Field of Science

My time with Hitchens

So Christopher Hitchens died. It is sad when someone dies, mostly, and it is a good time to remember the good thing about the deceased. When the dead is a person like Hitchens, troublemaker extraordinaire, people will do the usual an extoll his accomplishments, but will also point out the extent to which they disagree with him. I don't personally have a problem with either (and feel quite certain that Hitchens wouldn't either, for what that's worth), and he has been given a lot of praise and taken a lot of flak since his death. But I see it as I do with other great contributors to thought - scientists in particular - that we can take from them what we appreciate and leave the rest for historians. Newton was not a nice person, and likely died a virgin (pft!), but we admire him as the greatest thinker of all time because of his accomplishments. And as for Hitchens, what does it matter to me that he was a drunk and supported the Iraq War? None. What matters is the things he said that I can use.

In spring 2008 I took a course with Michael Shermer at Claremont Graduate University called Evolution and Society. Shermer assigned us to answer the same question that he asked a bunch of luminaries via the Templeton Foundation: Does science make belief in God obsolete? Hitchens' answer is in the newest edition of eSkeptic, titled "No, but it should." That sums it up pretty well, and the substance of his reason why religion ought to be obsolete is captured by his sentence "It [religion] is how we came up with answers before we had any evidence," and thus captures the essence of what is exactly wrong with religion and faith: a lack of evidence and dismissal of evidence.

My own essay is listed here (comments by Shermer in Brackets):
Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?

As an atheist scientist, I dismiss the supernatural, and am therefore tempted to rule belief in God obsolete. There are many obvious reasons why – from a scientific point of view - science and religion cannot both be true. To cite just one example, Genesis 1 - what we have learned through science directly contradicts this biblical story of creation. They cannot both be the correct model of our origins.

By itself, however, this fact doesn’t render belief in God obsolete Because belief in God serves multiple purposes. Although science is superior at predicting and describing the world around us, has brought us true insight and utility, and has been used for a broad range of purposes, both good and bad, it cannot do some things that religion does very well.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are nearly identical in the way they are utilized by some of their followers, most notably in ways that science cannot replace. This God of a bronze age desert people continues to serve many people very well today.

What this God does for people is to tell them how to behave by word and by example. This frees people from thinking about such moral matters, and justifies the behavior of those who live and act as commanded by God. Many people still believe that it is through God we have our morals, and they cannot imagine a world without a deity to guide them. Logically, there exists no way of inferring how we should behave from what we can learn through science (the so-called “is-ought” problem, or the naturalistic fallacy), and religion thus trumps science in this matter. Science can explain what we come from, but it cannot tell us how to behave.

Belief in God allows some people to make a living without producing anything of value to society. Interpreting scripture and telling people how to live as God commands, they are generously supported by the rest of society [in what way?]. They [who is “they”?] do not contribute anything tangible, but purport instead to be a link to God, and to know what God wants from us [do you mean priests and pastors? In America they are voluntarily supported by their customers, the members of the church, who by making donations signal that they do, in fact, believe there is something of value being presented]. While science requires scientists devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, scientists cost society far less than what it earns from the resulting discoveries.

Throughout history, belief in God has given rulers the justification for their positions of superiority [I think you mean here the divine right of kings concept]. Oppression and tyranny has been, and continues to be, done in the name of God. Kings and emperors would never have been able to control the masses without the belief that God had personally chosen them. World leaders today continue to justify their means by invoking God, and they are often supremely confident that they have the moral high ground over those people who do not share their particular belief, let alone over those who do not believe at all. Science does not do this. It cannot, because it deals only in knowledge, and thus doesn’t speak of superiority. [what about Marxism, and Marxism-Leninism, supposedly grounded in solid social science and applied throughout the Soviet Union and Mao’s China?]

But perhaps more than anything else, belief in God comforts. People are scared of life, and they are scared of death. It’s a frightening world, and we are but dust blowing in the wind, with minimal control over our own fate. Death is final, and that’s all there is [too colloquial, best suited for a bumper sticker] [these short toss-off lines are not sentences]. Belief in God means, perhaps more than anything else, that once you die, you get to go to a better place, where you will stay forever together with your loved ones. Your life on Earth is merely a test, and if you pass it, you will fear no more, forever. Those lewd unbelievers can go to Hell, where they will burn and suffer forever for their unbelief, by will of God, loving and omnipotent. All science does in this respect is tell you that this life is all you’ve got. That’s it.

So belief in God is by no means made obsolete by science. While my professed disbelief strongly suggest a heap of sarcasm [I’ll say!], I honestly mean it when I say that belief in God is extremely useful, just not in any way in which I would like to participate.

I believe that this world would be better place without belief in God. Science has been a way for me to gain comprehension, and thus a way to accept who we really are, and what life has in stall for us. I am also afraid, but I have come to accept that fear as part of who we are. I refuse to join those who extort and oppress others in the name of God. I am a scientist, and I shall not waiver. Faith is obsolete for me – there is nothing that I dare not question.
I met Hitchens when he came to Pitzer College in 2008 to give a talk before a student audience. He hadn't prepared a presentation particularly for this event, but asked a small group of us over dinner what we would prefer, and it was generally agreed that he should talk about atheism. However, at one point he noted that he also had a great memory for limericks, and asked if we wanted to hear some. Second question: Can we handle some dirty ones? General excitement, except from one woman behind me who gloomily went "No. No. No." Among the many he shared, I only recall this one:
There once was a hooker from Q
who filled her pussy with glue.
She said with a grin,
if they'll pay to get in
they can damn well pay to get out too.
And for that, we thank you.

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