Saturday, June 24, 2006

Atheism, religiosity, and preaching to those outside the choir

Dr. Myers is peeved. Someone writing about how scientists should be less arrogant in talking about science went and quoted Einstein saying: "Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind."

Dr. Myers objects:
Albert Einstein could be such an asshole.

Why should I, or anybody, accept such a silly assertion? Religion adds nothing to science, let alone sight. If he wanted to argue that we need to add ethics or social awareness to properly integrate the execution of science into culture, sure, I'd agree…but there's a big difference between a proper perspective on societal issues and religion, and I find it extremely annoying that people so blithely and stupidly equate religion with morality and due regard for culture. Look way back at the beginning of this article; most scientists are operating sans religion.
Setting aside the fairly minor point that Einstein was saying that religion give science legs, not sight, I think there's an important issue here regarding the nature of religion. As Myers points out, about 60% of scientists are and continue to be atheists. They don't believe in any god. And I think he's right to suggest that "plenty of scientists who claim to be 'spiritual' and to believe in some vague kind of deity, and would probably be counted as believers, but their 'religion' is the kind that would have had them imprisoned or burned at the stake a few centuries ago, and certainly would be rejected by most of the modern advocates for religion."

But they are still religious, and even people who reject any deity still do have religion. And religion does indeed consist not only of theistic belief, but ethics, social awareness and guidance on how to relate complex issues to our daily lives. One can reject one part (theistic belief) without rejecting the package. Dr. Myers seems to view dismissing theism (what I'd say is a relatively minor part of religious belief) as dismissing all of religion. Or at least to feel that only theistic belief properly counts as religious.

Indeed, it's worth considering Einstein's quote in context, because when we do, we see that our two Drs. are disagreeing not about the merits of religion or theism, but about what precisely constitutes religion. Einstein explains (with my emphasis and italics):
Though religion may be that which determines the goal, it has, nevertheless, learned from science, in the broadest sense, what means will contribute to the attainment of the goals it has set up. But science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

Though I have asserted above that in truth a legitimate conflict between religion and science cannot exist, I must nevertheless qualify this assertion once again on an essential point, with reference to the actual content of historical religions. This qualification has to do with the concept of God. …

Nobody, certainly, will deny that the idea of the existence of an omnipotent, just, and omnibeneficent personal God is able to accord man solace, help, and guidance; also, by virtue of its simplicity it is accessible to the most undeveloped mind. But, on the other hand, there are decisive weaknesses attached to this idea in itself, which have been painfully felt since the beginning of history. That is, if this being is omnipotent, then every occurrence, including every human action, every human thought, and every human feeling and aspiration is also His work; how is it possible to think of holding men responsible for their deeds and thoughts before such an almighty Being? In giving out punishment and rewards He would to a certain extent be passing judgment on Himself. How can this be combined with the goodness and righteousness ascribed to Him?

The main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science lies in this concept of a personal God. …

If it is one of the goals of religion to liberate mankind as far as possible from the bondage of egocentric cravings, desires, and fears, scientific reasoning can aid religion in yet another sense. Although it is true that it is the goal of science to discover rules which permit the association and foretelling of facts, this is not its only aim. It also seeks to reduce the connections discovered to the smallest possible number of mutually independent conceptual elements. It is in this striving after the rational unification of the manifold that it encounters its greatest successes, even though it is precisely this attempt which causes it to run the greatest risk of falling a prey to illusions. But whoever has undergone the intense experience of successful advances made in this domain is moved by profound reverence for the rationality made manifest in existence. By way of the understanding he achieves a far-reaching emancipation from the shackles of personal hopes and desires, and thereby attains that humble attitude of mind toward the grandeur of reason incarnate in existence, and which, in its profoundest depths, is inaccessible to man. This attitude, however, appears to me to be religious, in the highest sense of the word. And so it seems to me that science not only purifies the religious impulse of the dross of its anthropomorphism but also contributes to a religious spiritualization of our understanding of life.

The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge. In this sense I believe that the priest must become a teacher if he wishes to do justice to his lofty educational mission.
Einstein's view of religion clearly encompasses "the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational," and the setting of societal goals. These are certainly well within the realm of what Myers agrees are the valid roles of extra-scientific inputs into the scientific process. Einstein considers them religious, Myers doesn't.

At the risk of peeving Dr. Myers, I'm compelled to pick Dr. Einstein's position as preferable.

I'm not Catholic, but I agree with just about everything that the Catholic bishops said about climate change (quoted in my review of An Inconvenient Truth). Episcopalians, Evangelicals, various branches of Judaism (see the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life) all have issued comparable statements, as have various non-Abrahamic religions, as have various atheist groups and various groups with no explicit religious affiliation. There's a fundamental common core of truths which are, as Einstein says, "from the sphere of religion," and these truths drive us to decide that it's worth doing something about the changes we are causing in the world around us, just as they explain why it's good to contribute to school programs, or to donate blood. Regardless of whether a person thinks that the sphere of religion is dominated by a bearded deity, that sphere has value.

And recognizing that can be tremendously valuable in reaching out for common understanding of the scientific issues facing us as scientists and citizens.

Montana's Governor Schweitzer says "Issues divide people, values unite people." Theism and its various details (trinitarian/unitarian, pantheist/panentheist/theist/deist/atheist, agnostic/gnostic, Christian/Jewish/Muslim/Buddhist/Hindu/animist, &c.) are issues. They divide. Respect for truth, a desire for order and honesty, a search for understanding, these are values, and they cross political, religious, and cultural boundaries.

Picking fights over whether atheists have religion doesn't help, it just builds more divisions. I suspect (and it appears Ron Numbers does too) that if people were asked to choose religion or science, a great many would pick the former. So long as that's true, it isn't helpful to science for people to be promoting that particular false choice. One can have both, if one chooses. Others choose to have only one or only the other. I know people dream of a world without religion, but I'd be more content with a world in which everyone shares the values of a "striving after the rational unification of the manifold."