Culturally agnostic

It is census time in the UK, which includes a question about your religion. So I ticked the box for ‘no religion’; but my father ticked the one for ‘Christian’, despite the fact that he is certainly not a member of any church, doesn’t go to church except for weddings, funerals and the occasional carol service, and is not, as far as I can tell, a believer.

But, you know, he went to a Christian school, and he was even confirmed into the Church of England (by the archbishop of Canterbury, as it happens). Which suggests there was a period in his life when he regarded himself as Christian. So I guess it makes sense if he regards himself as culturally Christian — whatever that means.

And I do see the value of religions as cultural identities — I can see why Jewish atheists might still want to affirm their Jewishness and maintain the rituals. Or as I’m told people used to ask in Northern Ireland, ‘but are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?’

But as for me… I’m culturally more Christian than I am, say, Hindu — what religious education I had was mainly Christian in its focus, and I certainly know more about the culture and theology of Christianity than other religions. And at Christmas we have a tree, and presents, and a roast turkey. But those are just part of the ambient culture of Britain. Doctor Who plays a bigger part in my Christmas than Jesus. I’ve never thought of myself as Christian, so I don’t think of myself as a lapsed Christian, or a Christian atheist — if anything I’m a lapsed agnostic, since agnosticism seemed to be the fallback position amongst my peer group as a child.

The census can’t deal with such nuances, of course. Which is a pity, because that’s the kind of thing that seems interesting. We know that, because of people like my father, the census always significantly overstates the religiosity of the population:

When asked the census question ‘What is your religion?’, 61% of people in England and Wales ticked a religious box (53.48% Christian and 7.22% other) while 39% ticked ‘No religion’.

But when asked ‘Are you religious?’ only 29% of the same people said ‘Yes’ while 65% said ‘No’, meaning over half of those whom the census would count as having a religion said they were not religious.

Even more revealingly, less than half (48%) of those who ticked ‘Christian’ said they believed that Jesus Christ was a real person who died and came back to life and was the son of God.

The devoutly religious and the firmly atheist are straightforward enough; I’m curious about the shades of grey, the people who say their religion is Christian but that they are not religious. Are they mainly people who were brought up religious but don’t go to church any more? Are they defining themselves as Christian as a way of emphasising that they’re not Jewish or Muslim or whatever? Is it a generational thing? Do their children identify themselves as Christian? Perhaps ‘non-religious Christian’ can be a self-sustaining identity in its own right, comparable to secular Jewishness.

And the other side of that question is the people who tick ‘no religion’: are they mainly people who believe there is no god, or think there is no god, or can’t decide? Or are they just as likely to be people who have some kind of belief system of their own — something which they don’t think of as a religion but is not really non-belief either?

Anyway. I seem to have wandered off whatever point it was I was originally planning to make. Never mind.

» Ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire, by John Sell Cotman.

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More on the atheism/science malarkey

At Pharyngula, P.Z. Myers comments on the Jake Young article I linked to earlier. The bit of his post I would pick out is this:

Once again, science is a method. It’s a general set of procedures that rest on skepticism, induction, empiricism, and naturalism. Atheism is a conclusion. We look at the universe using the tools of science, and it does not fit any description of the universe derived from religious perspectives: we therefore reject religious dogma. We also see that the nature of the universe does not reflect any of the orthodox conceptions of what a god-ruled universe would look like. We arrive at the conclusion that there is no god.

Science=method. Atheism=conclusion. They’re different.

I have a lot of sympathy with this argument, but with substantial reservations.

I agree with the argument this far: if you assembled a team of neutral observers to take a scientific approach to the question of the existence of God, looking at all the evidence and considering different hypotheses to explain it, I think they would reject the God hypothesis. Absence of evidence is not proof, but it certainly leaves you with a very weak case.

But still… I’m uncomfortable with saying that atheism is the conclusion reached by the scientific method. I guess the reason is this. When someone says ‘Science tells us [something]’, they are claiming a certain kind of authority for that idea. That authority has been painstakingly acquired over a couple of centuries via the slow, methodical, rigorous accumulation of data and the testing of ideas. It comes from millions of man-hours spent observing nature, collecting and classifying specimens, and devising and implementing experiments.

So a statement like ‘humans are descended from apes’ can be backed up carefully and in detail on the basis of the fossil record, comparative physiology and genetics. There are, presumably, thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers discussing the idea. One could make similarly scientific statements about the chemical composition of tears, the weight of the electron, and thousands of other subjects.

‘There is no God’ is not, it seems to me, a scientific statement in the same way as ‘humans are descended from apes’. Most scientists may believe it to be true, and may believe that it is the conclusion most consistent with a scientific view of the world, but that doesn’t mean that it is a product of science.

The public authority of science—the willingness of people to accept what scientists say—is already probably less than it was a few decades ago, having been attacked by a peculiar combination of the religious, New Agers, alternative medicine and cultural relativists. But it is still high. What scientists say carries weight. That authority should be valued, and not invoked lightly. When a professional scientist like P.Z. Myers says that atheism is the result of science, it seems to me he is claiming that cultural authority inappropriately, and risks weakening it.

Myers rightly makes fun of the proponents of Intelligent Design for pretending to be doing science when they’re not, and frequently points out their complete lack of published scientific papers. He rightly sees that they are trying to appear to be scientific in part because they are trying to take some of the cultural authority of science for themselves. They know that if they can convince people they are scientific they will be taken more seriously. But it seems to me that he risks doing the same thing: invoking spurious authority.

Science ≠ Atheism

There’s a post over at Pure Pedantry about the dangers of presenting science and atheism as equivalent or too closely connected; suggesting, for example, that atheism is the natural or inevitable end result of a scientific mindset.

It’s understandable that they sometimes get run together. There is a connection; it’s not a coincidence that scientists are disproportionately likely to be atheists. And because the atheist of the moment, Richard Dawkins, is a biologist by training, much of the coverage of his book and the ensuing controversy has framed it as an argument between science and religion, even though very little of The God Delusion is about science.

I really think this is a mistake, though. And I really think it would be unwise for scientists and atheists to encourage it. Partially this is for the strategic reasons that Jake Young gets into in the post I linked to above: if you link science and atheism, it is likely to make religious believers more suspicious and hostile towards science. It will also make people who for whatever reason dislike science—or are just bored by it—less receptive to atheism. Even if you are keen to promote both science and atheism, blurring the two ideas together is probably counterproductive.

But it’s not just a marketing issue. I’m keen to treat the ideas separately because I actually think they are separate. I’m not making the argument that science and religion are inherently different kinds of idea which operate in parallel (Stephen J. Gould’s ‘Non-Overlapping Magisteria’), because I think that’s a cop-out; a way of ducking the question.

No, it’s that, with the glaring exception of Genesis, I can’t see any conflict between science and scripture. Or much connection at all, really. Scientists are obviously going to be sceptical at stories like Christ turning water into wine, but as it happened (or didn’t) two thousand years ago, it’s not really open to testing. Science can point out that’s it’s impossible to turn water into wine or walk on water, but that’s beside the point; everyone knows it’s impossible. That’s why it’s a miracle. Scientists may find the idea awkward, but if a God who works miracles does exist, science will just have to live with it.

When a religion does make a scientifically testable claim—that prayer can help recovery from illness, perhaps—by all means test it, and if, necessary, challenge it. The big one, in this context, is the claim that God made the Earth in seven days. As long as there are a significant number of people who believe in the literal truth of Genesis (or any other pre-scientific creation myth), there is a real and substantial conflict of ideas between science and religion, and I would expect biologists and geologists to argue their case accordingly. And if someone comes forward today who says he can turn water into wine and walk on water (or bend spoons with the power of his mind), then test his claims.

But most of the time, that doesn’t apply. The subjects don’t generally overlap. A mathematical model for the internal structure of the proton is no more in conflict with the sermon on the mount than Aristotle’s idea of catharsis is in conflict with a recipe for fairy cakes.

Of course there is a natural tension between science and religion. The scientific emphasis on scepticism, logic and measurable evidence sits uneasily with ideas of revelation, faith and subjective religious experience. Religion’s apparent view of humanity at the centre of creation sits uneasily with the idea of evolution as a contingent, undirected process. As an atheist with an interest in science, I find the two things complementary, but they are not equivalent or inseparable.

And the main arguments against God are not scientific arguments. They may be in a similar intellectual tradition, but they certainly aren’t the result of scientific research or scientific knowledge; I imagine they had been thoroughly argued over well before most of modern science existed. The broad-brush arguments are philosophical, and the arguments against details of scripture are mainly drawn from history, archaeology, textual criticism, comparative theology and so on. Science, by providing enormous explanatory power without reference to religion, may have weakened the authority of religion, but largely without directly contradicting it (with, again, the glaring exception of Genesis).

If I was trying to convert someone to atheism, I can’t think I’d even invoke science at all. Assuming they weren’t a creationist, it just wouldn’t seem relevant.

Atheist, not agnostic. Honestly.

Scavella has a post about her religious belief, the general drift of which is entirely reasonable. Obviously I don’t actually agree with it all—no surprise there—but I don’t feel the need to argue with it. I do have a problem with this, though:

I tend to regard agnosticism as more honest, and more politically palatable. The fundamental truth is that we do not know what lies beyond our experience (which for some people is a religious experience and for others is a material one, and both experiences are similarly bounded by our physical and physiological limitations), and to assert that we do know is fallacious.

I accept that I can’t prove the non-existence of gods. I think there are good reasons to believe that there are no gods, but in the end it has to be an assumption. Nonetheless I describe myself as an atheist rather than an agnostic. I believe there is no god, although I can’t prove it. The Archbishop of Canterbury believes there is a God, although he can’t prove it. Why should I be described as an agnostic if he isn’t?

Adam alone

The other reason I feel there’s a difference between an agnostic and an atheist is that I’ve been both. I come from a non-religious family—I think my father identifies himself as Church of England on the census, but as far as I can tell he’s nothing of the kind—but I got the usual English kind of low-key religious education at school. I’m sure there was a point when I sort of believed that it was sort of true, in the non-critical way that children believe things that adults tell them. I’m not saying that I ever had any kind of religious period, or strong sense of identity as a Christian, but Christian ideas were floating around in my head along with a jumble of other stuff like Father Christmas, astrology, the wolf in the attic, and that eating carrots help you see in the dark.

As I got older and more sceptical these beliefs got winnowed out. Naturally you start by losing things like Santa and vampires, which are universally understood to be fictional. But there are a range of more-or-less supernatural beliefs which are widely endorsed by adults and so are much harder for a child to confidently dismiss: UFOs, astrology, homeopathy, dowsing, ESP and of course religion, which has the whole weight of centuries of European culture giving it authority. So there was a period when although I was sceptical by inclination and certainly not a believer, I described myself as an agnostic, and actually meant ‘I don’t know what I believe’.

But after spending years thinking about these issues, arguing them with people, learning more about both religion and science, and encountering the usual arguments for and against, my position became clearer (or firmer, or more rigid; pick your own adjective) and I reached a strictly materialistic view of the world. For me, as I never had much emotional investment in Christianity and I never lived in a very devout community, it genuinely was as much a rejection of dowsing, ESP and crystal healing as a rejection of God or religion. The point is that it wasn’t a quick or impulsive decision.

To call myself an agnostic now would feel like a denial of a process, which was, for me, real and important. I can see the temptation; ‘agnostic’ is a label I can live with, and it’s softer and less confrontational than ‘atheist’. But in the end, for me, it’s calling myself agnostic which feels like the less honest option.

Since you ask…

Rob asks:

I haven’t read Christopher Hitchens’s book – yet another book attempting to discredit religion and argue that there is no God (is anyone bored yet?)

Well, let’s see. A Pakistani government minister has just suggested that Salman Rushdie’s knighthood justifies suicide bombings. A creationist museum has just opened in Kentucky. The Catholic church has just told its members to stop supporting Amnesty International because they support the decriminalisation of abortion. And Hamas has just taken control of the Gaza strip.

I don’t think the subject has been exhausted quite yet.

Militant Atheism

I’ve just finished The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, which I enjoyed more than I expected, since generally I prefer Dawkins when he’s writing about biology. I might blog about the book later, but for now it got me thinking about religion.

My own opinions are uncompromising: I don’t believe there is anything beyond the material universe, so that means no gods, no fairies, no ghosts. I think that theism and deism are just about intellectually defensible, but the details of particular religions, whether Christianity, Islam, Scientology or whatever, are about as plausible as crystal healing; only their cultural importance gives them a spurious sense of reasonableness.

I used to enjoy arguing with believers for the sake of it, but I largely stopped that at university when I came to the conclusion that I was just upsetting them for no good purpose. And on the whole, despite the occasional internet argument, I’ve stuck to that. I tend to think of religion in much the same way as I think of the monarchy. The status of the royal family is undemocratic, anachronistic and generally intellectually indefensible, but as long as they don’t seem to be doing any harm, and as long as they keep out of politics, trying to get rid of them doesn’t seem like a battle worth having; there’s very little popular support of it, the process of working out a system to replace the status quo would be interminable and painful, and in the end I don’t think we’d have gained much.

The same applies to religion. As long as religions keep themselves to themselves and don’t obviously do much harm to others, I’m generally willing to live and let live. And in the UK, it’s pretty easy to take that attitude. Growing up as a middle-class Londoner, agnosticism was the default position, and if there was any social pressure it was that Christianity was desperately unfashionable. In that environment, rejecting belief is easy, socially and intellectually. And while London is probably exceptionally godless, especially outside the various immigrant communities, the same is broadly true of the UK as a whole. Although 72% of people identify themselves as ‘Christian’ on the census, when asked the question ‘Do you believe in God?’ only 44% of people actually say ‘yes’, with another 21% not being sure. Presumably that leaves another 7% who describe themselves as ‘Christian’ while definitely not believing in God. And even among the believers, only 10% go to church ‘in most weeks’. Fortunately, the Church of England is so theologically open-minded that it’s hardly necessary to believe in God to be a member.

Even more important, perhaps, is that enthusiastic religion is not really very socially acceptable. Certainly for politicians, being overtly religious is more likely to attract mockery than support. So there’s no prospect of anything like the American ‘religious right’ appearing any time soon over here (or indeed, the CofE being what it is, a ‘religious left’).

And yet, recently (and even before reading the Dawkins) I’ve been feeling more militant about my atheism, and less willing to be tolerant of people’s religious beliefs. Partially that’s because of the growth of extremist Islam. Not just the terrorism, which is an unwelcome development but is in the end a fairly minor threat. It’s the intrusion of Islam into politics; the prominence of Islamic organisations as a part of the anti-war movement, the protesting and flag-burning at any perceived slur, the election of George Galloway, the issue of faith schools. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with all of the politics; I’m not a big fan of the war, for example. But I don’t like to see politics infected by religion.

There’s also the increasingly religionised nature of US politics. As I say, I can’t see the same thing happening here; but the prospect of religious zealots in control of the world’s largest ecomony and military isn’t exactly reassuring either. And as worrying as both Islam and the religious right are individually, the most worrying thing of all is the idea of them validating and motivating each other. I’m deeply troubled by the idea that people who talk about a ‘clash of civilisations’ don’t mean a clash between aggressive religion and post-Enlightenment secular democracy, but between two competing religions. I’m troubled by the possibility that, in wishing to define Britishness in opposition to Islamism, people will increasingly talk about the UK as ‘a Christian country’, and Christianity will once again start to seem like a defining part of what makes Britain British. Personally, I can’t see how British history is any kind of advertisement for Christian virtues, since from the Reformation right up to the current situation in Northern Ireland, Britain has repeatedly been torn apart by violent clashes between competing Christian sects; but I know some people see it differently.

Where does this increased militancy lead me? I don’t know, really. It’s not like there has ever been a period in my lifetime when religion wasn’t a source of oppression or conflict somewhere in the world, but somehow at the moment the damage done by religious belief seems particularly vivid. It makes me less inclined to show any respect to someone’s faith just because it’s well-meaning and sincere.

And as irritating as I tend to find militant atheism in others, I have an uncomfortable feeling that I should proselytise, that it’s important to assert that religious beliefs are not simply false but harmful. Even the anaemic Christianity of the CofE represents the victory of superstition and inertia over evidence and logic, and if it does little harm it’s only because it is generally ineffectual. Forceful religion, impassioned religion, campaigning religion: these are Bad Things. Perhaps it needs to be said more often.

more atheism

I think I’ll move this out of the comments into its own post:

From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.

from here via Metafilter. I have to admit, as a white middle-class straight man, I never expected to see myself appearing at the bottom of a list like that.

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It’s a whole different world.

This article about atheists in Texas (via Pharyngula) is just mind-bogglingly odd to me. I grew up in secular, middle-class London where the default position was a casual agnosticism, so the image of atheists as a secretive minority, afraid to give their name in a newspaper interview, seems surreal. The flipside of that is the presentation of atheists as fiercely rationalist and potentially campaigning ideologues, who go to atheist meetings. What do you do at an atheist meeting? All sit in a room together not believing? It doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. Just like Christians, most of the non-believers I know are that way because they were brought up like that. I’m wary of attempts to make atheism into either an alternate belief system or a political cause. I mean, I don’t believe in unicorns either, but I’m not about to go to any meetings about it.

Of course, I can see that if I lived in America, it might seem more important, both because of the overwhelmingly religious culture and because the constitutional separation of church and state makes it into a political issue. There’s an irony in the fact that in the UK, which has a constitutional intertwining of church and state, we tend to be suspicious of overt religiosity in our politicians, while American politics practically demands it.

I remember a few years ago reading an article in the Economist which argued, in the context of abortion, that the US Constitution actually tended to inflame political debates, because the insistence on absolute and inalienable rights makes both sides inflexible and removes the chance of compromise. Specifically, it means that, whereas in Europe, the focus of the debate tends to move quite rapidly onto specifics which can be farmed off onto technical committees – the maximum age of a fetus that can be aborted, whether a woman has to see a doctor before getting an abortion – in the States, there’s always this central totemic Supreme Court decision that hangs over the whole subject, and the possibility of the decision being overturned. Once the sides have branded themselves in the rhetoric of absolute rights – the ‘right to life’ and the ‘right to choose’ – it becomes all-or-nothing. Similarly with obscenity and hate-speech laws vs. free speech, or the right to bear arms.

I don’t know whether the separation of church and state has played an important part in shaping American religious culture; the French, who have the same constitutional separation, seem to be pretty Godless. It certainly politicises the debate on teaching evolution in schools and prevents the obvious compromise of teaching Genesis in religious education classes and Darwin in biology, though. And although I completely agree that natural selection is the only origin theory children should be taught in biology, the debate shouldn’t be about constitutionality. It should be about teaching the overwhelming scientific consensus.

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