Religion, Ideology, Science, and the Cult of Personality
I’ve had several private correspondences over the last couple of days dealing with what I’ve started calling the Church of Dawkins. A significant number of theists and atheists seem to believe that there’s some sort of cult forming around everything that comes out of the mouth of the “King of Atheists,” or some nonsense like that. This also ties into the hubbub over the New Atheists and The Four Horsemen and all the other monikers earned by various atheist writers over the last few years.
To begin with, let me say a few things about what is happening in atheism. I’m tempted to put atheism in scare quotes because atheism is not a philosophy or a worldview, but I will let that stand for the moment. Just please realize that when I talk about “atheism” in this sense, I’m talking about a vaguely defined social movement, not the ordinary epistemological position.
Atheism is a movement of a sort. We have conferences and book signings and student associations. There are “factions.” Some atheists don’t believe in the in-your-face style of Dawkins and Harris. Writers like Michael Shermer favor a much more passive and accepting approach to spreading freethought. Ayn Rand was an atheist, and promoted objectivism, which is fervently espoused by a small number of atheists, but discarded as so much claptrap by most rationalists and positivists.
There are “leaders” in atheism. Margaret Downey has been at the forefront of many social and free-thinking issues for years, and is the founder of the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia. She was largely responsible for taking on the Boy Scouts for discriminating against atheists and gays. Richard Dawkins is a prolific author and a compelling speaker, and he has an extensive speaking circuit as well as a very popular website. Sam Harris frequently editorializes in the country’s most widely read newspapers.
It’s relatively easy for me to understand why a lot of people see what’s going on in atheism and think it’s cult-like. Had I been a theist when a lot of these folks became big news, I’d probably have thought the same thing. The thing is, it’s not a cult. Certainly every popular author has his or her fanboys. That cannot be avoided. But the thing that makes this movement special, and I believe unique in Western History, is that it is a seemingly paradoxical movement. Hundreds of thousands of people are working together to encourage every individual to think for himself andnot follow the group! How can this be possible? There are two main reasons I can think of: The Principles of Science, and The Convergence of Truth.
The Principles of Science
If you haven’t read my article on the scientific method, now would be a good time, as I will only summarize briefly here. If you understand science, you know that its greatest strength is its independence from authorship. That is to say, if I give you a list of instructions for performing a scientific experiment and you follow the instructions precisely, you will get the same results as anyone else on the planet who followed the same steps. There need not be any attribution or author’s name on the study for you to know the facts demonstrated by the experiment are true.
As humans, we admire scientists who make breakthrough discoveries. We all know the name Albert Einstein, and we all hold him in high reverence, as we do Isaac Newton, Marie Curie, and Jonas Salk. It is important to remember, though, that the discoveries made by these men and women were truths waiting to be discovered. Einstein did not create general relativity. He described it. Salk was the first to observe the truth that a dead polio virus would successfully immunize children against polio. Curie observed that uranium radiation made the surrounding air conductive.
The important point here is that had any one of these scientists not been born, the scientific truths associated with their names would have been discovered by someone else. Perhaps Einstein was ahead of his time, but it is hard to imagine that no human would have put the same pieces of the puzzle together and reached the same conclusion — ever. That’s the beauty of science. The pieces of any puzzle are available for anyone to see. If a thing is true, it is true for Einstein and Hambydammit and Joe Plumber. Neither of us needs the other to see the truth. We just need the scientific method.
The “Four Horsemen” of atheism, as well as most of the lesser known authors, and most bloggers like me, are staunch advocates of the scientific method. In many ways, we are not so much concerned with converting someone to atheism as we are convincing them of the truth thatscience is the only reliable way to discover truth. Indeed, there are atheists in the world who believe wacky things. As many theists are quick to point out, Stalin was an atheist. So was Mao Tse-tung. These people believed in a political ideology that doesn’t work. They caused immense suffering because they believed an ideology instead of empirically verifiable facts.
As a matter of fact, Sam Harris himself has been quite critical of using the word “atheist” to describe this movement. Paul Geisert and Mynga Futell co-founded the term “Brights” in an attempt to unite everyone who believes in naturalism and science. I only refer to myself as an atheist because the word is accurate in describing my lack of belief in a deity. Given the choice, I call myself a naturalist or a materialist, for both of those words give a far more detailed description of what I do believe, rather than simply mentioning one thing I don’t believe in.
Science, then, is the central support of the growing atheist movement. Since science is results-based instead of personality based, we should expect the movers and shakers to come and go. We should recognize that so long as any particular figure in the movement is espousing independent, empirically verifiable science, we will not be heading down the road towards a cult of personality. Similarly, we should demand that no matter how well-established a particular figure is, he should back up every positive claim he makes. Tenure does not reduce the burden of proof.
The best example I can think of is the laughable tactic used in the movie Expelled. In one scene, Ben Stein is interviewing Dawkins about the origins of life, and Dawkins explains that even if life were seeded on earth by aliens, it would only push the question of origins back one step. We would still have to account for the beginning of the alien life, and the only plausible explanation is gradual increasing complexity as described by evolution. Theists have jumped on this bandwagon in an attempt to discredit Dawkins. “SEE!” they proclaim. “The Grand Poo-Bah of Atheism Believes in Aliens!!”
Granted, this is stretch, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Let’s suppose that Richard Dawkins believes aliens seeded life on earth. Fine. He needs to get to writing, because he’s got a HUGE burden of proof to overcome before anybody believes him. Oh, sure. There will be a few thirteen year olds who will hang their hats on alien seeding without demanding proof, but every scientist worth his dissertation will demand overwhelming proof.
When Antony Flew succumbed to dementia and espoused belief in a deistic god, the reaction from the brights and atheists and naturalists was mostly sympathy. He has been a prominent figure in the freethinking movement, and it is sad from a human perspective to see that his faculties have dimmed and that he cannot form coherent arguments anymore. He is still highly respected as a member of the freethough community, and his serious work still stands as strongly as it ever did.
The broad point is a simple one. This movement, unlike any other ideological movement, has its roots in something outside of the word of man. Ironic, isn’t it? For centuries, men have told us that the word of God was outside of the word of man, but there was no way to verify that except for trusting the word of men. Now, with the discovery of science, we truly can discover reality without trusting men. The independence of the scientific method is the escape hatch from the cult of personality.
The Convergence of Truth
If you know something about evolutionary biology, you know what convergent evolution is. Simply put, some solutions to problems are better than others, and evolution, being based entirely on the success of design, tends to discover particularly good solutions over and over. The eye is one of the best examples. At least eight independent times, evolution has stumbled upon the solution of light detection. In many environments, creatures that can detect and react to light are significantly better equipped to survive than those who can’t. The eye has developed in different ways. Just as there are multiple ways to build a camera lens, there are different ways to build eyes. At the heart of all eyes, however, is the inescapable truth: Seeing is better than not seeing.
I want to take the same principle and apply it to living as a human. When we look around the entire world, we see many remarkable convergences of truth. As a very mundane example, we observe that virtually all cultures go out of their way to make tools designed for human rear ends to rest upon. The truth is simple: Humans expend less energy while resting than standing, and sitting on one’s rear end is one of the best forms of resting. Of course, there are thousands of designs for sitting devices. I’m sitting in a faux-leather office chair with wheels. There are rocking chairs, swings, settees, pillows, lumbard support cushions, and divans. The angle of inclination, comfort, height, and other variables change significantly between designs, but all of them address the same truth — it is good for people to sit sometimes.
We should not suppose for a minute that one human thought up a chair, and every chair since has been a copy or adaptation. How foolish that would be! When anthropologists discover a new tribe of humans that has never had contact with the outside world, they observe sitting devices of some sort. Shaping the environment to make a comfortable sitting surface is so obvious an action that we hardly think of it as requiring intelligence. Even so, this is a good analogy for more complicated convergences of truth.
I have mentioned before that a naturalist philosophy essentially demands atheism, if followed to its logical conclusion. This, of course, is because of the incoherence of all god-definitions when applied to naturalism. This understanding hasn’t been easily accessible for most of human history. Modern epistemology, ontology, and symbolic logic have given us the tools we need to make the observations of naturalism with justification. Therein lies the key to this growing movement of diverse yet convergent atheists. Any one of these fields demands answers to questions that lead to other related fields. If I begin with logic, I must at some point address the question of how far the rules of logic apply. To answer that question, I must study ontology. To study ontology, I must study epistemology. If I thoroughly grasp these subjects, I will be pulled very strongly towards naturalism. (It’s my belief that naturalism is the only justifiable position, but that’s another blog topic.)
You can probably see where I’m going with this. Atheism is a convergent truth. It may be reached in a variety of ways, but it is the logical conclusion to a great many lines of thinking. Most importantly, it is the position demanded by the scientific method. If there is a god, there is evidence for this god. Science has yet to uncover one scrap of evidence for god, so it must conditionally conclude that god-belief is unjustified. Put simply, anyone who meticulously and precisely follows the scientific method ought to arrive at atheism if he ever addresses the question of god(s). In the same way that any two people on earth, given a description of a basic science experiment, will achieve the same results, the rejection of the god theory is also a predictable result of the application of the scientific method. It is a truth accessible to anyone on the planet, independent of whether it has been discovered elsewhere before.
The Uniqueness of the Atheist Movement
“Atheism” (or “New Atheism, if you must) is a unique movement in human history. Never before have we had access to so much information about the universe and the nature of reality. I don’t see the atheism movement as a political movement, or an ideological movement. Instead, it is in large part a realization by millions and millions of people that science gives them the freedom to shake off the yoke of personality. They need not follow Sagan or Dawkins or Dennett. They can instead avail themself of the independent and objective yardstick of science and logic. The truths they discover may have been previously discovered, of course, and if it turns out that they find like minded people who have also made the same discoveries, so much the better.
This isn’t about atheism. It’s about realizing that we have the justification as humans to throw off religion and superstition and do the best we can at working out the nature of reality ourselves. There will be quacks and fakirs who will come and go. They will gather their own followers, but in the end, their ideas will be discarded when it becomes obvious that they cannot stand up to independent scrutiny. If ever there was a movement that was truly about the individual, this has to be it. It is about belief in the reliability of truth outside of the word of any man, no matter how intelligent or powerful he might be. It is what religion has claimed to offer and failed. Where religion only offers the word of man to testify to the “Truth,” science offers itself as the path to truth, and anyone can discover the truth without indoctrination or threats of punishment.
Ironic, isn’t it?
I realize that I’m setting myself up. Theists will jump on the bandwagon and say, “See! It’s just like a religion! You’re religious!” When they do that, I will quietly explain to them — again — that there is no end to the chain of heresay in religion, and science is its own end. There is an unethical experiment we cannot perform in reality, but can easily imagine as a thought experiment. Suppose we take a hundred children and raise them in complete social isolation. That is, we ensure that they are not taught any religious concept whatsoever, or ever hear the word “god” or “science.” When they are old enough to manipulate their environment creatively, we put them in an isolated environment with various problems to solve. They must find shelter from the heat and rain. They must find food. They must not defacate where they sleep or they will soon have to find new shelter.
Most of the children will solve these problems, assuming there are things to eat and places to hide. Most of them will use tools to accomplish their purposes. Supposing we leave them existing tools, they will probably discover their uses. If, for instance, we leave a lens to focus sunlight, some of the children will learn to start fires. Not all, of course, but many. If we leave an umbrella, most of the children will figure out how to open it, and will use it as a portable shelter.
Now, let us ask ourselves: How many of these children will come up with the Gospel of John? How many will come away from their isolated existence believing firmly that Jesus Christ is the son of god, and they must believe in him or suffer eternal hellfire as punishment for disbelief? The obvious answer is that not one child will come to that conclusion. Not one. Yet all of them, to some degree or another, will convergently discover truths of science. Nobody will discover Allah, or Thor, or Zeus, or Ahura Mazda. To discover these gods, we must learn of them from other men. Some may argue that convergence upon "God" is the same as scientific convergence, but we must point out that this is an equivocation. In this case, the "God" that the children converged upon would be defined as "widely varying descriptions of magical beings, many of whom are inconsistent or contradictory with both themselves and other descriptions." Converging on a question is not the same as converging on an answer.
After this objection has been dealt with, atheists and theists alike will aver that there is more to life than scientific observation. Human life is about culture and love and emotional entanglement. Science can describe these things empirically, but it cannot tell us what to do with them. To that, I will reply, “Precisely my point!” Science can and does describe culture, love, and emotional entanglement. We discover truths about being human. We are evolved creatures with instincts and intelligence. We all desire companionship, mating, and social acceptance. We all tend towards conspicuous consumption. All of this information is useful to us in deciding how to act.
Human culture is diverse and in some ways quite unpredictable. Science doesn’t promise utopia. It promises truth. Sometimes the truth is ugly, and that is one of the scariest things about abandoning myth for truth. Tsunamis will strike. Hurricanes will devastate cities. Charlatans will rob people of their life savings. But science at least gives us a clear window into why these things happen, and offers us the chance to potentially change what we want to change, based not on guesses about what Jehovah might want us to do, but on the way the world works, as verifiable to anyone who cares to look.
There will always be questions to answer, and there will always be people and cultures we disagree with. Science will not give us a One World Government, or a universal code of ethics. Instead, it will give us a way to understand the necessary and dynamic diversity we see in different cultures. It will give us the justification to call for the end of demonstrably harmful cultural practices. It will demand evidence before embarking on grandiose social engineering projects. It will demand that we give an empirically verifiable reason before imposing this or that law on a populace. It will demand an end to blind faith.
The Science Movement is about ending that which is demonstrably false and harmful, and about enabling us to find the best ways to pursue what we believe is right. This is no different from the religious movement in one very important sense — it’s still about doing what we believe is right. The crucial difference, however, is that it finally gives us a yardstick to test our beliefs against. It is literally a reality check to guage whether our intentions match our actions. It’s fine and good to intend good or to wish people happiness. It’s quite another to act in a way that actually promotes happiness. Science is the tool for determining the effectiveness of our actions. It is the only reliable tool. THAT is what makes science different from religion.