November 25th, 2009


Science and faith

Someone on Slashdot - that big frat party of nerd posturing and intellectual trolls - recently spouted something to which I felt compelled to reply.

"Science and faith are NOT intrinsically linked. Science and belief ARE. Science and faith are two completely separate things."

Upon re-reading, I felt that my reply was worth keeping around, so I'm pasting it over here:

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I have faith in the mechanisms of the scientific method, since I employ them every day in my working and personal endeavors. I have faith in the advice of my parents and in the character of my spouse, and faith that the universe can be described mathematically, up to a very fine point, beyond which we encounter pure chaos. Faith is not "generally" only applied to spirituality, unless you wish to isolate the word for specific use as a weapon against the virulent forms of spirituality that prey on the weaknesses of everyone stuck in the working class. Using the word that way is like using a hammer to teach piano lessons. In short, if your aim is to eliminate virulent and asinine religious practice, You're Doing It Wrong.

The inanity that Richard Dawkins et al wish to freight the word "faith" with - that it is belief despite a lack of evidence, or belief in spite of evidence - is a deliberate misunderstanding of the religious origins and use of the word. The faithful, those who would call themselves such with conviction, see their faith as a feeling of certainty that rests upon a foundation of what they consider to be very solid "evidence" indeed. To them, the intricate and lively world around them, in totality, constitutes evidence for their faith, as does their very presence in it, therefore no detail in the explanation of it could possibly reverse their conviction. Shout at them all you like that their "faith" is without evidence - they will fail to understand your meaning, and instead respond to your air of self-importance and superiority by calling you an asshole, or at the very least, a heretic.

Try it sometime and see if they don't.

Instead you need to recognize that you're going to have to approach the problem sideways: Do what you can to educate and empower these people, and leave your Us Versus Them faith/science logic sermons in the trash can. They will shed dangerous religion, by and large, just as you apparently have. Beyond that, you should have no quarrel with them anyway. Let them peacefully pray to any deity they like so long as they're smart enough to acknowledge that science is the best approach in matters of medicine, economics, history, etc.

Science and faith ARE intrinsically linked, for most people, one way or the other. Ask people the difference between belief and faith and you will probably just get a lot of head-scratching and shrugs. C'est la vie.

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Now don't get me wrong: I've devoured everything Richard Dawkins has published and own two of his "scarlet letter" t-shirts, which I wear with truculent pride. His explanations of the influence of genes in evolution are top-notch, and he makes a lot of excellent points against organized religion. But his book is written for an audience that does not intersect the group of people he lampoons with his usage of the word "faith". In other words, he is preaching to the choir ... and if he tells a choir that non-musicians are tone-deaf, who in a choir would bother to disagree?

Everyone, atheist or zealot, draws from the well of faith. The atheist just doesn't place any in the construct known as "god".