TIA: The Cold War between religion and science

Vox Day supports science and does not want to see it abolished. He tells us so himself, and we ought to take him at his word. Most of Chapter 3 of The Irrational Atheist, however, is spent building, defending, and reinforcing the claim that science has outlived its usefulness and now poses a palpable threat not just to harm mankind, but to wipe us out completely. It’s an amazingly thorough effort to develop effective anti-science ammunition, especially considering he claims there’s no war against science.

But is there more to the story than what he is telling us? Maybe so. After all, he not only continues to support science himself, but he also tells us that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is on very good terms with science, and ought to share at least some of the responsibility for bestowing (inflicting?) modern science upon the world. If science is truly as evil as his argument would make it seem, that puts Christianity in a paradoxical and morally suspect position of condoning and promoting an evil which may destroy us all. Instead of arguing whether we should get rid of religion OR science, wouldn’t the prudent course of action be to eliminate both?

Personally, I suspect that Vox doesn’t really buy his own argument, otherwise he would be calling for conscientious men and women to oppose science, and would be arguing that Christianity has been against it all along. His goal is not to prove that science is truly evil, but is rather a classic deployment of the Cold War strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction. Threaten my religion if you dare (he seems to say), but if you take down Christianity, I can take your fancy modern science along with it.

The biggest flaw in Chapter 3 is the one that plagues the book as a whole: Vox has chosen to ignore the central question at issue in the debate between theists and atheists, and therefore he completely fails to take into account the ways in which God’s existence or non-existence figures into the topics under discussion. For good or ill, we’ve got chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and we’ve got people whose belief in afterlife and eternal reward makes them more likely to use these weapons in frankly suicidal ways. Doesn’t it make a difference whether that afterlife really exists, and whether there really is a God (or an Allah) Who blesses and rewards such suicide attacks?

Or take global warming, of which Vox announces himself a skeptic. (Note, by the way, that there’s more to being a skeptic than simply denying someone else’s conclusion.) How many Christians out there “know” that global warming can’t be real or else the Bible would have predicted it? How many believers are convinced that nothing truly bad can be happening to our planet because “God is in control”? Vox blames global warming (“if it happens”) on science, but then turns around elsewhere and argues that politics and commerce are what actually implement scientific discoveries. And both politics and commerce are highly susceptible to the influence of a widespread belief like “God wouldn’t let it happen.” Does it not matter, in this case, whether or not this Divine Protector actually exists? What if He’s not there, and it really is up to us to pay attention, understand the problem and take appropriate countermeasures?

Granted, arguing whether we ought to get rid of religion, or ought to get rid of science, is an exercise in the extravagance of the moot. Nobody is going to be able to get rid of either one, even if they tried. Pass laws against believing if you like, but people aren’t going to stop believing. Likewise with science: you can impede its progress, but people (e.g. terrorists) aren’t going to forget what they already know about nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. So the question isn’t one of simplistic solutions, but rather a problem of practical prudence. Given that such weapons are out there, what steps can we take to eliminate or reduce irresponsible use of this technology (bearing in mind that any use of WMD’s is arguably irresponsible)? And given that changes in the environment have the potential to do us great harm, what measures should we adopt, as a society, to protect ourselves against catastrophe?

If we do have WMD’s out there, whose finger do you want on the button, someone with a rational, reality-based approach to life, or someone who hears voices promising phantom rewards for mass destruction? Or, perhaps, someone who is tuned in to an Almighty, infallible God who loves us and wants what’s best for us? But that’s the issue Vox is avoiding, you see, because if God does not really exist, then the only difference between the last two choices is a purely subjective one. Likewise, if the environment is changing in ways that could cause widespread suffering and death, who do you want to deal with the problem: someone who takes a fact-based analytical approach to understanding the real-world causes and their appropriate solutions, or someone who is disinclined to do more than just sit back and wait for God to do something wonderful? Isn’t it important to know whether that God is ever going to show up and do anything? You can’t properly address the question of religion vs. science without dealing with the problem of whether or not God exists.

Another factor that Vox overlooks is the question of how you would go about dealing with the negative aspects. Let’s agree that it’s silly and overly simplistic to speak in terms of eliminating either science or religion entirely. The prudent thing to do is to address the negative aspects of each in a way that eliminates their harmful effects, or at least minimizes them. For example, I personally would be in favor of efforts to end scientific research into weaponry. Sure, we’d be better off without nuclear weapons, genetically engineered plagues, and various forms of nerve gas. I’ll buy into that whole-heartedly. I want it to be across the board, of course. It won’t do us much good to take the moral high road if our enemies merely exploit their advantage and nuke us all back into the Stone Age. But my preferred answer is to prevent them from possessing the technology either—an arms race is a contest no one wins.

I am also in favor of telling the truth about religion, as the most effective and appropriate way to deal with its negative and harmful aspects. One thing all religions have in common is that nobody ever sees their god(s) show up in real life. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and so on are all believing what men say about the god(s) they worship. Indeed, in the absence of any gods, the only option men have is to put their faith in men, i.e. in what men say and think and feel. (My God, of course, is an exception ;) ) Truth is consistent with itself, and by testing theological claims for self-consistency and consistency with real-world truth, we can accurately and reliably determine that, for example, the Christian Gospel is not the truth. People who think they hear God’s voice in their heads are only hearing their own feelings and impulses, people who think God commands them to smite this or that ethnic group are merely anthropomorphizing their own violent urges.

As I said before, I’m sympathetic to the view that religion per se is not evil or even undesirable. What’s bad are the elements which are so often intrinsic parts of religion: superstition, gullibility, subjectivism and dogmatic self-righteousness. Enlightened religion is possible, but to be enlightened, a religion must be honest about itself, and not rest on the political power of somebody declaring “Because I Said So!” If Jesus and Allah go the way of Zeus and Odin, this need not be the end of religion or the end of God, but merely the end of superstition and credulous fantasy. Good religion does not need either one.

When the 9/11 attackers checked in to a motel room the night before the attacks, one of the first things they did was to cover up a painting of a woman in a low-cut dress. This was not a political measure or an economic measure; they wanted to keep themselves religiously pure in preparation for meeting their God the next morning. Would they have behaved differently if they knew that they were only deluding themselves, and were preparing to lose the only thing they truly owned? Perhaps, and then again perhaps not. I can’t help thinking, though, that the world would be a better place without delusional motivations for murderous suicide, including the suicide of waiting too long for an environmental deus ex machina.

 
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Posted in Science, TIA, Unapologetics. 7 Comments »

7 Responses to “TIA: The Cold War between religion and science”

  1. chrisschoneveld Says:

    Deacon, I like to add this to your interesting thread. Sometimes there is a subjective element to science that borders on religion. This is an essay I wrote on the subject. What I wrote angers religious people but angers even more the man-made global warming disciples. So essentially I am in a no-win situation, at least if one considers polemics a competitive game.

    WHY THE CLIMATE CHANGE MESSAGE HAS SO MUCH APPEAL

    There is a remarkable similarity between the belief in the supernatural (i.e. religion) and the belief in catastrophic man-made global warming. Indeed, both beliefs appeal to man’s moral conscience and cause in him a sense of fear, but the most striking parallel lies in the inherent uncritical acceptance of the content of these beliefs by their followers.

    Let me demonstrate this with an observation that anybody with a normal, logical mind can appreciate, or at least cannot deny. Most – if not all – cultures are characterized by their adherence to a dominant religion: Japan and China by Buddhism, India by Hinduism, the Middle East and Indonesia by Islam, Western societies by Christianity and Judaism, isolated tribal communities by other forms of animist beliefs. What this shows is the sheer inability of individuals to recognize, or accept, that the unquestioned belief in their own religion is the product of their upbringing, and thus the result of a form of childhood indoctrination. Only rare individuals are able to shake off the religion of their parents. On the strength of statistics one has to accept this observation as fact, which necessarily reduces the chance of any of these religions being credible virtually to zero. Here I paraphrase Richard Dawkins, who aptly remarked that everybody is an atheist with regard to every other religion than their own, and that the outright atheist just believes in one religion less.

    Having said this, I have to appease a large part of the populace who would argue that the universe and life must have been created one way or another and could not have come into existence by chance alone. Indeed, one cannot dismiss the possibility of a creator, but it does not negate the above line of reasoning that one’s own religion is unlikely to be the only true representation of that creator. As a matter of fact, it requires an extraordinary leap of faith, as well as a dose of arrogance or self-righteousness, to maintain that one’s own religion is the correct one. And, as I will explain below, it requires a similar attitude to believe that all the causes of earlier non-catastrophic severe climate changes have suddenly disappeared, to be supplanted by a man-made catastrophic one, purely on the basis of the voice of a politically motivated organisation like the IPCC, the Vatican of the global warming congregation.

    First of all, we have to realize the undeniable fact that climate is a naturally varying phenomenon. Even the most ardent climate change alarmist will admit that in the earth’s history global average temperatures have been much higher or much lower than today. Furthermore, if we believe the vast majority of research papers published in the last decade, there is hardly any benefit to be had from climate change or global warming. The – again undeniable – implication is that the present climate is the most beneficial one to us humans, but equally to flora and fauna in general. This is highly unlikely and unbelievably coincidental – coincidental in the sense that, in the 4.5 billion years of the earth’s existence, our modern society happens to have developed when conditions for life on earth were at an optimum. Also coincidental is that only since 1979 do we have the ability to monitor our climate accurately, with the help of satellites, and that at about the same time the global temperatures happen to have risen at a – claimed – unprecedented rate. In reality the average temperature of the upper troposphere – the part of the atmosphere most affected by greenhouse gas warming – has only risen 0.4 °C in the Northern Hemisphere and less than 0.2 °C in the Southern Hemisphere.

    One only has to Google the term “climate change” or “global warming”, in combination with any aspect of life or nature that we find likable, such as butterflies, dolphins, sea turtles, coral reefs, wine or ancient monuments, and the dire effects of global warming will become apparent, because all these things we like are reported to be in danger. If we do the same exercise with all those things we dislike or fear, such as cockroaches, feral cats, poisonous spiders, jellyfish, scorpions, storms or malaria, then we will see that they all happen to benefit or spread, thanks to global warming. The implication is that, if the opposite happened, i.e. global cooling, everything we like would thrive, and everything we dislike would suffer. Hence, fewer cockroaches, fewer jelly fish, fewer storms, but more butterflies, more dolphins, healthier coral reefs etc. Not a single person in his right mind will believe in that scenario, nor have I as yet come across anybody (whatever his state of mind) expressing a longing for this, however consistent with his present fears.

    Not asking a number of obvious questions – for which you don’t have to be a scientist to think of – such as “ how come that today’s global warming is all bad yet the earth has gone through so many climate changes before without spelling the end of species, or more specific, the polar bears?” is unintelligible. Similarly unintelligible is the inability of most humans to question their own religious belief. Already in 1841, it was Charles Mackay who in his famous book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” alluded to the fact that “whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it”. Indeed, most people gullibly believe in the, invariably negative, even catastrophic, effects of climate change in the same way that religion is able to maintain its influence in an age of erudition. Catastrophic global warming and religion are both subject to uncritical acceptance by the masses – a sad but clear demonstration of our susceptibility to the unbridled repetition of a single moral message, be it a plainly religious one or one with a scientific veneer.

    Such susceptibility may, in its turn, well originate from man’s innate sense of responsibility and his adherence to a common moral code – a code of which environmentalism is a direct consequence. And, since there is only so much moral baggage one can handle, this may also explain why Christian fundamentalists – especially the conservative evangelical Christians in America’s bible-belt – are less likely to believe in man-made global warming than secular socialists, who have a tendency to embrace environmentalism as a moral equivalent of religion and are unlikely to join the ranks of climate change skeptics. It is hardly surprising that few environmentalists are charmed by the likes of Bjorn Lomborg, the self-proclaimed “skeptical environmentalist” – for them a contradiction in terms.

    It appears that the Norwegian Nobel Committee has fallen prey to the same uncritical attitude by awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the IPCC and Al Gore. The award is certainly impetuous and possibly motivated by political expediency, reminiscent of the one that landed Arafat with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994. But worst of all is the British Government’s decision to promote the idea of catastrophic climate change by means of a nation-wide distribution of Al Gore’s flawed movie to British schools – an unacceptable form of childhood indoctrination that is only surpassed in its impact on children by the above religious indoctrination. Here they missed a great opportunity to encourage a healthy debate on climate change within schools by also freely distributing The Great Global Warming Swindle documentary – a movie with far fewer scientific blunders – with the instruction that both movies have to be shown.

    To conclude, I would like to point out that, even if today’s global warming is wholly or partially anthropogenic, this would not invalidate the above argument. After all, it is the over-representation of the unfavorable effects and not the cause of climate change that gives rise to catastrophism. Yet, the alternative scenario, of global cooling, is something only few would welcome, whilst the wish for a stable climate is – in view of our knowledge of geological and historical climate data – as unrealistic as wishing for the seasons to disappear.

    Chris Schoneveld (Phd Geology)

  2. bacopa Says:

    I’m not sure I really like the term “Weapons of Mass Destruction”, though I’d certainly prefer so-called WMDs not be controled by religious folk who want to hasten the end of the world.

    Whether something is a WMD or not is not a matter of what kind of weapon it is, but how it is used. While I can see how chemical or biological weapons have no other use than indiscriminate slaughter, there are at least some possible uses of nuclear weapons that would fall within traditional concepts of “jus in bello”. Suppose an agressor nation was using a small number of nuclear weapons stashed away in a remote location to deter the nation it was fighting against from fully engaging it? I think it would be permissible to use a small number of nuclear weapons to destroy this force. Please note that I am not advocating nuking any country today, just pointing out there are conceivable acceptable uses for nuclear weapons. I am also aware of the usefulness of the current “nuclear taboo” and understand the terrible risks of breaking it.

    I would also point out that conventional weapons can also be used to bring about indiscriminate slaughter. Many tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands? millions?) have been killed in Zimbabwe through the rash and unjust siezure and redistribution of land and other economic assets. This wanton slaughter has been carried out by government forces using small arms. The same has happened in Iraq, displacement of civilian populations and collapse of urban infrastructure has killed many more people than gas in WWI or nukes in WWII killed.

    Mass destruction is more a result of policies than weapon types.

  3. chigliakus Says:

    “Suppose an agressor nation was using a small number of nuclear weapons stashed away in a remote location to deter the nation it was fighting against from fully engaging it? I think it would be permissible to use a small number of nuclear weapons to destroy this force.”

    Are you serious? I think WMD is an apt description in this hypothetical scenario you’ve concocted. Let’s consider the consequences of this military action where you use nukes to blow up a bunch of nukes. Even if the nukes you use to attack their weapons are relatively clean because the fissile detonator used to start the fusion reaction is actually used, that does not mean there will be no fallout from the blast. The problem is that all their nukes have fissionable material in them as well and this material is not given a chance to reach critical mass before it’s atomized. So you have atomized a bunch of radioactive uranium and plutonium and sent it air born. It is unlikely that this cloud is going to stay put in this ‘remote location’ where it was created, and some poor sod(s) will be downwind. Now we’re back to the ‘indiscriminate’ part of your WMD definition, and nukes are no better than bio or chemical weapons.

  4. bacopa Says:

    I still say that mass destruction is a policy rather than a weapon type.

    I agree with you that there are many dangers to a small-scale counterforce strike of the type I described, including fallout from the initial bomb blasts and secondary dispersal of radioactive material from the weapons being attacked. That’s why in consideration of these risks I specified the weapons were in a remote location and were few in number. I am no expert in radioactive fallout and cannot say how bad the problem might be, but if it were the case that these nagative effects would be far milder than what the agressor nation would do if it actually used its weapons, I think a moral case can be made for a nuclear first strike. I do understand all the “real world” complications with such a scenario, and I’d probably be motivated by these complications to protest against any leader who actually planned to use nuclear weapons in this sort of way. However, I do think it’s at least concievable for nuclear weapons to be used in warfare for other means than mass destruction and that it is at least plausible that they could be used in a way consistent with just war theory.

    I know I said I’m not an expert in radioactive fallout, but there as at least some evdence available to the casual observer that many people overestimate its dangers. Two cities have been attacked with fairly dirty fission bombs. They are still viable cities today. I’m not denying that what they went through wasn’t horrible and I’m not trying to start any discussion about the rightness of using nuclear weapons in this way, which was clearly a case os using nukes for purposes of mass destruction.

    I do hope you respond. I’m interested in what you have to say.

  5. chigliakus Says:

    I would say that for something to not be a weapon of mass destruction it would need to have substantial non-massively-destructive uses. Obviously it may be possible to use the weapon without causing massive destruction, but the vast majority of most countries nuclear arsenals today are not ‘tactical nuclear weapons’, they’re huge and massively destructive multi-warhead multi-megaton fusion weapons.

    Hiroshima and Nagasaki are indeed both viable cities, but they each suffered just one fissile detonation, and because it was a detonation much of the uranium used in the weapons was ‘burned’ and was not left laying about after the blast. There are areas of the Nevada desert where weapons testing took place and radiation is far above the background. This is more like what the area directly downwind of the blast would be like in your hypothetical scenario. It may be okay to visit in the short-term, but long-term you’re going to be looking at chromosomal damage, cancer, leukemia, and a host of other radiation-related illnesses. I’m against rendering any portion of the Earth’s crust unlivable for thousands of years if there’s any way to avoid it. It’s incredibly short-sighted if nothing else. Not to mention we should be saving that fuel to burn in reactors if we want to be able to combat global climate change and maintain our standard of living.

  6. chigliakus Says:

    @chrisschoneveld

    Equating the the group who agrees with the consensus in the scientific community on global climate change with religious fanatics is not a new tactic, it’s been used for a while now by the climate change ‘skeptics’. I’m surprised that having a Phd yourself (if you really do have one) you can so easily dismiss fellow scientists research out of hand. Let me go out on a limb and guess you’re a petroleum geologist? I’d like to point out that you can troll better if you don’t forgot to blame cosmic rays, solar cycles, and volcanoes. You did manage to get the natural cycle thing worked in, as well as the “there could be good things from climate change” angle. Overall I’d give your troll a 2 out of 5. If this wasn’t intended as a troll I’d suggest you go read some peer-reviewed scientific literature written by actual climate scientists, you’d find your points have been debunked.

  7. bacopa Says:

    chigliakus

    i agree that nuclear weapons are supremely suited for killing people and destroying infrastructure, that there are too many of them, and that most nations seeking them intend primarily to threaten others with mass destruction. They make the *policy* of mass destruction easy to carry out. Much too easy.

    However, none of this directly address the closing point of my original comment that mass destruction is more a property of policies and choices than a property of weapons themselves. Dislocating people from farms and workshops with the threat of small arms fire can do as much damage as a nuclear weapon after a couple of bad harvests.

    While opportunities for limited counterforce strikes of the type I first brought up might never arise in a clear cut way, I think it at least concievable that this would be a case of nuclear weapons being used for purposes other than mass destrction.

    I am not really prepared to get into the details about what the fallout levels in my scenario would be. They may be as high as you believe. My main point is that if the destruction caused by the counterforce strike were far less than what would happen if the agressor nation used its weapons, or even what would would happen if it merely used its nukes as a deterrent to stop anyone from doing something about a conventional weapons based strategy of mass destruction against its neighbor, then it such a counterforce strike would be permissible. Whether there anyone in the world I’d trust to make this kind of decision is another matter.

    Also, I think you greatly overestimate the yeilds of the most common types of nuclear weapons. There are still a few 1-2 megaton weapons in the US, but the 100-400kT range is more common:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Modern_American_nuclear_bombs

    And to tie things back to climate change, greater reliance on nuclear power, in spite of its problems, is probably a better option than facing some of the worse results of climate change and I hope there may come a day that the cores of a great many nuclear weapons are processed into reactor fuel. I also hope that those nations that have the technical means to greatly increase economic output per unit of input get up to standard quickly. If the US could reach the current efficieny standards of the more developed EU nations within thirty years, we’d see a lot more benefit at lower costs than all the corn ethanol we could produce and all the nuclear power plants we could build in that same time frame.

    I’m no geologist, but the basic science behind the climate change issue is easy enough to understand that I can see that the only real issue of debate is one of “how much, how soon” rather than whether anything is happening at all.