Let Us Now Lift Our Voices

If you haven’t noticed, there are a growing number of scientists, authors, and other thinking sorts who have decided to stand up in public and question the enormous influence that religion still exerts in 21st-century affairs. Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, Sam Harris, and, of course, Richard Dawkins are leading the charge, but others are growing bolder as well, and are adding their intelligent and articulate voices to the gathering chorus. One of these is Natalie Angier, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her science writing at the New York Times, and author of several outstanding books.

I encourage readers to take a look at two recent essays of hers. The first, from the fascinating website Edge.org, is an article about her frustration with the kid-gloves approach many scientists take towards organized religion. Angier writes:

In the course of reporting a book on the scientific canon and pestering hundreds of researchers at the nation’s great universities about what they see as the essential vitamins and minerals of literacy in their particular disciplines, I have been hammered into a kind of twinkle-eyed cartoon coma by one recurring message. Whether they are biologists, geologists, physicists, chemists, astronomers, or engineers, virtually all my sources topped their list of what they wish people understood about science with a plug for Darwin’s dandy idea. Would you please tell the public, they implored, that evolution is for real? Would you please explain that the evidence for it is overwhelming and that an appreciation of evolution serves as the bedrock of our understanding of all life on this planet?

In other words, the scientists wanted me to do my bit to help fix the terrible little statistic they keep hearing about, the one indicating that many more Americans believe in angels, devils, and poltergeists than in evolution. According to recent polls, about 82 percent are convinced of the reality of heaven (and 63 percent think they’re headed there after death); 51 percent believe in ghosts; but only 28 percent are swayed by the theory of evolution.

Scientists think this is terrible—the public’s bizarre underappreciation of one of science’s great and unshakable discoveries, how we and all we see came to be—and they’re right. Yet I can’t help feeling tetchy about the limits most of them put on their complaints. You see, they want to augment this particular figure—the number of people who believe in evolution—without bothering to confront a few other salient statistics that pollsters have revealed about America’s religious cosmogony. Few scientists, for example, worry about the 77 percent of Americans who insist that Jesus was born to a virgin, an act of parthenogenesis that defies everything we know about mammalian genetics and reproduction. Nor do the researchers wring their hands over the 80 percent who believe in the resurrection of Jesus, the laws of thermodynamics be damned. …

The second piece is Angier’s assessment, for the New York Times Book Review, of Sam Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. Her review begins:

When I was 8 years old, my family was in a terrible car accident, and my older brother almost died. The next night, as I lay scared and sleepless on my paternal grandmother’s living-room couch, she softly explained to me who was to blame. Not my father’s Aunt Estelle, a dour, aging wild woman and devout Baptist, who, as usual, was driving recklessly fast. No, the reason Estelle’s station wagon flipped over and Joe was thrown out the back window was this: my father had stopped going to church the previous year, and God was very, very angry.

Dear old Grandma June. A compelling lack of evidence for any sort of Higher Power may have steered my mind toward atheism, but she put the heathen in my heart.

It’s not often that I see my florid strain of atheism expressed in any document this side of the Seine, but ‘’The End of Faith’’ articulates the dangers and absurdities of organized religion so fiercely and so fearlessly that I felt relieved as I read it, vindicated, almost personally understood. Sam Harris presents major religious systems like Judaism, Christianity and Islam as forms of socially sanctioned lunacy, their fundamental tenets and rituals irrational, archaic and, important when it comes to matters of humanity’s long-term survival, mutually incompatible. A doctoral candidate in neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles, Harris writes what a sizable number of us think, but few are willing to say in contemporary America: ‘’We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there is no rational justification. When their beliefs are extremely common, we call them ‘religious’; otherwise, they are likely to be called ‘mad,’ ‘psychotic’ or ‘delusional.’ ‘’ To cite but one example: ‘’Jesus Christ—who, as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death and rose bodily into the heavens—can now be eaten in the form of a cracker. A few Latin words spoken over your favorite Burgundy, and you can drink his blood as well. Is there any doubt that a lone subscriber to these beliefs would be considered mad?’’ The danger of religious faith, he continues, ‘’is that it allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy.’’

I have often made clear, in these pages, that my position on religious matters is one of skeptical agnosticism. I am well enough aware of the limits of our understanding, and of the philosophical arguments defending theism, not to claim that I have certain knowledge of the unproveable nonexistence of “God”; to me that is a kind of faith as well. But there is so much that is so contradictory, both within the teachings of the major religions as well as between them, and so much in those dogmas that is simply, perspicuously wrong, that my sympathies are very strongly behind this coalition of doubters as they array themselves against the creationists, Christian fundamentalists, and Biblical literalists who wield such wide and pernicious anti-scientific influence in America, and, of course, against those adherents of a slightly more recent mythology who are, in the defense of their medieval faith, committed to our very destruction.

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  1. Bill says

    But the problem is that in attacking specific forms of religion there is the tendency to attempt to destroy all religion with nothing to replace it. There is much in religious belief that does not need Biblical literalism to support it. Religion deals with issues that science has no place in–ethics, interpersonal relationships, Mankind’s relationship with God. To accept Biblical explanations of the world, where they are in conflict with established science, as literal truth is to commit a large error, but that does not of itself negate the value of religion. It is analogous to an ad hominim argument–don’t listen to anything Charlie says, he is a liberal (or conservative), don’t accept anything that religion says because it is wrong about established scientific facts and theories.

    Posted December 4, 2006 at 3:56 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Bill, and thanks as always for visiting.

    Of course, many of these folks would say that to destroy all religion with nothing to replace it would be just fine — in fact it is exactly what they would like to see happen — as we should, by now, be grown-up enough that we can wean ourselves from it. Even an agnostic like me can behave ethically, manage interpersonal relationships, etc., without religion, and as for Mankind’s “relationship” with God, well, why do we feel the need to have an imaginary friend in the first place?

    The point is that whatever social benefits religion offers we ought to learn to achieve in other ways, and as for the rest, good riddance.

    As for the ad-hominem argument, I would characterize the view of someone like Dawkins as being that religion (Charlie) is wrong about the science, so we certainly shouldn’t trust it there, and as for everything else, what reason do we have to believe any of that either?

    Posted December 4, 2006 at 4:51 pm | Permalink
  3. bob koepp says

    Well, as someone firmly in the darwinian camp, I think it only prudent to note that the vast majority of people who profess belief in evolution by natural selection have little to no idea what they’re talking about — quite like the vast majority of religionists. When opposing camps, neither of which have “done their homework,” want me to join in their game of abuse, I want to be evenhanded. So I say “a pox on both their houses.”

    Posted December 4, 2006 at 5:50 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Welcome back, and thanks for joining in.

    Well, you certainly can’t accuse Angier, Dawkins et al. of not doing their homework when it comes to evolutionary theory (nor me, I hope!).

    It’s certainly true – I’ve tried this myself in conversations with the faithful – that religious folks often can’t offer a very clear summary of exactly what it is they say they believe in (and can get a bit testy about that). Dennett quite rightly points out that the “belief in belief” is more common than real belief itself.

    I agree that the debate gets a bit shrill at times, but the stakes are not low.

    Posted December 4, 2006 at 6:13 pm | Permalink
  5. bob koepp says

    Fear not, Malcolm; I know that you’ve grappled with the intricacies of evolutionary theory. But I’ll suggest that you try an experiment — ask among the non-specialist darwinian faithful for a clear summary of what exactly they believe regarding evolution. I think I’m quite safe saying that the vast majority have little to no idea what they’re talking about. What one believes does matter, of course, but if one’s reasons for believing (whatever) are shoddy, well, getting the “right” answer doesn’t count for much.

    Posted December 4, 2006 at 8:12 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    I imagine you are quite right about that, Bob. As was said by, I believe, either Gurdjieff or his disciple Ouspensky:

    “A large proportion of our ordinary knowledge exists only in imagination.”

    I recall a while back a reporter canvassed a large number of people in government, including elected representatives and State Department staff – asking them if they could explain the differences between Sunnis and Shi’ites, which group the majority of people in Iran belonged to, and similar questions, with truly depressing results.

    I’ll say this, though, I’d rather have the majority of Americans believing in the truth of Darwin’s theory, even if they don’t understand it, than the present situation. By a long shot. If you are going to have ignorant beliefs, it’s still better to believe in what actually happens to be true.

    Posted December 4, 2006 at 8:34 pm | Permalink