Monday, March 12, 2012

Can Religion be Eliminated? Not Likely.

Can we kill religion? The answer is no, not really. Not unless we are prepared to kill ourselves in the process.

Victor Stenger, a scientist I greatly admire, but a rather poor philosopher in my opinion, gave a recent talk for the Center for Inquiry (CFI). The transcription of his lecture was put up on The Huffington Post which you can read here after the jump.

I found myself disagreeing with Stegner on nearly every point about religion. The one point he makes in the piece which I do agree with is when he states rather near the end that

"Science is not going to change its commitment to the truth. And religion is not going to change its commitment to nonsense..."

True enough. But if Stenger understood why this comment was true, he probably would not be trying to tear down religion.

Criticizing the bad practices, faulty or fallacious beliefs, and deriding the deplorable behavior of religionists is a healthy, in fact, necessary endeavor. But where I think Stenger's reasoning goes awry is when he calls for the destruction of religion.

Religion isn't something we can kill. As the psychologist Bruce Hood points out in his book Supersense, there are psychological mechanisms built into how the human brain perceives the world which often lead the brain to make Type II errors in reasoning. This ultimately leads to the creation of supernatural assumptions.

The assumptions, and wrong inferences, cannot be helped as they are a basic part of human psychology. But as Michael Shermer reminds us in  The Believing Brain, there is a tool to check our poor inferences against, and this tool is science.

Both David Eller and Pascal Boyer have gone a long way to show how unscientific minded people take superstitions and blow them up into full fledged religions. If Stenger would have read Boyer's book Religion Explained, which agrees with Hood's psychology of mind development, and follows supernatural assumptions as they turn into superstitions and then follows them even further as they progress into out and out religions, then he may not be so quick to say we need to destroy religion.

That would be tantamount to destroying ourselves.

We can, however, check religion and religious assumptions and put them in their place. The claims which do not hold up to scrutiny can then be discarded. But this is first assuming people know how to reason about their beliefs. Most people, I'm afraid, do not know how to think about these things critically.

The problem is, serious thinking takes serious effort. Not only do we need to become better critical thinkers, a skill I find many (including myself) lack, but then we need to apply these critical methods into every aspect of our lives. 

Once we learn how to reason better, and understand the basic rules of logic, are rational thinking will be much improved. But humans aren't always entirely rational, because our brains are prone to making mistakes. There is no getting around this. Evolution hasn't given us perfect thought engines. It has given us sloppy grey matter instead.

But we can improve out ability to reason. We can used science to help reveal the hidden truths about reality.

The question becomes, what can science say about God?

A lot actually. And I think this is at the heart of what Stenger is trying to say.

As it goes, the religious will make a claim, about faith or about God, which is feasible. What this means is, religious beliefs/claims can usually be tested by science, either directly or indirectly. Science then is the method we use to do this. There is no other tried and tested method, at least that I am aware of, which yields positive results as well as the scientific method.

Science has an extremely good track record of disproving religious claims, and shattering religious beliefs, by working to reveal the truth about nature. Every time a religious claim fails, it fails in the face of what science reveals about nature. Meanwhile, the reverse has never been true. A religious revelation about the universe has never crippled science. So it seems, science will continue to disprove religious claims until religion is crippled by its on inadequacy to explain the natural world.

Is science the prefect tool for doing this? Yes. But the tool only functions as good as the person who wields it, and it so happens, many scientists are poor reasoners too. It's not just the religious. It's everyone with a human brain.

So instead of calling for the elimination of religion, and making it an us versus them thing, perhaps we should be making appeals to get people to try and start thinking more critically. That, for me, would be a win win situation for all sides.

In the interim, religion isn't going anywhere. It can't be destroyed, and the death of religion would likely mean the death of the human species, since our brains have a natural tendency to produce religious belief(s). Religion can only be minimized and kept in check--and that requires critical thinking and the aid of science.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist