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Victor Stenger

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The Folly of Faith

Posted: 05/17/11 03:57 PM ET

Presented at the Orange County Freethought Alliance Conference May 15, 2011, Irvine, CA.

"People of faith" are universally treated with great deference. The religious are assumed to be persons of the highest moral standards -- exemplars of goodness, kindness, and charity. But why should that be? How does faith qualify anyone for such high esteem? After all, faith is unquestioning belief in the absence of supportive evidence and even in light of contrary evidence. How can one expect such a frame of mind to result in any special insight? While a false belief may be comforting or even temporarily useful, it cannot be a guide to life or the foundation for a successful society. Are we not then irresponsible to build a society based on faith? And how foolish are we, the unfaithful, to defend the beliefs of people of faith?

Religion and science have long been at war with one another. Given the dominant role that religion plays in American society today, most scientists and many national scientific organizations have compromised their principles in order to stay on good terms with religious groups. They try to divide up the territory, leaving science to decide what "is" and religion to decide what "ought to be." However, nowadays, religious leaders and their political supporters are increasingly, and more stridently, trying to define the real world on their own terms. In the process, they are undermining scientific consensus on issues of great consequence to humans everywhere, such as overpopulation and planetary climate change. Scientists and those who believe in reason and empirical evidence have to stop sitting back and letting ideology rather than data control public policy.

Some authors claim that, historically, religion and science have contributed constructively to one another. However, over the millennia religion has been more of a hindrance than a help to the development of science. It was surely no accident that the scientific revolution of the eighteenth century happened only after the revolts against Church authority in the Renaissance and Reformation opened up new avenues of thought.

Religion is based on faith. By contrast, science is not based on faith but on objective observations of the world. This makes religion and science fundamentally incompatible. Science poses the question, "What are you going to believe: the dreams and fantasies of ancient mystics or your eyes, ears, telescopes, magnetic resonance imaging, hadron colliders, and above all, reason and rigorous questioning of all extraordinary claims?"

Let's take a look at the incompatibilities between religion and science. The battle between evolutionary biologists and creationists is well known. Less well known are the ways theists and spiritualists misuse and misrepresent physics and cosmology to claim scientific support for their belief in a supernatural creation. They falsely claim that cosmology supports a created universe. They falsely claim that the parameters of physics are fine-tuned for human life. They falsely claim that modern physics provides a means for God to act in the world without being detected. They falsely claim that quantum mechanics implies that humans can make their own reality -- just by thinking they can.

At the current stage of scientific development, we can confidently say that there is no need to introduce supernatural forces in understanding the universe.

Allow me to give some of the reasons why I believe that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. And then I will show why it matters.

All religions, even Buddhism, teach that a reality exists that goes beyond -- transcends -- the material world that presents itself to our senses and scientific instruments. Many believers and nonbelievers alike claim that science has nothing to say about the supernatural. But they fail to acknowledge that if the supernatural exists and has effects on the material world, then those effects should be observable and subject to scientific study.

While science is willing to consider any evidence that comes along, so far none has appeared that requires any immaterial entity be added to the models that already describe our observations of the world around us with great precision.

Basic to most religions is the notion of divine creation. Prior to the twentieth century there were good reasons to think that the universe could not have come into existence naturally, that a miraculous creation was required that violated basic laws of physics. Today, however, we can say that a purely natural origin of the universe is fully conceivable based on existing knowledge.

A question often asked is "how can something come from nothing?" The simplest answer is that our universe is just one of many in a multiverse that always existed and so did not have to come from anything.

Similarly, biologists have found no special "vital force" within living organisms that might be associated with a soul. And, neuroscientists have found no sign of immaterial components to the human mind.

For centuries thinkers have argued that the observed order we see around us is evidence for divine design in the universe. We now understand that the existence of cosmic order does not violate any principles of physics. Today's intelligent design creationist movement argues that complex biological structures require an architect and builder and that natural processes cannot generate new information. They are wrong. The generation of complex systems from simpler systems can be seen in many physical situations, such as the natural, spontaneous transitions from gas to liquid to solid. The condensing of water vapor to a liquid, and liquid water to ice, is the prime example of how complexity arises naturally from simplicity

Complex life on Earth evolved naturally from simpler forms. Despite overwhelming evidence, only one-third of Americans say they accept evolution. This would seem to indicate that at least some Christians agree with evolution. However, this is misleading. Surveys that ask what people actually believe indicate that virtually no Christians accept the theory of evolution as understood by modern biology. For example, during his recent Easter address, the Pope told Catholics that while they can believe in evolution, they must accept that it is still God-guided. Quoting the Pope:

It is not the case that in the expanding universe, at a late stage, in some tiny corner of the cosmos, there evolved randomly some species of living being capable of reasoning and of trying to find rationality within creation, or to bring rationality into it. If man were merely a random product of evolution in some place on the margins of the universe, then his life would make no sense or might even be a chance of nature. But no, Reason is there at the beginning: creative, divine Reason.

Prove it Mr. Pope.

In fact, God plays no role in the conventional Darwinian theory, or conventional cosmology for that matter. Polls show that virtually no Christians really believe in evolution by random mutations and natural selection, which is the accepted theory among biologists. Those Christians who say they accept evolution really believe in another form of intelligent design, God-guided evolution. Darwinian evolution is godless. It says humanity was an accident. This is completely incompatible with Christianity, which assumes humans are a special creation of God.

I need not review all the other issues that fundamentally divide science from religion. Other speakers and authors have amply covered these matters. Rather I would like to show why the incompatibility between religion and science matters and why it is so important that we not just sit back and let this nation become a theocracy ruled by blind faith rather than science and reason.

The war between theology and science would not matter much if it were just an academic dispute. Unfortunately, religion seriously hampers science from being put to use for the benefit, indeed the very survival, of humanity. Darwinian evolution is the foundation of modern biology. Yet in America our best biological knowledge is not being taught in many if not most high schools. This neglect is bound ultimately to have a negative impact on human health sciences as well as basic biological research.

In America, religious groups are being manipulated by corporate interests to work against their own members' best interests, in health and economic well-being. They are being used to cast doubt upon well-established scientific findings in important issues such as overpopulation, pollution, and global warming. This would not be happening except for the diametrically opposed world-views of religion and science. In America today, corporate interests and the conservative politicians they have purchased use religion to stifle science.

When belief in ancient myths joins with other negative forces in our society, they hinder the world from advancing scientifically, economically, and socially at a time when a rapid advancement in these areas is absolutely essential for the survival of humanity. We now may be only about a generation or two away from the catastrophic problems predicted to result from global warming, pollution, and overpopulation. Our children and grandchildren could be faced with flooded coastal areas, severe climatic changes, epidemics caused by overcrowding, and increased starvation for much of humanity. Such disasters would generate worldwide conflict on a scale that is likely to exceed that of the great twentieth-century wars, possibly with nuclear weapons in the hands of unstable nations and terrorist groups.

Now, I understand that anthropogenic global warming is a very controversial issue. Whatever the truth, whether or not the current warming trend is caused by human activity, surely this finite planet cannot withstand a continuation of humanity's current exponential growth in population and exploitation of natural resources. Ten thousand years ago, a blink in time in the history of life, there were just one million human beings on Earth. Two hundred years ago the population was one billion. Today we are almost at seven billion. The estimate for 2050 is nine billion.

There simply is no way that we can sustain this rate of growth. Earth cannot possibly handle it. Something has to give, and give soon. And the cause of this problem can be laid directly at the feet of religion and its unsupportable positions on when life begins, reproductive rights, environmental controls, as well as its general distrust of science.

Of course, I am not saying anything here you haven't heard before. The less familiar argument I want to make is that powerful corporate interests are using religion to throw doubt upon the work of climate scientists and others who are warning us about the dangers ahead. This is dirty politics -- not legitimate scientific debate.

The role of religion in climate change denialism is not widely appreciated. Let me just give two examples that illustrate the thinking:

1. The Rev. Jim Ball, senior director for climate programs at the Evangelical Environmental Network that accepts the science of global warming, said that many of the deniers feel that “it is hubris to think that human beings could disrupt something that God created... This group already feels like scientists are attacking their faith and calling them idiots so they are likely to be skeptical” about global warming (as quoted by Leslie Kaufman, "Darwin Foes Add Warming to Targets, New York Times, March 3, 2010).

2. The Cornwall Alliance for The Stewardship of Creation has issued what they call "An Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming." Allow me to quote from that declaration:

We believe Earth and its ecosystems--created by God's intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence --are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory. . . . We deny that Earth and its ecosystems are the fragile and unstable products of chance, and particularly that Earth's climate system is vulnerable to dangerous alteration because of minuscule changes in atmospheric chemistry.

In other words, trust in God. He won't let us destroy life on earth. Could there be any better example of the folly of faith?

In conclusion, it is time for scientists and other rationalists to join together to put a stop to those who claim they have some sacred right to decide what kind of society the rest of us must live in. We must act for the sake of the betterment of humankind, and the future of our planet. Based on the favorable signs that young people are increasingly abandoning religion, I have great hope that perhaps in another generation America will have joined Europe and the rest of the developed world in casting off the rusty chains of ancient superstition that stand as an impediment to science and progress. I just hope it's not too late.