Vox Day supports science and does not want to see it abolished. He tells us so himself, and we ought to take him at his word. Most of Chapter 3 of The Irrational Atheist, however, is spent building, defending, and reinforcing the claim that science has outlived its usefulness and now poses a palpable threat not just to harm mankind, but to wipe us out completely. It’s an amazingly thorough effort to develop effective anti-science ammunition, especially considering he claims there’s no war against science.
But is there more to the story than what he is telling us? Maybe so. After all, he not only continues to support science himself, but he also tells us that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is on very good terms with science, and ought to share at least some of the responsibility for bestowing (inflicting?) modern science upon the world. If science is truly as evil as his argument would make it seem, that puts Christianity in a paradoxical and morally suspect position of condoning and promoting an evil which may destroy us all. Instead of arguing whether we should get rid of religion OR science, wouldn’t the prudent course of action be to eliminate both?
Personally, I suspect that Vox doesn’t really buy his own argument, otherwise he would be calling for conscientious men and women to oppose science, and would be arguing that Christianity has been against it all along. His goal is not to prove that science is truly evil, but is rather a classic deployment of the Cold War strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction. Threaten my religion if you dare (he seems to say), but if you take down Christianity, I can take your fancy modern science along with it.
The biggest flaw in Chapter 3 is the one that plagues the book as a whole: Vox has chosen to ignore the central question at issue in the debate between theists and atheists, and therefore he completely fails to take into account the ways in which God’s existence or non-existence figures into the topics under discussion. For good or ill, we’ve got chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and we’ve got people whose belief in afterlife and eternal reward makes them more likely to use these weapons in frankly suicidal ways. Doesn’t it make a difference whether that afterlife really exists, and whether there really is a God (or an Allah) Who blesses and rewards such suicide attacks?
Or take global warming, of which Vox announces himself a skeptic. (Note, by the way, that there’s more to being a skeptic than simply denying someone else’s conclusion.) How many Christians out there “know” that global warming can’t be real or else the Bible would have predicted it? How many believers are convinced that nothing truly bad can be happening to our planet because “God is in control”? Vox blames global warming (“if it happens”) on science, but then turns around elsewhere and argues that politics and commerce are what actually implement scientific discoveries. And both politics and commerce are highly susceptible to the influence of a widespread belief like “God wouldn’t let it happen.” Does it not matter, in this case, whether or not this Divine Protector actually exists? What if He’s not there, and it really is up to us to pay attention, understand the problem and take appropriate countermeasures?
Granted, arguing whether we ought to get rid of religion, or ought to get rid of science, is an exercise in the extravagance of the moot. Nobody is going to be able to get rid of either one, even if they tried. Pass laws against believing if you like, but people aren’t going to stop believing. Likewise with science: you can impede its progress, but people (e.g. terrorists) aren’t going to forget what they already know about nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. So the question isn’t one of simplistic solutions, but rather a problem of practical prudence. Given that such weapons are out there, what steps can we take to eliminate or reduce irresponsible use of this technology (bearing in mind that any use of WMD’s is arguably irresponsible)? And given that changes in the environment have the potential to do us great harm, what measures should we adopt, as a society, to protect ourselves against catastrophe?
If we do have WMD’s out there, whose finger do you want on the button, someone with a rational, reality-based approach to life, or someone who hears voices promising phantom rewards for mass destruction? Or, perhaps, someone who is tuned in to an Almighty, infallible God who loves us and wants what’s best for us? But that’s the issue Vox is avoiding, you see, because if God does not really exist, then the only difference between the last two choices is a purely subjective one. Likewise, if the environment is changing in ways that could cause widespread suffering and death, who do you want to deal with the problem: someone who takes a fact-based analytical approach to understanding the real-world causes and their appropriate solutions, or someone who is disinclined to do more than just sit back and wait for God to do something wonderful? Isn’t it important to know whether that God is ever going to show up and do anything? You can’t properly address the question of religion vs. science without dealing with the problem of whether or not God exists.
Another factor that Vox overlooks is the question of how you would go about dealing with the negative aspects. Let’s agree that it’s silly and overly simplistic to speak in terms of eliminating either science or religion entirely. The prudent thing to do is to address the negative aspects of each in a way that eliminates their harmful effects, or at least minimizes them. For example, I personally would be in favor of efforts to end scientific research into weaponry. Sure, we’d be better off without nuclear weapons, genetically engineered plagues, and various forms of nerve gas. I’ll buy into that whole-heartedly. I want it to be across the board, of course. It won’t do us much good to take the moral high road if our enemies merely exploit their advantage and nuke us all back into the Stone Age. But my preferred answer is to prevent them from possessing the technology either—an arms race is a contest no one wins.
I am also in favor of telling the truth about religion, as the most effective and appropriate way to deal with its negative and harmful aspects. One thing all religions have in common is that nobody ever sees their god(s) show up in real life. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and so on are all believing what men say about the god(s) they worship. Indeed, in the absence of any gods, the only option men have is to put their faith in men, i.e. in what men say and think and feel. (My God, of course, is an exception ) Truth is consistent with itself, and by testing theological claims for self-consistency and consistency with real-world truth, we can accurately and reliably determine that, for example, the Christian Gospel is not the truth. People who think they hear God’s voice in their heads are only hearing their own feelings and impulses, people who think God commands them to smite this or that ethnic group are merely anthropomorphizing their own violent urges.
As I said before, I’m sympathetic to the view that religion per se is not evil or even undesirable. What’s bad are the elements which are so often intrinsic parts of religion: superstition, gullibility, subjectivism and dogmatic self-righteousness. Enlightened religion is possible, but to be enlightened, a religion must be honest about itself, and not rest on the political power of somebody declaring “Because I Said So!” If Jesus and Allah go the way of Zeus and Odin, this need not be the end of religion or the end of God, but merely the end of superstition and credulous fantasy. Good religion does not need either one.
When the 9/11 attackers checked in to a motel room the night before the attacks, one of the first things they did was to cover up a painting of a woman in a low-cut dress. This was not a political measure or an economic measure; they wanted to keep themselves religiously pure in preparation for meeting their God the next morning. Would they have behaved differently if they knew that they were only deluding themselves, and were preparing to lose the only thing they truly owned? Perhaps, and then again perhaps not. I can’t help thinking, though, that the world would be a better place without delusional motivations for murderous suicide, including the suicide of waiting too long for an environmental deus ex machina.