Wednesday, 2 September 2009

God/Atheist Delusions or Both?

In today's climate, you're either religious or atheist. The debate has been polarised from shades of grey to black and white. The past few years, there has been an explosion of best sellers by the anti-God squad, namely Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Philip Pullman, Daniel Dennett and others. They have somewhat managed to claim both the moral and intellectual high grounds. On the other side, you have the religious gang, with prominent advocates like David Bentley Hart, Peter Harrison, Francis Collins and others. They fight back fiercely with direct critiques towards the anti-God squad members. Other than being entertaining, these very vocal opinions, together with the perceived dichotomy between religion and science, polarise the world on a level that has never been seen in history.

So what is the point of this blog posting. Have I gone mad and think that a blog would miraculously resolve the conflict between the two? Well, you will find out towards the end. For now, I would like to attempt to paint a more greyish picture instead of this absolute black and white one which currently sits in everyone's mind.

The biggest gap between religion and science is how each apprehend reality. Both science and religion offer a version of reality. The evolutionary biologist, David Sloan Wilson, in my opinion, makes an excellent case for the persistence of religious practices in our post-enlightenment era. He proposes two types of realism, factual realism which arises through scientific or rational enquiry, and practical realism which is based on interpretation of experiences and it gives rise to adaptation. So religious belief is not detached from reality, in fact, it is "intimately connected to reality by motivating behaviours that are adaptive in the real world." He says,

"Rationality is not the gold standard against all other forms of thought are to be judged. Adaptation is the gold standard against which rationality must be judged...The well-adapted mind is ultimately an organ of survival and reproduction. If there is a trade-off between the two forms of realism, such that our beliefs can become more adaptive only by becoming factually less true, then the factual realism will be the loser every time... Factual realists detached from practical reality were not among our ancestors. It is the person who elevates factual truth above practical truth who must be accused of mental weakness from an evolutionary perspective."

To illustrate this, imagine Marc and IQ are of the same species, competing for the same resources etc. However the resources is only enough for one. Marc, through scientific endeavour, comes to the conclusion that IQ is of the same species, competing for the same food, the food is only enough for one, hence he needs to eliminate IQ blah blah blah. IQ on the other hand simply sees Marc as an evil demon. IQ's belief motivates her to defeat this demon at all cost. So even thought it is factually wrong, IQ will have an upper hand in survival. This is a very simplified example. In real life, factual and practical realism are intertwined. It is not hard to see that practical realism must be anchored in factual realism to remain practical over the long term. In any case, whichever one that gives an edge for survival will be the preferred choice.

One strong argument atheists put forward is that religion is like "mind virus", in addition to preventing rational thinking, it instigates atrocities. Indeed, throughout history, horrific acts are stemmed from ideologies, but not only from religion, there is also Nazism, Communism, Racism etc. Even in the animal world, there are conflicts between different wolf packs, gorilla troops and many others. They don't have religion.

Many of the critiques towards atheists' arguments are no longer "God-based", like back in the 16th, 17th century. On the contrary, pro religion or neutral scholars are able to argue their cases through progress in philosophy and profound understanding of social anthropology which is lacking in a lot of the atheists' arguments.

I did promise earlier on to reveal the answer of whether I'm mad or not. You must already have the answer (with the addition of being an idiot as well). Sure, the conflict between science and religion may not be easily resolved. However, denouncing religion should not be a path a truly liberal mind should embark on either. I cannot help but admire and fascinated by the human mind, which I'm sure it is a view shared by many here. Why don't we use the vehicle of religion, a proper, objective study of religion to help us unlock this knowledge?


  1. This is an exaggeration "together with the perceived dichotomy between religion and science, polarise the world on a level that has never been seen in history." and I think Galileo would probably agree with me.

    I agree that there are almost certainly evolutionary reasons why religion exists. But that's no justification to let something run it's natural course. Look around you. Our entire existence is based on overcoming nature - from the computer that's letting us communicate around the world to the hospital that we'll go to because we haven't done enough exercise.

    It's terribly stupid for him to justify a practice because it used to be adaptive. It's not quite as bad if he says that it's still adaptive. Although as rich as I might get conning old people out of their pensions I don't think that the fact it makes me more likely to have more offspring* makes it justifiable to the police.

    Also what I think many people don't understand is that staying neutral is a position, just as much as being a religious or atheist is. What you're effectively saying is that the evidence is so finely balanced that you can't decide either way. Don't think that this gets you out of causing harm though. Whichever argument is right (cough - atheism - cough) just remember that you definitely didn't realise when you could have made a difference and could have caused immeasurable harm by prolonging the debate unnecessarily.

    If by "a proper, objective study of religion" you mean examining the anthropological reasons why people are religious then i agree.

    If you mean we should study religion to find out if it's correct then it's been done and science has won. Don't forget that you've been born into an era when religion has already been forced to abandon most of it's claims of knowledge because science has kicked it out with true understanding.

    If anyone had lived through the last 400 odd years and seen how science completely destroyed the validity of claims that religion used to regard as sacred doctrine (take the creation myth) then they wouldn't take any religion seriously.

    *(at least relative to parents in slightly less developed countries :) [h/t edxter])

  2. Marc, I'm glad you mentioned Galileo.

    IQ, can you say clearly what you think should be examined, and with what aim?

  3. If you take the historical background into the context, in the 17th century, the absolute majority of the population in Europe are adherents of Christianity. In the case of Galileo, it was him alone against the Church. But bare in mind that he actually believed that “the truth of Scriptures and truth of nature” as being derived from the same source, God. He was a devout Christian, not an atheist even though he was disputing with the Church at the time. However since Galileo, there has been a transition from the age of faith to the age of reason. I would even boldly say that the events surrounding Galileo define this portentous transition. But now, in the epoch of science and reason, it is science and rationality against blind faith and dogmatism, this creates two polarized ends and presents an environment that makes it blatantly obvious which side any enlightened individual should opt for.(pick a side attitude) Many fall for this deliberate set up. By this, I don’t think the statement is an exaggeration.

    I agree that there’s no justification to let something run its natural course. However, your idea of overcoming nature sounds more destructive than constructive, just look at climate change, pollution, which probably not what you intend to get across I suspect? Our existence or any progress that has been made is built on the foundation of understanding - understanding of nature, understanding of Physics, understanding of the human conditions, understanding of different cultures etc. So I don’t see any good reason why we should not grab onto any opportunity that would allow us to understand ourselves and the world better. Thanks to dudes like Galileo who fought some of the corners for us! Why do we need to reject and abolish religion, something that has been an integrated part of human history since we exist? Just to suit a way of thinking of a particular period of time and trend? If you talked to someone from 400 years ago about the scientific method, they’d look puzzlingly at you. Who can be sure the same thing won’t happen to us?

    I think he is quite right that it is still adaptive. It is true that religion has declined sharply in some countries. Much of Europe is clearly post Christian. But nothing has suggested that the move away from religion is universal or irreversible. The US is no more secular today than it was 150 years ago. Same story with Asia. Besides, to think that a world without religion is a better world is an article of faith than a theory based on evidence. There has been no time in human history where religion did not exist.

    And yes staying neutral is definitely a position and indeed in many circumstances, being indecisive actually cause harm. But this is not what’s happening here. Don’t get confused, the meaning of neutral here is not “I can’t decide if God exists or not.” God exists or not is not the right question to ask. The real meaningful way to proceed is to understand religion, understand people, understand society, ask questions like do we need a belief system etc instead of God doesn’t exist, discard religion, better world(unfounded basis). This is a over simplified description but you see the logic here. So I agree this debate is a distraction from something far more important and interesting, to understand religion or belief system and human mentality.

    What I think should be examined. Well, I have mentioned some above but they are very vague. That's because I know nothing or very little about relevant subjects like anthropology or evolutionary psychology. There are many things I would be interested to know such as what is belief systems from an evolutionary perspective, is there an other way to create an equally powerful belief system without a belief in supernatural agents etc.

  4. IQ, I am dead certain you could get across what you are trying to say in about 20 words.

  5. Read this.