Monday, October 1, 2012


I was listening to this episode of Star Talk Radio (because Neil deGrasse Tyson is nine kinds of awesome) when Tyson's in-studio guest, Dr. David Grinspoon, described Bill Maher as an "Atheist Fundamentalist."

Suddenly, so many things made sense.

I have often been put off by the likes of Maher and Richard Dawkins when they dismiss everything to do with religion. In this podcast, Maher says that he loses respect for anyone who believes in God to the point that he can't class them with the highest level of thinkers. (That is a paraphrase, but I think Maher would approve it as capturing his idea.) Grinspoon argues that there are things that science can't explain, and that simultaneously holding the belief that the universe is 15 billion years old and that there is a power who may influence some of the things we can't explain is not a failure of intelligence.

Now, I am more and more convinced that this is a silly thing to do. Science has explained so much that there is no reason to believe that there isn't an explanation for the things we haven't figured out yet: we just haven't figured them out yet. But we can't disprove God, so why not?

At the same time, I am more and more convinced that religion serves many useful purposes. After all, if you remove God from the equation, that means that religion was completely and only created by people. So they must have done it for a reason. It meets human needs for community, for organization, for rules, and for structure. Of course it also produces an us-against-them mentality and the necessary structure for hierarchy and oppression, and those things, while human, are definitely bad.

I am not here to sing religion's praises, but what Maher does too often is define religion by it's most ridiculous pieces (i.e. talking snakes) and hold everyone who believes to that standard. He also dismisses everyone who doesn't believe exactly as he does as being less intelligent and generally wrong. That's fundamentalism. And it's no better than religious fundamentalism.

Sometimes religious people have a capacity for creative thought that absolutist atheists just don't have. If you don't believe in the possibilities of fairies, or all-encompassing romantic love, your life will be less rich for it, and possibly less successful. Sometimes it takes a little faith to keep your marriage on track.

And it is possible to believe that God exists, but has no place in science. Or that God exists but didn't write the Bible. Or that God dictated the Bible but some idiot wrote it down wrong. Or that God wrote the Bible for the people who needed it a couple thousand years ago but expects us to have the intelligence to see that it's anachronistic now and use it accordingly. I know some gay, married, highly Progressive God-believers who'd be pretty shocked to find out that they aren't religious.

Thinking religious people are our friends. Anyone who advocates for science and reason in the classroom and as a basis for political discourse is on my side, as are those who advocate for equal rights. And a scientist should be judged by her work, and only by her work. If she writes that God created the world, she's a quack. If she studies the history of the world from a scientific basis, the fact that she sings in the Church choir is not relevant in my estimation of her as a scientist.

We're never going to live in a world where everyone believes the same thing. I'm not sure I'd be interested in living in such a world. What we need is to live in a world where argument is based on rational thinking. What you do with your soul is your own business.

1 comment:

  1. Are you done with this blog? I know it has been a while since I have visited, but I saw this speech and thought of you; I hope you enjoy it.
    As long as I am here, though, I'll throw you some feedback.
    First of all, I agree with your basic point. it is always foolish to dismiss those who disagree with you.
    Secondly, you say that differences of belief do not bother you as long as everyone is at least publicly rational; what exactly do you mean by rational thinking? Surely not positivism; that is an intellectual dead end. And yet also seemingly not simple internal consistency. People can be young Earth creationists or racists etc etc without coming to a contradiction, and you clearly seem to exclude such positions from the rational public discourse you desire. Would any belief that is not falsifiable be excluded from your conception of rational thought? And yet I assume you would not object to discussion of human dignity and justice.
    The only fair-minded thing I can think of that might match your implicit standard of rational thought is elegance. As you see it, scientific consensus puts forth such a compelling and beautiful explanation for the phenomena that we observe that any set of beliefs that does not accept that explanation in whole is necessarily inelegant, and therefore irrational. In those areas that seem to have several possible explanations of similar elegance, you are willing to accept that intelligent people can disagree. Of course, as I see it, the only reason that elegance or beauty would have any inherent relation to truth would be God.
    I don't want to be ungenerous to you, but the remaining possibilities that occur to me would be rather patronizing. Perhaps you assume that everyone else shares at least a subset of your basic premises, and thus disagreement on certain conclusions indicates poor reasoning, when in fact they may have reasoned correctly from different premises. Or perhaps you are simply defining rationality as acceptance of a particular set of premises, for no reason in particular except that they are important to you and your beliefs. I do not accuse you of these positions, I only include them for completeness.
    All the best,