19 December 2005

Religion or Science: Which is more dangerous?

In the Story of God on BBC1 last night, Robert Winston argued that certainty in science and certainty in religion are both equally dangerous. I would disagree.

For me, what highlights the difference between the certainty of religion and the certainty of science was demonstrated in the debates that Winston had first with Richard Dawkins and then with a US creationist.

Both Dawkins and Winston, as scientists, laud the need for doubt. Even extreme anti-theists like Dawkins would ultimately admit that there is a possibility of there being a God, but the idea is so ludicrous as to be discounted.

Whereas a creationist and most religious people cannot countenance doubt (indeed they see it as a weakness in their faith). This is the first important difference.

The second difference was highlighted in the debate between Winston and the creationist. Every time Winston admitted that a particular scientific theory was not an absolute cast iron certainty, the creationist jumped up and down claiming victory for his argument for God. Of course the first thing to point out is that the evidence for scientific theories like evolution are overwhelming, whereas the evidence for a God is non-existent.

We can never be certain about the decisions we make in our life and those who follow science accept this, faith is different.

Decisions in life are best made using the widest available evidence that science provides. What makes religious belief dangerous, is this dis-regarding of evidence, using ignorance of science and fear of the unknown as a cover. Of course even those who claim to be deeply religious people are not totally stupid and most wouldn't follow religious teaching where it is obviously detrimental to their life, but religion can have a significant dampening effect on progress (scientific research, gay rights, birth control, etc. etc).

To take religion completely out of this decision making process (but not out of education altogether, religious stories should be taught like Greek mythology) will be a significant victory over ignorance and fear and is frankly long overdue.

9 comments:

  1. Just read your post, Ben. Very well written.

    I don't believe that ethics are reliant on a belief in God. The history of religion could be taught and the ethical stories within explained to children without the need for them to become religious.

    In my experience, the less religious someone is, the more ethical I have found them (certainly true on sexuality and birth control).

    Just because someone hasn't been taught to believe in God doesn't mean they are more likely to steal or murder etc. That is clearly ridiculous.

    I didn't need religion to tell me what was right and wrong and I can't remember anyone else needing it otherwise. Our parents and teachers taught us right from wrong.

    We obeyed our parents because they explained that we had to treat others how we would want to be treated ourselves. It wasn't a case of 'better not hit people because God said so'.

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  2. In my experience, the less religious someone is, the more ethical I have found them (certainly true on sexuality and birth control).

    What an odd choice of ethical issues to highlight. What you mean is that in your experience, the less religious someone is, the more likely they are to agree with you on ethical questions. Right? And how exactly do you measure 'how ethical' someone is, given that there are many contentious, unresolved moral and ethical questions?

    You are so blinkered and prejudiced that it is almost painful to talk to you.

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  3. Neil,

    This is all rather interesting.

    I think one possible problem with your argument is that ‘we had to treat others how we would want to be treated ourselves’ is actually only one ethical principle. And your parents’ teaching of it (assuming this was in Britain) took place within a culture which, not least due to centuries of Christianization, affirmed it as a moral principle.

    Now as ethical principles go, it’s not bad (I would even add, on a personal note, that it’s my favourite). But it’s neither without rivals (e.g. utilitarianism, intuitionism), nor without flaws of its own. It appeals to a basic sense of fair play. But we are all prejudicial judges and, more problematically still, human desires differ. For example, I would not object to being aborted. But an opponent of abortion can (and will) easily claim that I do not speak for everyone (which happened, for example, deep in a thread over at my place). Also, what we want and what be good for us are not necessarily the same thing.

    Christians who believe that God gave them this principle have three advantages over a secular follower of this principle. First, they expect God to reward them for following it even when no temporal benefit can possibly arise to themselves (so they have an additional and powerful incentive). Second, they believe that as God is good, so this principle must be (so they ‘know’ that they are doing the right thing). Third, the rest of scripture gives them some guide as to, effectively, how they wish to be treated.

    When you hope that a society continues to follow a given principle, the incentive of spiritual reward, the comfort of divine wisdom, and some common ideas about how the principle should be applied are not be dismissed too hastily. This is especially true when the practicality of the principle in question depends on people sharing similar ideas of what they want and what’s best for them.

    Andrew being rather abrasive (your post wasn’t painful for me at any rate), but he does have a point: you are judging the religious by your own ethical principles. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t. Now I would not say that their ethical principles are right and yours are wrong (far from it!) but simply that it’s far from clear that you (or anyone else) could persuade their children or grandchildren to follow your principles if they were to stop believing in their religion tomorrow. If you did need to do so, how would you do it?

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  4. Fair point on the abrasiveness, Ben. I'll tone it down. On this:

    it’s far from clear that you (or anyone else) could persuade their children or grandchildren to follow your principles if they were to stop believing in their religion tomorrow.

    I'd go further. It's far from clear that Neil could persuade even his own children and grandchildren to follow his principles, given that they aren't rooted in anything other than current fashion.

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  5. Andrew, you spout all this rubbish about Labour eroding your civil liberties but then claim it is ok for the state to dictate how two consenting adults should have sex, or what a woman does with her own body. It is you who has a warped morality. It's not fashion to be tolerant to others.

    Ben, I know plenty of atheists that instil very strong morals and ethics in their children. Because they are not restricted by religious definitions, they can go further and extend their ethics to caring for the environment and other species.

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  6. but then claim it is ok for the state to dictate how two consenting adults should have sex

    I'm pretty sure I've never lobbied for a no-doggy-style law, but if you'd care to point me to where I've written that the state should intervene in how consenting adults should have sex, I'd love to read it. Or is this just another slur, trying to paint me as a homophobe? That wouldn't sit well with your jibe about David Cameron, civil partnerships and gay porn stars, would it? But we all know who the bigot is here.

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  7. Andrew,

    current fashion

    All ideals have to start somewhere, sometime, and much of Christian ethics (for instance) is rather recent.

    Neil,

    It’s not fashion to be tolerant to others.

    I think I basically agree with you on reproductive rights (as you know). But I don’t agree that the modern conception of tolerance is not, well, modern. You just have to go back to the seventeenth-century arguments for religious tolerance to see the extent to which it was still a radical idea in the West. (Not that there weren’t forms of tolerance in the medieval ages: for instance, there were religious arguments on both sides of the question of whether to tolerate or persecute the Jews.)

    Ben, I know plenty of atheists that instil very strong morals and ethics in their children.

    I am not disputing that atheists can act and argue as ethically as the religious. Nor am I disputing that parents can pass on values to their children. What I’m talking about is the problem of trying to replace one set of values with another, wholesale.

    Isn’t it rather significant that you’re talking about ethics being imparted by parents who already believe in those ethics. If you caused religious parents to stop believing in their religion, they wouldn’t necessarily adopt the same ethics as the atheists (or any ethics at all). Because while atheists, just like the religious, can act and argue ethically, their premises are not necessarily any more persuasive than those of the religious. And if the ex-religious parents didn’t believe in your replacement ethics, where would that leave their children?

    I guess by playing devil’s (or God’s?) advocate in this way, I’m trying to illuminate the huge gap between having a set of ethical premises that persuades some people, and a system of ethics that can capture the soul of an entire society (NB I’m not saying that Christianity offers that either). So long as we don’t have such a system, it makes sense to try to get to the same moral position from different systems by arguing on their own terms. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be critiquing the theology, just that we shouldn’t make our ethical appeals completely dependent on a rejection of their theology. Does that make any sense?

    Andrew (again),

    That wouldn't sit well with your jibe about David Cameron, civil partnerships and gay porn stars, would it?

    Er … I think you’ll find Neil was expressing well-founded scepticism about the gay-friendly public face being cultivated for the Tories by Mr Cameron, not homophobia.

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  8. Andrew, you stated that sexuality was 'an odd choice of ethical issues to highlight'.

    So basically, you are stating that you don't think it a problem for the state to persecute someone because of their sexuality. You think this is just 'different' ethics.

    Obviously my jibe about Cameron (as Ben points out) was just scepticism at Cameron's new found enthusiasm for gay rights. You have to admit the Tories' history here doesn't exactly inspire confidence. They have still got councils that 'ban' civil partnerships from their registry offices.

    Ben, "But I don’t agree that the modern conception of tolerance is not, well, modern."

    Did I say that? Anyway I agree with you Ben, look at the Murghal tolerance of non-Muslims centuries back. The Koran says both that Christians are 'our brothers' and that they should be killed. Religious teachings are largely nonsense.

    I'm not saying we shouldn't use some of the moralistic stories of religion in history lessons, but to teach that religious morals are the only ones and supercede all others because of a god that we have no evidence for is not only wrong it leads to all sorts of perverse acts from bombing abortion clinics to 'kill a queer for Christ' stickers.

    I'm sure some of these lunatics would find another 'label' to hide behind, but none with the power and 'unchallenged respectibility' that religion unjustifiably garners.

    You claim that if religious belief disappeared from some people's lives they would be unable to act morally. I find this extremely doubtful. People wouldn't go around killing and stealing more just because they knew there weren't a god. The evidence suggests the opposite, the more religious a country the higher the crime rate, just compare the US with this country.

    It tends to be countries that have the most inequality and crime and the least education that not surprisingly have the most fervent religious belief.

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