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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.

The “New Atheism” 16 December 2007

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Evolution, Literature, Religion, Science.
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Yesterday I listened to a podcast interview with Richard Dawkins, wherein, among other things, he addressed the notion of the “new atheism” and some of the criticisms leveled at the “movement” in the media. A friend of mine this morning made a comment that, in combination with the Dawkins interview, pushed my buttons. Here’s my cranky response:

I’ve also been following the debates about the so-called “New Atheism” for the past few years. Here’s a couple things I am observing:

1) There’s no such thing as “new atheism.” This was a term/idea made up by the media and/or the religionists as a way to deflect away from the actual arguments being made. Nothing about what they are saying hasn’t been said and written for nearly the past 150 years (or 400 if you count Spinoza and the Dutch enlightenment). [sarcasm]Instead, these are arguments finally taken seriously by the public, so the best answer is to stomp your feet and insist that religion is pretty or that the “new atheists” just don’t get it. Oh yeah, and the new atheists are sinister and evil, they want your children and they’ll destroy civilization![/sarcasm]

2) There is no political agenda to eradicate religion from humanity. That is absurd hyperbole coming from religious apologists and doesn’t match the arguments these authors/thinkers are actually making. In fact, all three of the big names (Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins) argue that religiosity is in some way natural to human psyches. Harris, the most anti-religion in general, argues mostly about specific beliefs and points people to the effect their beliefs have in the social realm. His book is blatantly spiritual, in fact. So is Dawkins. Dennett’s not as much, but he’s a cranky philosopher.

3) We are in a historical moment when there is obviously a cultural thirst for this kind of argument, otherwise, none of these books would’ve sold millions of copies. Most likely this is coming from our growing awareness in America of the power of religion in the public sphere a la Christian Right, and those who are dying for 77 white raisins, er, virgins after blowing themselves to smithereens. What has changed is that we are *finally* as a society having a public and open discussion about what is irrational in religion and its effects. And rather than being shouted down, arrested, or burned at the stake, the voices for reason are actually being heard and taken seriously on a wide scale. That has never happened before in American (or even European) history.

4) The so-called “new atheists” aren’t going door to door asking people to be saved or else burn in hell; they aren’t putting tracts in people’s mail box or accosting them in airports; they aren’t organizing mass proselytizing campaigns. That’s what religionists do. They *are* making rational arguments and expecting reasoned responses. Wait a minute…what’s that? Chirping crickets?