Monday, December 19, 2011

Responsibility, Religion, and Science

Here are some thoughts on the war on Christmas and the conflict between science and religion.

The first question is: Can you get along with somebody with whom you disagree?

I sure hope so, because 100 percent of the population fits that description. If you cannot get along with those with whom you disagree, this will be a very lonely life.

But, a lot depends on the specifics of those disagreements. If a person comes at me with a sword and the firm belief that his God gives him an obligation to take my head, then he has a belief that will make our getting along problematic.

Can an atheist get along with somebody who believes in a god?

I think it is likely that all of us can and do.

Can we get along with somebody who uses religion as reason to take up a sword and do real harm?

That is problematic.

The person who picks up religion and denies others the happiness of marriage or harmless relationships suitable to their biological makeup? No. Here, religion is a source if harm. Its practitioners are due the same contempt as the man with the sword above. Just like the man with the sword, they need to be told, "No. You have crossed a boundary and deserve our contempt for doing so."

I will stress, in a nation that allows for free elections, the only legitimate response to a political campaign is a counter-campaign. Violence is not permissible. But it us a campaign where the harsh rhetoric of condemnation and contempt is warranted.

If a person comes with the religious belief that releasing a cloud of chlorine gas into a crowded city would be cleansing and no harm will come of it, that would put a strain on our relationship.

Where religion plants absurd beliefs that are a threat, not only to those who believe it, but makes them a threat to others, there is reason to object. The quality of evidence for evolution is far stronger than anything one would require in a court of law for convicting somebody of a crime. Evidence in science is never perfect, but it is the best actionable evidence available.

Furthermore, evolution is essential to fully understanding medicine, the environment, and the future of life on Earth. These are not idle beliefs that sit in the background and do nothing. Denial of evolution is like the denial of the effects if a cloud of chlorine gas released into a crowded city. It will cost lives.

And where attitudes towards this dangerous illness are under the influence if social forces, we have many and strong reason to direct those forces against coddling these dangerous delusions. It's practitioners - it's coddlers - put the lives and health of innocent people at risk.

This applies not only to evolution, but to every area where people adopt beliefs that influence their behavior towards others in ways that affect the lives, health, and property of others. The responsible person says, "There are important potential consequences here, I have an obligation to do my best to understand those consequences." the person who fails to do this is irresponsible, and deserved our contempt.

This is one area in which science wins over religion. In fact, this is an area where religion at its very best contributes nothing. It is as worthless as astrology and palm reading.

I will repeat that for any who might have trouble understanding. Religion, independent of science, gives us zero capacity to predict future events. This includes its inability to predict a "second coming" or what happens after death. But it also applies to predicting the occurrence and severity of natural disasters and providing ways of avoiding those disasters. Sacrificing virgins to a volcano god - or the contemporary American version of sacrificing homosexual relationships to the god of Abraham in any of its forms - will not prevent the formation of hurricanes or determine the location and severity of the next earthquake.

There are many people with religious beliefs that it is easy to get along with. They hold that they think there might be some higher purpose or divine spirit in existence. However, they acknowledge that they find it difficult to know anything about this deity and they do not use it as a basis for actions and policies that affect other people.

They may use it in their own lives, but never to direct the lives of others. And, where their actions may do harm, they allow science to be the ultimate authority in judging the consequences of their actions and policies.

Stepping outside of these bounds warrants our contempt, because those who do so risk the well-being of other people for no good reason.

Morally responsible people do not do such things.


Kristopher said...

since we are using contempt as a tool for change in the target, and people are more likely to take your "contempt" to heart if they care about your opnion, such as from a friend. would it not be better to withhold strong contempt, even when it was deserved, in a situation where a friendship could blossom so as to raise the power of your condemnation (and praise) and thus the likelihood of change?

obviously in cases with high public scrutiny, where an example is needed for others and in cases where you are unlikely to become friends a more frank approach might be reccomended.

Even if someone has repugnent views on science that will potential hurt society, a stranger telling them they are wrong is almost worthless. while a respected friend or family member telling them they are wrong might have some meaningful impact.

furthermore life cannot be treated like a single issue pony. it is possible for people to deny evolution or gay marriage and still be good people in other parts of their lives. for example christopher hitchens. he was a great debater and public figure who advanced atheism in the public arena and for that he deserves praise. But the foreign policy that he advocated on national T.V. was incredibly and dangerously hawkish and perhaps more likely to cost innocent lives than evolution deniers. furthermore he drank alot and smoked publically which is hardly a good example. on the other hand I hear he was an exceptionally nice guy and fun to hang out with.

if you use condemnation swiftly and rightously in a way that pushes people away from you, even when they deserve it, then you might find yourself un-able to effectively apply praise when it is deserved and your condemnation will have no weight for the target.

if a religous zealot is running toward a target with a sword who do you think is more likely to be able to stop him, the target saying "wait" or his trusted friend telling him to wait.

there are times when one should not be friendly but i dont think evolution deniers or even climate change deniers cross that line just for holding harmful beliefs.
that line is crossed by clinic bombers, rapists, and fraudsters; not joe schmo the well meaning but stupid fundie.

goliah said...

There is a cartoon making its way around the science vs religion discussions that showed both a scientist and religious in conversation. The scientist was showing off his new nuclear weapon and the the religious was suggesting we bomb those we hate.

Yet who has the moral high ground. Those who make such weapons or those who use them? I would suggest that anyone who claims the moral high ground is self deceived. As a species, humanity has such limited
moral understanding and potential, that to pretend otherwise is where all problems begin!

Alonzo Fyfe said...


This is a bit like showing a taxi driver and a computer programmer and asking which is the best dancer.

There's a serious category mistake here.

If we have limited moral understanding, the question rests on where we can go to improve upon it. I would argue that it is in the scientific understanding of the relationships of living creatures - more so than in the fictions and myth of ignorant prehistoric tribes.

Canadian Atheist said...


While scientists may have invented the nuclear bomb, they also created nuclear power plants, which are beneficial to us. Science allows you to make your post, surf the Internet, drive to work etc. What does religion really contribute to society as a whole? I can think of many harmful effects and very few good ones. Religion might bring comfort to some or allow them to behave morally because they think a cosmic policeman is looking over their shoulder, but compared to science, religion is next to useless in the big scheme of things.


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