Is Atheism Just Another Fundamentalism?

That’s the title of a debate on 22 August at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Climate-Resistace editor Stuart was one of the speakers, with John Gray, Mark Vernon and Ron Ferguson. His talk went a bit like this…

Just so you know… I don’t believe in God. And I think science is a Good Thing. Science is one of the many fine products of the Enlightenment. It is the best way of exploring the material Universe we have. And it has transformed human lives for the better.

So I am not about to say that Atheism in general, and science in particular, is just another fundamentalism.

I will say, however, that certain atheists and scientists are becoming increasingly fundamentalist.

More specifically, I’d argue that while conventional religions are declining – at least in Europe – science is increasingly being used by certain groups – including sections of the scientific establishment itself – who are seeking to impose their own morality on the rest of us and to justify intolerance towards dissenting voices. And that this flies in the face of the very Enlightenment values from which science arose. And that this serves to close down healthy scientific and political debate, and, ultimately, hampers human progress.

I’d suggest that we have seen some fine examples of secular fundamentalism in the news this week. Anyone who has seen any coverage of the Climate Camp march along the proposed route of the third runway at Heathrow will have seen the huge banner at the head of the procession: “We are armed … only with peer reviewed science.”

Climate Camp spokesperson Timothy Lever put it more explicitly: “It’s not us saying you need to stop flying; it’s the science that is telling us that we all need to fly less.”

Of course there are no scientific studies that show that Heathrow shouldn’t have a third runway, like there are no scientific studies proving we should fly less. That is not the realm of science. What the science does tell us is that the world has been warming up recently and that anthropogenic carbon dioxide probably has quite a lot to do with it. It’s up to society at large to work out what to do with that information.

But the sort of talismanic use of scientific knowledge displayed at Climate Camp is fuelled, at least in part, by the scientific establishment itself.

For a start, the Royal Society – the UK’s premier scientific institution – has even started enshrining pre-Enlightenment values into its constitution. Its motto Nullius in verba has been translated since 1663 as “on the word of nobody”. The motto distanced science from the scholasticism of the ancient universities. It stressed that scientific knowledge is based on appeals to experimental evidence rather than to the word of authority figures. In the 21st century, however, the Royal Society has dropped that translation. According to Robert May, former president of the Royal Society and ex-chief scientific advisor to the UK government, it is best translated as “Respect the facts”.

And which facts are we supposed to respect? Well, the Royal Society’s, of course. Hence the Society’s press release – headed “The Truth About Global Warming” – that accompanied their publication of a paper countering the claims made by the infamous TV programme The Great Global Warming Swindle that recent variations in global temperature are better explained by solar activity than by CO2 emissions. Since when has a single scientific paper constituted “the truth”? The Royal Society is harking back to the days of scholasticism and its figures of authority.

This can only serve to close down the scientific debate, even though the scientific process is absolutely dependent on that debate, scrutiny of ideas, scepticism and argument to establish robust material truths.

Meanwhile, those who go against the ‘scientific consensus’ on climate change – which is itself a very slippery entity to pin down – are labelled deniers or heretics, who are, we are told by the Royal Society, the work of the Devil, or at least his modern, secular equivalent, ExxonMobil.

But some scientific fundamentalists go further than that. Dissenters, they say, are not just corrupt, or disrespectful of the facts, or plain-old-fashioned wrong – they are deluded, maladapted or ill.

In an editorial earlier this year in the journal Medscape General Medicine, Professor of Psychiatry Steven Moffic proposed the use of aversion therapy involving “distressing images of the projected ravages of global warming” to encourage responsible environmental behaviour among sceptics – this is less Clockwork Orange and more Clockwork Green.

Meanwhile, German psychologist Andreas Ernst has developed a theory that people who fail to act to reduce their CO2 emissions are similar psychologically to rats.

OK, so these are extreme examples. But they aren’t really so different from more mainstream efforts to describe complex human behaviour in simplistic biological terms.

It’s hard to talk about scientific fundamentalism without mentioning Richard Dawkins. And the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science exemplifies such efforts. To quote: “We intend to sponsor research into the psychological basis of unreason. What is it about human psychology that predisposes people to find astrology more appealing than astronomy?”

The assumption here is that humans are biologically predisposed to the irrational – although only some human beings of course – the ones who are wrong.

Another tack that Dawkins takes is to write off religion and unreason to mind-controlling memes, hypothetical units of cultural selection that supposedly compete for space in the habitat of human brains. This posits religion and unreason as mind viruses. And the memes meme has caught on to an extent that is disproportionate to its scientific status. It has to date proven un-testable, and has zero explanatory power. This is not science; it is humanities-envy.

Again, that is contrary to the Enlightenment values of human agency and rationality. Because if ‘bad’ ideas are the products of parasitic memes, then why not the ‘good’ ones? The label of science is being used to escape the need to confront ideas politically. It betrays an unwarranted faith not in God, but in Nature, determinism, and in humans as mechanistic biological entities rather than social, rational ones who are both the products and the architects of civilisation.

Scientists have traditionally offered us a better, brighter future. And science has delivered. Now it seems that the best it can do is hope to make that future a less terrible one.

Martin Rees, current President of the Royal Society tells us in his book Our Final Century that humankind has a 50/50 chance of surviving the 21st century. That judgement has nothing to do with science – scientists can barely model the climate yet, let alone the future course of human history. And yet it has scientific authority on the basis that its author is President of the Royal Society. And the Royal Society – as they themselves tell us – are the custodians of the facts.

Give me a conventionally religious person with a positive vision for how we might go about creating a better future, any day, instead of those secularists who foretell the end of the world, who propound meme theory as an explanation for culture, or those at Climate Camp waving peer-reviewed scientific papers at the TV cameras.

I repeat – atheism is not just another fundamentalism. And nor is science. But, if it is going to continue being the invaluable tool for humanity that it has been since the Enlighte
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ent, it has to be very careful that it doesn’t become one.