Religion:
Not Good Or Bad,
Just Outside Science
Robert

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine"
To: "Robert"
Subject: Positive Atheism Index
Date: September 27, 2001

Thanks for contacting us! It's good to hear from you!

Let me discuss one aspect of your remark regarding religion and science, and then tell you about some plans we have to make certain scientific information more accessible to our readers (if I can get a volunteer or two to help me pull it off).
 

I think it is important to point out that religion and science have always been and continue to remain two completely separate fields: only a fundamentalist would try to use Scripture as a science textbook. It is very important to keep this basic fact in mind when discussing such issues as creationism in the science class. We can only hope that our expressions of this basic fact become more lucid as the battle against creationism wages on, so that what we say sticks around and propagates like the "memes" of Richard Dawkins.

However, I would like to suggest that some religious claims are empirically testable. (I hope I don't overwhelm you with all this! It's just a summary of, a large segment of what we've been trying to say for some time, now.) In saying that religion is outside science, we risk losing track of this fact. This has already backfired in our battle to keep creationism out of the public schools, so we need to alter our statement of the above fact to at least accommodate the related fact that some religious claims are, in fact, susceptible to empirical testing. (I'd also like to at least mention that if the claims for the supernatural should ever withstand the toughest scientific scrutiny we can give them, then the supernatural would immediately become a part of science -- or, rather, we would be forced to give science a new definition.)

You will be interested in particle physicist Victor Stenger's new book, due out later this year, called, Has Science Found God? Professor Stenger shows that many theistic claims are, in fact, empirically testable by science. Unfortunately for the credibility of religion, when we put them to the same tests we would any scientific claim, the religious claims have come up wanting every time.

I lean toward the views of Theodore M. Drange in his book Nonbelief & Evil when he suggests that the more sophisticated concepts of deity are less subject to description, much less scrutiny and empirical testing, but the less sophisticated descriptions can at least be described. And if the object of a god-claim can be described, I suggest there could be elements of that claim that we could submit to empirical testing. Any claims which defy description (the "ineffability" of God), of course, cannot be submitted to empirical testing. But then, if the claim by nature cannot be understood, then why do they bother telling us about it? Besides, the Burden of Proof rescues us from the dilemma of having to believe a claim simply because we cannot put together a rebuttal to that claim.

Drange makes the argument for his "mumbo-jumbo theory" while discussing noncognitivism, the notion that an atheist cannot deny the existence of something whose description makes no sense; we respond to the noncognitivists by defining atheism as the simple lack of a god-belief, that is, the absence of theism. However, Drange counters noncognitivism by pointing out that not all god-claims are pure nonsense. To test the "sensibleness" of a god-claim (if you will), Drange asks if the god in question could be portrayed on film, and then describes the God character in Cecil B. De Mille's spectacular epic The Ten Commandments:

We interviewed Professor Stenger in 1999 and our interview is now linked from his web site. I worked a little bit on helping him word some of the concepts he wished to express, and also helped him with the research in the section on Professor Newberg's book "Why God Won't Go Away," since our April, 2001, issue was the first comprehensive attempt to address some of the many serious problems with this somewhat popular and potentially groundbreaking work.

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We hope to put together an FAQ piece regarding the origin of the Universe, and Professor Stenger has given us an initial okay to use him as a primary resource in putting this together. You are welcome to join the fray, as I intend to contact several scientists who subscribe either to our print edition or our e-list when assembling the advisory team for this project.

I'd also like to put together an FAQ piece designed to explain what liberal scientific method is and is not, and how liberal scientific method can be seen as one of the most effective ethical systems yet devised by humans. This FAQ piece would base its understanding of liberal scientific method on the model used in Jonathan Rauch's wonderful little book, The Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought. By submitting to liberal scientific method, says Rauch, we agree to submit all claims of fact to the scrutiny of our peers, and we agree to abide by the results of that scrutiny. With liberal scientific method, nobody holds the position of arbitrator of human knowledge, but this arbitration is done by public discussion. In a similar sense, anybody is qualified to submit evidence in an attempt to overthrow any currently accepted claim of knowledge. I like to point out that a lowly patent clerk is fully qualified to try to overturn the entire school of physics provided his arguments withstand the scrutiny of the scientific community. Albert Einstein, while working as a patent clerk, did just that!

These FAQ pieces would become part of a series of FAQ pieces which ought to complement the other resources our web site offers. They would be readable within between one and three minutes and would contain wording that (hopefully) almost anybody can understand.

Right now, the busiest sections are the Big List of Quotations (probably because it is now so easy to use and so aesthetically pleasing and so thorough) and our Letters section (which itself recently became much easier to use with the advent of the New Letters Files Index, which now makes our Letters section read like a periodical). As you can see by the Stats section at the bottom of our front page, PAM does quite well as Mom-and-Pop web sites go, and does exceptionally well as atheistic web sites go.

This is why I'd like to spend some energy putting together some simple but comprehensive statements that our readers will find useful in arguing such issues as creationism in the public schools. Any quick survey of recent attempts to place creationism in the various school districts shows that the creationists need only rehash the same tired old arguments that they've been using for decades -- simply because the public still does not have easy access to the other side of the story.

Michael Shermer is working on one end, having become involved in the behind-the-scenes publicity of the current PBS series "Evolution." Shermer was given money by Paul Allen to distribute "Baloney Detection Kits" to all the secondary schools. This, however, is a drop in the bucket, and to make the information itself readily available to the rank and file is the most efficient countering move we can do, and hopefully would be effective enough to put the brakes on this movement.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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