Having read Noung's write-up on God, I have found it to be intelligent,
well-written, thought provoking, and almost completely wrong. I
don't want to spend too much of anyone's time getting wrapped up in
a debate on the subject, but I feel the need to point out a few
logical fallacies at the very least.
"Science and religion are not even by definition mutual antagonists
or exclusive of one another."
Science is used to work out, a bit at a time, how the universe works.
It has no pretense of doing anything more, or anything less, than
merely helping us to understand the rules of the world in which we
I recently heard a good analogy by Neil deGrasse Tyson (although I
don't know if he originally came up with it or not) in which he
compares the universe to a game of chess. The more you observe the
movements of pieces, and the more predictions you prove or disprove
about where the pieces can and can't go, the greater your understanding
of the rules will be. Eventually you will be able to work out the
rules of the game merely by witnessing the events on the chessboard
for long enough, forming hypotheses about what is and isn't allowed,
predicting what will happen next, and seeing if the predictions come
true or not.
The same is true of the world we live in. Although it's perfectly
natural to pray for the sun to rise each morning, with just the tools
of observation, hypothesising, prediction and experimentation, you can
work out that it will rise of its own accord. By observing the
shadow of a stick in the ground, you can even work out how long a
day lasts, when noon is, and how long a year lasts. At noon, you
can even work out your latitude position.
Even in ancient Greece, Eratosthenes was able to use these tools to
work out a lot about the world. By measuring the shadows of tall
obelisks placed very far apart, he was able to work out the Earth's
circumference with impressive accuracy.
The more we discover about the real world, however, the less places
there are for imaginary creatures to hide. Knowledge and superstition
are very much mutually exclusive, and while you can be forgiven at
first for praying to the gods to pull the sun along in their chariot,
after observing the stick for a few years, it would be plain stubborn
to keep up that peculiar habit.
"God is an idea, not a thing, whereas science deals in things."
While science does indeed only assert the rules of our universe,
some people genuinely believe a god to be a tangible, physical entity
that affects the world we live in, and this is what science is making
all but impossible to still believe in. Of course science has no
comment on whether we should have heroes and villains, sorcerers and
witches, parables and mythology; it merely points out that they are
the stuff of fantasies, not the creators of our planet, and certainly
not the creators of the entire universe in which we are merely riding
on a pale blue dot.
"[The idea of God or of gods has offered] inspiration to the most
I believe Richard P. Feynman put it best when discussing the differences
between how an artist sees a flower and how a scientist sees it. To
paraphrase once more, the artist will naturally assume that he sees
the most beauty in the flower, but the scientist argues that he sees
much more beauty: not only does he see the same pretty colours and
contours that the artist sees, and smell the same pleasing scent,
but on top of that, he understands to some extent what the flower
is made of; how it lives, eats and breathes; how it evolved into its
particular niche amongst all the other lifeforms of our world; and
how it looks not only to us, with our shamefully limited view of the
electromagnetic spectrum, but also how it appears to its intended
audience, the bees it attracts, who can see just as vividly its ultraviolet colours
that we had until recently been blissfully unware of.
"...This ignores the vast questions on which science is not competent
to answer, among which lie the most important facing us - how to
construct a just society; how to live sustainably with nature; and
what our societies should value and reward."
These are indeed important questions which we need to address, and
I agree that science alone cannot answer them. It never claimed to.
These are things that we are going to have to work out by ourselves.
It must, however, seem evident to anyone who has even read even
Genesis 19:7-8 or Judges 19:23-24 (quite why it's in there twice,
I'm not sure) that such texts encouraging not only ignorance and
submission, but also oppression and even rape are anything but a
good foundation for a moral society.
"The environmentalists who are now trying to desperately convince
us to seek values other than easy consumption and progress are finding
it impossible because without God or a similar concept, they have
no means by which to compel us."
This is the point of view I find hardest to understand, and the main
reason I felt compelled to write this rebuttal. Despite the claims
of texts such as Genesis, science has proved that our home planet
is roughly 4.5 billion years old, and that the universe is roughly
14 billion years old. It has shown that we are on a tiny planet,
orbiting a star in the outer reaches of the Milky Way, far away from
the centre of anything. We now know that life is fragile and something
to be cherished in all its forms.
If choosing between someone who believes we are the special children
of an all-powerful father figure who is keeping a watchful eye on
us, keeping us out of harm's way and preparing to end the world; and
someone who believes we are but one of many species coexisting on
an insignificant little planet adrift in the outer reaches of a
galaxy, I'd put my trust in the latter individual to help guide us
to a society that isn't dependent on fossil fuels composed partly
of the previous dominant lifeforms on the planet, the dinosaurs.
While those of us who cling to the idea of a god may feel comforted,
those who are aware of the conditions of Venus, a close neighbour
with a thick carbon dioxide atmosphere and a temperature of well
over 400 degrees Celsius, will hopefully heed the warning signs and
start spreading ideas about how we can be both enlightened and
Just to set the record straight on a few things: The reason Venus is so hot is mostly due to factors other than its proximity to the sun. Read http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/misc/seasons.html for an explanation of how little the distance to the sun affects a planet's temperature compared to other factors such as the planet's tilt. Then again, http://mc-computing.com/qs/Global_Warming/Venus.html seems to make good points that maybe it's not the CO2 either. I'll have to look into this one more.
Science doesn't tell us which morals we should have, only which morals we do have and why we have them. Clearly, if we need to work out how to proceed with civilisation, science will only show us how to improve it, not why we should. However, I think it's showing a disturbing lack of faith in humanity to assume we need a crutch of any kind in order to distinguish between right and wrong or encourage altruism. We are moral because it gave us an evolutionary advantage to be so, and no rationalisation of this fact can make us otherwise. At the end of the day, we are more likely to help each other out because of our mirror neurons than because we read outdated texts listing countless rules of etiquette.
If you're convinced that it is necessary to articulate rules listing every possible thing that may be generally considered moral or immoral to do, then I suggest you breathe a sigh of relief at the existence of the law. It is arguably the successor to the moral spouting side of religions, and does a much better job too as it can be updated and amended as the society that agrees upon those laws progresses.
Again, I'm sorry for this rant. It's mostly just bad timing: I'm still somewhat annoyed at living in a society where someone becoming a Pope is an event considered worthy of being televised, but the good people of CERN (you know, where the web comes from) finding out all kinds of wonderful things about how the universe works using their new LHC is not.