Personal Gods, Deism, & the Limits of Skepticism

By Pigliucci, Massimo | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Personal Gods, Deism, & the Limits of Skepticism


Pigliucci, Massimo, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


"The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind." -H.L. Menken

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SCIENCE AND RELIGION (S&R), and even the one between skepticism and religion, is warming up. At least, that is the feeling one gets from a cursory look at recent happenings, from the publication of books and articles in popular magazines about science "finding" God, to the frantic activities of the Templeton Foundation "for the furthering of religion." Two scientists--Paul Davies, and most recently Freeman Dyson--received the one-million dollar Templeton Prize for "progress in religion," the single largest cash prize in history. S&R is not just warm, it's hot!

Thus, the time is ripe for a skeptical analysis of the subject, which, to me, seems muddled by two basic sources of confusion: (1) we need to separate logical/philosophical arguments from those that are either pragmatic or concern freedom of speech; (2) we have to acknowledge that there are many more possible positions on the S&R question than are usually considered, and that a thorough understanding of the whole gamut is necessary to make any progress. This article presents an analysis of both these sources of confusion and an attempt at a classification scheme of the available positions. Since there is no such thing as completly objective reporting, [1] I will advocate my own position as well.

WHAT THE DISCUSSION IS AND IS NOT ABOUT

Lest I be accused once again of being a "rabid atheist" [2] let me make my position clear: I am an atheist in the sense of someone who does not think there is any good reason to believe in a supernatural entity that created and somehow supervises the universe. I do not know that such an entity does not exist, but until extraordinary evidence is provided to substantiate such an extraordinary claim, I relegate God to the same realm as Santa Claus. Rabid I am not, if by that one means an attitude of unreasonable adherence to a doctrine more accepted than carefully considered. My interest in religion comes out of my personal journey into finding out how things really are. Since I am an educator who believes that helping people think critically will result in a better society, I must also react against other people's attempt to curtail my freedom of thought and speech.

Let me briefly examine three components of the science and religion debate and attempt to separate them as clearly as possible.

1. The relationship between science and religion is a legitimate area of philosophical inquiry which must be informed by both religion (theology) and science.

2. S&R discussions, especially in the United States, carry practical consequences that do not affect science and religion in an equal manner.

3. Discussing S&R has repercussions on the cherished value of freedom of speech for scientists, skeptics, and religionists.

Point 1 is the only point that really should be up for discussion, because it is the only one in which one can seriously engage in free inquiry and reach general conclusions (regardless of whether such conclusions will be shared by a majority). Unfortunately it is often confused with Points 2 and 3 by both believers and nonbelievers.

Point 2 boils down to the fact that attacks on religion are considered politically incorrect--the remarks by Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura resulted in his popularity dropping 28 points overnight in a poll. Scientists are especially aware of the fact that their research funding depends almost entirely on public financing through various federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Since federal funding is controlled by politicians, who in turn have a tendency to respond to every nuance of their constituency as gauged by the latest poll (Jesse Ventura being an exception), it follows that no matter what your opinion as a scientist on matters of the spirit, it is wiser to stick to your job and avoid upsetting your prince and benefactor. …

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