What has Science got to do with Atheism?


I know I do it too often, but to start I feel the need to quote Tim Minchin, yet again. On the very real divide between faith and science, he has this to say:

Science adjusts it’s beliefs based on what’s observed. Faith is the denial of observation so that Belief can be preserved.

Not only is it true, but it rhymes. Kudos to Tim.

So, because of the very nature of the two quantities – science and faith – I see no problem with asserting that Atheism (or Agnosticism) has nothing but all to do with Science’s evidence-based philosophy. Put simply: Atheism (or Agnosticism) is the only scientifically supported ‘belief system’*, I feel.

That’s not to say, as I hear a few of you cry, that there aren’t scientists who are also religious; because there are. I’m also not saying that science is reserved for (or only valid if coming from) the religiously unaffiliated, because that too would be absolute nonsense.

But, what is true is that:

  1. Religious scientists/academics exist only as a minority.
  2. Being a religious scientist/academic means applying valid scientific thinking to all aspects of one’s life but religion.
  3. Belief in a God in no way hinders a person’s ability to make valid scientific claims.

And I think it’s important to address each of these points individually – so here goes…

Religious scientists/academics exist only as a minority

According to a Telegraph article from 2008:

“A survey of Royal Society fellows found that only 3.3 per cent believed in God – at a time when 68.5 per cent of the general UK population described themselves as believers. A separate poll in the 90s found only seven per cent of members of the American National Academy of Sciences believed in God.”

In this case, the data (provided it’s sound) speaks for itself. The members of The Royal Society and The American National Academy of Sciences are considered intellectual ‘elites’ of a sort, and approximately 96% of them apparently reject God. In the article, a speculative link is made between intelligence and  a greater ability – or perhaps willingness – to question and overturn strongly felt institutions“, which I see as a valid claim worth testing.

But for now, what is worth stressing is that (contrary to some criticisms of the ‘study’) asserting that there is – at least – a correlation between intelligence and non-belief is not to say that believers are in any way ‘stupid’. Rather, what I see worth taking away from the correlation is this:  individuals who purposefully surround themselves with knowledge and seek nothing more than to understand what the universe presents to them are far more likely to realise that the existence of a God (or Gods) is highly improbable, at best.

Being a religious scientist/academic means applying valid scientific thinking to all aspects of one’s life but religion.

Why is it that some scientists can happily accept the value of evidence when it comes to their work, but disregard the need for proof when it comes to their faith?

Is it that, as we often hear, they consider faith ‘untouchable’ by science; some sort of separate, more significant order of thinking? Or is it that they are only scientists to ‘peer into the mind of God’, and so are intellectually blocked by prior poetic notions?

Well, I wouldn’t really know, so I can only speculate. What I do think is rather evident though, is that once you apply scientific/rational thinking to a particular faith its truth claims fall apart – especially in the light of other existing belief systems which all claim their truth as the one truth. And scientific/rational thinking requires you to eliminate all biases before any conclusion you draw is anywhere near valid.

This thinking should be applied to faith too: and when it isn’t, there is only hypocrisy…

Belief in a God in no way hinders a person’s ability to make valid scientific claims.

… ‘Hypocrisy’ when it comes to how an individual deals with the faith/evidence conflict as a scientist, I mean.

I chose the word ‘hypocrisy’ because I feel that to ‘pull of’ an upkeep of faith while working as a scientist you would need to set up a divide in your thinking between science and faith, and never consider judging both by the same criteria.

Even if this feat of unconditional, unmoving belief is achieved it says nothing of the validity of a testable, scientific hypothesis presented by such a hypocrite (provided of course that the claim does not have an agenda – like ‘proving’ that there was a ‘Great Flood’ to appease/fit in nicely with prior beliefs). Take Isaac Newton, for example: he famously made many hugely significant contributions to science, all the while being rather devoutly religious. Did the fact of his religion warp in any way the conclusions he came to? No; his part was still hugely significant, and his science solid (except perhaps his alchemical tendencies). I doubt he saw a clash between his work and his faith either – but at the most basic level there is

The validity of scientific claims rely on the evidence presented. Yes, there can be speculations (highly educated guesses) – but they too require testing. Science deals in proving, and insofar finding physical ‘proof’ for God has yielded only a greater number of reasons to assume that he (or she) doesn’t exist (or at, least is not, ‘necessary’).  The only ‘proofs’ for God around are philosophical/theological word-games, not worthy of the significance many place upon them.

So where does Atheism fit in to this? Atheism, remember, is not a belief-system. No Atheist knows that God does not exist; they just place the likelihood of his (or her) existence so close to zero that they may as well rule out the possibility altogether, until evidence to the contrary decides to turn up. Which, in case anyone has failed to see the connection, is how science tends to work.

This is why Science has all to do with Atheism (or, once again, Agnosticism). They each work on the same evidence-valuing principles. Faith does not.

For those in the UK (specifically London) enjoy the snow, and have a nice week.

Carnun :P

*Which also rhymes. Kind of.

Edit: I understand fully that Atheism is NOT a ‘belief system’. My use of the phrase here was simply conversational (I’d hoped ‘jokey’), and I thought that the use of inverted commas would have done the job of clearing up any understandable ambiguity or misconception as to what I meant. In the future, I will be clearer.

“Atheism Is a Religion Like Abstinence Is a Sex Position” – Bill Maher

2 thoughts on “What has Science got to do with Atheism?

  1. Pingback: What’s Science Got to Do with It? | fojap

    • Fair point :)

      I think the link I was trying to make involved more the similarities between each way of thinking (scientific thinking and the thought process behind doubting the existence of a God or Gods), rather than saying that one necessarily needs science to be a non-believer.

      Take Christopher Hitchins. He didn’t, as you said, have a full-on scientific background; yet the logic, reasoning and self questioning characteristics of the scientific process were clearly in use by him, throughout his career.

      I’m glad for the discussion, thank you.

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