Thank God for the Atheist
On the controversy between religious and scientific explanation
It felt like something not-himself, something from outside, and yet he also knew that it was coming from within him, that it was his own strength, his own determination, his own refusal of defeat, his own strong will.
Salman Rushdie, 2010
Much the largest part of human world population believes in some sort of divine being(s). This won't discourage the dedicated worshippers, however, to employ scientific creations like modern medicines, artificial fertilizers or mobile phones. These products could only have arisen from a way of methodological thinking that has also led to understand the natural world as a product of evolutionary processes. And even though this scientific – or, as some prefer to name it, naturalistic – view of the world is incomplete and still incomprehensible, it is the logic consequence of the methodology. Many a Christian believes in a god of the gaps which is called on when scientific explanations fail and they may even advocate Intelligent Design (Dixon, 2008). Creationists, Jews and Muslims are less hypocritical in their rejection of scientific theories about evolution of life and the universe: they stick to their believing in a divine Creator.
What is it that causes people to become so tenacious of religion and suspicious of science?
Evolution or God?
Scholars, inventers and alchemists in olden times dedicated their work to God, their religious belief was self-evident, their inspiration God-given. This mentality was severely affected after the broad scientific acceptance of the concept of natural selection. This new view at nature was so catching that it did not only change biology entirely but also affected astrophysics and the social sciences. Creation no longer a divine feat of manipulative skills, holy scriptures superseded by naturalistic logic, rites and rituals replaced by ratio and reason, perpetual change instead of immutability – at last philosophy of nature seems to have become mature.
The naturalistic view has certainly made its influence felt in the United States of America, where almost everybody believes in God. Nearly one third of these worshippers believe in God because nature’s perfect design (according to science) and only ten per cent believes in God in emotional consideration of comfort and hope (Shermer, 2003). However, the majority of mankind, including highly educated and intelligent people, persist to believe in absurdities and hearsay.
Still, most people experience their God as the reason of their existence. Without religion, so they believe, their lives become meaningless and morality is lost. The latter is certainly untrue as a thorough investigation has indicated. There exists a universal sense of right and wrong among a wide variation of cultures, suggesting the innate quality of morality (Hauser, 2006). About the meaning of life the opinions may differ. Melancholic and depressive patients would welcome their suffering to end and not seldom they commit suicide. Worshippers believe that if the human race is merely an accidental product of evolution, human life has no meaning. The semantic argument that evolution is a contingent process (Gould, 1999) through which the meaning of life is bestowed on its current state is in want of the necessary cogency.
To me, the meaning of life is life itself. Its intrinsic value doesn’t need a semantic label.
The results of genetic recombination and mutation may be random, the evolutionary process of living organisms is certainly not a matter of chance. Most mutations lead to dead ends and the survival of complete organisms depends entirely on the interaction with their environment. It is no coincidence at all that the best adapted organisms are the fittest. This is no circular argument since only a few offspring will continue the next generation, and so on. The long-term emerging feature is called evolution. Although it could never be predicted along which path the evolutionary process exactly would proceed, progressing complexity is inevitable. These considerations are relevant with respect to the billions of planets with similar earthly conditions in our galaxy alone. How would you react if you believe that man is the image of his Creator? Not surprising if you would stop all funds of attempts to make contact with extra-terrestrials.
It is hard, if not impossible, to argue against the irrationality of the religious message and you could wonder why bother if it were not for the protection of the receptive minds of new born children. Their indoctrination is far from malevolent and it has probably evolved as an adaptive contribution to group loyalty. The religious message may contain both altruistic and exploiting elements that together could have increased group-fitness [mind you, in evolutionary theories group selection may be highly controversial; here it refers to intra-specific selection, tribes of early hominids]. Social behaviour in general is genetically determined and in human beings it is culturally inherited (memetically determined) during the long period of upbringing and education. Especially during the very early stages of their development, children are extremely sensitive to imprint. In analogy of the interaction between the development of the cerebellum and motor areas of the cerebral cortex and the infant’s motor skills, there is most likely an interaction between the development of the association areas of the temporal lobes (presumed location of spirituality) and the social environment. The children mimic the elders in speech, standards, values and opinions, until they reach the adolescent stage of critical reconsideration. Only very few will be able to distance themselves from the ones they trusted, their loved ones. Such a psychological hindrance may be impossible to negotiate which would explain the tenacity of (religious) imprint.
Even if you were not indoctrinated at an early age, you stand a good chance when grown up to join a spiritual movement or to show some fanatic support in the field of politics, pop-music or soccer. Apparently, human beings have some kind of mental void that must be utilized. When once the sweet is in the chocolate it is hard to get it out. It doesn’t seem to matter which team is best (has God on their side), to the people involved it is of utmost importance. Although the neurophysiology of the mental gap is unclear, the irrational need to be part of a group may contribute to the reason why people find it so hard to break away.
Eternal soul or transient self-awareness?
All living creatures seem to have a motivation to escape their elimination. Easy to understand from an evolutionary point of view since an opposite activity would have caused immediate extinction. This activity is more evident in animals than plants as the former expose recognizable behaviour. In multicellular animals like arthropods, molluscs and vertebrates, this behaviour is preponderating controlled by the centre of their complex nervous systems, their brains. The motivation to survive is associated with self-awareness and located in the brain. Self-awareness, awareness of the Self, is not restricted to human beings. The legislation of human superiority over the rest of the animal kingdom by the introduction of the exclusive human soul, is based on ignorance and lack of respect for life in general.
The soul (breathe of life)is a vague and controversial concept that can be taken as a trinity of thinking (ratio), perseverance (motivation) and feeling (emotion). It is regarded to be the essence of an individual and, notwithstanding the Buddhist view, I will refer to it as the Self. The Self, being a subjective phenomenon optima forma, can hardly be studied scientifically, although its elusiveness rises many speculations and reflections (e.g. Hofstadter & Dennet, 1981). In many religions (but not the Buddhist) there is a question of an eternal human soul which must refer to a life after death. I experience my Self only when I am conscious, not when I am unconscious nor even sleeping. Dreams only exist in my memory when I am conscious. Maybe there is something wrong with me, but I regard the Self to be an emergent phenomenon that disappears as soon as I am not awake.
The problem probably lies within the intuitive conception of the Self being separated from our body and mind. It is worth reconsidering such a dualistic view (Spenard, 2011). I myself find it impossible to imagine a mind without a body and to believe in a separated soul, even if it’s part of an all-enfolding entity, is to me equally elusive as to believe in God.
The spiritual experience of self-awareness (being aware of the Self, of the ‘Soul’) disables the mind to imagine ones non-existence. The stronger the self-awareness, the harder it is to imagine yourself not being there. Self-evidently, this paradox has initiated a quest for answers about eternity, infinity and spirituality that inevitably are speculative and insulting to the rational mind. I do not advocate the silence when things are beyond comprehension, I merely oppose against subjective generalizations. Whatever it may be that we cannot comprehend, it should never receive the status of truth without objective and irrefutable prove. Actually, there is no such thing as truth, since everything that one can imagine can be invalidated by its counterpart. However, such a philosophical resignation states a priori that certain questions cannot be answered. Apparently, the question is invalid, suggesting that absolute truth has no meaning, only statistics have.
Explaining the (super)natural
Survival leans on self-confidence that is supported by faith in the sweet hereafter. We derive comfort from this believe as a counterpoise to the notion of our own transiency. To submit ones destiny to the will of a Supreme Being, however, would deny that the struggle for life is eventually won by sheer force of will. There is evidence that the widespread belief in God arises from the operation of natural processes of the mind in ordinary human environments, due to a hypersensitive agent-detective device in the brain that stimulates our belief in intentional creatures (Barret, 2004). Using the association areas of the cerebral cortex we are also prepared to interpret stimuli according to an expected model (Shermer, 2003). This patternicity, or the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise, can be considered as an error in cognition. Evolutionary modelling has demonstrated a beneficial selection for believing that most patterns are real, whether correct or not.
The need to know what’s behind a natural phenomenon has probably evolved as a survival strategy from a simple hide away to thorough exploration behaviour and the communicative interaction within a human society has enormously enlarged this property. The motivation to understand the world includes the inner Self, which may lead to the mystical experience of an omnipotent and omnipresent being that is regarded as (the origin of) everything, i.e. the divine Creator.
Spiritual fantasies are based on mystic rationalism that is lost in mathematical contemplation and metaphysical humbug. Too many people, scientists included, are insufficiently familiar with a scholarly acquisition of knowledge and more often they have no idea about theory of cognition. The cyclic process of taking observations, formulating theories, making predictions and taking novel observations leaves no room for angels and demons. Although one may have argued that historical theories cannot be falsified by experiment (Popper, 1972), no one shall nowadays reject a falsification that is effected by means of indirect observations as in astrophysics and theory of evolution. Theistic scientists claim that evolution theory cannot be proven, from which they conclude that life, the universe and everything must have been created. Whatever is it that makes some intelligent people handle the argumentum ad ignorantiam so easily?
Religious solidarity undoubtedly strengthens group loyalty and may have been adaptive at one time. Whether it has maintained during the short evolution of humanity by means of controversial group selection or as a psychological spin-off is of no importance to answer the initial question why so many people are tenacious of religion while others are not. The ability to sense some sort of at-oneness with the universe, also called self-transcendence, is not the same in every human being. Spirituality, the interrelationship between emotional, empirical and rational contemplation, may have a physiological foundation that is partly genetically determined and partly environmentally induced (Hamer, 2005). Religiousness, being the local fulfilment of spirituality, is therefore not only widely spread, it can vary a great deal among individuals as well. Another physiological argument to understand the variation of self-transcendence is the correlation between religious and epileptic experiences (Swaab, 2011). It should not be excluded that self-transcendence and rational logic are located at different parts of the brain (or genome) and operate independently. That could explain how both views can exist within one brain and why their mutual expression varies among people. It seems plausible that the hallucinations induced by a specific balance of neurotransmitters causes an attractive mental state. Self-transcendence may have a similar effect as endorphins in producing a feeling of well-being which will force people to satisfy their need.
Being tenacious of a religious conviction may also have to do with the fundamental human need to belong together and simultaneously discover your own identity. In an esoteric context people want to be part of a (religious) community whereas in an exoteric context the individual investigates his/her ego. If the individual investigation follows sufficiently transparent logical steps, it may inspire others to do the same. The connected necessary communication suppresses the development of an independent identity and religious faith arises from the indoctrination of young children’s brains. In essence, the social difference between religion and science is nothing else but the difference between community and privacy, between the group and the individual. Sense of security and social recognition seem to run counter to self-realization.
Some existential questions can be rather awkward. What is the meaning of life? Who am I and why? As reality closes in, the individual is even more brought to bay. What is most feared is what’s most nearby, inside, its own identity. The closer you reach the core, the more distressful the inner search becomes. The core exists. It is your Self, the smallest particle you can imagine. To some this is the Higgs boson that gives reality to the rest of the universe. To others it is much smaller (e.g. Giudice, 2010). It is ineluctable, yet elusive. It seems to have a fractal nature. The spiritual experience that is often aroused by such an inner search is a personal experience that, by definition, cannot be shared. Unlike a scientific (naturalistic) observation that is not accepted unless at least made by others as well.
If the spiritual experience gives birth to believing in fairy tales, you should also ask yourself where a circle begins or ends. Or try to imagine a colour you have never seen before. Zoom in on these little letters and after a while you will see mere pixels while the text has gone. The emergent character of this message, however, doesn’t make it divine. Modern genetic engineers may be able to tinker at the core of living beings, their knowledge of the entire organism becomes more and more reduced. Naturally, the genetic core does not equal the spiritual core I mentioned above. Still, the message is clear: don’t lose sight of the whole. The more comprising the surrounding world, the more qualities and features can be attributed, and vice versa the closer you get to the core, the more details are lost. This apparent paradox gives no reason to become religious. The search for the Higgs boson only serves to understand our universe while a total picture of the multiverse time-space continuum tells us little about super-strings. Larger wholes with emergent characteristics can be composed out of many separate parts, when analysing the larger wholes, however, these characteristics simply disappear as if they never existed.
Faith or fact
World-religions like Christianity and Islam are invariable and unassailable. In science these characteristics are like deadly poison. Heraclitus’ concept of perpetual change (panta rhei; Herakleitos, 2011) would evoke a collective agony among worshippers during the individual awakening of their Self. The principles of religion should not be changed, as after all they were embedded in holy documents centuries ago (ironically meant). A philosophy of immutable life may offer a kind of shelter, oppressive yet protective at the same time. Change, on the other hand, reflects a kind of freedom although it makes one vulnerable and sometimes insecure. Maybe this metaphorical claustrophobia versus agoraphobia underlies the separation of minds.
Worshippers believe in a world of immutability and just like the Greek philosopher Parmenides they regard apparent change to be illusive (Thanassas, 2008). Scientists argue the opposite. Each claim should be questioned and every allegation verified or falsified, by anyone at any time. The scientific bastion is continuously under construction. The authority of the Supreme Being may be self-evident, brilliant scientists can always be criticized, even when they are placed upon a pedestal. Newton’s law of gravity is overtaken by Einstein’s general relativity, Freud’s psychoanalysis is no longer available under the national systems and even Darwin’s natural selection is no more than a small yet crucial part of the great evolutionary paradigm in understanding universal diversity (Kuhn, 1962). Naturally, it is a matter of change indeed and that clashes with every belief in the Omnipotent Creator.
It is beyond question that an explanation of natural phenomena should be trusted to the analyses and reasoning of scientists and that it should not be attributed to some divine interference. This may not imply that faith has lost every raison d’être. If religion concentrates on morality and the meaning of existence and leaves the actual knowledge of the universe to science, there seems to be no problem. This separation of spiritual domains, however, is a sham. Agnostics and mutually different worshippers do not share value judgments and they completely disagree about the meaning of existence. No wonder that the principle of the non-overlapping magisteria (Gould, 1999) was largely rejected.
Some scientists find it impossible to break away from their God. That doesn’t surprise Muslims as the Qur’an says that it is indeed devoted learning that will elicit God Almighty. Advocates of Bucaillism (Bucaille, 1976) consider the Qu’ran, in contrast to the Bible, as true Divine Revelation, being in perfect agreement with the findings of modern science. They seem to forget that science changes continuously and that future scientific facts may not be in support of the guidance from Allah anymore. So either they wishfully but poorly think that the naturalistic methodology permits immutability (this would be a contradictio in terminus) or they truly believe that modern scientific data demonstrate the supremacy of Islamic religion.
Creationists came up with Intelligent Design and Christian scientists who judged ID to extreme, introduced theistic evolution (Collins, 2006). God is presented as the Creator of all scientific laws without meddling in any scientific contribution. In this agnostic yet theistic view, God exists merely as a spectator. From a philosophical point of view it is defensible to combine a religious believe in God and a scientific interpretation of natural phenomena. The two lines of thought would belong to different domains of the mind (Mind Apart Together relationship). God has no part in scientific thinking and science cannot prove the existence or nonexistence of God. Although some think otherwise (Dawkins, 2006). Thank God for the Atheist who roused us from the misconception that there is Someone watching over us and not watching over us. Simultaneously following evolution and believing in creation remains impossible to explain. Take the Big-Bang theory. A scientific concept thought of by a catholic priest on the analogy of Creation: in the beginning something came out of nothing. The initial scientific recognition is more and more under fire. Unlike religious institutions, agnosticism cannot be stopped by any Establishment. Fancy a Scandinavian Imam proclaiming the duration of Ramadan to depend on the degree of latitude. Or imagine a vicar preaching active confession of homosexual preference. The bluntly unthinkable in the shackles of religion is the essence of true (agnostic) science.
Science corrupts too
The scientific contributions to the improvement of global food-supply, to the fight against disease and to the comfort of communication, are beyond question. Yet, science has brought evil as well. The same methodology that gave us green revolutions and internet also enabled mankind to produce ever deadlier weapons, polluting industries and dearth of natural resources. So, no wonder that many are suspicious of natural science. Besides, scientists have political opinions and weak points like human beings which may give rise to even more distrust. The latter implies fraudulent practices like making up or selectively deleting data and plagiarism (Van Kolfschoten, 2012; Goodstein, 2010). Maybe there is nothing new under the sun but the public attention. In this connection the role of the internet should not be underestimated. Conspiracies and manipulations are rife and strikingly they never concern religion.
I daresay! To most people religion provides the moral compass to lead them through the wilderness of tempting sins. So, if religion itself becomes corrupted, its followers get really lost. Mostly feared is the atheist thread of disturbance or even theft of the moral compass. It would leave the worshippers in doubt, just like everybody else, about right and wrong. There is no natural logic to tell the two apart, which doesn’t mean that the atheist is immoral. It is just scientifically impossible to explain why dilemmas may exist between evils and never between beautiful, lovely or simply good things.
It is often claimed that man is the only living creature that is aware of its own transience. It is also claimed that this unique feature initiated a belief in the supernatural, an afterlife and ultimately set forth complete religions. What is known as a general motivation of all living creatures to survive, provokes our agony concerning the inevitable mystery of death. In contrast to the earlier mentioned emotional experience of the Self, this awareness is unquestionable true in every individual, although its strength may vary with age and with still unsolved brain activities. The scientific concept of evolution is simply impossible without death and extinction. Each individual creature contributes in this way to the developmental process of life on earth. In this view, afterlife is life just without oneself, and what seems transient is actually eternal, like cell-division, continuance through vanishing.
Finally, to line up the answers to the initial question ’What is it that causes people to become so tenacious of religion and suspicious of science?’:
- Consolation. Every organism can be demonstrated to possess the will to survive; to comfort their awareness of dying, humans imagine a hereafter where they can return to their Creator. The idea is spread in a cultural context.
- Congenital. Humans have the innate propensity to believe in intentional creatures like angels and demons.
- Sociality. Their need for social interaction persuades humans to share their mystic experience of the Self. This is stimulated by education.
- Innocence. Most humans are unfamiliar with the scientific procedure and its continuously sceptical premises.
- Indolence. Religious comfort offers immutable security whereas scientific procedures offer but tantalization.
- Fear. In the name of science undesirable developments may occur. Also fear for the unknown afterlife seduced mankind to believe in fairy tales.
The object of the scientific concept of evolution is an understanding of the coming about of natural phenomena, including man and human products, according to logic procedures. With these procedures man set out to manage the world in his own way. The object of the religious concept of creation, in spite of fundamentally different descriptions in e.g. Bible and Qur’an, is to recognize the absolute greatness of the Devine Creator and worship Him accordingly to enhance the glory of God, Allah, JHWH, or whatever name the Creator was given. It pursues man’s subjection to some unmanageable force. These conflicting, rational and irrational, essentials emphasize once more the incompatibility of science and religion and indicate the self-presumed superiority of the latter. It also accounts for the Atheist’s fierceness in his struggle against religion.
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