The observable examined

Science, God and Atheism

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My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.

— J.B.S. Haldane

“Fact and Faith” (1934)   Quoted in Lawrence Krauss’ article God and Science Don’t Mix


It happens to most of us.  In the late adolescence, early adulthood stages, we tend to contemplate life’s big questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? The answers we settle on, more or less, form the “spiritual” foundation for the rest of our lives. For most, what started as a spiritual quest morphs into a religious identity (the mileage here varies from liberal to orthodox to fanatical), usually centered on a personal God/benefactor. However, for a small minority, the introspection, coupled with evidence from science, leads to a worldview filled with a lifelong skepticism or rejection of commonly held beliefs, particularly the religious kind. These individuals go by the moniker of atheists or the weaker version: agnostics.  They would acknowledge the notion of a God (or Nature or Einstein’s God), devoid of any special interest in human affairs.

On the face of it, one can just dismiss theism or atheism as just two differing viewpoints and move on. But if you examine the evidence over the years, it is abundantly clear that the institution of religion, in spite of it many societal benefits, fosters a worldview that numbs the intellect. Consider its origins. Early man is out foraging for food. Rainclouds are forming above him. Suddenly there is a flash of lightning followed by thunder. He is awestruck by this spectacle. Maybe even a bit fearful. He begins to wonder how and why (a fantastically unique human trait). He seeks an explanation for the phenomenon he has just witnessed. The methods and tools of scientific inquiry are not yet available to him. He walks away, answers not forthcoming. This cognitive state of affairs is common among his fellow tribesmen. Something interesting happens. Over a roast deer dinner, they discuss rain, thunder, and lightning (notice that language has emerged as a means of communication). They concur and attribute agency of these events to an external/unseen entity (this is an outcome of the projection of a mind similar to their own onto this agent). To address this agent collectively, they create symbols. Amongst this group, there is one individual who is thinking deeper and harder about these issues. He is observant and starts noticing some patterns in nature. He can predict an eclipse. He figures he can profit from it. He impresses his fellow tribesmen by predicting the next rains. He also claims he can communicate with the agent. The witch doctor/shaman is born. We also witness the birth of the religion meme.

[In this view, the method of inquiry gave birth to religion contrary to the view that science was born out of religion].

At this stage in human history, human societies are small, the migrations out of Africa are just beginning, the cerebral cortex is evolving, and agriculture as a way of life is still to be discovered. The religious meme, however primitive, offers a “reasonable” explanation of the world humans see, with their as yet meager cognitive abilities. It sticks. And travels with the bands of migrants.

Gradually society transforms from nomadic in nature to settlements. Man is now very appreciative and respectful of the bounties of nature [I find it interesting that many Native American tribes follow a ritual of paying their respects to bodies of water and then sprinkle some on themselves.  A similar tradition exists even among religious Hindus.]  His growing cerebral sophistication leads to awareness at several levels. Foremost amongst them is the realization of the inevitability of death: his own and those of others. This is very confusing and maybe even outright scary. To alleviate this anxious state of affairs he invents the notion of afterlife.  There are even barbaric elements (animal and human sacrifices for the appeasement of the Gods). In parallel, with the growing complexity of expanding societies, social structures emerge.  Social norms are put in place. The leaders find it challenging to enforce these rules. With the help of the high priests they devise a plan. They play on our inherent fears using religion and God as a convenient and powerful instrument for exercising control.  The outcome is the invention of Paradise and Hell. Good conduct is rewarded with a ticket to Paradise, bad results in a journey to Hell. Redemption and retribution become the cornerstones of the religious edict.  Collectively, these developments lead to the evolution of the primitive totem pole symbolism to a more sophisticated divine entity. The God meme has mutated towards theodicy: omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. More importantly, this God is extremely tuned in to the personal fortunes of individuals.

Societies continue to expand and disperse. Within the general framework of a God outlined above, newer religions take on unique cultural identities. Elaborate hierarchies, involved in managing the affairs of the Gods, have now replaced the primitive shaman. The modern religious institution is a thriving economic enterprise with organizational structures that rival the best of breed in business. Most of them are monotheistic with one supreme liaison to God (the CEOs of the God enterprise). Interestingly, the Hindus and the Greeks have specialist Gods compared to monotheism that is more dictatorial in style [but has the benefit of unifying the message]. Thus, the God meme over generations has mutated into a very complex menome, very much in lock step with other cultural advances. God then was made and evolved in the image of man.

So there we are. From its humble and benign beginnings as a schema for the unexplained to its modern incarnation as a multi-headed Hydra, religion, like any other invention of man, has proved to be a double-edged sword. The graveyard of history is littered with the carcasses of religious excess. Unless you have been sleeping, the footprints of religion’s pernicious influences across the world are abundant. Ironically, many of the conflicts are based on religious identity [my God is better than yours]. At the individual level, the concern is more with the numbing of the intellect or lack of critical thinking. Individuals make important life decisions based on superstitions, numerology, astrology, and prayers. The list is endless.

Along the way, skeptics have emerged in all cultures and societies. They asked questions that threatened the foundations of established beliefs. But because the God meme has had a stranglehold on the majority, these individuals were labeled blasphemous or heretical, and usually met with terrible deaths, such as burning at the stake. Some, like the Buddha, were initially successful in establishing an alternative worldview, but the message has been slowly eroded.

Through the work of many generations of inquiring minds, starting with the early natural philosophers to modern day scientists, science has systematically unraveled the many mysteries of the universe. But the single most important intellectual achievement is Darwin’s theory of natural selection. It offers a fairly simple, beautiful, and elegant explanation of the natural world. It is indeed a monumental piece of cerebral dexterity. Instead of Religion’s cop out answer of “God works in mysterious ways” when confronted with the many contradictions and inadequacies of the religious worldview, Darwinism brings it all home, plain and simple. Darwin brought God down to Earth. Now advances in brain science (Neurotheology), has placed the locus of God inside your head!!

Richard Dawkins (some have referred to him as Darwin’s Rottweiler) has stirred the religious pot quite vigorously in his book: The God Delusion.  I highly recommend it.

Although, I do not agree with his main thesis (that religion is an evolutionary adaptation, to relieve the anxiety of death), I also recommend Matthew Alper’s book: The God part of the brain, for an interesting take on this whole issue. He, amongst others, has noted that the claims of received wisdom, a cornerstone of many modern religions, can be attributed to delusional minds.

Here is a full length debate between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox (a Christian Mathematician).

There is a fundamental misconception that the Atheist worldview has no room for accommodating and appreciating the beauty and grandeur of Nature. In this debate, Lennox argues that the atheist worldview is “hideous”. Compared to what? The lame God and his “mysterious ways” worldview?   The Buddha held the view that Prince or Pauper, you cannot escape Disease or Death. I want to argue that the atheist point of view, far from being pessimistic (everything is pointless) urges us to apply the razor of critical thinking when we conduct our worldly affairs. However, critical thinking does not come for free. It requires an open mind and enormous cognitive effort. I find it interesting that, in Indian thought, there is some cognitive stratification. The Jnana yogi is the thinker, his tool is introspection and contemplation. The Karma Yogi is the doer, finds meaning through action. The Bhakti yogi is the prayer (pun intended), requires the most help, and comes with many instruction manuals. The majority, in any society or culture, belong in the last category. Hence, Marx’s observation – Religion is the opium of the masses.

As Lawrence Krauss notes “.. Perhaps the most important contribution an honest assessment of the incompatibility between science and religious doctrine can provide is to make it starkly clear that in human affairs — as well as in the rest of the physical world — reason is the better guide.”


Written by asterix98

February 11, 2012 at 5:59 am

2 Responses

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  1. I have added comments I received from a friend who wants to remain anonymous for various reasons. The quotes are from my blog and her comments appear below it……


    ” The answers we settle on, more or less, form the “spiritual” foundation for the rest of our lives. …..”

    My hypothesis would be that this period of philosophical contemplation and self-questioning comes later in adulthood, probably around the mid 30s to early 40s. I think the sense of immortality and the idealism of late adolescence/early adulthood serve as developmental barriers to the process of questioning the status quo in belief systems. Especially in today’s fast paced and highly competitive world, the period of transitioning into the relational responsibilities of adulthood with the self as well as with others, seems to have been pushed further along life’s timeline. The adolescent/early adulthood period of life is spent reaching ones academic/material goals rather than questioning where one is going? I also think the failure of the “just world hypothesis” that is perpetuated by organized religion is what ultimately leads to a questioning of belief systems.


    “For most, what started as a spiritual quest morphs into a religious identity (the mileage here varies from liberal to orthodox to fanatical), usually centered on a personal God/benefactor. ………”

    Interestingly, I see this as being the other way around……..for most, what starts as a religious identity morphs into a spiritual quest as the mature mind begins to question the dogma and rituals of organized religion. However, for a small minority, the religious identity of early life gets further solidified into more orthodox or fanatical beliefs or in some cases (as in the influence of extremist Islam) life adversities can sway a questioning mind towards extremist influences.

    “He also claims he can communicate with the agent. The witch doctor/shaman is born……”

    My only issue with this is the assumption that the brilliance of these evolutionary processes is automatically attributed to ‘men’. Somewhere along the historical trajectory the contributions of women to the growth of religion has been lost. After all, the divine feminine was a much more potent symbol than the masculine, e.g.: Mother Earth.


    “Redemption and retribution become the cornerstones of the religious edict……….”
    I think this is more reflective of the modern (the word ‘modern’ is used as a relative term here) understanding of the Judeo-Christian religions. My belief is that the intellectual pursuits of early humans were far more sophisticated and has narrowed over time. In fact, I see that intellectual process as having a rise and then a downfall—the growth from a primitive sense of awe of nature to a sophisticated body of knowledge and then to a simplification (and loss of complexity) of those systems of understanding into small bytes that are easily digested in a fast paced world. As an example, I present the little knowledge that we have of how spiritualty was woven through the Vedas, the ancient Chinese forms of medicine and philosophy, early humans’ understanding of astronomy, aboriginal knowledge of the universe, etc., etc., etc. These sophisticated bodies of knowledge, and the understanding of the Universe and the afterlife were developed over centuries and have subsequently been condensed, simplified, corrupted, and marketed under religious brand names.

    “Collectively, these developments lead to the evolution of the primitive totem pole symbolism to a more sophisticated divine entity. The God meme has mutated towards theodicy: omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. More importantly, this God is extremely tuned in to the personal fortunes of individuals…..”
    –And thus the emergence of the Just World Hypothesis that is controlled by this anthropomorphic God.


    February 20, 2012 at 5:26 pm

  2. Thank you for the link to your blog, which I found most thoughtful, as I did your EidoScope.

    I have long stopped thinking about religion but I thought that your own foray into its origins and implications quite compatible with my own thinking although I very much enjoyed your phrasing. And the incompatibility between science and religion was beautifully put in the Haldane quote (which I had never seen before).

    I wonder if a critique of monotheistic religions could have been made more strongly. “I am a jealous god,” always struck me as an admission of extreme pettiness. Who could love, admire, and adore such a creature? But it is at the core of the exclusivity of monotheism and the origin of priestly powers (which you described beautifully). Evolutionarily, it strikes me as the culmination of your cave vs. my cave, which we also see in the behavior of sport fans.

    Given your background, a bit more psychology/neuroscience could be in order as to an accounting of believers vs. atheists. The Minnesota twin studies (Bouchard et al., Science, 1990) and Jonathan Haidt’s work on the development of morality strongly imply a genetic origin of this individual difference. The Republicans have been most adept at harnessing the Religious Right so that the RR vote against their own economic self interest and are made to feel proud to be a member of the anti-intellectualism cave (something that DeTocqueville noted in the 19th century). If one believes that democracy advances through honest debate, this is all very depressing.

    Why the tendency towards tribalism/cavism? More neuroscience. Recent work has shown that oxytocin not only elicits nurturing of one’s own and, more generally, in group solidarity but hostility to competing out groups.

    Irving Biederman

    April 1, 2012 at 1:17 pm

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