I can’t say that I’m surprised, but what Francis Collins presented in his talk last night at Caltech as constituting evidence for God’s existence was utterly unconvincing. However, what he said and the questions which followed were vastly better framed, less offensive, and in some important respects much closer to the truth than the talk that Richard Dawkins gave at Caltech in 2006 when he was touring for his book The God Delusion (which was ultimately so unpleasant and ill conceived that even I, an atheist who basically agrees with Dawkins’ criticisms of religion, am unable to recommend it). You can watch or listen to an earlier version of Collins’ talk on the Veritas Forum website. It’s in support of his own book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.
Baylor University, a private Baptist school in Texas, has just published the results of a survey of American religious belief. One of the findings, which was picked up by the Wall Street Journal, is that
…conservative religious Americans are far less likely to believe in the occult and paranormal than are other Americans, with self-identified theological liberals and the irreligious far more likely than other Americans to believe. The researchers say this shows that it is not religion in general that suppresses such beliefs, but conservative religion.
This comes right after the paragraph in which it is revealed that 55% of Americans believe they have a guardian angel watching over them, and preventing harm from coming to them, and that 45% of Americans have had at least 2 “religious encounters”, such as:
…hearing the voice of God, feeling called by God to do something, being protected by a guardian angel, witnessing and/or receiving a miraculous physical healing, and speaking or praying in tongues.
Unsurprisingly, the presumably Baptist researchers concluded that such experiences are central to American religion, and that adhering to a conservative brand of Christianity conveys resistance to belief in “the occult and paranormal”, ignoring the fact that the “religious encounters” are in fact instances of the paranormal. They may be Christian paranormal, but they’re still paranormal: “denoting events or phenomena that are beyond the scope or understanding of normal scientific understanding” or if you prefer, Christian occult: “supernatural, mystical, or magical beliefs, practices, or phenomena”.
I’m sure there’s a wealth of information in the survey results regarding the supernaturalist beliefs of Americans, but from this non-theist, naturalist’s point of view, the main result is that the overwhelming majority of Americans do not engage in skeptical inquiry. Their domains of credulity may be distinct (guardian angels vs. bigfoot) but on the whole, they are happy to accept extraordinary claims without any evidence backing them up.
I’m potentially open to an argument that rationality and skepticism are not neccesarily always favorable. The second life lesson Robert McNamara put forward in The Fog of War was: “Rationality will not save us.” He was speaking in the context of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which several nominally rational people almost brought about a thermonuclear holocaust, and the firebombings of Dresden, Tokyo, and countless other cities in WWII. The Tradgedy of the Commons is a failure based entirely on rational individual behavior, as was the tulipomania from which our financial system is currently suffering a serious hangover. But on average, I’d say rationality and skeptical inquiry are things we (humanity) could do with a bit more of.
Michelle and Jeremy and I went to a talk entitled Sacred Science at Caltech last night put on by the The Skeptics Society, it was part of Suart Kauffman’s book tour for Reinventing the Sacred. It was okay, but it could have been great. If you’re interested, he gave essentially the same talk at Beyond Belief in December (41 minutes long).
His purpose seemed to be to outline a semi-formal proof that atheistic humans are justified in reinventing the sacred for themselves as something which is wholly naturalistic, and that doing so has great value. I agree, but I’ve agreed for years. I guess some atheists haven’t yet come to this conclusion. This is the same conversation that we ended up in at Amy’s Salon a couple of months ago, and I’m always like “Yes, YES already, so let’s just get on with reinventing it, instead of continuing to try and convince ourselves that we should do it. It’s a meta conversation. We’re talking about talking about what we think should be revered. Are we afraid that we won’t be able to come to any kind of common ground, and that just having the conversation will somehow splinter us into even smaller non-theistic sects?
Continue reading Meta-reinventing the sacred, yet again