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Science as “Faith-based”? (The “New Atheism”, cont.) 20 December 2007

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Commentary, Islam, Judaism, Religion, Science, Social Sciences.
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In a comment on The New Atheism thread, Compassioninpolitics wrote:

Interesting concerns. I see a couple flaws with new-atheism that have yet to be answered by anyone. Hitchens et al (aka the new atheists) use hyperbole, poisoning the well, and stereotype to prove their points.

I agree about Hitchen’s rhetorical tactics, but I don’t find this to be true of Dennett, Dawkins, or not even Harris. On the other hand, as Hitchens speaks and prods and provokes with his usual bombast and disdain for those who disagree with him, he is still making arguments against religious belief, and the arguments he makes go unanswered. This is perhaps the biggest weakness in Hitchens’ style in general, that it forecloses responses by demonstrating an unwillingness to engage from the outset.

Where I usually have some sympathy with religionists in this debate is that as a social scientist, I see religion as far more complex than a mere “force for evil” in the world (and here Harris joins Hitchens, in my opinion). Claims of that nature make me roll my eyes, since religion has multiple and contradictory effects, ranging from mass murder to self-sacrifice for strangers. So reducing religion to its negative effects without at the very least acknowledging the diversity of effects and its complexity is intellectually problematic, for me. However, in the world we live in today, it is also understandable that we are focusing on the problematic, anti-democratic, and murderous effects of religion, as those are the aspects that are causing very real social problems, from Gujarat to a field in Pennsylvania.

In terms of human reason, I see the worst effect of religion being that it provides a world view that allows people to react to difficult situations out of habit. It releases adherents from moral responsibility because they already know the “truth”. That makes religion particularly dangerous in the interdependent, plural world we live in today.

Compassioninpolitics continues:

Additionally, they fail to account for the fact that their assumptions about truth are wedded to a narrow notion of science, which is itself a faith based system which fails to include all forms of truth.

What is the “broader” view of science that has to be integrated into atheism’s view? I can’t really address that concern until I know exactly what it is.

More problematic is the notion that science is some kind of ‘faith-based initiative.’ I hear this all the time from defensive religionists, but the only way you can say that science is ‘faith-based’ is to make the definition of faith so mushy and general as to no longer hold any analytic usefulness as a category. But it seems to me that faith in religious contexts means, in general, a belief that something is true that cannot be proven to be true. Scientific method isn’t “true” in a “general principles” kind of way, but it has been proven “true” in an instrumental way over and over again: people believe in the method because it works. That seems strikingly different from faith that Jesus Saves or that Allah will greet you in paradise or that Rama will guide.

[As a side note, here’s where religion adopts (without irony) the language of postmodernism to defend itself: You can’t prove anything is true, so all truth claims are equal. You see, science is just like religion! Utter nonsense, perpetrated by, unfortunately, my colleagues in so-called “science studies”.]

Whereas religionists have faith in the supernatural (especially theistic religions), what exactly do scientists have faith in? The closest thing I can think of is faith in a method, the scientific method.

But that breaks down for me immediately because, as I said above, having faith in the scientific method is not qualitatively, affectively, nor empirically the same thing that religionists mean by their faith at all. Whereas religionist faith-based thinking moves forward by beginning with unprovable axiomatic principles by which all other claims are measured (e.g., God exists), science has no axiomatic principles, only a method. Whereas religion requires group agreement (think: religion as a social phenomenon), science requires group mutual-critique and competition as a social phenomenon. Whereas religion claims Universal and Timeless Truth, science insists on contingency and the fallibility of all claims, which require observable evidence and rational analysis that don’t resort to unprovable a prioris, circular logic, or infallibility.

I can only conclude that science is a faith-based system in a sense of the word that robs it of any meaningful use in describing anything.

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