Note to B—-: Science and Religion

Fenster writes:


We have been discussing Science and Religion: Are They Compatible, a 2003 collection of essays edited by Paul Kurtz. You ask what I make of it.

My overall response was very much in tune with Razib Khan’s thoughts on religion. Do you know Razib? He is a whirling dervish in a way: a Pakistani immigrant atheist polymath autodidact, especially in the realm of genetics. All traits are heritable to greater or lesser degrees in his view, with spirituality no exception.

But if that is what science tells you how do you integrate that into your life? Does not a conumdrum result? In particular, despite the fact that ideas present themselves to us in our heads as “ours”, as taking place in our individual noggins, the confluence of biology and culture suggests that our ideas are to a large extent social ideas–formed by cultural evolution and with some kind of adaptive purpose historically.

Our “reason” tells us this is not the case. No, by Jove, my ideas are my ideas! I use my reason!

If that is so what does that mean for us, in our individual heads, as we reflect on our seemingly individual ideas? It’s all kind of “meta”–but to me boils down to accepting a modest view as regards my own heroic ability to reason things through. I think this conundrum is what Robert Frost was getting at in Mending Wall.

As Razib writes here:

Religion is not the purview of technically oriented nerds, and technically oriented nerds just don’t “get” it intuitively. This is something that is relevant to me personally, because I am myself a technically oriented nerd, and I just don’t “get” religion.

A few years ago I was asking a co-worker whey he believed in ghosts, and he stated: “because I’m human.” This is actually a good response. . . .

My realization that I was an atheist occurred when I was eight, as I thought for a few moments about the idea that God might not exist. At that moment I realized I did not think God existed, and, I also realized I hadn’t really thought about it before because religion was simply something I never really gave much thought to. . . .

Between 1995 and 2005 I went through a “Richard Dawkins” phase. . . .

But (a) reading program convinced me ultimately that I had “got it all wrong.” I had recreated religion in my own image, rather than understanding what it was in its own terms. I had turned the beliefs of illiterate and unintellectual masses of people into contingency tables and model logic! Rather than understand religion, I ended up arguing with something I could comprehend on a deep level.

He asks “what is religion?” and answers that it is “many things.” Mystical experiences, revelation, dogma, creed, social control and on and on and on.

(M)ysticism, collective rituals, and the communal identity which emerges out of that, is the raison d’etre of religion, and why religions are universal and share broad family resemblances. What about theology? What about the details of scripture? These are things religious professionals care about, but religious professionals are a function of complex stratified societies that emerged over the last several thousand years. Martin Luther was historically important, but his theological obsessions were really not.

Religious professionals though are the individuals that technically oriented nerds often go to to “understand” religion. This gives us a skewed and misleading view, and it means we misunderstand large aspects of history.

Like Razib I don’t have much by way of the “God gene.” And while I never went through a Dawkins phase I admit to a sense of near certitude for a while in the godless view of things. But I am in my own way a nerd like Razib and over time I came to see that it was kind of silly, really, to take potshots at the view of religion that I had constructed in my own head.

While the essays in the book are hardly uniform the fact that they are assembled by a skeptic and come mainly from that angle they do seem to partake a bit too much of the problem Razib cites. The authors protest too much. Jeez if atheism is a sure thing why is it so dang important to prove religion “wrong”? It seems to reveal more about the character complaining than it does about the thing complained about.

I suppose you can argue that it is important to skewer religion since if you don’t the ignorant religious masses will burn you at the stake. Maybe that argument held a little water in the 90s, when the essays were published. But now? It no longer takes bravery to take on religion–it takes a brave man to defend its claims. Show me the last time religion–especially Christianity, especially Catholicism–was taken seriously in the mainstream culture. When it was not openly mocked? So the argument “I had to take it down since it was after me” does not hold up. In fact, beating up on religion risks bully-boy behavior more than the opposite.

Setting that justification aside what do you have in terms of actual argument? I am not impressed. The main problem is that the critics seem to luxuriate in taking pot shots at assertions about history that do not seem reasonable–the Virgin Birth and all that. OK, take your shot. But it just feels like a weak straw man argument–make fun of the silly historical claims. But what of the mystical revelation that powered it all up? What about the intense social bonds that were generated from the power of the idea as it spread from person to person? Taking issue with historical accuracy is thin gruel.

And beyond even that how do the critics deal with the biological and cultural arguments that are presented by actual . . . science?

Stipulate that most humans are endowed with a spiritual capacity, and that the predisposition is in some significant measure genetic in origin. Is the correct response on the part of those not so endowed to push a buzzer–WRONG!! Might that tendency also betray one’s own default make-up? You don’t have the God Gene but then presume that your Superior Reasoning is an attribute that it is without its own genetic support–that you are somehow mysteriously capable of “seeing through it all” and coming to a Rational Conclusion that the universe is godless? That by making an argument criticizing intelligent design that somehow you can see into the inner workings of the universe, and can vouch that there is nothing there but the void?

Who is the true believer here? Moreover, who is the one ignoring science?

Of course not that many in the book showed this kind of intellectual arrogance. But it was in there, especially from the editor, who on more than one occasion seems to delight in making fun of the lower orders who are mired in belief. To my mind you have only to read the body language embedded in his prose to see him as having a catechism of his own, and a chip on his shoulder to boot.

All humans seem to have a need to organize the chaos of existence into a kind of order, continually folding and dicing and slicing and re-arranging so that in the end it all rolls up into an intelligible system. Call it God or call it No God. We yearn for wholeness, even in the void.

Me too. I will always push that rock up the hill like Sisyphus. But I know the rock is going to come down too. If a kind of double consciousness results so be it. No one made me God. I may not believe in ghosts but I am also, like Razib’s friend, only human.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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3 Responses to Note to B—-: Science and Religion

  1. Calvin Hobbes says:

    Excellent pieice,thanks.


  2. I interviewed Razib a few months ago here:


  3. MEH 0910 says:

    a Pakistani immigrant atheist polymath autodidact

    Razib Khan (রাজীব খান Rājīb Khān) is a Bangladeshi-American writer in genetics and paleoconservative politics.
    Khan was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh but moved to the United States at the age of five. His family is from the Comilla District of eastern Bangladesh.[1]


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