For some inexplicable reason, the HuffPo “Science” section continues to publish pieces on science and religion that lack any scientific content but try to reconcile the two “magisteria.”
I mentioned one such piece yesterday, and now there’s another. It’s”‘Religious’ scientists and the legacy of Christopher Hitchens” by Robert J. Asher, a paleontologist, the Curator of Vertebrates at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, and author of Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist. (It appears he’s using the post to tout that book.)
After indulging in a bit of masochism about the late Hitchens (Asher wishes fervently that he could have debated Hitch and gotten a good drubbing by him), Asher gets down to business: distinguishing between religion and superstition:
Which brings me to the phrase “religious paleontologist.” You might interpret this as an oxymoron, perhaps like “astrological surgeon.” However, I chose this particular combination in an effort to rescue the adjective “religious” (which I am) from synonymy with “superstitious” (which I am not). The laws of nature and the cosmos make it rational (but not scientific) to view God as the agency behind them, and the trappings of human cults and fundamentalism neither negate nor flow inexorably from this belief. In other words, there is a line between superstition and religion, one which Hitchens didn’t emphasize, but which is of considerable importance in making science accessible to the public. The best scientists are those who realize just how narrowly “science” must be applied to understand something about our cosmos. Asking a manageable question given our human limitations of perception and time is essential to scientific success. Something overly grand, like “what is the answer to the universe,” yields a nonsensical answer: “42.”
So much woo here, and an attempt to make a distinction where there is not a difference. Why is it “rational” to assume that there is a mystical sky-father behind the laws of nature and the cosmos? After all, “rational” means “using one’s power of reason,” and concluding that God’s behind it all flows not from reason, but from wish-thinking. What is rational is to have confidence that if we can understand the cosmos and the laws of physics, it will be by using the power of science. After all, we’ve never understood anything about the universe from either superstition or religion. That’s why, contra Asher, the distinction between them is completely irrelevant.
That is, if there is a distinction. I doubt it. The Oxford English Dictionary gives two main definitions of “superstition”:
Unreasoning awe or fear of something unknown, mysterious, or imaginary, esp. in connection with religion; religious belief or practice founded upon fear or ignorance.
In particularized sense: An irrational religious belief or practice; a tenet, scruple, habit, etc. founded on fear or ignorance.
But of course all religious belief and practice is founded on fear and ignorance (and wish-fulfillment). There is no reason behind superstition, and there’s none behind religion. Before Darwin, perhaps, there was a bit of reason behind one tenet of faith: the design argument, for before Darwin there was no rational alternative to animal “design” than that of a Designer. But natural selection made hash of that rationale, and now there are no phenomena that rationally compel us to believe in God. Ergo, religion is superstition, pure and simple. Avoiding stepping on cracks in the sidewalk has precisely as much reason behind it as the belief that a cracker and wine literally turn into the body and blood of Christ on Sunday.
And then, like a good theologian (or religious paleontologist), Asher claims that religion tackles the questions science can’t. Note, though, like all who indulge in such theology, he says that the questions can be asked, but doesn’t claim that religion has come up with the answers:
As Douglas Adams pointed out, the real challenge is coming up with a good question or two. Like Christopher Hitchens, Adams was a brilliant (and deceased) atheist author who regarded religious scientists with, at best, some concern. Regardless, this does not change the fact that grand questions about our existence can still legitimately be asked, even if in so doing we cannot expect the same level of empirical precision we receive from scientific answers. For example, how has life diversified after it began? Evolution via descent with modification. Are the Earth’s continents mobile? Plate tectonics. To answer the question “why do we exist?” with “to emulate God’s love” is to be entirely unscientific. Yet I think this answer is rational, as do philosophers and theologians ranging from Aquinas to Polkinghorne. “Science” is a specific, human endeavor, not a limitless enterprise for answering everything, and we would do well to give it a well-defined home within the larger sphere of rationality.
“To emulate God’s love” is a nonsensical and irrational answer to the question “why do we exist?”—which is more properly answered with “we evolved that way from primate ancestors”. Asher can’t face the more rational answer that there is almost certainly no teleological purpose or design behind our existence: we’re the products of blind materialistic processes that have given the world a species with a big, contemplative brain. After all, that’s what the evidence tells us.
If Asher thinks that religion can actually answer questions that science can’t, let him give me a few examples of such answered questions. Is “emulating God’s love” really the reason he thinks we exist? If so, why don’t other religions have the same answer?
Asher, in fact, is not being rational at all: he’s either accepting the doctrines he learned as a child, believing what makes him feel good, or both. There’s no evidence for any of it, and therefore it’s not rational. There is no “reason” that will tell him that we exist to emulate God’s love. Indeed, the amount of human-caused evil in the world tells us that if that was God’s purpose, He failed miserably. And I could make an equally compelling case that we exist solely to amuse God with our antics and foibles. How else can you explain Republicans?
The worst part is how Asher enlists Hitchens in the cause of religion. (Now that Hitch is gone, we’re going to see him used to support all sorts of things he would have despised. One can’t answer from the grave.) Hitchens, claims Asher, was not a one-dimensional man: he could not be put in a box as either right- or left-wing:
Yet there is one aspect of Hitchens’ legacy that I think parallels a literary juxtaposition such as “religious paleontologist,” something that he demonstrated more effectively than probably any other writer of the last 50 years: understanding the perplexing issues of our time does not benefit from a one-dimensional spectrum of opinions between left and right. . . Even if Hitchens would never have used the term “religion” in the positive sense in which I see it, he set an example by which the nuances behind such concepts can be evaluated on their own merits, rather than defaulting to awful tribal dichotomies such as conservative vs. liberal.
Ergo Jesus, for surely Hitch would have seen the difference between faith and superstition. But if you’ve read God is Not Great, you realize that’s bunk: Hitch was always asserting that religion was born of fear and ignorance—precisely the definition of superstition.
I wish Hitchens were alive to demolish this nonsense. I can image his stentorian voice now, arguing that religion poisons everything and there’s no difference between religion and superstition. I can see him taking of his glasses, fixing his audience with that penetrating stare, and saying that religion was born in the fearful ignorance of humanity’s childhood, and it’s time to let faith go.
Well, what should be let go is Asher—from the HuffPo Science section. What in the world are they thinking, putting up this kind of stuff? There’s no science in it at all—merely accommodationism. I talked to the senior editor of the HuffPo Science Section last night and told him exactly this. We’ll see if they make any changes.