Monday, July 03, 2006


From a scientific point of view, the idea of invisible supernatural beings is, as Pierre-Simon Laplace put it to Napoleon, an unnecessary hypothesis. Nothing in the world becomes easier to explain if we make assumptions about gods working behind the scenes. Quite the contrary, such an assumption leads to the insoluble problem of theodicy: if this god person is so powerful and benevolent, then why isn't life nicer? Ockham's razor prunes the god hypothesis immediately from rational deliberation.

The only reason to believe in such a being is if, for some reason, one chooses to see a book or preacher as a definitive authority. And this, of course, is not a good base from which to convince others of one's beliefs.

"I believe in God because the Bible tells us He exists".

"OK, but why would anyone believe in the Bible?"

The main reason that people profess and internalise such beliefs is social: if many important people around you hold some authority dear, then you must have a highly independent mindset to question their beliefs. Also, such questioning of the sacred beliefs of your people is not a good way to stay a member of said people.

I used to feel that the scientifically most well-founded position on the god issue was agnosticism: "we have no way of knowing". But I've already mentioned Ockham. Without his rule, that unnecessary hypotheses should be avoided, we wouldn't be able to do science at all. So I'm an atheist. Science is no different from our everyday way of perceiving the world, just more systematic. And in science or everyday life, let's just forget about fairytale characters.

In Sweden, this is largely a non-issue. Here, people with fervent religious beliefs are seen as slightly nuts and/or quaintly ethnic. But in the world's most powerful nation, it's of course a huge deal. President Bush II isn't afraid to say in public that he's acting on the orders of an invisible being. If our prime minister said that, we'd have him committed.

There's a lot of discussion in the US about whether scientists should come clean about atheism or keep quiet about it to avoid alienating believers. So just to lend them some friendly support, let me say that I am an atheist scientist and that I think atheism is the only reasonable position to take if you know anything about science. But then, being Swedish, I have absolutely nothing to lose saying that. It's almost as uncontroversial as saying that scientists should not condone infanticide.

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Anonymous juniper said...

we talked about creationism at school some weeks ago and i was horrified to learn how many americans actually believe it...
*wonders and leaves muttering something about the us and nuts*

03 July, 2006 13:24  
Blogger Martin said...

Well, you know, if mom & dad are Baptists and you live in a small town in Tennessee, then it takes a lot of balls not to believe in creationism. There are very few independent thinkers on the planet.

03 July, 2006 14:05  
Blogger Johan A said...

As long as science and religion are kept apart, that is, as long as a scientist doesn't factor in the possible existence of a god in her work, I don't care if she is a believer. I agree that atheism makes most sense, with good old Ockham at your side, but there are so many unknowns that it's impossible to know who's right. And the fact that the atheist hypothesis has the most going for it according to the scientific method doesn't make me think religious scientists are nutty or strange. Only fundies scare me, not religious people.

03 July, 2006 14:36  
Blogger Martin said...

In order to be both religious and a successful scientist, you have to do some heavy compartmentalisation of your mind. The basis of all science is to not accept anything on faith...

03 July, 2006 15:07  
Blogger Dan said...

Great post, Martin.

It's not just social pressures or environment that keep people attached to the religious (or in many cases, pseudo-religious) mindset. It's the fact that our educational system is so obsessively focused on the lowest common denominator; we're interested in turning people out of public education as quickly as possible, rather than turning them out as smart as possible. And education funding decreases pretty much every year, at both the primary and secondary levels.

Sadly, if we reversed this trend and vastly improved the quality of our compulsory education system, the fundaloons would react by pulling their kids out entirely and homeschooling them. So they'd just be intellectually and socially crippled, and the Jesusland Prophecy would be fulfilled.

I fear that it's pretty much a lose/lose situation in America these days, and I don't foresee the trend reversing itself at any time in the near future.

03 July, 2006 16:11  
Blogger Martin said...

The contrast between the Republican interior and the Democrat coastal states in the US is really interesting. From a European point of view, the US has a two-party system where you can choose between two highly conservative parties. Their names are confusing to us as almost everybody over here is both a republican (=non-royalist) and a democrat (=non-fascist). Given the opportunity to take part in US elections, European voters would probably give Ralph Nader about 75% of the votes.

It makes you wonder if you should laugh or cry when it is widely touted as a virtue that you believe in some untestable hypothesis. "Yes! I am credulous! I am willing to believe anything that my peer group believes! Vote for me!"

I don't know if the Swedish education system is much better than the US one. I suppose it just indoctrinates our kids in the prevailing social values too. The difference is that we don't much like fundamentalist religion over here.

03 July, 2006 16:32  
Blogger kai said...

Recently I had reason to research the membership numbers for various organisations and was surprised to find that e g Svenska Kyrkans Unga and Svenska Missionskyrkans Ungdom have several tens of thousands of members each.

Apparently there are lots of religious people even in Sweden, they just don't wear their cross on their sleeve, so to speak.

This is an opportunity to worry about Christian moles in society :-)

07 July, 2006 17:43  
Blogger Martin said...

These young people are probably entered into the youth organisations by their parents. Let's hope it works as a form of inoculation treatment.

07 July, 2006 19:33  
Blogger Johan said...

When I looked at statistics from Svenska kyrkan a few years ago, they were sure losing members, but there was actually, if I remember correctly, an upward trend in hardcore chuch goers – with more church visits. Religious and moralist winds are blowing here too. And if I'm not mistaken, most Swedes believe in some supernatural power or higher being, even if they can't define in which way.

And e.g. Sweden has more royalists (supporting a monarch without any political power, that is, of course) than republicans, I'm afraid. That's why we still have a king ...


10 July, 2006 01:49  
Blogger MichaelBains said...

we're interested in turning people out of public education as quickly as possible, rather than turning them out as smart as possible

Yah. It's one of those long-term -vs- short-term investment conundrums.

In the short term, no one wants to pay taxes, but they bear them to get their roads paved, keep Police and Emergency personnel on the streets, and account for other immediate concerns.

But education? Especially when my kids are either non-existent or already grown!? Folks just don't give any credence to the quite demonstrable fact that we live amongst fools and idiots, because that's what the folk before us where willing to finance.

America isn't alone in this, but our religious nutters are still far more mainstream than appears to be the case elsewhere, so it does have even harsher consequences for a cultural respect for rational thought in the form of scientific endeavours.

Nice post and comments.

10 July, 2006 02:51  
Blogger Martin said...

JJ: The Scandinavian countries are an embarassing exception to the rule that Europeans are republicans.

Michael Bains: I think you're right about the short-sightedness. I guess my archaeologist's perspective is kind of unusual. But I really find it hard to believe that not everyone understands the 1:1 relationship between the current quality of general education and the future quality of civil servants, scientists, politicians, voters etc.

10 July, 2006 21:43  

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