Sunday, September 13, 2015

There's Atheism and Then There's Atheism

A recent article in The New Yorker was entitled "All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists." I agree with the title, but I heartily disagree with everything the writer, Lawrence M. Krauss, has to say.

Krauss wants to argue that, by definition, a true scientist is not wedded to any theory. I agree. But then Krauss makes the case that popular atheism is just such a worldview. It decidedly is not.

First, let me argue that a scientist should hold all his opinions as contestable. How can I support that view while maintaining my religion? Because I don't feel any of us has a True (with a capital T, meaning "true according to God) view of religion. We all have an interpretation that is accurate in some places and inaccurate in others. As Paul writes, "For now we see through a glass, darkly...." (This week I read an interesting blog post arguing that one thing Paul saw through a glass was the historicity of Adam.) My point is that I believe my religion, but I'm not prepared to say that any of my interpretations of my religion coincide with any of God's interpretations of my religion.

So science can bring new insights that will help me develop new interpretations that are possibly closer to God's interpretations (or Truths).

This isn't the type of small-A atheism that Krauss wants. He wants capital-A Atheism, the type that knows there's no God and so dismisses all God-based worldviews as benighted and wrong. This is the kind of thinking outlined in this profile of neurobiologist Catherine S. Woolley.

For 20 years, Woolley actively avoided studying sex differences in the brain until her own data showed her that differences between females and males were real. Her discovery, reported in 2012, that estrogens decreased inhibitory synaptic transmission in the brains of female rats but not in males, changed her thinking.

“Being a scientist is about changing your mind in the face of new evidence,” Woolley said. “I had to change my mind in the face of this evidence.”

I became aware of this profile because someone on Twitter thought it was a great example of open-mindedness. Woolley herself seems to think that this story is praiseworthy. But is "being a scientist" about spending 20 years dogmatically avoiding areas of study? How much sooner would human knowledge have been advanced had she not refused to look into questions she "knew" were wrong?

Little-A atheism is a good worldview for scientists and is compatible with religion. But capital-A Atheism is as dogmatic as any religion it seeks to condemn.

NB: The "math" label has been expanded to cover "science," remember?

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