20 September 2009


Via Effect Measure, I came across a piece entitled, "My God Problem." It's an interesting read, and highlights some disparities in public discourse. Compare the two bolded sentences, expressing sentiments from the same person.

Consider the very different treatments accorded two questions presented to Cornell University's "Ask an Astronomer" Web site. To the query, "Do most astronomers believe in God, based on the available evidence?" the astronomer Dave Rothstein replies that, in his opinion, "modern science leaves plenty of room for the existence of God . . . places where people who do believe in God can fit their beliefs in the scientific framework without creating any contradictions." He cites the Big Bang as offering solace to those who want to believe in a Genesis equivalent and the probabilistic realms of quantum mechanics as raising the possibility of "God intervening every time a measurement occurs" before concluding that, ultimately, science can never prove or disprove the existence of a god, and religious belief doesn't—and shouldn't—"have anything to do with scientific reasoning."

How much less velveteen is the response to the reader asking whether astronomers believe in astrology. "No, astronomers do not believe in astrology," snarls Dave Kornreich. "It is considered to be a ludicrous scam. There is no evidence that it works, and plenty of evidence to the contrary." Dr. Kornreich ends his dismissal with the assertion that in science "one does not need a reason not to believe in something." Skepticism is "the default position" and "one requires proof if one is to be convinced of something's existence."

Anyone else see a problem there? To be consistent, he would need to say something like, "In science, the default position is that there is no god. One requires proof if one is to be convinced of something's existence." He could then add some nice platitudes about quantum mechanics and the Big Bang, and say something like "Certain formulations of God are not incompatible with scientific knowledge," but he should still add, "but God as a concept has no place in science." I don't mind that he is a "compatibilist" (to use a recent phrase, almost always used condescendingly, unfortunately), but it bothers me that he bends over backwards to avoid criticizing the idea of god, while he just stomps right down on astrology.

So the question becomes, why is religion (supposedly) entitled to more respect than astrology? As far as truth-values go, I consider astrology and religion equivalent. Both make strange claims about the nature of the universe and how certain things will influence us both now and in the future. The primary difference is that most of astrology's claims are testable, and such tests never come out in its favor when run by people without a stake in the truth of astrology. It would be fair to say that astrology has been falsified. Now, some religions don't make any testable claims, but plenty of them make patently false claims. Shouldn't religions that make patently false claims receive exactly the same amount of respect as astrology, i.e. none?

Even for religions that avoid making testable claims, I would state the accommodation as something like, "If a religion makes no testable claims, science cannot prove or disprove it. Still, skepticism is the default position of science and one requires proof if one is to be convinced of something's existence." To say that scientific reasoning should not play a part in religious thinking is absurd. Of course one should reject a religion that makes false scientific claims.

The question remains, then, why does religion get more respect than astrology? It's not because religion is any more true than astrology. I can think of two potential reasons. (1) Religion is perceived as serving a useful social function. (2) The majority of the public are religious, and scientists have to deal with the tyranny of that majority. I actually think it's a combination of (1) and (2). Whether the "perception" in (1) is true or not isn't something I want to get into just now, but it's a point that I haven't seen brought up much. (2), though, is a problem. It has nothing to do with whether religion deserves respect and everything to do with a mob mentality. There also seems to be more than a touch of moral relativism in the culture, and not just regarding criticisms of religion. Criticizing anything is seen as somehow "wrong" ... except, perhaps, criticizing those who criticize. That's a problem, because some things need to be criticized.

Thus, I don't think respect should be the default position for anything that happens to be labeled "religion." Respect must be earned. Then what should it take for a religion, or even a single church, to earn respect? (1) The first criterion has to be that any institution wanting respect must in turn respect others. Intolerant hatemongers need not apply. (2) The second criterion is that it must not make patently false claims about the world; in particular, such claims must not be part of its dogma. (3) The third is that it should provide one or more genuinely useful social services without making those services contingent on proselytization. That may or may not be a complete list, but it's a good start. Certainly any religion failing to meet (1) and (2) deserves no respect. Likewise, a church that makes its services contingent on conversion deserves no respect. I think an institution meeting (1) and (2) without offering social services deserves simple tolerance, and no more. A church or religion that meets all 3 criteria is deserving of respect.


John said...

I think it's because he is (like most Americans, I bet) conditioned to tread lightly respectfully?) around religion, but feels no such obligation towards astrology.

Qalmlea said...

Possibly, but I'm interested in why and how such conditioning occurs. Partly I think it's a majority issue, but partly I think there's this vague idea that it's a good thing to have religion/churches around, that they serve some useful, but never named, purpose. So I figure if a church is itself being respectful both to people and reality, and actually does serve some demonstrable useful purpose, then it has earned respect.

I'm probably overexplaining. It's a habit that comes from reading too many philosophy papers.