The Skeptical Intelligencer

Saturday, 02 April 2011 11:27

The Skeptical Intelligencer
Vol 3, Issue No1

July 1998

A Skeptic's Attitude to Science and Religion

Radio Four's Today programme has, as far as I'm concerned, only one fault. Thought for the Day is ring fenced. John Humphreys can't interrogate the person presenting the Thought, while every other person who ventures on to the programme can be scrutinised for lies, inconsistencies, logical errors, fudges and downright inaccuracies. On Thought for Today and, with Melvyn Bragg's blessing, on Start the Week various church men and women can be heard discussing religion and science in the terms which imply that these are equivalent modes of thought. This is one inaccuracy which ought to be challenged if not by John Humphreys then by the rest of us sceptics. Religion and science are not equivalent concepts of modes of thought. Religion uses the mode of thought called fantasy and science uses the mode of thought called scientific method.

The way we are constructed physiologically means that we are unable to perceive reality directly. All that we can ever know are our constructions, our theories about reality. (See Richard Gregory's Eye and Brain and any of Oliver Sacks books for demonstrations of this.) Once we have created a theory we can choose to examine it in terms of scientific method or we can elaborate it in terms of fantasy. For instance, we might be about to cross a busy road. We form a theory about the best moment to cross the road. We can use scientific method by drawing on the success of our past estimates of the speed of cars, or we can decide that as Mars is in the ascendant and the tooth fairy owes us a wish we can cross the road whenever we like.

Scientific method is composed of the techniques we use to overcome the limitations of our physiology in order to improve our theories about what is actually happening in the here and now. In doing science we are concerned with the past only in terms of what events led to the present event which we are examining and we are concerned with the future only in terms of how well our understanding of past and present events allow us to predict the future. While we might long for our predictions to turn out the way we want we know that the events we are examining are indifferent to our needs and wishes.

Fantasy is the mode of thought which is essentially concerned with our needs and wishes. Fantasy is not concerned with what is but with how what is might be turned into something which accords with our needs and wishes. Fantasy interprets the past and the present in order to create a future we desire.

The difference between scientific method and fantasy is very clear when we see how we treat death in terms of science and in terms of religion. Science tries to discover the causes of death but it can have nothing to say about what death means. While we are alive all we can ever actually know about death is that a body becomes strangely still. What happens after death is a matter of fantasy. We have a choice of two basic fantasies. We can fantasize that death is the end of identity or we can fantasize that death is the doorway to another life. These fantasies are perhaps the most important fantasies we can ever have because whichever we choose determines the purpose of our life.

If you choose the fantasy that death is the end of your existence then your purpose in life becomes that of making this life satisfactory. There is a multitude of ways in which you can interpret satisfactory, but whatever you choose, the only way you can face the inevitability of death with a degree of equanimity is to able to feel that your life is somehow satisfactory.

If you choose the fantasy that death is a doorway to another life you have then to elaborate your fantasy. Will this next life be more pleasant than your present life? If you say no, it will be worse, you now fear death and have to use every method to try to prolong your life. If you say yes, it will be better, you are now faced with the question of justice. Is this new life open to all or only to those who have been sufficiently good? If you decide that there are certain standards that have to be met to qualify for this new and better life you now have to live your present life in terms of the next. These are the fantasies with which religion is concerned.

I examined some of the ways we elaborate our fantasies about death in my book which I called The Construction of Life and Death but which the publishers of the second edition called The Courage to Live. I got lots of different people to tell me about their fantasies about the nature of death and the purpose of life, and I arrived at the conclusion that, if you want to lead a peaceful life, you need to have an interpretation of death which give you courage and optimism. Without exception, those people who told me about their fantasies of a vengeful God and a hell gaping open to receive them were people whose lives well fraught with depression and distress.

Alas, no matter how hard we might try to create a religious belief or a philosophy of life which invariably gives us courage and optimism, just as every event always has both good and bad outcomes, so every belief has good and bad implications. Undoubtedly it's better to believe in a God who's on your side than in one who's out to get you, but what can you believe when a terrible disaster occurs to you?

Whenever a disaster occurs we ask two questions, How did this happen? and Why did this happen? How did this happen? is the scientific question which is answered by a careful examination of the events which led to the disaster. Why did this happen? is the philosophical question, Why in the whole scheme of things did this disaster occur? This is the question which worries people the most. After the Dunblane shooting the television picture of a bouquet of flowers with the card on which was one word WHY? was shown repeatedly, while many of the flowers given as a tribute to Princess Diana and many of the messages in the condolence books carried the same question, Why in the whole scheme of things has this happened?

There are only three possible answers to this question. It was someone else's fault, it was my fault, it happened by chance. However, in a Just World nothing happens by chance.

All religions teach that we live in a Just World where goodness is rewarded and badness punished. Religions differ in how they define goodness and badness, rewards and punishment, but they all describe a world which is encompassed by a Grand Design where the good are rewarded and the bad punished. Since the evidence that rewards and punishments are handed out fairly in this life is rather slim religions require an after life to save this hypothesis.

However, when terrible disasters occur to people who are patently good or to children who are too young to have become wicked many people are not satisfied with the explanation that the good and the innocent will have their reward in heaven. Thus many ministers of religion are faced with the problem of reconciling their fantasy that the good and the innocent are protected and rewarded with the brutal reality that the good and the innocent have suffered a terrible disaster.

When I was working in the NHS I encountered a number of ministers of religion who felt that they were telling nothing but the truth when they informed, say, their parishioner that her terminal cancer was caused by her wickedness. These were ministers of one of the fundamental persuasions who rejoice that their God is a God of Wrath who smite the ungodly. Radio Four prefers those ministers of the God is Love persuasion and so, after any terrible disaster, Thought for the Day and Morning Prayer are filled with people taking vertiginous leaps across the crevasses in their arguments and hoping that no one will notice their fudges, such as where they change the meaning of a term half way through a sentence.

Of course this is what we all do when we fantasize. When we're lying in bed at night reworking the day's events into a memory which allows sleep, when we're changing what I would have said if I'd thought of it in time to what I did say we're all leaping crevasses in our arguments and fudging like mad.

However, this is what we do in the privacy of our own heads. If we're going to do it out loud, in public, and present our fantasies has hard, irrefutable facts we should expect other people to point out the error of our ways. Or at least we should expect to encounter a sceptic or two who'll apply a little scientific method to our woolly thoughts.

Dorothy Rowe The Construction of Life and Death / The Courage to Live HarperCollins, 1989

The Skeptical Intelligencer is the journal of
ASKE The Association for Skeptical Enquiry