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Friday, December 14, 2012
Current Affairs ... Public Policy ... Religion ... Science ...

There’s an article in the November, 2012 Scientific American magazine by a fellow named Shawn Lawrence Otto that summarizes the strain of un-scientific and even anti-science sentiment that has worked its way into American politics over the past decade or so. You’ve heard of the issues — teaching “creationism” in schools (the notion that evolution isn’t right and that God did directly create human-kind as per the Book of Genesis); barriers to fetal stem cell use; denial of climate change; opposition to government-sponsored vaccination programs; and restrictions on contraception and abortion. Anyone who followed the GOP presidential primary season will note how far such notions have come in terms of public acceptance, especially if they recall the names Bachman, Perry and Santorum (has-been politicos do fade fast, though, don’t they).

This is all somewhat ironic, given that America today is living in such a science-dominated environment. I mean, just where did all those smart phones and tablet computers and Prius’s and miracle drugs and high-tech medical equipment come from? From factories far outside the USA, no doubt; but without all the scientific research done right here in the USA over the past generation or two, they would never have seen the light of day. Science has been very, very good to the economy and standard of living in the USA. So why are so many people pushing back against so many things that the scientists are telling us?

I won’t go into a full-blown examination and analysis of that question here (as I probably don’t know most of the reasons). But I will say this: the scientists and their friends the academic philosophers have really asked for trouble by promoting the notion that there is no God, and that it’s irrational and regressive to even hope for the existence of a divine power in the Universe. As I’ve discussed in previous blogs, including the one just before, this notion has been given a name, i.e. “scientism“.

There are plenty of books and articles and speeches and web pages and You Tube videos devoted to the arguments of the scientism-gurus. One of the most famous examples is a recent book called “The Grand Design” by famed physicist Steven Hawking (and his side-kick, physicist Leonard Mlodinow). Basically, Hawking and Mlodinow conclude that God is a superfluous concept, because modern physics theories (not at all completely confirmed by experiment) show that a universe can create itself out of nothing. (When you look close at the details of this argument, you realize that this “nothing” really isn’t so “no-thing” at all . . . it relies on modern observations that even an empty spacetime vacuum has an energy presence which acts according to whatever mechanism drives the random, probabilistic behavior of our better-known quantum particles. One is tempted to ask, just where did this “vacuum energy process” come from . . . but perhaps that would be impolite of such a revered figure as Hawking . . . I mean, he did make an appearance on Star Trek!!!).

Another smart fellow who seems to be making a career of writing and speaking out against God is the self-proclaimed skepticism maven, Michael Shermer. I see his articles every month in Sci Am, and he has established a fair amount of presence on the web, on the bookshelves, and on PBS shows. But there are plenty of others, including neuroscientist Sam Harris, philosopher Daniel Dennett, biologist Richard Dawkins, and the late gonzo-writer Christopher Hitchens. So there’s a fairly loud voice now coming from the intelligentsia saying “give up on God”. They and their kind are a fairly recent phenomenon, although there have always been vocal atheists. But they weren’t taken so seriously by the press and book-buying public as today. What is going on? What is eating at these fellows and their supporters? (And hmmmm, just why are they all men? Has there been a prominent anti-God spokeswoman out there since Madalyn Murray O’Hair?)

They seem to argue that their inspiration and motivation is principle, that they just see this as the truth and that all of human-kind will be better off once we all learn to embrace that truth and leave our “social crutches of childish faith” behind (an argument that goes back at least to Sigmund Freud). I can accept that these fellows have much respect for principle. But I personally think that something else is going on, something that they want to say but are afraid to for fear of being politically incorrect. Let’s face it; the new anti-God intellectual movement really got rolling after 9-11. And it’s no secret that God was involved in 9-11, i.e. a particular Islamic fundamentalist concept of a God who requires bloody battle against particular kinds of infidels and their environs, especially American secularist society. Before and since 9-11-01, this breed of Islamic fundamentalism has been growing in influence (although, thank goodness, it is far from becoming prevalent or controlling in the Muslim world . . . it won’t overwhelm Egypt . . . right?). Many seemingly rational humans seem to be adopting an ancient and regressive concept of God, one that we “children of the Enlightenment” thought had died out with the final Crusades back in the 13th Century.

But let’s face it, it’s hard for the American liberal-academic intelligentsia to speak out against this dangerous kind of thought. These people have spent too much time campaigning against prejudice and closed-mindedness on the part of others. For them to now condemn a particular set of people from a particular part of the world who have a particular kind of religious heritage exposes our ivory-tower thinkers to the counter-charge that they themselves are being biased and prejudicial. They don’t like to take on such arguments, especially when made in the political and media arena. So, they hide behind the mantle of “non-preference”; i.e., they condemn Osama Bin Laden and Mother Theresa all at once. They take no prisoners, not even progressive, pro-feminist, pro-LGBT Christian leaders, and social justice mavens (tip of the hat to the Roman Catholic nuns for their continuing activism in this realm).

Well, much of the American public wouldn’t get too upset about a book or You Tube video lecture criticizing an outed-lesbian Protestant Bishop or some feminist Catholic nuns; but when the new anti-God thinkers start going after the basic tenets of religious faith in the small towns of the heartland, they are cruising for bruising. Barack Obama and the Democratic Party found this out not long ago when they tried to push through health care legislation based mainly on Blue State support. Even though such legislation will benefit the many economically depressed communities in the South, Mid-West, Plains and Mountain states, they really don’t like it when people from far away cities make big social decisions without asking them. Thus, they started the troublesome Tea Party movement. And these Tea Party people have co-opted an anti-anti-God attitude, no doubt in reaction to the smarty-pants Easterners who condemn the handful of creationists and pro-life activists in their midst.

I’d bet that the average mid-westerner is not convinced, deep in her or his own heart, that global warming is a farce, or that God directly created humans despite evolutionary biology, or that all abortion is murder. But when people from afar start criticizing those in their communities who do stand by such notions, they start circling the wagons. Before long they are voting for politicians who espouse what were once “also-ran” views in their neighborhoods, e.g. opposition to federally supported vaccination programs for their children. And of course, big business saw an opening, given that some of these views, e.g. doubt about climate change, would help them. Before long, money from those such as the Koch Brothers started flowing into Tea Party coffers, as to oppose costly federal regulation of industrial greenhouse gas emissions.

From what I can tell, the anti-God intellectual crowd is crowing as loud as ever; and the Tea Party, although seemingly weakened by the 2012 Presidential election results, doesn’t seem to be fading away (despite a good showing by Barack Obama, the GOP still holds a lock on the House of Representatives, and is expected even by liberal analyst Nate Silver to retain their majority there in 2014). So what would I suggest to Hawking and Harris and Shermer and Dennett and Dawkins and their very intelligent supporters? In a nutshell, lighten-up on God. Drop the triumphal attitude. Step back to a more truly scientific position by admitting that science appears to be eons away from being able to address the question of “where it all came from and why”. Get away from the rationale that anyone who believes in God is an unknowing slave to atavistic genetic influences instilled accidentally by the mindless forces of evolution. These ideas were and are interesting, but they were never empirically proven, just hinted at by a limited study here and there strung together with a lot of “it would seem possible that” types of assumptions. Stop looking down on anyone who would go to church (or temple or mosque), or pray at their bedside in the evening.

These intellectuals may have had good intentions in fostering a strong critique against increasingly deadly religious fundamentalism of all shades (but unfortunately, all too frequently of an Islamic flavor), by deflating the most basic presumption behind religious thought: i.e. that God exists. They can still help attack the true problem, i.e. the notion that IF God exists, some human beings can somehow discern exactly what God intends. With a bit of humility, which is not easy for modern scientists; they have always been susceptible to hubris, and given all the media interest in their modern achievements, they are only more-so infected by their own God-like attitudes — with a bit more humility, the science establishment could support all who would criticize religious fundamentalism. The boffins could truthfully say “that after centuries of study and great effort, we scientists still don’t know where or why or how the universe was born; we still see ourselves making many mistakes; so how can anyone say that even if there is a God who ultimately created the human race, any one member of that race can know God’s true intent for the world?”

(And as to evolution and creationalism – the scientists have to keep on doing the dirty work, explain, explain, explain. They will get more of a hearing if they don’t start with the presumption that any proponent of creationalism is a troglodyte just for believing in God in the first place.)

Such a change in position would help cool down the political squabbling in our nation, and let us focus some more on the increasing challenges and threats from outside our borders (for starters, the near-future probability of Iranian and North Korean nuclear missiles). Don’t forget, the Roman Empire fell because of steadily rising conflicts among those who were nominally loyal to the Emperor, while the enemies from without increasingly battered at the gates. So, to Scientific American, I would say: give God more of a break. Don’t have a holy conversion experience, but at the same time, stop assuming that anyone who does have faith or even wonders about the existence of God is deficient. Lighten up; stop being overly scientific; stop being “Scientism American”.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:52 pm      

  1. Jim, I too have tho’t many times about some of the issues you bring up in this blog. But I’m not sure I can lay it all at the feet of Science. (Did I just defend science here??) So I guess I’m going to go off on a tangent of sorts.

    I totally agree about all the disagreement when it comes to the issues you bring up-—stem cell use, climate change, etc.—that there is a serious problem of some kind going on; people are rebelling in one way or another against the major changes that are going on in our global society.

    I tend to think of it more in terms of people being afraid of change. If there is change of any kind—-in thinking this or that, in how things are done, etc.—-there tends to be a threat to the structure that has led people most of their lives. Finding a “new” structure is not an easy adjustment. People would rather rebel against change than figure out how the change will bring a new structure to their lives.

    Among those very much worried about the change in structure are those in power, in power in various areas, not just one area. So, it seems to me that the scientists are holding desperately on to their power in science which basically is that they have the answer to all questions, thus they also can speak definitively about God.

    But then I stopped to think: Would someone like say Donald Trump be worried about what the scientists have to say about God? I don’t think so. But he is definitely worried about holding on to his money and power, holding on to his tax breaks, etc.

    Then too, when it comes to the “Red states” and the “Blue states”: I saw a map of the breakdown in how the various counties voted in the entire U.S. soon after the election. I was amazed to see that there were more than one would think of “blues” in the Red states and more “reds” than one would think in the Blue states. It was more like “pockets” of thinking, but nevertheless, no one state was entirely “Red” or “Blue”.

    What I tend to think about often is how desperately the GOP, so many of the GOP power brokers in D.C. refuse to cooperate in any way in change. Strangely enough, though, I also saw a short piece (did not get to see the long piece) on Diane Sawyer interviewing all the females in Congress. They all (and here were included both Republican women and Democratic women—-I mentioned before I like Republican woman) agreed that if they were the ones who had the say most of the political problems would have long ago been solved.

    So, what then, is the problem in D.C.? Is it that the men just refuse to concede their power? Is it racist? that the white, rich men who have been in power so long just can’t possibly give up their power to a young black man? I’ve often tho’t that there’s a larger element of this last than anyone would like to admit.

    Another thing that struck me was the shock the Romney followers had on election night. I don’t think it had a single thing to do with God. I think it had very, very much to do with their asking themselves these questions: Did I just give hundreds of thousands of dollars to this guy, and he lost? And now I STILL won’t have any influence in the political power in D.C.? That would really make them angry, I’d say. And Romney’s humiliation at losing and having to address this group was clear that he had to answer just those questions and could not do it successfully.

    On another approach to this issue you bring up: I tend to think that technology (science to ordinary people like me) is moving faster than it needs to move. Sure, it’s moving fast because it wants to market the newest thing they have to make more money. As an example, I find it strange that Windows 7 has now sent me over 50 (count ‘em over 50) updates to its program and now has come out with Windows 8. I find myself thinking: Are they crazy? They haven’t completely “fixed” Windows 7 and they want me to buy Windows 8? OK, maybe Windows 8 incorporates all the changes made to Windows 7; but then why should I buy Windows 8? How long will it take to get the bugs out of Windows 8? Now I’m willing to agree there may be something I don’t understand here about science/technology; but I do think that slowing up on the latest smart phone, the latest operating system, the latest whatever would help. In other words, go a little slower with the technology and let people absorb the “new” stuff before the “newer” stuff comes out.

    I certainly understand where you are coming from. Science is an important part of your life; you like it a whole lot. And I am sure that for people who are “in your boots” your points about scientists talking about God are valid. But does the average guy or gal out there have a clue as to who Stephen Hawking is? I even know some people who dislike “The Big Bang Theory” intensely because they simply don’t understand it one bit. For such individuals, and I tend to think they are more in the majority than the minority, Stephen Hawking, et al. aren’t even on their radar.

    I must say, though, that I totally agree with you that scientists talking about God makes me wonder if they are not simply just another Sheldon Cooper, so impressed with his own brain that he can’t even see how limited he is. So, it’s not at all that I’m disagreeing with you here; I’m taking perhaps a tangential approach to some of the same points you bring up. And I certainly understand that your approach here is directly to “Scientific American” rather than the more general approach I have taken. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — December 15, 2012 @ 3:09 pm

  2. Jim, First, a little background… I do not read Scientific American and so I was not aware of any anti-God sentiment that it has. I am aware that scientists are less likely to believe in God, but I am not aware that scientists are increasingly being vocal about their atheist views. I don’t believe that if more scientists were Christian, we would be further along in stopping greenhouse gasses – which your post seems to imply. Believers still wouldn’t trust the scientists, and they wouldn’t call them Christian.

    I was aware that Stephen Hawking was an atheist. I am willing to bet that Hawking was told more than once that his physical condition was God’s will, and I bet that such comments had a profound effect on him. Indeed most of the opposition to stem cell research appears to be on religious grounds, and someone like Hawking would notice that. A scientist can talk all he wants to about the benefits of stem cell research, yet still be unpersuasive to believers. Likewise, a scientist can talk about the prevalence of homosexuality in the animal world, but such discussion is meaningless to biblical believers. Perhaps if you had an illness that might be cured sometime in the future by stem cells, you would be open to attacking the foundation of stem cell opposition?

    Also, I disagree with you that the tea party movement is anything about being anti-anti-God. The tea party movement is very heavily about economic issues. Check it out for yourself if you don’t believe me. Anyway, I enjoy reading your thoughts.

    Jim, Wishing you a Merry Christmas.

    Comment by Zreebs — December 24, 2012 @ 11:19 am

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