Who’s the Atheist Apologist Now?

Does the following excerpt look like it comes from an interview with Christopher Hitchens? Maybe Richard Dawkins?

Wasn’t [science] also used to justify slavery, genocide and the subjugation of women? Why should we trust science when it comes to God?

When was science used to justify slavery, genocide and the subjugation of women? There are bad people who believe in God and bad people who don’t but neither can claim to have science on their side when they commit their deeds. I don’t know who’s been going round saying that science justifies any of those things. It certainly doesn’t and anyone who says it does is taking the name of science in vain. Many theories try to wear the badge of science to give their practices credibility but the badge is a forgery. Religion even tries to claim scientific evidence but fails. Astrology wants to be recognized as a science. It isn’t. Real science comes along and shows them the door. Its only agenda is truth. It doesn’t wish something were true. It finds out whether something is or isn’t true. Believing something is true simply because you wish it was, isn’t science. It’s faith.

That’s actually comedian Ricky Gervais, answering questions in a follow-up to his popular Wall Street Journal essay on why he’s an atheist.

It’s always nice to see someone so famous saying what you’ve felt for so long.

Can we make him an honorary Horseman?

  • Dan

    Ricky and Tim Minchin.

  • S-Y

    “Taking the name of science in vain” doesn’t sound like anything Dawkins nor Hitchens would ever say.

    Either way, he/they might as well be claiming that logic and reason was also used for slavery, genocide, and subjugation of women. After all, with really messed up reasoning, one can concur that women, Jews, blacks, and other sorts of people are inferior.

    (Of course, all that only actually happens in the absence of logic and reasoning but don’t tell them I said that.)

  • Claudia

    I don’t quite agree that “science” (it’s a little funny to talk about a method like its a person) never claimed anything about women. Slavery I have no idea, but it used to be considered respectable science to consider women emotionally weaker and less intelligent (something some people, even some atheists, haven’t grown out of). Homosexuality was likewise accepted as a pathology.

    The problem is twofold. On the one hand science has an inherent strength absent in religion. Even when both can initially have mistaken views, science is a method designed to root out and eliminate false information. By its very nature it is a self-correcting methodology. Religion, as it takes its truth from a supernatural authority, has no such correction method.

    The other flaw is this notion that since science gives statements about issues important to humans, it is responsible with what humans do with it on a moral level. Science answers “how” questions, not “should” questions. Of course, that doesn’t mean that bad science is merely a mistake with no consequence. Thousands of homosexuals submitted to electroshock “therapy” can bear witness to this. When scientific data is mistaken and people rely on it to make decisions, they aren’t making good decisions, which is why we have to make sure science stays as rigorous as possible.

  • minus

    Claudia said:

    “it used to be considered respectable science to consider women emotionally weaker and less intelligent.”

    I don’t think science ever said that. I think that “respectable” scientists said and believed that, but I don’t think any science was ever applied to demonstrate it. I think it might be correct to say that scientists can be wrong, but I can’t get my head around the idea that science is wrong. I’m thinking about Aristotle saying that women had fewer teeth than men.

  • http://www.zazzle.com/atheist_tees The Godless Monster

    @Claudia

    “I don’t quite agree that “science” …never claimed anything about women. Slavery I have no idea, but it used to be considered respectable science to consider women emotionally weaker and less intelligent…”

    How right you are.
    Two perfect examples of scientists that pushed for the inferiority of women (and the non-white races)are Paul Broca and Gustave Le Bon of the late 1800′s.
    They used data from cranial measurements to come to their conclusions…and they weren’t alone. Of course, there were other scientists at the time who were found fault with the data or its interpretation, but that doesn’t make the work of men like Broca and Le Bon any less real as science…it was just real crappy science, as it turns out.
    Sources: The Panda’s Thumb (1980) & The Mismeasure of Man (1981) – Stephen Jay Gould

  • Claudia

    I think it might be correct to say that scientists can be wrong, but I can’t get my head around the idea that science is wrong.

    Science is a method. When we say “science is right” or “science is wrong” or “science says”, what we actually mean is “the consensus achieved from the accumulated research on the relevant subject by the experts in the field is…”. Described as such, it absolutely can be wrong or more often incomplete. A whole lot of research and papers went into trying to demonstrate the aether, a non-existent “something” that was assumed to exist to explain the propagation of light. Today we use dark matter to explain the calculations of the mass of the universe (not saying its wrong, just that there is precendent for these things). Science can most certainly be wrong. The point is that it can correct itself, unlike religion.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverFrog

    Science is open to revision. Science can go down blind alleys and hit dead ends. That’s all fine, it is part of the process to test hypotheses and reject those that fail. If the hypothesis is that women are emotionally weaker than men then this is testable (once phrased appropriately) and then subject to scrutiny and criticism. I think it is entirely valid to examine gender differences or regional differences and formulate hypotheses to explain these as long as they stand up to scrutiny. We must accept the findings of evidence whether we like them or not.

    Scientific discoveries and conclusions are always susceptible to being demonstrated as wrong. Always. If science were ever to demonstrate that gods exist (I’ve no idea how this could be done) then these conclusions would and should be tested and revised as new evidence is discovered. In the same vein evolution is assuredly the most accurate theory of biological diversity ever discovered but if it were shown to be wrong then it would be rejected. That it has stood up to intense criticism for a century and a half is testament to how overwhelming the evidence is in support of it.

  • TychaBrahe

    I understand what you say about “science is a method,” and that while scientists may try to use science to justify racism and sexism, you can’t blame that on science. But, using the same argument, religion–even Catholicism–doesn’t condone the sexual abuse of children. Yes, there is a huge support structure in the Church that protected child abusers, but there is nothing in the Bible or Catholic doctrine that says clergy should be given sexual access to children.

    Science and religion are value-neutral concepts, but they can be, and have been, used for terrible purposes. Slavery was justified because Blacks were scientifically inferior to Whites. The same justification was used to hunt Australia’s Aborigines in much the same fashion that the American bison was hunted. Under threat of being labeled a Godwinist, I will point out that the Nazis performed horrible experiments on Jews in concentration camps in the name of science, but while we on the “good” side of that fight decry their brutality, we also took their data and made use of it. And of course, while the Nazi experiments were going on in Germany, the Tuskeegee experiments were going on in Alabama.

    To claim that a particular scientist is not truly a scientist because you object to the racist, sexist, or other views s/he holds or tries to use science to support, is no different from a Christian claiming that Timothy McVeigh is not a true Christian because of the violent nature of his actions, neglecting that he undertook his actions in part because of his Christianity.

    Religion is a fiction, but fiction is not without its merits. From literature and drama we learn many lessons about the right behavior of people in society. A huge part of my personality was shaped by my childhood love of Robert Heinlein. My sense of service was instilled, in part, by the Enid Blyton school stories.

    And if your objection to religion is that it teaches and encourages people to believe all sorts of nonsense, how is that different from Fred Hoyle’s Steady State Theorem, which he maintained until his death, long after his primary detractor had lent his name to the Space Telescope?

  • http://planetatheism.com Pedro Timóteo

    But, using the same argument, religion–even Catholicism–doesn’t condone the sexual abuse of children. Yes, there is a huge support structure in the Church that protected child abusers, but there is nothing in the Bible or Catholic doctrine that says clergy should be given sexual access to children.

    Which is why we blame the Catholic Church for the institutionalized sexual abuse of children. Not religion, or Christianity, or even Catholicism.

    They’re to blame for many other things, though, which are a fundamental part of their beliefs / holy books: the idea that unquestioning faith is a virtue, sexism, homophobia, opposition to science when it contradicts their dogma, and so on. But it’s important to distinguish between an organization and (a) religion.

  • http://intwaste.blogspot.com Dale

    That is a very well answered question, I haven’t seen that statement answered that well in awhile. He gets my vote.

  • JD

    The person that asked the original question really had balls and a very biased memory. Religious texts were used to justify all those things too. Take Judiasm and Christianity: The Israelites documented several genocides they performed in YHWH’s name to acquire the “Promised Land”, leaving the door open to commit heinous crimes if the voices in your head say to do so. Then there’s this whole Crusades debacle. Noah’s curse of his black son was used to justify slavery and Jim Crow in America. Paul disallowing women a voice in Church is a form of subjugation of women, there’s worse in the Torah.

  • Rob

    I’m on the fence about this one. I agree that in general science tends to lead to a more moral world. But it’s undeniable that the “science” of the past has been used to justify atrocious things. Consider the medical research done by the Nazis and Japanese during WWII or the Tuskegee Experiment, all in the name of science. Or consider Phrenology, which used to be a respected field of study and was used to classify Africans as less intelligent than Europeans, leading to Phrenologists concluding that they were ideal for manual labor.

    You can say that Phrenology was never a “real” science, but it was certainly regarded as legitimate for several centuries. We talk all the time about how the religious defend their faith by saying that even though some people do abhorrent things in the name of their religion, it’s not the religion’s fault. Usually these claims are disparaged. How do we reconcile that position when faced with people who do abhorrent things in the name of science?

  • Claudia

    @JD, not a biased memory at all. Note that the question says “Wasn’t [science] also used”. The question is actually trying to say that science has been used to justify the same things that we all know religion has justified.

  • http://selfra.blogspot.com dantresomi

    what about eugenics? what about during the 19th century when several scientists used “science” to say that Africans were not really humans? there were many journals and books written about the inferiority of Africans.

    as an AfroLatino, these are questions I am asked? and they have to be addressed.

    thank you @Rob!

  • http://planetatheism.com Pedro Timóteo

    Rob: even when science is wrong, it only claims the ability to tell us what is, not what we should do.

    Say that, at a particular time, the scientific community claims that a particular group of people are, on average, a bit less intelligent than everyone else. Yes, they’ll be wrong, but you’ll also notice that nobody is saying how we should treat them. Or, if anyone does, it’s the speaker’s prejudices talking — and, yes, scientists can have prejudices, too. But while “group X is a bit less intelligent than the rest” can be (very bad, and very wrong) science, “therefore we should treat them as property” is not science at all. Even if that group was on average a bit less intelligent, it wouldn’t give anyone the moral right to treat them as less than equal human beings.

    Same thing with eugenics: “we could positively affect the human race by disallowing certain people from reproducing” doesn’t imply we should, even if true.

    Contrast this with religion, which does tell us how to keep slaves, that women are inferior and shouldn’t ever have authority over men, that gays should be put to death, that genocide is OK as long as “God” wills it, and so on.

  • littlejohn

    Science, and scientists, most certainly did justify those things. Darwin himself considered some races “savage” and women inferior to men.
    As dantrisomi pointed out, eugenics was (and is) a scientific concept. You may find it offensive, but it remains a question of science – it certainly isn’t religion.
    Your “if it’s bad it can’t really be science” attitude is naive at best.
    Was it doctors or priests who gave black American men placebos for syphilis in order to observe the progression of the disease?
    We aren’t better than the god-believers; we’re simply right on that particular question. We should make no further claims for ourselves, as we are far from perfect.

  • Jagyr

    Well, all the horses are taken, but he could have a donkey. Ricky Gervais, Assman of the Atheist Apocalypse. Has a ring to it.

  • http://everydayatheist.wordpress.com Everyday Atheist

    Honestly, I hope we get more voices like Ricky Gervais out there. His essay and answers are filled with a great deal of honest, raw humanity. Though our passionate scientist friends are invaluable champions of reason, there does come a point where simply making a rock-solid argument against god leaves off, and you have to make people feel what it means not to believe. Maybe a comedian is a little better equipped for that. Or maybe he represents the next wave — we stand on the shoulders of giants who’ve constructed the logical, evidence-based arguments. Now we show how those arguments are lived by everyday, flesh-and-blood people.

  • http://www.bluefrogdesignstudios.com/thebluefrogsays/ The Big Blue Frog

    I second the motion. Ricky Gervais is the 5th Horseman, and he shall come riding a “horse of a different color.”

  • Robert W.

    Rob,

    I’m on the fence about this one. I agree that in general science tends to lead to a more moral world.

    Science without morality based upon something other then science is very dangerous. The only reason Gervais and others can argue that science hasn’t done these evil things is because morality and value systems based not upon science has shown them that it is wrong and shouldn’t be done.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000586562927 Donna Hamel (muggle)

    Yes, while I loved RG’s reply, I have to concur with the others here that say atrocities have and, frankly still are, being committed in the name of science and, once again, we’re showing a biased double standard, letting science off the hook while attacking religion.

    I’m not going to get into it too deep because, frankly, I suck at science so I don’t have the ability to get in too deep. But science does do things sometimes without ever asking if it should. Frankly — and this is my personal opinion — how do we justify fertility treatments and surrogate motherhood in an already grossly overpopulated world? Want a child that bad, adopt one. It’s purely an ego thing to insist it has to carry your genes. More self love than parental love. YMMV but it frankly sickens me.

    And, man, if you don’t think a culture has been created wherein you aren’t allowed to reject a scientific offering, trying being an Atheist turning down a knee replacement that would only last 5-8 years (I know they generally last longer before anyone points that out; my weight’s a factor) anyway even in the face of recalls having happened. Frankly, even if it would last 15 – 20 years (supposedly, as I said recalls have happened, with hip replacements too), I’m not sure it’s worth the risk and I have an (admittedly emotional) aversion to have something planted inside my body where I can’t just take it off if it creates problems. I’d risk something like a pacemaker where death is the most likely alternative to not do so but I’m flat out not keen on it when I’m not going to die without it and there’s a risk, however slim, of death involved with getting it.

    The same thing goes for surgery. If you want an eye-opener as to how much your body is your choice join me in wrangling with doctors that you’d rather be crippled than dead. They always pull out the stupid, stupid canard that living’s a risk. No shit, Sherlock. Doesn’t mean I’m upping the ante by doing things that put an added risk of death on me even as I don’t see them as necessary. Sure I could get plowed down by a truck on my way to the store but the store’s more a necessity than a knee implant.

    And frankly I’m skeptical of your claim that the odds are about the same. I look both ways before I cross the street. You’re arguing with me using this analogy because I kind of did the same thing and researched before talking to you. For the analogy to be more accurate, the odds are the same if I skip along to the store without being careful to check traffic before stepping off the sidewalk. I’ve known to do that since I was 4.

    Sorry that retarded analogy fucking drives me buggy.

    So, in some senses, science can be as annoying as religion and also somewhat expects to be as revered. While I think it’s earned more reverence by far than religion has, c’mon, I still have the freaking right to question. Something the medical profession seems to think you need a medical degree to do. Grrr. Yes, the basic difference between science and religion — and I cheer it and it is why I respect science more — is that science invites testing over and over again but you can only really do that if you are good at science and if you choose differently than the scientists, you’re treated as ignorant.

    It’s a personal choice. Other people would rather be dead than crippled, not me. But I do think we should stop and think where we’re going when science does some of the things it does. And I think someone like me should be more respected about the choices they make over their own bodies. Give me the pros and cons, doctor, of all the options (including doing nothing) and let me decide for myself.

  • Valhar2000

    Minus:

    I think that “respectable” scientists said and believed that, but I don’t think any science was ever applied to demonstrate it.

    That’s what I was going to say.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000586562927 Donna Hamel (muggle)

    Rob: even when science is wrong, it only claims the ability to tell us what is, not what we should do.

    I disagree, Pedro. Ever try not following a doctor’s advice?

    We posted simultaneously so you didn’t see my lengthy post above but science does try to tell us what we should do all the time. Not just medical science but sciences like ecology (which should).

    It’s a natural and understandable outcome of having knowledge of how our world works to try and tell others how to live in line with that.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    The part about his mum was just so sweet and sad! He makes lots of good points. The part you quoted about science is really important; it’s something I’ve been trying to put into words.

  • anna nonymous

    Yes, Science has been used to justify Slavery (less intelligent, smaller brain size, less developed)-using “scientific” methods that are now debunked. But science is developing and no true scientist believes he’s got the final answer.

  • http://blogforthelordjesuscurrentevents.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

    “[Science] finds out whether something is or isn’t true.”

    That’s fine as far as it goes, but there are enough things that science can’t measure (love, commitment, honesty, and many more) to make it insufficient to as a replacement for faith in God.

    “Believing something is true simply because you wish it was, isn’t science. It’s faith.”

    This is proof that a person who disallows faith shouldn’t be trusted to define it.

    I love Ricky’s humor, especially on “The Office,” but he’s no Horseman.

  • Claudia

    @Donna, you are confusing medicine and science. I can see where you might because modern medicine relies on science very heavily. However it isn’t actually science itself. Science can broadly be defined as a method for the development of knowledge and the wide body of knowledge adquired through that method.

    The man or woman who patiently explains your treatment to you, or the one who treats you like a slow child with no right to decide for yourself, is very unlikely to be a scientist. They are medical doctors. This isn’t to knock MDs, who have a very hard job indeed. When I screw up, I kill a bunch of bacteria. When they screw up, people die, so the balance is really different. However your treatment by doctors isn’t really a valid criticism of science itself.

    However I don’t really think we can act as if science is a pure good with no responsibility for ill consequences. Imagine if mistaken science led to a consensus that homosexual men also have irrepresible sexual attraction to young children. No, scientists wouldn’t literally be calling gays monsters who need to be locked up or shot, but acting as if these pretty obvious consequences had no relationship to the science is ridiculous.

    In fact this is why maintaining the strict standards of science, which include reproducibility and peer-review, is so vital. The more strictly the method is adhered to, the harder it is for personal bias to insinuate itself into the body of knowlesge and the better and faster mistakes are rooted out.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    The scientific method is merely a feedback system of testing hypotheses with the goal of generating better and better hypotheses. Engineering is all about “what works” where “works” is operationally defined. Whether or not you should do something is independent of whether or not “it works” or what the hypothesis is.

    I argue that we have no choice but to act as if morality is relative to our culture. Even if there were an absolute unchanging morality, how can we discover it? No holy book to-date has been able to communicate any set of unambiguous policies. Too bad God never went to law school.

    The best we can do is to have each successive generation try to refine and improve on the moral code of our forefathers.

    For example,
    Our forefathers enslaved certain people. Now we don’t do that.
    Our forefathers made young children work in factories. Now we don’t do that.
    Our forefathers were against inter-racial marriage. Now we allow that.
    Our forefathers were against homo-sexual marriage. Now we are starting to allow that.
    You get the idea.

    I’m sure there are lots of things we do now that our great-great grandchildren will find abhorrent.

  • http://slrman.wordpress.com James Smith João Pessoa, Brazil

    One major difference is that science can be wrong but when demonstrated to be wrong my more and verifiable evidence, science will adjust its statements to accommodate the new evidence. Religion, will continue to deny the evidence and demand “respect” when there is nothing worthy of respect.

  • Yoav

    Donna.
    You mix the science with applying science in decision making. Medical science can say that having cholesterol level above a certain trashhold increase the risk of having a heart attack and that diet can affect cholesterol levels. Your physician may then recommend that you change your diet pointing that in doing so you will reduce your risk of a heart attack, whether or not you follow this advice has nothing to do with science. The same with Ecology, We can study for example the effect of oil on the marine environment and what are the likely results from say dumping 500000000 barrels of crude into the golf of mexico but that’s doesn’t mean that ecology tell us if we should drill in water that are too deep for us to respond to a leak or not.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    Robert W.

    Science without morality based upon something other then science is very dangerous.

    Science is a process whereby we gain an understanding of reality by examining evidence and testing ideas to see if they work. What alternatives to evidence based thinking are better and more moral?

  • http://selfra.blogspot.com dantresomi

    check this out,
    many of you sound like theists when defending “bad” science. someone pointed out that many of us use double standards when theists throw back that science has led to genocide as well. and yes, many of you are using semantics.

    my point is that we shouldn’t run around claiming science has been totally good when it hasn’t.

    we can defend those atrocities all day but we forget the victims as well. It’s something we should discuss, own up to it, and stop being delusional about it. eugenics doesn’t just “offend” people, it helps to destroy lives not just in the 30s but also in the 60s and 70s in Puerto rico.

    i am on your team but i think its an argument that we should really really think about before putting it forth in this debate. as an Afro Latino Atheist, it’s an argument that I had to deal with many times when science has been detrimental when dealing with people of color (just read the book about Henrietta Lacks and how her descendants are still being mistreated).

    because we refuse to deal with honestly and with a critical view (something we accuse theists of doing), it’s no wonder people of color see atheism as a “white” thing.

  • Robert W.

    Hoverfrog,

    Science is a process whereby we gain an understanding of reality by examining evidence and testing ideas to see if they work. What alternatives to evidence based thinking are better and more moral?

    Maybe you misunderstood my point. We cannot rely solely upon morality to determine our morality. Moral decisions are not based upon science alone. They can’t be because science is not designed for that.

    Even knowing how to judge what is morally right and wrong can’t come from science. How would you even know how to judge the evidence unless you had a standard by which to judge the results. Without an objective standard, even culturally based morality has nothing upon which to base its moral decisions.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    Robert W. I think you misunderstand my point. Carl Sagan (1934-1996) said it most simply, beyond keeping an open, but skeptical mind, the real trick of science is to “really think of something”.

    Why are planets not pyramid or tetrahedral shaped?
    Why is the sky blue?
    How are some rocks folded and bent, but others fractured?
    Why are the mountains in the eastern US less rugged than those in the west?
    How did a piece of Mars end up in Antarctica?
    The essence of science is asking and answering questions, and then digging deep into the answers to expose more questions. (source)

    When we “do science” we are trying to answer a question about reality. By understanding reality we can make informed decisions. By drawing evidence based opinions from a variety of sources and thinking critically we can make moral judgments. We don’t reject knowledge and reason when considering morality, we use it. We use science when making decisions, not by following the scientific method but by drawing on the conclusions that science offers us.

    Our “standard by which to judge the results” is reality and experience. At least it is for people who embrace evidence based thinking.

  • AxeGrrl

    Donna Hamel (muggle) wrote:

    But science does do things sometimes without ever asking if it should. Frankly — and this is my personal opinion — how do we justify fertility treatments and surrogate motherhood in an already grossly overpopulated world?

    But Donna, it isn’t science that ‘does’ those things, science has just made those things possible ~ it’s always people who make the decisions to do or not do them.

    That’s a pretty important distinction, imo.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000586562927 Donna Hamel (muggle)

    Oh, please, AxeGrrl, science offers them and people take them up on the offer. Science does need to start asking basic moral questions about things like that should be offered. That’s kind of like saying I deal dope but don’t use myself.

    We don’t let religion off the hook for selling the opiate of the masses. So why the double standard for science? In a grossly overpopulated world (if anything, science should be working to eliminate that problem and does with birth control then simultaneously undermines said birth control by offering infertility solutions), there’s really no justification for adding to the problem and the scientific world should certainly be keenly aware of that.

  • Steve

    Oh stop it with the overpopulation argument. What you neglect is that that problem isn’t uniform. The birth rate in industrialized nations is in fact relatively low. The population in some western countries is almost stagnating or even declining.

    Overpopulation is a huge problem in developing and emerging countries. But those people are popping out babies all the time the natural way. Medicine or science has nothing to do with it.


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