I’m seeing this trope a lot these days. “You can’t disprove religion. At least — not my religion.”
“Well, of course,” the trope continues, “many outdated religious beliefs — young-earth creationism, the universe revolving around the earth, the sun being drawn across the sky by Apollo’s chariot — have been shown by science to be mistaken. But modern progressive and moderate beliefs — these, you can’t disprove with science. These are simply matters of faith: things people reasonably choose to believe, based on their personal life experience.”
Then there’s the corollary to this trope: “Therefore, atheism is just as much a matter of faith as religion. And atheists who think atheism is better supported by evidence are just as dogmatic and close-minded as religious believers.”God of the Gaps! Whatever phenomenon isn’t currently explained by science, that’s where you stick your God! What kind of sense does that make? Why should any given unexplained phenomenon be best explained by religion? Has there ever been a gap in our knowledge that’s eventually been shown to be filled by God?”
Which is a pretty good reply, and one I make a lot myself. But today, I want to say something else.
Today, I want to point out that this is simply not the case.
The fact is that many modern progressive and moderate religions do make claims about the observable world. And many of those claims are unsupported by science… and, in fact, are in direct contradiction of it.
I want to talk today about three specific religious beliefs. Not obscure cults or rigid fundamentalist dogmas; not young-earth creationism, or the doctrine that communion wafers literally and physically transform into the human flesh of Christ somewhere in the digestive tract, or the belief that the human mind has been taken over by space aliens. I want to talk about three widely held beliefs of modern progressive and moderate believers: beliefs held by intelligent and educated believers who respect science and don’t think religion should contradict it.
And I want to point out that even these beliefs are in direct contradiction of the vast preponderance of available evidence… almost as much as the obscure cults and the rigid fundamentalist dogma.
So let’s go! Today’s beliefs on the chopping block are:
1: Evolution guided by God.
A belief that is almost as thoroughly contradicted by the evidence as young-earth creationism is.
Nowhere in anatomy, nowhere in genetics, nowhere in the fossil record or the geological record or any of the physical records of evolution, is there even the slightest piece of evidence for divine intervention.
And it’s not just humans. We’d expect to see whales with gills, pandas with real thumbs, ostriches without those stupid useless wings.
We don’t see any of this.flawed and inefficient and just plain goofy: “designs” that exist for no earthly reason except the slow incrementalism that’s an inherent part of the physical process of evolution. We see anatomical adaptations severely constrained by the fact that each generation can only be a slight modification on the previous generation, with no sudden jumps to a different basic version. We see anatomical adaptations severely constrained by the fact that each new version has to be an improvement on the previous version (or at least, not a deterioration from it). We see a vast preponderance of evidence showing that evolution proceeds very slowly, very gradually, with the anatomy of each generation being only slightly altered (if at all) from that of the previous generation.
And that isn’t how things designed by a conscious designer, or even things tinkered with by a conscious designer, work.
And if a designer is omnipotent, they’re not even stuck with the outlines of a previous design. They’re not stuck with anything at all. Why on earth would an all-powerful and benevolent god, a god who’s capable of magically altering DNA, bring life into being by the slow, cruel, violent, inefficient, tacked- together- with- duct- tape process of evolution in the first place?
But the “rapid jumps” thing is very misleading. “Rapid,” in evolutionary terms, means “taking place over a few hundred years instead of a few thousand” (or “a few thousand years instead of a few hundred thousand.”) And as recent research has repeatedly shown, evolution can take place surprisingly rapidly, in a matter of decades… and still be an entirely natural process of small changes, incremental alterations in each generation from the previous one. Exactly as we would expect if evolution were an entirely natural, physical process of descent with modification. So even if this “rapid jumps” (or “punctuated equilibrium”) hypothesis is true, it still doesn’t point to theistic evolution. Not even a little bit.
Again: There is not the slightest bit of evidence supporting the idea of evolution guided by God. And there is a significant body of evidence that strongly suggests the contrary.
2: An immaterial soul that animates human consciousness.
But research is happening. The foundations for our understanding of consciousness are beginning to be laid. There are a few things that we do know about consciousness.
And among the things we know is that, whatever consciousness is, it seems to be an entirely biological process. A massive body of evidence points to this conclusion.
This works vice versa as well. Magnetic resonance imagery has shown that, when people think different thoughts, different parts of their brains light up with activity. Changes in thought show up as changes in the brain…. just as changes in the brain show up as changes in thought.
And, of course, we have the drastic change in consciousness created by the very drastic change in the physical brain known as “death.”
All the available evidence points to the conclusion that, when the brain dies, consciousness disappears. (And by “when the brain dies,” I don’t mean, “when the brain is temporarily deprived of oxygen for a short time,” a.k.a. “near death experiences.” I mean when the brain dies, permanently.) The belief that consciousness survives death has probably been researched more than any other supernatural hypothesis — nobody, not even scientists, wants death to be permanent — and it has never, ever been substantiated. Reports of it abound… but when carefully examined, using good, rigorous scientific methodology, these reports fall apart like a house of cards.
And there is not a single scrap of good evidence supporting the hypothesis that consciousness is even partly a supernatural phenomenon. There are many gaps in our understanding of consciousness — that’s a massive understatement — but there is not one piece of solid, rigorously gathered evidence suggesting that any of those gaps can and should be filled with the hypothesis of an immaterial soul. There’s not even a good, testable theory explaining how this immaterial soul is supposed to interact with the physical brain. All there is to support this belief is a personal intuitive feeling on the part of believers that the soul has to be non-physical because, well, it just seems like that… plus thousands of years of other believers with a similar intuitive feeling, who have told it to one another, and taught it to their followers, and made up elaborate rationalizations for it, and written it into their holy texts.
Again: There is not the slightest bit of evidence supporting the idea of an immaterial soul that animates human consciousness. And there is a significant body of evidence that strongly suggests the contrary.
3: A sentient universe.
My answer: I live in Northern California. ‘Nuff said.
So that’s why I want to debunk this belief. And I’m pretty much going to repeat what I said in #2 above:
We don’t yet understand what consciousness is. But we do know that, whatever it is, it seems to be a biological product of the brain.
And the universe does not have a brain.
And stars and planets and so on do not behave like neurons and dendrites and so on. They behave like stars and planets. They behave like objects that, as nifty as they are, are not alive, by any useful definition of the word “life.”
If consciousness is a biological process — as an overwhelming body of evidence suggests, see #2 above — then the universe, not being a biological entity, cannot possibly be conscious. To say that it is would mean radically redefining what we mean by “conscious.” And we have no reason to do so… other than a wishful desire to think of the universe as sentient.
Again: There is not the slightest bit of evidence supporting the idea of a sentient universe. And there is a significant body of evidence that strongly suggests the contrary.
Why I Don’t Believe in the Soul (again)
Greta is underscoring the the teleonomic argument that no directed evolution occurs so that theistic evolution means obfuscatory oxymoron!