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.
51 thoughts on “More accommodationism at the HuffPo “science” section: Hitchens enlisted to support religion.”
The reason is, of course, that HuffPo has nothing to do with reason or facts. It sticks firmly to the Internet news site business model of posting outrageous trolling to attract ad-banner impressions.
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.
I’m not going to hold my breath.
I’m sure they’ll start putting more woo and faitheist crap. I’m surprised it took them this long.
Still I’m quite eager for a follow-up detailing their reply; if reply they do.
Pshaw! 42 isn’t the answer to the universe, it’s the answer to life, the universe, and everything!
When Asher says:
“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.”
…I think he means “we are now at liberty to misinterpret Hitchens’s words without fear of contradiction from the man himself”.
You and Richard Dawkins can take some comfort from the thought that once you’re dead your writings will suddenly become more ‘nuanced’ for this very reason.
Citing imaginary support for your arguments from dead guys is only slightly less despicable than making up shit about death-bed conversions.
Did you mean to write “… from either religion or superstition.”?
“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.”
well, as soon as evidence is produced for this god and that the heinous acts that its magic book are demonstrated as “love”, they might have a chance of being rational. However, since both are lacking, these philosophers and Asher are utterly irrational.
Perhaps I’m being ignorant here, but “Aquinas to Polkinghorne” doesn’t strike me as being much of a range.
The range goes all the way from ‘A’ to ‘P’…
Does this mean I can commit genocide with no remorse? Or does this mean I have to?
I’ll think I’ll pass on God’s Love (I’m reminded of the words of Bad Religion songs, especially “God’s Love” when reading this), although I might make an exception for the constantly barking dogs nearby…
Um, er, yes, there is a difference between superstition and religion. If superstition is the seed, religion is the turnip.
I think the difference is the level of organization.
The distinction between rational and scientific, as pointed out by Asher, is totally arbitrary. He needs to read Vic Stenger’s book, The Fallacy of Fine Tuning. Stenger shows clearly that law’s of Newtonian mechanics, electromgentism, and relativity can be all derived from the Invariance Principle, that is, such laws cannot depend on the observer. Hence that claim that “God is the force behind the laws of nature” is as illogical as it is unscientific. And the reason we exist is not to emulate God’s love, either, it is because our ancestors had an advantage in survival and reproduction compared to their competitors.
Next: “confessions of a smoking doctor”.
WOW! Have both Adams and Hitchens resurrected??!?!
…was a brilliant (and deceased) atheist author…
A not entirely convincing syllepsis (= semantic zeugma).
is a slightly more successful example (Othello V.ii.351)
A nice reading!
I guess this means both came back from the dead, but came back not-so-brilliant. It’s probably to be expected, since all that oxygen deprivation is bound to knock off a few brain cells.
That was my reaction, too, upon reading that!
I think it’s interesting that he’s trying to distinguish between religion and superstition. The ancient Romans claimed that their antecedents, the Etruscans, in fact had no religion, but merely superstition. The Romans themselves, they’d claim, rather had religion.
This guy is doing the same thing. He’s denigrating most of the faithful as superstitious dolts, and presenting himself as an enlightened, educated, dare-I-say “sophisticated” religionist.
And WHAT BALLS to say ‘oh I wish I could’ve debated Hitchens when he was alive’. This guy is the Cambridge Museum’s Vertebrate Zoology Curator, if he /wanted/ to debate Hitchens, he easily could’ve published an article, or talked to Hitchens after a speech, much more so than us ‘mere mortals’ who don’t have such prestigious positions to abuse. I /really/ suspect Hitchens would’ve /loved/ to debate the ‘religious paleontologist’ Curator from Cambrige. Sheer cowardice to do it now; shameful.
And then to claim that Hitchens said superstitions are awful but God is Great, well I don’t know if they put cherries on their sundays in Bonnie Old Eng’Land but this guy sure just did.
So, I think we’ve established that he’s the Cambridge Museum’s invertebrate Vertebrate Zoology Curator!
You backbone chauvinist!
This goes on all the time. For instance in W.H.D. Rouse’s translation of Lucretius’ epic poem De Rerum Natura, the line:
tantum religio potuit suadere malorum
Is rendered as:
So potent was Superstition in persuading to evil deeds.
The capitalisation is his and it is as if to emphasise that it is superstition not religion that Lucretius was criticising. However here “superstition” is clearly a as the line appears after a passage describing the sacrifice of a young girl to Diana at the temple at Aulis – a religious ceremony. What is noticeable is that Rouse’s translation is in general very accurate. But for some reason he has to consider the “feelings” of his readers every time he comes across the word “religio”.
Huh the word “mistranslation” disappeared!
I looked it up in a couple of other languages: this mistranslation seems unparalleled. Elsewhere, it’s rendered as either ‘religion’ or just plain ‘faith’.
I suppose if there were a God who around smiting people who did not emulate His love then both answers could be true.
You know the sarcastic definition, ‘Ethnoanthropology is the scientific study of everyone shorter and darker than yourself’ ?
So it is with superstition.
Since classical Roman times, superstitio was the term applied to the beliefs of others, viewed as excessive and irrational, as opposed to religio, the correct observance of rites as guarantor of the bond with a transcendent deity.
Key texts: Cicero, De natura deorum; Marcus Terentius Varro, Antiquitates rerum humanarum et divinarum. Varro was largely used by Augustine as a blueprint for his De civitate dei, wherein he adapted the concepts to suit his theology.
It is particulary amusing to note that the early Christian cult was dubbed an illicit superstitio by the Romans. A ‘religious paleontologist’, so self-styled, should have known this.
In short, superstition is always somebody else’s religion.
Now I do. Thanks!
Forget Hitchens, I want to see this guy debate an astrological surgeon. Fish around India for one–it shouldn’t be hard. I want to see Asher get stomped by somehow who thinks stars are magic.
Actually I support weekly debates between educated people who believe ridiculous things. First up: religious paleontologist vs. astrological surgeon. Who ever wins goes on to debate a creationist engineer, a Catholic geneticist, an Objectivist computer scientist, and a geneticist who wears those dumb magnet-bracelet-things. Eventually people will figure out that technical qualifications don’t protect you from rank stupidity.
And the winner will take on the returning champ, a Lysenkoist Homeopath.
A Catholic geneticist? Like Francisco Ayala? Guy was so Catholic he was a Priest.
I’d pay to see that
That’s a damned good idea!
Fixed that for him.
The way Hitchens is getting re-interpreted all the time, it might behoove the next New Atheist to write a variety of small essays in response to some of the variety of possible misinterpretations that could come from religious people, and give them to someone who could release them as they were needed.
Or perhaps write a version of a Choose Your Own Adventure Novel. If you think I really secretly believed in God, turn to page 2, and if you think I did not, but was sympathetic to liberal believers, turn to page 8.
And yet I do see a difference between religion and superstition: the difference is actions.
See Jessica Ahlquist and Cranston High School West in Cranston.
The reactions to her complaint were driven entirely by superstition. Take away their dozens of lucky rabbits feet, simulations of baby Jesus and the like and hysteria ensues. These people aren’t ready to support their faith – just deluded into believing that they are.
“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”.
More exactly, it suggests the intent of the question “Why do we exist” is such that the inquiry might be more exactly phrased “For what purpose do humans exist?” Which in part presupposes the existence of purpose, and thus an associated ordering relationship on choices — though not necessarily choice involving a meaningful sense of “free will”. (Cue my usual rant about Hume, and how-why being a corruption of the is-ought distinction.) I suspect the “we evolved” answer merely gives a proximate cause, with the ultimate “choice” being that the second law of thermodynamics gives the universe a probabilistic preference for increasing entropy rather than decrease.
Apparently he’s adopting the Mormon practice (a la Romney) of converting dear Hitch after he’s dead.
Have they actually claimed to have converted Hitchens yet?
They convert everyone eventually.
I do wonder what kinda turnaround time they have on that. Maybe it waits until there’s a specific request to do so? Or, maybe it’s like newspapers that have obituaries for various VIPs on file, just in case; a rapid-response posthumous baptism team on call 24/7…
Although, I guess they’ve got eternity so there’s no real rush. Hmm….
It’s disappointing to learn Asher wrote something so terrible, since his work on fossil mammals is quite good.
Hitchens,”It becomes ever clearer that the scientific and the supernatural explanations of matters are not so much “non-overlapping” as doomed to overlap, and to contradict one another, or perhaps better, say, to be incompatible or irreconcilable with one another….To look the facts in the face is not to surrender to despair and nihilism: we know that the world will come to an end and we even know how, but it is only the religious who look forward to this event with relish and relief.”
The difference between a superstition and a religion is that you can be kicked out of a religion for doing it wrong.
Gee, Hitchens hasn’t been dead long and people are already putting words in his mouth. There was always much amusement to be had when people tried that on while he was alive.
I think there is a distinction between superstition and religion, but not necessarily the one Robert Asher is crossing himself or crossing his fingers or muttering under his breath and hoping for.
I think all religious people are superstitious, but not all superstitious people are religious.
There is room for a small petty kind of retail superstition that uses good luck charms and tosses spilled salt over one’s shoulder, but isn’t necessarily a practitioner of faith.
But to elevate superstition to the level of pretending to be an eternal, universal, infallible, unalterable, repository of all truth, requires religion.
What is rational is to expect physical reasons for physics observations as always. Laws are not exempt and we know many observed or hypothesized reasons for them – uniformity, symmetry/conservation, “theory of everything” vs anthropic selection, et cetera.
Whether magic is proposed for laws or for individual events, it is still magic. So religion is superstition.
The rest doesn’t make sense. The idea of magic is independent of whether it is used on stage shows or in churches, whether it is used for transsubstantiation of money to secular thrills or whine to religious frills. So what? Used as “rational” explanation it is precisely superstition.
A ‘superstition’ involves the assumption that objects or events are connected by some means other than the physical, usually through an underlying (or transcendent) spiritual level of meaning. Like links with like. Being born under a red planet makes you a fierce warrior, because red is the color of anger. Stepping on a crack breaks your mother’s back: all cracks are connected. A “lucky” hat connects the wearer with the winning team because luck binds together below the world of perception and below the “level of empirical precision we receive from scientific answers.”
When you take it apart and examine it, you see that the God explanation posits that all objects and events are linked through a Mind — a Mind in which meaning, purpose, and intention reside. We get love from a Love Force. We get reason from a Reason Source. We get our purpose from something that’s just all made out of Purpose, as His Ineffable Nature. Like links to like, and it’s all connected. Below the physical, material surface.
Religion is what happens when you connect a bunch of superstitions. Asher’s kidding himself. “I’m a sophisticated and nuanced religious believer; you’re a fundamentalist; he’s superstitious.”