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The new anti-religious evangelists and their faith in science
by Graeme J. Davidson

Originally appeared in The Dominion Post Religion and Ethics column 30 June 2007

.The belief that the God hypothesis is redundant is at the heart of this anti-religious evangelism. Faith is seen as a leftover from an earlier time, the result of an evolutionary blind alley or plain old superstition.

....June 30 is the anniversary of the legendary faith versus science debate, when the bible’s version of creation lost ground to that of science. At a packed meeting of the British Association in Oxford 147 years ago, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce poured scorn on Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, published seven months earlier. Wilberforce called Darwin’s theory of evolution “mere hypothesis” and mockingly asked, “Was it through my grandfather or my grandmother that I descended from a monkey?”
....Biologist Thomas Huxley, who was the first to describe himself as agnostic, went in to bat for Darwin. He argued opponents misrepresented Darwin and that he had based his theory, like any sound scientific conclusion, on plenty of observable facts.
....Most attending the 1860 meeting supported Wilberforce. Yet, within 20 years, Darwin’s views were to become mainstream. People began to rely more on science than faith and on humanistic, rather than religious, ethics. Religious groups responded by either attacking science or rushing to reinterpret biblical accounts of creation to embrace evolution.
....Faith in science and technology is responsible, in part, for the eroding of religious belief in the West. And, in recent years, that has produced a new breed of atheist and agnostic evangelists. These include writer Sam Harris with his Letter to a Christian Nation; journalist Christopher Hitchens, who denounces religion in God Is Not Great; philosopher Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell, and popular evolutionary biologist and science publicist Richard Dawkins.
.... Dawkins, often accused of being a fundamentalist atheist, has sold nearly 300,000 copies of his The God Delusion. This is largely a rehash of standard philosophy of religion arguments written with the competence of a second year philosophy student too lazy to research the latest in philosophical thinking.
....The belief that the God hypothesis is redundant is at the heart of this anti-religious evangelism. Faith is seen as a leftover from an earlier time, the result of an evolutionary blind alley or plain old superstition. Ironically, many turn to a principle provided by a fourteenth century Franciscan friar, William of Ockham – that “entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily”. Known as Ockham’s (Occam’s) Razor, they shave off unnecessary assumptions like the God hypothesis.
....In the face of these attacks, the faithful often become defensive and insist that science and faith belong to two separate categories. Religion is about belief in the supernatural, religious practices and ethics, while science is about exploring nature. So, science can’t prove or disprove God.
....But that’s a false dichotomy. Much of religion is based on researchable historical events. There’s debate about the veracity of eyewitness accounts and the plausibility of events described in sacred writings. Some religious claims are open to scientific test, like the effectiveness of praying for those suffering an illness or how faith affects our wellbeing, attitudes, politics and community involvement. And, as in Darwin’s day, many religious people do alter their religious views to reflect modern research. Two years ago, the Vatican reaffirmed its approval of evolution as valid scientific theory.
....When I first went to philosophy of science classes – in the same room as the Wilberforce–Huxley debate at Oxford – I was surprised to find myself among many top scientists, including several Nobel laureates. They had found the simplistic high school approach of hypothesis, test and theory was woefully inadequate.
....That’s because science is built on clusters of theories, including theories about observing and testing hypotheses. Sometimes theories can be at odds with one another – and what’s acceptable as good science is a matter of debate, conviction and agreement within the scientific community. There’s even faith in principles like Newton’s third law of motion that to every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction or that every event has a cause, even though we can never test every incidence. As philosopher of science, Karl Popper, explains, we’ve only shown that they haven’t been falsified yet. Scientists also postulate the existence of things they’ve never seen, like dark matter in outer space.
....If this is beginning to sound a bit like what religious people do, then you’d be right. The differences are not as great as Dawkins and others would have you believe.
....The anti-religious evangelists have popularised the faith versus science debate and focused attention on religion. It’s time now to turn the spotlight on science and the problems of scientific faith.




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