“Our belief [atheistic] is not belief. Our principles are not faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason.” ~Christopher Hitchens
When I first read Christopher Hitchens’ book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, I realized he and I had something in common. Hitchens’ grade school teacher, when he was approximately nine years old, told him that God made the grass and trees green because it is is "restful" to our eyes (p. 2). Neither Christopher nor I had heard of the Argument from Design at that age, but my fourth grade teacher made a similar assessment about the nature of reality. She asked us why the rivers, ponds, creeks, and streams around eastern Kentucky—the planet’s oceans for that matter—didn’t overtake the beautiful dry land we inhabited. Several of us began thumbing through our science books for the answer to no avail. Lo and behold—and conveniently I might add—as the wife of a fundamentalist preacher, she found the answer in her ever-present King James Bible, which she displayed proudly on her desk. She read the “correct” answer aloud in class from Genesis 1:9—“And God said, ‘Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.’” Hitchens described his reaction to his teacher’s statement as “appalled” and “embarrassed.” I could only describe mine at that time as “skeptical.” But nevertheless, that (among many other proclamations) set Hitch and me on a journey—a journey to separate fact from folly, truth from falsity, and reality from superstition.
In the debate concerning the nature of reality, it’s hard to tell whether we’re progressing or regressing. It seems to depend on whom you ask, and with whom one is debating. In a recent Gallop Poll (2012), nearly one-in-three (30%) of Americans (not just Christians—all Americans) believe the Bible is the literal word of God. 47% of Christians believe reading Bible stories allegorically or metaphorically “waters down” the meaning—therefore, they interpret the stories literally. Biblical literalism asserts a 6,000 old earth created in six days, talking snakes, global floods, miracles, virgin birth, burning bushes that speak, and Jews rising from the dead, just to name a few. This type of thinking turns the animated prime-time television sitcom, The Flintstones, into a documentary. Fantastic and unfathomable as these scientific and historical claims may seem to some, they are accepted as reality by 47% of Christians. “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” seems to be the final word. In the religion vs. science debate, most religions make claims about not only the supernatural, e.g., gods, angels, demons, afterlife, magic, etc., it makes claims about the natural world as well, or more specifically, how supernatural beings intervene in the natural world. Whether gods make grass green to please our eyes or keep earth’s waters in its prospective boundaries (tsunamis and floods notwithstanding), we seem forced to ask, given these empirical claims about the natural world, if science is compatible with religion. But I would argue there are a few more questions to ask before we get to compatibility, e.g., which god, which religion, and which subset of that religion is the “true” religion—the one from which we must inquire about this compatibility? Given these complications and complete absence of empirical evidence for gods, I don’t think the debate requires any serious thought to begin with. But let me digress.
Before we even start talking about whether religion is compatible with science, one must first inquire which god of which religion, and the nature or definition of the particular god within that particular brand of religion. Usually, questions of whether science is compatible with religion make the assumption that it’s directed towards the Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. This is an extremely small sample of gods and religions from which to choose, all of which have one shred of evidence for their existence. The Hindus notwithstanding and since recorded history, man has invented thousands upon thousands of gods. This doesn’t even take into consideration all the gods man didn’t have the means to document. If we’re going to talk about science/religion compatibility, we should look at the entire spectrum of gods and religions. When we pull back and take a broader look, it’s easy too see how ridiculous the question is to start with. In Christianity alone, there are approximately 41,000 different brands that interpret the “Word of God” differently (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2011). If we start from this perspective, the thought of religion being compatible with anything or have any authority regarding meaning much less nature seems absurd. Of course, running 3,000 – 5,000 gods through the science vs. religion test would an arduous undertaking at this time, but it’s prudent to keep those numbers in mind when we narrow the question down to two or three gods—depending on who’s counting.
First of all, religion isn’t compatible with religion. Alvin Plantinga, co-author of Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? in his very first paragraph, notes that his detractors are acutely aware of this fact (p. 1). Theists conveniently use various interpretations of “holy books” depending on the specific purpose or preference, e.g., proselyting, raising money, subjugating, or debating. When theists proselytize, gods becomes undeniable, unstoppable, all-powerful, yet invisible force in the cosmos—a personal God that is ready to bless or smite—depending on its capricious mood. Alternatively, gods get conceptually mysterious and ineffable during academic debates, moving way out into the cosmos as an unmoved mover or deep into the inner workings of quantum mechanics, which is a good place for a god to hide because the late Nobel Laureate in physics Richard Feynman reportedly said, “I think it’s safe to say that no one understands quantum mechanics.” Mysterious gods always hide in mysterious places. When humanity thought the world was flat and the earth was the center of the universe, we were mystified (if not terrified) of weather. Gods hid in the thunder and lighting, on top of mountains, and in the stormy seas. As sciences keeps blowing all these gods' cover, hidden places are getting harder to come by. Presently, in more “sophisticated” circles, gods are hiding deep in the rhetoric of cosmological arguments as well as tinkering with the evolutionary process when no one was looking. Those versions of God play well on debate stages, but with gods or “unmoved movers” in hiding, the deistic version of God is contrary to nearly half the nation’s idea of a personal God, one who responds to petitionary prayer. Most Americans believe in a personal god just like the one in the Rolling Stones’ song Faraway Eyes, when Mick testified that according to many Sunday morning radio evangelists, Jesus was sitting right beside you in your car when you “ran 30 red lights in His honor.” (Jagger, Richards, 1978). Evidently, all you have to do is ask.
Christopher Hitchens (2007), introducing Daniel Dennett’s essay in The Portable Atheist, reminds us that when atheists (and/or scientists) engage in religious arguments with “believers,” they must realize that the religiously inclined are “choosing a la carte from an infinite menu of possible affirmations (p. 328). When theists use the word “god” or “religion” in a sentence, it adds nothing more than confusion. Wittgenstein made this argument in his second body of work Philosophical Investigations where he insists: “So one might say: the ostensive definition explains the use—the meaning—of the word when the overall role of the word in language is clear (I-4e, 30). But as Hitchens noted, use of the word “god” is neither ostensive nor clear. The word “religion” suffers (or enjoys, depending on its purpose) the same status. This anomaly is commonly known as the moveable goalpost. With the word "science," definitions generally fall into two categories: science as a verb (method), or science as a noun (content). Regarding the word "religion," the buffet is open for business, and the menu is made to fit the occasion.
Stephen Jay Gould attempted to reconcile this obvious commingling in his famous essay Nonoverlapping Magisteria, commonly known by the acronym NOMA. Gould, who is an atheistic Jew, has conveniently demarcated the magisteria of science exploring “the empirical constitution of the universe” and religion to “the search for proper ethical values and spiritual meaning in our lives” (para. 7.) Recently—having spent an entire semester of Religious Studies at MTSU with Rabbi Rami, who is also an atheistic Jew, it’s easy to see where Gould might propose this narrow definition of religion. Liberal Judaism teaches students of the Hebrew Bible to search for “truths” or meaning in the text. To take the Hebrew Bible or the King James Bible literally would be seen as absurd. But herein, as in Gould’s NOMA, the problem lies: one-third of Americans believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible. Just within Christianity (personal revelation not withstanding), the lack of consensus on just about anything should give us pause about the veracity of its universal “truth.” But Gould insists the two magisterias don’t overlap, but simply butt right up against one another, although it’s not clear what is butting up against what.
The whole fuss with the science vs. religion debate is usually around one thing: evolution. Prior to 1859, nearly everyone was a Creationist in some sense or the other. Sure, there were naturalistic or atomistic theories—sketchy guesses and speculation in the absence of evidence—but most theories postulated divine intervention in the process at some point. But when Charles Darwin published On The Origin of Species in 1859, he drove a stake directly through the heart of Creationism (Intelligent Design), and it has never recovered. Evolution robs gods of not only creation—but also purpose. This idea is, as Daniel Dennett noted, dangerous. The danger lies in the fact that a god or gods aren’t needed in the process, or as famous French mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace and, more recently, British theoretical physicist and cosmologist Steven Hawking both have asserted: there’s no need for a god in the hypothesis.
Alvin Plantinga tries to rescue religion from the teeth of empirical evidence in Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? but the fundamentalists have placed too much cadaver on the proverbial table to pretend it's not there. Plantinga, putting his best foot first, lays out his argument for evolution-theism compatibility by defining religion in terms of C. S. Lewis’s “mere Christianity,” where Lewis argues that God must exist because we yearn for God, and we wouldn’t yearn for something that doesn’t exist. By defining God as a yearning, Plantinga tries his best to ignore the immediate arguments. But Daniel Dennett, Plantinga’s co-author in this debate-style book runs with Plantinga’s theism and challenges him with Supermanism in a Superman vs. God showdown. Dennett argues that Plantinga’s theism isn’t any more plausible than Dennett’s Supermanism, and places the burden of proof on Plantinga to prove that it isn’t. Dennett (2011)responds:
“Now the burden of proof falls on Plantinga to show why his theist story deserves any more respect or credence than this one. I myself cannot see any rational grounds for preferring his theism over my Supermanism—which I don’t espouse, but see as perfectly consistent with contemporary evolutionary theory” (pp. 28-29).
Plantinga charges that Dennett’s argument is silly, and Supermanism isn’t to be taken seriously. But that’s Dennett’s whole point: it’s silly on purpose—just like Plantinga’s theism. The same could be said for C. S. Lewis’s argument for the existence of God. If someone has a strong yearning for Superman to protect them, to go out into the world and fight the bad guys—therefore, Superman must exist and not be some hero-fantasy in a DC comic book. Plantinga claims that Supermanism is not at all like his version of theism. But Dennett (2011) points out that this only proves how Plantinga’s faith has “disciplined his imagination” (p. 46).
This brings me back to my first point, which is often repeated in religious debates regarding religious inconsistency: they all can’t be true, but they call can be false. Calling a supernatural being God, Allah, Fred, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster (respect His noodleness!) adds nothing to the conversation. It’s only reasonable just in terms of probability that they are all false, given the fact that most religious claims are demonstrably false. Science may not be able to answer the “why” questions, but as Dawkins (2008) points out: what makes us think that theologians are any more qualified to answer these question any more than scientists—or the chef or the gardener (p. 80). Reasonable people are fleeing corporate, organized religion like bikers from a Justin Bieber concert. Decent, loving, and thoughtful people are fed up with this patriarchal nonsense, and they are starting to think for themselves. Humanity eventually gets bored with gods, and present-day deistic company is no exception. The violence, genocide, misogyny, murder, rape, and slavery in the Bible is becoming appalling to the majority of America’s youth (2012, Pew Forum, Nones on the Rise). Christianity will go the way of astrology, whereas people will practice Christianity, but it won’t be taken seriously. Those in search of a spiritual life will invent another god—hopefully a god more favorable to modernity—and Yahweh will be cast into the grave with the thousands of other gods man has invented. Humans have the natural capacity for justice, compassion, empathy, and love. Just as with science, worshiping or positing a god adds nothing to morality. One day, society will look back and marvel at the level of fanaticism that was endured over belief in an all-powerful, omniscient, supernatural being—and laugh. I say, “Why wait?”
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