23 September 2008

Neurobiology of Atheism

I ran into Bernie (not his real name) this weekend. Our talk turned quickly to politics, Sarah Palin, and the evils of religion. I mentioned that politics, not religion, is the opposite of science.

Bernie wasn't convinced. He brought up Creationism as an example of religion directly opposed to science, and of science being obviously right and religion being obviously wrong. I pointed out that the Creation story in Genesis is what a loving God would tell to a wandering semi-civilized people who began to ask 2800 years ago, "Where did we come from?" It is true at the level of explanation that a loving parent would give to a five-year-old child who asks where babies come from. It would be pointless and possibly cruel to burden a child with the mechanical details of human sexuality. It would have been equally pointless and cruel for God to say, "Well you have forty years of wandering to do..., let's start learning calculus, differential equations, and quantum mechanics." The Creationists mistake is to demand that we accept the five-year-old level of explanation as a mature explanation. In so doing, they generate an obvious falsehood and demand that we believe it along with the Gospel, which brings discredit to themselves and also to the Gospel.

Again, Bernie was skeptical. I get the sense that Bernie harbors a permanent anger toward religion, possibly to his having suffered some cruelty in its name. Or maybe simply because Bernie is a scientist, and is simply offended by biblical Literalism.

He began bringing up some of the recent research in neurobiology. "Indeed," I said, "there seems to be a neurobiological basis for religious experience." He gleefully agreed.

"But then you realize that elevates atheism to the level of color-blindness," I added.


Samuel Skinner said...

Politics is the control of power. Science is the understanding of reality- they are totally seperate spheres.

""But then you realize that elevates atheism to the level of color-blindness," I added."

Only in the same way that not being addictable to drugs is a weakness.

As for
"It is true at the level of explanation that a loving parent would give to a five-year-old child who asks where babies come from. It would be pointless and possibly cruel to burden a child with the mechanical details of human sexuality."

...You do realize that the Jews- heck, the planets population weren't idiots? Sure, most people were supersticious and poorly educated, but if a voice from the sky explains how reality works, you listen VERY carefully. At the very least, you highlight the notes on penicillan and "antibiotics" (Sound important).

These aren't children and they don't need to be shielded- they already suffered a ton and being told the truth wouldn't hurt them much. Or do you think that they would simply fall over after rebelling from decades of slavery?

The Underground Pewster said...

A Political Science major once tried to convince me that his major was not oxymoronic. I remain skeptical.
I have never taken the time to hear the arguments of a Christian Scientist, and I wonder how one would comment on your current post.

Samuel Skinner said...

Political science is the study of politics. It is a soft science- The Prince, Hardball and the Analects are all good examples.

So, politics can be analyzed just like psychology, only more so. After all, it is significantly less subjective.

If Christian Science was followed by everyone on Earth we would still be figuring out how the arch works. You CAN'T have a large scale civilization that rejects medicine- disease would simply make it collapse. It is worth pointing out that epidemics were bad in the past, even in the more modern times which the most basic of treatments- without even that AND with modern transportation... disease would make society fall apart. You couldn't maintain an industrial society!

Scooper said...

"Christian Science," as invented by Mary Baker Eddy is an amalgam of Christian belief with plain old superstition which abuses the terminology of science to enhance its credibility. At least that is my understanding of it.

As for me, I am both a scientist (physicist) and a Christian. I see religion and science as complimentary: science is about the facts of existence, and religion is about the meaning of existence. When one tries to usurp the domain of the other, it just makes trouble.

And yes, religion can be abused. A person can form an addiction to their IDEA of God, and reject God in favor of their idea. That is the dynamic of the Crucifixion.

On the other hand, if there is a neurobiological basis for belief, and if the majority of people are believers, it must confer some reproductive and/or survival advantage for believers. In particular, it enables believers to maintain their humanity under adverse conditions. At least the atheist Primo Levi noted as much with regard to his fellow inmates at Auschwitz.

As for my point about the Creation story being true at a certain level of explanation, let me try again. It is true as myth. By this I mean (along with Joseph Campbell) that myth is a form of literature that communicates certain truths that cannot be communicated any other way.

I can't give you an example, because that would not be a myth. It would be a fact. I would have to tell you a story, that contained a kernel of truth that simply cannot be spoken directly. A truth that would generate many interpretations and commentaries. A truth that would puzzle and inspire. Or I could simply point out that the Creation story in Genesis is a famous example.

Those who take it literally just don't get it. Neither do those who dismiss it because it doesn't conform to modern science.

The Underground Pewster said...

Myths, truths, and survival might be the theme of this thread. It reminded me of the story of the Moken and the tsunami and how their legends, and religion saved them.

"'...they have this kind of legend that passed from generations to generations about seven waves.'

It’s a legend recited around campfires, bearing an astonishing resemblance to what actually happened on Dec. 26, 2004.

They call it the Laboon, the 'wave that eats people,' and it’s brought on by the angry spirits of the ancestors. Before it comes, the sea recedes. Then the waters flood the earth, destroy it, and make it clean again."

What political myths have we forgotten, and will we face the same consequences as the tourists who ran towards the beach with their video cameras as the sea receeded?

Scooper said...

For starters, it looks like we forgot the myth that if you are paying more than 25% of your gross monthly income for rent or mortgage, then you are in danger of default.

My mother, who lived through the Depression, taught me that one, and it has served me well.

Another is that the more your government can do for you, the more it can do to you.

The Underground Pewster said...

You may have the beginnings of Political Science there.