A while ago, I blogged in response to this guy. Well, that guy’s original post has spurred in himself some additional thinking, remarkably insightful thoughts about the differences and indeed similarities between religion and science (from an atheist’s perspective). I post just a few quotes, but the whole thing is worth reading.
In a recent comment thread, I wrote that I am revolted by the corruption and politicization of science. After I wrote that, I experienced a moment of introspective surprise during which I realized that my feelings about people who commit scientific fraud for personal or political ends are in tone and intensity very much like a deeply religious person’s feelings about people who commit sacrilege.
This realization made me quite uncomfortable.
…human beings seem to be hardwired to have psychological needs that are fulfilled by religion. Or perhaps it would be better to invert that and say that religion is an invention fulfilling needs that arise from essential features of our psychology. So even while I still regard the belief content of religion as crazy, I perhaps should not be surprised – or even necessarily upset – to find that my mind falls into the sort of emotional grooves that usually go with religious belief content.
In sorting out these feelings, I start from the datum that scientific fraud feels to me like sacrilege. Plausible reports of it make me feel deeply angry and disgusted, with a stronger sense of moral indignation than I get about almost any other sort of misbehavior. I feel like people who commit it have violated a sacred trust.
What is sacred here? What are they profaning?
…Science is sanity is salvation – it’s how we redeem ourselves, individually and collectively, from the state of ignorance and sin into which we were born. “Sin” here has a special interpretation; it’s the whole pile of cognitive biases, instinctive mis-beliefs, and false cultural baggage we’re wired with that obstruct and weigh down our attempts to be rational. But my emotional reaction to this is, I realize, quite like that of a religious person’s reaction to whatever tribal superstitious definition of ‘sin’ he has internalized.
I feel that scientists have a special duty of sanity that is analogous to a priest’s special duty to be pious and virtuous. They are supposed to lead us out of epistemic sin, set the example, light the way forward. When one of them betrays that trust, it is worse than ordinary stupidity. It damages all of us; it feeds the besetting demons of ignorance and sloppy thinking, and casts discredit on scientists who have remained true to their sacred vocation.
…So I will say it out loud: science is the functional equivalent of worship for the rational human. In contemplating the wonder and vastness of the universe as it is, I find the equivalent of religious awe before the face of God. In struggling to understand the universe, scientists perform work as dedicated, heartfelt and ecstatic as religious devotion. Humility and self-discipline are even more proper to the scientist than they are to the believer; as the true believer seeks to know God’s will without the obstruction of ego, the true scientist seeks understanding of what is without the obstruction of ego.
Religion makes us the offer that if we believe, it will lift us out of ourselves – perfect us, teach us what is mere transient illusion and what is real and eternal. Science makes almost the same offer; that if we accept the discipline of rationality, we can become better than we are and learn what is really true. These two offers rest on very different ground, and religion’s offer is essentially false while science’s is essentially true – but psychologically, we receive both offers in the same way. They both plug into the same basic human fear of death and the unknown, and the same longing for transcendence.
…if it’s true that we all have the same kinds of emotional attachments to the beliefs that matter most to us, it is also true that the content of belief really matters.
My response (although esr is a Very Famous Guy so probably he won’t notice):
Thanks for this esr, this is very insightful.
But Christianity (which is very different from the evanjellyfish movement of today) is unique among all other religions in that it is not about “lift us out of ourselves – perfect us, teach us what is mere transient illusion and what is real and eternal”. That’s gnosticism, the heresy that dogged the early church. And I suppose eastern mysticism, and in various senses, all other religions which are indeed about self-improvement. But Christianity is not about self-improvement, or even self-perfection (which is unattainable from the get-go, due to original sin). It is about the imputation of the external perfection of another to ourselves, and propitiation for sin by a perfect sacrifice.
“it is also true that the content of belief really matters.”
This is also true, and Christian. Christianity is, by definition (assuming the bible defines Christianity) falsifiable. I Cor 15:14 “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” Therefore Christianity cannot be merely true “in our hearts”, but is true (or false) outside of ourselves, tied to historical events.