Is Religion a Threat to Science?

Daniel Dennett says that religion is “the greatest threat to rationality and scientific progress”:

It used to be the case that we tended to excuse drunk drivers when they crashed because they weren’t entirely in control of their faculties at the time, but now we have wisely inverted that judgment, holding drunk drivers doubly culpable for putting themselves in that irresponsible position in the first place. It is high time we inverted the public attitude about religion as well, finding all socially destructive acts of religious passion shameful, not honourable, and holding those who abet them – the preachers and other apologists for religious zeal – as culpable as the bartenders and negligent hosts who usher dangerous drivers on to the highways. Our motto should be: Friends don’t let friends steer their lives by religion.

Other institutions or traditions may encourage a certain amount of irrationality – think of the wild abandon that is often appreciated in sports or art – but only religion demands it as a sacred duty. This might not matter if the activities that composed religion were somewhat insulated from the rest of the world the way they are in sports and art. Then we could treat religious allegiances the way we treat differences in taste: if you have a taste for kick boxing or heavy metal bands, that’s your business. Knock yourself out, as we say, it’s only a game. Not so with religion. Its arena includes not just the participants but all of life on the planet. Given that, it’s troubling to note how avidly some people engage in deliberate make-believe in order to execute the prescribed duties.

Lord Robert Winston, emeritus professor of fertility studies at the Imperial College London, says religion poses no such threat:

Screw it. There’s no need for a blockquote.

His arguments include Pascal’s Wager, the Courtier’s Reply, and a complete misunderstanding of science.

And they’re supposed to have a debate tonight?!


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

  • http://intrinsicallyknotted.wordpress.com Susan B.

    Wait, they’re having a debate? When, where? (Dennet is awesome!)

  • cautious

    Lord Winston wtf:

    Yet, in Dennett’s world, humans are divided into “brights” or believers – and if you are not a “bright”, you disagree with his point of view because you are intellectually inferior, closed-minded or too scared.

    Response 1: Actually, in Dennett’s world, humans are divided into brights or supers. There’s no insinuation that either group is “less” or “more” than the other; it just quickly identifies people as either “not believing in supernatural identities” or “believing in supernatural identities”.

    Response 2: Well, in some religions, humans are divided into saved or sinners – and if you are not saved, you disagree with their point of view because you choose to lead a life of evil and therefore deserve an eternity of suffering.

    That said, I think that the biggest threat to scientific progress is not faith, it’s faith that the present (or past) is as good as things can get. It’s complacency. It’s, for example, saying no to alternative energy sources because “oil works now.”

  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    Errm, last time I checked, this is the exact opposite of Pascal’s Wager:

    An atheist will lose nothing if God does not exist – his or her memorial will be good deeds. And if there is a benevolent God, Dennett will find himself judged by the Almighty on his merits, not because of the disbelief he professes.

    It’s hard to tell if that is Lord Winston’s sentiment or Dennett’s, but in any case, Winston seems to be expanding on an undoubtedly true statement, that “Daniel Dennett would be unlikely to place a stake alongside Blaise Pascal.”

    Also, be careful of the Courtier’s Reply. It’s not as useful when the nitty-gritties of religion are under debate, and claims that religion is the “greatest threat to rationality and scientific progress” involve far more of those nitty-gritties than the mere question of the existence of God. Offhand, your use of it reminds me of how it was used in reply to Taner Edis’ post, “Do the more aggressive skeptics misunderstand religion?”

  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    cautious: “Actually, in Dennett’s world, humans are divided into brights or supers. There’s no insinuation that either group is ‘less’ or ‘more’ than the other”

    I’m sorry, but the idea that the connotation of “bright” as “smart” had no place in the use of “Bright” as a noun strains credulity, and even an editorial by Dennett indicates that “super” as the opposite for “bright” came well after “bright” was coined as a noun.

  • http://wisertime.wordpress.com Jake

    Who gets to decide what a “socially destructive act of religious passion” is? I have a feeling some of the “brights” would say that any public acknowledgment of faith in God fits that category. If I encourage people to read the Bible and trust in Christ, is that a socially destructive act of religious passion?

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    It’s been a while since I’ve seen such a good example of exactly the thing I don’t like about the new atheists. And I thought Dennet was supposed to be the “reasonable philosopher guy” of the four? Frankly, I’ve never liked him since I saw his TED talk on dangerous memes, where he credulously endorsed meme theory.

    As for Lord Winston, I felt his reply was mostly empty of content. For example:

    In reality, both religion and science are expressions of man’s uncertainty.

    Empty of content.

  • mike

    Who gets to decide what a “socially destructive act of religious passion” is? I have a feeling some of the “brights” would say that any public acknowledgment of faith in God fits that category.

    It sounds like you’re imagining an atheist police state where the government bans religion. The reality is that probably 99% of atheists would settle for absolute separation of church and state and an atmosphere where religious motives for any action aren’t considered an exemption from criticism; no one is proposing any sort of ban on personal religious expression.

    If I encourage people to read the Bible and trust in Christ, is that a socially destructive act of religious passion?

    Unless it’s done on the tax-payer’s payroll, no. I would love to live in a country where every Christian drew the line at good-natured encouragement.

  • Polly

    Frankly, that first paragraph sounds ominous. What are “acts of religious passion” and how are we going to hold preachers responsible?

    Being human entails a lot of irrationality outside of religion. I’m not ready to take my “interval” of Prozium just yet.

  • Ron in Houston

    I would say that Dennett’s statement is imprecise. Theocracy is a threat to liberty, rationality, and science.

    I’d say overall, religion by itself is fairly benign. It’s when people with religion attempt to grab the reigns of power that we’re all in danger.

  • Christophe Thill

    An atheist will lose nothing if God does not exist – his or her memorial will be good deeds. And if there is a benevolent God, Dennett will find himself judged by the Almighty on his merits, not because of the disbelief he professes.

    Or if there is a fundamentalist god, Dennett will be thrown into a lake of fire because he didn’t accept Jesus Christ, etc., etc.
    Or if there is an Egyptian goddess with a cat head, Dennett will know eternal bliss or eternal punishment according to whether he was nice to cats during his lifetime (I don’t know enough about him to predict what will happen).
    Or if there’s Cthulhu, he will be in lots of trouble, like all of us.

    Now, I think that Dennett is somewhat wrong, because many religious people (those I know, at least) do not “steer their life by religion”. They pick and choose, like any decent person. They leave out the “let their blood be upon them”, and prefer the “love thy neighbour” (especially when they have a hot neighbour, but this is another story). And they behave like atheists in everyday life, which means that they look left and right before crossing the street, instead of just saying a prayer.

  • http://artificialhabitat.wordpress.com artificialhabitat

    Very odd.

    Robert Winston’s field of scientific research (ferility treatments, embryology) is directly under attack by religious influences.

    You’d think he’d have noticed.

  • stogoe

    I’d say overall, religion by itself is fairly benign.

    This is absolutely and utterly false. Religion is the root cause of theocracy, and one of the greatest enablers and warning signs of authoritarianism. Religion teaches people to hate themselves and others, and to discard their autonomy in favor of herd mentality.

  • ash

    a review by an atheist, Richard Denton, who was actually there that you might enjoy…

    …wish i’d known about this sooner, i *so* would’ve gone…

  • Ron in Houston

    stogoe

    Not all religion feels the need to convert others or to impose itself on the agenda. Belief in a God is not the root cause of theocracy.

    I know lots of highly religious people who are repulsed by theocracy and have no hate for others or desire to impose their will on others.

    Look, I’m an atheist. I’m not sure if you’re really an atheist or an anti-religion zealot.

  • http://www.DaddiosDailyDose.com Michael

    Religion is a threat to more than science. And some of the zeal behind Atheism at times hardly seems much different from the zealots that push many towards Atheism (and others) in the first place.

    Organized religion is being defrocked (and the origins of what you’re calling theocracy explained) in a web series this week at:

    http://www.DaddiosDailyDose.com


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