Shaun de Waal
Shaun de Waal

God is a theory

A few weeks ago (April 25), in the “Courses” section, the Mail & Guardian carried two pieces in counterpoint to each other. The question was “Is religion a threat to rationality and sciences?” and replies were provided by the eminent philosopher Daniel Dennett (on the “yes” side) and someone called Robert Winston, a retired professor of fertility (saying “no”).

I don’t know whether the articles were truncated to fit the available space in this section of the paper, but these two pieces barely scraped the surface of this argument —- and Winston in fact misrepresented Dennett’s position. This is a fairly common tactic in those fighting against any rational examination of religious belief and its merits or demerits, as Dennett himself points out in his wonderful book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, which I recently had the pleasure of reading. (It’s a calmer version of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, which is nonetheless a great read -— Dawkins is polemical where Dennett is quietly reasonable, fiery where Dennett is all creamy.)

In the book, Dennett takes the reader logically and clearly through all the questions to do with whether religion should be studied as a natural phenomenon (as opposed to supernatural), and what the parameters of the investigation should be. This is the background to the article, where he is in any case quite clear on his position: religion, he says, “has the power to overwhelm our best judgment and cloud our critical faculties”; and that “religion doesn’t just disable, it honours the disability”. So far so Nietzsche.

Winston, on the other hand, skews the argument away from what is really under consideration. He accuses Dennett of refusing to take religious belief seriously — but what else is his careful consideration of it in Breaking the Spell? There, Dennett takes relgion all too seriously, but presumably Winston doesn’t agree with his conclusions (or hasn’t read the book). Winston argues that religion can be a socially cohesive force, without noting that this can be a good or a bad thing -— in the case of many a religion–inspired massacre (from the Crusades to Bosnia to 9/11), it is clearly a bad thing. Social “cohesion” often means an “us and them” situation, and can justify massacring “them”, as it did for Joshua in the Bible. Perhaps that is the evolutionarily useful aspect of religion: you can kill your enemies in good faith.

Winston does not address the issue of whether religion clouds or blocks scientific study. As a former professor of fertility he should be able to talk about and this tell us honestly whether it does. What about fertility treatments? What about condom use to prevent HIV transmission? What about stem–cell research? No mention of such things.

Instead, he accuses Dennett of peddling scientific “certainty” in his battle against religion, whereas we cannot answer the question of “Do we know where we come from, where we are going or what lies beyond our planet?” In fact, Dennett does no such thing as peddle scientific “certainty”. He is very clear, in his book at least, about how science works and that it is not a substitute for religion, in the sense that whatever theories science develops, whatever research it does and whatever the conclusions it draws from such research, is always open to new questioning -— that’s how science proceeds.

It can, in fact, answer many questions about our origins, for instance. It provides plausible explanations of such things, bearing in mind that such explanations can always be supplanted by a better explanation if one comes along. Or, for that matter, explanations can be enriched and supported by later discoveries, in the way the study of DNA showed that Darwin’s original evolutionary theory was highly provable, even though he knew nothing of DNA. That is the nature of science: it is the constant interaction and mutual development of theory and evidence; it does not offer “certainty” except in the limited sense of the greatest degree of provability. (Science has proved that, under the correct circumstances, aeroplanes can fly, and we’re certain enough about that to use them.)

Religion, on the other hand, offers “certainty” without any proof —- this is called faith. As Sam Harris points out in The End of Faith, faith begins where reason ends. Winston says that “Both religion and science are expressions of man’s [sic] uncertainty”, which is fair enough —- but equating the two as mechanisms of explanation is a canard. Science starts with uncertainty and proceeds, step by step, to higher levels of certainty; religion replaces one uncertainty (such as “How did we get here”?) with a greater uncertainty (“God made us”). The mystery of existence is displaced on to the mystery of God’s existence, and that mystery we are not allowed to question or undermine. Science encourages questioning, so as to keep generating better answers; religion has to stop the questioning or fall apart.

The fact of the matter is that God is a theory —- and one, as Dawkins makes obvious, without a shred of evidence to support it. God has no provability at all. Every argument advanced in favour of God’s existence, from creation onwards, is entirely lacking in proof -— and there are better, more thorough and more provable explanations for the same phenomena. Evolution, for instance, is a far more plausible and provable explanation for the existence of the physical world than creation is. If religion, out of its own insecurities, tries to block such plausible explanations, and such proof, then it is trying to maintain its “certainty” for no good reason at all —- and its “certainty” is meaningless.