Evidence, Sam Harris, and You

Evidence, Sam Harris, and You

If you are even remotely interested in the current resurgence of atheism, you’ll have heard of Sam Harris, neuroscientist, essayist, and author of the brilliant “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation”.

Sam is featured in this week’s edition of Newsweek, in a debate with Rick Warren, entitled “Is God Real?” Suffice to say, no consensus is reached, but the debate makes for interesting reading nevertheless. You can find the debate here.

Naturally, my own view is somewhat biased; if you can consider deference to logical, rational, empiricism to be ‘biased’ (after all, we all implicitly accept this in every single aspect of our lives, except in our religious beliefs). A more accurate way of putting it might be that I no longer feel the need to placate to those whose moral, philosophical, and scientific grounding is based on texts of dubious origin, the literal truth of which is supported by no evidence, and which are often demonstrably false.

We are all entitled to our beliefs, of course; this is not in dispute. But we are not, on the other hand, all entitled to be correct. To paraphrase Richard Dawkins, just because two opposing points of view are expressed with equal fervour, the truth does not necessarily lie exactly in the middle; it is entirely possible for one side to be wholly incorrect. Evidence is the arbiter of truth.

In all other aspects of our lives, we are entitled to be critical of one another’s beliefs. If you believe the Earth is flat, that DNA is not the genetic material, or that the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter (otherwise known as ‘Pi’) is equal to exactly 3 (which won’t come as a shock to those of you who have read 1 Kings 7:23 or 2 Chronicles 4:2), I’m entitled to point out the multitude of evidence that suggests you are quite wrong. But for some reason, if you tell me that the Earth is 6000 years old (and consequently that dinosaurs co-existed with human beings!), or that the blood and body of Christ is literally present during the Eucharist, that Mohammed ascended to heaven on a winged horse, or that you mustn’t flip a light switch on a Saturday, I simply have to respect those beliefs without asking ‘How do you know?’

In this way, religious moderates protect religious fundamentalists by making it unacceptable for anyone to criticize someone else’s religious beliefs. Your views on molecular biology, physics, sport, or politics are fair game, but your ‘knowledge’ that Jesus was born of a virgin, died on the cross, was resurrected on the third day, and now sits at the right hand of God to judge the dead (and all of the baggage that goes with this) are above reproach. The religious moderate may not spend his Tuesday morning flying airplanes into buildings, but his demand that what he ‘knows’ about the physical nature of the universe be absolved of criticism simply feeds the fire of fundamentalism.

Suffice to say that there is no evidence of the literal truth of any of this nonsense, and there is voluminous evidence to suggest it is patently false. Moreover, since one can never prove a negative (that is, it is impossible to disprove anything), a belief in the literal existence of Zeus, Thor, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster is just as valid. To paraphrase Dawkins once more, we are all atheists about most of the gods that have ever existed; some of us go one god further.

But, you ask, why can’t we just let people believe what they will, and leave well-enough alone? Part of the answer is that these beliefs are not free of ‘moral’ implications (although I hasten to think how the god of Abraham, Yahweh, could be considered ‘moral’ in any way); the literal belief in god allows people to ‘know’ that homosexuality, abortion, idol-worship, and adultery are sins punishable by death (by stoning, moreover). People should be free to believe what they want, but a literal interpretation of these beliefs is incompatible with civilized society. Most religious people have realized this; some haven’t yet done so. Make no mistake; if there really is a god who is so concerned with our insignificant actions, then we really ought to be stoning adulterers. The only issue is, of course, that there’s no evidence to suggest that this is true. Lack of evidence is sufficient grounds to oppose these unchallenged (and often socially unchallengeable) beliefs, especially when dealing with their propagation to children, who don’t know enough to make their own choices, based on an honest appreciation of the evidence for and against.

The other reason these beliefs are unacceptable is that they cheapen our existence; they simplify our universe, even when it is apparent that the one thing our universe is not is ‘simple’. There is no question that the universe is a spectacular thing, and we know more about it know than could have been imagined just 150 years ago. We know about the composition, movement, and interaction of stars; we know about the nature of gravity and its relation to space and time; we know that time, despite what we intrinsically ‘feel’, is not an absolute, but a relative concept (as are length and mass); we know that Relativity and quantum physics are supported by mountains of empirical and theoretical data, but are mutually incompatible. At our own level, we know the composition of cells; we know the sequence of our own genome; we know how cells live, divide, and die, what happens when they stop doing so in an appropriate manner, and how to treat people when they do; we know the composition of our genes, that they are subject to mutation, and that selection pressures, over time, result in the formation of new species.

All of this, every last bit of it, is directly observable, and is supported by a vast library of evidence, obtained from the disparate fields of chemistry, physics, molecular and cellular biology, genetics, and medicine, all converging on similar conclusions. That is what science is. We formulate theories, which are model systems, based on data (rather than wild, drunken guesses based on nothing but conjecture). We don’t know everything, but everything we do know has been learned in exactly this way.

If you don’t trust science, but rely on automobiles, airplanes, pharmaceuticals, and essentially any other component of our world, you are a hypocrite of the highest order. In a very real way, you owe your life to science many times over.

My professional life is dedicated to determining truth; truth that is made available to us through rational, empirical methods. Science isn’t even close to knowing all there is to know, but all that we do know is thanks to science. If we are even remotely interested in understanding the nature of the universe, and of our place in it, then we must abandon the Iron Age concepts of nature that are found throughout our ‘holy’ books. Whether you like it or not, evolution is an observable fact (I can think of very few scientific theories that are supported by a larger volume of data), as is relativity and gravity. We don’t know the precise mechanisms by which all of these things work, but they are all real.

‘The god of the gaps’ is a hopelessly flawed argument. Yes, science doesn’t know everything about the origin of the universe, for instance. But there is simply no reason to believe that the answer lays outside of science, in the same way that there is no reason to believe that the Earth is the centre of the universe, with everything else revolving around it. Science proved the latter to be false; why should we expect any different of discoveries that are yet to be. Moreover, even if we accept that god must have been involved to make a universe this complex (see my post here for a discussion of the lunacy of this), we still haven’t answered this simple question: “Which god?” Without deference to evidentiary standards, every god is on equally poor footing. How does one choose? The answer is, one doesn’t; one is born into it, but this is another topic for another day.

By all means, believe what you will. But recognize that there are a growing number of people who are no longer content to allow the ludicrous sky fairy (in all of his guises) to sculpt public policy and override the noble pursuit of knowledge. ‘Because I said so’ is not a valid reason to believe in anything.

I remain,

Michael

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