An atheist's defense of religion
An argument I’ve made often and continue to believe in is that protection of biology from the assaults of creationism and its offspring (“Intelligent design” for instance) will be achieved largely through the efforts of those religious individuals who understand, and make the case for, the peaceful co-existence of faith and science.
It has been my perception that theists (especially theistic scientists) are more likely to have considered deeply the boundaries of science and religion and understand with particular clarity the limitations each entails regarding its ability to comment on the other. This is understandable given the inherent vested interests. It’s also these individuals who are most likely to, through their experience with faith, have the cachet needed to gain a measure of attention from those more fundamentalist sorts who would dismiss less sympathetic sources.
Thus have I many times invoked names like Francisco Ayala and Kenneth Miller as credible authorities for an anti-evolutionist’s honest investigation. Along with citing these individuals as useful resources I have also suggested that it would be useful for the defense of science if people such as they would speak out more frequently and forcefully. Theists defending science set a powerful example.
Well, a recent event has convinced me that the inverse proposition is also true. It would probably be just as positive a contribution to the debate for atheists to defend the value of religion. As theistic scientists can accept that science has much to offer the world without sacrificing their faith, so do I believe that religion can make a positive contribution to the human condition and still maintain my steadfast confidence in scientific methodology.
Let me begin by making clear what I mean when I say that I am an atheist. I use the word understanding fully that for some it provokes negative connotations. I am willing to live with these unfortunate preconceptions, though, because I prefer not to accept the intellectually spineless image (unfair to be sure) that accompanies the label - agnostic. As I apply it to myself, then, the designation atheist means that based upon the evidence available to me I can find no reason to believe in a deity of any kind.
A conversation with a believer with whom I have been working recently made it clear to me that he had interpreted my professed atheism as an active faith in the non-existence of deities. I inferred this not because the sentiment was overtly communicated, but rather because of his sincere apology to me after expressing a religious notion within the context of our talk. In essence, he realized he had said something that (he thought) might offend me.
Of course I immediately assured him that not only had I not taken offense but it was a subject that I quite enjoyed. It occurred to me then that the same dual benefit achieved by the public statements of theistic scientists – reassurance that science and religion can be compatible along with a furthered understanding of the limitations of both – could be equally supported by non-theists speaking out in defense of religion.
For the same reasons that scientists of faith are not beset by cognitive dissonance I am able to maintain that religion can be a viable and valuable human endeavor. The epistemic limitations of both “ways of knowing” lock out fundamental contradiction. Science is method. It is an operational tool for discovering natural reality. As such it is limited in scope. Science can comment only upon that which can be observed and measured. There is no operational capacity within the methodology of science for evaluation, much less dismissal, of extra-natural ideas. And as science can never be complete, it can never rule out extra-natural possibilities.
Theology, to the degree it relies upon the extra-natural, deals substantially with morality and message. It addresses understandable human concerns about the nature of their existence and, regardless of whether the message is evidentially or logically supported, is capable of offering contentment and direction to those in need. On the other hand, when theology proposes to make statements about nature, which only science is configured to address effectively, it must be prepared to cede ground. Belief in a thing can never be enough to demonstrate its factuality.
Science and religion operate in different spheres of influence. When they come together, as they do now and then, in collision or confluence, it is because of the conceits and misconceptions of humans, not any inherent compatibility or contradiction.
In making the case for religion from a less philosophical perspective, it seems clear to me that one thing none of us, atheist or theist, wants is for a massive population of flawed and fallible humans (as are we all) that believes it cannot act ethically without religion, to try to do so. The last thing we need is a bunch of people who believe they have no internal moral compass running around without their external one.
As atheists or agnostics we may feel that a believer is misguided in his acceptance of things unseen, but we have to acknowledge that science, by definition, leaves the set of things unseen unaddressed, and consequently in no way disproved.
If one accepts the methods of science one accepts that knowledge is provisional – that one can be wrong. If it’s possible to be wrong, even about something so apparently fanciful as a deity, then the belief in a deity exists as an intellectually live alternative to an atheist’s provisional philosophy. An acceptance, even a spirited defense of that live alternative shows both the intellectual confidence to take in and consider ideas antithetical to one’s own, and an openness to a universe that will never be completely known.