working. For fifty years American scientists have gone out of their way to accomodate mainstream religion, or at least not tackle it head-on. Even the Creationism wars are being fought on the basis that "science says nothing about God" (which is untrue: science says just as much about God as it says about the flying invisible pixies that make the Internet work). And after fifty years of that softly-softly approach, religious fundamentalism is on the rise in the US, and rationalism and naturalism are more and more being ignored, if not actively vilified. The few high-profile aggressively rational atheists like Richard Dawkins actually have people paying attention -- they might not like what they hear, but they listen, and some of them even understand.

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