Archive for the ‘George Carlin’ Category

Is “Theistic Evolution” better than Creationism?

May 16, 2007

I’ve been reading PZ Myers‘ blog Pharyngula for a while now. If you don’t read it, you should. It’s wonderful. I usually find myself agreeing with Myers on most issues. Recently I’ve found a topic that I can disagree with him on. Strangely, it involves Mitt Romney.

My claim, hotly disputed by Myers is that it is (vastly) preferable to have someone understand the science of an issue (evolution in this case) than to dismiss the science and embrace superstition (god did it).

Now, it’s pretty easy to figure out that in a battle of wits with Myers I’m effectively unarmed, however I just don’t see where he’s coming from on this one.

He followed up with another post requesting clarification from his readers. He wants to understand their viewpoint because there was a significant number of dissenting opinions. That’s one of the things I love about scientists. You think I’m wrong? Show me how and I’ll believe you.

Anyway, I think Myers is wrong because he’s looking at the issue in black and white terms. Myers says that pandering to any form of religious nonsense is a slippery slope. He seems to be worried about some future world where theistic evolution is accepted and merged into ID. In the hypothesized ensuing court cases evolution somehow gets chased out of our education system and god gets let back in.

I’m not trying to caricature his argument. I have immense respect for his opinions and writing. I’m just not understanding him on this issue.

The point I would make is that it might be better to view science and religion as orthogonal for the sake of this discussion. Let me be clear here, I’m not advocating Gould‘s non overlapping magisteria position. I don’t agree with Gould on that one, I think science will eventually be able to address the questions that Gould believed were out of reach. However, in my disagreement with Myers, it becomes much simpler to determine whether an understanding and acceptance of evolution is to be preferred over literal biblical creationism. I think in all cases and places such an understanding is vastly preferable to superstitious nonsense.

I’m arguing for an incremental approach to the “education” of the religious population in this country. I claim that it’s naive and foolish to think that continually ignoring people’s faith is going to get us anywhere. It’s not. I think we need to lead people towards critical thinking and an understanding of science in a way that doesn’t threaten their faith. This allows religious people to gain a better understanding of the world they live in without the fear that their faith will be ripped away.

The argument hinges on one key point: increased understanding of the natural world, including evolutionary theory, will necessarily lead to a decrease in superstitious and religious thought. Throughout history, god has been invoked to explain all manner of natural phenomena. As science inexorably marches forward, superstitions have been relegated to deeper and darker corners of human discourse. I’m not saying they’re gone, but very few people, for example, worship the sun any more (George Carlin being a notable exception).

When people understand enough science and the method behind scientific progress, religion is in trouble. The other component needed to crush religion is the skill of critical thinking (disappointingly rare) but that will need to be discussed further elsewhere.

In summary, theistic evolution as espoused by Romney is preferable to creationism because it accepts scientific research as the only valid way to understand nature. Sure, it tacks on some superstition and it would be better if the superstition could be removed altogether but this is a good intermediate step. If we head down this path, we at least have a chance to move toward a world without superstition and religion. If we continue to gnash our teeth and denounce anything that even vaguely mentions god, we just can’t make any forward progress. People are too threatened by it.

This is a battle we should fight. It’s a battle we can win. It certainly won’t be the end of the struggle for rationality, but it’s a sensible, practical and, above all, a useful step for us to take.

Sorry PZ, you’re going to have to work harder to convince me I’m wrong.


Why arguing about religion matters

December 2, 2006

Recently, I got myself invovled in an argument about religion with a guy named Lou.

Lou was objecting to a claim made by George Carlin. Carlin was stating categorically that there is no god. Lou was up in arms because Carlin cannot possibly know, nor can he prove, that there is no god.

Now, as many atheists know, the legendary thinker Bertrand Russell dealt with this argument 50 odd years ago. His response was the Celestial Teapot. Summarized, it says that we have no way to disprove the existence of a small china teapot orbiting the sun. The fact that we cannot disprove the teapot thesis does not make the teapot thesis true. It doesn’t even make it likely to be true. Russell’s point was that this accurately describes one of the cornerstones of the “religious debate”. The religious often claim that our inability to prove that god doesn’t exist somehow increases the likelihood that god does exist. According to Russell (and anyone prepared to think about it a little) this is complete hogwash.

Russell’s teapot is the original idea that spawned things like the Pink Unicorn and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. They’re simply better packaged for modern marketing than the original. However, they embody the same basic idea.

Lou simply refuses to believe that the FSM analogy has any relevance whatsoever to his belief. He’s claimed that it’s completely different because the FSM never walked the Earth and it’s a fact that Jesus did. It’s completely different because Christianity has billions of adherents and the Church of the FSM doesn’t have as many.

The most frustrating part about it is that Lou simply refuses to consider the opposing view point. He’s like an ostrich, burying his head to hide from the scary ideas bearing down on him. Poor Lou can’t see the purpose of these other “religions”. He doesn’t understand that he faces the same situation with the FSM as Carlin does with god. Lou claims the FSM doesn’t exist but can’t prove it.

I’ve been arguing with Lou about this for days. Many have wondered why I bother. The reason I bother is simple. It doesn’t even have anything to do with religion on the level it appears to.

I argue because religion inhibits one’s ability to think about things critically and critical thinking matters. That’s the only reason. The best example I can think of is astronomy. At various points throughout the history of humanity, astronomers have made claims that contradict the church’s accepted dogma. Astronomers have been tortured and killed for claiming such outrageous things as the Earth orbits the sun. Things that today people take for granted were, at one point, thoughts punishable by death.

That bears some serious consideration. What if everyone throughout history believed without doubt the things that religion said they should believe. It’s a pretty horrifying world to imagine.

So, ultimately, if people want to believe ridiculous fairy stories, I pity them. I understand it, certainly, but it’s not to be admired. That fact in isolation doesn’t bring my condemnation. What brings my condemnation is that religion promotes blind acceptance of claims without evidence. Specifically, that’s what faith means. Faith is incompatible with critical thinking.

Humanity has increasing access to powerful forces. In my view, this means we need more critical thought and less blind commitment to belief systems that promote ignorance. That’s why arguing with Lou matters. It doesn’t matter whether Lou learns anything or not. It matters that both sides of the discussion are laid out clearly so that people are exposed to critical thought. It matters that kids raised in a religious setting have easy access to informed discourse on the subject.

That doesn’t matter to Lou. It matters to me.