Imagine No Religion 4, day 2 part 2

Saturday afternoon was far less engaging than the morning. I took an extra-long lunch break because I wasn’t too keen to listen to Chris diCarlo and his Onion Skin Theory of Knowledge. Again. For the third time. So me and a friend wandered around to nearby Aberdeen Mall, hung out at Coles for a bit, then moved to Chapters where we hung out for a bit. I’d wanted to take a long walk towards downtown, but the weather was turning drizzly, so a bookstore excursion was probably the better outcome. Therefore, I only sat through two talks, neither of which wowed me nearly as much as the previous ones.

Annie Laurie Gaylor

Gaylor created the Freedom From Religion Foundation back in the mid-sixties to protest the Madison, WI city council injecting prayer into the council meetings. In the 38 years since then, the FRFF has grown from a membership of 2 to 20,000, the largest atheist/agnostic org in the US. She told us a bit about the FRFF’s history, and why it’s necessary. Since the 50’s and the Cold War, the US government has been breaking down the wall between church and state: putting “In God We Trust” on the money, then making it the national motto, giving more tax breaks to church ministers, and more.

It was interesting but kind of dry and not very gripping to me, to be honest. Maybe it’s because it deals with another country’s politics? Still, in hindsight this talk was valuable. It’s good to know how our southern neighbours are doing (now and in years past) with their religious wingnuts, and what organisations are actively fighting for some sanity in politics. Talks like this may be “Church-State 101”, but every year more freshmen freethinkers keep popping up, so to speak.

Jerry Coyne

Jerry Coyne talked about the incompatibility of science and religion (which, again, is kind of Skepticism 101, but it never hurts to go over the basics). And by religion, he means faith or any sort of faith-based worldview.

There wasn’t much there that I hadn’t heard before, except for the fact that interest in this very question (ie: the relationship between science and religion) is growing, fed in large part by organisations like the BioLogos forum, which are themselves funded by other organisations like the Templeton Foundation. The issue they are trying to push is is accomodationism: that the two are compatible and even mutually reinforcing. But this is bullshit: the real purpose of making this a debate is to increase public mistrust in science, and open the way to teaching creationism, climate change denial, or whatever else fundamentalist christians want taught these days.

The real problem, as far as the public sees it, is that as science advances it threatens beliefs. Evolution and cosmology change how we see our place in the universe. Neuroscience raises uncomfortable questions about free will and the (non) existence of the soul. There are some who want their faith immunised from these questions. Whether through some kind of “harmonisation” or segregation (ie: non-overlapping magisteria), they either want to co-opt science or limit the fields into which it may inquire.

And the fact is, religion and science are fundamentally incompatible, and everybody knows it. There can’t be any constructive dialogue since they speak different languages and require different world views. The most you can get (which we’re already getting) is a destructive monologue, where science destroys faith. Does having science-friendly religious folks, or religious scientists mean that compatibility is possible? No, it just means people can hold two contradictory worldviews in their heads, which is hardly news.

Great line, which I tweeted and apparently went slightly viral: In science, falsified claims are abandoned. In religion, falsified claims become metaphors.

And why does it matter? If it were a purely personal thing, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about it in a freethinker conference. But religion comes packaged with claims of absolute truths, claims of morality, reward / punishment, that sort of thing. Religion is very much a public thing… not to mention (just ask the FRFF) active attempts to subvert democracy and oppress people in the name of religion.