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Religious belief as an infection

January 5, 2011

Recently I have noticed a stance taken by some members of the new wave of atheists and scientifically-informed ‘sceptics’, who define themselves largely by that which they oppose.  This is the stance that someone’s belief in a god is akin to an infection, from which the rest of their beliefs has no immunity.  To some, a question like this:

Can you be a creationist and be a good scientist?

has to be answered in the negative, since creationism lacks strong evidence and, therefore, a belief in it is incompatible with a rigorous following (I won’t say ‘worship’) of the scientific method.  Now, I think that this is a pretty bold position to take.  It goes much further than saying either of these things:

  • a belief in creationism is irrational (or in some other way bad)
  • a belief in a creationist god is incompatible with some scientifically well-supported statements, such as “dinosaurs lived around 200 million years ago”, and therefore some strands of scientific research

It is the bold claim that a religious belief (it doesn’t have to be a creationist one – this is quite an extreme example) is indicative of somebody’s inherent inability to adhere to the scientific method.  The irrationality of the religious belief in some way ‘infects’ other beliefs, prohibiting the religious person from being able to, for example, write a good scientific paper about immunobiology or thermodynamics.

Now, I’m sure we could refer to countless scientists (Isaac Newton springs to mind) who have held religious beliefs and been good scientists.  Most pre- and plenty post-Darwinians will satisfy these conditions.  But really, the very fact that we can imagine that e.g. Albert Einstein was devoutly Jewish (he wasn’t) shows that this isn’t something that can be settled just by logical considerations.  It may well be the case that “creationists tend to be worse scientists”, but this claim would surely depend on some sort of survey study.  Again, this is besides the point – we’re talking about the possibility of someone both holding religious beliefs and being a good scientist.

So what does make a good scientist?  This is a big question, and you may think that things like intelligence, imagination, tenacity and so on may be required – but also some level of scepticism concerning theories. So, it may be argued, surely a creationist is not properly sceptical about their silly beliefs, so they can’t be properly sceptical about any scientific theory.  But to say that a good scientist has to be sceptical about everything, rather than just sceptical about particular theories in their research field, is clearly an absurd requirement.

It may be difficult to answer ‘What makes a good scientist?’ but it’s a bit easier to answer ‘How do we tell if somebody is a good scientist?’  In response to this, I wouldn’t like to examine their entire belief structure, but instead just ask: well what contribution have they made to their field?  Do other experts in the field value it highly? Can I see any flaws in it?

To me the following analogy gets at what I mean. Suppose somebody goes to an interview for a job as a portrait painter.  Surely they show their best work, answer the same questions as everybody else etc. What doesn’t happen is that the interviewer sneaks into the painter’s house, inspects every painting or doodle therein, and makes their judgements based on this. Perhaps the painter’s room is full of awful paintings (from when they were a child, or were depressed, or were trying out a new technique), does this mean that this person is a bad painter?  Even if the painter declares that they absolutely cannot draw landscapes, does this make them a bad portrait painter?   Certainly not.  The ‘bad painting’ performed in one area of this person’s life does not ‘infect’ their painting in other areas.

Imagine a creationist writing a scientific paper on a new algorithm being tested in computational linguistics. Those I am arguing against would have it that this creationist has to keep resisting the urge to sneak in a line about God The Creator, or commit a quick ‘affirmation of the consequent’ fallacy.  So strong is their belief in God that this itch is simply irrepressible.

If it is the case that irrational beliefs in one area of our lives infected all our beliefs in other areas, then things look decidedly grim for science.  Let’s get rid of the scientists who refuse to believe in every well-supported theory from every other branch of science, the scientists who pray to their dead parents, the scientists who believe in luck, the scientists who wake up thinking that they are special, , and those who claim (without evidence!) that the sun will rise tomorrow.

There are many things wrong with religious beliefs, and we should vehemently challenge many of them, but to see them as an infection is to take on a hysterical prejudice.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 5, 2011 7:43 pm

    Hey Zeph,

    With the painting analogy, I did point out to you that the painter would actually have to believe that his crappy doodles were as good as his other paintings. This is why your analogy is a bit misleading.

    It’s also flawed to speak about scientists so far in the past that religion was so culturally ingrained that they wouldn’t even have considered otherwise. I know the real sceptics arose in the Greek era but in Newton’s time and culture the rigour of the modern scientific method hadn’t yet been established. And don’t forget, he still believed that the planets and stars were moved by God and that he simply had discovered their equations. His theism had made him WRONG about an aspect of planetary motion and potentially stymied further insight.

    Also I think you’re creating a bit of a strawman because the position you’ve created to argue against of the “new wave of atheists and scientifically-informed ‘sceptics’, who define themselves largely by that which they oppose, view someone’s belief in a god as akin to an infection, from which the rest of their beliefs has no immunity” is a fallacious one.

  2. January 5, 2011 7:44 pm

    Speaking of ‘infection’, you should read The God Virus By Darrel Ray.

  3. January 5, 2011 8:38 pm

    On your paragraphs:

    1) Yes, and a scientist can think ‘these is good science’, ‘this (the creationist belief) is not good science’ and suppress it from their academic work. But fair point.

    2) But my point still stands – religion was ingrained, yet good science was done. And I never disagreed with the point that sometimes some religious beliefs affect some beliefs in science.

    3) Let’s hope it is fallacious (in that respect). I didn’t intend for the post to be against the people but the argument, I apologise that I’ve suggested otherwise. My point is about the position. Will change that if I can…

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