The Human Condition:

Scientific Triumphalism and Militant Atheism – March 10, 2013

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I am an atheist. The universe I inhabit does not need either a Creator nor a Caretaker. The life I live does not need a supernatural Protector and Favor Granter working on overwatch. Like the Buddhists, I can reason out a robust morality based on sobriety, reciprocity, and fairness without the intervention of a supernatural Law Giver.1 All of this, however, does not make me more intelligent, or less gullible, than the people around me who believe in and pray to an all-powerful Being. I don’t despise them for their beliefs. Rather, I tend to think I’m lacking in some essential gene or protein that lets my brain feel the presence of such a Being and acknowledge His/Her/Its reality.

Back when I was a child and then an adolescent attending church and trying to believe,2 I was painfully aware that I was alone. I lived in a community of many churches. All around me were young believers. We said the Lord’s Prayer in grade school. We still pledged allegiance “under god” in high school. The money in our pockets trusted in God. And there I was, some kind of pariah with a tin ear who could not tune in to the dominant paradigm of my society.

As I was growing up, I remember hearing about Madalyn Murray O’Hare and the lawsuits she filed in support of the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. Her suit before the Supreme Court ended Bible reading in public schools in 1963 and, I suppose, foster-fathered the many lawsuits that now perennially seek to remove nativity scenes and Christmas trees from town squares. But Ms. O’Hare was never a hero of mine—in fact, she always struck me as a gadfly and a fanatic.

And yet, in the span of a generation—my generation—her critique of religion has become the national conscience. Not in the way she intended, I think. Back in the ’60s, we all accepted the school prayer rulings in the spirit that reading from the King James Version was probably offensive to our Jewish and even to our Catholic classmates. And if we had any Muslims or Hindus or Confucians in my mostly white, mostly middle class schools, we would have protected their feelings, too. But we weren’t so sensitive about atheists’ feelings because—look around—did you see any atheists?

These days, however, if you listen to the mainstream media and the chitchat on social media, all the right-thinking people are atheists. Belief in any kind of god is not even a bourgeois affectation anymore. Aside from a pattern of cultural detritus—like saying “god damn” when you hit your thumb with a hammer—no one actually believes in the Angry Old Man with the White Beard Who Lives in the Sky and Watches You! God has become a vaporous spirit who barely inhabits the local church steeple. Think of the hapless mother, Rachel, in the recent spy movie Hanna. When asked to clarify her casual reference to “God,” Rachel says, “Well, not in any monotheistic sense. Buddha, Krishna, the god within. Whatever you believe in.” God has become a spiritual bumper sticker—nondenominational, plastic, sensitive to the needs of others, and shapeless.

Unless, of course, you actually, devoutly, loudly believe. And then you’re over on the other side with the rednecks, the Bible thumpers, and the militant Muslims. They’re the people who won’t see reason and will never, ever give up their mass-hallucinatory delusions. We’re polite to such people because, after all, it’s a free country and we don’t want to be dogmatic about these things. We look down on those who inhabit the Christian tradition, because most of us by now feel we have seen through all that, like a rotted veil, and finally abandoned the mental shackles. We are polite to the Muslims, Hindus, and Catholics, because they are not really us.3 But in the 21st century western tradition, we really feel more comfortable with the Communists and their “opiate of the masses” dismissal, or with Rachel and her “whatever” mishmash, than with anyone from the little church on the corner.

How did things change so fast? Did we really go from being “soft on Communism” in the 1950s to freely accepting its inner social paradigm in the 2000s?

To a large extent, I blame the triumph of the scientific method and its astounding and continually abounding proofs in modern technology. In 500 years, we’ve gone from the unseating of geocentrism and the music of the spheres, to space flights and planetary explorations that are so regular and common they don’t even make the evening news anymore. In 200 years, we’ve gone from big, clumsy, inefficient steam engines powered by coal to a world dominated by reliable, efficient small motors and turbines that whisk us around town, up in the air, across the country, and to faraway continents. In just over 100 years, we’ve gone from hand-blown light bulbs and hand-crank telephones to machines that will do our thinking and remembering for us, as well as handfuls of polymer and glass that can connect us to the world and its entire base of knowledge in an instant.

In a new world that Shakespeare would have described as Ariel and Caliban having come alive—and with the promise of more wonders yet to come—what room is there for a fusty old Hebraic god with ten commandments that were spoken out of a burning bush? A philosophy based on science and technology has shown itself to be more successful and more fruitful than any philosophy based on supernatural fear and loathing.4

And yet, the anger and loathing with which some of these modern atheists regard their recently discarded religious tradition—especially of the once-dominant Christian variety—bears a resemblance to “protesting too much.” To discard a flag you once sailed under, because you’ve simply changed your mind and allegiance, is one thing. To stamp on that flag, burn it, spit on it, and shriek your defiance with a clenched fist—that speaks of a lingering uncertainty. I could calmly abandon the traditional notion of God, because I was never more than sailing under a false flag anyway. But among the people who need to marginalize and despise believers and push them into dark corners, I sense a neophyte’s doubt and a still-unformed perception of what they think is really going on in the universe.

On the other hand, we’re also seeing scientific philosophy adopting the mental trappings of a religion. We are starting to see, in some areas, a creed developing, an orthodoxy to which “all reasonable people” are supposed to subscribe. I’m sure that my recent posts—about the limits of what we currently know, about the trend in finding proofs of various theories in complicated mathematics presented as if they were observations, and about “consensus” in science—all have angered professional scientists.5 It’s a thin line I walk as a non-scientist. I’m not speaking in favor of an anything-goes approach to knowledge, where my nudnik idea is just as valid as your peer-reviewed paper supported by observation and experimentation. But I also know that mathematics is a product of the human mind that represents and maps to the physical world but is still capable of false analogy and miscorrelation. And for whatever you can say about mathematics, repeat ten times over for computer modeling and simulations, where the operator is forced to choose among data sets and weigh competing variables.

Is scientific fundamentalism—that is, the dogmatic belief in the supremacy of certain scientific positions, even though they are supported more by theory, mathematics, and computer modeling than by direct observation and established fact (e.g., the catastrophic predictions about anthropogenic global warming)—preferable to religious fundamentalism? Either one suggests a closed mind and acceptance of “this far, but no farther” in the evolution of ideas. As a convinced evolutionist myself, I understand—I know, if you will—that everything changes. Today’s certainties give way to uncertainty, doubt, confusion, and new conceptions, leading to new certainties that will also, eventually, crumble and fall. If you nail your heart to the mast of any theory, as Ahab nailed his golden doubloon to the Pequod’s mainmast, you will eventually be disillusioned and disappointed.6

I guess, in the end, my atheism is a kind of a mental shield. Most humans, who have the gene or protein that lets them hear the whispers of God, are also susceptible to a fixation on ultimate truth with a capital “T.” They crave absolutes, identities, and certainties. They want a world that is fixed and everlasting. They want to build a home on bedrock, under a sky that never rains down stones, alongside a creek that will never rise, and bordering a field that will never fail and blow away in dust.

I can never have that. I know that time is the enemy of certainty, that youth succumbs to age, and age succumbs to dust. It’s not that I believe in nothing, but I know that nothing is always a possibility and it hovers always near.

1. However, I am also a child of western civilization, which has been shaped by a religious tradition and Judeo-Christian theology. Whether I would be an atheist—or even the same person with the same open, rational viewpoint—if I had grown up in a Muslim or Asian culture is a delicate question.

2. I was a child of mixed marriage: mother a Methodist, father a Presbyterian, and older brother off sitting with the Congregationalists. No one mentioned God much in our household, and we only said grace at the table for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I tried to attend the Presbyterian church while in high school. It was a modern church, which acknowledged predestination without making a big thing of it—and I never heard the angels’ wings. We took communion in Wonder Bread and Welch’s grape juice several times a year, and didn’t make a big thing of that, either. Sunday school was more like a social club. And yes, I’ve been known to swear by invoking the identities of God and Jesus Christ, but my heart’s never really been in it.

3. And besides, some of them will go all jihad on you in public.

4. And yet, look at the content of our popular media. The supernatural still abounds in stories about vampires, werewolves, witches, and zombies—not to mention science-fiction phenomena that might as well be supernatural, like wormholes, time travel, and achieving super-light speeds. While we all know this stuff’s not possible, we all love stories about it. And for young minds without a decent science education, well, who’s to say what might not be possible?

5. The reader might think, based on some of my recent posts about science and mathematics, that I’m anti-science. Not at all. I think science and its handmaiden technology represent some of the best works of the human mind. But in the realms of the very big and the very small—cosmology and subatomic particles, where observation is difficult and hands-on experimentation almost impossible—our best minds are coming hard upon some fascinating conundrums, riddles, and apparent absurdities through their observations. In response, they are pushing theory and mathematical reasoning to the edge of credulity. So I sense that an upheaval is coming, a recalibration of our collective mindset, such as has happened every hundred years or so for the past half a millennium. But then, I’m a science fiction writer, not a scientist. Imagination, speculation, and reasonable doubt are my stock in trade.

6. Even evolution itself, that most durable of scientific faiths, may one day be replaced by a better theory, although it’s held up pretty well since Darwin’s day through the multiple discoveries of cladistics and genetics. I suppose that the paradigm-shifting blow will come in the guise of what we mean by “random” mutations, when we already have evidence from epigenetics that some of the changes due to environmental methylation seem to follow predictable patterns.
       And who knows what the theoretical impact will be if we ever discover the origins of the DNA/RNA/protein interaction? DNA and its complements represent a complex yet highly conserved mechanism, the organizing principle behind all life on this planet. Yet nowhere in the most obscure and isolated populations, nor in the fossil record, do we find any trace of a competing or less developed molecular mechanism. With the earliest bacteria and blue-green algae appearing four billion years ago, and then with the first multi-celled organisms half a billion years ago, the identical interaction of DNA, RNA, and proteins conquered this planet in the same form that we find them today. Which means that either this highly complex, almost arbitrary mechanism was so robust that it quickly beat out all competitors and effectively froze its own evolution for eternity. Or it did not not actually originate on Earth but immigrated, or was carried, or even seeded here from somewhere else.