Thursday, February 21, 2008


One of the areas in which theists like to attack atheist value theorists is on the absence of hope. The argument is that no atheist theory can provide people with hope, and that in the absence of religion a person’s life is filled with despair.

Bill Gray recently wrote an article, Faith the Assurance - Hope the Heartbeat lamenting the atheist’s lack of hope. In The Conservative Voice he wrote,

So, my Friend, when you say, "You have absolutely no shred of evidence for your belief. That is the difference between faith and science." I reply to you, "We have something much greater; we have hope. We have blessed assurance; for we have faith -- in the only eternal salvation offered to man, Jesus Christ."

“Hope” in this sense is the product of the snake-oil salesman. “If you by Dr. Smith’s special elixir, you will be buying the hope that your arthritis will go away, you will be able to see again or to walk again, that your cancer will go away. You will be buying hope in an eternal afterlife.”

Hope is all that the customer is buying in this case, because “Dr. Smith’s elixir” does not deliver any of these things.

One of the things that science has the ability to do is to put those who use Dr. Smith’s elixir in a study group, put a comparable group of people in a control group, and (at least for most of these claims) tell us whether Dr. Smith’s customers are buying anything more than ‘hope’. Is it the case that people in the study group suffer less from arthritis, blindness, paralysis, cancer, or the like?

The answer has always been, ‘no’.

There are studies that show that people in the study group are ‘happier’ than people in the control group. They may well be happier because they have the false belief that they are taking something that has the power to cure arthritis, blindness, paralysis, or cancer. Yet, this is the false happiness. This is the same ‘happiness’ that we might find in somebody permanently locked in good dream, where they are imagining themselves being wealthy and popular, while, in the real world, they are rotting away in a hospital bed with no chance of rejoining the real world.

Gray wrote:

My Friend, you may grow warm and fuzzy in the warmth of your religion, your belief system, science. You may even get a warm glow from your glass of wine or your drink of strong spirits; but, in the end the only thing they will give you is a muddled mind and an unpleasant after-effect.

Actually, I do grow warm and fuzzy in a blanket of science. Well, warm, at least. Science provides me with the energy that I use to heat my home. That energy is available because scientists who have studied geology have discovered stores of fuel that they have also learned how to transmit to my home where I can burn it. Science provides the insulation so that I do not need to burn a lot of fuel. Science provides the electricity that runs my stove, and it fills the store across the street with groceries from all over the world – year round.

People for thousands of years have prayed for good crops – for enough to eat, and for a mild winter that will not kill too many of their members off. None of this praying as ever provided an ounce of food or warmth. It has provided them only with Dr. Smith’s snake oil – a hope for warmth that had no bearing on reality.

Science has delivered on the promises that religion has never been able to keep. Give up on Dr. Smith’s useless elixir and go, instead, to see what the scientist is selling, and you will find a product that is clinically proven to produce the results that are promised. Indeed, it is the very nature of science to provide proven results. It is the nature of religion to sell false hope that produces no measurable real-world effect.

In fact, our only real hope rests with science – with understanding the world around us well enough to the harms it would otherwise inflict on us and to obtain those things we value. My wife could not live without science. A brain tumor when she was a child would have killed her at a very young age if the only thing available to her was a priest’s ‘hope’. She would be dead today without the pacemaker in her chest – another gift that science has delivered.

Science has given us hurricane tracking systems that give people hope that they can survive the next category 5 hurricane, not by praying that it will do no harm, but by knowing when it was coming so they can get out of the way. Science has given coastal residents the hope that they can survive the next tsunami because of a tsunami warning system that scientists have set up. Science provides hope that more of us will survive the next pandemic, that there will be food on the table next year and the year after that.

Science provides us with tons of hope.

And science, unlike religion, actually delivers on its promises.

Yet, even with this, the situation is worse than I have portrayed it. This is because Dr. Smith’s snake oil not only fails to provide any real solutions to the world’s problems, it actually makes many of those problems worse. Dr. Smith’s snake oil is not just an impotent elixir, it is a poison.

I do not mean by this that religion poisons everything as Christopher Hitchens claims. I mean by this the more modest claim that some religion does real harm. Mr. Smith’s snake oil comes in a number of different formulae. Some formulations are relatively harmless. Some formulations have been known to wipe out whole nations.

One of the poisonous effects of Dr. Smith’s elixir is that it prevents people from pursuing options that really do help. They buy Dr. Smith’s elixir and they buy the hope that their arthritis will be cured, and in doing so they avoid the treatment that the scientist could provide.

We have people who think that we can alter the course of hurricanes and prevent earthquakes by banning gay marriage and homosexuality and instituting prayer in school. When, in fact, the best way to save lives in the face of hurricanes and earthquakes is to study them scientifically, use what we have learned in our engineering and in emergency response planning, and teaching people the scientific facts behind these type of phenomena.

These people add to our misery in two ways. They sacrifice innocent people in order to try to control natural disasters in the same way that ancient tribal shaman would sacrifice virgins to try to appease the gods. They justify their actions by making unsubstantiated claims of the ‘good’ that would come from such a sacrifice. While they are engaging in these practices of human sacrifice, they are diverting attention and resources away from policies and procedures that might actually produce scientifically measurable benefits – benefits that come from an accurate understanding of the phenomenon in question.

So, here we have the tribal shaman ready to sacrifice a virgin to the volcano in order to save the village. He stands there with the knife in his hand bragging about how he, and he alone, delivers ‘hope’ to the villagers – the hope that their village will be saved. When, in fact, the only thing the shaman provides is a dead virgin.

The shaman says that he delivers hope – that this is the good that his sacrifices provide. This may be true. A gullible people might actually find ‘hope’ in the shaman’s superstitions.

However, while the shaman is busy providing the villagers with (false) hope, the scientist actually delivers.


Anonymous said...

I wonder how hope fits with the obsession with the apocalypse that a not insignificant number of Christians seem to have. Oh right, they hope to watch all the heathens burn and squirm from their celestial skybox...

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I hope more people read it and understand that science indeed delivers on its promise of hope. A great article.

TK Kenyon

TK Kenyon's Website

RABID: A Novel, "a genre-bending story--part thriller, part literary slapdown with dialogue as the weapon of choice"

Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
The short answer- "Knowledge is power- the power to change the world, bring comfort, manipulate nature, hold of death a little longer, a protect that we hold dear... can faith do any of these things?"

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Faith-based belief offers a placebo effect and nothing more. It anesthetizes us to existential anxiety. And the leaders flaunt it as though this is some virtuous miracle! However one uses the placebo, though, is not the issue. What I don't understand is why people want a placebo in the first place when they know it's a lie, yet they’ll define the lie... often to the death.