Saturday, August 18, 2007

Materialism as a reaction to religion

Much of what is labelled as "science" or "scientific" today is actually simply materialism. In many minds materialism and science are believed to be the same thing, but of course they are not. Materialism is a philosophical belief system that all of reality can be reduced to the physically measurable while science is a methodology for unearthing correlations and relationships between observables. My own definition of the "spirit of science" is that it is to systematically place observations above beliefs, while materialists attempt to make all observations fit onto the procrustean bed of their pre-existing beliefs, discarding those facts which refuse to be cut down to size.

One of the most relevant and historically obvious observations about materialism (and have no doubt, materialism is the unofficial doctrine of most official institutions of science) is that its prevalence today owes a great deal to the historical relationship of conflict between scientists and the religious institution of the Catholic church at the dawn of the Enlightenment. It is not difficult to see that today, the identity of a great many of the most influential materialists is caught up in a conflict with religion and religious beliefs.

This blog barely discusses religion, but if you read prominent and high-traffic science blogs written by materialists, religion is very often front and center on the agenda. On the one hand, you have blogs like GNXP, where Razib continually pokes and prods at religious beliefs as an odd curiosity of the human mind (although of course never subjecting his own materialism to the same kind of analysis). But even more common (and much more popular according to site traffic) is a "demonology" approach to religion, as displayed by P.Z. Myers antipathic Pharyngula blog (by far the highest traffic blog for Seed's scienceblogs). This is also the kind of analysis of religion we see in books like Sam Harris' The End of Faith, Richard Dawkins The God Delusion, and Stengers's God: the failed hypothesis. Religious belief as a toxic mental delusion and pathology.

This same kind of combatative attitude is very easily seen in many articles on science written in mainstream publications. For example, there is an incessant parade of articles meant to bash religious beliefs like the soul, free will and God.

All of this attention on religion by materialists serves a very obvious purpose of maintaining group identity by praising the in-group beliefs (these things don't exist, only atoms in motion and the void) and poking fun at the out-group beliefs (religion). After all, materialists already disbelieve in these things, so why the constant harping on them? It is a way to construct a sociological identity of the praiseworthy against the intellectually condemned. A very clear and obvious reaction to religious beliefs.

Here is an invitation from AMNAP to all the religion-obsessed. Move on. Get over it. Start constructing your beliefs based on the observations, instead of constantly reacting to mythologies from hundreds or thousands of years ago. . .


Marcel Cairo said...

Smart post, Matthew. Just one correction, P.Z. Myers blog is actually spelled Pharyngula, you accidentally misspelled it.

I once mistakenly thought that I could have an informed and respectful discussion on P.Z. Myer's blog, but much like the blogs of other militant atheists, the blog hosts many thugs greet you at the door with insults and aggressiveness, making it simply not worth wasting your energy on.

Scientist's somewhat irrational fears of a world dominated by the religious right/intelligent design crowd has completely biased them to others who might raise valid scientific questions/issues with their materialistic conclusions.

It is almost scary to watch how rabid these militant atheist become in the face of a challenger. Simply put, their reactions are quite draconian and fascist.

Book Surgeon said...

Concur, Marcel. I visited an atheist blog once to try to make the logical argument that atheism (and I'm an atheist, by the way) has absolutely nothing to do with psi, survival, spirituality or consciousness. I framed them, as believe they are, as poorly understood but fascinating aspects of a natural universe that is turning out to be far more complex, subtle and surprising than anyone thought possible.

You'd have thought I had proposed that Carl Sagan had been reincarnated as John Edward. I was insulted, belittled and called, and I quote, "a delusional New Age troll." Not a single person would even engage me in conversation about a topic that even the likes of Dawkins and Sam Harris agree is valid: religion and psi have nothing to do with one another. The response I received could only be called hateful and venomous.

I think today's scientism is a pendulum swing away from the ignorant mysticism of the Middle Ages. Mainstream scientists are so intent on repudiating anything smacking of the supernatural that they throw the baby, the mother and the midwife out with the bathwater. Anything that's nonmaterial gets lumped in with witches, magick and alchemy. Until we can accept the paranormal/paranatural without getting all hissy over the religious baggage, science is going to continue to reject psi and mediumship as of a piece with Dark Ages superstition.

Tony said...

And then after their anti-religious, anti-ID tirades, they'll wring their hands over how so many people reject science these days.

I like to point out that ridiculing people's faiths is not a very effective way for them to win people over to their side.

I think people like Dawkins or Randi purporting to represent 'science', do more harm for science than helping it. They make science seem intolerant of faith, and faith is usually more important to most people than, say knowing the exact age of the universe.

Chris said...


"I like to point out that ridiculing people's faiths is not a very effective way for them to win people over to their side."

Absolutely! Matthew correctly notes here that the effort expended by "New Atheists" on opposing religion takes the form of in-group/out-group identity politics, thus undercutting its credibility. If they want to engage in "Atheist pride" they have my blessing - but one does not foster pride simply by attacking one's philosophical opponents. It rapidly degenerates into nonsense.

No time to elaborate, alas. ;)

Daiyoukai of the North said...

Despite being what I call an "apatheist" (meaning I don't believe in god... and don't really care, hence I typically don't bring up the subject.), I can, for the most part, agree with this post. This new batch of atheists seems to have abandoned the respectful, principled atheism of those like Carl Sagan... for something that, honestly, looks a lot like intellectual bullying. Take this quote from Dawkins...

"Not a single member of either house of Congress admits to being an atheist. It just doesn't add up. Either they're stupid, or they're lying. And have they got a motive for lying? Of course they've got a motive! Everybody knows that an atheist can't get elected."

The first sentence has since been proven untrue... there is an atheist representative from California, Fortney "Pete" Stark, D-Calif. The bit about "stupid, or lying" is what I mean by intellectual bullying. It states pretty clearly... that if you're religious, you're an idiot. No one wants to be an idiot, right? As for the last sentence... it's the only part of that quote I somewhat agree with. Unfortunately, in America, a openly atheist politician would probably have a hard time getting elected in certain parts of the country.

Of the few people that know of my religious stance, or lack therof, they're always surprised to find out that I enjoy the company of religious and spiritual people FAR more than the company of other nonbelievers. One would figure that I'd feel more comfortable in the presence of those who share a similar worldview, correct? It helps... but a similar worldview does NOT make up for the fact that I've found pretty much every other unbeliever I've interacted with to be thoroughly unpleasant to associate with. On the other hand, despite occasional conversion attempts (which are simply ignored), most of the religious/spiritual folks I've interacted with have been far more amicable company.

Make no mistake... I don't give a damn about beliefs. I think it's better to have a good idea, rather than a belief. Ideas can be changed. I'm also of the mind that any change to one's ideas should be self-initiated... so I don't go around preaching the "good word" of (ap)atheism.

Hrm.. well, I've voiced my ideas on this matter. Guess I'll jet for now.


Tim said...

Right there with you, Daiyoukai. I ghostwrite nonfiction books for a living (hence my handle) and I've written several for Christian authors ranging from born-again self-help guys to Pentecostal bishops. And to a man, I've found these people to be among the most humane, tolerant, kind, positive and giving people I've ever had the privilege to know. I've told them all that I don't believe in their or any Deity, and not one has reacted with the horror that you would expect listening to Dawkins. They've all shown me, how you say, "respect." Respect for a worldview that does not agree with yours. Such a novel concept.

In fact, one guy, who I have come to love like a brother, sat across from me at a bar and when I told him I was an atheist, broke into a huge grin and said, "That's so cool! I'm a born again Christian minister!" When he told his all-Christian circle of advisors that his chosen ghostwriter was an atheist, they all came down on him, and he stood up and said, "Listen, he's the kind of Christian you all should be." Meaning I suppose that he respected my ethical and moral life. I've rarely been paid a higher compliment.

The point is, it's the person, not the belief. We've all met believers who were wonderful people and who were scoundrels. We've all known atheists or humanists who were giving and generous and who were humorless, pedantic, superior and hateful. One's beliefs do not determine one's character. One's actions do.

M.C. said...

Great comments. Thanks!

Daiyoukai of the North said...

To be fair, my views on the matter a skewed, due to the fact that most of interactions with other unbelievers have been over the internet. And we ALL know how the relative anonymity of the internet can turn otherwise decent people into jackasses. Face-to-face interactions with other unbelievers are few and far between since I live in a very religious part of the USA, so I have limited experience with unbelievers unaffected by the "internet anonymity syndome". That doesn't bother me, though. I fit in pretty well, otherwise... so why worry that I have one or two views on things that go against the local norm?