Religion, Atheism and Science

I have always been intensely curious and from an early age read science books from the travelling library van that visited the farm where I grew up. Even though I was dragged to church every Sunday, this scientific reading was what structured my view of the world. By the time I was in my early teens I had come to the conclusion that the popular concepts of “God” did not make a lot of sense to me, but I never made a fuss over it within my family. For the rest of my teenage years I was still in the “agnostic” bucket in the sense that I was living my life on the premise that if I lived a “good” life, obeying the ten commandments and being nice to people, then should it turn out that there was an afterlife, God would most likely forgive me for my lack of belief since I had lived a good life.

While studying physics in London I saw a newspaper review of a paperback titled “Popper” by Bryan Magee which summarized the intellectual writings of Sir Karl Popper and I bought and read it. This explained Popper’s theory of the nature of scientific knowledge and his “three worlds” theory of the nature of knowledge in human society and I highly recommend this 100 page paperback for anyone with a philosophical bent who is looking for philosophical answers rather than looking to ponder life’s mysteries.

This early “logical structuring” of my thoughts and my innate curiosity have driven me to spend time thinking about the place of religion in the world. I have come to the apparently contradictory conclusion that atheists can be deeply religious people. Let me explain that. Science and scientific knowledge is all about questioning and we know that a factoid or theory is “probably true” not because we have gathered evidence to support the fact or theory, but rather because we have searched diligently for evidence that it is NOT true and have been unable to find such evidence.

The longer we look for and fail to find the negative evidence, the greater the probability the fact or theory is true. Interestingly, the word “prove” originally meant “test” although it has now come to mean simple establishment of the fact and skips the idea that the establishment is by a testing process. It has survived with the original meaning in the phrase “to prove dough for bread."

Religion, on the other hand, is all about faith. One does not question; one simply believes the dogma. Faith is at the center of all religions. There are central tenets regarding the existence of god(s), an afterlife (or lives), infallibility of clergy or past writings, which are required for any of the rest of it to make sense, whatever the religion. This requirement/ability for blind faith is what characterizes all religions. Devout people often think that their sworn enemies are satanic followers and witches but it is closer to the truth that those are just fellow religious zealots.

The true sworn enemy of religion is science and although the two can co-exist in the minds of some people who are predisposed to ignoring what is inconvenient, they cannot co-exist philosophically as viable world views.

If someone’s atheism is based on a life-experience, such as a reaction to some tragedy in their life which contravened what their faith had led them to expect, they have some degree of commonality with a typical god-fearing person: i.e. living their life based on a little-researched assumption. People who declare absolutely that there is a god and those who declare absolutely that there is no god can both be viewed as having a religious mentality.

In contrast, a scientist must always be agnostic and remain open to evidence of God, but the longer God fails to make His presence known, the more sure the scientist becomes of His absence. In science, “facts” are always accompanied by a probability of their being true – never by certainty. The (lack of a) devil is in the detail.

In essence, what science says about religion, is not that God does or doesn’t exist, but rather that if we want to have a solid basis for actions in the real world we live in, then we have to base those actions only on assumptions that can be tested, have been tested, and to date have not been disproved. Everything else is speculation.

This worldview underlies several of the Oasis core values: “Reality is known through reason” and to a lesser extent “People are more important than beliefs” and “Human hands solve human problems”. These three core values all have a focus on understanding and working with the world around us, rather than abstract ideas.