Can Atheists Learn Anything from the Religious?

Can Atheists Learn Anything from the Religious? October 20, 2015

Fellow atheists give me a hard time because I talk a lot about fostering constructive dialogue between ourselves and people on the other side of the aisle, so to speak.  They protest and ask, “What good can come of maintaining conversation with people who believe nonsense?” I understand where they’re coming from, but my feelings on the matter are different for at least a couple of reasons.

I’ve explained many times before that one major reason I keep trying to engage in these conversations (rather than simply burning those bridges and telling them all that they’ve been collectively duped) is that I still have too many precious relationships that would be damaged by the slash-and-burn approach of so many anti-theists to whom I am connected.  Most of my friends who want me to cut the crap and start truly ripping away at the foundations of religious belief don’t have many close friends or family remaining who would be lost over such an approach. Most likely those bridges have already been burned for them so there’s nothing left to lose.  I am not in such a position.

But there’s another reason why I don’t take the same posture toward religions of all stripes and strains, and it has to do with being wary of the overconfidence I see in my fellow atheists when it comes to the proper use of reason, science, and perhaps ultimately technology as well.  For all of the sharp disagreements and logical departures I encounter when I discuss important matters of belief with my religious friends, I remain convinced that I gain something from these interchanges which cannot so easily be found without attempting this admittedly maddening process.

Despite our differences, my religious friends often remind me that we don’t know everything, and that there’s great value in maintaining at least a modicum of epistemic humility while we search for answers to our biggest questions.

And yes, I know that they themselves don’t get a lot of room to be sanctimonious about that subject, especially if we’re talking about the Bible thumpers and other fundamentalist types, who think that Wikipedia and Snopes are liberal propaganda but think that ancient religious texts are infallible.  But for just a moment can we forget the sources of the critiques and consider whether or not there’s a valid point to be made, despite the glaringly obvious hypocrisy?

A Bad Habit Among My Friends

My partner Amy suffers from frequent and often debilitating migraines, as well as from a host of autoimmune issues that cause a lot of chronic pain and accumulate recurring medical bills (don’t even get me started on the state of American healthcare).  She has consulted doctor after doctor in search of viable treatments for her various conditions, but on the whole she has come up empty-handed.  The medical care available to her where we live leaves large cracks through which people like her fall because the medical establishment just doesn’t know how to fix whatever is wrong with her. Of course that doesn’t stop them from charging thousands of dollars to tell her they have no idea what’s happening.

So she has to do her own research, slowly chipping away at solving the mystery of her own body’s quirks. She has to consider as many different approaches and solutions as she can, since nothing else seems to really work anyway, and if the medical profession has any better solutions they surely aren’t sharing them with us.  Suffice to say, her situation serves as a stark reminder that there simply are large gaps in our knowledge base when it comes to understanding how our own bodies work, what makes them malfunction, and what can be done about it.

You might think the iconoclasitc Freethought community would be supportive of such an endeavor, but an incredibly irritating thing keeps happening:  Someone in the medical profession publishes a study which suggests that one of the paradigms she is considering is absolute bunk, and before the week is done, it seems as if every single person in her Facebook friends list has reposted the same three or four articles quoting the same single study over and over again until you’d think the entire medical profession had arrived at a new consensus in a matter of a week.

But that’s not the hardest part. There’s an attitude that comes with it—a smugness that permeates their language around the issue which smacks of an absolute confidence that now that this study has been published, there are no more questions to be answered. Science has spoken, and there’s nothing more to be said.  Case closed.  Anyone who disagrees is now an idiot.

Sometimes Religious People Have a Good Point

You have to understand, I spend an awful lot of time trying to explain to my religious friends that the ways they view science and rationality often miss the mark.  They talk about our trust in science as if it constitutes a separate religion.  I believe they are projecting onto us a demand for certainty which sounds suspiciously like their own approach to biblical inspiration or denominational authority.  I keep telling them that they are the ones obsessed with certainty, and that nobody thinks science is supposed to be infallible.  That’s a straw man, and they need to put it away.

Except that sometimes I’m not sure they’re wrong.  I’m quick to defend my own approach to scientific inquiry and knowledge but the condescension which Amy encounters from her friends on the web reminds me that not all those within my cultural bubble maintain the same level of epistemic humility. Some of my friends really do seem to think that whatever this study or that one says about a question must be the final word on the matter forevermore.  No more study is needed, thankyouverymuch, next question please.

That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.  Science is an ever-changing field. It’s not a static body of knowledge. That’s actually one of its strengths.  My Christian friends are quick to point out the number of times that scientific paradigms have shifted, as if to say that means our only alternative is to accept the dogmatic assertions of religious authorities instead.  But that’s quite a leap.  The reality is that the ability of science to correct itself over time and improve on its own methods and conclusions is among the many reasons why it is a superior way of arriving at an accurate picture of reality.

But they often accuse us of “scientism,” and I’m about ready to decide they’ve got a good point.

When I first heard that term I thought it was a ridiculous word.  It rubbed me the wrong way the same way it continues to irritate me when they accuse us of being “Darwinists.” Like that’s a thing? They throw around their “-isms” with such a pejorative sneer that I wonder if they’ve ever cracked open a real science textbook—and I mean one not published by Bob Jones University or the A Beka Academy.  They might as well accuse people of being “Copernicanists” or “Newtonians.”  If by that they mean that we accept basic tenets of modern science, then I’m not sure these words mean what they think they mean.

Treating Science Like a Religion

But Freethinkers and scientists worry about “scientism” as well.  It’s not just the religious folks who use that word.  Scientism simply refers to the habit of trying to use science for things which it’s not well-suited to accomplish. For example, science can teach us how to build new weapons and perhaps how to engineer new living organisms, but it cannot in itself tell us whether or not we should.  Ethical, social, and moral questions don’t always reduce down to mathematical models which generate the same choices and values that human beings would choose for themselves using their own consciences.

Is there anything for which you feel science is not the right tool to arrive at the best answers?  Or rather do you feel that science is the answer to every question we have?  And if your answer to that second question is “yes,” do you not see that you are treating science the same way that religious people treat the objects of their utmost devotion? Could you take what Christians sing about Jesus and substitute the word “science” in such a way that the song still works? If so, you just might be guilty of making science your religion.

Nevermind that on its own terms science doesn’t easily lend itself to such a usage. We’re talking about human beings here, and in case you haven’t noticed, humans aren’t the most consistently rational creatures Nature ever made. That fact alone is a major reason why science, strictly speaking, may not ever fully provide everything that we need. We humans are meaning makers, and we crave things which can’t always be reduced to quantifiable measurements.  People are complicated, and emotional, and if we have software then it’s safe to say that over time our bugs have become features.  That’s probably why we have religion in the first place.  What we seek isn’t always based in reality, but it’s still a part of our psychology. It’s part of who we are, what makes us tick.

Incidentally, these aren’t the only limitations of science. Even in those fields for which science has superior tools to answer every question, we still have to acknowledge the limitations of our knowledge at any given point because even if we have the right process in place, it’s an ongoing quest for a better and better understanding of the world we live in.  We should never fall for the notion that we’ve figured out all there is to learn about whatever subject we are studying.

Sometimes scientism just means we become overconfident about what we discover, or think we’ve discovered.  Anybody remember last year when we thought we had detected the primordial ripples in the fabric of the universe, definitively proving the rapid inflation model of the Big Bang within a ridiculously small margin of error?  It was learned soon after that what the BICEP2 program had encountered was interference created by dust within our own galaxy.  Oh well, back to the drawing board.

Can the Non-Religious Learn Anything from the Religious?

Like I said above, I think we could all use the occasional reminder that whatever our grasp of the natural world today, there will come a day in which we look back on how we thought about things now and get embarrassed at our short-sightedness.  I don’t even know what those things will be yet, but I feel pretty confident it will happen anyway.

Again, I don’t think theologians have better answers than secular philosophy can provide. I mean, just because many of our questions remain unanswered doesn’t mean that we have to embrace magic or ghosts or the kinds of “mysteries” which the church tells you to accept even when they don’t make sense.  These gaps don’t have to be automatically filled with the same theistic goo, like the caulk builders squeeze into the spaces left in the construction of a new home.

But gaps are there, to be sure. And even if one day we will have a better understanding of the universe, we don’t have it yet. And as long as we don’t, we should remain aware of the limitations of our own knowledge. I think it would do us some good to adopt for ourselves a little bit of the humility we observe among the more intellectually responsible of our theistic friends.

It wouldn’t hurt us to remind ourselves once in a while that science itself is just a tool, and tools can be misused just as easily as they can be used properly.  We ought not think so highly of ourselves (or our own inventions) that we forget how easily we make mistakes. And we ought not allow ourselves to be deluded into thinking that whatever this study or that study says right now must be the last and final word.

If pressed, I could suggest a few more things which I hear about from my Christian friends which I think could be a useful contribution to the larger conversation. Perhaps that conversation could be expanded upon at a later date, but off the top of my head I could name a few things:

  • The importance of passing ideas on to children, and taking the time to make that a priority.
  • The value of intentional community, regular gatherings, and organized activities.
  • The value of family, perhaps enriched even more by those who sacrifice professional goals to focus on the care of the children.
  • Warning against the dangers of materialism and greed (depending on which kind of preacher they’ve got, of course!)
  • Learning to unplug sometimes from the world of electronics just long enough to remember what it’s like to be a living thing.

Can you add any to the list?  Or are you too upset that I had the nerve to suggest we have anything to learn from these miscreants to contribute anything to this discussion?

I suspect people who used to be religious might find this an easier exercise to perform. They’ve already had to walk through the embarrassment of realizing they spent years (or even decades) believing things which they now are convinced cannot be so.  It’s a lot easier to be humble after you realized you are that good at fooling yourself.

It’s also easier finding something positive in an ideology if you once inhabited it yourself. Those who were never religious may find the very idea repulsive.  So be it.  I just know too well the perception-skewing pull of tribalism and I know that “freethinkers” are not immune to it despite their own passion for objectivity.

UPDATE:  If you’d like to hear a different opinion on at least half of what I’ve said here, my Patheos colleague Peter Mosley over at Barrier Breaker has written a dissenting response of his own (link to that here).

 [Image source: Shutterstock]


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