Are science and atheism compatible?
Science brings no comfort to to anyone with dogmatic beliefs about world
Posted by Andrew Brown Friday 12 February 2010 16.30 GMT guardian.co.uk
The General Synod this morning held a debate on whether science and religion are mutually exclusive, full of ordained scientists arguing that of course they are, and indeed the final vote was 241 to two in favour of the motion. I have failed to establish the identity of the dissident two. Faced with such a consensus I thought it might be fun to flip the question on its back and ask to what extent science is compatible with atheism.
Obviously the two are closely linked, in as much as science assumes the falsity, or at least irrelevance, of supernaturalism. But science is more than physics and chemistry, more even than biology, and the human sciences challenge a lot of beliefs held by many atheists.
The modern efflorescence of evolutionarily inspired psychology and sociology tells us that the elements of religion are natural, and unavoidable, and sometimes useful; that they are present in all societies, whether literate or pre-literate, whether in states or hunter-gatherer, though they are combined in very different forms of social organisation.
So we learn at the very least that they can’t be abolished. This doesn’t show that they need be combined into things we call “religions”; but at the very least they will tend to combine into social groupings and mechanisms which perform the same functions.
Further, the sociology of religion shows clearly that modern monotheistic religion is not an intellectual pursuit. People do not join churches because they agree with the doctrines. Nor do they often leave for intellectual reasons. They join – and leave – for all sorts of largely social reasons, and even within the churches, their allegiance to, and knowledge of, the official doctrine is slight. Heresy can matter enormously, but that’s because it defines an outgroup. And the execration of heretics flourishes among atheist societies, too. It seems to be very widespread social mechanism.
None of the theories of the transmission of religious belief favoured by anti-theists work. Religious belief is not a marker of stupidity. In this country, among the under thirties, it is most common in those with a university education. Nor is it transmitted by brainwashing.
But if religion is natural, none of this proves it is necessary, nor that it is impossible to suppress. The North Koreans, the Russians, and the Chinese have all done so, with remarkable success. If you are prepared to kill and torture believers, and to make it illegal for them to teach their faith, then it takes no more than a generation to drive it underground. But the effort must constantly be maintained. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia has once more become officially Orthodox; there has been a growth of 55 million people identifying as Christians in the former Eastern Europe. In China we have growing Christian churches. I don’t think anyone would take North Korea as an example to follow in anything, but it is true that it has largely abolished religion, for the moment.
Social democracy offered much more serious threat to religious practice. In well-ordered social democratic states, where people are without serious material anxieties and confident that their cultures represent the summit of human progress, religion comes to seem an archaic and inconvenient irrelevance. No force and needed. In Sweden, certainly, by the late seventies, social democracy had replaced a belief in society as ordered by God with one in society ordered by Progress. But you find far fewer Swedes believing in inevitable and benevolent progress these days. It would be an act of faith to bet on the survival of a social democratic order anywhere now. I regret that, but it’s still a fact.
Nor has the decline of religious belief, in those countries where it has declined, resulted in a growth of scientific knowledge. If anything, the two have declined together. This is distressing for the atheists who believe that science and religion are natural enemies, contending for our hearts and understandings, but it makes perfect sense. Some religious doctrines are untrue, but when you abolish them, you need not thereby add to the world’s stock of truth. You could just add to the variety of its lies.
Science and organised traditional religion have to some extent the same enemies. Both rely for their influence on society on trust in authority and that is rapidly eroding. This is obvious in the case of religion, but we can see from the progress of climate change denialism how helpless scientists are against the same kind of jeering and suspicious anti-intellectualism that some of them direct at religion.
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