Thursday, August 6, 2009

Sshhh, don't tell anybody...

So I've been thinking about it, and there is one minor point on which I half-assedly agree with the accomodationists: I think it is probably better not to be particularly vocal about the phenomenon wherein people who come to really understand evolution on a deep level have an increased tendency to become atheists.

This is distinctly different from saying that faith and science are contradictory. That should be shouted from the rooftops. And then, if theists really want to go for this whole non-overlapping magisteria thing, where they compartmentalize their faith-based delusions from the reason-based science, then that is their business. I have written before about how I have a handful of faith-based delusions, e.g. I really viscerally believe my wife and I were fated to be together. I can't possibly reconcile that belief with my rational knowledge of how things actually work, and yet when I think about the story of how we met and fell in love, that it was anything other than fate just seems impossible to me.

So I'm okay with people having some contradictory beliefs, as long as they don't get the chocolate in the peanut butter, so to speak. Saying that faith and science are contradictory is important, not so much to discourage people from believing both, but to keep people from getting the two all mixed up.

But this thing where people go to college, gain a deep intuitive understanding of evolution, and then progress to a loss of faith... Well, maybe it's not even real; the evidence is mostly anecdotal (the high percentage of nontheist scientists is just a correlation, it does not establish causation). But in any case, maybe we ought not to be too awfully vocal about this.

I reject the accomodationist claim that the so-called "New Atheists" are driving the faithful away from science. It just seems rather absurd to me that one particular author (or even four particular authors) expressing their opinion on the compatibility of science and faith would cause a moderate theist to say, "Oh noes! Dawkins said faith and science aren't compatible, and I ain't givins up mah Jesus, so now I'm going to stop believing in evolution!" I simply don't see it. Rather, the moderates will say, "Bah! Dawkins sucks. I like Ken Miller and Francis Collins!" The only people who are going to be swayed by the "New Atheists" are people who are already inclined to listen to them -- and the thought of a Dawkins admirer deciding to reject evolution because "Dawkins said it's not compatible with my faith!" is laughable.

However, it's much easier for me to imagine an unfortunate outcome of a religious person becoming aware of examples of theists being turned into atheists by a college education. I could see this dissuading people from going to college or sending their kids to college, or it tipping the scales towards some faux-college like Liberty University. "Those godless liberals at Yale will brainwash our young'uns!" That, to me, is a plausible scenario.

Now, I'm not saying anybody should lie, and I'm not saying that people who shed their faith as a result of education should feel compelled to keep silent. But it probably behooves those with a wide-reaching voice to avoid mentioning the education-conversion phenomenon unnecessarily. Maybe.

I dunno, just a thought.


  1. Anecdotally (yes, I know the plural of anecdote is not data), I've heard more stories of studying the bible (and it's history) leading to atheism than of understanding evolution leading to atheism. Not that either had anything to do with my becoming an atheist.

  2. Hey, good point... my wife says that the final nail in the coffin that turned her away from theism at a very young age was when she undertook to read the Bible cover-to-cover. She was somewhat of a pantheist for many years afterwards, so I can't say the Bible converted her to atheism... but it definitely convinced her that the Abrahamic religions were a total crock.

    My de-conversion was much more piecemeal. Perhaps I'll write a post about it...

  3. Yes, I was being sloppy about the difference between turning away from theism and actually becoming an atheist. I was vaguely non-religious/agnostic/deistic/pantheistic for decades until the increasing religious insanity in this country forced me to actually think and read about the issue and to realize that I was actually an atheist.

    Do write that post about your de-conversion.

  4. What I think is missing from some of these discussions is the interplay between skeptics, humanists, and atheists as being different faces of the same gem. If you believe that claims about our shared natural environment need to be backed by evidence, essentially methodological naturalism, then skepticism and atheism go hand in hand. It doesn't necessarily rule out personal revelatory experience or other spiritual experience (love, for instance), but it does pretty much rule out traditional notions of interventionist deities, along with faeries, sprites, demons, devils, gremlins, ghosts, goblins, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Et cetera.

    And if you're willing to follow the evidence where it leads and give up your belief in Santa Claus (someone more plausible as time goes on, provided he had the wiretap power of the NSA and the logistical acumen of UPS), it only follows that belief in interventionist deities goes too, at least without some extremely clever apologetics and philosophy. And even then.

    The atheists and the humanists intersect when they realize that even in a universe with gods, the promise of reward or the threat of punishment due to belief doesn't cut it as a basis for ethics and morality. If one is to be good in a universe with gods, one must also be good in a universe without them, otherwise one is merely chasing consequences, becoming an obsequioius spiritual yes-man.

    So the hidden bit is not that belief in evolution leads to atheism, but that methodological naturalism, the search for natural answers to natural questions and the demand that claims about the natural world be supported by evidence - that thought process that has served mankind so well for centuries - leads to atheism.

    But that isn't even correct. Certain classes of supernatural entities are made winnowingly unlikely. Jehovah, Xenu, Allah, Zeus, Odin, and their ilk don't have much of a chance, but there's still personal revelatory experience which is elusively unproven and unprovable. If you want to believe your computer hates you, you can and there's no real way to disprove that.

    Naturalism limits the powers of gods but does not eliminate them, and for my purposes as an engineer, physicist, and armchair philosopher, that's probably good enough. So in a weird way, I also can identify with the accomodationists. I feel a bit uneasy advocating for the concept of Philip K Dick's VALIS or malevolent toasters, but I don't see methodological naturalism putting a stake in the hearts of either of those anytime soon.

    So no, I don't see science and the search for verifiable truth to lead to atheism, but I do believe it's much harder to maintain faith in the traditional interventionist gods if you follow the evidence.

    Personal relationship with Christ? No.
    Subtle harassment from dishwasher? Yes.